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Conservative Critiques of Capitalism


Conservatives against Capitalism:
From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization
by Peter Kolozi
Columbia University Press, 2017, 196 pages

The 1984 Republican Party platform lauded what it called “democratic capitalism” for having produced, “in the United States and elsewhere, an unparalleled ability to achieve political and civil rights and long-term prosperity for ever-growing numbers of people.”1 In 2016, the GOP platform continued to argue that the combination of “political freedom and entrepreneurial capitalism drives economic growth, catalyzes private sector development, and is the only sustainable solution to poverty.”2 Yet doubts had begun to creep in, albeit ever so slightly. The platform disparaged what it called “crony capitalism” for having given the country “special interest tax breaks, custom-designed regulations, and special exemptions for favored parties.” While making no specific promises, the platform urged its readers to rally to the cause of fighting crony capitalism.

This shift in tone presumably responded, at least in part, to a much more dramatic shift in popular American attitudes towards capitalism in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. A 2011 Pew survey, for example, found that 40 percent of Americans had a negative view of capitalism. While Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Bros may spring to mind when considering American anti-capitalists, the Pew survey included a stunning finding that 39 percent of self-identified conservatives had a negative view of capitalism.3

These trends came to a head in the 2016 presidential election. Disparities in conservative attitudes towards capitalism (or at least how it is currently practiced) were brought sharply into view, reviving a right-of-center populism hostile to Wall Street, big corporations, and their Washington cronies.

In his concise and highly readable book Conservatives against Capitalism, Peter Kolozi, an associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the City University of New York, demonstrates that the revival of skepticism about capitalism among conservatives should not be a particularly surprising development. Although American conservatism in recent decades has been characterized by its rhetorical embrace of free markets, Kolozi reminds us that it was not always so. To the contrary, there is a long tradition of skepticism about—and sometimes outright hostility to—capitalism among important strains of American conservative thought. And although the NeverTrumpers of both Right and Left continue to deny it, Donald Trump’s “popularity among conservative voters turned out to be more than just a reality-show phenomenon,” largely because Trump “tapped into a deep-seated frustration with the political and economic establishment.”4

Kolozi takes a chronological approach, focusing on key thinkers representative of major conservative schools of thought in each of six periods: John C. Calhoun, James Henry Hammond, and George Fitzhugh representing the antebellum defenders of slavery; Brooks Adams and Theodore Roosevelt of the Progressive Era; the Southern Agrarians; postwar traditionalists such as Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet; Reagan-Bush era neoconservatives; and paleoconservatives such as Patrick Buchanan and Samuel Francis.5 Although Kolozi is not himself a conservative, his treatment of these traditions is fair and thoughtful. Indeed, in some ways, Kolozi’s book seems to be targeted at conservatives in hopes of reminding them that their values extend beyond capitalist economics.

To be sure, some will quibble with a few of Kolozi’s choices, especially his decision to omit any separate treatment of the Christian Right, libertarians, and other variants of big tent American conservatism. His answer, presumably, would be that this is a book about conservatives who are skeptical of capitalism rather than those who have embraced it. But given that so much postwar conservative thought consists of a dialogue between the economic and social strains of conservatism, it remains a notable omission.

Others will quibble with his inclusion of populist movements, especially in light of Russell Kirk’s contention that populism is the true antithesis of conservatism.6 Still others will complain that his omission of economists such as Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman—representing the Austrian and Chicago schools, respectively—means that he ignores conservatism’s strongest defenders of capitalism. The neglect of Chicago School conservatives seems particularly problematic considering the impact they had on the rise of a more utilitarian strain of conservatism in the postwar period and, in particular, their influence on antitrust and other key areas of the law.

Conversely, many conservatives will likely be discomfited by his insistence on including Southern slaveholders in the conservative intellectual tradition. In doing so, however, Kolozi finds support from not just leftist scholars, but also from no less a figure than Eugene Genovese, the great historian of the American South, who described the Southern tradition as “a special kind of conservatism,” albeit one “that has little in common with market-oriented bourgeois ideologies.”7 In any case, Kolozi does a more than adequate job of justifying their inclusion by identifying key areas of commonality between them and the broader conservative movement, though not merely with the intention of tarring the others with guilt by association.

Indeed, it is the documentation of such commonalities that is one of the great values of Kolozi’s text. Kolozi identifies certain recurring themes that long were elements of conservative thought, and which should not surprise the conservative reader who believes, as Kirk did, that we moderns stand on the shoulders of giants and must profit from the wisdom of our forebears. Taken together, these recurring themes suggest—at the very least—a need for a more nuanced view of capitalism on the part of today’s conservatives.

