Skip to comments.The Anti-Capitalist Impulse on the Right
Posted on 10/24/2009 4:53:59 AM PDT by Kaslin
Irving Kristol, who died last month at age 89, inspired some highly mixed feelings in me. On the positive side, this renowned public intellectual was possessed of political realism, a firm anti-utopian grasp of the possible. Like Thomas Sowell and P.J. ORourke, though more understated, he had a superb gift for deflating the morally-charged conceits and histrionics of Left egalitarianism. On the negative side, he exhibited a shockingly narrow and vitriolic view of contemporary culture. That hatred, unfortunately, did much to sour his view of capitalism. And his widespread influence on this count has become painfully apparent.
Arguably more than anyone else in the 20th century, Irving Kristol and Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) defined, in different ways, the American Rights view of capitalism. Each thought little of latter-day liberalism and the capitalists who accommodated it, but Kristol believed that businessmen who behaved contrarily to civilized (or bourgeois) norms were at least as bad as socialists. Established political authorities thus have an obligation to ban certain buyer-seller transactions a great many of them, actually. Modern societies, like ancient ones, must affirm objective truths.
Mises, by contrast, saw projecting motive onto capitalists and their customers as a futile and potentially tyrannical exercise. In his book, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, the preeminent Austrian economist observed that animosity toward capitalism is manifest in a dislike of capitalists. Opponents of business, he argued, view businessmen as profit-obsessed reprobates undermining societal well-being:
As they see it, this ghastly mode of societys economic organization has brought about nothing but mischief and misery For these scoundrels nothing counts but their moneyed interests. They do not produce good and really useful things, but only what will yield the highest profits. They poison bodies with alcoholic beverages and tobacco, and souls and minds with tabloids, lascivious books and silly moving pictures. The ideological superstructure of capitalism is a literature of decay and degradation, the burlesque show and the art of strip-tease, the Hollywood pictures and the detective stories.
These words, though written more than 50 years ago, have an oddly contemporary ring. More to the point, they refer to moralists on the Right as much as those on the Left. Thats all the more troubling since many among the former like Irving Kristol have been professed friends of free enterprise. The truth is that the Right carries a cartload of petty anti-capitalist resentments of its own.
This goes against the grain of accepted wisdom, which sees anti-market attitudes as an almost exclusively Leftist vocation. Such a view is understandable. The Lefts reigning idea is that the market, left to its own devices, is incapable of providing moral justice. While capitalism may be efficient, its enormous social costs require rectification through outside control. Inevitably, that means a massive expansion of the State, so long as the right people (e.g., Barack Obama, Hugo Chavez) run it. Yet traditionalists of the Right have their own pedigree of fear and loathing of capitalism long predating the rise of the Left. Their arguments raise the age-old philosophical distinction between wants and needs.
For many centuries, almost all societies were de facto conservative. That is, the main tenets of classical conservatism, steeped in reverence for hierarchy, were so ingrained that they required no political movement to promote them. People simply knew their place. Those of low hereditary status risked severe sanctions if they pulled rank on their social betters.
Luxury, a manifestation of early capitalism, thus was something to be feared. Its widespread availability, authorities believed, would lead to sloth, lechery or worse. In later centuries, those justifying such a moral code frequently pointed to fallen ancient civilizations whose masses of people had grown spoiled, soft and weak from luxury. Only landed nobility had the right to fulfill wants. Everyone else had to be content with rigidly-circumscribed needs. In his book, Luxury: The Concept in Western Thought, Eden to Smollett, John Sekora notes:
(T)he pursuit of luxury, however considered, was viewed as a fundamental and generic vice from which other subordinate vices would ensue. In the Old Testament, where it is equated with disobedience to God, it is the cardinal sin of the Israelites. In Plato and Aristotle, the Cynics and the Stoics, it is the first and most important violation of nature and reason. For the Roman historians, it is the primary factor in the dissolution of the Republic. For the Christian theologians, it is prima facie evidence of both disobedience to God and love of a degraded world.
The prohibition against luxury also assumed a common legal dimension: sumptuary laws. Such enactments reinforced existing hierarchies. By making food, clothing and other consumption items associated with aristocrats off-limits to commoners, those in power could be insulated from challenge. During the ancient Roman Republic, authorities published a book containing the names of everyone found guilty of luxurious living. England during the Middle Ages prescribed the color, material and type of clothing for people of various ranks and trades. Such laws were not necessarily rigorously enforced, but their mere existence inhibited the development of business culture. For if shame and approbation were attached to living too well, what intrepid entrepreneur would service such illicit desires?
Sumptuary laws pretty much had become extinct by the close of the 18th century, as modern ideas of sovereignty, rights and contract took hold, but the instinct to mistrust and punish those of low status has remained powerful. Military life, where rank is paramount, is probably the clearest example of tight restrictions on dress, speech and other outward behavior. Countless unwritten laws of etiquette still prevail. An employee does not, for example, drive a flashier car than the boss without inviting suspicion. Highly liturgical religions also have maintained a strict code of appearances, as do various sectarian cults. Margaret Atwoods dystopian 1985 novel, The Handmaids Tale, isnt that far-fetched.
