Conservatives Against Capitalism: From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization
by Peter Kolozi.
Columbia University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 250 pages. $60.


Right-wing opposition to capitalism is well-known in European politics. As Marx once noted, the reactionary opposition to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment was bound up with the desire to “see everything as medieval and romantic” in the premodern age that these movements had laid to rest. Conservatives on the other side of the Atlantic have always pined for a bygone age of stolid virtue, natural hierarchy, and tradition that once nobly resisted the bourgeois calculus of subjective values, individualism, and progress. The favored instrument of these corrosive forces was filthy lucre, which, in the famous words of Marx, fabricated a world in which “all that is solid melts into air.” As E. P. Thompson shows in his classic The Making of the English Working Class (1963), the English landowners of the nineteenth century who opposed free trade found a natural ally in the agricultural proletariat. Both of these classes despised the bourgeoisie for abolishing the protectionist Corn Laws that had benefited them to varying degrees. Nor has right-wing anti-capitalism in Europe faded into history. In the 2017 national election in France, the far-right populist Marine Le Pen accused her opponent Emmanuel Macron of desiring a nation that is merely a “space, a wasteland, a trading room where there are only consumers and producers.”

To most American political scientists and historians, these rumblings across the pond are the echoes of a feudal past that America never had. As Louis Hartz and scores of other scholars have insisted, America was born a liberal or Lockean republic, blessedly unsaddled with a medieval heritage at the core of romanticist desires for a premodern age. America has also always equated conservatism with capitalism. It is perfectly logical to assume, according to this narrative, that the only forces that have resisted capitalism in America have come from the Left.

In his illuminating history of anti-capitalist sentiments on the American Right, Peter Kolozi takes dead aim at this conventional wisdom. As he persuasively demonstrates, America has always had conservatives who opposed capitalism, particularly the simon-pure free market version. Moreover, these enemies of the unregulated market economy have not been mere flashes in the pan. Some of the most important figures in American history, including John C. Calhoun and Theodore Roosevelt, have been right-wing adversaries of the moneyed classes. This tradition may even be enjoying a resurgence, as Kolozi persuasively contends, due to the rising instability and socioeconomic inequality that have bedeviled American capitalism since the near collapse of the system in 2008. Even if most establishment conservatives no longer undertake a systematic critique of capitalism, the populist insurgency of Donald Trump arguably builds on a tradition that has never been comfortable with laissez-faire.

Kolozi does an impressive job of discussing different traditions in American history that count as hostile to capitalism. Unsurprisingly, he devotes considerable attention to the South, the one region of America that has a discernibly feudal past. Kolozi credits both the antebellum defenders of slavery (including Calhoun but also James Henry Hammond and George Fitzhugh) and the twentieth-century Southern Agrarians (including John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren) with producing some of the most penetrating critiques of laissez-faire capitalism, even if their motives stemmed from the self-interested desire to preserve racial hierarchy and privilege. “Proslavery thinkers confronted a tension that has always plagued American conservatives, a tension between a capitalist economic system and a conservative culture, society and politics. For the defenders of slavery, capitalism bred class warfare, a spirit of selfish individualism, and radicalism, all of which were ingredients for a revolutionary upheaval, which would inevitably lead to barbarism.” After the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, the violent class conflicts that pitted capital against labor in a rapidly industrializing economy persuaded the Agrarians, “the last gasp of a radically conservative critique of capitalism offered in American political thought,” to demand statist protections for poor white farmers threatened by big business.

It would be too hasty to dismiss these attitudes as the mere sentiments of the side that lost the Civil War, since Kolozi also persuasively shows that anti-capitalism in America has extended far beyond the borders of Dixie. In the early twentieth century, the wobbly state of the banking system, the lack of civic virtues among the plutocratic elite, and the closing of the frontier had convinced Teddy Roosevelt and his friend, the historian Brooke Adams, that something had to give. In their view, a new American “empire” that aggressively extended the global reach of America into new markets would not only provide the prosperity needed to unite the competing classes of capital and labor. This expansionism would present the opportunity for young American men to cultivate the virtues of toughness, sacrifice, and civic-mindedness. A “warrior aristocracy” would emerge out of this empire-building, providing stable leadership to a conflicted republic that the much-despised moneyed interests had shirked. However, this latter project turned out to be as much of a fantasy as the Agrarians’ project of restoring the hegemony of the yeoman white farmer in the South.

In the decades following the Great Depression and World War II, the cause of anti-capitalism on the American Right lost much of its former sting. Postwar prosperity along with the fear of communist aggression around the world convinced most conservatives during the Cold War that it was no longer relevant to question “the inner workings” of the capitalist system. Instead, the so-called “New Conservatives” of the 1950s, particularly Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, trained their rhetorical guns on the liberal welfare state that the New Deal had ushered into being. Big Government had replaced Big Capital as the true enemy of tradition, threatening local hierarchies, centralizing federal power, and undermining traditional culture and virtue.

To be sure, it would be unfair to argue that anti-capitalism on the Right disappeared off the radar during this period. Kirk was severely critical of the corporate despoliation of the natural environment while Nisbet blamed capitalism for destroying the intermediate institutions of civil society that provided the moral glue for modern America. Nevertheless, according to Kolozi, neither man showed much interest in practically transforming capitalism altogether. “Kirk proposed an antimodern romanticized inegalitarian petit-bourgeois economy. Nisbet idealized the days before World War I when there was an abundance of churches, voluntary associations, and mutual aid societies with ‘significant function and role in the larger society.’” Ultimately, the New Conservatives believed that moral instruction in “noneconomic values” would deal a necessary blow to the cold materialism and anomie of capitalism. Even the gadfly Peter Viereck, who, unlike his fellow New Conservatives, unconventionally supported statist action against the owners of capital when necessary, thought that a focus on old-time values was essential for saving the culture of America.