Recurring Themes

Many conservatives have long feared that capitalism promotes materialism and self-interest, while simultaneously dehumanizing work. The Southern Agrarians believed that work was “one of the largest items in the human career; it is a modest demand to ask that it may partake of happiness.”8 As Allen Tate put it, because “the most significant feature of our experience is the way we make a living, the economic basis of life is the soil out of which all the forms, good or bad, of our experience must come.”9 But, they believed, industrial capitalism was intrinsically incapable of addressing the economic ills of the time, such as unemployment and inequality of wealth.

Other conservatives echoed such concerns from much different perspectives. Progressive-era conservatives such as Roosevelt and Adams likewise indicted capitalism for inculcating and promoting “materialistic and self-interested virtues.”10 Russell Kirk endorsed the need to “humanize the economy” and cited with approval Orestes Brownson’s view that Catholic social thought could “work within and through the established political institutions of the United States” to do so.11

Respect for values other than merely economic ones is another recurring theme among conservative skeptics of capitalism. Postwar conservatives such as Russell Kirk wanted to reemphasize Burkean teachings by focusing on tradition, custom, and virtue. They accepted private property as an essential element of a free society, but rejected the claim that conservatism amounted solely to a defense of large accumulations of wealth and power. Indeed, Kirk’s view of the “democratic capitalism” beloved of many modern American conservatives is best described as “disdainful.”12 In particular, traditionalists like Kirk fundamentally believed in restricting markets so that products incompatible with human dignity and the public good—such as drugs or pornography—could not be readily bought or sold.13

Preservation of the social order is a third recurring theme embraced by most of the conservatives with whom Kolozi is concerned. In the antebellum period, Calhoun argued that capitalism necessarily entailed a class conflict leading inevitably to social disorder and even revolution. Roosevelt and Adams believed capitalism failed to create a “stable and virtuous” elite whose devotion to the public good would triumph over self-interest, while eroding the civic spirit necessary for good government.14 The Southern Agrarians traced the social and economic ills of the Great Depression to the loss of the traditional social order. Indeed, they believed that “capitalism and traditionalism were opposing tendencies and could not be reconciled.”15 Modern paleoconservatives have revived the argument that capitalism is intrinsically hostile to local communities and traditions.

These critics’ concerns were valid, if sometimes overstated. Capitalism created new forms of property ownership that divorced ownership from local communities. Even more critically, however, capitalism’s essential fact (per Schumpeter) is creative destruction. The old must be swept aside in order to create space for innovation. The process inevitably sweeps aside not just antiquated products but also traditions, ways of work, communities, and even human lives.

This process is now so well accepted—even among many conservatives—that free market principles are presented “as ironclad laws about which we have no choice. Dwindling manufacturing jobs, technological displacement, global flows of labor and capital—we are told we have no alternative.”16 In such an environment, unregulated capitalism comes into conflict with those strains of conservatism that place paramount value on the permanent things.

While conservatives favor social order and, accordingly, hierarchy, they are also keenly aware of the risks posed by excessive concentration of power. At times, this has led to deep skepticism about the giant corporations that are the hallmark of industrial capitalism. In Roosevelt’s time, for example, the chief concern was concentrated economic power. Accordingly, he favored a sort of “statist paternalism” in which the power of the federal government would be deployed, under the guidance of elites dedicated to the public good, to control big business.17 In the postwar period, Russell Kirk similarly expressed skepticism about large corporate entities and surprised at least one follower by declining to “defend the big corporation at all points.”18 Elsewhere, he wrote that, “While we talk windily still of free enterprise, the industrial and commercial conglomerates move toward oligopoly on a tremendous scale.”19

Such concerns led some conservatives in statist directions. In particular, many of the Gilded Age populists who were the forebears of New Deal–era Southern Agrarianism moved from populism in the 1890s to a sort of rural socialism by the 1900s, complaining that “the capitalist masters . . . own the full machinery of our government from the justice of the peace up.”20 But the Southern Agrarians themselves rejected both socialism and communism as industrial utopias. Instead, believing that large corporations would use an expanded state to become more powerful, they favored both economic and political decentralization. Indeed, it is this simultaneous rejection of big business and big government that largely differentiates conservative skeptics of capitalism from their progressive counterparts.

