| Fall, 2010

Why Conservatives Should Read Marx

Ronald Reagan in cigarette advertisement

Ronald Reagan in cigarette advertisement, 1951

Every thriving political movement contains diverse and often warring elements bound together by little more than strength of feeling and the lure of power, so it would be stupid to look for unblemished ideological consistency in a political party. But it is hard to take such a view of ourselves. For the most part we claim to have fairly coherent beliefs and motives, which is why when someone exposes an inconsistency our first impulse is to rationalize it; even when we do own up to contradictory views, we don’t deny that it would be better to be consistent. It’s as if just by being human we are somehow already committed to the task of harmonizing our beliefs. So while supporting incompatible policies might not trouble political parties, it should bother individuals.

If they want to be consistent, conservatives ought really to be anti-capitalist. This may be a little surprising, but in point of fact conservatism has always been flexible as far as particular policies are concerned. In the U.S. conservatives oppose universal healthcare as an attack on freedom; in the U.K. they defend it as a national tradition. Both positions count as conservative because, as Samuel Huntington argues, conservatism is a “situational” ideology which necessarily varies from place to place and time to time: “The essence of conservatism is the passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions.” It follows that conservatives can seek to conserve all manner of institutions, including those designed to fight inequality, safeguard the environment, tame market forces, and so on.

But the potential for such reversals is by no means restricted to the Right. When Leftists reflect on their opposition to the free market, they will find that their reasons are–at least in part–conservative. And why not? If conservatism is indeed situational then its rightness or wrongness must depend entirely on the situation, and the value of what is to be conserved. One trope of “utopian” literature from Plato’s Republic to Aldous Huxley’s Island is the fear of adulterating perfect arrangements. Even radicals sometimes have to be conservative.

This is more than mere semantics. Successful political movements successfully incorporate divergent elements; moribund ones don’t. Every so often tensions are simply too great to bear, and something snaps. Political constellations shift. Parties emerge. Coalitions form. Southern Democrats defected to the GOP in 1960s America; Britain has just seen the Liberal Democrats ally with the Tories. These things can happen. Left conservatism can happen.

Stability is no bad thing. For starters, change is risky. Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish philosopher-politician, argued that, since society is a complex system exceeding human comprehension, we can never know what consequences our radical plans might bring. Not that no change should ever happen, mind you, only that it should be careful and slow; we should conserve the essence of institutions, not preserve them exactly as they are. The American Constitution is a model of this conservatism, its checks and balances deliberately designed to frustrate the desire for profound change. Just consider what a “super-majority” Obama would have had if every Senate seat had been up for grabs in 2008, as would have been the case in those countries condemned to make do with-out the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. The Founders’ provisions respond to a fear most eloquently expressed by Burke, that “rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”

We might also need stability to be happy. Many have reached this conclusion, not least Burke himself, but perhaps none has attempted a more fundamental justification than did the philosopher-anthropologist (and sometime Nazi) Arnold Gehlen. Most mammals, Gehlen observed, are more or less suited to a particular environment. This is obvious enough, though it can still cause us to marvel at, say, snow leopards with their small and rounded ears that minimize heat loss, furry feet that increase traction on treacherous slopes, and tails thick enough to blanket sleeping faces. Such adaptations make snow leopards fit for the mountains of Central and Eastern Asia but out of place on the African savannah. Humans are different. Our instincts and capabilities are not suited to any particular environment or ecosystem; we’ve dwelt in caves overlooking glaciers, on stilts above the ocean, in tents on the Sahara. This all sounds rather splendid–and Gehlen thinks it the root of our capacity to lead a life rather than simply to live–but it leaves us in a fix because we lack the perceptual filter that instinct gives to other animals, allowing them to ignore irrelevant stimuli. We would therefore be prone to unbearable cognitive overload, Gehlen surmises, were it not for our habits and routines; these substitute for instincts by reducing the world’s intrinsic complexity, enabling us to see only what is salient in a given situation and freeing us from the burden of continual decision making. A functioning society will turn these habits and routines into stable institutions, which amount to “nothing but preformed and customary decisions.” But, Gehlen is quick to remind us, if these institutions should collapse we would lose our moorings. We would be at sea in a storm of information.

Gehlen equates modernity with institutional decay. Our institutions have lost their “transcendence” and “objectivity”; we no longer take them for granted as primal man did the rituals of old. But institutions that are optional cannot sufficiently reduce complexity–they take too few of our choices away–and so we are once more left subject to overload. We develop over-complicated inner lives and existential crises and art forms like the novel. We become psychological. This analysis of modernity shares much with the one Alasdair MacIntyre gives in After Virtue, according to which the modern world lacks the solid traditions needed to ground human flourishing. And the two share a common defect: romantic pessimism. Ancient institutions and traditions may well have decayed, but new ones have emerged, no less “objective” than the old. The American Constitution is rarely questioned, but even when it is (over, say, the Second Amendment) its basic tenets–such as the right to a fair trial or equality before the law–are as much taken for granted as any primordial ritual.

