Conservatism is the Battered Wife of Capitalism
And the Right better help her get out of there
The title says it all. Conservatism is the abused and battered wife of capitalism. Its allegiance to capitalism in the face of every piece of evidence capitalism opposes conservatism is deeply unfortunate. And so, if we want to understand the delusions that drive our society's politics, we have to deal with this big one.
The Three Core Delusions
1. Capitalism =/= Freedom
Perhaps one of the most pernicious lies is that capitalism = freedom while communism = slavery (or something like that). There is an immediate emotional appeal to "free markets":
Consider it a single point of failure: even if everyone is an idiot, chances are at least a few people will accidentally get something right and run successful firms so this colloquial “market economy” seems to beat a system where a small group of nerds (who may also be idiots and/or delusional) try to manage everything.
Of course, all this does is argue for an economy in which there are lots of buyers and sellers, where power and decision making isn't concentrated in monopolies, etc. It does not actually support this particular implementation of capitalism.
And so we need to understand the delusion of "Capitalism = Freedom" more thoroughly. It is incorrect on three main accounts:
Capitalism is established and enforced by the State. It is not "Natural"
The Sovereign (call it the State/Government/King/”The People”/etc., whatever gets the final say or ultimate deference in governance decisions) always establishes property norms, whether they be capitalistic, communistic, or something else entirely:
“The relation between property and sovereignty is contested. The protection of both persons and property are two core government functions. These functions come into conflict when the exercise of a property right harms others. How do we determine when that exercise is legitimately viewed as a self-regarding act that does not affect others, and when such an exercise does harm others and thus comes within the legitimate sphere of government regulation? Property norms help answer this question by orienting us in a moral universe through background understandings that define legitimate interests. Norms orient us, first, by telling us who is an owner with regard to any particular entitlement in a resource, and second, by telling owners when they are obligated to take into account the effects of their actions on others. In so doing, property norms define which externalities we must pay attention to and seek (if possible) to prevent.”
(from“How property norms construct the externalities of ownership”by Joseph Singer)
The Sovereign’s decision is based on the moral-political framework it believes is righteous, as Singer notes. There is nothing more or less free with Capitalism in that sense than with any other economic system. In every single one, the Sovereign establishes the norms necessary for the system to function. Similarly, rules and regulations of the system are also embedded in this moral-political background: they do not make a system “less free”; simply more or less Right.
Freedom of Association should not be limited to the rich
Freedom of association is, allegedly, one of the many goals of the "libertarian conservatives" (whether or not that is an oxymoron is up to the reader to judge). I don't think this is a particularly bad goal, and in fact I would argue it is probably (overall) a good thing; however, "conservatives" don't seem to take this very seriously. It's easy to understand why. The assumption is that FoA means the government can't restrict anyone from associating with anyone else. And while that sounds good on the surface, bear in mind: Laissez-Faire government doesn't mean the playing field is even; the power imbalances persist.
When a small set of businesses hold huge amounts of power, the rest of the economy has to play by their rules. "Coercion" is not simply a State phenomenon: it is a result of power imbalances, and these imbalances can result in the purely "private" realm (I will expand on these notions of public/private and coercion/consent at future points).
Let’s be honest here: our workplaces are tyrannies. They are. No one who genuinely holds freedom as a core value can defend the tyrannical nature of our jobs. We need to be able to have a say in our lives. In the same way that “No taxation without representation!” was a rallying cry during the revolution, we should apply the same principle to our workplaces. No longer should we suffer under the tyrannical reign of bosses and HR ladies.
I should not be concerned about being fired because I said the wrong thing on Facebook. My concerns should not get lost in a bureaucracy that rivals the DMV in dysfunction. I should not be forced to sit through programs that don’t make anyone less likely to rape or use slurs, and instead simply piss people off. Maybe we should treat the fact that so many people are unsatisfied with their jobs more seriously. In the same way that we must refuse to suffer under the tyranny of kafkaesque bureaucracies in government, we also should refuse to suffer under them in the corporate world.
So-Called "Freedom" simply hides the coercion
Freedom does not exist when material power is concentrated and decision making is formally distributed to the people
Freedom exists when material power is distributed
So when we talk about “economic freedom", what do we mean? It seems to be "free association" but this particular implementation of capitalism doesn't seem to even do that very well (see above). So is there any further defense of it? And does that defense hold up to criticism? I will argue the only clear other defense (negative rights) does not hold up to scrutiny.
