Monday, May 10, 2021

Conservatives Against Capitalism

Casting a vote for Chancellor Hitler's party, which took pretty good care of you if you were a member of the right group. Photo via Quartz, 2017.

Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, has a pretty oddly structured argument ("Is Capitalism Killing Conservatism?"), starting, in the first place, with the "grim" news of the falling birthrate in the US.

paragraph 1:

The report on Wednesday that U.S. birthrates fell to a record low in 2020 was expected but still grim. On Twitter the news was greeted, characteristically, by conservative laments and liberal comments implying that it’s mostly conservatism’s fault — because American capitalism allegedly makes parenthood unaffordable, work-life balance impossible and atomization inevitable.

Without saying exactly what's grim about it, though you can assume he's one of the characteristically lamenting conservatives. And reading into the comments of liberals something more than they (actually, she—there's only one of them) actually said:

What makes him think Vega is decrying "conservatism"?  Other than his own tacit assumption, you know, that that is where American capitalism comes from? And what does he mean by "atomization"? 

Her issue, anyway (she's the host of a nationally syndicated radio news show, with side gigs at The Nation Institute and Princeton, so the money-and-privilege question isn't the main thing for her personally), seems to be one of liberty—a woman's ability to make her own decision as to whether to have a child without worrying about extrinsic issues like where the support will come from, which doesn't seem to me like a problem inherently with capitalism, but maybe with the conservatism that stresses the traditional authority structures, marriage and women's dependency, and prefers women not to have paying jobs at all, whereas capitalism of itself certainly doesn't object to female wage-earners/consumers. American capitalism is happy to help women out, growing an enormous childcare industry, just in a typically inequitable way when it's on its own, underpaying the workers and overcharging the customers, so that it doesn't really work out very well for most people, which is why a bit of redistributive government interference can help.

A properly liberal worry about low birthrates might be the technocratic issue of the resulting aging of the population, leading to an increasingly small workforce supporting a growing community of the retired, and the need for a way to cope with that—which would of course be, especially in the US, increased immigration. But that's not what Douthat has in mind at all.

paragraph 2:

This is a specific version of a longstanding argument about the tensions between traditionalism and capitalism, which seems especially relevant now that the right doesn’t know what it’s conserving anymore.

What is the reference of "this" here? There's only the one other paragraph so far. The argument he attributes to Tanzina Vega blaming conservatism for the ravages of capitalism is a specific version of a "longstanding argument about the tensions between traditionalism and capitalism"?

paragraph 3:

In a recent essay for New York Magazine, for instance, Eric Levitz argues that the social trends American conservatives most dislike, the rise of expressive individualism and the decline of religion, marriage and the family, are driven by socioeconomic forces the right’s free-market doctrines actively encourage. “America’s moral traditionalists are wedded to an economic system that is radically anti-traditional,” he writes, and “Republicans can neither wage war on capitalism nor make peace with its social implications.”

Ah, that longstanding argument, in which Levitz is not in fact arguing but representing somebody else's (e.g, Douthat's) argument as a "fundamental ideological confusion":

The party has a set of unwavering transactional commitments (to reactionary billionaires, provincial capitalists, and the Christian right). And some of its factions harbor intelligible agendas. But these contingents are no longer united by any overriding account of how public policy must change. Today’s GOP insists that corporate titans are “job creators” entitled to low taxes, but also “woke” traitors deserving of state persecution. It calls for an end to American nation-building in the Middle East, but also for Joe Biden to push for regime change in Iran. It derides welfare programs as invitations to dependency, but also evinces some interest in expanding refundable tax credits for working-class families. It wants to reassert American economic sovereignty by reshoring supply chains and protecting domestic manufacturing, but also to give multinational firms veto power over U.S. tax policy.
Which Levitz chalks up to a deep dependency on capitalism itself in hopeless conflict with the hierarchical social structures it longs to conserve:
Beneath the proximate causes of the GOP’s ideological confusion, there may be this fundamental one: America’s moral traditionalists are wedded to an economic system that is radically anti-traditional. They are too individualistic to countenance a total break with liberal capitalism, but are also repulsed by the social consequences of their own economic customs. And contra [an article by Tanner] Greer, such consequences do not just trouble New Right intellectuals, but also the GOP’s rank-and-file Evangelicals, the Trumpist right’s aggrieved men’s rights activists, and garden-variety right-leaning voters perturbed by the loosening of family ties (which, in some communities, has been supplanted by atomization [ah, there it is!], not a broader or more freely-chosen collectivity). Given that capitalist development is also the primary force that propels migrants across borders, the nativist right is similarly squeezed between its economic folk wisdom and cultural nostalgia.

Or, as Marx and Engels put it, capitalism has torn humanity from the very "idiocy of rural life" that represents the Tory's highest value, and worse:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade... 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, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

But instead of being drawn as Marx and Engels were to the idea of completing this project by collective action to overcome the bourgeoisie itself and seek new modes of social organization to replace the lost ones, they find themselves trying to bargain with it to preserve them, like an abused spouse who can't imagine leaving the marriage, Levitz says, and begging it to respect just a few precious boundaries defending the hierarchies of nation, race, gender, and religion:

generally speaking, this “New Right” privileges national strength above free markets, full employment above small government, and the traditional family above individual liberty. A program along these lines would satisfy the bulk of red America’s denizens, and have considerable appeal among swing voters. But it does not appeal to the GOP’s market-fundamentalist elite. And the entrenched power of those think-tankers and big-dollar donors preempts any genuine realignment. The old Republican orthodoxy is dying and a new one cannot be born.

"Full employment" in that formula is in my view a bit of an overgeneralization of two different demands, that the financial powers should somehow maintain employment in the fossil fuel and heavy-industry sectors in which some of their voters worked 30 years ago, and that government should force welfare beneficiaries especially of color to take jobs symbolizing their subjection to the white establishment. "National strength" similarly covers the properly national insistence on keeping the military the most overwhelmingly powerful on earth and also the racial insistence on limiting immigration—really on making it as much as possible temporary, whether you're talking about bracero-type programs for agricultural workers or renewable visas for tech workers whose families will not be encouraged to join them via "chain migration". The "traditional family" is seen as threatened both from within, by women getting too deeply involved in the work force, and without, by the existence of non-traditional family forms, including families headed by unpartnered women or same sex couples.

And the alternative to Marxism they stand for, in their struggle to live with capitalism and live without it at the same time, might well be called National Socialism, in which protection for some workers, in the racially or politically privileged group, goes along with punishment for those seen as not belonging:

when American social conservatives wish to see a model of their desired polity, some turn to the countries of the former Soviet bloc — RussiaPoland, and Hungary — where moral traditionalism appears aberrantly strong. 

Ross's anticapitalism belongs to a pretty longstanding argument after all.

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