When Capitalism lost First Things …

There have been murmurs — if I could recall from where, I’d link them — that the current editors at First Things have been sounding awfully friendly to socialism — “socialism” being the knee-jerk response of people too suave and educated to call others “commies,” but too trapped in an Overton Bubble to conceive of anything other than communism, socialism and capitalism as economic categories (which pretty well makes capitalism a no-brainer, conveniently enough).

Now, in the October 2017 issue, R.R. “Rusty” Reno, the greybeard among the editors, has burst out of the closet, throwing down gauntlets as he marches:

The recent passing of Michael Novak prompted me to take up his masterpiece once again. I first read The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in the 1980s. At the time, I had no illusions about socialism. It was obviously a failure, economically, politically, and morally. But like so many of my peers, I assumed capitalism to be morally suspect as well. Michael’s book helped me, as it helped so many others, to see that a free market economy has distinctive moral and spiritual contributions to make to a healthy society. Rereading The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism today, however, my reaction is different. Capitalism is not a choice, as it seemed to me and many others when Michael wrote his book. It is our fate—and our problem.

… A healthy society … stands on three sturdy legs: a free economy; liberal, democratic political institutions; and a Judeo-Christian moral ecology that prizes human dignity and encourages self-discipline, social trust, and individual initiative.

This analysis is elegant. It influenced John Paul II’s important statement of Catholic social doctrine, Centesimus Annus (1991), and played an important role in the outlook of First Things. We sought to keep the three legs in balance, which meant defending economic freedom and democratic institutions, while at the same time insisting on the importance of religious and moral substance in the public square. But we overestimated the stability of the three-legged system. We could not see how much it depended upon a historical moment that is now passing away.

In all likelihood, Michael was right, as the rise of an authoritarian liberalism keen to squelch dissent indicates. But therein rests the problem we face. The “new birth of freedom” that Michael championed largely came to pass. And it has tended to weaken the two other legs holding up society: democratic institutions and a vital religious and moral culture. … Capitalism, now global in scope, is swallowing up more and more of civic life, so much so that in some contexts economists and policymakers present free market principles as ironclad laws about which we have no choice. Dwindling manufacturing jobs, technological displacement, global flows of labor and capital—we are told we have no alternative. This is a cruel reversal of what Michael commended as the source of freedom and openness.

Since 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union, the governing consensus has held that America’s interests lie in ever-greater economic globalization. We will flourish to the extent that we position ourselves at the center of the global economic system. This turns out to be true—for some, but not for all. Today, we’re seeing a growing divide in America between those who participate in the global economy and those who don’t. … [W]e underestimated the flesh-eating character of our free market economy, which now markets “community” and uses “social justice” as a way to sell products. Buy TOMS® shoes, and help someone in need! Today, large-scale global companies scramble to position themselves as agents of social change. The result is a political placebo, one that substitutes social-therapeutic gestures for genuine solidarity and civic engagement. The market is becoming the dominant mode of our social engagement, with social media leading the way. This diminishes democratic culture.

And what about the third leg, the Judeo-Christian religious and moral tradition? Here First Things has a long record of vigorous and unstinting advocacy. I can’t think of another significant journal that has been as relentless during the past generation in its warnings about the dangers of a naked public square. Yet we’ve seen setback after setback, and the corporate tsunami that recently swept through Indiana after it passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act made clear the link between global capitalism and progressive clear-cutting of traditional religious culture and morality. There are many business leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, and others who sympathize with our mission, of course. But they know they will be punished “by the market” if they speak up. “Bigotry is bad for business,” we’re told by management consultants and corporate gurus, and “diversity” brings greater innovation and success. As we know, “diversity” does not mean a richly textured and open society. It means agreeing with progressive cultural commitments to “openness,” which in turn means accepting the authority of a rigid, punitive ideological system.

Needless to say, Michael Novak did not foresee these outcomes when he wrote The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism any more than I did when I thrilled to his insights more than three decades ago. …

In his last article for First Things (“The Future of Democratic Capitalism,” June/July 2015), Michael summed up his spiritual endorsement of capitalism: … But Michael did not give due emphasis to an equally important aspect of our humanity, which is our desire to give ourselves in loyalty to permanent things. As a man of faith, he certainly knew and affirmed this dimension: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. But in his enthusiasm for open, upward transcendence—a constant theme in his work—he lost sight of our need for anchors. As a consequence, he described the anthropology of capitalism in a one-sided way. Its fearsome dynamism speaks to part of our soul, but it neglects and even works against the part that cherishes permanence.

… We are told that we are not required to think or live in any particular way—except that we can’t think or live in ways that constrain, compromise, or even throw doubt on anyone else’s free decision to think or live differently. Taken to its logical extreme—everything is permitted as long as it permits everything—this becomes a paradoxical totalitarian toleration that is all the more dangerous because it deludes those who promote it into thinking that when they drive all dissent from the public square, they are “including.”

All of this dovetails frighteningly well with the dynamism and openness of capitalism, which is also presented as obligatory. And its partial anthropological resonance means that a part of our soul—the dimension that, taken in isolation, thrills to today’s gnosticism and its promise of freedom from all constraints, even those imposed by nature and our bodies—is given great encouragement. This antinomianism—which, again, is presented as “history’s” obligatory verdict—casts a dark shadow on the West in the twenty-first century, not the Soviet Union or older forms of centralized, totalitarian control.

Retro figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn gain traction, not because voters believe in socialism, but because they intuit that they cannot live in a world of pure dynamism and openness. We are drowning in freedom. …

Retro-socialism is a dead end. But in the absence of alternatives that promise stability and relief from the existential exhaustion of perpetual dynamism, Sanders, Corbyn, and others on the left are likely to garner support. The same can be said for populist sentiments that endorse nationalist economic policies of protectionism and subsidies that fly in the face of free market principles.

It is time, therefore, to set aside the notion that the problems we face in the West can be solved by stiffer doses of economic freedom. In parts of Asia, Africa, and other areas of the world, this prescription has merit. But here it’s pure homeopathy. What we need is quite different.

… What Michael Novak failed to recognize—what we must acknowledge—is that the dynamism of free market capitalism invades, overturns, refashions, and sometimes destroys these places of rest.

It is inhumane to forsake the dynamism of capitalism. But it is also inhumane to think that quality sufficient. In 2017, we need to think about how to direct economic freedom toward service of the common good.

(All emphases added)

I may have more to say about Reno’s essay later — I’ll be surprised if I don’t. I just encountered it this afternoon (I’d heard rumors that he’d done something big in this issue). For now, just a few things:

  • Capitalism is an enemy of traditional life and religious freedom. The Battle of Indianapolis just made that obvious, but I have studied the history, and this antipathy goes back at least 120 years.
  • True conservatism therefor must be at best uneasy with capitalism.
  • When Capitalism has lost the full-throated support of First Things, it just might be in trouble.
  • Communism, Socialism and Capitalism are not the only polities. Smash the Overton Window! Resist!

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

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