For most people in America, all those not familiar with the complicated ideological positioning on the right end of the political spectrum, the term “conservative” evokes images of the board room, the country club, and the Episcopal church located not far from the latter. In other words, the term is associated with the capitalist elite of the society. This is not at all so in Europe. At least until the advent of Margaret Thatcher, “conservatism” there tended to be associated with, at best, a grudging acceptance of the capitalist economy, and frequently with decidedly anti-capitalist sentiments. In many European countries even today (for example, in Germany), those in favor of capitalism are called “liberals” (causing great confusion, in addition to other things, among Germans trying to make sense of American politics). “Conservatives,” by contrast, are people who favor such quaint causes as good manners or the restoration of the Bavarian monarchy.
The reason for this difference in usage between the two continents is rooted in history. In Europe modern capitalism emerged out of a long struggle with the ancien regime, at the end of which the bourgeoisie triumphed over the forces of “reaction” embodied in the old aristocratic elites. America never had an ancien regime, nor did it ever have a genuine aristocracy. The closest it came was in parts of the Old South, but even there the self-styled aristocrats would have been regarded by their European counterparts as bourgeois parvenus, and pretty barbarian ones at that.
America, from the beginning, was essentially a bourgeois society; American capitalism emerged, not out of a feudal past, but as a novel creation on historically virgin territory. Here, then, the term “conservative” is usually employed in its original, literal sense, describing those who want to preserve the status quo. This status quo, however, is precisely that of bourgeois capitalism; there is no other (except for Southern agrarians and their scattered ideological descendants, largely limited to the readership of Southern Partisan). In Europe, at least until Mrs. Thatcher’s petit-bourgeois takeover of the Tory world, “conservatives” were those who wanted to preserve this or that tattered remnant of the order that preceded bourgeois capitalism; the most inveterate among them, on the wilder shores of the right, hoped against hope that this order might be restored as a whole.
There is, of course, an American right that has ideological affinities with European conservatism, but it has little if any social base. It either remains in a subculture mainly inhabited by intellectuals, or it enters into uneasy alliances with groups that share its antagonisms but very few of its positive convictions (such as, for example, the populist New Right, a sweatily lower-middle-class movement that any would-be aristocrat can only tolerate for Machiavellian reasons of strategy). The cultural and political difficulties caused by these facts for Americans with conservative convictions cannot be pursued here. The point to be made is that, in the American context, a certain mental effort is required to ask the question, “How can conservatives be in favor of capitalism?” (Most Americans would be naively inclined to say: “But are not all conservatives in favor of capitalism?”) Let it be assumed that the mental effort has been made: Why, then, might conservatives not be in favor of capitalism?
The principal reason why conservatives might be antagonistic to capitalism can be summed up in Joseph Schumpeter’s well-known description of capitalism as “creative destruction.” In this, of course, Schumpeter’s view of capitalism is fully consonant with Karl Marx’s (though Schumpeter agreed with very few of Marx’s other notions about the phenomenon). Capitalism is the most dynamic economic arrangement in human history From its beginnings in England it brought about not just an economic transformation of gigantic proportions, but a social, political, and cultural revolution. It shook the old aristocratic caste system to its foundations, bringing forth a highly mobile class system in which (to the intense chagrin of conservative observers like the Due de Saint-Simon) people coming from nowhere attained positions of power and privilege. The political ancien regime collapsed in stages, and in different ways, in the events surrounding the English, American, and French revolutions. And the rising bourgeoisie, the new capitalist elite, created a new culture that put its mark on every facet of behavior and thought. To be sure, the nineteenth century was the triumphant age of this capitalist revolution and an argument can be made that some of these triumphs were diminished in the twentieth; thus World War I marked a cultural watershed after which the bourgeois world was never the same again.
