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The Anxiety of Prosperity

Friday, December 1, 2000

Dinesh D’Souza.
The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence

Free Press. 284 pages. $26.00

This should be a triumphant time for capitalism. The economy of the United States, and of much of the developed world, continues to perform strongly. All formal alternatives to the capitalist method of production have been discredited. The centrality of free trade in stimulating economic activity is overwhelmingly accepted. The equitability of the market as a mechanism for distributing goods is rarely questioned. Furthermore, many government interventions which mitigated the outcomes that arise in the market, from welfare benefits to rent control, have been recognized as disastrously counterproductive. Instead of this triumph, however, protesters flood the cities where the World Trade Organization meets to denounce capitalism in the name of the sea turtle and sweatshop worker. Simultaneously, there has emerged of a critique of capitalism among the very group which has been considered its most reliable defenders: those who are regarded as, and call themselves, political conservatives.

The last time conservatives were involved in such an intense internal debate about capitalism was the late 1970s. This was a period, it may be remembered, in which capitalism didn’t seem to be working so well. The U. S. economy was plagued by both high inflation and unemployment, the simultaneous occurrence of which had long been declared impossible by orthodox economists. American society was in beset by a host of other problems as well. The hopeful liberalism of the 1960s had disintegrated into a swarm of extreme, single-minded movements demanding their "rights" in increasingly shrill and uncompromising terms. This was accompanied by a dramatic rise in the levels of crime, divorce, and out of wedlock births. In his influential and controversial work The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, the neoconservative sociologist Daniel Bell undertook to relate these phenomena. Though Bell did not try to account for the specific problems the American economy was experiencing, he did argue that the long-term viability of the capitalist system was in doubt. In doubt, he argued, because capitalism had evolved a consumer orientation that promoted extreme individualism, hedonism, and immediate gratification. These habits and attitudes had replaced the "Protestant ethic" of productive work and delayed gratification, the value system that nurtured and sustained capitalism in its earlier phase. To the abandonment of this ethic could be traced the social pathologies of the preceding decade, Bell claimed; in its absence, the coherence of American society and popular support for its political institutions were threatened.

In the years that followed, conservatives offered several well-known responses to this thesis. Capitalism was not propelling itself into collapse, argued Irving Kristol, George Gilder, and others; rather, intrusions from the political sphere were stifling capitalism’s potential. These government intrusions were led by a "New Class" (a term popularized by Kristol) of over-educated intellectuals, civil servants, and, according to Gilder, the children of the declining rich, which conducted a war on capitalism at once airily utopian and profoundly self-interested. Utopian, for, in their ivory towers, members of the New Class failed to understand and appreciate how the unromantic toil of the businessman was the lifeblood of society. Self-interested, for they were bitter that their skills and interests went relatively unrewarded in the marketplace and hoped to reorganize society in such a way that they might exercise greater power.

Like Bell, however, Kristol believed that the capitalist order had inadequacies. He too suggested capitalism was unstable, in his view because it helped to foster the incursions from the political sphere that threatened to overturn it. Not because capitalism promoted vice — one hears little about avariciousness or consumerism from Kristol (though Bell never characterized consumerism as vice, the disapproval in his tone was palpable). Rather because liberal capitalism left people unaided in their struggles with existential questions, with "the eternal dilemmas of the human condition." He described this flaw as potentially fatal for the survival of liberal capitalism, since the "spiritual vacuum" at the center of American society was leading young people to search for answers of the politico-utopian kind and join the adversary culture of the New Class. Kristol acknowledged the difficulties surrounding an attempt to reverse this process: "the limitations of the capitalist order are inseparable from its virtues," first among them being its promotion of human liberty. Furthermore, its alternatives "range from the hideous to the merely squalid."

Two more full-throated defenses of capitalism followed. Michael Novak, writing The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism from an explicitly Christian perspective, defended "the emptiness at the core of capitalism" as consistent with the divine grant of free will to humanity. Capitalism, he argued, was a system uniquely suited for the world as God had created it: complex, rife with unintended consequences, populated by beings who were sinners but capable also of trust and imagination. In Wealth and Poverty, George Gilder argued that capitalism was a just system that deposited wealth in the hands of those who deserved it most and were most inclined to use it well. Gilder defended not just the capitalist system but the capitalist himself, and in a highly original fashion. Gilder’s businessman was not a rapacious robber baron or a narrow-minded profit maximizer, not the conformist company man of 1950s social science, not even the diligent and rational bourgeois of "the Protestant ethic." He was a figure of startling altruism and generosity, one who lived to seek out and fulfill the unconscious desires of his fellow men.

