When Even Conservatives Hated Capitalism, Part 2

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Today, I’ll be continuing what I started in the previous entry, which serves as an introduction to this topic. You can find Part 1 here. In that intro, I explained how early twentieth century conservatism actually had some rather harsh critiques of capitalism, and I provided a list of five particular critiques. I want to keep these entries a little shorter, so today, I’ll be examining only the first of those critiques (which is actually a two-parter):

  1. The myth of progress and the exploitation of the worker

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[Original image (sans text) by Dawn Armfield]

In “A Critique of the Philosophy of Progress,” Lyle H. Lanier pulls no punches. His very first sentence explains that “Progress is both a slogan and a philosophy, a device for social control and a belief in the reality of a process of development toward ‘some far-off divine event’” (122). This definition indicates both the banal terrestrial applications of the term and the more teleological variants oriented around religion and philosophy. Lanier, however, is not fooled when it comes to industrialism’s use of the term. He recognizes that those banal interests make progress into “perhaps the most widely advertised commodity offered for general consumption in our high-powered century” (123). So we’re already into a discussion of commodities and consumption. There will be more on that topic in a future entry. Here, I intend to linger on Lanier’s notion that “It requires little sagacity to discover that progress usually turns out to mean business, or else refers to some activity which serves to allay the qualms of the business conscience” (123). In the American context, then as now, when you hear someone speak of “progress,” what they’re really getting at is the promotion of business interests.

Lanier notes how our culture gets wrapped up in the spirit of progress as if we are on an inexorable march. The goal, however, remains unspecified, and the rhetoric depends on what amounts to patriotism and “a mystic faith in the industrial destiny” of America (123). But some vague goals, at least, are necessary to adequately inspire Americans to accept and embody industrialism. Propaganda of “prosperity,” “a high standard of living,” and yes even the word “progress” itself seem to suffice. Lanier accuses this “romanticized type of rationalization of industrialism” of pushing business interests to the exclusion of “the development of a sound program of economic and social adjustment” (124). In other words, we’re moving too fast. We’re industrializing and striving toward some nebulous notion of progress without giving pause to consider what happens to the humans caught up in this machine age. I think the same critique applies today. We pursue “progress” only because we can and never pause to ask if we should; the development of business interests seemingly is self-justifying.

I’d like to go farther and also discuss Lanier’s analysis of the evolution of the notion of progress, but I’ll have to save that for the next entry, I’m afraid.

Before I go, however, there’s one other thought I’d like to at least address: the exploitation and eventual revolt of the worker. Like John Dewey, and like Karl Marx before him, Lanier recognizes that the exploitation and social control achieved through industrialism is bound to backfire. He argues that “sooner or later exploitation will run its course, with the probable result that the masses will be activated...against their present dominators” (124). Lanier’s is a grim outlook. In industrialism, he sees diminished individual autonomy, “abnormal concentration of wealth, panics, unemployment, labor unions, and a train of attendant problems” (131-132). Obviously, conservatives maintain that antipathy for labor unions even today, but Lanier was interested in combating the very antecedents that made labor unions possible. What he is railing against, from a conservative viewpoint, are the very features of capitalism that contemporary conservatives have come to embrace or at the very least accept as the necessary cost of doing business.

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No one likes capitalism, just what people say is capitalism

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