The marriage between capitalism and conservatism has been a strange one. While conservative parties around the world differ widely in their composition and specific policy proposals, conservatism as an ideology can broadly be described as a defense of the established order. Social stability, the maintenance of tradition, and a hierarchical view of society tend to be consistent aspects of any conservative creed.
It’s precisely these characteristics of conservatism that make American conservatives’ wholehearted embrace of capitalism so puzzling. In its purest form, capitalism is a revolutionary ideology par excellence, at least in terms of its social consequences. In its constant search for new markets, labor, materials, and technologies, free-market capitalism mercilessly upends communities, industries, social classes, and even basic human norms and values.
The profoundly destabilizing nature of such an economic system was identified by no less than Karl Marx, who observed that in capitalist societies, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
“There’s an inherent tension that some conservatives have recognized in the current system, which is that capitalism is inherently revolutionary.”
Looked at objectively, it makes little obvious sense for people who are concerned with maintaining tradition and social stability to align themselves with such a volatile system. So why, then, have conservatives in the United States lined up solidly behind free-market capitalism for so many years? Peter Kolozi, an associate professor at the City University of New York, attempts to answer this vexing question in a recent book called “Conservatives Against Capitalism: From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization.” In doing so, Kolozi also sheds light on a largely forgotten U.S. tradition of conservative skepticism toward capitalism.
“There’s an inherent tension that some conservatives have recognized in the current system, which is that capitalism is inherently revolutionary. It throws everything up in the air and is a destabilizing force in society,” Kolozi told The Intercept. “Many of the things that conservatives want to define and protect, such as community and a hierarchical structure of society based on tradition, are by their nature threatened by capitalism.”
The earliest generation of anti-capitalist American conservatives came out of the American South. For these men — and the intellectuals of the movement were all men — the emphasis on free markets posed a threat to the traditional “Southern” way of life that they sought to maintain – a way of life that was based on maintaining strict racial and class hierarchies. Unlike socialists, the challenge to capitalism expressed by conservative intellectual movements like the Southern Agrarians was fundamentally anti-egalitarian. In many ways, their support of a traditional agrarian economy against the free market represented a radical last-ditch effort to defend formal racial and class privileges within a country that was rapidly modernizing.
Over time, this tradition gave way to less radical critiques, including those made by conservatives like President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt feared that the materialist and consumerist values promoted under capitalism would inevitably lead to the moral and physical degeneration of the American people. His notorious solution was to turn the United States into a global empire, one that would allow its citizens to become conquering heroes in the Third World and thereby maintain a sense of collective mission. Many decades later, a similar type of pro-imperial conservatism would be picked up by neoconservatives, who supported using the U.S. military as a tool for remaking the geopolitical order as well as re-energizing an American populace that they saw as morally adrift.
Conservatives largely made their peace with capitalism during the Cold War. Faced with the specter of communism, a system that seemed even more radically threatening to the status quo, American conservatives threw in their lot with the market completely. Old reservations soon gave way to a reflexive identification of conservative politics with free markets. In the prosperous decades immediately after World War II, these markets were seen as “delivering the goods,” in the form of higher living standards for the American people. In the short term, at least, capitalism also proved quite effective at maintaining existing social hierarchies, with traditional elites successfully passing down privilege to their descendants through preferred access to economic opportunities and top-tier educational institutions.
Even while they adapted to the system, however, some conservatives continued to critique the more extreme consequences of the free market. During the Cold War, conservative criticisms of capitalism focused mainly on its laissez-faire variety, in which the market was left to its own workings with minimal government intervention. Under President Ronald Reagan, this form of capitalism took full flight, with his administration drastically slashing tax rates on the highest earners, removing regulations on market activity, and cutting funding for social programs. This predatory capitalism had a devastating effect on the American working class, who were denied the benefits of a social safety net as well as the dubious promise of “trickle-down” wealth from elites.
At the same time, radical laissez-faire policies helped empower an entirely new set of elites, many of whom came from the burgeoning financial sector. The ascendance of this new elite was made possible by the deregulation of financial markets, as well as improved communications and transportation links under globalization. Allegedly unmoored from the specific national interests of the United States, these “globalists” — as they are derisively called today by the likes of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and others of their type — have been blamed for grossly enriching themselves at the expense of Trump’s preferred community, loosely defined as white middle America.
This ethnocentric critique of global capitalism is most closely identified with right-wing “paleoconservative” intellectuals like Patrick Buchanan, who has lauded Trump’s presidency. This ideological movement also has an ugly undercurrent of anti-Semitism, reflected in populist attacks on financiers like George Soros, as well as some of Trump’s ads from the 2016 election campaign that were widely seen as regurgitating anti-Semitic tropes.
Trump himself has offered a blunt response to globalization and laissez-faire economics: nationalism.
Trump himself has offered a blunt response to globalization and laissez-faire economics: nationalism. Among other policies, Trump has sought to use trade as a weapon against both foreign competitors and allies, placed draconian restrictions on immigration, and worked to undermine the stability of international governance organizations that are blamed for impinging on national sovereignty. In addition to his invective against Mexican immigrants and a ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, Trump has tried renegotiate trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and worked to undermine transnational bodies like the European Union. While he is avowedly capitalist, Trump has expressed a willingness to use state power to bend the global market to benefit favored constituencies.
