Ranting like yours against capitalism is so over, a vaguely neoconservative friend and writer of learned essays chided me last winter as I ranted, indeed, against proposals to privatize Social Security. Recently, another writer-acquaintance, David Brooks, chided French and Dutch voters for rebuffing higher living standards (more jobs and consumer goods) by refusing to ratify the European Union's proposed constitution, in an effort to defend their outmoded social-welfare networks and their ineffable quality of life.
But if resistance to global capitalism isn't as over over there as EU elites thought, couldn't its cheerleaders be missing something over here, too? I don't mean a demand for socialism, thank you, but, far more modestly, stirrings of a civic republicanism that has often had to save capitalism from itself, both here and abroad. Maybe the European majorities -- not just the French and Dutch but also the Danes and the Brits, who've kept out of the Euro currency -- are sending signals worth heeding. How can my opinion-maker friends tout democracy abroad but call it backward-looking whenever it rears its head? Yet they're pouncing so defensively on every doubt about the global cornucopia of competitiveness that you begin to wonder if there's something they're trying to hide.
Actually, I think I know what that is. But first, consider the signals from abroad. Shouldn't patriotic American conservatives, of all people, loathe the EU's unelected, post-nationalist, corporatist bureaucracy, whose sway Brooks once mocked as Belgian cultural hegemony? Even granting that the global free-marketeering of Ronald Reagan (and Margaret Thatcher) enabled the United States (and Britain) to outbid the European social democracies for investment and jobs, just how badly do American conservative patriots want continental Europe and the rest of the world to catch up? China is doing that, certainly. If they're really glad about that, are they patriots, or dreamy cosmopolitans, or international capitalists, or what?
OK, Europe isn't China, but leave nationalism aside and turn to higher principle: Are global capitalism's American cheerleaders really demonstrating responsible world leadership? Listen to the conservative columnist George Will, author a decade ago of Statecraft as Soulcraft, avoiding the latter now like the plague: America's hope, he wrote recently in Newsweek, is that a China whose muscle and will are devoted to consumerism will be too busy -- too hedonistic -- for militarism.
Hedonism as conservative grand strategy! Well, that may be one way to make peace for a while, but European voters are probably wise to resist it. Will and Brooks should be with them on principle. In a column on the French EU vote, Will, in a high state of confusion (or, at best, self-contradiction), managed to applaud the French vote against EU bureaucrats yet deride the same voters for rejecting global capitalism, thereby dooming Europe, he believes, to economic decline.
The reason those voters were right to put off Belgian cultural hegemony is that while global capitalism is truly liberating millions in Asia from near-feudal inequality and impoverishment, as bourgeois capitalism did for a time in the West, there are darker clouds on the horizon. Twentieth-century Europe learned that capitalism can get ugly once it's no longer an entrepreneurial, bourgeois upstart against feudal constraints but a swirling, powerful combine of anonymous investors accountable to no polity or moral code. In Europe 80 years ago, mass production and mass marketing were squandering and draining societies' stored moral and cultural capital (of self-discipline, tolerance, and hope against all odds). Unrestrained capitalism deepened desperations, even among the affluent, which brought on a world war -- and, in reaction, fascism, communism, and a second, even more nihilist world war.
My authority on this isn't Karl Marx but the neoconservative scholar Daniel Bell, who wrote 30 years ago, in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, that it was time to retire the old saw that free markets make free men.' He warned that "economic liberalism has become corporate oligopoly, and, in the pursuit of private wants, a hedonism that is destructive of social needs." Older societies had defined and met human needs through nature's rhythms and familial traditions, he wrote, but bourgeois capitalism displaces such needs with ginned-up wants that by their nature, are unlimited and insatiable, and it pretends to meet those wants with ever-receding promises of consumer satisfaction. In time, the rational calculation of efficiency and return in titillating buyers destroys the principle of the public household.
Yet now my neoconservative friends call European resistance to that destruction backward-looking and even parasitical, relying as it has on an American defense umbrella it didn't have to pay for. If they're promising Europe the continental equivalent of McDonald's and Wal-Mart, cushioned by megachurches and exurban cul-de-sacs, let them think again. Even Americans in red states (and blue) are expressing doubts about hedonism and its relentless individualistic stockpiling and maintaining of consumer goods. Many yearn to reaffirm the principle of the public household. A thousand of Brooks' Patio Men need and yearn for a public square, not just a mall and a megachurch.