Nevertheless, the dynamism of the capitalist economy continues in an essentially unbroken way today, and indeed it has found new incarnations (notably in East Asia) and has created a worldwide structure (the “world system” so much deplored by leftists) that reaches into virtually every corner of the globe. Now, one may view this dynamism as finally good, bad, or a mixed bag, but there can be little doubt about its anti-traditional thrust. Before its dynamism all traditions—social, political, and cultural—shake, wilt, often disappear, invariably change. Class replaces caste, democracy overthrows venerable authorities of every sort, modern rationality puts in doubt every handed-down certitude. Those with a stake in traditional hierarchies and beliefs, therefore, cannot be faulted if they look upon capitalism as an adversary force. One must point out that modernization (the impact on human life of scientific rationality and its technological achievements) is not necessarily linked to capitalism; the appearance of modern socialist societies demonstrates this, and modernization under socialist auspices (say, in Soviet Central Asia) is no less subversive of tradition than capitalist-driven modernization (say, across the border in Pakistan or in the Shah’s Iran). Still, one cannot gainsay the tradition-dissolving efficacy of capitalism.
Capitalism is also disturbing to conservatives because it is, or appears to be, amoral in the way it distributes its rewards. Every traditional order assumes that its privileges are based on virtue of some sort, be it inherited or achieved. The outside observer of such an order may well conclude that this is a spurious claim—monarchs may be degenerate, knights may be gangsters, saints may be frauds. What is troubling about capitalism, though, is that it has relatively few legitimations in terms of virtue to begin with. Adam Smith’s view of the common good emerging from the selfish acts of individuals has been the conceptual paradigm for this capitalist amoralism, for the critics of capitalism even more than for its advocates.
Conservatives tend to think in terms of some scheme of distributive justice. This, it should be emphasized, is not necessarily an egalitarian notion; it is precisely on the basis of virtue that highly unequal distributions of privilege, power, and prestige are traditionally justified—the droit de seigneur, if you will. Capitalism recognizes no seigneurs. The market rewards and punishes individuals impersonally, without regard to the moral qualities that allegedly distinguish them. Success in the capitalist game is typically the result of a mixture of ability and luck; it is difficult to moralize the former (though some have tried, from Benjamin Franklin to George Gilder), impossible to moralize the latter.
In recent years (this was not so in an earlier period of leftist thought, definitely not in the case of Marx), one of the major attacks on capitalism from the left has been because of its alleged inequality. This is a major misperception, rooted not in a comparison of capitalist societies with empirically existing non-capitalist ones but rather with a meta-empirical ideal of equality, by comparison with which every existing society must appear to be grossly unjust. Capitalism creates societies that are less unequal than almost all traditional societies this side of Stone Age primitivism, and (as we now know) certainly also less unequal than all existing socialist societies to date. Conservatives attached to tradition have always recognized this fact much more clearly than socialists of various stripes, and it is just because of this fact that they did not care for capitalism.
The Duc de Saint-Simon, that old gossip misanthropically recording the sociological panorama at the court of Versailles, is the prototype of this conservative antagonism to capitalist equality. He carefully and contemptuously observes the ascendancy of the new bourgeoisie, people who had nothing to recommend them except money, most of it (he believed) obtained in morally dubious ways. He is outraged by the claims made by these grubby upstarts to privileges previously reserved to the noble families of France, and he predicted (correctly, it turned out) that the monarchy would yet regret its use of these parvenus against the nobility. The same fact was clearly understood and well articulated by Georg Simmel, in his Philosophy of Money: Capitalism is the modern money economy, and money is the great equalizer. As the American saying has it, the color of everybody’s money is green no matter if the blood is blue, or (more important today) if the skin is black or brown.
As already noted, capitalism can no longer (as it still could in Marx’s time) be presented as the only modern economic system. It is, however, that form of economic life that was instrumental in bringing about the modern world; the industrial revolution was the offspring of a marriage between capitalist economics and the immense technological power made possible by the new science. Capitalism is further that economic system which, at least to the present, has been able to deal most efficiently with the challenges of modernity—beginning with the demographic challenge of how best to feed, house, and clothe the rapidly increasing multitude of human beings now (because of the modern transformation) inhabiting the earth. Thus the association between capitalism and modernity, while not exclusive, is profound. Once again, one cannot fault those who dislike modernity and, therefore, are antagonistic to capitalism.
