Daniel McCarthy’s “A New Conservative Agenda” is a wonderful piece of writing. It is erudite without being snobbish, polished without being verbose, and never commits the ultimate rhetorical crime of being pedantic. McCarthy makes an actual declaration of moral imperative and intent, something rare in political writing across the spectrum. The work is blessedly free of the tedious cultural and religious moralizing so common to conservative writing. It is also refreshing to come across a conservative thinker who has the courage to look askance at the “deification” as McCarthy himself puts it, of the late Ronald Reagan and his adoption by the political right as some sort of homespun American Pericles who could, and did, no wrong. It is the best piece of mainstream conservative writing I have come across in many years, and belongs in the great lay Catholic essay writing tradition mastered by C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. I have chosen to respond to this piece because of its honesty, its forthrightness, and, most important of all, the absolute wrongheadedness of its conclusions.
The title of McCarthy’s piece gets right to the point, which is an attempt to critique and catalogue the conservative point of view in US politics, particularly the economic sphere, during the past 30 odd years, and outline a new way forward for this ideological strain. McCarthy is refreshingly candid about the failings of conservative policies, and even more so conservative politics, from the apex of Reagan down to the current day. Betraying a bit of class pretension, he bemoans the fact that the hoi polloi seem no longer taken with the Reagan style, the embrace of what conservatives term “the free market”, which took, and still takes, the form of neoliberal deregulation of corporate finance and industry markets, the dismantling of labor union power, privatization and/or liquidation of the left liberal welfare state, and an aggressive carrot and stick approach to a decentralized global capital empire. The majority of the US, according to McCarthy, have widened their ideological horizons beyond establishment, in its myriad forms, focus on this “conservative orthodoxy”. He believes the voters are jaded with the wonkish debates on tweaks to an economic and political system they have seen does not have their interests at heart, and have turned their attention to a more vigorous and directly confrontational political style. Populism has taken the place of the tried and true system crafted in response to The New Deal in the classrooms and conferences of the anti-Keynesian academic sphere. Conservatism today is “in flux”, as demonstrated by the popular rejection of the slate of movement candidates from the various wings of the conservative establishment. McCarthy dolefully ticks off a few failed examples before arriving at the new nexus of right wing energy and expression: Trump.
McCarthy plays his cards close to his vest regarding his own allegiance to any of the factions he mentions (be it religious conservative, libertarian, neocon hawk etc) but it is clear that he is far from satisfied with the Trumpian mien. He is nonetheless sanguine when it comes to Trump’s stated aims i.e. an “economic nationalism”. McCarthy seeks to find this concept in the storied pages of US political history, an example being Lincoln’s bill of rights centered, Union oriented, industrial populism/pragmatism. McCarthy makes a strange claim regarding the more “globalist” (an enigmatic, amorphous word whose meaning I will explore further on in this piece) turn of the US in the post-WWII Marshall Plan reconstruction (or, rather, economic colonization) of the capitalist systems in Western Europe. He seems to posit this program, and the system it helped to create, was an aberrant albeit noble pursuit that was somehow facilitated by a generation or so of self interested nationalism.
Herein lies most potent flaws in McCarthy’s thesis; a series of supposedly logical conclusions that only hold water when certain a priori assumptions are made and certain inconvenient narratives and realities are downplayed or ignored outright. These leaps of logic are not justified by the arguments the author makes. The author betrays a strange lack of knowledge, or willful ignorance of, US geopolitical strategy during the Cold War. He divorces, for the sake of his thesis, the inherently connected nature of the nationalist and internationalist impulses and actions of the US during this period. In the case of the US and it’s now subordinated allies (the UK, France, occupied “west” Germany, etc.) economic nationalism as domestic and international political rhetorical was served by the continuing isolation and warfare against the so called “communist bloc” of nations. The material cause of economic nationalism was bolstered by creating more secure (read colonized) markets for US goods and services, much of it military, agricultural and industrial in nature.
