Some Conservatives Have Been Against Capitalism for Centuries
Throughout the 2016 GOP primaries, Donald Trump’s opponents on the right derided him for, among other things, his lack of proper conservative ideological moorings. If conservatism is defined by a commitment to bellicose foreign policies, traditional cultural values, and, most importantly, laissez-faire economics, then these critics were correct. Trump showed little sincere commitment to any of these positions. Yet this is not the only possible definition of conservatism.
Political observers trying to orient themselves to what may be a shifting ideological landscape should read Peter Kolozi’s fine book, Conservatives Against Capitalism. Ditching the self-serving definitions of the political spectrum that most conservatives embrace, Kolozi relied on Norberto Bobbio’s expansive definition of right and left, dividing the two camps according to their preference for equality or hierarchy. Kolozi argued that capitalism has faced persistent criticism from the right since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Such critics, while heterogeneous, are united in the belief “that laissez-faire capitalism has undermined an established social hierarchy governed by the virtuous or excellent.”
It is an understatement to call these conservative critics of capitalism an ideologically heterogeneous bunch, as they span from defenders of slavery such as James Henry Hammond to neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol. Kolozi provides an outstanding, dispassionate overview of these thinkers, noting their tremendous differences while also identifying common threads throughout conservative history.
Kolozi presents his subjects in chronological order, focusing each chapter on a small number of ideologues who broadly represented a particular way of thinking, beginning with defenders of slavery in antebellum America.
Prior to the Civil War, slavery’s defenders argued that the South’s economic system was more humane than the industrial capitalism that increasingly dominated the North. Echoing capitalism’s progressive critics, apologists for slavery lamented appalling conditions suffered by those living by free labor in the nation’s new urban factories. In contrast, they suggested that slave owners had moral and economic incentives to look after the well-being of their slaves, even to the detriment of their financial bottom line. Such paternalism would be unthinkable in the atomized world of industrial capitalism. The discipline of the slave plantation also precluded the radicalization of the lower classes, which threatened major social disorder.
While providing a fair and accurate portrayal of the pro-slavery arguments, Kolozi also notes the obvious hypocrisies and inconsistencies of this position. Kolozi navigated this difficult subject well, providing a clear explanation of how such an appalling institution was rhetorically defended.
Following the Civil War and the subsequent rise of the robber barons, capitalism faced a new set of critics. We are well familiar with capitalism’s opponents on the socialist left. Right-wing arguments against capitalism at the dawn of the 20th century are mostly forgotten, which is curious since one of these critics was perhaps the most well-remembered man of his generation: Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt’s progressive policies, such as trust busting, are well known, but his policies were rooted in a decidedly right-wing worldview. Roosevelt, inspired by the work of Brooks Adams, was disgusted by the rise of “economic man,” focused on trivial bourgeois concerns. With the closing of the frontier, Roosevelt was concerned that Americans would lose their adventurous temperament, and the new American elite would be dominated by economic bean counters, lacking in aristocratic and martial virtues. To keep the restless, conquering American spirit alive, Roosevelt believed America needed a new great challenge: the creation of an American empire. Such an endeavor, however, required bringing the industrialists to heel and made to serve this grandiose endeavor.
Roosevelt’s vision for America died in the French trenches. Following World War I, this grand, heroic vision was displaced by the triumph of the corporation, and the 1920s was a decade of laissez faire.
In contrast to Roosevelt’s extravagant alternative to a nation run by soulless economists, the Southern Agrarians embraced a much smaller vision. The Agrarians, better known for their literary projects than their political theories, posited that the agricultural economy that was rapidly disappearing from the American South in the early 20th century represented the ideal social structure. Although this group insisted they were not interested in revisiting the question of secession, they argued that the South’s fundamental spirit could survive even in a post-war and post-slavery context.
Best known for the 1930 manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, the Agrarians argued that the social hierarchies and agricultural economy of the South needed to stand firm against the creeping urbanization and industrialization that was beginning to overtake the region. Like most of the critics discussed in Kolozi’s book, the Agrarians argued modern capitalism was morally degrading, to both elites and the masses.
As an alternative, the Agrarians looked to the world of small-scale agriculture. In this vision, people are close to the land, and life follows the natural rhythm of the seasons. The Agrarian arrangement was rigidly hierarchical, and while they did not call for a return to slavery, the Agrarians were certainly not racial egalitarians. They supported the racial divide in the South at the time, and most continued to do so throughout the battle for civil rights. They did, however, argue that their social hierarchy was less brutal than the one that prevailed in industrial capitalism. The titans of industry, they argued, had no concerns beyond profitability. In contrast, the elites in an agrarian context remain close to the people they command, absentee ownership is non-existent, and a sense of mutual obligation and noblesse oblige remain the norm.
