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Where Conservatives Go From Here

“While it may seem strange to some to see people on the Right express skepticism—and even disdain—for the free market, it is increasingly common.”

There used to be a line that separated modern conservatives. On one side of it, there were the libertarian-leaning or liberal conservatives, as they would be identified in the United States and elsewhere respectively. On the other side there was the more traditionalist faction. For essentially all of the 20th century, they coexisted without much trouble operating with a broad consensus of free-market economics and various degrees of social conservatism. But now this line is turning into a rift, and the peaceful coexistence is morphing into a struggle for the future of the conservative movement, as a recent piece in Vox explains. The split recently received some increased attention because of a kind of (mostly one-sided) feud between New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari and other members of the traditionalist faction and National Review contributor David French.

The traditionalists, like Ahmari and Ross Douthat (a New York Times columnist), believe that social conservatism has been deeply hurt by, in some sense, outsourcing all of its economic policy to the libertarian leaning faction, as J.D. Vance, author of A Hillbilly Elegy, put it. The traditionalists’ primary issues are social ones like the family or religion. In that sense, they tend to be less enthusiastic about laissez-faire economics and, in fact, many of them are not at all opposed to economic populism. While all these figures are American, the broader issue is not limited to the United States, and elements of this new populist right can be seen elsewhere. Not only are they not hostile to economic populism—in many cases they consider it a viable alternative, more in line with their social traditionalism, while identifying free market capitalism as one of the key factors in the dissolution of these traditional community and family values.

This presents what I think is a rather interesting paradox. In many ways, this is nothing more than a conservative spin on the classical Marxist analysis of the interplay between the base and the superstructure. Yet, the conclusions that this faction of the conservative movement has come to are far removed from Marx’s own, and in fact, by their own admission, they do not have much in the way of concrete ideas to fundamentally change the situation that they correctly, in my opinion, identify. I believe there are several reasons for this, which I want to explore. It seems to me, however, that it comes down to the fact that conservatism (of either variety) is, by its nature, fundamentally unequipped to deal with such cases.

At the heart of Marx and Engels’s theory of history is the idea that the course of history and ideas are ultimately determined by the material conditions of society; in particular, it is the mode of production, which is the organizational form around which economic activity takes place. This is laid out in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and The German Ideology. Marx and Engels argue that private property and the division of labor necessarily carry with them inherent contradictions with detrimental social consequences. Specifically, the division of labor creates a conflict between individual interests and those of society. Classical economic theory, of course, would say the opposite is true: when everyone pursues their own self-interest, total social utility is maximized. A few precisions must be made here. The first one is that as game theory shows that individuals acting on their own interests can often lead to sub-optimal results, even in purely economic terms. But, more importantly, the kind of consequences that Marx and Engels have in mind go beyond mere economic inefficiency, as they explain how this leads to alienation. It is these contradictions that make capitalism both a force of accelerated change and something that is unsustainable.

With that in mind, let’s look at what some of the more traditionalist conservatives say about the current state of society and, often, the role of free market capitalism. For them, traditional social structures such as the family, local communities such as churches, and interpersonal relationships and bonds in general seem to be eroding and breaking down. But, importantly, they identify the current configuration of the market economy as an important factor causing this breakdown. Tucker Carlson is one prominent voice that has made this point fairly clear. In an article from January of 2019, he argues that economic factors such as the decline in male wages in industries such as manufacturing have had a detrimental impact in family and community life.

He is not alone in this. What brought the rift to the political forefront recently was a sort of manifesto entitled “Against the Dead Consensus” written by Sohrab Ahmari, and co-signed by other like-minded conservatives. In it, they single out, for example, the impact of free trade, free movement, and technological advancement as an end in itself. They also identify specific issues which they call, “dehumanizing attempts at ‘liberation’ such as pornography, ‘designer babies,’ wombs for rent, and the severing of the link between sex and gender.” In a later article, Ahmari wrote that one of the sins of the libertarian-minded conservatives—for whom he uses David French as a stand-in—is their belief that, “the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side.” While it may seem strange to some to see people on the Right express such kinds of skepticism—and even disdain—for the free market, it is increasingly common.