Capitalist modernity is tumultuous, unpredictable, like a volcano in constant eruption (Emile Durkheim speaks of a great tempest, sweeping away all the old forms of social organization). Those who basically affirm modernity see these qualities as making possible a new rationality and a new freedom in human affairs (so did Simmel and Durkheim). But to many conservatives these same qualities constitute a threat of disintegration and chaos. Against this threat they will evoke visions of order, of all-embracing meaning, very often couched in the language of religion. Thus Roman Catholic social thought has consistently held up an “integralist” vision of order against the disorders of the modern age; to this day, hostility or at any rate suspiciousness with regard to capitalism has also been characteristic of this stream of ideas. Thus the anti-capitalist counter-positions of much conservative thought are quite clear: Continuity is posited against constant change, virtue against the calculus of the market, hierarchy against egalitarianism, and, finally, order against the threat of chaos.
It is very important to understand that many of the attacks on capitalism from the left (defined very broadly as consisting of people with some version of the socialist ideal) are very similar indeed to the attacks launched much earlier (and in some instances still launched today, especially in Europe and Latin America) by the old conservative right. Already in the nineteenth century the depiction of the social evils of capitalism by, respectively, Friedrich Engels and Benjamin Disraeli are remarkably similar (not to mention those of John C. Calhoun, who used the same charges to defend the South against the moral arguments of the Abolitionists).
Capitalism as a reality is condemned as inhuman and unjust, regardless of whether the counter-posited society, more just and more humane, is projected into the future (as with all socialists prior to the Russian Revolution and with many after that) or believed to have existed in the past (as with many conservatives). The left too deplores the “creative destruction” of capitalism, its seemingly mindless disregard of whatever institutions stand in the way of its economic rationale. The left too laments the alleged amoralism of the market, demanding that it should be replaced by a political mechanism that distributes rewards on the basis of a moral ideal of justice. And the left too engages in visions of order, community, “solidarity” counter-posited against the chaotic libertinism of the market economy.
There the similarities might be thought to end. After all, the left hardly hankers after hierarchy, and it can hardly be called anti-modern. Perhaps so, but an argument can be made that even here there are interesting affinities between right and left versions of anti-capitalism. It is quite true that the left, especially in this century, has legitimated its goals in egalitarian terms. If one accepts this egalitarian rhetoric at face value, then indeed one would say that here the anti-capitalism of the left differs from its conservative analogue. But it should not be taken at face value. It is not irrelevant to repeat that empirically existing socialist societies have institutionalized massive inequalities. The now-moribund Soviet nomenklatura system is by no means unique in this respect; indeed, something like it has been set up with monotonous regularity in socialist societies everywhere, including those in which Soviet influence has been negligible or absent.
But the egalitarian rhetoric of Western socialists, many of whom no longer admire any existing socialist society but look to an as yet unrealized socialism of the future, should also be looked at skeptically Are these people really against all inequalities? Or only against those that the market produces? One does not have to be a psychoanalyst to suspect that beneath the rhetoric there lurks the double hydra of ressentiment and envy: The offensiveness of the market is not that it rewards unequally, but that it rewards the undeserving, intellectually ludicrous entrepreneurs rather than . . . well, rather than superior types like you and me! Read this way, the anti-capitalism of the left is not all that much different from that of the Duc de Saint-Simon, except that it is now the virtue of alleged intellect that is evoked rather than the virtue of aristocratic lineage. In either case, an elitist ideal is counter-posited against the crass egalitarianism of an economy in which “money talks.”
Also, of course, the left cannot be simply described as anti-modern. It does not, it is true, have a stake in tradition. It conceives of itself as rational, even scientific (Marxism, let it not be forgotten amid its present debris, has always thought of itself as a science), and socialists almost without exception believe in some version of the modern myth par excellence, which is the myth of progress. So far, so good. But it can be argued that much of the appeal of socialist ideologies, emphatically including almost all forms of Marxism, has been in its capacity to synthesize modern and anti-modern themes. Thus socialists want to be modern men, bearers of rationality and progress, the true heirs of the Enlightenment. But at the same time they embrace an ideal of community that is profoundly anti-modern, they want to abolish at least two of the major societal dichotomies achieved by modernity (that between the economic and the political orders, and that between the private and the public sphere), and they dream of a harmonious social order that has all the hallmarks of traditionalist nostalgia. This strange synthesis was there from the beginnings of modern socialism; read, for instance, Marx’s vision of bow the division of labor will have been abolished under communism. But this linkage between modernizing and counter-modernizing themes within socialist movements and ideologies has been particularly visible in recent years. In the Third World, socialism bas entered into alliances with every conceivable sort of anti-modern, traditionalist impulse” from the “Islamic socialism” of Middle Eastern revolutionaries to Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa to the “New Christendom” of Latin American liberation theology. And in Western societies the linkage between political radicalism and the so-called Age of Aquarius (a veritable orgy of counter-modernizing themes) dominated the late 1960s and early 1970s; even more recently the left/right convergences in the Green movement manifest the same affinities.
