Capitalism: The Conservative Illusion


—“If a temple is to be erected, a temple must be destroyed.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

When the Cold War ended in 1991, American conservatives rejoiced over the triumph of democratic capitalism, which had struggled for over half a century, first against the rise of fascism, and then against the Soviet bloc and the specter of global communism.  The collapse of the Soviet state seemed irrefutable proof that laissez-faire economics was destined, by the “invisible hand” that guides human history, to become an engine of liberty and prosperity that would encircle the globe and generate a new era of peace and stability—a vindication, if you will, of the historical optimism of Adam Smith and the endless stream of his disciples (in North America, at least), whose enthusiasm over Smithian theodicy sometimes resembled the frenzied gyrations of Pentecostal snake charmers.  The rise of the Asian Tigers and the stupendous productivity of Chinese capitalism seemed further vindication, though the cheerleaders for global capital were notably reluctant to concede that these economic “miracles” had little to do with laissez-faire doctrines and a great deal to do with the fact that American workers were bearing the brunt of mounting trade deficits, even as American consumers (those who still had decent jobs) glutted themselves on cheap Asian goods.  Meanwhile, giddy with their confidence in American “exceptionalism,” large sectors of the right and neoliberal left supported efforts to “grow” democratic-capitalist regimes in far-flung corners of the globe—efforts that have been almost uniformly disastrous, but which have been enormously profitable for companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon.

Today, more than five years after the end of the Great Recession, our “recovery” is not encouraging.  Sharp declines in real household incomes have shattered the middle class, which is shrinking with each passing year.  Official unemployment figures are meaningless, since according to the most recent estimates some 94 million Americans of working age have slipped out of the labor force altogether.  When our current Republican hopefuls promise us that “growth” will solve the problem, they fail to note that for some time now most of the new jobs (some 70 percent) being produced have been low-paying retail and service jobs, or part-time jobs.  They and their corporate backers sing the praises of free trade but fail to explain how lowering corporate taxes will bring back the millions of good manufacturing jobs outsourced overseas.  According to Working America (affiliated with the AFL-CIO), between 1998 and 2008 alone, over 51,000 plants were moved overseas, a trend that has only accelerated.  In 1979 American manufacturing interests employed nearly 20 million workers; today that figure has been reduced by half.  In the industries that remain, a tidal wave of cheap immigrant labor, legal and illegal, has driven down wage levels and eliminated health benefits.  Additionally, the accelerating turn toward robotics and computerization means a loss not only of repetitive, assembly-line jobs but of white-collar office jobs, as well.  The defenders of machine-driven streamlining of the workplace argue that job losses of this kind are “compensated” by a number of positive effects.  A few years ago, addressing the Council on Foreign Relations, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson rhapsodized over the technology revolution, calling it the greatest thing since “electrification and the internal combustion engine.”  Asked about the resultant job losses, Mr. Stephenson said not to worry.  The jobs aren’t really lost, “it’s just a redeployment of those . . . opportunities.”  Concealed by such militaristic jargon is a scenario that is becoming all too common for American workers.  Automation slashes jobs, but creates some new ones that require a higher or, at least, a different skill set.  It’s all just part of the process of “creative destruction.”  If you show a little initiative, take advantage of your local, lottery-subsidized community college, and acquire the necessary new skills, you have a reasonable chance of being “redeployed” in one of the new jobs—only it will probably require that you uproot your family and move halfway across the country.  If you are lucky in your new job, it may be another ten years before further advances in robotics eliminate that position as well, or you will simply be replaced by a foreign worker with an L1B visa and forced to train him before you find yourself back in the unemployment line.