This debate receded as the 1980s progressed, the Cold War escalated and President Reagan took a more confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union. Conservatives fell in behind Reagan and began to talk about capitalism in the same way he did. Capitalism increasingly came to be framed in opposition to the Soviet Union, and the economic and political facets of our society were merged rhetorically into a triumphant whole. Our abundance was contrasted with their material deprivation, our relative economic efficiency and responsiveness with their bureaucratic maze and lumbering state industries, our freedom of expression with their stifling of dissent, our constitutional protections with Soviet citizen’s helplessness before arbitrary state action. Talk of capitalism’s inherent instabilities and "contradictions" receded in the face of this great duality.

The end of the Cold War can therefore justly be seen as a turning point in the debate over capitalism in more ways than one. At the same time that most of the world was conceding the economic superiority of capitalism, conservatives began again to wrestle with questions about the internal dynamics and moral legitimacy of capitalist society. The issues, of course, have changed. The boom times of the past decade have quelled most doubts about the sustainability of our economic system. The fact that we have experienced unprecedented mass consumerism alongside a flourishing entrepreneurial sector suggests that we have managed to suppress this particular contradiction rather successfully. The counterculture movement so feared by Bell and Kristol has withered away, either merging with the capitalist culture, if you buy David Brooks’s argument, or being co-opted and "commodified" by it.

The success of the economic system seems assured; but now this very success is implicated by many conservatives in the creation of a culture that is increasingly, pathologically focused on getting and spending. Furthermore, it is argued, our spending is directed at the gratification of our most childish appetites, at the coarsest and least elevating forms of commercial product. To characterize this as an aesthetic complaint is not to diminish it.

Other charges against capitalism are made from a communitarian perspective. Conservatives have come to perceive that the exigencies of the market will disrupt social institutions as quickly and thoroughly as any government welfare program or ivory-tower assault on cultural norms. "Rampant" or "unfettered" capitalism is now blamed for destroying the tight-knit communities of old, as well as causing nuclear families to splinter apart. Arguments encompassing both of these elements can be found in the work of Getrude Himmelfarb, William Bennett, Robert Bork, and Alan Ehrenhalt. Perhaps the most trenchant and passionate critique of capitalism to date appeared in last winter’s Public Interest. In his article "The Spirit of Capitalism, 2000," David Bosworth added to the standard denunciation of consumerism — destroyer of maturity and endless generator of new psychic "needs" — an attack on the ethic of "the Efficient Producer," which has bent parenting to the "grimly anxious pace of the postmodern workplace" and caused family relations to be "stripped of wonder, curiosity, and improvisational fun." Our present age, he argues, is one in which "the market expands to enclose the whole of society so that even the most intimate of activities becomes economically defined." We are caught between the dual "demands for perfect efficiency and unending appetite" and left with "an impoverished definition of human life."

Once again demonstrating a finger well-placed on the nation’s political pulse, Dinesh D’Souza has entered this difficult territory with a new work, The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence, on the moral questions surrounding capitalism and the direction of American society. D’Souza made his reputation through provocative and timely works dealing with the identity politics in academia and the ill effects of liberal racial policies. In another sign of the new legitimacy of a capitalism critique on the right, D’Souza does not begin The Virtue of Prosperity as a defender of our economic system. Instead, he presents himself as an impartial arbiter of the rising debate between those who believe that capitalism, material prosperity, and technological advance are leading to an ever-better world order, whom he dubs the Party of Yeah, and skeptics both on the left and right, the Party of Nah.

It is testimony to the speed of change in the New Economy that the tone and material of the early part of The Virtue of Prosperity is already a bit out of date. D’Souza’s descriptions of the cocky entrepreneurs at a Silicon Valley party he attended and the passages in which he relates the ease with which a young tech whiz with a "big idea" starts a company, acquires funding, plans an ipo, and watches his stock soar seem anachronistic, given the NASDAQ’s sharp decline and the folding of so many e-commerce enterprises. Yet this flaw is hardly fatal to the purpose of the book. Much of The Virtue of Prosperity wrestles with fundamental questions that have endured, in one form or another, since the expansion and intensification of the commercial market a century and a half ago. The rest deals with dilemmas specific to new technologies of the Information Revolution, but these do not appear likely to retreat as quickly as the tech stock indices.