Yet in an age where it has become almost a cliché to talk of existential crises and information overload, it seems clear that Gehlen was onto something about modernity. Or perhaps he was onto something about capitalism. In a memorable passage ofThe Communist Manifesto, Marx claims that capitalism relentlessly bulldozes old institutions:

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. … Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. 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 …

The Manifesto is Marx at his most rhetorically brilliant, but Capital is his true masterpiece, and it is there that he explains why it is that the “bourgeoisie,” i.e. the capitalist class, cannot exist without revolutionizing society. Following the classical economists, Marx abstracts away from sales techniques and focuses on what he takes to be the most fundamental way to increase market share: if Joe the Capitalist is able to produce twice as cheaply as other factory owners, he can undersell them until they are driven out of the market. But this could happen to Joe too. Whoever goes out of business is no longer a capitalist–or “bourgeois” to use Marx’s term–so if Joe is to remain a capitalist he must produce at least as cheaply as his competitors. But how can he lower his production costs? He could try to pay his workers less, or get them to work longer and harder. One can only squeeze so much out of a human being, however, in the absence of technology. Just as the tractor enabled one man to plow an entire field in the time it would previously have taken several, what Joe really needs is to find a cost-efficient labor-saving innovation. If he can do that before his competitors, he will be able to produce the same number of products as his rivals with fewer workers and so drive his competitors out of the market. Since they will surely be having similar thoughts, Joe is forced to innovate just to stay afloat–whether he wants to or not.

This account of the way capitalism encourages perpetual technological revolution might have been nothing more than a dry contribution to economic theory were it not for Marx’s belief that technological change tends to bring social change:

Social relations are intimately bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production, and in changing their mode of production, their manner of making a living, they change all their social relations. The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.

If we resist the temptation to turn this observation into a crudely deterministic theory, it somehow manages to be both stunning and obvious. Obvious because our institutions must of course be grounded in our daily lives; and our daily lives are mostly spent working; and the texture of our work depends on technology. But stunning too, because when combined with Marx’s economic argument in Capital it implies nothing less than this: to the degree that technological change is built into capitalism, so must institutional change be. In every single generation certain institutions will become obsolete, and with them their attendant practices and values. There will be no rest, only motion. As Marx puts it, quoting Lucretius, the only immortal thing is death itself. Which brings us neatly back to Gehlen–”institutional decay” is entailed by capitalism.

Not every institution merits mourning, of course–if, as Marx thought, capitalism has torn down feudal and gender hierarchies, has rescued us from “the idiocy of rural life,” then we should be grateful. The question is what kind of institutions we ought to value, and it is in this field that conservative thinkers stake out positions that separate them from liberals and libertarians alike. A good institution is not one that satisfies our desires efficiently or freely, they say, but, on the contrary, one that precisely restrains or transforms those desires.

In a 1971 essay, Irving Kristol, the so-called “godfather of neoconservatism,” argued that we should go back to censoring pornography. Pornography is noxious not because it excites sexual desire per se–much great art does that–but because it divorces sexual desire from ideals of love and thereby renders it merely animal:

Sex–like death–is an activity that is both animal and human. There are human sentiments and human ideals involved in this animal activity. But when sex is public, the viewer does not see– cannot see– the sentiment and the ideals. He can only see the animal coupling. And that is why, when men and women make love, as we say, they prefer to be alone– because it is only when you are alone that you can make love, as distinct from merely copulating in an animal and casual way.

This is not a religious argument, yet it depends on the idea that some things in life ought to be sacred. However fragile and even foolish our taboos may be–however easy they be to mock–they embody something beautiful about humans, namely the way we strain towards ideals. Gehlen may be right that we have fewer instincts than other animals, but what instincts we do have we try to transform, to raise up according to our conception of what is good in life. The unspecialized animal is the self-shaping animal.