Notre Dame professor and manifesto signatory Patrick Deneen wrote, perhaps, the most comprehensive intellectual exposition of the traditionalist conservative critique of the present state of affairs in the form of Why Liberalism Failed. The core of his argument is that liberalism has failed because it succeeded. It is important to note that he uses “liberalism” to refer to the broad philosophical enlightened liberalism that began in the 17th century and brought about the slow democratization of much of Europe and the Americas. In this sense, “liberalism” includes anyone who accepts the framework of a representative government, private property rights, different degrees of a market economy, and the notion that individuals are best left to pursue their own ends so long as they don’t conflict with others. This is important because it encompasses essentially all of mainstream politics, including classical liberals, conservatives, social democrats, etc. Liberalism, Deneen says, is built around a particular vision that conceives humans as rational self-interested persons and, as such, it aims to maximize individuals’ capacity to pursue their own goals. For left-liberals the way to achieve this is through intervention by the state promoting equal opportunity, and for right-liberals, the way to do it is by maximizing freedom in the market. But in the end, all share the same fundamental assumptions and goals, and their different means are two sides of the same coin. In his own words:

“This market—like all markets—while justified in the name of “laissez-faire,” in fact depends on constant state energy, intervention, and support, and has consistently been supported by classical liberals for its solvent effect on traditional relationships, cultural norms, generational thinking, and the practices and  habits  that  subordinate  market  considerations  to  concerns born of interpersonal bonds and charity.”

This, I believe, is something that will be very hard for any conservative movement to overcome, precisely because it is a conservative movement.

Carlson and Ahmari write about very specific contemporary issues, yet it is not difficult to see the how the broader Marxist analysis captures the essence of their critiques. It also parallels Deneen’s assertion about the dissolving effect that the market has on traditional relationships and cultural norms. Now, from a left-wing perspective, this may even be positive when such relations constitute unjust forms of domination, such as that between a feudal Lord and his serfs. But the point is that, value judgements aside, there is an agreement on the effects that market capitalism has on these kinds of practices and institutions. Naturally, when it comes to the pertinent course of action the similarities stop. Leftists—Marxist or otherwise—have a wide range of views about what a post-liberal post-capitalist society should look like, from a fully planned economy to worker-owned firms in a market economy, but discussing those is largely irrelevant for the current topic. What is important is that, while the Left does have a variety of ideas, these conservatives only have broad outlines about the characteristics that a post-liberal order should have. This, I believe, is something that will be very hard for any conservative movement to overcome, precisely because it is a conservative movement.

Even Deneen acknowledges that Why Liberalism Failed is primarily a critique. In an interview with Ezra Klein about the book, he was explicit about this. Near the start of the interview, Klein mentions the fact that former president Barack Obama recommended the book, and that he agreed with a lot of the diagnosis but disagreed with some of the conclusions. To this, Deneen replies that he would be interested to see what particular conclusions he is speaking of and mentions that, in fact, one of the main criticisms of the book is that it does not spell out too much, which he does not contest. I think this is a fair characterization, though not necessarily a criticism. I do not think making a critique requires one also to offer an alternative, so I think Deneen is perfectly allowed to offer only a very broad picture. In the conclusion of the book, he mentions, for example, that whatever comes next must acknowledge the gains made by liberalism and look forward rather than backward: preserve the positive gains made by liberalism, but incorporate the kinds of community and family life that liberalism unmade.

He is not alone in this matter. In a recent New York Times column, Ross Douhat concludes by saying that a post-liberal politics is needed, and that this should be evident to anyone on the Left or the Right. Yet he ends by saying that “[t]he post-liberalisms presently on offer are not as serious as either their advocates hope or their critics fear.” This suggests that, like Deneen, he is convinced that post-liberalism has to happen, but he does not know what it should look like. Two other figures in the movement, both of whom I previously mentioned, have different but related problems. Both J.D. Vance and Tucker Carlson have critiques of laissez-faire capitalism and single it out as one of the significant factors leading to the societal collapse that they identify. But this is where conservatism starts to conflict with the possible solutions.

I would argue that one of the greatest contributions of liberalism is that it allowed for people with widely different conceptions of the good to live side by side in relative peace.

