Last Friday, the National Grid shut down power to various parts of the South-East as two of its generators failed. As the power cut began, my family and I were on a train coming back to London after a day trip to have lunch with my parents. Facing unspecified delays, and with a small baby and a two-year-old in tow, we made an early and executive decision to call the local taxi firm and order a ride back to South London. It cost us £120, which given the circumstances we were happy to pay.
Fortunately, we made an early call. Many who made a similar decision later on found themselves at the mercy of Uber, facing huge price hikes. Apparently, the Uber algorithm, more sensitive than the local cab company to the fluctuations of supply and demand, sent prices through the roof. A similar power cut in March 2018 meant that stranded commuters were faced with Uber price surges of up to 500%.
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Amongst the most disturbing lessons that my father attempted to teach me as a child was that something is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it. There is no such thing as intrinsic value, he maintained. Value is simply a function of supply and demand.
Well, I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. For the kindly Muslim taxi driver that took us home, the algorithm was pretty simple: the job was worth his time plus his costs plus a reasonable profit. Our misfortune was not something to be exploited by a profit-maximising algorithm. And I thank him for that.
Now it may have been entirely incidental that our cab driver was a person of faith. And I absolutely do not put his behaviour down to the fact that, as a believer, he was a better person than those greedy, pagan executives over at Uber. But what I did wonder, as we trundled down the M1, was whether we had been the beneficiaries of a world-view in which things do, in fact, have intrinsic value.
The Uber algorithms, perfectly embodying the spirit of market forces, make all value beholden to fluctuations of supply and demand. Here, nothing is fixed. Everything is relative. It’s a metaphysics, of sorts. Or perhaps – because it’s so wholeheartedly materialist – an anti-metaphysics. Capitalism represents the triumph of the immanent – that there is nothing to human value except the ebb and flow of human behaviour. Value is not rooted in anything transcendent, beyond the continual drift of human desire.
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This is why, at a philosophical level at least, capitalism and religious belief are fundamentally enemies. The former is inherently relativistic and free-floating, the latter rooted in a view of the world where there are immutable and stable values.
I mention this little story only because it sits neatly alongside a movement that seems to be gathering force, especially in the US, in which conservatives – and often religious conservatives – are ousting socialists as some of the most thoughtful critics of capitalism. Last year Peter Kolozi, an academic at the City University of New York, published a timely historical survey of the long tradition of anti-capitalism within US conservatism. To those who have become used to conservatives being capitalism’s most high-profile cheerleaders, this notion may seem odd. But there is no necessary connection between conservatism and capitalism: indeed, there is a strong case that they are antithetical. And that case is re-emerging.
For instance, as Kolozi points out, conservatism in the post-Bellum American South looked suspiciously upon capitalism as a northern phenomenon that threatened the traditional structures of community life. This was a version of conservatism that sought to maintain a form of life built upon racial privilege. And most of us are glad it was destroyed.
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But the South’s experience of capital’s power to destroy traditional community structures – for good or ill – formed an important part of the traditional conservative tradition (often known as paleo-conservatism) and its attitude towards capitalism.
As Kolizi explains, this tradition came to be obscured by the Cold War. Given the threat posed by communism, anti-capitalist conservatives threw in their lot with free-market conservatives, united against a common enemy. But the end of the Cold War, the 2008 financial crash, worries about globalisation, and the collapse of faith in the market’s ability to sustain community life – often code for church and family – has exposed old divisions within the conservative family. Thus people like Fox news presenter and Trump supporter Tucker Carlson are beginning to say things like this: “Market capitalism is not a religion. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families isn’t worth having.” Damning the “mercenaries” of the capitalist class, Carlson called for:
“a fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. A country whose leaders don’t accelerate the forces of change purely for their own profit and amusement.”
This could almost have been Bernie Sanders.
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The conservative case against capitalism is built on three basic differences between the two ideologies.
First, the obvious point. Conservatives like to conserve. By contrast, capitalism is the most powerful change-agent the world has ever seen. Karl Marx had it right when he explained capitalism in the opening chapter of The Communist Manifesto:
“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.
To those who are capitalism’s most vigorous moral proponents, this is its virtue: creative destruction. When what is being destroyed is a society of racial superiority, as with the American South, that is a good thing. But when what is being destroyed is a whole infrastructure of mutual care and support – family, unions, church, stable communities – then we might think very differently.
The second difference is the one alluded to in my taxi story: capitalism’s anti-metaphysics – or, to use Marx’s expression, the profanation of the holy. It is not incidental that religion has played an important role within the conservative tradition. For religious belief locates value beyond the to-ing and fro-ing of human desire, beyond human subjectivity. God is the fixed point around which human value turns.
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But hang on, weren’t the religious right of the Regan era, for instance, capitalism’s biggest fans? Yes, but this was more to do with their pathological hatred of Soviet Communism and its programmatic atheism. During the Cold war, the Christian Right imagined that their enemies’ enemy – capitalism – to be their friend. The new style anti-capitalist conservative of the Carlson variety believes this alliance to have been short-sighted.
Third, anti-capitalist conservatives maintain that the moral life is a communal and necessarily rooted activity. They put particular value on loyalty to place and kin as necessary constituents of moral formation and of human flourishing.
In this regard, they have begun to whisper to each other that the global reach of multi-national capitalism is undermining the very basis of moral existence and human happiness. Capitalism severs people from their roots, treating human labour as just another commodity to be moved around the world at the service of supply and demand.
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These new-look conservatives have a totally different feel to the ones that progressives have been used to dealing with. Take someone like Kentucky farmer and contemporary poet Wendell Berry. Radically committed to the environment, a lyricist of human rootedness, implacably hostile to technology, broadly Christian, in many ways he feels more Left than Right, yet his moral vision fits more comfortably within the old tradition of Southern Agrarians than it does within that of the progressives.
Or take American writer Rod Dreher, more obviously on the Right, yet whose Benedict Option advises a withdrawal from the values of capitalism:
“what has been missing from capitalism for a long time is any sense of morality, care for neighbor and community, and love for the “other” that Christianity absolutely demands, but that this current iteration of capitalism says is foolish.”
The US TV Series American Gods is premised upon the idea of a war between the old Gods of religion and the new gods of technology and celebrity and finance. This is the war that a new generation of American Conservatives have now joined. J. D. Vance, for example, the Conservative author of Hillbilly Elegy, was baptised a Catholic last week. Agreeing with Carlson, he has asked: “What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric?”
Even Vance, a venture capitalist, is wobbling in his faith in the redemptive potential of corporate finance. I suspect that is why he has chosen the old gods over the new.
Ironically, it is progressives – the Clintons, for example – who continue to look to the gods of finance to drive us all towards the sunny uplands of a bright new world. Historically, it is liberalism that was formed alongside capitalism, and liberalism – especially classical liberalism – that shares the same basic assumptions about the freedom of the individual. That is why, for instance, woke liberalism and Silicon Valley capitalism sit so neatly together. And why, to the bafflement of many on the traditional Left, the case against capitalism is now being made more forcibly from the Right.