American conservatives ceaselessly chatter about the importance of preserving the family.  However, don’t healthy families require something more than regular paychecks and cheap housing?  Don’t families require homes, dwellings rooted in local communities over generations?  Don’t families require local networks of kinship and established traditions and institutions upon which to rely?  Ah, but isn’t that what Facebook is for?  We can all stay in touch today, no matter the distance.  We have iPhones, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, Instagram, and Snapchat.  Have we ever been more “connected”?  That’s the logic of capitalism: More technology will solve the problem technology created.  Or, more accurately, the new electronic technology does not “solve” the problem; it dissolves it by offering us simulacra to replace the real.  Strictly speaking, we are no longer consumers; we are the consumed.  Indeed, the problem runs much deeper than economic deprivation or dislocation.  The natural family, even when it remains intact, has in effect been colonized by market forces.  The ancient complementarity between husband and wife is destroyed or attenuated when women are drawn out of the home and into the marketplace by economic necessity, or because capitalism wedded to egalitarian fantasies of individual autonomy persuades us to believe that everyone finds his true “worth” only in the economic sphere.  That great feminist Friedrich Engels argued back in the 19th century that complete emancipation for women would never occur until women were fully integrated in the “public workplace.”  Efforts to implement his advice in the Soviet Union produced rather mixed results.  Today, capitalism is accomplishing that goal more impressively.  Moreover, the fecundity of marriage is stripped away when parents begin to realize that, as the traditional idea of the household (oikos) as a center of economic production withers away, children become an obstacle to the unfettered consumption of luxury goods.  But even those couples who find some “use-value” in children face an uphill battle: The primordial bond between parents and their offspring is subverted when children are encouraged from infancy by an unrelenting deluge of advertising to regard the authority of parents as an imposition upon their quest for authentic “identity.”  Indeed, growing up in America has become little more than an extended “identity crisis,” a condition that generates billions for the manufacturers of fantasy and desire—especially the fashion, film, and gaming industries.  Little wonder that by the time they reach college, the young are easy prey for political organizers eager to persuade them that any hint of disapproval or judgment is a form of “micro-aggression.”

Most astonishing about the ideological version of conservatism these days is its almost complete blindness to the revolutionary nature of capitalism.  Social conservatives, most of whom are presumably sympathetic to our Christian moral inheritance, should gaze with a somewhat more disenchanted eye upon the claims of those who defend the transnational corporate regime that holds us all hostage to the law of creative destruction.  This term, first introduced into American economic discourse in the 1940’s by the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, gained a good deal of traction in the boom years of the 1990’s and continues to underwrite the theory of the “entrepreneur,” another Schumpeterian notion.  Properly understood, the law of creative destruction reveals the essentially neopagan core of late-modern capitalism (and, perhaps, what it always was in embryo).  In its least malign meaning, creative destruction refers simply to the incessant structural and technological change that drives the capitalist dynamo and its universally acknowledged capacity for innovation and production.  Yet this “essential fact” about capitalism also extends to the quest for new markets, which, in the consumer economy, requires the stimulation of new desires that can emerge only out of the destruction of old identities, differences, loyalties, mores, traditions, and territories—in short, the death of everything that conservatives claim to hold dear.  As Schumpeter recognized with some apprehension (unlike his latter-day votaries), “The capitalist process, in much the same way it destroyed the institutional framework of feudal society, undermines its own.”  This is the Nietzschean nihilism lurking just behind the veil of Smithian providentialist optimism.

