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Capitalism and the Moral Basis of Social Order

by Russell Kirk

Russell-Kirk-in-hat-in-front-of-Piety-Hill-233x300A number of Americans, fancying that the world is governed mainly by economic doctrines and practices, are inclined to think that an era of international good feeling lies before us. I intend to sprinkle some drops of cold water on such hasty hopes. I have no faith in the notion that an abstract “democratic capitalism” is about to gain acceptance throughout the world.

We find fairly widespread in these United States a “capitalistic” version of Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism – more’s the pity. It is not a theoretical “democratic capitalism” that can preserve, unaided, order and justice and freedom. Materialism was an American vice when Alexis de Tocqueville travelled in the United States. That vice has not diminished in power. People who maintain that production and consumption are the ends of human existence presently will find themselves impoverished materially, as well as spiritually.
It is true that the masters of what once was the Soviet Union have modified their Marxism – and not the disciples of Yeltsin merely. Consider this passage from Mikhail Gorbachev’s book Perestroika(1987):

We must encourage efficiency in production and the talent of a writer, scientist, or any other upright and hard-working citizen. On this point we want to be perfectly clear:socialism has nothing to do with equalizing. . . . Socialism has a different criterion for redistributing social benefits: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.”

Doesn’t this sound rather like democratic capitalism? If Perestroika and similar designs prevail in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, can any great obstacle remain to the universal triumph of democratic capitalism?
Yes, such an obstacle remains: the great gulf fixed between the Christian moral order and the Marxist moral order. Few American advocates of “democratic capitalism,” true, think of themselves as Marxists. But they are disciples of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism and advocate of the ideology of democratism – whose materialism was quite so thoroughgoing as Marx’s, and whose contempt for religion was not much less than was Marx’s contempt for “the opiate of the masses.” In short, the Christian (or, if you will, Judaeo-Christian) understanding of the human condition is very different indeed from the notions of human nature entertained by the disciples of either Marx or Bentham.
Marxists are advocates of socialism; Benthamites or Utilitarians, advocates of capitalism. Yet those two schools of social thought are not very different one from the other. Let us examine our terms.
“Capitalism” is a nineteenth-century concept-and not a very good word to describe the American economy, let alone the American moral and social order. “Capital” and “capitalist” are words of the latter decades of the eighteenth century-one encountering them in Edmund Burke’s last publication, Letters on a Regicide Peace-but “capitalism” is an ideological term, popularized by Marx and other socialists. It was coined as a devil-term; I do not propose to convert it into a god-term.
“Democratic” is a term of politics; “capitalism,” of economics. Capitalism is not, cannot become, and ought not to be, democratic. Were we somehow to establish, literally, this boasted “democratic capitalism” -why, it would turn out to be the ideology-denominated “syndicalism.” For democracyimplies decision-making by the mass of people, and the concept of equality; while capitalism does not count noses, is conducted for the most part by an elite of managers, does not exercise judicial or police functions, and emphatically does not dole out its rewards on any principle of equality. One might as well speak of “egalitarian quantum mechanics” or “autocratic horticulture” as to speak of “democratic capitalism.”
Whether democratic or autocratic, capitalism is not a religion, nor a philosophy, nor a moral system. Socialism, on the other hand, claims to be a moral system as well as an economic and social system. So endeavoring to contrast the moral order of capitalism with the moral order of socialism is like asking, “How far is it from London Bridge to three o’clock?” Socialism is a coherent ideology; but capitalism is a rather loose term used to describe certain economic patterns. I am no friend of socialism. As for capitalism, if by that word we mean a pattern of private property, competition in price and quality, freedom of economic choice, and satisfactory productivity – why, even if that is all we mean, I am one of capitalism’s friends, though no worshipper of idols.
I am not advocating an ideology of “democratic capitalism.” All ideology is snare and delusion: for this word “ideology” means political fanaticism. The ideologue is a visionary who promises to lead mankind-or a faction thereof-to the Terrestrial Paradise-which does not exist. Ideology is inverted religion, the symbols of transcendence being converted to mundane promises. There exist capitalist ideologues-the late Ayn Rand being a somewhat extreme specimen of the breed-but I take no common ground with them.