To sublimate our sexuality we have to restrain our immediate desires. But this is hard for us by ourselves. To do it successfully we need the help of social institutions, like marriage, that hold us to our ideals by creating patterns of behavior and expectation and meting out sanctions for transgression. One such institution is the law, or the state, and it is to state power that Kristol appeals in the case of pornography. In this he follows Burke, who actually goes so far as to claim that we have a right to be restrained by government. “Government,” Burke writes, “is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom.” And among our basic needs is the need for a restraint on our passions, which we cannot always discipline on our own. Since real restraint requires submission to a power outside ourselves–one that is “not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue”–Burke concludes that “the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”

This strand of conservatism, which would deny citizens the freedom to make their own decisions regarding pornography (or drugs or prostitution), obviously runs counter to libertarianism, the doctrine that the government should keep out of as much as it possibly can. In theory it is possible to be an economic libertarian and a social conservative; in practice the two are irreconcilable. To take a simple example, imagine a social conservative who thinks women should dress modestly in order to encourage men to treat them with dignity, endorsing the ancient adage that “with the laying-aside of her clothes, a woman lays aside the respect that is hers.” Can he really believe that the way we dress is unaffected by marketing? It’s hardly news that sex sells, or that the basic message of all advertising is “out with the old, in with the new.” Companies like the bikini manufacturer Sinful Clothing, whose ads recently graced New York taxis, are only taking matters to their logical conclusion: sin is good. Just as an industry based on the creation of desires is essentially hostile to restraint, so economic libertarianism is naturally opposed to social conservatism. Libertarianism, we might say, is and must always be the creed of the libertine.

So why are there libertarian conservatives? This is a fairly recent phenomenon; Burke for one was not slow to see the opposition between the “monied interest” and “the age of chivalry” as he lamented the advent of “oeconomists and calculators.” And this makes sense, because among the base passions that stable institutions are to restrain is surely greed. So the question is why twentieth-century conservatives clubbed together with free marketeers in think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute.

As Gehlen says, humans have an in-built need to reduce complexity. And, we might add, among the heuristics and habitshomo sapiens develops to help navigate the world is the dichotomy. Black and white; right and wrong; Left and Right. This makes it difficult for us to be consistent in politics, especially under the added pressure of a two-party system, because it encourages us to presume that every plank of a party’s platform naturally fits together. One reason that conservatives have been wary of anti-capitalism is that they associate it with Leftist support for the welfare state. Equality, they say, can never be the goal of political life; if we had equality, we would still be in need of something else. Worse, the means thus far employed to achieve equality have led to whole swathes of the population being bound to lives of dependent and depressive indolence. This may be true. But only the most blinkered of partisans could look at anti-capitalist policies like banning advertising or funding public news organizations or creating national parks and see only bloody-minded devotion to the welfare state.

Such dualism was understandable during the Cold War. For one thing, supporting capitalism became patriotic: we were the capitalists, they were the communists. Moreover, it became easy to equate anti-capitalism with bureaucracy. While there certainly exist insane versions of this, like Glenn Beck’s fantasy that Obama’s small step in the direction of universal health care is secretly the first step to the gulag, there is no doubt that the Soviet regime amounted to government by technocrats, whose attempt to plan out the economy was at best hubristic. Quite apart from its manifold inefficiencies, centrist bureaucracy is by nature insensitive to the local institutions dear to conservatives, those that take root and grow up organically. So for a time it made some sense for conservatives to man the libertarian barricades.

But no one believes in a planned economy any more. When it comes down to it, most anticapitalists now believe in the sort of regulated capitalism one finds in Scandinavia, where government intervenes only with the modest goal of making a country’s economy serve its citizens rather than the other way around. Rather than setting the price of bread, as the Soviets did, governments like the Swedish restrict themselves to sensible measures like enforcing paid paternity leave and minimum annual vacations. Such policies do not abolish capitalism; they merely limit its domain. They might be a hassle for employers, but they surely benefit the quintessential local, organic, traditional institution–the family. And they hardly constitute government by the bureaucracy.

Besides, bureaucracy was not invented by anti-capitalists. It began with the ancient empires of Egypt, Persia, Rome and China, and it necessarily accompanies most large institutions, from churches to armies to corporations. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’,” Ronald Reagan famously said. He must have led a sheltered existence, but in any case it is worth asking when this has ever happened to anyone. The closest most of us come to opaque, arbitrary and unwieldy bureaucracy is with insurance or telecommunications companies. The scariest nine words might actually be spoken by the faceless operatives of my far from local and earth-sprung health insurer: “I’m going to transfer you to the correct department.”

