In 1990, for a then-new magazine called First Things, the historian Christopher Lasch wrote about the incompatibility of conservatism and free-market capitalism, at least as capitalism is currently constituted. For instance, he argues that
If conservatism is understood to imply a respect for limits, it is clearly incompatible with modern capitalism or with the liberal ideology of unlimited economic growth. Historically, economic liberalism rested on the belief that man’s insatiable appetites, formerly condemned as a source of social instability and personal unhappiness, could drive the economic machine — just as man’s insatiable curiosity drove the scientific project — and thus ensure a never-ending expansion of productive forces. For the eighteenth-century founders of political economy, the self-generating character of rising expectations, newly acquired needs and tastes, and new standards of personal comfort gave rise to a form of society capable of indefinite expansion. Their break with older ways of thinking lay in the assertion that human needs should be regarded not as natural but as historical, hence insatiable. As the supply of material comforts increased, standards of comfort increased as well, and the category of necessities came to include goods formerly regarded as luxuries. Envy, pride, and ambition made human beings want more than they needed, but these “private vices” became “public virtues” by stimulating industry and invention. Thrift and self-denial, on the other hand, meant economic stagnation. “We shall find innocence and honesty no more general,” wrote Bernard Mandeville, “than among the most illiterate, the poor silly country people.” The “pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce,” according to David Hume, “roused men from their indolence” and led to “further improvements in every branch of domestic as well as foreign trade.”
Early apostles of the pursuit of “the pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce,” like Hume and Adam Smith, freely acknowledged the damage that such pursuit would likely do to traditional institutions and values, but a century later, “Nineteenth-century philanthropists, humanitarians, and social reformers argued with one voice that the revolution of rising expectations meant a higher standard of domestic life, not an orgy of self-indulgence activated by fantasies of inordinate personal wealth, of riches painlessly acquired through speculation or fraud, of an abundance of wine and women.”
This was of course nonsense, either a manipulative sales pitch or wishful thinking. Lasch:
In the long run, of course, this attempt to build up the family as a counterweight to the acquisitive spirit was a lost cause. The more closely capitalism came to be identified with immediate gratification and planned obsolescence, the more relentlessly it wore away the moral foundations of family life. The rising divorce rate, already a source of anxious concern in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, seemed to reflect a growing impatience with the constraints imposed by long-term responsibilities and commitments. The passion to get ahead had begun to imply the right to make a fresh start whenever earlier commitments became unduly burdensome.
Conservatives were slow to acknowledge these (in retrospect obvious) facts because they did not want to give aid and comfort to a leftist politics that was even less tolerant, though in different ways and for different reasons, of families and other traditional institutions. What these celebrants of capitalism could not see at all — and what is rarely seen even today — is the essential truth that “Marxists … shared the liberal view of nature [including human nature] as so much raw material to be turned to the purpose of human enjoyment.” So when faced with runaway acquisitiveness they merely exhorted people to work harder and save more.
To which Lasch:
That most conservatives have contented themselves with such exhortations provides a measure of the intellectual bankruptcy of twentieth-century conservatism. The bankruptcy of the left, on the other hand, reveals itself in the left’s refusal to concede the validity of conservative objections to the welfare state. The only consistent criticism of the “servile state,” as it was called by Hilaire Belloc, came from those who demanded either the restoration of proprietorship (together with the drastic measures required to prevent the accumulation of wealth and property in the hands of the few) or the equivalent of proprietorship in the form of some kind of cooperative production. The first solution describes the position of populists like Belloc and G. K. Chesterton; the second, that of syndicalists and guild socialists, who briefly challenged social democrats for leadership of the labor movement in the period immediately preceding World War I. According to Georges Sorel, the superiority of syndicalism to socialism lay in its appreciation of proprietorship, dismissed by socialists as the source of “petit-bourgeois” provincialism and cultural backwardness. Unimpressed by Marxian diatribes against the idiocy of rural life, syndicalists, Sorel thought, valued the “feelings of attachment inspired in every truly qualified worker by the productive forces entrusted to him.” They respected the “peasant’s love of his field, his vineyard, his barn, his cattle, and his bees.”
“Proprietorship” is a key concept for Lasch, and he think it ought to be central to what he wants to see emerge, which is a kind of conservative populism — a genuine populism, not what goes by that name in 2021 and often did in 1990, a mélange of petty social and cultural resentments.
The cultural populism of the right is a populism largely divested of its economic and political content, and it therefore does not address the issue that ought to engage the imagination of conservatives: how to preserve the moral advantages of proprietorship in a world of large-scale production and giant organizations.
That those giant organizations have now added to their arsenal the resources of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” makes the addressing of this issue even more urgent. Lasch: “The ideal of universal proprietorship embodies a humbler set of expectations than the ideal of universal consumption, universal access to a proliferating supply of goods. At the same time, it embodies a more strenuous and morally demanding definition of the good life.” But it will be very difficult for anyone successfully to promote universal proprietorship because “a more equitable distribution of wealth, it is now clear, requires at the same time a drastic reduction in the standard of living enjoyed by the rich nations and the privileged classes.”
Still, the issue must be confronted, the question must be raised. “Our grandchildren will find it hard to understand, let alone to forgive, our unwillingness to raise it.”
Lasch’s whole essay points towards two solutions — that of the Distributists, whom he calls “populists,” and that of the guild syndicalists. But after he introduces both, he speaks thereafter only of populism. He doesn’t say why, but I suspect — indeed I am sure — that he sees such populism as compatible with American history and the American character in ways that syndicalism simply is not. A William Jennings Bryan is imaginable in America but not in the Basque country; a Mondragon collective is imaginable in the Basque country but not in America, the Amana Colonies notwithstanding.
I have some questions about this. First of all, I am not sure that it makes sense to call Distributism populist, though perhaps all Lasch means to indicate there is an appeal to a deeply ingrained American preference for rugged individualism, for freedom conceived in purely personal terms, as opposed to the collective, communal character of guild syndicalism. But along the lines of that distinction: Is it possible, though, that recent changes in the American psyche, the American character — many of us are, after all, pretty thoroughly disconnected from our own history, though mere ignorance and through a set of habits newly enforced by our technologies — could make at least some of us more receptive to a model of social organization that acknowledges the limits of individualism while simultaneously declining to take the path of state socialism? Could, after all, a Mondragon moment happen here?
There’s a lot to unpack here. I am especially interested in asking whether anarcho-syndicalism might be more conducive to healthy families than either state socialism or surveillance capitalism are. (My fear about populism, at least as we have it now, is that it is prone to generate the former as a reaction or be absorbed into the latter.) But I want to keep thinking along these lines.
UPDATE: Russell Arben Fox wrote to share an excellent recent post of his on these matters — I had somehow missed it. I’m going to reflect on that too and report back later. Russell is right to note that movements along the lines I suggest are already happening, but on a small scale and not really in the public eye. And maybe that’s the way these endeavors, by their very nature, have to happen. But I’d like to see a larger public conversation about political and social options beyond the ones we have to hear about every single day.
I’ll never say anything authoritative about any of these matters, but I do want to think better about them.