For capitalism ought not to be perverted into an ideological pseudo-religion. Moreover, capitalism is not a pattern for government; it is not part and parcel of the Declaration of Independence or of the Constitution of the United States, even though the authors of those documents took for granted the beneficent character of capital and capitalists. Fidelity to dogmas of capitalism will not of itself make us all good, happy, and rich. Democratic societies have existed which have not been conspicuously capitalistic, and capitalist economies are not necessarily allied with the principle of “one person, one vote.”
This said, the economic reality that we somewhat clumsily call “capitalism” does confer benefits in America or in any society of this century. (I prefer to call this economic system “the market economy” or “the competitive economy” or “free enterprise.”) For that matter, all societies are capitalistic in the sense that even the most primitive social groups possess some simple forms of capital. “Capital” means goods used to produce other goods. Capitalists presumably are the people who control the use of capital-whether or not they personally own much or any of that capital. The president of a great industrial corporation surely is a capitalist, but he need not be a major stockholder in his firm.
Twentieth-century socialism, including the communist states, takes the form of state capitalism: that is, the party governing a nation-state declares public ownership of certain means of production, and appoints state managers of capital assets (like those of the British Coal Board). It has been said that the Swedish economy today is “an unholy alliance of state capitalism and big business.” The masters of the Soviet Union put a powerful, and perhaps excessive, emphasis upon the accumulation of capital; and that Soviet capital was managed by an elite of state capitalists who received high pay and special privileges. The same pattern develops rapidly in Communist China. If by “capitalism”, then, we refer to a modern industrial economy requiring much capital to carry on elaborate processes of production- why, all the “developed” world is capitalistic, for good or ill; and the alternative to capitalism, at least in industrialized countries with considerable population density, is reduction of the human condition to a grinding poverty.
The perceptive sociologist Raymond Aron observes that when many French intellectuals denounce “capitalism,” actually what they resent is industrialism itself, rather than private ownership of capital goods; they would find themselves at least as discontented under twentieth century socialism, rather as Russian men of letters soon came to detest the ugliness and monotony of Soviet industrial society. It is possible, to some extent, here in the United States, for an individual to renounce the productivity of the industrial order in favor of a simpler if less prosperous existence. But in serious discussion, let us not confound “capitalism” (meaning the private ownership of capital) with the virtues and the vices of the industrial discipline, which has spread throughout most of the world since 1750. “Factory windows are always broken,” Vachel Lindsay wrote. As many of them are broken in socialist lands as in capitalist lands.
So far I have been defining our terms. Permit me to define one more: the term “moral order.” Any society-democratic, aristocratic, oligarchic, communistic- requires a moral order for its existence. Indeed, all societies arise originally out of religious belief: culture comes out of the cult. A society’s moral order, for the most part, has for its foundation that society’s religion. If a society has forgotten or repudiated its old religion, it must invent a pseudo-religion to supplant the old faith; and that society’s morals are founded upon that pseudo-religion, or ideology.
Without a moral order, people cannot live together in community. That lacking, they all become so many Cains, every man’s hand against every other man’s. This is true under any economic system. Necessarily, says Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), we are born into a moral order – in the case of our civilization, into the moral order of Christianity. If we defy that necessary moral order -why, we are ruined by anarchy. In Burke’s own words, “But if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken; nature is disobeyed; and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”
Even the arbitrary moral order of the communists is better than no order at all: for most people survive under a communist regime, but they cannot survive in anarchy. The economic system called capitalism, too, can exist and prosper only within a moral order. But unlike communism, which claims to have created its own morality, capitalism does not profess a morality peculiar to itself. Rather, the market economy shares a moral order, of ancient origin, that embraces a great deal more than economic concepts.

