An Imaginary Conservatism: The Realists vs. the RomanticsBy John Médaille for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Reprinted from Ethika Politika
Michael Hannon has made a serious attempt to deal with the disputes between the “capitalist” and “anti-capitalist” conservatives, and such a serious attempt deserves a serious response. Since I am mentioned in the article, it behooves me to respond as the “anti-capitalist” in this debate, recognizing of course that I speak only for myself and not for any other “anti-capitalist.”
Mr. Hannon’s article ends with the declaration that the anti-capitalists are “dead wrong,” but the grounds for this conclusion are not precisely clear to me. At one point he says, “All our best and brightest who are actually affecting the direction of our society on a large scale, even amongst Catholics, are capitalists!” And it seems, we do not spend enough time running for office or lobbying on “The Hill.” This is all true, but it hardly suffices to establish the error of the “anti-capitalists.” He finds anti-capitalist too abstract and insufficiently engaged with “rubber meets the road” questions. This charge is the most easily challenged, since distributism and allied movements present a rich variety of institutions, on the ground and working over long periods and wide areas. Distributism is something one may see in practice and reach a conclusion based on actual experience rather a mere collection of abstract theories; it has both a history and a praxis. But can the same be said of “laissez-faire” or even “limited government” capitalism? More of this question anon, but first I must locate, as best I can, the ground of the article’s conclusion.
I think I may have located that ground in a comment of Mr. Hannon’s, in which he makes a mash-up of the term “individualist/personalist.” But these terms cannot be mashed together; to join them with a slash is to slash any meaning out of them; they are not synonyms but antonyms. Moreover, it is the opposition between individualism and personalism that is the very heart and soul of the argument; to miss this opposition is to miss the dispute entirely. Further, if these terms really are the same, then the distributists really are wrong, and wrong completely, or “dead wrong” as the article states. They are wrong first to last, top to bottom and side to side. If these terms cannot be distinguished, then the distinguished distributists have no place to stand; but if they can be, then the capitalists are shown to be true heirs and proponents of liberalism.
So the first task is to determine whether these terms are synonymous or antithetical. In the personalism of John Paul II, the human person, like the divine person which it images, is always a “being-in-relationship,” and is defined by those relationships. Just as the names of the Divine Persons—Father, Son, and Spirit (of the love between Father and Son)—are names of relationships, so too the human person bears a family name which indicates his relational origins. Each person is called into being by the ready-made society of the family, and from this community receives gifts of life, love, language, and culture. His life consists of the appropriation of these gifts and decisions about their use. As gifted, the person is also under an obligation to use these gifts for the common good, and to pass them on, intact at least and improved if possible, to a new generation. And since the person has obligations, he also has rights, since rights are that which are required to fulfill an obligation.
The “individualist,” on the other hand, is the heir of the Enlightenment, since the whole point of that movement was to “liberate” the newly-discovered “individual” from the natural bonds of the “hegemonic” institutions (as Ludwig von Mises and Michael Novak termed them) of family, community, and nation. Freed from the family, this “liberated” individual would have only contractual obligations, freely chosen and freely broken. Moreover, these contractual “communities” are deemed to be higher than the natural, “hegemonic” communities, precisely because they are “freely chosen,” an expression of the individual’s God-given liberty, the highest value—and perhaps the only one—that liberalism will admit. But this turns out to be a “negative” liberty, one that is not ordered to the goal of meeting obligations or developing one’s own personality. Rather, it merely means that one acts under no compulsion, particularly not governmental or social compulsion. One may choose to fulfill “hegemonic” obligations, but that is incidental and not essential to the notion of liberal “freedom”; it is still freedom regardless of how it is used. In reality, this is not freedom at all, but license, and such licentiousness is established within liberalism as the ground for all social relations.
Further, this individual is the possessor of a bundle of rights which are not rooted in obligations, but are rooted in, well, it’s hard to say what roots them. They just are, that’s all. Nevertheless, these individualistic and free-floating rights are supposed to form the individual’s bulwark against collectivism, but as Patrick Deneen points out, the opposite is the case:
It is only when the variety of institutions and organizations of humankind’s social life have been eviscerated – when the individual experiences himself as an individual – that collectivism as a theory becomes plausible as a politics in fact. Liberalism’s successful liberation of individuals from what had historically been “their own” and the increasing realization of the “individual” made it possible for the theory of cosmopolitanism, “globalism” and One State to arise as an actionable political program in the modern era.
At this point, the capitalists—or at least some of them—are likely to raise the objection that they do indeed support something called “family values.” However, they can never explicate these alleged family values in terms of their own economic premises. They will insist that support of the “free market” is also support of the family, but what they almost always mean is support of the capitalistic markets. Aside from the dubious conflation of “free markets” with capitalism, the historical record suggests that capitalism dissolves the family rather than supports it. Nowadays, the erstwhile neoconservative is likely to blame this on an excess of welfare. Very well, but then, to what period in the history of capitalism are we to look for this support of “family values”? In the period when children worked from dark to dark in the mills to earn bare subsistence? When mothers were forced to leave the family to support the family (a period which has returned, at least for a large number of women)? This mythical support of capitalism for “family values” seems to have no historical expression whatsoever; it is a promise that must accepted sola fide and without reference to any actually existing system, now or in the past. The historical (and present) reality is that commodified labor has led only to fragmented families and unstable communities, communities and families that exist only by the will and whim of global masters. Some freedom.
