Squaring the Conservative Circle

January 23, 2018   •   By Jacob Hamburger

Conservatives Against Capitalism

Peter Kolozi

The Reactionary Mind

Corey Robin

BEFORE HE TOOK the stage in Cleveland for the first debate of the GOP primaries — held a ridiculous 15 months before the election — Donald Trump had already crossed several of what were once thought of as political red lines, notably with his incendiary comments about Mexican immigrants. But there was another novelty in his debate performance, one that may have even satisfied some of his critics at a time when few considered him a serious contender for the far-off presidential race.

Trump’s rhetoric appeared to challenge long-established tenets of conservative economic orthodoxy. He disparaged the doctrine of free trade, indirectly defended single-payer health care, and stated bluntly that wealthy executives like himself take advantage of bankruptcy law and political campaign contributions for personal gain. Of course, Trump was never a sincere critic of plutocracy, but it was nonetheless shocking to hear him use his first national appearance as a Republican candidate to debunk the GOP’s rosy view of capitalism.

Two scholars on the left, Peter Kolozi and Corey Robin, have written books that help to make sense of this sudden shift in conservative rhetoric. For Kolozi, author of Conservatives Against Capitalism, the more radical economic views expressed by Trump and some of his supporters are a sign that we are in the midst of “a significant evolution in the conservative intellectual tradition.” However crudely, the American right has begun to question its long, unwavering support for capitalism.

Perhaps fearing that a renewed right-wing anti-capitalism will be led by the likes of Steve Bannon and the “alt-right,” Kolozi offers theoretical assistance for more respectable conservatives who may be willing to rethink their basic economic assumptions. Though its author is no conservative, the premise of Conservatives Against Capitalism is that the present moment offers a chance for the right to make use of this history, whether as a usable past or as a cautionary tale.

Kolozi’s achievement is placing various market-skeptic conservatives alongside one another in a common history to show that there has been in the United States, for nearly two centuries, an “ongoing critique of capitalism from the right.” His book makes abundantly clear that a large segment of the American right throughout its history has understood restraining the market or setting up alternative sources of social power — the family, the church, or the state — as indispensable measures for a conservative politics.

In Conservatives Against Capitalism, common themes emerge between otherwise vastly different conservatives across American history. For example, the slavery apologist James Henry Hammond, the turn-of-the-century social Darwinist Brooks Adams, and the reluctant neoconservative Daniel Bell all diagnosed the internal elements of capitalism that produced dangerous civil unrest. The thoroughly Yankee traditionalists Russell Kirk and Peter Viereck concurred with the Southern Agrarian nostalgics that industrial civilization was a threat to conservative virtue. And the “warrior-statesman” Theodore Roosevelt anticipated the neocons of the 1990s by proposing imperial adventure as a corrective to the decadent attitudes of market society. Like mainstream conservatives today, some of these figures were anti-statist. Others — from the trust-busting Roosevelt, to Irving Kristol and his “conservative welfare state,” to the paleoconservatives railing against transnational corporations — have not hesitated to call on government to use its power toward conservative ends.

A reminder of this history is useful our present moment. The free-market gospel is so dominant today that, as Kolozi writes, “anticapitalist thought in American conservatism is seldom discussed.” Critical discussions of capitalism are rare in mainstream discourse, and practically nonexistent right of center. Kolozi not only demonstrates that things have not always been this way, but he also provides several explanations for how conservative critiques of capitalism gradually lost their prominence.

The end of slavery, for example, removed the only American alternative to the capitalist system. With no actually existing model of an economic order in line with conservative values, right-wing thinkers were forced to accept capitalism as a fait accompli. Cold War anticommunism later led to a rhetorical shift in which “capitalism” became all but equivalent to “freedom” and “democracy.” As a result, postwar conservatives chose to forgo systemic analysis in favor of denouncing capitalism’s cultural flaws: the vulgarity of consumerism, the lack of virtue among corporate elites, and the erosion of religious structures. Conservatives Against Capitalism does not give a complete historical explanation for the decline of anti-capitalist conservatism within the contemporary conservative movement, but it establishes beyond a doubt that the current state of affairs is the exception rather than the rule. In a time when conservatives seem to have forgotten so much of their own anti-capitalist history, a reminder from the left may go a long way toward inspiring a renewed intellectual seriousness on the right.


There is a tradition in American intellectual history of liberals imagining the conservative opponents they wish they had, going back at least as far Lionel Trilling in the middle of the 20th century. Trilling was convinced that conservatism had no authentic basis in the United States, a liberal and commercial society with no Ancien Régime to defend. As a result, he wrote that “the conservative impulse” can only express itself in the United States through “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

Like John Stuart Mill before him in England, Trilling lamented this oafishness of American conservatism, fearing that liberalism could not survive without a worthy intellectual counterweight. Following his lead, many left-of-center writers have sought to square the circle of American conservatism, searching for a right capable of making sense of the fundamentally modern — that is, among other things, capitalist — character of the nation.