Following World War II, a new generation of conservatives challenged the New Deal liberalism that dominated American political life. By the 1960s, a new conservative political philosophy coalesced around the principles of free markets, strong national defense, and traditional values. This conservative vision, best articulated by Frank Meyer, was so successful that it eventually pushed all other conservative ideas aside, becoming the only plausible alternative to the left in American public life.
Kolozi noted, however, that there was more ambivalence toward capitalism among the first generation of conservatives than is typically acknowledged. He discusses Peter Viereck’s, Russell Kirk’s, and Robert Nisbet’s misgivings with this new conservative faith in the free market. All three “wanted to redefine conservatism away from the popularly held notion that it prioritized economic freedom and unrestrained individualism.”
Kolozi’s analysis of Viereck is one of the few places I would challenge his analysis. According to Kolozi, only the slave owners of chapter 1 could point to an actually existing economic system that they wished to maintain. I am not sure that this is quite true in Viereck’s case. As Kolozi noted, Viereck and the conservative movement developed a mutual antipathy over time, eventually causing a break. Viereck was both a strong defender of the New Deal and an opponent of McCarthyism. Willmoore Kendall once stated that Viereck “agreed with Liberals about Everything.” Kolozi provides little evidence that Kendall was incorrect. Although Viereck’s policy preferences were rooted in a conservative worldview, in substance they differed little from what was offered by the Democratic Party.
Kolozi’s first four chapters described a series of failures. Regardless of their validity, none of these critics changed the direction of America’s economic development; all successful efforts to rein in capitalism came from the left, not the right. The neoconservatives were the first group in Kolozi’s work that enjoyed any tangible victories in the political sphere.
Although now best known for their views on foreign policy, the neoconservatives also were responsible for conservatism’s reconciliation with the welfare state. Kolozi focuses on three prominent neoconservatives: Irving Kristol, William Kristol, and David Brooks.
Irving Kristol’s insight was that some kind of welfare state is inevitable. Write all the libertarian tracts you want, the people will demand some kind of social safety net—and will get it. The question, then, is how to make welfare serve conservative ends. Neoconservatives focused on the incentives that welfare policies created, defending New Deal policies such as Social Security but decrying many Great Society programs that, in their view, removed constraints on reckless behavior. A monthly check to the elderly is fine, but subsidizing the non-working “welfare queen” was a recipe for social disorder. Neoconservatives also preferred social policies that partnered the government with the private sector.
Neoconservatism’s later critique of capitalism, especially in the post-Cold War period, focused on its supposed cultural consequences. To neoconservatives such as Brooks and William Kristol, widespread prosperity would weaken Americans’ imperial drive. As Americans became increasingly preoccupied with frivolous economic concerns, neoconservatives feared they would lose their patriotism and ability to unite behind a collective purpose. For this reason, the neoconservatives were delighted when 9-11 again provided the American people a common enemy to unite against.
Although neoconservatives seemed to fall out of favor as the wars they demanded provided body bags and little else, Kolozi argues that neoconservatism remains a powerful ideological force. He persuasively argues that President Barack Obama, in crucial ways, simply continued the neoconservative tradition. Despite Republican handwringing, the Affordable Care Act was congruent with many neoconservative principles, and when it came to foreign policy, Obama differed from George W. Bush in terms of style, but the actual policies were substantively similar.
Paleoconservatism was Kolozi’s final subject. This brand of conservatism, a few years ago little more than a footnote in conservatism’s history books, made a roaring comeback when Donald Trump echoed its message throughout his presidential campaign.
Paleoconservatives—especially Sam Francis and Pat Buchanan—argued that global capitalism harmed the material concerns of so-called Middle Americans. Because transnational elites have no loyalty to anything but profitability and their own class, they have no qualms about outsourcing manufacturing to developing countries, or importing immigrants to undercut American wages.
Aside from the material harms caused by global capitalism, its cultural effects are equally important to paleoconservatives. According to the paleos, the global capitalist dream is world of atomized, interchangeable consumers. They care nothing about religion or culture, and for this reason their influence must be limited. The paleoconservatives called for a new identity politics for Middle America—implicitly racial in Buchanan’s case, explicitly in Francis’s.
Although the paleos were, on average, more interested in fighting the culture war than Donald Trump, Kolozi accurately notes the ways Trump echoes older paleoconservative arguments.
Conservatives Against Capitalism is an enjoyable read based on serious research. And the book opens the door to new questions. Conservatives love to say that “ideas have consequences.” Yet, as Kolozi demonstrates, capitalism’s conservative critics were often just as trenchant as its cheerleaders. It is thus notable that, as various factions struggled to define conservatism, the side aligned with corporate interests typically won the day. One may argue that the 2016 GOP primaries represent an exception, but it is notable that, since Trump’s inauguration, congressional Republicans have worked entirely from the old free-market playbook. For all the conservative talk about “Permanent Things” and “little platoons,” Kolozi’s history suggests conservatism has always been for sale to the highest bidder.
George Hawley (@georgehawleyUA) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, White Voters in 21st Century America, and Making Sense of the Alt-Right (forthcoming).