A Brief History of Conservatism (III): Capitalism

Since the days of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party has been the defender of free market capitalism and, apparently, the prevailing global neoliberal consensus. The latest 2017 General Election manifesto, however, showed a desire to move away from this economic order to the more “middle-ground Toryism” of the days of Harold Macmillan, and so the question arises once again; why do conservatives defend free market capitalism, and – more importantly – when should they not?

The first important step to take, is away from the base-superstructure fallacy. To fix ourselves to a vision of society built on economic organisation is to play into the hands of Marxists who conceive of social relations as predicated on the base-superstructure fallacy, that the economic mode of relations determines how society is structured. The fact of the matter is the opposite; capitalism is not an inherent truth of human nature, but an expression of the truth that knowledge is dispersed and diffuse, much in the same way Hayek argued that no central agency can plan a price mechanism. Kieran O’Hara refers to this concept as the “Knowledge Principle”[1].

Furthermore, to fix our view of politics to a permanent conception of economic relations is to ignore also the utilitarian misunderstanding of individuals’ mental faculties. In short, we are not rational actors. Spinoza’s famous thought experiment of Buridan’s Ass provides us with an example of why: a donkey stands between two bales of hay, perfectly identical. The donkey is given, by some miracle, perfectly rational thought, yet will not be able to decide between the two bales of hay, and will therefore starve to death. The truth of the human condition provided by this thought experiment is that, while we have the capacity for rational thought, it is only following the satisfaction of basic desires that they can be exercised, and even then, emotional factors always influence our decisions, perhaps sometimes more than our rational faculties.

Those who blindly follow the doctrine of Marxism and Marx’s assumption of the base-superstructure fallacy, even if they reject his conclusion of socialism’s inevitability and defend instead economic liberty as a method through which political and social liberty can be achieved, make it possible for socialism to become true. The 1980s, when neoliberalism ran rampant across the Western world and tore down the social welfare systems of Great Britain and elsewhere, were perceived quite correctly by Michel Foucault as a period of a new method of governance, that altered the very way we deal with one another. Foucault’s argument, developed further by Thomas Lemke[2], was that we would begin to make moral decisions in the same way we would make economic decisions, as cost/benefit actions that should only ever improve our own position. This notion of “governmentality” proposed a new understanding of how the base-superstructure fallacy could be true; if, after all, we make our decisions in an economic manner, and the economic manner is one of prevailing selfishness, our moral order becomes one of selfishness also.

From this, we must move away from allowing the economic system to define our morality. The same is true the other way; Enoch Powell once argued that the parable of the Good Samaritan would mean nothing if there had been a Roman soldier forcing him to help the beggar[3]. Instead, this is where the conservative attitude to government comes into play (explored further in a forthcoming article); a free economy is the only sustainable method to deliver the funds needed to maintain a functioning military, welfare system and all the luxuries that Western culture has developed, but it is only with a strong sense of community and local loyalty – what Burke referred to in its very real sense as prejudice[4] – that the trust and principles upon which that free economy has developed in the first place can truly flourish. Here, the government of the day should do everything it can to promote the correct values and morality that will continue to allow the mechanism of the market to function, but the values can only ever be promoted, not enforced, otherwise the Good Samaritan is not good, and merely a citizen. 

In contrast to the conservative “reluctant capitalism”, the socialist view of economics and society aim towards the “rationalisation” of national economies, and takes a harder view of the role that the economic system should play. Socialism would attempt to fix commodity prices and wages in such a way that the economy would eradicate social injustices by removing wealth discrepancies that the economy has created; but the socialist misunderstanding of society’s relation to economic order literally puts the cart before the horse. The Marxist-Leninists discovered this in 1921 when, after eradicating private property and wealth discrepancies – at least, for some; the party was exempt, of course – social inequalities persisted. The social engineering of socialists that demands the eradication of those “in the way” of the march to Utopia recognises, even if those who implement it don’t, that the social order must be altered first if the economy is to fall in line. This is why, as Oakeshott argued, the rationalist agenda fundamentally destroys the knowledge base upon which it is founded[5].

But, as above, conservatives should avoid the permanent attachment to an economic order that would risk the primary organ of society, namely the civil order. In a House of Commons debate in 1943, for example, Quinton Hogg argued that “if you do not give the people social reform, they shall give you social revolution”[6]. Thereafter the Conservative Party adopted the popular (and populist) Labour agenda of extending the arm of the State further in the direction of Statism and dirigiste strategies aimed at the alleviation of social struggle and the Beveridge Report’s Five Evils. It was, after all, Harold Macmillan that delivered 2,000,000 affordable homes. The reason, it was argued, was that the wealth inequalities were an issue, not of justice, but of socio-practical concerns that were destroying the fabric of social life essential to maintain order, and sustain the institutions that would allow for the development of life in a virtuous direction[7]. Do we believe this to be the case now? Some conservatives say yes; some say no. Some don’t believe it matters. From my perspective, the pursuit of these socialist strategies must be separated from the socialist agenda; the sanctified ends of equality and utopianism, altars upon which the very fabric of the social order we seek to protect will be sacrificed, should be rejected for the dogma they are.

This is why, therefore, conservative defend capitalism; not as a tool through which culture, society and the individual can be shaped and controlled, but as an expression of the truth of society, and the spontaneous association between free individuals.

This article is the third in the ‘Brief History of Conservatism’ series by Jake Scott. The topic for the next article shall be ‘Government’.

[1] See Kieran O’Hara’s Conservatism.

[2] See Thomas Lemke, ‘The birth of biopolitics’

[3] See Ewan Green’s Ideologies of Conservatism, especially chapter nine

[4] See Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France

[5] See Michael Oakeshott’s essay, ‘Rationalism in Politics’.

[6] See Dean Blackburn’s article, ‘“For We Shall Prejudice Nothing”’ for the significance of this speech.

[7] See Peter Dorey’s Conservatism: The Politics and Philosophy of Inequality, especially chapter two

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