A number of left-leaning books over the years, for example, have attempted to find in neoconservatism a bona fide conservative school of thought. Peter Steinfels tentatively declared the policy-oriented neoconservatism of the 1960s and ’70s “the serious and intelligent conservatism America has lacked.” The liberal theologian Gary Dorrien wrote a similar analysis some years later, suggesting a possible dialogue between the neoconservatives and left communitarianism. For this tradition of thinkers on the left and center, a solution to the problem of conservatism is imperative not just for the right, but for the political health of a country ruled approximately half of the time by the intellectually aimless Republican Party. Kolozi appears to situate himself in this lineage, expressing hope that today’s conservatives will seize the opportunity “to confront the inherent tension in modern conservatism — between dynamic capitalism and the communities and values that conservatives wish to preserve.” For Kolozi, as for Trilling, this tension between conservative principles and capitalist economy is a, perhaps the, defining contradiction of the American right.

Kolozi is actually more charitable to the right than the many liberals who have followed Trilling and argued that the only conservatism possible in the United States is that of Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, or Glenn Beck. A central argument of his book is that conservatives, until recently, were well aware of the threats capitalism posed to their deepest beliefs. It is merely today’s conservative writers — pampered for most of their intellectual careers by the United States’s Cold War victory and the dominance of free-market economics — who are in need of a reminder of their forebears, who were more in touch with conservatism’s fundamental tension.

What is surprising about Kolozi’s participation in this tradition is that he is a former doctoral student of Corey Robin, who is perhaps the leading contemporary critic of the Trilling approach to American conservatism. Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, recently reissued and updated for the Trump era, is a knockdown critique of the notion of the moderate, respectable conservative intellectual. The book made a splash in 2011 with its claim that modern conservatism — whether that of Edmund Burke or Sarah Palin — is essentially a reaction against the egalitarian movements of the left.

While Robin does not deny the existence of intelligent, sincere conservative intellectuals, he asserts that no matter how insightful such thinkers may be, what makes them conservative is that they align themselves with those who seek to preserve existing hierarchies, or to create new ones. Such political movements are more often than not profoundly radical in their rejection of democracy. So, whereas some argue, in longing for a more thoughtful right, that the reactionary populism of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump is no true conservatism, Robin insists that these sorts of figures are just as authentically conservative as are respectable thinkers like William Buckley Jr., Friedrich Hayek, or Irving Kristol. In fact, conservatism as a historical movement requires both types in order to squash the agency of the dispossessed. For Robin, those who believe in equality and social justice will find little use in searching for intelligent adversaries among the forces of reaction.

Though they may appear to be at odds, the student and the teacher share a common project, complementing and correcting one another (while also appearing frequently in each other’s footnotes). This becomes apparent in the revisions to The Reactionary Mind. A response to the militarism of the Bush years, Robin’s original book highlighted, above all, the right’s hidden warlike instincts. In the updated version, Robin now explores not one, but two ideal types that have long enchanted the conservative mind: the “warrior” and the “businessman.” The warrior crushes his enemies on the battlefield, inspiring weaker souls to fall behind him; the businessman demonstrates his superiority through his efficient performance, earning himself luxury and influence.

Archetypes of the proper exercise of power, the warrior and the businessman represent the twin poles of the modern right’s imagination of hierarchy and who should sit at the top. Like Kolozi, Robin highlights “warriors” who saw the market worldview as incompatible with true conservatism, often citing the same examples as his student. But the most interesting moments of the 2017 Reactionary Mind are where he focuses on those who advanced the conservative movement by combining the two figures. We learn in a new chapter, for example, that although Burke is cherished by traditionalists as a defender of aristocracy, he in fact came to see capitalists as an alternative ruling class capable of crushing revolutionary insurrection. Despite detesting capitalism’s lack of martial vigor and political imagination, Irving Kristol played a key role in building the institutions of the Reaganomics establishment. Donald Trump himself appears as a characteristically incoherent blend of economic and military aggression, alternating between threats of nuclear war and threats of lawsuits.

By engaging with these conservative hybrids, Robin poses an even deeper challenge to Trilling than he did six years ago. He forces us to ask: What will happen should Kolozi’s project succeed? Where will we be the day today’s conservative intellectuals take a look in the mirror and realize that their reflexive defense of free-market capitalism is bad for conservative values? If conservatism has always been a dialogue between the warrior and the businessman, will such a realization leave it, or the country, any better off than it was with Burke, Kristol, or Trump in charge? This is an implicit question in Kolozi’s narrative as well — his book is a history of failed conservative attacks on capitalism — but he only tells one side of the story.

Conservatives Against Capitalism, however, is perhaps a necessary corrective to the excesses of The Reactionary Mind. Robin’s stark division between the forces of progress and the forces of reaction seems to suggest that there is no possible productive outcome of dialogue with thinkers on the right. He tends to suggest that conservative intellectuals are completely inseparable from conservatism as a historico-political phenomenon. This is a caricature, as Robin surely knows, as does anyone who has engaged as seriously as he has with Nietzsche, Tocqueville, and many of the other formidable figures among his list of villains.

Kolozi is right, as was Trilling, to seek sparring partners of the caliber of Burke, Hayek, and Kristol, even if he comes up short. Power alternates between left and right, and this sort of dialogue between intellectuals can potentially help fight the influence on both sides of dangerous ideologies, free-market zealotry not least among them. But what Robin reminds us, and what makes him a compelling reader of the present moment, is that this sort of dialogue has its limits. We may soon square the circle of American conservatism’s contradictions, but the reactionaries continue to run the country in complete indifference to such intellectual quibbles.


Jacob Hamburger is a writer and translator based in Paris.