Transcending Woke Capitalism
by Mark Wegierski
There is currently a debate underway about the shape and future of conservatism in both America and Canada. But what should a genuine conservatism actually consist of? Conservatism today is a bewildered philosophy, an unwieldy morass of amorphous and mutually incompatible ideas. Despite decades of internecine debate, the contemporary conservative movement in Western societies has failed, generally speaking, to provide a coherent and consistent account of itself. No viewpoint that, holus‑bolus, seeks to unite Barry Goldwater under the same banner as T. S. Eliot could be otherwise. No “vital equilibrium” could ever be that vital.
What can be described as the current malformation of conservatism has been caused, in part, by its weak and problematic position vis‑à‑vis the modern world. The advance of left‑wing thought and praxis in modern society has compressed all competing “right‑wing” ideologies together, forcing the “fusion” of nineteenth‑century liberalism with traditional conservatism, so that distinctions between the two have become increasingly blurred.
This union of what were once two strongly distinct political philosophies is not only regarded as a necessary tactical alliance (as it may well might be) but as a new theoretical and philosophical “synthesis”. Post‑war American conservatism in particular has been preoccupied with sometimes ingenious rationalizations of this new philosophical outlook. George Nash, for example, in his book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, divided post‑war American conservatism into three main groupings: “traditionalists”, “fusionists”, and “libertarians”. Purely on the level of theory, “fusionism”, as a “shot‑gun marriage” between two once‑opposed positions, can be seen as difficult to justify. One could also question to what extent the establishment of “fusionism” as a touchstone idea has helped or hindered the disparate groups of the American Right.
Conservatism, in the traditional sense, is simply not “libertarian”. Pure libertarianism (as typified by the early Rothbard and Leonard Peikoff) is certainly not “traditionalist”. Indeed, these two currents have existed in opposition for the longest portion of their history (i.e., the struggle between “classical conservatism” and “classical liberalism”). Pure libertarianism itself is a radical restatement and reformulation of “classical” liberalism.
The issue is further confounded by the fact that, in America, the definition of what constitutes the “Old Right” is itself under question. A somewhat subtle definition embraces the Eurocentric thought of figures such as Eric Voegelin, Paul Gottfried, and Claes G. Ryn (among others); the philosophy of Burkean scholars such as the venerable Russell Kirk; the Southern Agrarian tradition and its intellectual representatives and litterateurs, notably M. E. Bradford, Wendell Berry, and Walker Percy; a dash of “Celticism”, especially as represented in the writings of Grady McWhiney; and a generalized defence of “heartland America”.
Historically‑speaking, on the practical and popular levels, much of the American “Old Right” was fiercely individualistic, ultra-pro‑capitalist, anti‑étatiste, and radically freedom‑centered -‑ whereas in Continental Europe and, to a lesser extent, in Britain and Canada, what can be called the true “Old Right” was its exact opposite ‑- community‑oriented, state‑centered and focussed on social and spiritual integration and harmony. In fact, pure “traditionalism” has barely existed in America, and “fusionism” (defined broadly as any mixture of classical conservatism and classical liberalism) is the natural form of conservatism therein. The question thus becomes one of what the appropriate “mixture” of these two philosophies should be, not of choosing “traditionalism” over “fusionism”.
Virtually all works attempting to advance an acceptable new definition or program for conservatism have had to face this paradox of the two different conceptions of the “Old Right”. For example, the first edition of The Conservative Movement (1988), co-written by Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming, is constrained by maneuvering within a strict statist -‑ anti‑statist paradigm. The rigid Goldwater‑esque “rugged individualism” of much of the “Old Right”, its relentless assaults on “welfare‑statism”, were probably its least appealing aspects, in terms of the over‑all population, and failed in any case to win it any significant funding from American big-business.
There certainly appears to be no possibility of turning back the clock to the supposedly conservative “Gilded Age”, that mythical era “before the New Deal”. And the social conservatism of heartland America is hardly compatible with the free‑wheeling, free‑booting amorality of contemporary big‑city capitalism, to which most American conservatives seem to genuflect. The book Cultural Conservatism, published in 1989 by the then-newly formed Institute for Cultural Conservatism (an off‑shoot of Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation), while flawed by its inability to identify the extensive classical conservative tradition, was in some ways more realistic in realizing that the issue is who is to assume control of the government, not whether there should be a government. A modern government will always be “welfarist” and bureaucratic in administrative practice; the point is to determine the ideas and beliefs that are transmitted through the programs and actions of that bureaucracy.
The over‑all situation of conservatism today is what might be described as “forced” ‑- without the luxury for doctrinal experimentation, with lackadaisical stances, and weak commitment to core ideas and programs. It is vital for the future of conservatism where and how conservatism’s lines of defence are drawn. The defence of capitalism and an atomistic individualism is a weak position; the defence of society, of community, and of family is a strong one.
The only real hope for conservatism in the modern age lies, then, in a re‑formulation of its social ethic, rather than in some rear‑guard defence of nineteenth‑century institutions and practices. Laissez‑faire capitalism is a discredited ideology, and conservatives should not hitch themselves to such a fading star. What does cutting taxes mean anyway, if society as a whole becomes a seething cauldron of polyglot, polymorphous perversity? After all, so much of what traditional conservatives find troubling about late modernity — such as a libertine entertainment culture — is entirely unconnected to government bureaucracy and mostly functions on a strictly free-market basis. This and the tech giants, as well as many large corporations, have been characterized as together constituting “woke capitalism”. [Editorial comment; Sky‘s opportunistic support for Black Lives Matter epitomises this trend]
At some point, those who consider themselves “conservative” must make a choice -‑ must choose what they value more ‑‑ family, or high finance; community, or capital; society, or the stock market; nature, or technology. Only by choosing the former set of values can conservatives maintain any sense of credibility and of theoretical unity. Insofar as they choose the latter set of values, they are surrendering the essence of conservatism.
Sociologist Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher