One of the most prominent philosophers in the conservative canon is Edmund Burke, critic of the French revolution and its high-minded ideals. This Burkean critique of revolution is then applied to left reform policies today to justify maintaining a crumbling status quo. But this move is illegitimate, for reasons that lie in Burke’s own Reflections on the Revolution in France, which lay the foundations for a critique of capitalism that animates the left, not the right, of today’s political spectrum. Conservatism in Burke’s day stood against liberalism, the ideology of the bourgeoisie, or emerging mercantile middle class. Today, by implication, true conservatism stands against the system this class created: capitalism.
In Burke’s Reflections, the French Revolution is traced to the creation of money from money: profiteering from rent-seeking on sovereign debt. The French government became entangled with an emerging international bond market, leading to the collapse of the government’s credibility in the run-up to the revolution and the collapse of the middle class’ trust in the government. The American revolution was similarly led by the middle class, although allied with a southern aristocracy, similar to the compromise between bourgeoisie and aristocratic monarchy in Britain a century before.
These liberal revolutions, then, ushered in the age of capitalism. Burke found that the liberal fetish for the individual was anchored in the capitalistic pursuit of profit, distracting us from chivalric values and virtues. As money replaced chivalry, community shattered as commercial society expanded. For Burke, conservatism was not aligned with capitalism; it was aligned against it — because capitalism does not conserve; it destroys.
In a recent interview by the late Roger Scruton, a supposedly Burkean conservative, Scruton takes aim at the ‘negative’ and ‘destructive’ politics of the left. It is partially true — a little like liberal capitalism in its formative years, which destroyed medieval feudalism in the market state’s violent clashes with peasantry and aristocracy alike, the left seeks to supplant capitalism with a new social order, like socialism. But the left seeks to do this peacefully at the end of capitalism’s life, once all the ‘productive forces’ have been developed. Instead, in history, socialism was never tried in advanced capitalist states with developed democracies — only in backward feudal states with entrenched monarchies, like Tsarist Russia and post-imperial nationalist China. The result was ‘communism’, which is an ironic name for a system that did not see the ‘withering away’ of the state, as Marx predicted, but the elevation of the state to a Hobbesian level of extreme power over its citizens.
The violent results were predictable, including for Marx, who thought communism could only happen after socialism, after capitalism, after feudalism. The attempt to jump the stages of both capitalism and socialism, straight from feudalism to communism, meant that, in practice, a form of state capitalism has been the result in both Russia and China. In the Darwinian game of international politics, the strongest survive. Marxism-Leninism cannot succeed, because it is uncompetitive; it does not have the technological base for sociopolitical change. Its failure is inevitable — and its collapse confirms Marx’s theory. Think about it:
Premise: Socialism will only succeed after capitalism has (a) begun, (b) matured, and (c) developed all the technological potential of which it is capable (Marx’s prediction).
Corollary: Socialism will fail if capitalism has not passed through stages (a), (b), and (c).
Reality: Socialism failed in societies in which capitalism had barely begun — i.e., stage (a) had started, but not completed, and stages (b) and (c) had not even been initiated.
Theorem: Marx’s prediction (the premise, and corollary) was borne out by reality. Socialism failed because it emerged in contexts to which it was not adapted. Its failure, and capitalism’s success, was inevitable in the last century.
Now, however, capitalism has begun and is maturing everywhere. In the most advanced-capitalist states, productivity is falling. Technological growth is stagnating. Industrial development is outsourced to developing countries whose growth contributes to climate change, and thus to the destabilisation of technological development in general. Capitalism seemed to have reached its utmost negativity, and destructive potential, in the last century. Now it is reaching its positive productive limits, and a new wave of negative destruction seems to be on the horizon.
But Scruton’s allegation still rings true. Moaning and complaining about capitalism is not enough. Negativity must be balanced with a new positivity, where imagination does not lead to utopianism. Indeed, only a closed mind would place blind faith in the impossible. Burke placed faith in maintaining a world that was crumbling. But we do not need to have such faith. By accepting that the current world cannot stand, we allow room for hope for a new world, in which we all can build anew.
A peaceful transition from the vengeful myths of capitalism towards a return to true conservatism may allow us to hope with our own eyes open. To willingly slide into the abyss is not just immoral; it is irresponsible. To accept capitalism at this time is unconservative. For conservatism is not about preserving everything — just what is worth preserving. As money takes over politics, democracy itself is under threat from capitalistic excess. The policies of democratic socialism — such as Medicare for All, a Green Industrial Revolution, and a World Recovery Programme to stem the rise of Chinese aggression in the Pacific and climate chaos in the tropics — are also those of republican conservatism. What unites the two are a civic philosophy of balanced unity, where all can participate in a politics for all, not just the wealthy and powerful in the present parasitic system. The engine of destruction cannot continue. In its place, a new world is possible. Let us begin.