To suggest the actions of the US were a departure from the purely inward looking nationalist interest in service of a freestanding internationalist approach is to misunderstand the deformations of political economy of capitalism that are inherent to the imperialist phase of the system. Foreign markets are exploited and controlled in order to preserve and expand and provide a market for the products of internal regional and national level industry in the US
Lenin makes clear in Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, that the development of a national capitalist industry cannot continue in isolation. If productive growth and the accumulation of capital are to be maintained, the export of capital overseas into new markets, and/or the creation of those markets by force, must be a policy pursued by a given national government. Given the uneven emergence of capitalism in states, this leads to uneven exchange between nations, and the emergence of partnerships of conveinvence, cartels of exchange and production, that will soon necessitate the enforcement of conditions in less developed nations that are conducive to the growth of the national and domestic systems of the capitalist power. Apropos McCarthy’s later reference to the development of the English economy, and its apparent successes, is Lenin’s argument
England became a capitalist country before any other, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, having adopted free trade, claimed to be the “workshop of the world”, the supplier of manufactured goods to all countries, which in exchange were to keep her provided with raw materials. But in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, this monopoly was already undermined; for other countries, sheltering themselves with “protective” tariffs, developed into independent capitalist states
Far from being two isolated mindsets, the internationalist vs the nationalist impulses re-enforce and in fact cultivate, in a dialectical manner, the conditions that make pure domestic market interest impossible in any system that depends upon the growth of capitalism, even, or especially, within national economies. A tariff then does not, to quote McCarthy, “serve the whole [of a national economy] by serving its parts and drawing them together”, but is a response to conditions that are created by the uneven development of the means of production within a national system as well as without in various other national systems which have not yet achieved parity with the dominant nations.
McCarthy references partnerships of “convenience” with nations like China as though this were somehow a novel deviation from a nationalist policy purchased through prior sustained self interested nationalism, but these outreaches served the interests of creating markets for the national economy of the US, for the capital it needed to export and the raw resources it needed to import in order to maintain the economy that “provid[ed] the basis for the healthy culture in which citizens and their families [flourished]”. Furthermore, the idea of the selfless impulse inherent to the rebuilding of the post-WWII ravaged nations misunderstands how this policy was essentially a nationalistic one, with the US now taking the place of the British empire in the maintenance of stable, but subservient economies where goods, services, and capital could be easily unloaded and exchanged, providing an outlet for the growth and perpetuation of the nationalist system at home. Economic nationalism in large or powerful nations can never be divorced from internationalist endeavors in furtherance of an economy of scale.
In McCarthy’s analysis the communist bloc is of course taken for granted as the terminal opposite of the “free market” that flourished under US/NATO hegemony. The communist collapse is discussed as though a preordained consequence of economic natural law. This assumption continues from McCarthy’s ignorance, or dismissal, of the nationalist/internationalist dichotomy at play during the Cold War. Supranational systems of economic leverage and military might combined with the unleashing of post-colonial nationalist movements and unforeseeable material contingencies and advances in technology to lead to a collapse of the bipolar Post-WWII political status quo, such as it was. These new nationalities, and the opportunities for capital expansion, transfer, and material exploitation ensuant to their emergence, were more deftly exploited by the capitalist regimes of the West, creating the conditions for a new global market system that transcended the more traditionally socio-political “clash of ideologies” so beloved/bemoaned by the cold warrior “elites”, as McCarthy would call them.
McCarthy moves from this meditation on economic nationalism, or rather his myopic postulate of such a system, to a surprisingly cogent, though inherently flawed, materialist analysis of the apparent decline of the US socioeconomic system in general, combined with a rather novel, even Romantic, discussion of culture as a fulcrum for nationalist political economy. In this section McCarthy credits Trump for capturing the political zeitgeist of a society that has now run out of moral and social energy, but wonders whether he will be effective in actually implementing the policies that the author believes is necessary for a renewal of the US.
It is with his discussion of “culture”, meaning the intersection of the beliefs the US body politic holds as expressed and reenforced by and through its media, entertainment, and political apparatuses, that McCarthy is at his best. McCarthy takes for granted, rightly I believe, that the predominant, but by no means correct morally or historically, socio-political narrative adopted by the US has been white, working to middle class or bourgeois, and economically idealistic. He returns to Lincoln and his renewal of the constitutional order and his shepherding of emergence of the US industrial economy and labor force.