In sum, there are good reasons why many conservatives have disliked capitalism. Some of these reasons are remarkably similar to those of the left. The possibilities of political alliances inherent in this affinity cannot concern us here (probably there are major barriers due to class). But there is another issue to be raised: Is there another answer possible to our earlier question? Could conservatives be in favor of capitalism after all?
The answer will, of course, at least partially depend on how one defines the term “conservative.” If one means by it a position in favor of the defense of the status quo, no matter what the status quo may be, then the question resolves itself into one of geography. In America, as already noted, “conservatives” will inevitably have to be pro-capitalist. But, by the same kind of usage, the term “conservative” is today applied to people in the Soviet Union and in China who are in favor of old-style Stalinist or Maoist socialist policies. If, on the other band, one only allows the title “conservative” to be bestowed on those who owe allegiance to this or that premodern tradition (this has been the thrust of recent “paleo-conservative” attacks on “neo-conservatives” in America), then “conservatives” will, at the very least, have to be very suspicious of capitalism and its tradition-shattering dynamism.
There is a broader conservatism (however philosophically or theologically grounded) which does not automatically rally ‘round any given status quo, and which is also not particularly attached to a tradition rooted in the past. If the key idea of this type of conservatism is to be named, it would probably be pessimism—specifically, pessimism about human nature, about the powers of reason, and about the possibilities of history. Conservatives of this stripe are disinclined to believe human beings capable of great moral improvements over their ancestors. Nor do they think that their contemporaries have a superior ability (whether because of modern science or some more elusive cognitive virtues of “modern man”) to reorder human affairs in a rational manner. Both these expressions of skepticism put such conservatives into an adversary stance against two cardinal beliefs of the Enlightenment—the belief in the perfectibility of man and the belief in reason as the instrument of this perfection (the two beliefs together constitute the modern myth of progress). Moreover, these conservatives do not expect some great culmination to occur in history. But neither do they locate some golden age in the past. They are, if you will, a somewhat morose lot—though they console themselves that they are at least clear-eyed.
If one is skeptical about the possibilities of redemptive events in history, one will be cautious about all projects of radical change. Almost instinctively, one will gravitate toward policies of gradual and incremental change. The great revolutions, especially the modern ones, have mostly led to great catastrophes; the humane and moral achievements in history have usually happened more slowly, more quietly, and have often remained unnoticed for considerable periods of time. Minimally, such an approach makes one unsympathetic to any rapid and radical dismantling of traditions. Also, if one is skeptical about the likelihood that rational designs for human life will greatly improve it, then one will tend to respect the accumulated experience and wisdom of generations that are sedimented in traditions. As the Austrian writer Heimito von Doderer very aptly put it, conservatism is the realization that one’s old aunts were right after all (“die alten Tanten hatten doch recht”). If this type of conservatism is respectful of traditions, it is mostly for empirical reasons; the historical record is littered with horrors perpetrated by the more enthusiastic tradition-bashers. But this generally sympathetic attitude toward tradition is very different from the attitude of someone who believes that a particular tradition represents ultimate truth, divine revelation, or the (alas, lost) high point of human history.
One could make a useful distinction between a historically specific conservatism and one that is historically non-specific. Both usually share some philosophical convictions, such as those just spelled out, and they have this in common against the various embodiments of the myth of progress. But they differ in that one looks back in time to a particular age in which, supposedly, things were better than they are today, while the other bas no such historical anchor. This latter type of conservatism was well expressed in Leopold Ranke’s famous statement that every age is immediate to God. This is a view (with or without Ranke’s religious foundation) that relativizes the past as much as the present. Because of this, the two types of conservatism differ greatly in their attitude toward modernity; this difference will also determine the attitude taken toward capitalism.
