I recently needed to look something up in George H. Nash’s 1976 book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. I found what I wanted, then fell to browsing.
It is still fascinating to read about American Conservatism during the Cold War, but you can’t help noticing something missing in those debates, something that puts them at a distance from the headlines of today.
Headlines like this one, for example:
Commissioner wants citizens to “enjoy same rights they have at home in other member states”
Eurocrats will today demand that Britain give “rights without borders” to EU migrants.
In a move certain to spark a new row with Westminster, EU Commissioner Viviane Reding is pressing for a “fully functioning common area of justice.”
Most controversially, citizens would be able to “enjoy the same rights they have at home in another Member State”—potentially importing a string of onerous new rules and obligations to the UK …
[By James Slack, Mail Online, March 3, 2014.]
What’s missing from those Cold War debates is any foreboding that, fifty years on, the very concept of the nation-state would be under threat.
The word “nationalist” does not even appear in the index of Nash’s book. It does appear in his narrative, most significantly when he discusses the mid-1960s exchanges between Straussians like Harry Jaffa and states’ rightists like Frank Meyer over liberty versusequality.
What Nash calls “nationalists” here were the Straussians, whom the other side saw as:
… too Hamiltonian, even authoritarian, to satisfy a man [i.e. Meyer] for whom individual freedom and limited government were supreme, and for whom the Tenth Amendment was a good deal more than a “truism.” [Ibid. p. 226.]
From today’s perspective it all looks a bit naïve and parochial. Didn’t they see what was coming?
Well, no, of course they didn’t. We never do.
In a noteworthy exchange between Harry Jaffa and Frank Meyer in 1965, the debate was joined on the issue of Abraham Lincoln.
Not to a historian of conservatism writing in 1976. Neither Philip Hart nor Emanuel Celler appears in Nash’s 15-page index. Nor does Teddy Kennedy. Nor, for that matter, does the word “immigration.” Such innocent times!
There are of course allowances to be made. This was the Cold War. The nations of the West were huddled together like sheep in a storm, with the possibility of nuclear annihilation always just one crisis away. It was natural for the intellectuals Nash was writing about to think in terms of civilization, not nationality.
Nationalism had in any case suffered by association with fascist collectivism. To cherish one’s country was acceptable, but to regard it as the organic expression of a particular people was frowned upon. This was a time when people said—I think Russell Kirk actually said it—“I am a patriot but not at all a nationalist.”
The more one thinks about that assertion, the less sense it makes; but the technology and demographics of the time allowed people in the West to say it without much reflection.
Even after the 1965 Act ended America’s 44-year immigration pause, cheap air travel from the Third World to the First was only beginning to become available. The Second World—the empires of totalitarian communism—was completely closed off. In 1960 no Second Worlders and not many Third Worlders could get U.S. visas; in 1970, when Third Worlders could, not many could yet afford the air fare.
And the Third World wasn’t so populous. Pakistan’s population was 25 percent of the U.S.A.’s in 1960; today it is 61 percent. The corresponding numbers for Nigeria are 25 and 55 percent; for Mexico, 21 and 38 percent.
The patriot-but-not-nationalist line looks, in retrospect, to have something of cheap grace about it. No need to think about nationalism when the borders are secure and pressure from outside negligible.
This was also the Civil Rights era. When not contemplating Western Civilization at large, the thoughts of American conservatives turned most naturally to sectionalism and states’ rights. The nation, standing midway between their state-sized and civilization-sized obsessions, was not much talked about.
Capitalism was much talked about, because it stood in such clear opposition to the state socialism of our Cold War enemy. Again, though, the corrosive effects of capitalism on the nation-state do not seem to have been on anyone’s mind. Schumpeter had already put the phrase “creative destruction” into circulation, but it was discussed mainly as something that happened within a national economy, American makers of buggy whips finding new employment as American auto mechanics.
“Creative destruction” is none the less destruction, and “destroy” is still antonymous with “conserve.” These elementary points of vocabulary were too little noticed by Cold War conservatives.