Hayek attempts to argue that Capitalism provides negative freedom, first and foremost. But there is no real distinction between negative and positive freedoms, and his own claims are insufficient to defend these. In fact, as Lafollette puts it,
Therefore, to introduce negative general rights and duties, as the libertarian does, is to admit that there are non-consensual limitations on freedom. And these limits — as I argued — are sometimes significant and far-reaching. They arise — and this is crucial — without consent; each person has them simply because he is a person. Now if one’s freedom can be limited without consent by negative rights, then it is unreasonable to hold that these are the only limitations on freedom which can legitimately arise without consent. This is particularly apparent when we realize that in a number of cases the limitations on freedom imposed by negative duties are more — even much more — than limitations which would be imposed if some claims of positive rights or duties were recognized.
(from “Why Libertarianism is Mistaken” by Hugh LaFollette)
And "Exit" is not a viable response to this. Any ideology built around "Exit" would need an economic system significantly distinct from what we call "capitalism" today.
…The other mechanism, “Exit”, involves ensuring that there is a free market of diverse polities so that folks are all equally free to “vote with their feet”. The only large-scale government allowed will have the sole purpose of ensuring the superman this universal equal freedom to choose the kind of society he wants to live in from the free market of available societies.
Setting aside the ludicrous positivism involved in thinking that civilizations are the kind of thing that can be designed…
(from “Exit or Voice, or, do you prefer your liberalism grape or cherry?” by ZippyCatholic)
In the face of a steep decline in the power of organized labor and the defunding and defanging of federal regulatory agencies, options for American workers to highlight corporate abuses — without risking their job or reputation — are extremely limited. In the choice between exit and voice, most people just try to find a different job, or voice their concerns by griping to their coworkers rather than confronting their boss. This leaves rotten practices and people in place, perpetuating abuse and malfeasance.
(From“Corporations Would Literally Kill You to Turn a Profit”by Nicole Aschoff in Jacobin)
So, if we simply take "freedom of association" to be a good, we can't even say that the "capitalism" we live under does a good job of providing this. Yes, in any system you will be limited by material realities and necessities to some degree. But it is clear that this system we live under does far more to limit freedom of association than it claims. Instead, it is a deeply coercive system. If we want this to end, we need a system of local and small-scale ownership. We need unified incentive structures.
Ultimately, anything that doesn't distribute ownership to the people (and not to some abstraction or representation of the People but to individuals and families, etc.) will lead to immiseration.
2. Capitalism opposes Tradition, the Family, Religion, etc.
Let us make something clear:
A society animated by capitalist principles would find scant value in goods that cannot be monetized and commercially exchanged.
These are not the words of a progressive, but an avowed conservative.
And if you don't take my word for it, perhaps you should take Adam Smith's, who notes in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that "in the languor of disease and the weariness of old age", people repudiate the illusions of wealth and greatness. Perhaps it is no mistake that Smith's insight comes from his focus on those who approach their end, to whom many cultures turn to discern the meaning of life. This anti-materialistic insight has been lost on the vulgar productivists who call themselves capitalists and the religious adherents of egalitarianism who seem entirely pre-occupied with the distribution of material goods.
Ultimately, capitalism and its insatiable pursuit of profit will devour anything it cannot commodify and replace it with a commodified alternative. The immaterial goods of family, love, belonging, community, etc. can be shared without being diminished (unlike material goods). In fact, the "value" of a community frequently increases as the community itself grows (up to a point).
Capitalism takes one of two approaches towards these goods that make life worth living: either it doesn't care about them (and will therefore toss them away the moment it can institute a commodified alternative with a sufficient rate of return), or it openly despises them."Woke Capital" is a thing for a reason. "Get Woke, Go Broke" is a massive cope from losers. You are either a number in a spreadsheet to these people or you are an enemy to be bulldozed. Businesses are not your friend.
3. Capitalism isn't inherently Good
First, we need to understand that criticism of "capitalism" can mean many different things. It can generally fit into one of three categories:
Criticism of some particular aspect of capitalism
Criticism of this particular implementation of capitalism
Criticism of capitalism as a mode of production/full system
The first is important to keep in mind, because many times people will claim some critique is "anti-business" or "anti-capitalist" when it is really "anti-management"/"anti-executive" and may even be good for capitalism writ large:
The second and third go somewhat hand in hand because they relate to how we define capitalism.
A very basic and short definition (in line with some "marxist" thought I have been exposed to, although some marxist will certainly roast me for getting it wrong) might go something like this: A system in which there are classes that own elements of the means of production (capital and land) and another class (labourers) that must sell their labor to these owner classes in order to survive. Production is driven by the profit motive, with competition to move capital to the pursuits and enterprises that generate the most profit.