Capitalism, more than any other institution, dissolved the idea of the forbidden in everyday life. Under the Austrian or libertarian view, capitalists have the right to offer frivolous goods and services, and consumers have the right to buy them. Economic knowledge is subjective. The people best able to calculate the wisdom of economic decisions are those participating in them. Parties outside their frame of reference, especially in the realm of government, lack the knowledge or moral standing to intervene.
Traditionalists generally find this infuriating. For them, the exercise of personal freedom is tantamount to its misuse. A healthy culture, in their minds, must prevent adults from attending immoral concerts, watching immoral TV programs, and reading immoral magazines (or allowing their offspring to do likewise). This was the rock upon which Irving Kristol stood, not to mention Robert Bork, Walter Berns and David Lowenthal, all enthusiastic supporters of censorship. As licentious appetites must be whetted in todays carnival of consumption, they argue, authorities should restrain people from indulging those appetites. Capitalism, while more efficient than socialism, undermines virtue. New sumptuary laws, of a sort, are needed.
This is the central argument of Kristols popular 70s-era book, Two Cheers for Capitalism. For him, capitalism earns a cheer each for efficiency and liberty. But it doesnt earn a third cheer because it lacks the means of satisfying the search for existential authenticity. Worse yet, it lends credibility to darker existential impulses if money can be made. For the remainder of his career, this view would be his leitmotif. As long as people such as Hugh Hefner are permitted to run profitable enterprises, Kristol argued, capitalists would be the gravediggers of capitalism.
It was Kristols founding partner of The Public Interest, sociologist Daniel Bell, who gave this view its fullest expression. In his own 70s-era book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell, a self-described socialist in economics, liberal in politics and conservative in culture, was apoplectic that the counterculture was becoming integrated into capitalism. America apparently was better off with its artists starving. While running a successful business still requires traditional economic calculation, he argued, marketing and advertising require pandering to base instincts. The consequence of this contradiction, writes Bell, is that a corporation finds its people being straight by day and swingers by night. Bell reveals his hysterical authoritarianism in the following passage: The question of who will use drugs, engage in orgies and wife-swapping, become an open homosexual, use obscenity as a political style, or enjoy happenings and underground movies is not easily related to the standard variables of sociological discourse.
Many conservatives, in fact, since have made the argument that rising discretionary income has had the unintended effect of stimulating amoral wants. The late Canadian social philosopher, George Parkin Grant, a self-described conservative, defended socialism on precisely such grounds. And a new generation of crunchy American conservatives, such as Rod Dreher, Jeremy Beer and John Zmirak, are hardly friends of the market either.
Kristol was of the same cast of mind. Contempt for cultural freedom was his trump card. Though hardly a socialist, even socialists didnt arouse his ire as much as counterculture-friendly businessmen did. He supported the idea of a conservative welfare state, and even defended soaking the rich under certain circumstances. One wonders whom he had in mind.
All of todays arguments on the Right against amoral capitalism in a real sense ratify the Kristol-Bell thesis. Public policy, in their minds, must wage all-out war against anti-bourgeois forces masquerading as legitimate businessmen. This view, unfortunately, is akin to destroying the village in order to save it. For there would be no end to the Torquemada-like enthusiasm for rooting out immorality for fun and profit, replete with boycotts, censorship, arrests, and confiscatory taxes on luxury items. This obsession reaches its apogee in ceaseless (and baseless) campaigns against Hollywood, typically led by people who admit to not even seeing films they denounce. Since capitalists cant be trusted with capitalism, they must be brought under strict social control. That advocates of this view havent necessarily practiced what theyve preached (e.g., Bill Bennetts costly casino excursions) does not invalidate their principle that liberty must play a subordinate role to hierarchy and tradition. The neoconservative critique of modernity isnt that huge of a leap from Marxs denunciation of the fetishism of commodities.
My response is this: Certain people at any given time will misuse their freedoms. But that in itself is insufficient cause for yanking freedoms from everyone. Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Robert George, Roger Kimball and Robert Bork, among others, dont see things that way. Casting dark shadows of dispersion upon the pursuit of happiness, they would remove the freedom of the great many to enjoy the fruits of others creativity. Filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood, Peter Jackson and David Fincher would be looking for alternative work. So would stand-up comics such as Margaret Cho, Chris Rock and Richard Lewis; musicians such as Depeche Mode, the White Stripes and Iggy Pop; and novelists such as Philip Roth, Gore Vidal and Chuck Palahniuk. What a dreary world these defenders of tradition would have us endure!
The Left, we are told, wants to create a nanny state, regulating adults as though they were children. Thats largely true. Yet moral busybodies of the Right have their own idealized nanny state. They may be comfortable with fatty foods, tobacco and alcohol, but they seek to banish film, drama, painting, literature, music and other cultural expressions not meeting their religious or cultural criteria. Such an impulse is not only bad civil liberties, its also bad economics. Thats why in the end, Ludwig von Mises, though not without his flaws, far more than Irving Kristol is a lodestar in the quest for human liberty.
