Capitalism and Freedom

Why do conservatives like capitalism? Because it keeps in place the hierarchies they cherish.

Bill Kristol at CPAC FL in Orlando, Florida, September 23, 2011. Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia

Conservatives Against Capitalism, by City University of New York (CUNY) professor Peter Kolozi, can be read as a patiently choreographed joke. First there’s the slow setup, where the author lays out his cast of characters. All of them, he claims, fall into the titular category of “conservatives against capitalism.”

There are antebellum Southern thinkers and politicians like George Fitzhugh, James Henry Hammond, and John C. Calhoun, slave owners worried about capitalism overturning their beloved racial caste system, which they see as the most humane and enlightened hierarchy the world has ever known.

There are fin-de-siècle imperialists like the historian Brooks Adams or President Theodore Roosevelt, each perceiving individualistic capitalism as a threat to the martial values and civilizing mission of an increasingly decadent ruling class.

There are the nostalgic scribblers of the 1920s and ’30s known as the Southern Agrarians — the poets and essayists John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson; the scholars Lyle H. Lanier and Frank Lawrence Owsley; or the novelist Andrew Nelson Lytle — all of whom seek an imagined return to a decentralized, pre-industrial order ruled by white yeoman farmers.

There are first-generation neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, soft critics of capitalism’s tendency to devour its own cultural foundations — rooted in the Protestant work ethic or meritocracy — and thus sacrifice the moral basis for otherwise necessary and noble inequalities. And there’s the younger generation of neoconservatives, including media fixtures like William Kristol (Irving’s son), David Brooks, or the historian Robert Kagan, all intent on reviving the least subversive elements of Theodore Roosevelt’s anticapitalist critique as a means of shoring up what Kristol calls America’s “benevolent global hegemony.”

Finally, there are paleoconservatives, like the writer Samuel Francis or the presidential candidate and pundit Patrick Buchanan, all insisting upon a white nationalist program of closed borders, mass deportations, protectionist trade and industrial policies, and the reversal of civil rights protections.

The punch line to the joke is that this assemblage of right-wing eccentrics and the formations they inspire all end up making peace with the enemy. They discover, after all the pretentious huffing and puffing, that the best available system of domination for keeping the subalterns in place is in fact capitalism.

That’s the short version of the gag, anyway. The long version is more complicated. Many of Kolozi’s reactionaries, like the imperialists, neoconservatives, or paleoconservatives, never truly repudiate capitalism in the first place, although they do lodge serious complaints against its various forms. On the other hand, Southerners like Tate and Davidson die fierce, and fiercely racist, critics of industrial capital. So do Hammond and Calhoun. (The fact that their agrarian idyll is so deeply implicated in and dependent on industrial capital is a discussion for another day.)

The story is also incomplete. Although we know the forces unleashed by Francis and Buchanan converge on what is now known as the “alt-right,” never mind Trump’s base of support, the final chapter has yet to be written. The president continues to rely on appeals to white grievance politics while committing a capitalist coup of historic proportion, but whether or not his base holds remains an open question.

What is clearer is the trajectory of American conservatism up to this point, and especially for the past forty years. As Kolozi puts it,

[D]espite their misgivings, conservatives have reconciled themselves to capitalism because the expansion of the market has also meant the growth of the private sphere of domination and control. . . . [C]onservatism is about the freedom and ability of some people to dominate, control, and extract from others, which capitalist inequality and hierarchy make possible. Such arrangements are not only natural, conservatives argue, but also necessary, for they foster excellence and distinction, on which social order and progress depend.

The argument meshes well with the theme of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, which makes sense given that Kolozi was Robin’s student. But if both books are correct that conservatism and reaction are one and the same, what has made conservatism so appealing to so many for so long?

One possibility is that conservatives always figure they are the elites who stand to benefit from such hierarchies. They are rich and white, or cis and able-bodied. This is true as far as it goes, but it still does not fully explain the millions of women who vote for misogynistic men or poor and working-class conservatives who vote Republican. Nor does it explain the mass attraction to the white ruling class in the South or the celebrity status of an arch aristocrat like Theodore Roosevelt or an arch plutocrat like Donald Trump.

Another possibility is that consolidated media, unequal education, voter suppression, gerrymandering, the undemocratic nature of the Senate and the Electoral College, and the party duopoly distort the relationship between what people want and who or what they support (assuming they are given the opportunity to support anyone or anything). That is, in a capitalist society, nothing is what it seems and few know what they are truly buying or selling (assuming they are given the opportunity to buy or sell).

This too offers a feasible if not fulfilling answer. Still, if it were entirely accurate, there would be no hope for progressive change, since a coherent left project cannot be built on wholly shapeless, treacherous ground. The level of collective trust required to build a better world presumes some level of confidence in the capacity to make that world, as well as some level of correspondence between belief and reality.