Of course, such a definition can describe a wide variety of implementations. Whether or not we have a Federal Reserve does not determine whether our system is capitalist or feudalist (although I'm certain some Ron Paul supporter will disagree). So one can criticize a particular implementation (broader than just "this industry should be regulated more") or one can reject the entire apparatus. I tend towards the former (for the many reasons above along with the reasons I will describe in a moment).
The further issue with capitalism in its current implementation is that it does not necessarily guarantee any kind of social good. If markets trend towards some state of "pareto-efficiency" (a situation in which no person can be made better off without someone else being made worse off), we have a problem:
Pareto-efficiency, by definition, is not equal to what is socially optimal. Considering, as we have discussed, that all economic systems are embedded in a moral framework (who deserves what, etc), Pareto-efficiency fails as a guiding metric.
Pareto-efficiency can be reached at almost any distribution of income, including ones where one person has everything and no one else has anything. And again, since all economic systems must be based on an ethical principle, pareto-efficiency is as nonsensical a concept in economics as the concept of “liberty” is in politics.
“Slavery was widely seen in the North as being unethical from a deontological perspective, but a policy alternative of ending slavery would make slave owners worse off than under the status quo, and thus would have failed the Pareto efficiency criterion” (Hackett, 2001: 26)
The issue that remains, of course, is that "would we have been okay with slavery if it benefitted the GDP?" In a broader point of view, are there ethical principles outside the pursuit of profit and market efficiency that must guide how we approach markets? Of course, a market is a structure. A structure that is (at least in part) constructed by the Sovereign (as we discussed above). And this is done based on ethical principles outside the market. Do not confuse what is efficient with what is good. GDP measures everything that doesn't matter in life:
Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all.
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
Why Does This Matter?
I am no right-winger. It wouldn't be fair to call me a conservative either. Outside of a few particular positions, I align with much of the Left on economic and social issues, as many of my readers who have known me for years will know.
"So why are you writing this?"
I am writing this because I see something deeply unsettling: the Left has fallen prey to its own delusions, and is no home for me. What I intend to do, what I would love to see happen, is to inspire a vigorous Right and "real Left" (if such a thing ever existed) to challenge the dominant system of Rainbow Neoliberalism and Blue Empire that we face today.
Because right now, the reanimated corpse of conservatism is being paraded around by a bunch of corporate bootlickers who take just as much pride in violating the corpse as they do in making money.
It is time for the Right to fight for something worth fighting for. Not the "privilege" to devote your life to a meaningless middle management job where you spend 40 hours a week working and 10 hours a week commuting. Where you are too physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day to even enjoy your free time. Where you miss out on your kids' birthdays and you and your spouse grow apart because you haven't had the time to go on a date night in 6 years. 30,000 years of human civilization and this is what we've reached. Truly remarkable.
And this isn't just me calling out the Right. Trust me, I have an entire piece devoted to the Left for Friday. At least the Right I can say I have maintained some modicum of hope for over the past couple years. The Left is a cesspool of nothing. So, anyways...
Darren Beattie argued that the Right will not stop losing until it decides to fight for its beliefs with the same kind of fervor that the progressives fight for theirs. Ultimately this means articulating what it means to live a good life, and then building the structures that support and incentivize people to live that good life. Look, I understand the whole "bootstraps" culture. But if you genuinely believed that everyone should take responsibility for themselves, maybe you would actually be supporting the construction of institutions and societal structures to help people get there. You should be building structures that demand people take responsibility.
And here we reach another pernicious delusion: that the government should just "stay out of things." Of course, this is utter nonsense and completely impossible. No one and no thing, no individual and no State, can "do nothing". The Sovereign constructs and enforces the laws of the realm, including the rules within the economic realm. The State "staying out of things" just hands power over to the most powerful actors in the economic realm. And I sure hope you aren't still a corporate bootlicker by the end of this piece, but I think it suffices to say this plan is a stupid idea.
So, I can't tell you what to believe. But I hope that I have demonstrated to you by the end of this that "capitalism" is no friend of yours. I do believe there are particular implementations of capitalism, bounded by respect for families, communities, etc. that can avoid many of these issues, and foster true human flourishing. I will be expanding on this version of capitalism at a future time (since it should be clear replacing capitalism with "communism" is...well...yeah).
I will likely continue to spar with the Right even if it understands capitalism hates it. But I look forward to that sparring. Right now, fighting an enemy with two hands tied behind its back is not any kind of honorable combat.
It's time for the Right to make a choice: fight for something worth fighting for, or roll over and give up.
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