[lbo-talk] US conservatism

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Thu Jan 31 14:39:33 PST 2019

Back in the late 1940s - early 1950s when modern conservatism was getting started with people like Bill Buckley, Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, along with ex-leftists like Max Eastman and James Burnham, they were challenging what was then the prevailing political consensus of the ruling class, which embraced the limited social democracy that came in with the New Deal. Hence, these people were forced to attempt to develop penetrating critiques of the liberalism of FDR, Truman, and their successors. In other words, they had to take on the arguments for economic planning, a broad welfare state, extensive government interventions in the economy, etc. and attempt to refute them while spelling out a convincing case for a return to an expanded role for markets in economic life. Thus, Hayek’s ruminations on the 'socialist calculation' problem, which he generalized into a critique of economic planning, Burnham's critiques of 'bureaucratic collectivism' which, following his swing to the right, he was able to wield against social democracy and New Dealism, etc.

Not surprisingly, some of these people therefore produced work of high intellectual caliber. For instance, the work of Hayek and von Mises on the 'socialist calculation' problem has had the honor of being taken seriously by eminent socialist and Marxist economists (i.e. Oskar Lange, Abba Lerner, Ernest Mandel, and Paul Cockshott) although these people have responded to Hayek's arguments in diverse ways. Bill Buckley, while not himself a particularly original thinker, was able to assemble a team of astute conservative writers and thinkers around his magazine, National Review.

Since these people back in the 1950s and early 1960s were fighting was very much an uphill battle, they were forced into doing some good work. All this began to change, once the ruling class, from the mid-1970s on began to turn against the Great Society and New Deal, and sought to roll back the gains, made by popular movements in the 1960s but even the earlier gains made back in the 1930s. Now the mainstream of the US and UK ruling classes began to openly embrace the ideas that people like Hayek, Buckley, Milton Friedman, Kirk and their friends had been advancing for years. Socialism, as always, was trashed but now the welfare state itself was denounced as an impediment to economic efficiency and productivity and as inimical to individual liberty. In this way, the interests of the rich were promoted at the expense of the poor.

Not surprisingly, millions and millions of dollars began to flow into all sorts of right-wing think tanks and institutes: from the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, all the way on down. Wealthy right-wingers began to flood major universities with contributions in order to endow chairs and departments that would advance rightist positions in the academic world. Certain disciplines like economics and to a lesser extent, political science, fell under right-wing domination. The hegemony of the right in the political discourse of the US and Great Britain seemed assured. Even when center-left governments ruled (the Clinton and Obama Administrations in the US and Tony Blair's New Labour in the UK), discussions of economic and social policy proceeded on the basis of right-wing assumptions. And yet, one cannot help noticing that a certain rot seems to be setting in here. The right has in power, proven no more able to resolve the contradictions of capitalism than were the liberals and social democrats. Lower taxes and less regulation have proven to be no more of a panacea than had increased government spending and the creation of new social programs had for the liberals and social democrats. Nearly forty years ago when Thatcher and Reagan came to power, the right could portray itself as offering fresh ideas for solving problems that had proven intractable for the liberals and social democrats. But now we are here three-and-half decades later many of the old problems still unresolved along with new problems that seem beyond the ken of the best brains of the right.

One important area of incoherence within conservative thought is over the sanctity of free market capitalism. Social conservatives want to uphold orthodox forms of religion and of traditional morality on the one hand, while upholding the sanctity of capitalism and the free market on the other. As a certain Bearded Guy in Europe once wrote:

"The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before \they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

Back in the 1960's, Bill Buckley, in his one major serious excursion into political philosophy attempted to square the circle here of reconciling social conservatism with free market liberalism. He failed, and his treatise on political philosophy never appeared in print. Some years later, Buckley reported in his book, Cruising Speed, that his old friend, J.K. Galbraith, attempted to convince Buckley to come into the academy, and presumably become a professor. Buckley resisted these entreaties, no doubt, with good reason.

Here is how Buckley expressed himself on this matter:

"...the theoretical depth is there, and if I have not myself dug deep the foundations of American conservatives, at least I have advertised their profundity. How can I hope to do better against positivism than Voegelin has done? Improve on Oakeshott's analysis of rationalism?...What does it take to satisfy, to satisfy truly, wholly?...A sense of social usefulness...How will I satisfy those who listen to me today, tomorrow? Hell, how will I satisfy myself tomorrow, satisfying … myself so imperfectly, which is not to say insufficiently, today; at cruising speed?"

However, even if Buckley had the combined intellects of Voegelin and Oakeshott, joined with the economics acumen of a Friedrich Hayek or a Milton Friedman, he still would not have been able to solve the problem that he had set for himself, since he was dealing here with contradictions that are inherent in capitalism as a mode of production and as a social formation.

Jim Farmelant http://independent.academia.edu/JimFarmelant http://www.foxymath.com Learn or Review Basic Math

____________________________________________________________ Gut Doctor "I Beg Americans To Throw Out This Vegetable Now" unhealthpublications.com http://thirdpartyoffers.juno.com/TGL3141/5c537972961bb79727bfest03vuc

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list