This old moral order of what is called “Western Civilization” has grown up complexly. In large part, it is derived from Christian teaching, with Christianity’s Hebraic background. But also the moral order we know owes much to Hellenic philosophy; to Roman law and custom; to English institutions and beliefs over several centuries; to the pattern of society that has developed in America since the seventeenth century. The socialist moral order seems simple; our own moral order certainly is complex. But human existence is complex, not simple.
I am not speaking here about a socialist morality versus a capitalist morality. Instead, I am contrasting the economics of a command economy (socialism) with the economics of a market economy (capitalism). Both these economic systems are linked with certain moral concepts, but morals and economics are not the same thing-even though socialists would like to make them identical.
And also I am contrasting the moral postulates of the ideology called Marxism with the moral postulates of what (for lack of a better term) is called Western civilization. I am suggesting, in short, that the clash of economic systems is secondary to the struggle between two different concepts of moral order.
The socialist command economy is an outgrowth of Marxist moral doctrines; the capitalist market economy is a development from certain moral assumptions of Western civilization. Economic patterns alter from decade to decade, even from year to year; they are changing even now in America, and in the communist states. But moral systems, which enjoy a much longer life, are the more powerful forces for good or for ill. The true contest in our time is not between economies merely, but between opposing concepts of human nature.
Moral convictions, and apprehensions of human nature, did not come into being merely to serve economic ends. The primary purpose of morality is to order the soul and to order the human community, not to produce wealth. Nevertheless, moral beliefs or disbeliefs have economic consequences.
Marxism claims to advance a principle of moral order. As Reinhold Niebuhr writes in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), “While Marxism in practice is similar to national collectivist dictatorships of children of darkness, in theory its dictatorship is only a provisional step toward ideal social harmony.”
Rejecting all religions as so many “opiates of the people,” Socialism proposes to substitute a non-religious motive, founded upon Marx’s “dialectical materialism,” for the religious aspiration to know God and enjoy Him forever. The Marxists argue that their principle of moral order eventually will bring about universal contentment, all conflicts finally resolved. That quasi-religious principle, the core of Marxist ideology, is the concept of total equality of condition. Everybody must become just like everybody else: then no one will have reason to complain.
When true communism is achieved, Marx prophesies, there will be no town and no countryside: the two will merge in one blur of little communes, a prediction we seem to be justifying in much of capitalist America nowadays. All distinctions of every sort will be wiped away, and nobody will specialize in any kind of work; nevertheless, Marx would retain the industrial system of economic production, which requires intense specialization. Eric Voegelin, in his book From Enlightenment to Revolution (1975), summarizes Marx’s prediction:

Man was supposed to emerge from the revolution as an integrally productive being that at his will would work one day at a machine, the next in an office, and the third day as a litterateur. A primitive but unmistakable formulation of the idea occurs on the occasion of his complaint that division of labor produces such occupational fixations as hunter, fisher, etc. This evil will be overcome in “Communist society, where nobody has an exclusive range of activity, but everybody can train himself in every branch; where society regulates general production and thereby makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another thing tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, to be a husbandman in the evening, and to indulge in critical work after supper, as it pleases me, without any necessity for me ever to become a hunter, fisherman, husbandman, or critic.” (Here Voegelin has been quoting directly from Marx.)

