Sunday, January 08, 2006

Conservatives Against Capitalism

Wretchard of Belmont Club (from that name Wretchard, he sound like a serious Christian), in discussing “the end of the West,” quotes James Burnham that modern liberalism,

does not offer ordinary men compelling motives for personal suffering, sacrifice, and death. There is no tragic dimension in its picture of the good life. Men become willing to endure, sacrifice, and die for God, for family, king, honor, country, from a sense of absolute duty or an exalted vision of the meaning of history… . And it is precisely these ideas and institutions that liberalism has criticized, attacked, and in part overthrown as superstitious, archaic, reactionary, and irrational. In their place liberalism proposes a set of pale and bloodless abstractions—pale and bloodless for the very reason that they have no roots in the past, in deep feeling and in suffering. Except for mercenaries, saints, and neurotics, no one is willing to sacrifice and die for progressive education, medicare, humanity in the abstract, the United Nations, and a ten percent rise in Social Security payments.
This is presumably from Suicide of the West, which I have not read. I’m guessing that Burnham’s target is not just what Americans call liberalism today, the welfare state, but the classical liberalism of the 19th century, capitalism. The values he believes men would die for -- God, family, king, honor, country, a sense of absolute duty and an exalted vision of the meaning of life -- are a mixed bag that can be summed up as traditional values, many of which were indeed diminished by capitalism. Capitalism, the system of individual rights, replaced feudalism and monarchy.

Burnham sounds like a real conservative in the tradition that goes back to the 19th century conservatives such as Robert Southey, who were the first critics of capitalism. Their arguments were secularized by the Marxists. Two books in this tradition would be Hillaire Belloc’s Servile State and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences -- two of the worst books I have read.

Weaver blames socialism on capitalism and the division of labor. He calls socialism, “the materialistic offspring of bourgeois capitalism.” If the West had just stayed in the middle ages, then we would not have all these modern problems. Weaver says that in the middle ages, “there obtained a comparatively clear perception of reality.” (I never understood why the Foundation for Economic Education carried Weaver’s book.)

If these conservatives are uneasy today, it is because the arguments they hear from the Islamic fundamentalists about the decadence and corruption of the West are the same arguments they have been making. These conservatives envy Islamic fundamentalists because they’re willing to die for God. All we have to die for is freedom, which is really not enough for them.

Conservatism cannot provide an intellectual defense of the West. Intellectually, they are helpless against the forces of faith attacking “bourgeois capitalism.” We need a philosophy that upholds reality, reason, rational self-interest and capitalism. Only the philosophy of Ayn Rand will do.

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