There’s recently been an unexpected growth of anti-capitalist sentiment in conservative circles. The relationship between capitalism and conservatism is not as harmonious as many suppose. Conservatives embraced libertarian economics largely because, following World War II, free markets seemed like the only valid alternative to the failing model of the Soviet Union, and a prerequisite to countering the threat of socialism. In the second half of the twentieth century, enthusiasm for small government came to be seen as one of the core ideological principles of conservatism.
But the marriage between conservatives and libertarians—known as fusionism—is not as inevitable as it might seem. For example, while libertarians think liberty is about permitting completely free trade in goods and services, traditional Christians think of freedom as power over our own desires—something that can only be achieved through personal discipline. Libertarian capitalism, in which value is defined as simply a function of supply and demand, is directly hostile to principles like self-mastery, one of conservatism’s chief moral values. Given capitalism’s ingenious capacity to transform human desires into products, and its proclivity to commercialize everything, it would be foolish to believe that free markets can help us conserve traditional values. Such things as abstinence and renunciation of pleasure are only made more difficult by consumerism. In other words, libertarian economics—according to the conservative view—makes people less free, by allowing them to more easily satisfy their desires.
Even Karl Marx appreciated capitalism’s transformative capacity. As George Will writes in this piece from the early 1980s, “Marx got one thing right: capitalism undermines traditional social structures and values; it is a relentless engine of change, a revolutionary inflamer of appetites, enlarger of expectations, diminisher of patience.” See, for example, the enthusiastic support many progressive causes currently enjoy among the American corporate world, a phenomenon known as woke capitalism. Will argues: “The Republican platform stresses two themes … One is cultural conservatism, the other is capitalist dynamism. The latter dissolves the former. Republicans see no connection between the cultural phenomena they deplore, and the capitalist culture they promise to intensify.” The GOP takes a far from laissez-faire approach to economics, yet the party is still prone to confuse any critique of capitalism with a leftist plot. But, if it weren’t for capitalism’s tendency to conserve certain hierarchical social structures, a glance at its contemporary cultural effects could lead one to think it had been designed as an antidote to conservatism itself.
In his April 2019 debate with Jordan Peterson on Marxism vs Capitalism, Slavoj Zizek argues that, “What the alt-right obsession with cultural Marxism expresses is the reluctance to confront the fact that the phenomena that they criticize as a Marxist plot—moral degradation, sexual promiscuity, consumerist hedonism—are outcomes of the immanent dynamic of capitalist societies.” The debate exposes the problematic expectations surrounding any discussion of capitalism—”one is expected to serve either as an avatar of Western liberal order or a defender of the Soviet Union, as if it were still the year 1972,” as Christian O’Brien puts it—and highlights the way in which conservatives tend to rely on a dogmatic defence of free markets. Peterson has never hidden his support for traditional values and his disdain for Marxist ideology. But, in his attempts to combat dangerous ideas, such as the communist abolition of private property, and the notion that government should seize the means of production, Peterson often reduces his analysis to the lowest possible level of resolution—adopting the kind of binary view of economics characteristic of TPUSA. The claim that we must continue to support free markets because of the shortcomings of The Communist Manifesto is simplistic and fails to address modern concerns about free markets.
One of the few social conservatives who has publicly discussed such issues is Fox News host Tucker Carlson. In January 2019, in one of a series of anti-capitalist segments, he argued: “Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion … We do not exist to serve markets. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.” Although a libertarian like Ben Shapiro might reasonably object that the relationship between the cultural fabric of society and its economic system is not as clearly defined as Tucker claims, it is becoming harder and harder to believe that the decline of religion, and of the institution of marriage, the suicide epidemics and the opiate crisis are completely unrelated to capitalism. “We are living through the healthiest, wealthiest, best-educated and most abundant time in history,” Tony Morley recently argued in Quillette, in a piece called “Reasons to be Hopeful,” which reads like a summary of Jordan Peterson’s opening statement at the Capitalism vs Marxism debate. Although free-market capitalism has made every human being on the planet richer than ever before, to reduce well-being to per capita GDP, as the author does, is not that different from saying that the only things one needs are a job, a nice apartment, and a car. Peterson, who has spent most of his career warning people against the dangers of rational materialism, should know better.
Ben Shapiro and other mainstream conservatives are right to object that populists like Tucker Carlson lack proof of their claims, but wrong to dismiss any criticism of capitalism as either part of the Marxist worldview or an attempt to instill socialism. Social conservatives like Carlson do not oppose the core principles of the free market, such as the individual right to private property, but its intrinsic tendency to allow the most opportunistic to take advantage of the excesses of freedom itself, once elevated to the highest value (see Carlson’s critique of vulture capitalist Paul Singer). Some members of the Republican establishment seem blind to capitalism’s possible effects on the population. As a result, many are turning to candidates like Andrew Yang, whose campaign is predicated on “solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place.” Unlike the rest of the Democratic Party and the modern left—who are busy playing identity politics—Yang’s main concern, like Carlson’s, is the excesses of unregulated free markets. Yang’s proposed Universal Basic Income, an alternative to the welfare state, previously endorsed by libertarian economist Milton Friedman, is designed to tackle the threat of massive job losses among the American working class. It therefore resonates with many social conservatives, who wouldn’t hesitate to prevent innovation if it meant preserving the stability of millions of American families. When Ben Shapiro asked Carlson if he’d ban driverless cars, for example, Tucker answered, “In a second.”
The potential dangers of automation are perhaps one of the main reasons for the current split within the conservative movement. In the face of unprecedented technological progress, many conservatives are starting to wonder: what’s conservative about risking putting millions of citizens out of work, just so that a company can find a cheaper way to provide transport? Given capitalism’s nauseating endorsement of intersectional progressivism, many on the right are beginning to view it not as a tool of economic growth, but a force for destruction. The big government vs. small government dichotomy is beginning to seem outdated. After all, the sole purpose of limiting government interference in the first place was to prevent any one group of people from having too much influence over the country. So, how can allowing a group of tech entrepreneurs to remain free to swing elections—using their private property—be seen as a defence of small government? For social conservatives, Silicon Valley’s market freedoms seem like an unnecessary burden. Liberty is a noble principle: but what if the consequences of defending harms the very people it was designed to protect?
Identifying where to draw the line will be tricky. The degree to which the government should interfere in the economy requires careful consideration. However, to depict every attempt to weaken the free market as an attack on human freedom itself is to create a false dichotomy. As Zizek argues:
In our daily lives, we pretend to desire things which we do not really desire, so that ultimately the worst thing that can happen is to get what we officially desire … Human life of freedom and dignity does not consist just in searching for happiness, no matter how much we spiritualize it, or in the effort to actualize our inner potentials. We have to find some meaningful cause beyond the mere struggle for pleasurable survival. However … Since we live in a modern era, we cannot simply refer to an unquestionable authority to confer a mission or task on us. Modernity means that yes, we should carry the burden, but the main burden is freedom itself.
The conversation between libertarians, neo-cons and social conservatives often seems to revolve around the meaning of the word freedom. If Ben Shapiro and other neoliberal pundits want to convince social conservatives that capitalism is the right way forward, they will have to abandon simplistic TPUSA mantras, such as capitalism is the greatest economic system ever invented, and start addressing some of capitalism’s contemporary repercussions and philosophical implications—rather than simply claiming the moral high ground for having debunked its most dysfunctional alternative. Otherwise, we will be left with an increasingly atomized right, free to continue to fight over what it means to be free.