This is not a child’s dream of pleasure; but an adult’s nightmare. Imagine a whole world of total equality, mediocrity, and uniformity, a domination of boredom, world without end, with nothing to fear and nothing to hope for! One thinks of John Betjeman’s poem “The Planter’s Vision”:
I have a Vision of The Future, chum,
The workers’ flats in fields of soya beans
Tower up like silver pencils, score on score;
And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
From microphones in communal canteens
“No Right! No Wrong! All’s perfect, evermore.”
To anyone with imagination, energy, religious impulses, desire for adventure, or even the simple pleasures of family life, the Marxist paradise would be a hell upon earth. Yet the “moral ideal” of communism is a great power in the world, near the end of the twentieth century, in remote corners of the earth and in New York City. (“There always will be Communists in New York City,” says my friend John Lukacs, the historian – even when disillusion with Marxist dogmas has prevailed everywhere else.) Why?
Because communism promises equality of condition, Tocqueville pointed out a century and a half ago how dangerous the doctrine of equality is, and how difficult to resist -even though it leads toward universal boredom and decadence. In democratic times, many people are ashamed of being different from others; and many more people are envious of those who truly are different. Especially there prevails envy of men and women of wealth, or fancied wealth – an emotion deliberately worked upon by the communists. To set up Holy Equality as a moral principle supplies the envious with a self-righteous apology for their consuming vice.
Few people care to admit to themselves, “Being envious, I covet my neighbor’s goods.” But put the matter after this fashion: “I learn from Karl Marx that inequality is caused by capitalism, private property, churches, and other evil institutions. I want justice for the people! We need a revolution.” Thus personal envy is veiled by an ideological pretext – which may be used to justify murder on a large scale. Ideology of this sort salves one’s conscience.
Ideology rises as religion declines. It is an old Christian teaching that one should accept his station in life; for the world is not perfect or perfectible, because of original sin. As the late-medieval Scots poem “The Abbey Walk” puts this lesson:
I saw this written on a wall:
In what estate, man, that thou fall,
Accept thy lot, and thank thy God of all.
Thus the Christian is instructed to do his duties in the station to which he is called, and not to envy folk who are richer, or more powerful, or more famous, or more popular, or more handsome, or more strong, than himself. But in a society increasingly secularized, human demands multiply, and more and more people blame existing institutions because not everybody has everything he desires. Classes and individuals who seem fortunate or “privileged” become objects of envy. Communism promises that such classes and individuals shall be pulled down – indeed, extirpated. For Marx writes, “In order to establish equality, we must first establish inequality.” That is, we must take away from the able and energetic, treating them unequally, to give to the proletariat. Marx goes farther: he demands a “bloodletting” stage of the revolution, in which the proletariat will destroy its enemies. All this is represented by Marx as historical necessity. Hatred is as powerful an emotion as is envy. Yet the Communist believes he must be violent today, so that in some future time of perfect equality human happiness may be assured: this great end justifies every means.
This doctrine of equality is a moral principle of a sort, though to me a remarkably unattractive moral imperative. Nevertheless, the very word “equality” has a sweet sound in the ears of many persons who would not themselves dream of bloodletting. Does not Christianity speak of equality? Have we not established equality before the law as a fundamental principle of jurisprudence? Does not the Declaration of Independence say that all men are created equal? What then can be wrong with equality?
Much, if by that we mean “equality of condition.” The Christian doctrine of equality teaches that all human beings are of equal worth in the sight of God: that God is no respecter of rank and wealth; God judges human beings impartially; all are sinners in some degree. In my Father’s house are many mansions; but it needs to be remembered that they are not all on the same floor, and that at the Last Judgment the sheep will be separated from the goats. Christ came to save sinners, not to establish a worldly kingdom; He did not advocate revolution, or even preach against war or slavery; His concern was souls. Christianity distinctly does not teach that all human beings are identical units; on the contrary, it teaches that every soul is unique.
The principle of equality before the law means simply that the law is no respecter of persons: magistrates should deal out impartial justice regardless of high birth or low birth, possessions or lack of possessions. English and American jurisprudence never have been interpreted as decreeing that all people should have the same things.
As for the Declaration of Independence, that somewhat cryptic phrase “all men are created equal” clearly did not signify to the signers of the Declaration that no difference exists between one person and another, or that community of property is part of the natural law. To their minds, doubtless the phrase referred in part to the Christian understanding of equality in the sight of God, and to the doctrine of equality before the law, long part of the English constitution.  Also presumably it implied that the rights enjoyed by Englishmen were shared by Americans-the theme of American petitions to the Crown down until the fatal year of 1775. In the Declaration’s phrase was an echo, too, of the Stoic doctrine of moral equality in Roman times. Thomas Jefferson and his distinguished colleagues of the committee that drafted the Declaration were not “common ordinary guys,” and were well aware of their superior talents: they were no premature Marxist proletarians.
One word can mean many things; so it is with this magic word “equality.” To the Marxist, the word means “pull down”: destroy all classes but the proletariat. Such is Marxist moral dogma: establish justice by destroying inequality. The dogma has its charms for those who fancy that they, or their class, or posterity, would be happy among the ruins of the old order. In practice, however, what comes to pass is the revised dogma of Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945): “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Against this socialist moral order, there contends today a quite different moral order that did not originate with either democracy or capitalism.
Does “democratic capitalism”, as such, have sufficient vitality to resist egalitarian ideology supported by force of arms, by what Burke called “an armed doctrine”? I think not. There come to my mind the sentences of T. S. Eliot, in The Idea of a Christian Society (1940), published on the eve of the Second World War: “The term ‘democracy’. … does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike – it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”
The term “capitalism,” similarly, does not contain enough positive content to with stand any strong evil domination. Although some people have tried to make a religion out of democracy, they have not succeeded; and those few who have tried to make a religion out of “democratic capitalism” have failed ludicrously.

It is for moral causes, and out of religious faith, that men and women will resist the Children of Darkness. Perhaps such a renewal of religious belief will occur before the end of this century; one can imagine it. Perhaps a great many people will come to perceive, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that communism and other fanatic ideologies are the enemies of true moral order. If they do not so perceive, quite possibly the Republic may end with both a whimper and a bang.

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays on or by Dr. Kirk may be found here.

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