This leaves us with a third possibility. Maybe there are things genuinely alluring about what conservatives have to say, and that these things allure regardless of one’s place in any hierarchy or society of the spectacle. Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have been pushing this message for quite a while now, although they usually anchor their findings to static personality traits like authoritarian or rigid moral dichotomies like sanctity and degradation. But what if people are both susceptible to conservative ideas and more capable of changing their minds than some of these psychologists let on? What does that mean for the act of doing politics, specifically for leftists?

It is here, during a time of destabilizing crisis, that Kolozi’s history becomes most usable. Robin and other political theorists like Alex Gourevitch and William Clare Roberts have suggested, in their own ways, a leftist reclaiming of what has become a liberal language of liberty. Or more to the point, they have salvaged from this vernacular a radical politics of freedom, one that is embedded both in Marx and America’s republican tradition, where the two emerge as part of the same legacy. Kolozi does not propose the reclamation of the conservative language of community, tradition, belonging, or balance — a language that is also interwoven with various left legacies — but if the goal is to persuade as many people as possible to sign onto a left agenda, it is a proposal worth considering.

There is one group covered in Conservatism Against Capitalism, under the chapter title, “The New Conservatives,” that has yet to be mentioned. This somewhat miscellaneous set of postwar thinkers includes the poet Peter Viereck, the historian Clinton Rossiter, the literary critic Russell Kirk, and the sociologist Robert Nisbet. None were socialists, but all were skeptical of right-libertarian critiques of the state. This skepticism manifested itself in different ways. For Viereck and Rossiter, the New Deal was necessary to conserve preexisting institutions and cultures from both the capitalist churn and revolutionary backlash. Nisbet never endorsed such a statist modus vivendi, but he was willing to support those components of the state that allowed for labor unions and cooperatives, which he saw as rightfully organic. He also joined with Kirk, Kolozi writes, in laying

the theoretical foundation for what would become the conservative welfare state in which authority and function were devolved from the federal government to state and local governments, as with President Bill Clinton’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 1996 and President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative programs that transferred some welfare programs to local religious organizations.

There is little here, as a matter of policy, that recommends itself. But the communitarian idiom they deployed to make their case invites a certain kind of left-wing cooption.

Consider Viereck’s case for labor unions. According to Kolozi, the unlikely New Dealer thought

labor unions were a conservative force in society because they diffused power, a necessary component of a pluralist society. But more important, they “restored to [the] atomized proletariat an organic unity.” They offered their members a sense of belonging and solidarity and meaning and purpose outside the state, conditions that transformed workers from masses into individuals. Modern history was plagued by the weakening and collapse of one intermediate institution after another, beginning with feudal institutions based on an ascribed status, religious institutions, and the nuclear family. The trade union, he suggested, was the only “true society” that industrialism had fostered. The labor union was an institution with real authority, a defined purpose, and existing roots, and it embodied “the possibility of both freedom and the security essential to human dignity.” It was this sort of institution that conservatives like Viereck hailed as the greatest protection against the excessive individualism of laissez-faire capitalism and the mass totalitarianism of the state.

Leftists don’t romanticize feudalism, institutionalized religion, or the patriarchal family. Nor are they eager to compare the labor struggle favorably to historically oppressive dispensations. But a socialist politics need not speak merely to one’s yearning for equality, security, and freedom. It can also speak to one’s desire for solidarity, belonging, unity, and a sense of individuality rooted in reliable associations, as well as one’s preference for a genuinely pluralistic society where power is dispersed.

The Achilles’ heel for most conservatisms, including the conservatisms of Viereck and Rossiter, is that their remedies so often prove incommensurate to their demands. The welfare state, in both its New Deal and Reaganite iterations, fails to deliver on its conservative promises. Capital (and power) still accumulates. Capitalists still capture the state and the intermediate institutions. The capitalist machine still churns. All that is solid still melts into air. Nisbet’s quest for community still ends in a dizzying haze.

The point is not that socialism can prevail over the most precarious elements of modernity, and it is not that socialists should follow our conservative adversaries in making such a foolish pledge. Anomie, ennui, malaise — these sociological ills will remain no matter what we do. The point is that social-democratic protections like universal health care or childcare, combined with socialist arrangements like collective ownership and management, tend to conserve, to the greatest extent possible, those relations and purposes we most cherish.

Kolozi’s impressive study shows how conservatism in the US is always more invested in defending pecking orders than attending to the deepest needs and wants of the wider public. It is therefore also about why so many American conservatives settled for capitalism. But read with a close eye, it also has something to tell the Left about how to take advantage of this settlement at the level of rhetoric and persuasion. Leftists would be wise to read it accordingly.