What has here been called a historically specific conservatism will, just about inevitably, be antagonistic toward modernity. Almost by definition, if a better state of affairs is located in the past, modernity must appear as the result of a degenerative process. The character of the degeneration is usually spelled out in great detail—a movement from community to alienation, or from faith to unbelief, or from respect for authority to anarchy, or (most broadly) from health to pathology. Obviously, individual representatives of this kind of conservatism will differ in where they locate the allegedly lost paradise; thus different possibilities in contemporary American conservatism range in time from ancient Athens through medieval Christendom, Puritan New England, the age of High Anglicanism, nineteenth-century Middle America, the Confederacy, to the time just before the New Deal. Such conservatives will also differ in how bad they think the present to be in comparison with the putative past; thus there is a musical scale measuring the pitch of lamentations about modernity. These variations on the theme of decline and fall could be spelled out in much richer detail. Suffice it to say that this view of modernity differs considerably from the one held by conservatives here called historically non-specific.
Such historically unfixated conservatives may agree with any number of criticisms made of modernity. They may agree, for instance, that modernization threatens the sense of community or that it has favored trends toward secularization. But they will balance these negative judgments with the achievements of modernity, from the most elementary, which are demographic (in premodern societies, most children die; in modern societies, most children live), to such distinctively modern notions as the autonomy of the individual or the universality of human rights.
Moreover, they will be skeptical about the alleged virtues of whichever past epoch is selected for the role of Paradise Lost. Take, say, ancient Athens. Leave aside the fact that few Athenians lived beyond their thirties and that, if they did, they were likely to be afflicted with a variety of debilitating physical ailments that would be trivial today. But would one really want to purchase the stipulated wonders of Agora or Academy at the price of mass infanticide, slavery, and almost continuous warfare? Similarly disagreeable questions can be asked about every one of these Utopias in the pluperfect mode. Let just one graphic observation be added: Before modern dentistry, most people lost their teeth early, bad them rot away, or suffered from perennial toothaches; as an exercise in the philosophy of history, let these dental conditions be imagined in the greatest historical scenes of one’s choice . . .
The respective attitudes toward capitalism of the two types of conservatism follow logically, in most cases, from their attitudes toward modernity. The historically specific conservative is very likely going to be hostile toward capitalism or, at best, reluctantly accepting of it as the lesser of the available evils. (An exception to this is the American conservative who locates his better age in the very recent past—an America most easily imagined in the iconography of Norman Rockwell; this America, of course, was capitalist. But while this imagery is much in evidence in the populist right, it has few theoretical expressions.) In this case, as was the case with European conservatives in the past, capitalism may be criticized in terms very similar to those used on the left. And, of course, it is this type of conservatism that some people on the left occasionally fantasize about as a possible partner in an alliance against the capitalist system.
By contrast, there is the other kind of conservatism that may arrive at very different conclusions about capitalism. The reasons for this different attitude should now be spelled out.
The conservatism at issue here leads to a realistic, tough-minded stance in the face of one’s own age. One does not glorify it or see it as a step toward some great apotheosis in the future, as the liberal and the radical children of the Enlightenment customarily do. Nor does one pejoratively compare it with an imagined past or with an impossible ideal of perfection. This age, like any other, presents choices. When all is said and done, under modern conditions (that is, conditions determined by huge populations, vastly complex physical agglomerations, a technologized economy, and a centralized state) there are only two realistic options as to how the economy is to be organized-the capitalist and the socialist. To be sure, there are “mixed” cases; indeed, almost all empirical cases are “mixed” to a degree (even Hong Kong experiences some interventions from its political center, and almost all socialist societies have, at the least, an underground market economy). But it is not difficult to decide most of the time whether an economy is primarily organized by the market or by a political command system. And in cases where there may be doubt, the trend is usually clearly in one direction or another.
Talk of “third ways” is usually based on illusion. For example, when people talk about the Scandinavian social democracies as constituting a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, they confuse the welfare state with what Marxists aptly call the “mode of production.” Thus Sweden has a highly developed welfare state, but its economy has remained (at least to date) a market system. Conversely, a country may have a socialist economy, with only a minimal welfare state or even none at all (say, Albania). Alternatively, people may locate the “third way” in an empirically unavailable future (some Roman Catholic social thinkers have been prone to this temptation), but these visions cannot withstand detailed, empirically concrete questions (e.g., “please describe how prices and wages will be determined in your society”).