In a somewhat surprising article for the conservative periodical National Affairs, successor to Irving Kristol’s Public Interest, editor Yuval Levin recently tried to separate capitalism from colossal corporations. Capitalism is essentially a matter of small businesses striving to better serve their customers, Levin claims, an arrangement that brings prosperity and virtue to all:

Market players have a powerful incentive to consider what others will think of their actions, since they have to appeal to those others as customers. And the virtues most valued in sellers and buyers are precisely [the] moderate virtues: prudence and thrift, honesty and reliability, civility and good order …

The real enemy is government intervention, which props up bloated corporations and sustains “crony capitalism.” When put together with a welfare state that pampers the lazy, this “domestic policy in the age of Obama” prevents the market being what it naturally is, namely “a civilizing institution that instills the moderate virtues.” It is not exactly obvious that capitalism encourages self-discipline; Levin is forced to admit that “an economics of growth and an ethic of restraint make for an awkward match.” But in any case the notion that large inefficient corporations can exist only with government collusion is delusional. Monopoly and oligopoly spring up wherever large economies of scale are possible and the size of existing businesses makes it difficult for new ones to compete. In contrast it is precisely local, family-run businesses–tightly woven into the fabric of a community, passing discipline and prudence from father to son–which are the common casualties of capitalism, swept away by endless waves of cheaper goods.

When a family store goes under we blame “economic forces” as if there had been some kind of natural disaster. We think intervention would be unnatural, like old King Canute placing his throne on the beach and commanding the tide to halt. As Marx points out, however, even though the laws of capitalism do exist objectively in the sense that we cannot buck them–as a capitalist Joe has no choice but to increase productivity–that does not make them natural. They do not hold in tribal or feudal or monastic communities. Their objective reality is constituted by, and so dependent on, the institutions we have created and sustained–from the most basic transferrable property rights to the labyrinthine structure of interlocking laws and regulations undergirding our seemingly autonomous financial markets. To be truly conservative we would have to tame what we ourselves have let loose. Yet this seems a world away from the agenda of today’s conservatives. As John Stuart Mill lamented, “it is a melancholy truth, that if any measure were proposed, on any subject, truly, largely, and far-sightedly conservative, even if Liberals were willing to vote for it, the great bulk of the Conservative party would rush blindly in and prevent it from being carried.”

“I did not mean to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid,” explained Mill in a subsequent letter. “I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.” A neat insult for any Leftist to have up his sleeve, but it bears noting that Mill used “stupid” as something of a technical term. A good test for whether someone is stupid, he suggests, would be to see whether their thoughts on a given topic could be inferred from those of their social circle. How would today’s Leftists do by this standard?

If conservatives can be stupid by not taking Marx seriously, Leftists can be just as stupid by not taking conservatism seriously. Conservatives are all too often dismissed as nothing more than corporate hacks and tweed-jacketed prigs; as Mark Lilla has suggested, universities have become so hesitant to include them in surveys of canonical political thought that they now almost qualify for attention as a minority. But the Left has much to learn from thinkers like Burke and Gehlen. Take the way Irving Kristol challenges knee-jerk liberal permissiveness, for instance. It seems absurd at first, stuffy and moralistic. But why shouldn’t Leftists be concerned about pornography? Of course many are, but whereas feminists often put the argument in terms of oppression, the conservative stress on ideals is actually more native to the logic of anti-capitalist critique. To put it crudely, in capitalist society we judge governments by their impact on GDP, not well-being; everything gradually becomes oriented around the pursuit of money rather than the good life. The goal of anti-capitalism is to make our institutions foster the good life. But how can we understand what that even means–with respect to sex for instance–without understanding ourselves as beings who strain toward ideals like love and mutual respect?

As regards the pace of change, Leftists are already more conservative than they like to admit. When Margaret Thatcher termed British miners who resisted the destruction of their way of life “the enemy within,” it was she that was the radical and they the conservatives; economic efficiency was pitted against community, tradition and dignity. The same goes for the Iraq war: when Bush preached abstract notions of democracy, his opponents reminded him of the riskiness of messing with complex local cultures. Or the environment, for that matter: it doesn’t take a genius to realize that conservation is, well, conservative. There is nothing shameful about this conservatism. It simply follows from a commitment to think each case through on its own merits: if something is harmful or unjust, we should try to change it; but if something valuable is being destroyed, we should try to conserve it.

Consistency is the first virtue of thought, yet it is hard to find in political life. This is in part due to our tendency to avoid disagreement with friends and allies, as Mill suggests, a tendency only exacerbated by a fractured media landscape filled with partisan think tanks and journals that enable even intelligent people to cocoon themselves against opposing opinion. But circumstances change and in the end thought must change with them. To borrow an image from Marx, the Cold War has left today’s conservatives leading a double life, a heavenly one and an earthly one. With one hand they reach for the ideals of stability, virtue and self-restraint; with the other they prop up institutions that make a mockery of those ideals. As the specter of state socialism slips away, it becomes more and more obvious that true conservatives are anti-capitalist. Bizarre as the union may seem, embracing it may be the only way to avoid stupidity.


Jonny Thakkar is a founding editor of The Point. View all posts by Jonny Thakkar → This entry was posted in Economics, Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Tags: ,
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