Begrudging Acceptance

Despite the well-documented skepticism towards capitalism among these various conservative traditions, a final recurring theme is the way in which almost all eventually come to a begrudging acceptance of capitalism. Southern slaveholders had no desire for Northern capitalism to be swept aside, especially by violent revolution. Roosevelt and Adams rejected both socialism and agrarian populism.21 Southern Agrarians acknowledged that the South had to embrace capitalism and industrialize, albeit only in moderation.22

Although postwar conservatives, such as Kirk, initially wished to deemphasize markets in favor of families, churches, and communities, the existential struggle with Communism eventually led them to accept a fusion of conservatism and democratic capitalism. Even so, however, they continued to resist full libertarianism and laissez-faire economics. Instead, Kirk championed German economist Wilhelm Röpke’s advocacy of a middle way between socialism and capitalism, continuing to advocate for a political economy dominated by family farms, cooperatives, artisans, small traders, and professionals.23

While acknowledging that some conservatives accepted capitalism only begrudgingly, Kolozi argues that their acceptance was an inevitable consequence of the very nature of conservatism. It is here that his academic mask of objectivity slips the worst, exposing a partisan philosophical outlook. Specifically, he claims that “conservatism is about the freedom and ability of some people to dominate, control, and extract from others, which capitalist inequality and hierarchy make possible.”24

Admittedly, some on the right, especially in the Trump camp, have failed to think clearly about the bases for their legitimate complaints about globalization, trade, crony capitalism, and so on. Instead, too many have embraced an unthinking version of the worst elements of the Southern tradition with a reflexive hostility to efforts by government to address social problems, an aversion to taxation of wealthy individuals and businesses, and a disturbing willingness to turn a blind eye to racism and other forms of bigotry. But this is no more the essence of conservatism than the Gulag was the essence of modern liberalism or even social democracy.

In any case, Kolozi’s claim is seriously flawed. In the first place, the pro-capitalism conservatives Kolozi ignores did not justify their claims on the basis of preserving hierarchy. They would argue that, in a free market, participants do not “dominate, control, and extract from” one another. On the contrary, even if individual participants in the market are motivated by self-interest in the most venial sense (which is often not true), they still engage in voluntary transactions that make both parties better off. In the micro sense, each voluntary transaction in the market makes both parties better off in some small way; in the macro sense, the vast improvement in living standards of the last two hundred years is due in no small part to the accumulation of benefits arising from voluntary transactions in the market, at least according to this argument.

In the second place, as we have seen, many conservatives value social order, believing that liberty and justice can be found only in an ordered society, while, at the same time, rejecting rigid societies in which there is no social mobility across classes. Accordingly, as Kolozi himself documents, important strains of the conservative tradition have been deeply aware of the evils associated with excessive concentration of power in either government or business.

Finally, if conservatism really was just about preserving hierarchy, capitalism would prove an odd choice for effecting that result. As we have already discussed, the core of capitalism is creative destruction. It is inherently disruptive of the social order, and it is precisely for this reason that many conservatives have been skeptical of capitalism.

The Weakness of Full-Throated Alternatives

If Kolozi is wrong and conservatives have not accommodated themselves to capitalism so as to preserve oppressive hierarchies, then why have they made that accommodation? Or, stated another way, why have conservative critics of capitalism exercised comparatively little influence on the conservative movement more generally, especially in terms of policy formation in conservative governments? The real reasons may not be much different from those explaining why radical leftist critics of capitalism also began losing influence in establishment social democratic parties in the 1980s and ’90s.

In the first place, the utopian alternatives to capitalism on offer were severely flawed. For the Left, their radical alternative—some variant of Communism—was discredited by the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with the growing awareness of widespread oppression under Communist regimes around the world. For many rightist critics of capitalism, however, their full-throated alternative—some form of decentralized agrarian utopia—has been wholly inadequate from the beginning.

The Southern Agrarians, for example, along with several of their paleoconservative heirs, basically envisioned an economy comprised mainly of small communities of yeoman farmers and artisans—a society reminiscent of the Shire in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. None of them, however, provided any coherent plan for moving modern America toward that ideal. Indeed, like the Shire, this ideal seems wholly fictional. In a modern, globalized, (post-)industrial economy, wistful yearning for a utopia of small farmers and artisans is simply a pleasant daydream. The eggs have been cracked and the omelet cannot be unscrambled.

Crucially, moreover, neither the antebellum Southern conservative tradition nor the Southern Agrarians’ program is morally tenable in modern America. The unviability of a slave economy was decisively settled at Appomattox, and its utter immorality was well established long before that final deathblow. The specifics of the Southern Agrarian program are equally unworkable and undesirable, tainted by severely retrograde views on race and class. Indeed, the Southern Agrarian notion that all members of the laboring classes—regardless of race—should be bound in servitude would be risible were it not so deeply offensive. In contrast, Roosevelt, Brooks, and other Progressive Republican critics of big business may have been relatively more successful precisely because they were not in thrall to these Southern utopias.