It is not just that conservatism relies on the past and is unable to look forward. That is not even necessarily true. However, certain features of conservatism make it incompatible with the conclusions that their own analysis would lead them to. On one hand, the kinds of things that these conservatives identify as the current problems of society—and the specific things that have been lost—are hard to reconcile with the preservation of the positive gains of liberalism. On the other hand, there are certain steps that, it seems to me, no conservative would be willing to take. In the same interview, Deneen says that there are certain kinds of traditionalists who would like to return to a pre-liberal era and that, because they agree with his assessment of the present, they consider him an ally. He is quick to say, however, that that is not his objective and they should not consider him as an ally. But this tension alone is telling. He laments the loss of norms of modesty, courtship and the rise of casual sexual encounters, abortion on demand, and family arrangements other than marriage, for example. Additionally, in the previously cited manifesto, some of the problems singled out are, pornography and the detachment of gender and sex. Though I disagree that these are problems, I am not trying to say that these are not valid concerns to have. But it should not be surprising that singling out these facts of modern society as problems would make one appear as a potential ally to social reactionaries.

This leads to the first contradiction: it seems impossible to both try to preserve the positive gains of liberalism and to try to change many of these issues. I would argue that one of the greatest contributions of liberalism is that it allowed for people with widely different conceptions of the good to live side by side in relative peace. Yet, the identification of most of these facts as problems points to rather specific conceptions of the good, and particularly, pre-liberal ones. It is one thing to argue, as Ahmari does in the manifesto, that “designer babies” are dehumanizing. That is something that even the most committed liberal could probably accept, even acknowledging that liberalism is in some way responsible for giving rise to the idea in the first place. But is entirely different to say that separating gender and biological sex entails the same kind of dehumanization. Once again, that does not mean that one cannot make the argument, but to claim that it is as obvious as it is in the case of designer babies has very strong implicit claims about the good that a significant fraction of the world’s population does not share. This makes the idea of moving forward rather than backward difficult, to say the least. To make this as clear as possible, the same kind of contradiction can be illustrated with another one of the singled-out issues, namely marriage. The contention is that one of the sins of the liberal order is the decline in life-long stable marriages and their replacement with alternative arrangements. I can accept that liberalism is, at least in part, responsible for this. Yet, one can at least imagine the possibility of finding ways in which polyamorous relationships can fulfill the same social functions that monogamous marriage did (or does). But instead the suggestion is to abandon these alternative arrangements and go back to traditional nuclear families. These are just two cases using the issues mentioned by these authors, but hopefully they hint at a larger pattern in this mode of thinking.

Finally, there is the second contradiction: whether conservatives are prepared to take certain steps or not. This is better illustrated with some of the arguments that Carlson and Vance make. As previously stated, both have specific gripes with laissez-faire capitalism. However, it seems to me that their conservatism does not allow them to look for changes big enough to have the impact they are looking for. Carlson, for example, in an appearance on Ben Shapiro’s program argued in favor of regulations on the market, but he has never, as far as I know, argued that capitalism should be abandoned. Vance, for his part, in the same speech in which he laments the outsourcing of economic policy to libertarians, goes on to say that thinkers like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek still carry a lot of weight. But if capitalism is one of the major causes, it is only logical that regulated capitalism would only delay the process rather than stop it or reverse it, so a post-capitalist arrangement seems to be the logical conclusion. Even more so, both Vance in the aforementioned interview, and Deneen on Twitter have essentially argued for workers to develop class-consciousness, albeit a kind of conservative class-consciousness, once again coming extremely close to a quasi-Marxist discourse. None of them seem prepared to take the last step, which I believe is explained simply by the fact that they are conservatives, and hopefully the arguments I have made here will be enough to make that clear.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.

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Darren Iversen
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Darren Iversen

The index of Why Liberalism Failed doesn’t include any reference to the 1909 People’s budget in the UK, or the ideas that shaped it – ideas that are found in Adam Smith, JS Mill, Henry George and many others. Before WW1 radical liberals – notably the UK govt of 1906 – tried to free capitalism from state protected economic privilege – ie free the market – and abolish poverty through tax reform. I would argue that this forgotten battle was a key event in the failure of liberalism. The current debate fails – this essay included imo – to correctly… Read more »

Darren Iversen
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Darren Iversen

“Marx and Engels argue that private property and the division of labor necessarily carry with them inherent contradictions with detrimental social consequences…. Classical economic theory, of course, would say the opposite is true” This is not correct. Classical economic theory makes a distinction between different types of property – it does not lump it all into one. Anything arising from one’s labour is genuine private property, but the value of land, for example, does not arise from the work of the owner and should be treated in an entirely different way – it should be used as the tax base.… Read more »