As the prosperity of the 1960s gave way to the stagflation of the 1970s, this preoccupation with cultural values enjoyed even more attention on the Right at a time when a more systematic critique of capitalism’s inner workings was arguably necessary. Kolozi writes:

After the events of the 1970s, it [the conservative critique of capitalism] was only a shell of its former self, devoid of the core elements of the historical critique that stressed the exploitative and dehumanizing aspects of capitalism, along with its threat to community, that were once important components of the conservative critique.

In came the “neoconservatives,” ex-liberal Democrats who were disillusioned with LBJ’s Great Society programs yet still supportive of a limited welfare state. If one looks upon the entire history of American anti-capitalist conservatism from a high plateau, the neoconservatives’ moment may well represent the nadir of this cause. In fact, it’s hard to understand why they are even included in a study of anti-capitalism on the American Right. Admittedly, Irving Kristol, the doyen of the movement, sounded as if he was building on an older conservative tradition when he lamented the decline of traditional virtues such as hard work and orthodox piety in the context of soulless consumerism, instant gratification (thanks to the credit card), and welfare-state dependency.

Neoconservatives today seem to channel TR when they call for a “benevolent global hegemony” (William Kristol) or a new imperial mission that can provide meaning, purpose, and a much-needed dose of the old manly virtues to the American masses who are mesmerized by “cultural nihilism” or the empty subjectivity of crass self-interest and libertinism. On the domestic side, neoconservatives since the Reagan era have supported tax cuts for the very wealthy to spur prosperity as well as encourage corporations to re-embrace the conservative values of hard work and investment in one’s community. Somehow this “supply-side economics” would bring about the long-awaited cultural transformation that anti-capitalist conservatives from the past had only imagined. Yet the fact that corporations have generously financed neoconservatives makes the latter a rather peculiar breed of anti-capitalist. If neoconservatives are as hostile to capitalism as Kolozi argues, they must be the wealthiest enemies of entrenched wealth in American history.

In his penultimate chapter, Kolozi turns to the “paleoconservatives” who, out of all the contemporary conservative anti-capitalists, “seek the most drastic changes to the nation’s political economy.” This chapter is the most relevant to today’s political climate, since Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency channeled paleoconservative themes such as opposition to Third World immigration, the protection of the American working class from foreign competition, and putting America’s interests first in economic and foreign policy. Yet even the paleos, including Pat Buchanan and Samuel T. Francis, have shown little interest in transforming capitalism except insofar as they wish to make the system more accommodating to the beleaguered working class, a project that is radical enough in an age of multinational corporations. The paleos yearn for a return to a traditional America of middle-class culture, low immigration, decentralized government power, and religious mores which, like all the other hierarchical practices from the past, global capitalism has effectively undermined. Ironically, the restoration of the America of the 1950s may require a counter-revolution that would not sit well with conservatives who are temperamentally suspicious of radical talk.

In the end, though, just how anti-capitalist are all these conservatives in America’s history? Kolozi, despite the somewhat misleading title of his book, provides ample reasons to ask this question. One of the recurrent themes of his study is to emphasize how every anti-capitalist movement on the Right eventually made peace with the nabobs of industry. Moreover, all of these movements were quite willing to tolerate class inequality. The antebellum slaveholders quickly discovered in the postbellum era that the new system of share-cropping controlled black labor and maintained racial hierarchy almost as effectively as slavery had. The Southern Agrarians did nothing to alter the state of racial apartheid that pitted poor black farmers against poor whites in Dixie. TR’s empire-building was a boon to export-driven industries, even though Wall Street despised his trust-busting policies. The New Conservatives of the 1950s tended to dismiss inequality as a “natural” phenomenon even as they blamed the awesome power of corporations on the managerial Leviathan state. In their view, big business was simply a passive bystander, not an agent, of these problems. The neoconservatives from the 1980s onwards have demanded tax cuts for the one percent even as they decry the empty commercialism of American society. Paleoconservatives who supported Trump may get more tariffs and fewer immigrants as a reward, but it’s hard to imagine a well-connected billionaire weakening the entrenched power of corporate interests in Washington anytime soon. In short, none of these movements has ever made the ruling class tremble.

In his concluding chapter, Kolozi urges President Trump to “confront the corporate dominance of our political and economic system,” a populist project that many Americans on the Left and the Right support. Leaving aside The Donald’s reluctance to undertake this task, however, both sides of the political spectrum face their own internal contradictions with regard to this objective. As Kolozi shows throughout his study, many anti-capitalists on the Right demand an end to corporate influence on the state even as they call on Leviathan to intervene in the market economy to cushion business and labor from the instability of capitalism. One doesn’t have to be an ardent libertarian to see that these anti-capitalists want their own version of state capitalism (or “crony” capitalism), a program that would hardly unseat entrenched corporate lobbies in DC.

Does the Left pose a greater threat to global capitalism today? Despite the anti-capitalist rhetoric on the Left, I doubt that Wall Street has much to fear from the other side of the political spectrum. One thought that kept recurring to me was the relevance of a parallel volume that discusses the history of pro-capitalist sentiments on the Left. From Marx onwards, radical leftists have counted on capitalism doing the dirty work of undermining traditional morality, religion, and the family so that the Left can fill the void with new forms of social engineering. Most leftists do not even call for the abolition of capitalism today, and why should they? In recent years big business has enthusiastically supported and financed initiatives to advance leftist causes such as transgenderism, multiculturalism, and open borders. The Canadian Tory philosopher (and anti-capitalist) George Grant once remarked, “The directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.” As Kolozi’s excellent study shows, successful opposition to entrenched political and economic power requires us to swim against the current.  

Grant Havers is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University (Canada). He is the author of Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013).