In addition, critics of capitalism, whether on the right or left, simply have to acknowledge that Milton Friedman and his followers essentially won the policy debate in the last quarter of the twentieth century, within and beyond conservative circles. Their explanations of inflation, economic stagnation, and critiques of central planning seemed persuasive, for a time at least. Here is where Kolozi’s omission of the libertarian-leaning Chicago School branch of conservatism seems particularly problematic. During this period, especially among conservatives, these thinkers appeared to have a monopoly on policy ideas and empirical argument, while traditionalists confined themselves to abstract political theory. Friedman alone was constantly coming up with ideas like the volunteer army, education vouchers, the negative income tax, and so on.

The radical free market theories espoused by Friedman and his progeny, however, have not fared so well in recent decades, either at the policy or the theoretical level. They also make a poor fit for an increasingly populist conservative base. Of all the conservative strains, the populist ones have always been the most skeptical of free markets. They favor a vast array of policies abhorrent to libertarians, including limits on free trade and immigration and support for a strong government social safety network. In contrast, the constituency for libertarian free market policies is minuscule.

Moreover, to the extent that free market capitalist theories have been given effect under American law, they have rarely served conservatism well. Conservatives have long valued a humane political economy, but the alliance between big business and the GOP has increasingly diminished the value of work in both the real economy and the moral economy. This is not to deny that capitalism (of various kinds—though certainly not always the libertarian kind) has produced great wealth and rising standards of living over recent centuries. It is simply to point out that the economy is now characterized by dramatic disparities in income and wealth, even while growth and productivity have been relatively low in recent decades. Although real earnings for most workers have stagnated, select portions of the new elites—especially in finance and technology—have profited beyond the dreams of avarice. And those elites who have benefited most from today’s market economy are increasingly unlikely to support conservative values.

The moral economy of society has also suffered. The dehumanizing nature of much modern work and economic relationships is at the root of many social ills, as F. H. Buckley aptly observed:

The NeverTrumper had assumed that the white working class had lost its jobs because it smoked Oxy, because of moral poverty. But there’s another explanation. Maybe they smoked Oxy because they had lost their jobs. Maybe it was really about jobs after all and not a sudden loss of virtue. The highest death rates from mental disorders and substance abuse are in the counties with higher unemployment rates and fewer prime-age males in the labor force.25

Unfortunately, recent generations of conservatives have done little to update the theories of their forebears to address these challenges.

One problem is that much of what passes for modern conservative thought consists of libertarian economics or dumbed-down Straussian admiration of the pagan virtues, both of which can lead, in Buckley’s words, to “a low opinion of the Sermon on the Mount.”26

[Conservatives have] erected their own wall of separation between their principles and religious faith. They might have been privately religious, but they thought that this had nothing to do with their political beliefs. They could oppose a state welfare system because they thought that private charity should suffice, though they never thought to extend the same principle to state funding for other matters, such as national defense. They never proposed taking up a collection for aircraft carriers.27

Aircraft carriers are public goods, which makes Buckley’s specific comparison inapt. But his basic point—that if conservatives are to develop a more humane economy they need to reconsider the relevance of Judeo-Christian ethics as a constraint on markets—is right.

This is not a novel claim. In endorsing the need to “humanize the economy,” Russell Kirk cited with approval Orestes Brownson’s view that Catholic social thought could “work within and through the established political institutions of the United States” to do so.28 Kirk’s political economy in fact had much in common with G. K. Chesterton’s distributism, which in turn was rooted in Catholic social teaching.

Likewise, Southern Agrarian political economy and Catholic social thought both supported private property and markets, while opposing the rise of a global market in which “human relations themselves are treated as commodities.”29 Indeed, there was much commonality between the views of the Southern Agrarians (especially in the mid-1930s) and Catholic social thought at the time with respect to issues of economics and social justice.

The point is not that conservatives need to embrace Catholic social thought unmodified, even if they could. There are serious conflicts between Catholic social thought and the post-Trump populist base upon which the conservative movement seemingly must rest. To cite but the most obvious of examples, the Tea Party and paleoconservatives have been consistently hostile to immigration and the so-called undeserving poor.

The point is simply that conservatives must begin breathing new life into the traditions to which Kolozi has so usefully drawn their attention. The search for a practical and achievable economic order that balances productivity, growth, community, tradition, and human decency needs to continue.

A Third Way?