Some of Trump’s economically protectionist inclinations happen to resonate with left-wing concerns about the immiseration of the American working class under global capitalism. The destruction of America’s manufacturing sector by a combination of outsourcing and automation has had undeniably grievous effects on workers. Left alone to face the cruel vicissitudes of the market, regions of the country that decades earlier helped build a thriving manufacturing sector have now been seemingly abandoned to the ravages of opioid addiction, urban blight, and family dissolution.
In response to this slow-motion catastrophe, left-wing politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and others have argued in terms that echo some of Trump’s economically nationalist positions, particularly on trade. Importantly, the left has supported these positions without also endorsing Trump’s xenophobia or anti-immigrant sentiment. But some have warned that a nationalistic response to globalization, also expressed by politicians like Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s Labour Party leader, and French socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon may end up putting left-wing parties at a disadvantage in the face of a globally resurgent right.
In an interview last year, the late Marxist historian Moishe Postone warned that the left would be doomed in its embrace of a nationalist response to the problems of global capitalism. “In the course of the 20th century, due to the welfare state and similar developments, the communist dream of internationalism dissipated and working-class movements became de facto nationalist,” Postone said. “But if that’s going to be your position, then the right is much better at that. The right are much better nationalists.”
In Europe, far-right parties in France, Poland, Hungary, and the Netherlands have discovered a potentially winning combination of ethnonationalism mixed with support for welfare state policies. Trump won the American presidency on an eerily similar platform, railing against immigrants and minorities while periodically hinting at his dissatisfaction with the dilapidated American health care system and concentration of wealth on Wall Street.
Trump’s brand of xenophobic populism seems to be trickling down to his supporters in the media. In a segment on his Fox News show, Tucker Carlson recently lambasted Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for exploitative policies toward workers and for amassing huge amounts of personal wealth at the expense of public well-being. This embrace of economic populism by an avowed conservative like Carlson — who also regularly uses his platform to promote white nationalist positions — could signal a future in which European-style, right-wing politics gains a meaningful support base in the United States.
For all their differences, there is one key aspect of the intellectual history charted in “Conservatives Against Capitalism” that deals with an issue of shared concern on both the left and the right: the need for community. One of the grim consequences of the Social Darwinian pressures unleashed by free-market capitalism has been the destruction of networks of community, family, and professional associations in developed societies.
These so-called intermediate institutions have historically played a vital role giving ordinary people a sense of meaning and protecting them from the structural violence of the state and the market. Their loss has led to the creation of a huge class of atomized and lonely people, cut adrift from traditional sources of support and left alone to contend with the power of impersonal economic forces.
“What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact of loneliness.”
These insecure and disoriented masses of individuals have been identified by both conservative and leftist thinkers as the seedbed for totalitarianism, citing the historical experience of fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century. In her famous work “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact of loneliness.” This loneliness — “once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age” — had now become an endemic part of life for millions of people, Arendt argued, citing the experiences of European societies that became totalitarian during the 20th century.
Some conservatives echoed this warning, raising the alarm that the eradication of church groups, local community organizations, and extended family networks by a rampant market had helped lay the groundwork for state tyranny. In terms reminiscent of Arendt, the conservative philosopher Robert A. Nisbet wrote:
A great deal of the character of contemporary social action has come from the efforts of men to find in large-scale organizations, especially political ones, those values of status and intellectual security which were formally acquired in church, family and neighborhood. How else can we explain the success of such movements as Communism and Nazism except as mass movements designed to confer upon the individual some sense of that community which has been lost under the impact of modern social changes.
Today, despite relative material wealth, the United States and other developed countries face epidemic levels of family breakdown, mental illness, and social anomie — phenomena that are increasingly being blamed on economic policies enacted over the past several decades that have destroyed networks of community and mutual support. If there can be fruitful common ground across ideologies, it may be in finding ways to rebuild a shared sense of belonging among people who have been isolated from one another by the impact of market forces and technological change.
“There is this notion of community that I think the left and right can have a constructive conversation about,” Kolozi, the author of “Conservatives Against Capitalism,” said in our interview. “Ideas of community differ, but there is a sense from many people, on both sides, that we can’t just exist as isolated individuals. What that actually means and what those communities look like is a subject of debate, but it’s a value that both sides share.”
With memories of the Cold War fading and the threat of Soviet Communism having no sway over younger generations, it’s unclear how long the lockstep alliance between American conservatism and the capitalist free market will continue into the future. The prioritization of market growth and private wealth accumulation above all other concerns — including the environment, social welfare, family, and community — has led to widespread disenchantment on both the left and the right.
Reflecting on the period of the Great Depression, the conservative writer Peter Viereck once wrote that the United States at that time had been “a revolutionary powder keg, needing only a spark.” That the spark never came was a testament to American society’s ability to pull back from the brink and implement policies that extended both wealth and opportunity beyond a small elite. As the global economy staggers from one crisis to the next, the future direction of politics in the West may end up depending on whether a new consensus can be reached on how to ameliorate the harms inflicted by a rampaging free market — and from there, build a vision of the future that more people find worth defending.
“There is a real potential now for a change in the conservative position on whether to regulate the harsher aspects of the market. If you look at the politics of young people today, they tend to widely share a more critical perspective on the question of what capitalism has delivered for society,” said Kolozi. “I don’t think conservatives will become socialists, ever. But a much more regulated capitalism is something that they are going to have to seriously think about accepting in the foreseeable future.”