As the economic manifestation of individual liberty, standing in contrast with socialist tyranny, capitalism was given a pass. The only Cold War conservatives to offer any significant critique of capitalism were Southern agrarians like Richard Weaver, drawing on the old sectionalist Southern prejudices seeing Yankees as cold-blooded, ruthless seekers of profit.
Nationalism and capitalism: For the Cold War conservatives Nash was writing about, the first was a given, though slightly disreputable as an open topic of conversation; the second was a key value of the West against Soviet socialism, as well as the engine of postwar prosperity.
Today it all looks different. The nation-states of the West are under open, aggressive threat: in Europe, from the likes of EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, and in America, from the open-borders lobbies and the growing power of globalist bureaucracies.
Capitalism looks different, too, its contradictions with conservatism more apparent. For example, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has vetoed a bill that would have spared merchants from discrimination lawsuits by turned-away customers if the merchant could show that he was acting on “sincerely held religious belief.” She was under great pressure from business interests keen to have the bill vetoed.
Thus the conservative critique of capitalism deserves an airing. We conservatives whose opinions were cooked in the mid-to-late 20th century tend to look kindly on capitalism, in part because we saw close up the horrors and inefficiency of state socialism. But the traditionalist-conservative critique reminds us that capitalism is not necessarily a friend of liberty.
Capitalists— well, some capitalists— are quite happy to crush your liberties if it`s good for business, which it sometimes is. Indeed, as we see from all the business lobbying for open borders, they`re happy to crush national sovereignty, debase the value of citizenship, and displace American workers, if those things are good for the bottom line.
Just so in Arizona’s case. Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, gave a gushing endorsement of the Governor`s veto.
Even the excesses of modern feminism have been blamed on capitalism.
That conservatism and capitalism might be at odds is not really news. The old throne-and-altar conservatism of Europe was unfriendly to commerce, at least to commerce not subsumed to statist-mercantilist interests. The last exemplar of that tradition,Franco’s Spain, was a commercial backwater until multinationals were allowed in during the 1960s.
The more open conservatism of the Anglo-Saxons, while respectful of custom and hierarchy, and well furnished with aristocrats who sniffed at “trade,” was more hospitable to free-market principles.Edmund Burke, the patron saint of this tradition, explicitly endorsed those principles:
The balance between consumption and production makes price. The market settles, and alone can settle, that price. Market is the meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they mutually discover each other`s wants. Nobody, I believe, has observed with any reflection what market is, without being astonished at the truth, the correctness, the celerity, the general equity, with which the balance of wants is settled.
[Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, November 1795]
The United States, a bustling, forward-looking commercial nation founded in popular revolution, had no taste for throne-and-altar conservatism, and no great inclination to a Burkean organic, slow-evolving conception of society. Was conservatism even possible in such a place?
That was another topic much worked over by Nash’s intellectuals, with answers reached for in classical notions of virtuous citizenship (the Straussians), 19th-century economic liberalism (the Chicago economists), transcendental values (Kirk), and Southern traditionalism (Weaver).
Today it all needs rethinking. One possibility is that the Old World will come in to redress the balance of the New. The phrase “National Conservatism” is now gaining currency, though almost entirely on the other side of the Atlantic. There is a Wikipedia page, leading off with:
National conservatism is a political term used primarily in Europe to describe a variant of conservatism which concentrates more on national interests than standard conservatism as well as upholding cultural and ethnic identity, while not being outspokenly nationalist or supporting a far-right approach. In Europe, national conservatives are usually Eurosceptics.
VDARE.com’s James Kirkpatrick has argued that “National Conservatism” is exactly what Senator Jeff Sessions’ heroic critique of the bipartisan Amnesty/ Immigration Surge spasm amounts to. (Since then, Sessions has explicitly called on the GOP to reorient itself way from big business towards American workers. [Jeff Sessions to GOP: Ditch Wall Street, By Neil Munro , Daily Caller,February 28, 2014])
Will national conservatism come to the U.S.A.? If it does, we at VDARE.com will be the first to ring the bell.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includesNational Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived atJohnDerbyshire.com.