From industrial revolution to globalization


Conservatives Against Capitalism: From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization, by Peter Kolozi (Columbia University Press, 264 p., $ 60)

IIn the United States, many equate conservatism with capitalism, and not without reason. Libertarianism, after all, was a pillar of the postwar conservative intellectual movement; academics from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman influenced conservative thinking on free markets. In addition, the Republican Party has long touted itself as an advocate of small government and fiscal responsibility, unlike Democrats’ membership in big government. Many conservatives argue that capitalism, freedom and prosperity are inextricably linked.

The relationship between conservatism and capitalism, however, is complex. Capitalism is not particularly conservative, at least if conservatism is defined as a preference for order, continuity and organic change. Over the past two centuries, capitalism has radically transformed the world, often uprooting traditional communities and lifestyles in the process. As might be expected, therefore, many conservative thinkers have expressed their opposition to capitalism.

In Conservatives against capitalism, Peter Kolozi offers an excellent overview of American conservatives who have criticized the free market economy. His account covers a wide range of thinkers: 19th century pro-slavery intellectuals, Agrarians of the South, populists like Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th century, “new conservatives” of the 1950s and 1960s, neoconservatives of the 1970s and paleoconservatives of the 1990s. and early 2000s. Although a man on the left, Kolozi’s treatment of conservative intellectuals is fair and judicious, a serious work of intellectual history.

As Kolozi shows, conservatives have opposed capitalism for a variety of reasons, from fear of how it might undermine cherished hierarchies, to fears that it will destroy local communities or concentrate power in the hands of the rich. His discussion of the conservatives of the Old South is particularly fascinating. Pre-Civil War conservatives like John C. Calhoun, George Fitzhugh, and James Henry Hammond believed slavery was morally superior to capitalism, in part because slave owners had to take care of their workers. In contrast, the owners of capitalist factories were only responsible for paying wages to their workers. As Kolozi explains, Fitzhugh and Hammond “contrasted what they saw as social decadence and class conflict in the capitalist north with an idealized view of order, community and mutual respect set in the slave plantations of the South ruled by the benevolent and paternalistic hand of the slave. owner. “

Such an interpretation seems wrong, given the excruciating violence that supported slavery, but Kolozi rightly cautions against ignoring or rejecting it, reminding us that slavery apologists were hardly figures. marginal in the Old South. Calhoun, for example, was secretary of state and vice president, and Hammond was governor and US senator in South Carolina. It is important to understand their ideas.

Kolozi gives a brief overview of the left-right distinction. The left, he says, sees inequalities as socially generated, which implies that they can be alleviated or eradicated through political struggle. The right, for its part, “believes that these inequalities are natural and that society only reflects natural inequalities”. It is true that the Conservatives tend to accept certain forms of social inequality. But Kolozi thinks they see inequality as a fundamental characteristic of a good society, and that conservatism can be reduced to a single belief: “A world of excellence requires inequality, hierarchy and the power of some. to dominate and control others ”. The Conservatives are united in this conviction, he said. “Conservatism,” he writes near the end of the book, “is about the freedom and ability of some people to dominate, control and extricate themselves from others.

Nothing in its previous pages, much less in the canon of conservative thought, justifies this conclusion. If the Conservatives aim to allow some people to dominate others, that would be easy to prove; one could choose any conservative theorist and discover the apology for domination in his writings. And yet, Kolozi himself speaks of conservatives who believe not in domination, but in its opposite. He cites, for example, the efforts of conservatives such as Ross Douthat and David Brooks to craft policies aimed at increasing social mobility in the United States, which hardly reflects a desire to dominate others.

Kolozi’s misunderstanding likely stems from a hypothesis he shares with Corey Robin, another scholar of conservative thought. Robin sees conservatism as counter-revolutionary, or as an ideological reaction to revolutionary political projects. As a man on the left, Robin sympathizes with revolutionaries, seeing them as fighters for liberation. Like Kolozi, he assumes that those who oppose revolutionaries must oppose liberation. In The reactionary spirit, Robin says what the Conservatives oppose is “minus the betrayal of the [emancipatory] postulate that its fulfillment. In other words, when conservatives see a revolution, they don’t fear what will happen if it fails; they fear what will happen if it succeeds.

This interpretation ignores, or ignores, how conservative thinkers sought to discredit revolutionary theory. Conservatives have historically warned of the likely consequences of making utopia a reality. Edmund Burke, for example, not only opposed the political philosophy of the French revolutionaries but also the destruction they caused. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, he wrote:

[The revolutionaries] found their punishment in their success. Laws rescinded; subverted courts; industry without vigor; expiring trade; unpaid income, but the people impoverished; a pillaged church and an unrelieved state; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom. . . Were all of these horrible things necessary? . . . No! Nothing like. The fresh ruins of France, which shock our feelings wherever we can turn our eyes, are not the ravages of civil war; they are the sad but instructive monuments of reckless and ignorant counsel in times of deep peace.

Burke was troubled by France’s revolutionary descent into chaos. Much of his accusation against revolutionaries was guided by concern for the consequences of their actions. His argument – that toppling society in the name of liberation leads to unimaginable suffering – was echoed by later conservatives facing revolution in their day. Roger Scruton, for example, wrote of Marxist socialism: “The theory is incredible, the predictions wrong and its legacy appalling. And historian Robert Conquest writes in Reflections on a ravaged century: “One can affirm that Marx, and the first theorists of the revolution like Rousseau, did not envisage the terror of mass, still less the totalitarian state. They were perhaps rather such ideologues proposing inaccessible utopias; and any attempt to put them into practice being possible only by such means. By making a connection between utopian ideologies and the resulting terror, Conquest does not declare itself an opponent of freedom and emancipation, or a defender of oppression and domination. He simply underlines what he considers to be the murderous link between revolutionary theory and revolutionary violence: “The revolutionary believed that it was in the nature of things that dictatorship and terror were necessary if the good of humanity was to be achieved. be served. Kolozi and Robin fail as historians when they reject conservatism as a simple justification for hierarchical domination.

Fortunately, however, Kolozi’s misinterpretations don’t spoil much. Conservatives against capitalism. They appear as a nuisance in his introduction, and again in his conclusion, but mostly disappear in the clever and insightful commentary that makes up the bulk of his book. The book would have been even stronger if Kolozi had admitted the possibility that the conservatives are capable of humanitarian sentiments.

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Estelle D. Eden