The dominant classes, i.e. the white population taken as a whole, in the US have always had a peculiarly optimistic view of themselves. Some thinkers and writers have termed this a “city on a hill” conception, after a line in a sermon given by early settler-colonial Protestant preacher John Winthrop. Others prefer the more ecumenical term “American exceptionalism”, a sort of middle class version of the British White Man’s Burden. Never has the US seen itself as an imperial state, instead creating a point of demarcation between the colonial aspirations of the European states and their own “expansion” into land that was “manifest” in their destiny. Where Europe grasped and conquered, the US “grew” and “expanded”, casting imperial expansion in the naturalistic terms befitting a nation whose founding philosophical ideals can be gleaned from the natural law philosophers of the Enlightenment era.
The fruits of the land, fruits harvested by free labor and administered by a capitalist, though enlightened, patrician elite, were utilized in order to create a welfare state that was first local in structure, but after the cataclysm of Second Revolution that took place with the US Civil War, Federal and National. Labor was open to all (white, able bodied, industrious) men, and much later, women, and this labor was to be compensated by a living wage, a hedge against old age in the form of a pension, and readily available credit. In reality, of course, this system was far more often an ideal aspired to then a reality achieved, and these boons were never fully extended to blacks, native peoples, certain groups of migrants, certain classes of laborers, and those who deviated from the political, gender, and sexual mainstream. McCarthy recognizes that the two major parties, less institutionally bound than shifting coalitions of labor, capital, and regional interests, “agree[d] on the overall story of politics and frame[d] their proposals in light of [that story].” The system as constructed, built in discrimination and all, worked and compromise more often took the place of acrimony, or at least distilled the regional digressions and pettifogging into a workable solution that could be applied through a well oiled Federal apparatus.
Culture saw itself expressed in the form of a political economy that provided the material basis for the values held in common by the two parties, nuclear families, heteronormative romantic and sexual relationships, a reverence for authority, particularly martial, and private property rights. The competing interests of the various ideological strains of liberalism, conservatism, and progressivism endemic to the nation could be balanced. It is worth quoting McCarthy at length regarding this outlook. McCarthy utilizes, consciously or not, a truly trenchant materialist analysis
Different kinds of political economy not only produce different dispensations of wealth and power but also profoundly shape family life, individual character, and the civic landscape. A political program therefore has to be an economic program, not just in the superficial sense of dealing with subjects like taxes and regulation but in the deeper sense of relating the nation’s economic way of life to its cultural fabric and the very conditions of its existence.
His point is well made, and if he ended his essay here, I believe his argument would have been stronger. Unfortunately he takes this, his strongest segment, as a jumping off point for the rest of the piece, and his inchoate materialism opens up contradictions that ultimately undermine his overall thesis.
“There are times when a nation faces a fundamental choice about its nature and direction.” McCarthy uses as an example the supposed “choice” between Jeffersonian aristocratic republican agrarianism and the bourgeois industrial urban federalism of Hamilton and his faction. Once again McCarthy is creating a barrier between two concepts of thought and praxis. Yet, there never was a material division between the agrarian slave economy of the rural US and the South and the emerging financial, service and trading hubs on the coast. One fed into the other, made the other possible, justifying each others existence. The dichotomy of Coast/Rural, a dichotomy still at play in US political rhetoric, was itself the result of the interconnectedness of these ways of life and modes of production.
The political system that has arisen in the US over the past two centuries emerged from the interplay between two systems caught in the same orbit of exchange and production. The division between them, the bright red line separating them, was only ever a cultural abstraction created by the de facto geographical isolation imposed by pre-modern transportation and communication technology. As the movement of goods and people increased, sped up, provincialism, the idea of inherent differences, both did not have time to catch up with reality, and was strategically cultivated by the political and economic establishment.
There are rarely ever times when “a nation”, an inherently ambiguous concept at best, can “choose” to move in one direction or another. Most often, the material conditions faced by people in a society, and how they react to them, are set by how they organize their systems in the face of these conditions, and the dialectical emergence of new conditions that result continues this process of adaptation.
