A little help for the "conservative idea factory" (Part 2 of 2)

In my last entry, I talked about the sense of urgency and even crisis among some conservatives. The “ideas factory” is not as productive as it once was, it seems. By way of offering some advice from outside, as it were, I thought I would begin with the very metaphor used in this case to describe the current conditions of ossification and doubt.

The metaphor is in fact extremely apt. American conservatives indeed have a factory of ideas. The core “products” of that factory have been meant as a reflection on (and justification of) the modern economic order, as well as an explanation of the social dislocation caused by its dynamic, transformative forces. This economic order post-2008 went through a massive cratering and fragmentation, and so it’s not surprising that the ideological edifice surrounding and supporting that order also broke down. The problem for conservatives, however, is that they don’t seem to have the means to rebuild that system, that is, to reconstruct a vital and coherent vision to illuminate the post-2008 economic and social (dis)order. Their current attempts at reconstruction and translation have for the most part fallen on deaf ears.

To explain what I mean, consider the fragment from a speech recently delivered by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The topic of the speech concerned Christian virtues and economic systems:

"The cardinal sin of capitalism is greed, but the cardinal sin of socialism is power. I'm not sure there's a clear choice between those evils," Scalia said. "While I would not argue that capitalism as an economic system is inherently more Christian than socialism … it does seem to me that capitalism is more dependent on Christianity than socialism is. For in order for capitalism to work - in order for it to produce a good and a stable society - the traditional Christian virtues are essential." (http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/At-Ho...)

There is much here that is correct: recognizing that capitalism expresses certain Christian values is as old as Max Weber’s work. And yet embedded within these comments is an assumption that lays bare the current productivity problem within the conservative factory of ideas. When Scalia uses the term “power” here, he means “state power,” contrasted with the allegedly powerless power, the “invisible hand” of the free market (which is marred by the mere vice of greed). Ideological rigidity on this point of contrast doesn’t match up with everyday experience: for most of us, it doesn’t matter whether it comes from a public or a private source, from the federal government or a private bank or corporate head office. The experience of dislocation is the same. Power is power, public or private.

Nor is the primary purpose of capitalism to “produce a good and stable society” as Scalia puts it. If the Great Recession taught us anything, it’s that good and stable societies are often challenged and even catastrophically undermined by the tumultuous forces unleashed by financialized capital. Scalia seems to be living the pre-2008 economic world, while the rest of us – of necessity, perhaps disabused of our former ideas – have moved on.

Can conservatives catch up to the real world? Doing so would require an end to demonizing the state and deifying the market. Until that happens, its factory of ideas will be fated to produce intellectual commodities that fewer people want, which capture an ever-smaller market share, and which seem increasingly irrelevant to the demands of everyday life for the majority of Americans.

That's the diagnosis.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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