The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism?

Matt Continetti's essay on the crisis of American authority called to mind this passage from a perceptive analysis of neoconservatism that Tod Lindberg published several years ago:

... The neoconservative critique of capitalism drew heavily on Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In the neoconservative view, capitalism -- salutary though it was with respect to the efficient allocation of goods and services and accordingly unparalleled as a means for the advancement of people's material prosperity -- was in crisis. The source of this crisis was the deficiency of self-propulsion of capitalism itself. Capitalism, in this view, required something neither contained within nor perpetuated by its system of market economics. This "something" was, in effect, Weber's Protestant ethic: a set of virtues or habits of character -- including thrift, industry, temperance, patience, persistence, and so forth -- whose origin and sustenance came from religious faith and the expectation of salvation as a reward for right earthly conduct. In the absence of these virtues, capitalism could not flourish. Yet capitalism itself did nothing to encourage the virtues upon which it depended. On the contrary, in certain respects, capitalist consumer society worked to undermine those virtues. Whereas once Americans thought it morally praiseworthy and necessary to save money for future consumption, with the arrival of installment credit in the early twentieth century, the habit of deferred gratification gave way to a demand for instant gratification. In the long run, the demand for instant gratification would subvert properly functioning markets and the long-term time horizon required for the success of capitalism.

... by the mid-1980s, many of those traveling under the "neoconservative" label (whether they did so voluntarily or not) had abandoned the original neoconservative critique of capitalism. There were, no doubt, many reasons for abandoning it, including the abatement of inflation and the beginning of a long period of economic growth following the 1982 recession. Stagnation and decline no longer looked to be quite so certain an eventual future as they did in the 1970s. Moreover, with the arrival of glasnost and perestroika in Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, centrally planned economies no longer looked to be at all a viable alternative to, even if a poorer performer than, market economies. It became increasingly clear that central planning was a route to economic disaster. The notion that a centrally planned system was somehow going to displace the market systems that were doing so well became less and less plausible.

I think, however, that the most important reason for the neoconservative abandonment of the neoconservative critique of capitalism is that it became harder and harder to find evidence regarding the "depleting moral capital" of capitalism. I do not mean by this that capitalism came somehow to be regarded as a source of moral regeneration or of morality (though some were willing to go that far); I mean only that the system's potential for self-perpetuation became more evident. In practice, the system did not lack, but rather seemed to embody, whatever "ethic" was necessary to propel market economies. This "ethic," moreover, was looking less and less Protestant in character and more and more entrepreneurial, involving the acceptance of risk in exchange for the prospect of reward.

I take this view of the resilience of capitalism and market economics to be conventional wisdom now -- and, moreover, to be correct.
Well, maybe. I tend to ping-pong back and forth between Lindberg's "conventional wisdom," with its faith in the essential resilience of capitalism, and the original neoconservative position. But it must be said that the former point of view is looking rather more battered and rather less self-evident today than it did when Lindberg was advancing it just four short years ago. (Ah, for a little more Calvinism - and a little less, er, "depleted moral capital" - in the offices of America's lending institutions ...)

In a sense, then, the time seems ripe for a rediscovery on the Right of the old "two cheers for capitalism" spirit - the outlines of which are visible, I think, in Continetti's cultural critique of CEOs, celebrities and Beltway big shots. But on the other hand, the time also seems ripe for a vigorous right-of-center defense of free-market capitalism against the left-wing corporatism that looms as a likely political alternative. (Thus my no-doubt-overstated anxieties about libertarianism's potential envelopment by liberalism.)

Since I still believe in some kind of fusionism, I don't think that these two perspectives on our current crisis are necessarily inconsistent - which is to say that I think it's possible to envision an intellectually healthy American Right that's influenced by Rod Dreher and the Cato Institute. But it's possible to imagine all sorts of things; that doesn't mean they'll happen. The current liberal moment has been made possible, in part, by conservatism's struggle to find the right balance on these fronts - between dynamism and traditionalism; between economic liberalism and social conservatism; between political reform and cultural renewal. I think that balance exists, I think it's worth seeking, and I think it's essential to American exceptionalism. But that doesn't mean it's easy to find - or that the next generation of conservatives aren't destined to founder on the same set of tensions that helped make the Bush Era something less than a ringing success.