Capitalism And Culture War
If you missed Ross Douthat’s column about capitalism and conservatism this past weekend, you really should read it. In it, he considers the role that capitalism plays in undermining social cohesion, and social conservatism. He points out what has long been known: that the dynamism of capitalism makes it harder for society to be stable. But he also says that this cannot possibly be the whole story:
It’s only after the 1960s that this conservative reinvention seems to fail, with churches dividing, families failing, associational life dissolving. And capitalist values, the economic and sexual individualism of the neoliberal age, clearly play some role in this change.
But strikingly, after the 1960s economic dynamism also diminishes, as productivity growth drops and economic growth decelerates. So it can’t just be capitalist churn undoing conservatism, exactly, if economic stagnation and social decay go hand in hand.
One small example: Rates of geographic mobility in the United States, which you could interpret as a measure of how capitalism uproots people from their communities, have declined over the last few decades. But this hasn’t somehow preserved rural traditionalism. Quite the opposite: Instead of a rooted and religious heartland, you have more addiction, suicide and anomie.
Or a larger example: Western European nations do more to tame capitalism’s Darwinian side than America, with more regulation and family supports and welfare-state protections. Are their societies more fecund or religious? No, their economic stagnation and demographic decline have often been deeper than our own.
So it’s not that capitalist dynamism inevitably dissolves conservative habits. It’s more that the wealth this dynamism piles up, the liberty it enables and the technological distractions it invents, let people live more individualistically — at first happily, with time perhaps less so — in ways that eventually undermine conservatism and dynamism together. At which point the peril isn’t markets red in tooth and claw, but a capitalist endgame that resembles Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” with a rich and technologically proficient world turning sterile and dystopian.
Which actually makes the challenge for conservatives much tougher. If the decay of faith or family were really a simple matter of “too much capitalism” you could imagine a right that eventually got over its rugged individualism and chose redistribution and sustainability instead. But one can favor moves in that direction — social conservatives should spend more on families — and still see that they aren’t sufficient, that conservatives actually need to somehow jump-start a lot of forms of dynamism all together, in a way that’s hard for an old, rich and decadent society to do.
But let’s not let liberals off the hook. If capitalist churn isn’t what it used to be, if taming its excesses in the style of France or Sweden isn’t enough to restore family and community, if the combination of welfare-state liberalism and personal emancipation trends toward a Huxleyan dystopia, do liberals have any resources besides complaints about capitalism that might help pull us off that course?
Because if conservatism’s responses are incoherent and insufficient, I fear that liberalism has no response at all.
I was arguing not long ago with an American liberal friend who believes that solving the problem is simply a matter of wealth redistribution and structural reform of the economy. This is the crude materialism that Douthat debunks by pointing to European societies that are far more egalitarian in terms of wealth distribution than we are in America, but who are not thriving either. Culture matters immensely, though my liberal interlocutor wishes to believe that “culture wars” are a mere distraction from the real problem, which is structural inequality. He’s wrong about this, but he’s no more or less wrong than people on the Right who prefer to believe that there is nothing problematic about the capitalist system, vis-à-vis social decline.
The truth — and it’s an unpleasant one to face — is that nobody has a satisfying answer. But people prefer to have a clear answer, even if it’s an incorrect one. Take a look at the whole race problem in America. The stupidity of Kendi-style race theory — that disproportionate material outcomes can only be explained by racism — satisfies those who are looking for a clear, emotionally satisfying answer. But it has nothing to do with the real world. Take away all the non-black people, and all the rich people, and nothing changes — what then? If capitalism, structural economic injustice, and the bourgeoisie were the cause of poverty, then the Marxist countries of the 20th century would have been wealthy and successful. They were, in fact, hellholes.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe that we really do have to have more pro-family reform of our economic system, and an abandonment of globalism, to return social stability. Though I do believe that capitalism is, broadly speaking, the best system, because it does the best at adapting itself to human nature, I am not a pure free marketer at all. The market was made for man, not man for the market.
But I also don’t believe for one second that politics and economics are sufficient to solve a crisis that is at root moral and spiritual. There will never be enough money to satisfy the longing in the human heart for God, for love, for family, for a sense of belonging, and of meaning. You cannot have a society in which people feel free to live however they like, and expect that society to thrive. Nobody wants to hear that, though, much less live by it. This is one reason why I expect our decline and disintegration to continue — and when things keep falling apart, the search for scapegoats to ramp up in earnest.
I get why the Benedict Option is an unsatisfying solution. It’s not an ultimate solution at all; it’s just a strategy for holding us all together through the long night upon us. But what else is there? I’m serious: what else is there? Politics of either Left or Right can only ever be a partial solution to our problems. As Viktor Orban said once (I paraphrase), “As a politician, I can give you things, but I can’t give you meaning.”
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