McCarthy’s analysis makes a good case, unintentionally, for a materialist understanding of the historical socio-economic development of nation states. He talks of the ever increasing hyper specialization in the job market, the shattering of the social compact between industrial labor and capitalists regarding a living wage, the increasing power of intellectual, business, and government specialists over the direction of society, and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. He describes what he calls, rather creatively I might add, “palliative liberalism”, an attempt by the specialists (he uses the word “elites”, but I feel the term is far too loaded with antisemitic and anti-communist overtones) to stave off the wholesale rejection of the current capitalist system by those he terms “the unproductives”, or what traditional Marxist theory would call the reserve army of labor. McCarthy then goes on
Palliative liberalism, on the other hand, aims not to repair labor-capital relations but to euthanize, as humanely [sic] as possible, millions of economically unneeded and politically retrograde Americans.
McCarthy has stumbled upon a key aspect of the transformation of a society from industrial to post-industrial capitalism, and the chief reason why the pursuit of a policy of internationalist engagement, projection of force and market expansion is an essential component of any economic nationalist system: if a nation centers its productive forces within its own borders, building up capital and resources and a reserve army of labor, eventually there must be an outlet for these surpluses. Capital must eventually be allowed to flow freely beyond its border, to be dispersed and reinvested, new resources must be allowed to enter in order to maintain a healthy level of production. The reserve army created by these economic forces must be placated to some degree, or else class war begins to foment, and the consciousness of the underclasses begins to emerge, threatening revolutionary upheaval.
McCarthy seems to draw the absolute opposite conclusion from these facts, however, seeing economic nationalism as a “state of nature”, or at least as some sort of equilibrium to return to. He talks of domestic energy production supplying the resources needed for economic expansion, and notes how “the real economy” exists in specific regions whose conditions are suited to particular industries. McCarthy believes there is a solution at hand to “repair labor-capital relations”. This relationship, indeed, which was itself only ever, to borrow a word from McCarthy, palliative in nature. It served to stave off the contradictions and tensions in a system built on land appropriated from its native inhabitants, improved for exploitation with the power of slave labor, and maintained by free labor policed with an iron hand ready to crush any emergence of class solidarity or consciousness between the disparate social, racial, and ethnic groups that made up the working classes.
McCarthy attempts to center a new set of class relations in a fantasy of a past populist national social contract that only ever existed as an ideal which confounded attempts to understand the material reality of the US socioeconomic situation. McCarthy correctly notes that “Leaders in both parties, in corporate America and in the academy and media, have [incorrectly] assumed that what worked twenty or thirty years ago will continue to work today”, all the while proposing a return to a populist nationalist utopia that never existed except for in a suspended state within the memories of an ever shrinking bourgeoisie. “Globalization was relatively pain-free during the 1990s”, McCarthy insists without irony, ignoring the cataclysmic violence and depression that came in the wake of the collapse of the communist bloc, the liberalization of the economies of Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, the collapse of the industrial working class in the US (a victim of the successes of US economic nationalism and its attendant internationalist power projections) and the emergence and cultivation of a permanent underclass of undocumented immigrant labor.
McCarthy falls into the trap of believing the myth the white US bourgeois has created to justify its existence. McCarthy talks of the supposedly “new” calcified stratification of the US working classes: the upwardly mobile but economically paranoid educated elites, barely hanging on to the fiction of a respectable bourgeois middle class, and the dispossessed and increasingly superfluous industrial and service proletariat. What McCarthy sees as novel is simply the blurring of the lines between the racialized class distinctions that have always existed in the post industrial revolution US, with an increasing number of whites falling into the heretofore mostly black and brown and undocumented ranks of the “unneeded” and “expendable”. The “desolation of America’s “red” counties” that McCarthy blames on the machinations of internationalist minded, P.C., and bi-coastal Mandarins is a natural consequence of the economic nationalism pursued by the US as an imperial power.
