Capitalist Critics on the Right
Peter Kolozi’s intellectual history is mostly fair and judicious—but for his conviction that conservatives are incapable of humanitarian sentiments.
Conservatives Against Capitalism: From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization, by Peter Kolozi (Columbia University Press, 264 pp., $60)
In the United States, many equate conservatism with capitalism, and not without reason. Libertarianism, after all, was a pillar of the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement; scholars from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman influenced conservative thought on free markets. The Republican Party, moreover, has long styled itself as an advocate of small government and fiscal responsibility, in contrast with the Democrats’ embrace of big government. Many conservatives argue that capitalism, freedom, and prosperity are inextricably connected.
The relationship between conservatism and capitalism, though, is complex. Capitalism isn’t particularly conservative, at least if conservatism is defined as a preference for order, continuity, and organic change. Over the past two centuries, capitalism has radically transformed the world, often uprooting communities and traditional ways of life in the process. As one might expect, therefore, many conservative thinkers have voiced opposition to capitalism.
In Conservatives Against Capitalism, Peter Kolozi offers an excellent overview of American conservatives who have criticized market-based economics. His narrative covers a wide range of thinkers: proslavery intellectuals of the nineteenth century, Southern Agrarians, populists like Teddy Roosevelt in the early twentieth century, “new conservatives” of the 1950s and 1960s, neoconservatives of the 1970s, and paleoconservatives of the 1990s and early 2000s. Though he is a man of the Left, Kolozi’s treatment of conservative intellectuals is fair and judicious, a serious work of intellectual history.
As Kolozi shows, conservatives have opposed capitalism for various reasons, from fear of how it could undermine cherished hierarchies to concerns that it could destroy local communities or concentrate power in the hands of the wealthy. His discussion of the Old South’s conservatives is particularly fascinating. Pre-Civil War conservatives like John C. Calhoun, George Fitzhugh, and James Henry Hammond believed that slavery was morally superior to capitalism, in part because slaveholders had to take care of their laborers. By contrast, owners of capitalist factories were responsible for nothing more than paying wages to their workers. As Kolozi explains, Fitzhugh and Hammond “contrasted what they saw as the social decay and class conflict in the capitalist North with an idealized vision of order, community, and mutual regard located on Southern slave plantations governed by the benevolent, paternalistic hand of the slave owner.”
Such an interpretation seems wicked, considering the atrocious violence that sustained slavery, but Kolozi rightly warns against ignoring or dismissing it, reminding us that slavery’s apologists were hardly marginal figures in the Old South. Calhoun, for instance, was a secretary of state and vice president, and Hammond served as a governor and U.S. senator in South Carolina. It’s important to understand their ideas.
Kolozi provides a brief overview of the left-right distinction. The Left, he says, regards inequalities as socially generated, implying that they can be mitigated or eradicated through political struggle. The Right, meantime, “believes these inequalities are natural and that society merely reflects natural inequalities.” It’s true that conservatives tend to accept some forms of social inequality. But Kolozi believes that they see inequality as a fundamental feature of a good society, and that conservatism can be reduced to a single belief—that “a world of excellence requires inequality, hierarchy, and the power of some to dominate and control others.” Conservatives are united in this conviction, he says. “Conservatism,” he writes near the book’s end, “is about the freedom and ability of some people to dominate, control, and extract from others.”
Nothing in his preceding pages—let alone in the canon of conservative thought—justifies that conclusion. If conservatives aim to allow some people to dominate others, this would be easy to prove; one could pick any conservative theorist and discover apologetics for domination in his writings. And yet, Kolozi himself mentions conservatives who don’t believe in domination, but its opposite. He cites, for example, the efforts of conservatives such as Ross Douthat and David Brooks to devise policies intended to increase social mobility in the U.S.—hardly reflective of a wish to dominate others.
Kolozi’s misunderstanding probably originates in an assumption he shares with Corey Robin, another scholar of conservative thought. Robin sees conservatism as counterrevolutionary, or as an ideological reaction to revolutionary political projects. As a man of the Left, Robin sympathizes with revolutionaries, regarding them as fighters for liberation. Like Kolozi, he assumes that those who oppose revolutionaries must stand against liberation. In The Reactionary Mind, Robin claims that what conservatives oppose is “less the betrayal of the [emancipatory] postulate than its fulfillment.” In other words, when conservatives see a revolution, they don’t fear what will happen if it fails; they fear what will happen if it succeeds.
This interpretation misreads, or ignores, how conservative thinkers have sought to discredit revolutionary theory. Conservatives have historically warned against the likely consequences of bringing utopia into being. Edmund Burke, for instance, didn’t just object to the political philosophy of French revolutionaries but also to the destruction that they caused. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, he wrote:
[The revolutionaries] have found their punishment in their success. Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigor; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom . . . Were all these dreadful things necessary? . . . No! Nothing like it. The fresh ruins of France, which shock our feelings wherever we can turn our eyes, are not the devastation of civil war; they are the sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in time of profound peace.
Burke was troubled by France’s revolutionary descent into chaos. Much of his indictment of the revolutionaries was guided by concern for the consequences of their actions. His argument—that turning society on its head in the name of liberation leads to unimaginable suffering—has been echoed by later conservatives confronting revolution in their own time. Roger Scruton, for example, wrote of Marxian socialism: “The theory is unbelievable, the predictions false, and its legacy appalling.” And historian Robert Conquest writes in Reflections on a Ravaged Century: “It can be argued that Marx, and earlier theorists of revolution like Rousseau, did not envision mass terror, let alone the totalitarian state. It was perhaps more a matter of such ideologues propounding unattainable utopias; and of any attempt to put them into practice only being possible by such means.” In drawing a connection between utopian ideologies and the terror that results, Conquest doesn’t declare himself an opponent of freedom and emancipation, or an advocate of oppression and domination. He merely points out what he sees as the murderous link between revolutionary theory and revolutionary violence: “The revolutionary believed it to be in the nature of things that dictatorship and terror are needed if the good of humanity is to be served.” Kolozi and Robin fail as historians when dismissing conservatism as a mere justification for hierarchical domination.
Happily, though, Kolozi’s mischaracterizations don’t mar much of Conservatives Against Capitalism. They appear as a nuisance in his introduction, and again in his conclusion, but mostly vanish in the adroit and insightful commentary that makes up the bulk of his book. The book would have been even stronger if Kolozi had allowed for the possibility that conservatives are capable of humanitarian sentiments.
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