Why are so many opinion-makers of my generation silent or slippery about this? Some are still atoning for youths misspent in too sweeping an anti-capitalism, borne less of any serious interest in economics than of moral revulsion at the corporate state's excesses, exploitations, and alienations. Protesters and independent journalists had shocked many of my generation out of sheltered civic complacency with harsh revelations of racism and poverty. So had the prospect of being drafted into an unwise, unjust war. If the corporate state wasn't the villain in all this, what was?
It took us awhile -- an embarrassingly long while, in some cases -- to learn that because socialism wouldn't be able to redistribute wealth it couldn't create, it wouldn't bring more justice or freedom to America, or even to much of the Third World, let alone the Soviet bloc. People who'd grown up heralding the twilight of capitalism found themselves rubbing their eyes at the left's own darknesses and at morning, not twilight, in Reagan's capitalist America. Even if that rosy dawn was only a flush on the cheek of a dying regime, it didn't prove that capitalism had been the root of all evil, or that socialism was the chariot of redemption. The nihilism of September 11 reminded even diehard anti-capitalists that the human heart is more deeply divided, and often depraved, in any regime. Counterculture enthusiasts who'd crooned, We've got to get ourselves back to the garden learned that even the garden had held a serpent and a couple of corruptible human beings.
But writers who've responded to these hard lessons by flip-flopping into the neoconservative cheering section aren't all just embarrassed or embittered about youthful naïveté. Some have more simply been seduced by what they once so roundly condemned. Here, truly, the serpent speaks -- or is it John Bunyan's Worldly Wiseman? -- out of the mouths of apologists like Brooks, who sidle up to the old, romantic radical in some of us and whisper, in effect, C'mon, you know you love your unearned income and real estate and that you enjoy circulating commodities even more than ideas. And (wink, tickle) that's OK! Sensing that their befuddled left-liberal marks have no serious intention of redressing deep inequities they've benefited from yet can't quite bring themselves to defend, the apologists for consumptive consumption offer absolution, making us laugh at our own fading, gestural resistance to what we once called, in a time out of mind, selling out or getting co-opted.
But there's a blight spreading in this new garden just off the patio. It has been hollowing out our civic-republican ethos as the counterculture has become the over-the-counter culture, as bohemians have become bourgeois, as avant-garde creations have been mimicking the planned obsolescence of durable goods, as free markets have delivered us from censors to ubiquitous electronic sensors that peddle a menu of violence without context and sex without emotional attachment (Bill Bradley's words). Massive marketing investments that bypass the brain for the viscera are dissolving what Bradley called the all-important role of storytelling, which is essential to the formation of moral education that sustains a civil society.
Conservatives sometimes say this themselves, but they can't very well tout unfettered free-marketeering and still claim to be keeping their promise of Republican national greatness. Subliminally, people like Brooks and Will know this. Their own moral unease is what makes them joke so much about our hedonism and ply us with sweet nothings about how spiritually transcendent the circulation of commodities can be (or, at darker moments, makes them rail so relentlessly at liberals). The most powerful enemy of everything they claim to value is the riptide of capitalism unbound, which they've decided to surf. Irving Kristol, the original neoconservative herald and shepherd of many rightward political migrations, wrote a book called Two Cheers for Capitalism. Those voters in France and the Netherlands may be right to give it just one. Why are today's neocons giving it five or six?
The more the rest of us heed their calls to chase higher living standards, the more we'll find that all that is solid melts into air, including the very traditions and morality conservatives claim to defend. The more we'll wonder why so many children's erotic and emotional decks are being shuffled and scrambled by storytelling that carries little more than intimate, intrusive gropings for profit and market share. And the more we'll learn, sooner or later, that "money appears as a disruptive power for the individual and social bonds. It changes vice into virtue, stupidity into intelligence. He who can purchase bravery is brave, though a coward. But let us assume man to be man, and his relationship to the world a human one; then if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, your love is impotent, and a misfortune."
I'm almost too embarrassed to tell you who said that, but then, Marx's diagnoses were better than his prescriptions.
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, examines tensions between American market hedonism and moral education in the 40th-anniversary issue of the quarterly Salmagundi, out this fall.
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