Hilaire Belloc

Anti-Capitalist Capitalism

When I say that capitalist democracy can hardly survive without a culture of traditional values, many Brazilian classical liberals, crazy about economics and devotees of the magic omnipotence of the market, assume an expression of horror, of scandal, as if they were facing a heresy, an intolerable aberration, an iniquitous and morbid thought that should never occur to a normal member of the human race.

In so doing, they are only showing their complete ignorance about capitalist economic thought. That modest opinion of mine, in fact, is not mine. It only reflects and updates concerns that have been tormenting the great theorists of capitalism since the beginning of the twentieth century.

One of the first to express it was Hillaire Belloc, in his memorable 1913 book, The Servile State, reprinted in 1992 by Liberty Fund. Belloc’s thesis is simple, and the facts have not ceased to bear it out: unleashed from moral, cultural, and religious control, and elevated to a supreme and autonomous dimension of existence, the market economy destroys itself, entering into symbiosis with political power and ending up transforming free labor into servile labor, private property into a temporary concession from a voracious and controlling state.

Tracking the origins of the process, Belloc noted that, ever since the Tudors’ plunder of the Church’s goods, every new attack on religion had been accompanied by one more wave of state attempts upon private property and free labor.

At the time he was writing The Servile State, the two most successful economic formulas embodied that dreadful evolution whose next step would be World War I. The roots of the conflict were most succinctly expressed by Henri Massis (who seems to have never read Belloc). In Défense de l’Occident (1926), he remarked that, in a despiritualized Europe, all mental space available had been filled up by the conflict “between Prussian Statism or Socialism and English anti-statism or capitalism”. Capitalism beat Germany in the battlefield, but was defeated by German ideas in the long run, bending ever more to the demands of statism, chiefly in the following war, when, in order to face Hitler’s National Socialism, it had to yield up everything to Stalin’s International Socialism.

Défense de l’Occident is a forgotten book today, smeared by the slander of charlatans like Arnold Hauser—who goes to the absurdity of classing the author among the protofascists—, but its diagnosis of the origins of the First World War remains unbeatable, having received ample confirmation from the most brilliant contemporary historian alive, Modris Eksteins, in his Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, published in 1990 by Doubleday (This is not to mention the prophetic accuracy of Massis’ warnings about the oriental invasion of Europe, which I will treat in a future article.) According to Eksteins, the Kaiser’s Germany, founded ona highly nationalized and bureaucratized economy, embodied the modernist rebellion against the free market-based Anglo-French parliamentary democracy. The latter emerged only apparently victorious: the war itself, above winners and losers, shattered the European order and wiped off the map the last remaining vestiges of the traditional culture in the liberal-capitalist scenario.

Another thinker who perfectly understood the conflict between market economy and the spiritless culture that this very same economy fostered more and more after World War I was Joseph Schumpeter. Capitalism, he said in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), would be destroyed, although not by the proletariat, as Marx’s prophecy had it, but rather by the capitalists themselves: insensitive to traditional values, they would ultimately let themselves be seduced by the charms of protective statism, the Siamese twin of the new modernist and materialist mentality.

That in the Roosevelt era and in the 1950s the statist proposal was personified by John Maynard Keynes, a refined homosexual bon vivant and protector of communist spies, is an eloquent symbol of the indissoluble union between anti-liberalism in economics and anti-traditionalism in everything else.

In the United States of the 1960’s, this union became patent in the “counterculture” of the youthful masses who substituted the old Protestant ethic of work, moderation, and parsimony for the cult of pleasure—pompously camouflaged as liberation of the mind—, while at the same time assailing, with unheard-of violence, the very same capitalism that furnished them with pleasures and the very same American democracy that secured them the right to enjoy these pleasures as they could never have done in their beloved Cuba, or in the North Vietnam they idolized. But the realm of the market is the realm of fashion: when fashion becomes anti-capitalist, the only idea that ever occurs to capitalists is to make money by selling anti-capitalism. The American culture industry, which in the last half century has probably grown more than any other branch of the economy, is nowadays a headquarters for communist propaganda more virulent than the KGB of the Cold War times. Here, the moral excuse is that the force of economic progress will ultimately absorb the enragés, emptying them little by little of all ideological presumption and transfiguring them into peaceful bourgeois. The individualist and consumerist hedonism that came to take over the American culture from the 1970s onward is the result of this disastrous alchemy, which is all the more disastrous because consumerism itself, instead of producing well-adjusted bourgeois, is a potent lever for revolutionary change, viscerally statist and anti-capitalist: a generation of voracious individualists, of leeches pretty well swollen with rights and insensitive to any moral obligation, is not a guarantee of peace and order, but rather a powder keg ready to explode in a chaotic irruption of impossible demands. By 1976, sociologist Daniel Bell wondered, in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, about the maximal lifespan of a capitalist economy founded on a crazed culture that hated capitalism to the point of demanding from it the fulfillment of all desires, all dreams and all whims, and at the same time of accusing capitalism of all crimes and iniquities. The answer came in 2008 with the financial crisis. The crisis resulted from the organized cynicism of the likes of Alinsky and Obama who consciously, coldly, planned to deplete the resources of the system, promoting, under the protection of the Nanny State, the most impossible ambitions, the most unfulfillable promises, the most extravagant expenses, in order to later blame the disaster on the system itself and prescribe as medicine more expenses, more state protection, more anti-capitalism and more hatred of the American nation.

In 1913, Hillaire Belloc’s previsions could still seem premature. It was legitimate to doubt them, for they were based on nebulous and virtual tendencies. In view of the fait accompli on a worldwide scale, the refusal to see the weakness of capitalism left to itself, without the defenses of traditional culture, is nothing but criminal obstinacy.

Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute. This article was originally published in the Brazilian newspaper Diário do Comércio on May 13, 2009 and translated from the Portuguese by Maria Inês de Carvalho and Alessandro Cota.