Some people on the left believe that those on the right have no strong intellectual heritage, that right-wing politics is based on tradition, hierarchy and obedience, and has no need of theoretical backing. Others argue that right-wing thought, however intellectually substantive, is morally detestable and therefore not worth engaging with.
But the contributions of right-wing thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt and F. A. Hayek cannot be so easily dismissed. More academics on the left should read Hayek, in particular, when critiquing neoliberalism. Whether right-wing theory is morally detestable is more difficult to assess. While many of the central theorists were involved with destructive political regimes—Giovanni Gentile was a fascist and Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger and Oswald Spengler also supported the Nazis to varying degrees—most of these men’s political, historical and philosophical insights can be abstracted from the political choices that they made. Right-wing thinkers often touch on themes that are neglected by the left or write about them from a different vantage point.
In fact, some right-wing critiques of liberalism and capitalism can buttress arguments made by the left, even though they start from different premises.
Critiques of Capitalism and Liberalism
The criticisms of contemporary society made by left and right often overlap, particularly when they tackle the problem of the isolated, atomized and egocentric human subject.
Liberal thinkers tend to take certain views of human nature as axiomatic, and from these axioms they construct a view of the political realm. The state of nature myth that many classical liberal thinkers make use of encapsulates many of these views. For example, John Locke argues that
to understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
Locke based his political analysis on an idealized situation, in which each man is independent, free and self-sufficient. In the state of nature, according to Locke, men deal with each other by using natural law—a set of normative moral truths accessible to reason. This state of nature ends only when a given group agree “together mutually to enter into one community, and make one body politic.”
For Locke, men form societies—relinquishing the freedom of the state of nature for the restrictions of the body politic—to escape what he calls, drawing on Hobbes, the state of war.
The state of war emerges from within the state of nature when the dictates of natural law are flouted and human interaction degenerates as a result:
The state of war is a state of enmity and destruction … To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society.
The state of nature myth involves the following beliefs.
- The state of nature is a pre-political form of human interaction grounded in natural law.
- This form of interaction presupposes that each person engages with others as a self-sufficient, independent rational agent, motivated by self-interest.
- However, this form of interaction does not have a mechanism to deal with violence and settle disputes.
- Because of this deficiency, to avoid continual warfare groups of men band together in societies bound by explicitly codified human law.
The liberal idea of human nature not only influenced liberal politics (parliamentary negotiations, representative government, the peaceful transfer of power and the rule of law), but also liberal theories of free markets and economic organization. Adam Smith and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers connected liberal political institutions to prosperous free market economies via descriptive analyses of various nations and the wealth that they accumulated. These theorists found that the institutions of liberal societies limited the destruction that bad men could inflict on society. Undergirded by the principles of private property and contractual agreements, these institutions facilitated and motivated the self-interested pursuit of economic gain and channeled this pursuit in pro-social ways. The classical liberal philosophers and economists, then, started from an assumption that people are egotists, and found that liberal institutions and free markets are the best means available to limit the vices caused by man’s egotistical nature and redirect this self-centeredness towards constructive ends. This idea is expressed in Adam Smith’s image of an invisible hand and later—refurbished in a more Darwinian and conservative vein—in Hayek’s idea of the extended order.
However, there have been substantive criticisms of this idea of the relationship of human nature to liberalism.
Challenges to Liberalism: Marx and Deneen
The thesis of Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, is that liberalism is collapsing under its own internal contradictions. But Deneen is at his best not when he is trying to prove to us that liberalism has failed, but when he is showing us how it functions. While other systems of thought more explicitly showcase their ideological features, liberalism presents itself as a neutral system, a bland form of social organization that allows the disparate interests of individuals to be played off against each other. “In contrast to its crueler competitor ideologies,” Deneen writes, “liberalism is more insidious: as an ideology, it pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping the souls under its rule … It makes itself invisible, much as a computer’s operating system goes largely unseen—until it crashes.”
Liberalism presents itself as a descriptive system when it actually is a prescriptive one. Liberalism, then, is not only founded on the principle that the individual is the basic unit of political life, but seeks to incentivize people to behave in a manner concordant with that idea. This contradiction lays bare the normative aspect that has been at the core of liberalism from the very start. As Deneen argues:
One of the main goals of the expansion of commerce is the liberation of embedded individuals from their traditional ties and relationships. The liberal state serves not only the reactive function of umpire and protector of individual liberty; it also takes on an active role of “liberating” individuals who, in the view of the state, are prevented from making wholly free choices as liberal agents.
The expansion of global commerce and free markets dissolved the communal bonds and religious groups that nourished family life in the name of an individualism that was posited as a given and presented as a merely descriptive claim about the nature of the human condition. In fact, however, it was a normative and prescriptive claim about how humans should behave. Marx and Engels make a similar point in their Manifesto:
Constant revolutionising 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.
In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx also argues that labor alienation and the social systems connected with it are contingent and historically determined, rather than an intrinsic aspect of human organization. Marx also assumes that the human being produced by these conditions is contingent and hence that the isolated, non-social, egocentrism that liberalism takes as characteristic of human nature is actually the result of the liberal system, not the basis of it.
Marx and Deneen make the same point about how liberalism—or capitalism, for Marx—destroys human ties and perpetuates a destructive normative view of human nature disguised as a descriptive one, though Marx’s critique focuses on the mode of capitalist production, while Deneen’s is centered on liberalism’s ideological shortcomings.
Deneen’s cultural and ideological arguments, then, can supplement Marx’s economic ones. While the left tends to excel at analyzing and critiquing sociological and institutional structures, they are less good at understanding the cultural and social preconditions necessary for institutions to emerge and cohere at all. This is where right-wing cultural analysts like Yoram Hazony can be of use. Hazony makes a distinction between the philosophy of government and the philosophy of political order. The former presupposes the existence of the state and argues about the specific form government should take (aristocracy or oligarchy, with power be dispersed among the many or concentrated in the hands of the few, etc.). But the philosophy of political order must be considered before any philosophy of government can get off the ground. Hazony takes Locke and Hobbes to task for their idea that the individual is the basic unit of political reality and that there is a state of nature that predates the institutional state. Instead, Hazony argues, the state emerges from the most elementary social relationships—the family, tribe and clan—groups that are held together by mutual loyalty. What Hazony calls “the bonds of mutual loyalty that hold firmly in place an alliance of many individuals, each of whom shares in the suffering and triumphs of the others, including those they have never met” allows for the cohesion that is necessary if durable institutions are to be built.
The left often bemoans the fact that workers’ unions, civic life and institutions have declined and that the power of labor has weakened considerably over the last 60 years. But—caught between class reductionism and the base superstructure theory on the one hand and the essentializing tendency of some critical race theory on the other—leftists often lose sight of the fact that cultural and economic forces are intertwined. If we want to build powerful institutions to combat the excesses of neoliberalism, we will first need to create a culture of cohesion and self-sacrifice. The open question, of course, is whether this cohesion can be achieved while retaining a commitment to social and cultural leftism, with its belief in individual choice, nonconformity, eccentricity, self-expression and self-creation—but whether or not it can, the left must take these factors into consideration. By reading the writings of our right-wing opponents, we may gain the resources to address this question and many others.