Nessie comes to mind when thinking about the proverbial third way between capitalism and socialism. Like the legendary Loch Ness Monster, the third way is frequently discussed, occasionally glimpsed (albeit fuzzily, at best), and probably mythological. Yet it has beguiled thinkers on both the left (e.g., New Labour) and the right (e.g., the Southern Agrarians and Wilhelm Röpke). To the extent that it has haunted the dreams of capitalism’s conservative skeptics, however, their efforts were misguided.

Conservatives are supposed to respect the need for “prudent change” to address society’s imperfections. But responding to economic ills with idealistic enthusiasm for some untested third way seems highly imprudent. Renewed attention to reforming capitalism rather than pursuing an elusive utopia is thus the correct conservative answer.

Interestingly, this is precisely what some British Tories have begun attempting.30 They are seeking ways to prevent crony capitalism from turning markets over to rent-seekers. Likewise, they are focused on understanding the ways in which firms use their market power to the detriment of workers and consumers. American conservatives should follow by drawing “a sharp distinction between good and bad capitalism, and suggesting a much more active role for the state in promoting the first and tackling the second.”31

Kolozi’s concise and eminently readable text raises the intriguing possibility that the seemingly immutable alliance between conservatism and capitalism may have been a temporary aberration. Postwar conservatism in the United States was a somewhat rocky marriage of traditionalists, libertarians, and, later, neoconservatives, united mainly by a shared opposition to communism. Given a seemingly binary and existential choice between Western capitalism and Soviet Communism, American conservatives opted for the former. Yet, despite Frank S. Meyer’s famous fusionism project, the preexisting fault lines persisted. With Communism off the table as an existential threat, the rupture of such a contingent unity along those fault lines may have been inevitable. The task for those conservatives who are heirs of the movements Kolozi studies is to revive what is best in those traditions and to turn them to the task of reforming capitalism into a practical but humane way of organizing the economy.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 3 (Fall 2018): 113–25.

The author thanks Lyman Johnson, Robert Miller, David Millon, Eric Rasmussen, and David Skeel for their helpful comments.

1 Republican National Convention, Platform of the Republican Party (Cleveland: Republican National Party, 1984).

2 Republican National Convention, Platform of the Republican Party (Cleveland: Republican National Party, 2016).

3 Peter Kolozi, Conservatives against Capitalism: From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 20.

4 Kolozi, 165.

5 Arguably, the paleoconservative strain of America conservatism criticizes not capitalism per se but rather globalization. While neither the Tea Party nor Donald Trump’s supporters are explicitly paleoconservative movements, they share with the paleos a deep suspicion of global capitalism (Kolozi, 168).

6 Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2004), 143.

7 Eugene D. Genovese, The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 2.

8 Herbert Agar, “Introduction,” in Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence (1936; Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999), 127, xliv; and Twelve Southerners, “Introduction: A Statement of Principles,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006).

9 Allen Tate, Reason in Madness: Critical Essays (Salem, N.H.: Ayer Company, 1988).

10 Kolzoi, 75.

11 Russell Kirk, Mitchell Shannon Muncy, and Russell Hittinger, Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1997), 235.

12 James E. Person, Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1999), 202.

13 Mark C. Henrie, “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism,” in Varieties of Conservatism in America, ed. Peter Berkowitz (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2004), 25.

14 Kolozi, 54.

15 Kolozi, 85.

16 R. R. Reno, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” First Things, Oct. 2017, 64.

17 Kolozi, 71.

18 Kirk, Muncy, and Hittinger, 223–24.

19 Kirk, Prudence, 111–12.

20 Jarod Roll, “Agrarian Producerism after Populism: Socialism and Garveryism in the Rural South,” in Populism in the South Revisited: New Interpretations and New Departures, ed. James M. Beeby (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 207.

21 Today’s neoconservatives somewhat resemble earlier warrior reformers like Roosevelt in that their principal complaint about capitalism is that it undermines the heroic virtues that an empire requires of its people. Gradually, however, neoconservatives came to accept—indeed, often celebrated—the legitimacy of capitalism. Some went so far as to claim that capitalism promoted moral regeneration. Tod Linberg, “Neoconservatism’s Liberal Legacy,” in Varieties of Conservatism in America, ed. Peter Berkowitz (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2004), 145.

22 John Crowe Ransom, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, ed. Herbert Agar and Allen Tate (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 22.

23 Person, 203–4.

24 Kolozi, 192.

25 F. H. Buckley, “Conservatism: Trump and Beyond,” Modern Age 60, no. 2 (Spring 2018): 7–13.

26 Buckley.

27 Buckley.

28 Kirk, et al., Rights and Duties, 235.

29 Genovese, 15.

30 Adrian Wooldridge, “Good Capitalism v Bad Capitalism,” Economist, June 9, 2018, 50.

31 Wooldridge.

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