A Liberal Critique

Two Cheers for Capitalism.
by Irving Kristol.
Basic Books. 274 pp. $10.00.

Irving Kristol is often called a “neoconservative,” but what he attempts in Two Cheers for Capitalism is a liberal critique of both corporate capitalism and socialism.

Of the thirty-one essays gathered in this book, the first appeared in 1970 and the last in 1977, twenty-five of them in the Wall Street Journal, four in the Public Interest (of which Mr. Kristol is co-editor). They lack the unity of cumulative logic or of autobiographical chronology. Still, one does well to read them in order, for they do display a coherent and distinctive intellectual position as it has been formulated in the light of day-to-day public concerns.

The essays are grouped in three sections. In the first, Mr. Kristol devotes seven chapters to the ideology of the “New Class,” that large body of intellectuals, lawyers, members of universities, technocrats, and media personnel whose livelihoods increasingly batten on the public sector and who consequently have an interest in defending and expanding that sector. In these essays, Mr. Kristol’s task is that of classical social thought: to unmask, to make manifest what was before only latent. Thus he demonstrates not only that such a class now exercises power, but that it is more properly understood as socialist than as liberal.

Mr. Kristol’s second brace of essays, fourteen in number, criticizes “the large corporations” which “every day, in every way . . . look more and more like a species of dinosaur on its lumbering way to extinction.” Mr. Kristol shows how modern corporations now exceed the limits (if ever their predecessors stayed within them) of merely “economic” institutions. So large are they, so many people do they affect, and so broad a range of human life do they impinge upon, he argues, that they must now be regarded as “political” organisms. The new corporate world includes not only business corporations but parallel bureaucracies in the media, the churches, education, and other fields. This new world is as different from the small entrepreneurships known to the Founding Fathers as “Imperial America” is from the fledgling Republic of 1789. How to think about this new world—to see it plain, to analyze it, to direct it—is the task to which he summons liberal intellect.

Liberal intellect, not socialist intellect. Mr. Kristol does not see much gain in bringing the vast “quasi-public” corporations of modern life wholly into the public sphere, as socialists would do. That way lies state monopoly. Nor does he see much gain in the “old-liberal” view that these institutions should be, or even can be, broken up. What would really be accomplished, he asks, by fragmenting IBM or General Motors into three or four separate units? Neither the internal dynamics of those corporations nor the shape of our system would thereby be altered.

Mr. Kristol’s argument against the socialist and old-liberal critics of corporate capitalism seem not only to the point but unanswerable. (Critics of Two Cheers for Capitalism, in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere, have barely ventured serious argument.) Mr. Kristol limits his own recommendations, however, to very modest steps indeed. He would like the “stupid party” of conservatives to cease being stupid and to cease resisting the welfare state. It is neither bad politics nor bad economics, he argues, to introduce effective compassion into a social order, so that the elderly may live in decency, elementary needs for housing and food and education can be met, a minimum income is provided to all, and the dignity of a job is open to everyone. But are there not, he asks, liberal rather than socialist techniques for accomplishing these goals? To the incredible promise of all-good-things-through-the-state, are there not alternatives? Mr. Kristol, setting himself steadfastly against a libertarianism of the Right—against the simple notion of “private vices, public benefits”—tries instead to incite defenders of capitalism to begin thinking politically, and one by one to identify constituencies that they might better serve than the statists do: the elderly, workers, shareholders, etc.

In these middle chapters, Mr. Kristol operates without an intellectual tradition to fall back upon. There is no body of “democratic-capitalist” thought on which to draw, no theory worked out in advance for guiding a welfare state down liberal paths. As most writings in the socialist tradition are merely statist, so most writings in the capitalist tradition are merely economic. They do not dwell on the broad problems of polity and culture by which a whole healthy society lives. They have been parasitic on a bourgeois-religious culture, now perishing from intellectual and institutional neglect. Once one concludes that socialism offers no cure for the ailments of corporate capitalism, where can one turn? Mr. Kristol, at least, has begun to frame modest answers.

But, so far, he is better at unmasking and analyzing than at prescribing. For example, two issues much discussed in recent writings—as in Charles E. Lindblom’s Politics and Markets— receive less attention from Mr. Kristol than they might. Socialist critics argue that corporate capitalism (1) controls its own markets, without permitting a truly free market; and (2) has disproportionate control over the democratic political process. Mr. Kristol does not address such charges head-on. Tangentially, however, one can discern from his essays the general lines his response might take. Thus, on the issue of the relative freedom of the free market, he might point out that whatever the limitations on the openness of individual markets, there is demonstrably a greater degree of freedom when two or more producers—with different strengths, purposes, and specialties—compete, and when there is freedom for private sources of initiative to incorporate themselves at will, than when a state monopoly directs all transactions. As for the question of disproportionate control over politics, Mr. Kristol would turn the tables: it is the New Class, in his view, that wields disproportionate power over the electorate—by its virtual monopoly of the instruments of culture and communication.



In the third section of his book, Mr. Kristol moves to deeper questions. Here again he illustrates quite clearly how his thought is breaking out of the cocoon of an earlier version of liberalism. These last nine essays are philosophical and conceptual. The classical liberal faith is anchored in science and technology; in reason as opposed to tradition, custom, and religious faith; and in the millenarian spirit embodied in such typical fantasies as “a world without war,” “a world without poverty,” and “a world without hate.” Such a faith is, to Mr. Kristol’s mind, sadly deficient in realism; it badly misjudges the conditions of human life. Mr. Kristol has thus come to share—almost, it seems, despite himself—at least part of the traditional religious critique of the modernizing spirit.

It is in this sense, perhaps, that Mr. Kristol may be accurately called a “conservative”—although it should immediately be added that avowed socialists like Robert Heilbroner, many environmentalists, and some on the New Left have also recently adopted elements of the classical conservative critique of liberalism. Where Mr. Kristol differs both from classical conservatism and from the romantic Left is in the high value he places on bourgeois, individualistic, Calvinist civilization: a civilization of non-utopian, modest, mundane, disciplined, tolerant, unheroic expectations. His is, in a way, a secular vision not altogether unlike that of Albert Camus in The Rebel, who against the fierce and murderous idealism of Sartre and his fellow “makers of history” appealed to a classical moderation, an ancient stoicism toward which Mr. Kristol also casts many sidelong glances. Mr. Kristol recognizes better than Camus that stoicism is an aristocratic way of life; indeed, the reason he so highly honors bourgeois civilization is that it at least briefly created an ethos in which stoicism was in effect democratized.

There are several excellent chapters in part three—I like particularly the essays on utopianism, on equality, and on taxes—and most have either one of two strengths: sharply decisive factual materials or arresting conceptual clarifications. Still, Mr. Kristol has not yet explored all the territory he has here caught a glimpse of. It is quite astonishing, for example, how often he appeals to the need, personal and public, for genuine religion, only to draw back discreetly from elaboration. On this, his own incipient theory requires him to say far more.

Again, it is mischievous of Mr. Kristol to accept, as he does, the designation of himself as a “neoconservative,” except in a religious-moral sense. He is no intellectual companion of most economic or political conservatives, and if his primary polemic is against those who insist upon calling themselves leftists, it is not because they are too liberal—he finds them quite illiberal on every basic point—but because they are committed in effect to state authoritarianism.

Still, this book is a collection, and it is wrong to expect from it a fully worked-out theory. The point is that Mr. Kristol is saying something heretical and truly avantgarde—no doubt, these are precisely the qualities in his thought that infuriate his critics on the Left—and anyone who cares for the intellectual and spiritual health of the liberal tradition is now obliged to pay him close attention.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link