McCarthy is not calling for a return to an old way of doing things, but a return to an old story about how things are done. But the dialectic has turned, the material conditions of the US have changed, the “rest” have begun to catch up to the game played by the “west”, and a new paradigm of capital management and expansion has taken root. China is now playing the game the US inherited from the British, and is doing it better, and at a faster pace, to boot. They are accomplishing the material development of their nation without the ham-fisted hypocritical cant about “liberty”, the worship of private property, and also by treating emerging nations as partners in growth instead of savages held hostage to their own natural resource development. Expect other formerly colonized nations to emerge onto the neoliberal playing field soon enough, constructing their own mythologies and justifications for actions and beliefs that will someday produce the sort of conditions the declining US Empire is now facing.
McCarthy longs for a return to a US that makes what it needs, locally, heartily whistling while it works for itself and itself alone. This palliative provincialism, to once again borrow and modify a phrase coined by the author, is an attempt to recapture a fictional past: a white bourgeois led, industrial worker powered giant that at its center was always and will always be centered around “rural” morality and values. But this center cannot hold; the only palliative that is being applied is that which McCarthy posits as a “solution” to a system that has been, and will continue to be, shaped by the forces of capital which now exist at a insurmountably complex supranational level, a system that will continue to spin further and further out of the control of those who unleashed its potential, and who benefited most from it for its first 200 years of existence.
At one point in his piece, and as a way of illustrating his own belief in nostalgia for a mythologized US utopia long passed, McCarthy calls back to another imagined “golden age” of human security and wealth. In this case the world that emerged in the Victorian age from the productive chaos that was the British industrial revolution. He seems to believe this was a utopia where all was well, and that the US can strive towards this sort of glory. But what of that system, a system that emerged from a rural nation of yeomen and cavaliers and landowners? It became a relentless, brutal, technologically advanced and resource craving world empire, finally collapsing under the weight of its own dialectical development into the morose, decaying, deluded self-destructive has-been nation that we see today. Where was this golden age? McCarthy would do himself a service if he were to read Friedrich Engels, a man who lived in the England McCarthy mythologizes, and who sought to do something about this system his industrialist family had a hand in creating and perpetuating. In his great work The Condition of the Working Class in England Engels has this to say about the economy and world English popular national industrial development created
Everywhere [there is] barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man’s house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together
The English Industrial Revolution began with technological advances that could not have been predicted, but whose effects can now be understood from the impact on the historical development of England. In the wake of industry came an explosion in domestic production, new domestic consumption, and a new nationalism that sought more than anything else to preserve the gains industry had made for the emerging bourgeois and capitalist classes.
Empire emerged from a conglomeration of various merchantilist and royally chartered entities who were placed at hubs of trade and military outposts. What were once interactions between kingdoms and monied interests were subsumed by the national interest in creating outposts of capital creation and exchange. India, to cite but one of many possible examples, became an extraction point, but also an enormous captive market for goods that were once solely exchanged and consumed domestically. The domestic, formerly yeoman and household industrial workers were absorbed into the great machines at the center of the supercities that were consciously and unconsciously crafted in order to better control and utilize labor.
Mores, be they sexual, artistic, aesthetic or political, emerged or evolved and rancorous regionalism was subsumed into a manageable parliamentary factionalism, and government action domestically and internationally became increasingly strident. “Crisis” became the word of the hour, the upper classes bemoaned the loss of a unique English national character, of a time when merry old England lived by its own means, for itself, alone. Perhaps the US truly is the heir of the British Empire and its incumbent pathology.
Economic change cannot happen in a vacuum in a materialist world: each step in development, each dialectical turn, is in fact a new set of variables which provide a launch pad for new systems, the emergence of which are impacted as much by the direct actions and needs of workers and consumers as by financial and bureaucratic brahmins. There is no such thing as nationalism in isolation, a provincial industrial state. Internationalism is the outgrowth of productive nationalist policy, and even if the rhetoric of politics and culture deny this reality, it does not make a scintilla of difference regarding the material reality of the situation. At the end of his piece, McCarthy calls out for a new nationalism, same as the old nationalism, that makes “productive work” for America First possible in a populist economic system. But we must remember that all productivity has consequences, material consequences that will play out in ways that guarantee that no nation can forever retreat into a self-serving idyll, nostalgia for a past that never was and can never be.
[If you would like to see what I am responding to, check out the piece itself https://www.firstthings.com/article/2019/03/a-new-conservative-agenda]