It is precisely the historical question that separates the anti-capitalists and capitalists into the categories of “realist” and “romantic.” For the distributist can always point to real, operational systems, now and in the past; he can always say, “Come to (say) Mondragon, and see if you like it.” And you may love it or you may hate it, but in either case your judgment rests on actual observation of a real system. The laissez-faire or even “small-state” capitalist cannot do this. “Look at how well capitalism works!” they will exclaim, but when you point out that this “working” system is in fact crony capitalism and not the limited-state variety, they will merely bristle and promise that the limited-state variety would work even better. If you then ask the rather obvious question, “when was that true?” they are likely to go into a white-hot rage. But the plain and indisputable fact of the matter is that there is no period in human history when “capitalism” did not mean “crony capitalism.” This was certainly true in Adam Smith’s day, since the bulk of The Wealth of Nations is dedicated to documenting the extent of the cronyism in the capitalism of his day, mercantilism.
The historical question evokes such a strong response precisely because it challenges the capitalist’s self-image as a “realist.” But what he means by “realism” is that he accepts, without question, the shibboleths and dogmas of neoclassical economics. But these supposedly “neoclassical” dogmas are of rather recent vintage, and are, thus far, without any predictive success whatsoever. We have recently witnessed the spectacle of an economic meltdown that caught 95% (or better) of the working economists by surprise; the few who warned of the coming crash were ridiculed by their colleagues as “Cassandras” or “Dr. Doom’s.” But this should not surprise us; the same thing happened in the last recession, and the one before that, and the one before that, etc. Throughout the 20th century, the precise period of neoclassical hegemony, the theory lacks a single predictive success. Indeed, the economist finds out about a recession in the same way the layman does: he reads about it in the newspapers. The “dismal science” is dismal not because of its dismal predictions, but because of its dismal record in predicting much of anything.
The historical reality is that capitalism is not something opposed to big government, but something that depends on it for its very existence; without socializing at least some of the risk, capitalism could not exist. The historical reality is that big government and big business grow together, the one feeding off the other. For the higher the piles of capital, the thicker the walls of government necessary to protect it. The “victory” of capitalism has always meant the victory of the totalizing nation-state over every other polity. And there is no getting around this history, except by fleeing into economic Romanticism. The Romantic Capitalist would have us believe that it we kicked away the state supports, capitalism would float free as a cloud and carry all mankind with it into a glorious future. It is a vision worthy of Wordsworth, but one that lacks as much historical reality as a single daffodil. Hence, we are not permitted to ask the historical question, never permitted to ask for an actual example; the question is considered to be rude.
But capitalism is dependent on something else as well, something a bit worse than mere statism: it is dependent on its liberal assumptions about man and about liberty. It is part and parcel of that liberalism that “freed” man from all his natural associations. It is not without meaning that the original name for “capitalism” was “liberalism”; as the system came into a bad odor beginning in the 1870’s, it was repackaged as “capitalism” to become the content of a new “conservatism,” surely one of the greatest marketing coups of the last century. But just as surely this is an imaginary conservatism, internally incoherent, and dependent on contradictory principles. This new “conservatism” demands people accept on Sunday principles which it insists they must abandon on Monday.
The realism of the distributist recognizes that the political, cultural, social, and economic realms cannot severed from each other; you cannot rest a conservative polity upon a liberal social and economic order, nor can you locate an economic “science” outside of a political economy. Every actual economy is already located within a structure of laws, customs, and social expectations and cannot be understood apart from them. Neoclassical economics lacks any predictive power precisely because it lacks any descriptive power, since its “descriptions” ignore most of what goes into any actual economy.
Whatever else can be said of this imaginary conservatism, we can clearly note, if we are realists, that it is culturally impotent. We lose every cultural battle because we march under the white flag of surrender. Or worse, we march under the enemy’s own flag, the flag of liberalism. This new conservatism has internalized individualism as its own ethic, and hence we cannot convince people even of such a self-evident principle that marriage is oriented towards the procreation and nurturing of the next generation. Under the ethic of individualism, marriage is whatever the contracting parties make it out to be, and who, having already adopted this individualistic ethic, can say them nay?
I hope I will not be called “rude” if I remind the editors of Ethika Politika that a political ethic must also be a social and economic ethic, and they must all be the same ethics; not a conservative one for this and a liberal one for that. If our ethics will not work in the economic realm, then we ought to do the decent thing and admit that neither will they work in any other realm. For of one thing I am sure: conservatism cannot be liberalism, because in any argument between a liberal and a liberal, the liberal will win every time.
 Patrick Deneen, “Inescapable Liberalism? Rescuing Liberty from Individualism and the State,” ABC Religion & Ethics, May 13, 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/05/20/3763423.htm.