As from a Poisoned Spring

Nostalgia is in the DNA of conservatism. That is its pathos. It is not that most intelligent conservatives revere the past, though of course there are some who do. But if one believes that political or social change are most sensibly viewed with principled skepticism, even if one must be open to them prudentially (which is what Edmund Burke meant when he said that there were times when change “is the means of our preservation”), then history is more likely to seem a chronicle of what we have lost than of what we have gained. On this account, any change usually—though, obviously, there will always be exceptions—will loom as a dangerous experiment rather than something warranted and desirable. The problem is that the capacity to distinguish between the concrete realities of previous mores, political arrangements, and one’s bedrock conviction that upholding tradition is a categorical imperative rarely inoculates conservatives against nostalgia. And nostalgia, which Merriam-Webster’s defines both as “homesickness,” and then as “a wistful and excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition,” almost always obscures more than it clarifies.

If one takes “homesickness” to mean yearning for one’s spiritual home, then, without being at all critical, one can rightly speak of a conservative nostalgia for tradition, and, by extension, of conservatives being made homeless by a modernity whose essential attribute is to be a destroyer of custom, to use Russell Kirk’s fine phrase. It is not necessary to reject the foundational conservative belief, that, using another formulation of Kirk’s, “human nature is a constant and moral truths are permanent” (although I do in fact disagree, as would almost any values pluralist), to take the view that, true or not, certain bedrock moral truths can become irrecoverable to a society even if they remain unimpeachable intellectually or morally. Conservatives in effect concede the point when they argue, as Dostoyevsky did, that the collapse of belief inevitably leads to the collapse of morality and social order.

What sits oddly with all this is the allegiance most contemporary conservatives give to capitalism. For not only is capitalism untouched by nostalgia (except instrumentally, as a marketing tool), it is indifferent when not actively hostile to what Kirk called “the just claims of permanence.” That is its force. Far from preserving traditional values, capitalism is the bull in the china shop of human history. Marx saw this clearly, writing that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…in a word, it creates a world after its own image.” And that world is the antithesis of the conservative one beloved of conservatives (at least in their collective imagination). As Marx put it, capitalism leaves “no other nexus between man and man except naked self-interest [and] callous cash-payment.”

The irony is that Joseph Schumpeter, the greatest advocate of the free market, did not disagree. He published The Process of Creative Destruction in 1942, and in its most famous passage he wrote that:

“The opening up of new markets and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one ... [The process] must be seen in its role in the perennial gale of creative destruction; it cannot be understood on the hypothesis that there is a perennial lull.”

So, to repeat the question, why does a large majority of American social conservatives (I emphasize I am not speaking of what, in the U.S., are variously called neo-conservatives or national greatness conservatives, whose priorities are self-evidently very different) feel that defending capitalism is congruent with their values and their interests? After all, from the late 19th century on, one of the main currents in conservative thought has been either frankly anti-capitalist (usually on anti-modernist grounds—a strain that persisted in Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain until the 1960s) or has advocated a mixed economy. In Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of 1891, the Catholic Church’s first great modern social encyclical, and even more explicitly in Pius XI’s 1931 Quadragesimo Anno, the Church officially rejected the free market as Schumpeter and Hayek defined it and as the American Right has, overall, embraced it. These encyclicals were written in large measure to offer an alternative vision of the social contract to the one being advanced by Socialism. But the Church saw clearly that, in considerable measure, this rise was the product of the injustice of unbridled capitalism. As Pius XI put it in Quadragesimo Anno, “Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching.”

Even today, much to the frustration of their American opposite numbers, European conservative politicians like Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy take for granted notions of social solidarity, and state responsibility for remedying egregious injustices in the market, as well as its right to impose constraints on capital that are in the direct line of this tradition. So why is America different? From Rerum Novarum forward, the Church emphasized the importance of individual private property rights, rejecting what Leo XIII called “the main tenet of socialism, the community of goods” as being opposed to natural law. But the American reverence for private property is in a league of its own, as libertarians and other devotees of the so-called Anglosphere tirelessly point out. For Russell Kirk, the link between freedom and property was crucial. Writing from the other shore ideologically, the great Canadian political theorist C. B. Macpherson used the pejorative term “possessive individualism” to define this view, arguing that its core assumption—that individuals were the sole owners of their skills and owed nothing to society for them (shades of Mrs. Thatcher’s infamous remark, “there is no such thing as society!”)—had originated in the work of Hobbes, Harrington, and Locke.

Whether one accepts Kirk’s (or for that matter, Milton Friedman’s) extolling of the positive consequences of these ideas in American life, or Macpherson’s critique of them, there is little question that, unlike a majority of their European opposite numbers, American conservatives are convinced that, as Friedman put it, “capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom.” And in fairness, if one believes this, then developing a fundamental critique of capitalism from a conservative perspective becomes immensely difficult, since the risk of putting constraints on capitalism is the diminution of liberty itself. And yet there would seem to be fundamental incompatibility of the social conservative’s extolling of what Kirk called the conservative championing of “custom, convention, and continuity” and Schumpeter’s (following Werner Sombart) insight that successful capitalism was inextricably linked to creative destruction, that is to say, to radical social discontinuity.

Neo-conservatives, who are comfortable with the idea of the United States as a revolutionary nation, obviously will not have such a problem. But is the commitment, or at the least the lip service paid by the Republican Party, enough to explain social and religious conservatives’ continued allegiance to these ideas? Perhaps. As the Protestant King of Navarre is said to have remarked when told that his assumption of the throne of France meant conversion to Roman Catholicism, “Paris is well worth a mass.” But surely even those social conservatives who still believe that capitalism affords more individual freedom than any other system must see by now that it is also more hostile to tradition, particularly to organic and localist notions of community in the Philip Blond or Front Porch Republic sense, than any other system. Is the trade-off worth it? Self-evidently, I am not a social conservative: The Anglosphere, which, to the extent it exists, I view in Macpherson’s terms, not Friedman’s or Kirk’s, holds no particular appeal for me. I have no right to a say in the matter. But from an outsider’s perspective, given the fact that capitalism, and especially its Anglo-American, Indian, and northeast Asian forms, has proven itself so conclusively to be toxic not only to traditionalist but to all traditional forms of understanding, morality, and community, what is astonishing is that, apart from a few brave voices—some Christian Romantics, to use my friend Rod Dreher’s self-description, and some communitarian localists, the most interesting of whom are now grouped around the Front Porch Republic Web site—so many conservatives see the world as going to hell in a handbasket, and so few are willing to face up to why.

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