Any real desire for freedom must accept capitalism as essential; there is no other approach to economics that is compatible with freedom.
Pure capitalism, perhaps. But crony capitalism/corporate fascism takes its economic power and buys off government - so you get company towns and other abuses of corporate power.
Thomas Sowell rarely uses the term “capitalism”; instead, he says “a market economy.” It’s not unusual for people who say they don’t like “capitalism” to agree that they *do* like being able to buy or sell what they choose, work at the job they choose, have options for where to live, and so on.
Similarly, Dr. Sowell never uses “health care” to describe the relevant industry. He always says “medical treatment,” because that’s really what is being bought and sold.
It’s a weak cultural argument that can’t address the topic of “political correctness, “ as this writer does not. When certain ideas and cultural norms have been driven from the public square and forced to exist isolated and underground (none more so than 20 years ago “homosex caused the AIDS epidemic”), then you’re not taliking about a free market of ideas, no matter how much license is granted to the cultural leftists.
This is an argument between Libertarians and Conservatives. Conservatives pro capitalism have their limits. Once it goes against nationalism e.g protecting national businesses, they turn against capitalism, not realizing being pro-capitalism is pro-society
Guilty, but I don't really think I need to see "Brokeback Mountain", "Bowling for Columbine", "Sicko", "Farenheit 9/11", "An Inconvenient Truth" and so forth to know they're crap.
I agree. The only reason we need for *not* seeing a movie (tv show, play, comedian) is that we don’t want to. The free market at work!
You drank the liberal kool-aid.
There is only one reason capitalists engage in government influence and payoffs, etc......that is because the gov't can affect their business.
If government would keep its nose out from regulating, preferences, etc, business would have no need to try and influence that government.
McCain and others laments the large sums of money in politics. That money would not be there unless there was a potential return on that money via favors, contracts, regulations, etc.
Don't accept the liberal, large-government that can make or break an industry and then hate the corporations that pay protection money to that liberal, large-government in order to survive.
I agree 100 percent with you
Oh, horsecrap. Try reading both past history and current events. Folks like you who think corporations can do no wrong are useful idiots for those corporations, quite frankly.
A agree with the general premise but we have to be careful. When government grows under GWB/Obama and you have huge government contracts, and bank bailouts , and monopolies many caused by government, some not, the concept of freedom breaks down. In those case the high salaries and bonuses are hardly freedom because the government is taxing it, or creating it.
Got that backwards. Politicians use their power to create crony capitalism. This is the inherent myth manufactured about Capitalism by the Left that really needs to be debunked. Capitalist do not manufacture fascism, fascism corrupts capitalism to it's own ends.
Wrong. The process is symbiotic.
I never said corporations can do not wrong.
Don't lie about me because you are a big-gov't, pro-regulation closet liberal.
Don't like it when I put words in your mouth, do you?
The fact remains that you cannot refute the premise that corporations would not care as much about government if government could not affect their bottom line.
Strictly, what you are describing is Corporatism, not capitalism. It was described by an Italian economist named Gramsci but it’s full implementation awaited another Italian named Benito Mussolini
At some point, whoever is in power will abuse it. The difference is that when corporations abuse power, there's usually a check and balance, whether it be lawyers, govt, or media, to rectify the situation.
The problem with a govt with too much power is that it has limited check and balances, especially if the govt controls the media and individual liberties such as gun ownership.
I think the article misses the important concept of a middle ground. A strict moral authoritarian govt is as undesirable as a strict amoral unauthoritarian govt. On one hand you have the Taliban, and on the other hand you have hedonistic Europe. Both will fail.
I think America is unique in that it had (maybe still has) found the perfect balance between a culture of individual freedoms and a culture of Christian morality. The Christian work ethic was a perfect fit for capitalism and the antidote for the resultant "pursuit of luxuries."
I do not believe that capitalism can survive without this unwritten Christian ethic. Without this ethic, morality is replaced with a written set of "thou shalt nots" that codifies the behavior of every minutia of our lives. As a result, no longer can business transactions be trusted with a handshake or a mutual understanding. Instead lawyers and juries decide who wins and loses.
This realization is why I switched from being a libertarian to a conservative.
No what is pure horse crap is this notion that their is this evil capitalist cabal out there manipulating everything to the determent of the "little guy" That is total Marxist manufactured myth. Corporations are nothing but collections of stock holders. They exist to maximize profits. Since Das Capital the Marxists have manufactured this myth of "evil capitalism" that has been successful exploited by the Leftist politicians ever since as their fraudulent threat they are defending the "little guy" from. All the corporations are doing is paying the Big Government thugs protection money to be left alone
I'm not. I stand by my comments that folks like you are a useful idiot for corporate fascism by your pretending that it's all the fault of government. We saw the practical limits of anti-regulation dogma reached last year - for example, the exemption of credit default swaps from regulation and the lack of regulation of ratings agencies. But some folks refuse to learn from both history and current events.
The fact remains that you cannot refute the premise that corporations would not care as much about government if government could not affect their bottom line.
Google Archer-Daniels Midland and Enron and get back to me.
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