Is conservatism capitalist?

Alex Potter

Credit: Douglas
Credit: Douglas

When you think conservatism, you probably think capitalism or free-markets. No doubt, your instincts are correct. Yet, this connection that figures so prominently in the minds of Anglo-American conservatives and the public is not a necessary, or dare I say even desirable, one.

The union between traditionalists, libertarians and military-industrialists in a cold-war conservative coalition is well-known. Yet one of the main outcomes of that alliance is the triumph of a pervasive and often unquestioned free market capitalism.

Upon closer examination, we find that the big umbrella of capitalism in the conservative movement actually encompasses many and sometimes contradictory elements.

Big corporations vs. small business, big agriculture vs. family farms, upper class tax-cuts vs. middle class tax-cuts. In all of these conflicts of interest the rhetoric of capitalism can be deployed to favor one or the other interest groups.

Is it more capitalist or free-market to give a tax cut to the richest one percent of Americans or the top 30 percent?

Beyond the problem of interests, there is also a problem of philosophy inherent in the identification of conservatism with capitalism.

Capitalism is a materialist ideology, as is Marxism. Capitalism approaches man and human life as primarily driven by individual materialistic needs and ambitions.

This is anathema to prominent strains of conservative thought that instead approach man as a primarily spiritual and social being.

For example, capitalism is necessarily neutral on questions of morality. Whether child pornography flourishes or not, whether weapons are sold to Islamic extremists or democratic movements, for a true capitalist the only principle is the market.

Free markets are also one of the most socially disruptive forces, besides war, at work in our world. The fluidity of capital, particularly transnationally, can revolutionize communities overnight through loss of jobs and environmental damage.

The social fabric of communities is heavily bound to their economies and when the economy changes too rapidly, it majorly disrupts family and community bonds. Social conservatives in small towns across America are beginning to question the logic behind Walmarts and free markets that can change their towns irrevocably.

In reality, only the libertarian-minded fringe of the Republican Party are the “true believers” regarding free-markets. It’s a fallacy to conclude that conservatism is synonymous with capitalism.

Indeed, it is not its capitalism that makes much of America detest the Republican Party. Rather, it’s the party’s blatant favoring of specific economic classes and sectors for government benefits and tax-cuts.

If the conservative movement, as opposed to the Republican Party, is to gain ascendancy in America, they must jettison the simplifying rhetoric of “capitalism” in favor of an unabashed bias towards the economic interests of the middle and working class.

The Republican Party won these constituencies for years based upon social issues advocated on the back of a conservative grassroots movement. The middle class throughout history has been the most nationalistic, reactionary and socially conservative class.

Imagine the power of a movement based upon not only the social issues and patriotism that matter most to middle-class Americans but also the economic issues that plague their daily existence, like job outsourcing, mortgages and raising children.

That must be the message of the conservative movement. We are here to defend not only your values but also your livelihoods and communities.