As Hugo and Erik Reinert have recently argued, the concept of creative destruction came to Schumpeter by way of the German economist Werner Sombart, who drew inspiration from both Marx and Nietzsche.  Creative destruction in Nietzsche’s work is not an economic idea but a philosophical one, though texts like The Genealogy of Morals are littered with economic metaphors.  This idea embraces several precepts that are profoundly anti-Christian.  It assumes a neopagan vision of history, at once cyclical but progressive, one in which new cultural moral paradigms emerge out of the destruction of the old.  Creation is always a product of destruction.  But the human role in this process is not, in Nietzsche’s work, a passive one.  He envisioned in Thus Spake Zarathustra a new world order in which the direction of history is no longer entrusted to the will of God but captive to the will of the “noble man,” the predecessor of the Übermensch.  The noble man is a self-created man, one who, as the Reinerts note, “must take responsibility for who he is, for creating himself and his own laws.”  Or, as Nietz sche himself put it, “You must wish to consume yourself in your own flame; how could you wish to become new unless you had first become ashes!”  This destruction of the old self has nothing in common with Christian self-denial; it is, rather, an act of self-divinization.  Moreover, it is an assertion of the will to power, a will to transgress in “creative” fashion the inherited moral order, especially the weak and “decadent” Christian order.  Nietzsche’s postmodernist defenders argue that he was not fundamentally a nihilist, since he strove to make way for a new world and a new morality, one in which a thousand flowers of cultural “difference” would blossom, one that would exalt the creative will of the individual liberated from repressive, universal norms.  And this is indeed what capitalism, the great enabler and midwife of the self-created man, is rapidly bringing to birth.  Is this not the underlying reason why feminists and an army of erstwhile leftists have made their peace with capitalism?  Is it so surprising that our “community organizers” and the enlightened CEOs of major transnational corporations like Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Starbucks, and hundreds more have joined hands to endorse homosexual unions and transgender rights?  The postmodernists are both right and wrong.  A new order is upon us, but its creative drive is at once Faustian and sterile.  By way of the banal alchemy of the marketplace, the emergent Übermensch looks more like Mark Zuckerberg than like anything imagined by Nietz sche’s Zarathustra.  Look around.  America in the 21st century is teeming with self-created men and women, each a law unto himself, each a little god recognizing no other god but himself.  According to the apostles of untrammeled economic liberty, this ongoing process of creative destruction should result in harmonic convergence, a social realm in which the pursuit of “private vices” produces a transcendent public good.  This is more than questionable.  To any sane observer, social “order” in America today might best be described as a state of barely contained anarchy.  The obscene spectacle of Black Friday is surely a metaphor for our current trajectory.  If this is not nihilism, what is?

None of these reflections should be construed as an attack on economic liberty.  However, if the object of conservatism is to defend the natural order and a deeply rooted moral tradition, then the market can never be allowed to become the dominant force in society, as it manifestly has in America over recent decades.  Of course, the “incorporation” of America dates back at least to the 1860’s, and, as numerous historians with no particular ax to grind have documented, that process was abetted by the central state; indeed, the incorporation of American business was part and parcel of the centralization of power in America—a lesson learned by Southerners early on.  To be sure, principled conservatives are justified in their attacks on the Beltway Leviathan.  As that great conservative thinker Robert Nisbet argued in The Quest for Community, the central state was the most potent of revolutionary forces in modern history.  It was not capitalism that gave birth to the “individual” (understood as a legal entity and an abstract “subject” of power), but the state that liberated him from the pervasive (and sometimes oppressive) intermediary institutions of the medieval order.  Yet once the state had curtailed or contained those institutions (consider, for example, its subjugation of the power of the Church), capitalism played an increasingly important role in curbing and disciplining the dangerous desires of the now-unfettered individual.  What Nisbet did not fully foresee is how rapidly the “discipline” of the capitalist regime would be undone by its own inherent contradictions, or how invasive the power of the state would become once its “citizens” had been transformed into passive and sullen consumers whose sense of entitlement is by now unbridled and voracious.

Today, we have reached the tipping point.  Our masters in Washington ever more brazenly flaunt their contempt for the atavistic loyalties that still persist in the Heartland.  The threat of an incoherent populist revolt from the right merely plays into their hands, affording them even wider scope for surveillance and control—a strategy in which corporate America is all too happy to assist.  Our only hope lies not in a deluded nationalism but in radical decentralization—not a return to “states’ rights” but the cultural and economic secession of local communities, cities, and regions against the parasitic power of corporate and bureaucratic elites.  When the Lega Lombarda was formed in Northern Italy in the 12th century, the Italian communes (self-governing city-states) asserted their “sacred right” of self-determination against the overweening extension of the power of the Germanic imperium.  Those city-states—Milan, Genoa, Padua, Venice, and a host of others—flourished for two glorious if often turbulent centuries.  We would do well to learn from their example.