While there are many theoretical socialisms, what Marxists (rather charmingly) have called “real existing socialism” presents an overwhelming empirical fact—that it goes hand in hand, if not with totalitarianism, then with a quantum leap in the power of the state. (Actually, as nearly everyone now admits following the Revolution of 1989 in the former Soviet bloc, the correlation between “real existing socialism” and totalitarianism is high enough since the emergence of the “world’s first socialist state” in 1917 that one can minimally say that socialism carries it with a pronounced totalitarian tendency.) There are ideological reasons for this, in the communalistic/collectivistic nostalgias of virtually every socialist doctrine (including, of course, Marxism). But, more basically, there is a simple sociological reason: Socialism means that the state runs the economy, and that necessarily implies an enormous increase in the power of the state. Put simply, the most powerful capitalist conglomerate cannot come close to any socialist state in the scope of its capacity to coerce.
By contrast with socialism, capitalism leaves room for the development and continued maintenance of every sort of institution. Included in this free, or relatively free, social space are traditional institutions. If nothing else, capitalism allows for the possibility that such institutions will maintain themselves economically. But, because of the limitation on political power that is intrinsic to the market, capitalism is also most likely to bring about political institutions (specifically, democracy and the rule of law) that will protect the right of such institutions to exist.
In sum: Capitalism means property rights. Tradition happens to be the most cherished property of some people.
Take a group with an attachment to a particular tradition, one not shared by the majority of the community—say a tradition of living on the land and practicing the worship of a god represented by sauerkraut. In a capitalist society, despite all the “creative destruction” that will undoubtedly intrude on these traditional enclaves, there is a fighting chance that the sauerkrautists will survive. They may create their own agricultural enterprises. In the cities they may create voluntary associations that contribute money to the former enterprises. Individuals who meet discrimination in one place may find refuge in another and make a go of it there economically. And very likely there will be legal recourse and political leverage available to this traditional minority.
In a socialist society, there is unlikely to be “room” for any of this. A collectivized agriculture has no space for a sauerkrautist subculture. There is little if any tolerance, or even economic opportunity, for the multitude of voluntary initiatives that a market economy favors. All employment (or, in a more modified or “mixed” socialism, all really desirable employment) is in the public sector (there either is no private sector or it can offer only very measly jobs); therefore, if there is discrimination in one place, it will very probably be found everywhere. And finally it is much less likely that the sauerkrautists will be able to appeal to a politically independent court or to mobilize political pressure on their own behalf.
Put differently: Capitalism means pluralism. Tradition has a better chance to survive under pluralism than under an integrative collectivism.
There are, of course, other reasons why one may morally favor capitalism over its empirically available alternatives (and one does not have to be a conservative of any type to do so): because capitalism is most likely to overcome degrading misery and to lift large masses of people into a decent standard of material life; because capitalism allows for many opportunities to escape poverty and because it provides the means (material as well as institutional) to make poverty less degrading; last not least, because capitalism is empirically linked with democracy, and because human rights (including the right, if one wishes, to worship a sauerkraut divinity and to live by its precepts) are best guaranteed in a democratic regime. All of these are weighty reasons, and a conservative will be very reluctant indeed to risk these empirically demonstrable benefits of capitalism for the mirage of a socialism that may or may not be realized in some dim future. But, most basically, he will opt for capitalism because of the built-in latitudinarianism of the market.
The market allows latitude for every sort of belief or way of life because (once again) money knows neither color nor creed: Your sauerkrautist dollar is as good as my Presbyterian one, and if you can find a market niche for your particular form of mishugas, who am I to deny it to you? The logic of the market is tolerant, individuating, open to eccentricity. Socialism, not only in its empirical reality (which is the command economy) but in its very self-proclaimed ideal, is the rule of reason. Such rationalism is inherently intolerant. Error has no rights, and if reason rules, then dissidence is a form of madness. The logic of socialism is integrating, collectivistic, hostile to the “selfishness” of idiosyncratic beliefs and behavior. And here is the decisive paradox: Capitalism is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, perhaps even the most modern phenomenon of all. But capitalism also relativizes modernity and imposes constraints on the modernization process. And, given a modern world that cannot be wished away, capitalism provides the best chance for non-modern beliefs and institutions to survive in this world.
Peter L. Berger is Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology at Boston University. He is also the author of The Capitalist Revolution.