Following D’Souza’s Silicon Valley set piece is the book’s best chapter, in which he describes the coalescence of the Parties of Yeah and Nah and outlines their respective arguments. He then proceeds to discuss and evaluate, in successive chapters, the complaints made by both left and right about capitalism and technology. D’Souza does this in the form of alternating interviews with members of his two Parties, followed by his own commentary. Despite his claim to be acting "like an anthropologist," the purpose of this approach is not really anthropological. He seeks not so much to understand the culture and belief structure of technophiles and those who oppose them as to provide an embodiment for various political positions. To his credit, D’Souza presents people of all perspectives articulating their views coherently and at length (so much so that when he states his own positions, one occasionally feels that he has not fully addressed all the arguments of the opposing side.) And, while the interview format is not essential to providing a full and accurate account of the differing positions, it does make for colorful and popularly accessible reading. D’Souza’s occasionally glib treatment of complex ideas and his habit of easily dismissing substantial thinkers (he disposes of John Rawls in a page and a half; Max Weber is given the boot in a single paragraph) can charitably be attributed to the same cause.

D’Souza’s conclusions at the end of each chapter tend to place him firmly, though not without reservation, with the Party of Yeah. He begins with the problem of inequality, the traditional talking point of the left. Perceptively, he suggests that for many on the left, complaints about inequality have been a stand-in for complaints about poverty. And, he argues, the evidence is in: "poverty, understood as the absence of food, clothing and shelter is no longer a significant problem in America." What remains is relative inequality. This problem has begun to draw the attention of conservatives as well, since the rapid accumulation of staggering sums of money by people in high tech fields seems to call into question the role of merit in the economy. On the question of merit, D’Souza wavers. He states that "today it is difference in skills, effort, and earning capacity, and not arbitrary factors such as inheritance or favoritism, that appear to be responsible for producing large differences in earnings and wealth." But he then concedes that the traditional components of merit — hard work, honesty and reliability, drive, even intelligence — are insufficient for business success, which instead requires a specific kind of entrepreneurial instinct and temperament. D’Souza responds with the positivist argument that today’s millionaires do merit their rewards, for they have anticipated the wants of the public and produced the goods that satisfied them. He then endows that argument with a moral patina, concluding "wealth that is earned rightfully belongs to its creator."

Next D’Souza tackles the questions of the whether capitalism encourages greed and whether wealth promotes moral decay. He rejects George Gilder’s notion of the capitalist as altruist, concluding that desire for material gain is the motivating principle of the entrepreneur. D’Souza instead ratifies the argument, developed by Adam Smith and restated most recently by Michael Novak, that markets don’t create acquisitiveness; rather, they channel natural human appetites into productive ends. "Capitalism civilizes greed, just as marriage civilizes lust," he argues. As for the supposed corrupting effects of wealth, D’Souza declares that "the widespread notion that the rich are somehow more virtuous than the poor does not stand up to scrutiny." While virtue "does not seem in overabundant supply in either camp," the rich can better afford to be virtuous, while "as a consequence of their condition poor people are pressured to do harmful and degrading things that they would be much less likely to do if they were well off."

What about the claims that capitalism has weakened our ties with nature and with each other? On these issues D’Souza concedes much of the case of capitalism’s critics. He expresses dismay at the spoliation of the natural landscape wrought in the name of human progress since the Industrial Revolution. While he chides the Party of Nah for romanticizing life on the land, which was in fact painfully hard, uncertain, and constrained, he acknowledges that something significant was lost as we moved from living in and as part of nature to "living as its overlords, deciding what shall be preserved, what shall be consumed, what shall be cast away."

D’Souza is similarly divided over our changing human relationships. Again, he argues that older, tight-knit communities, from the pre-industrial village to the ethnic enclaves of early twentieth century cities, tended to be narrow, coercive, and stifling. Yet he believes our present fluid and atomistic social order leaves many people isolated and alienated, unable to form meaningful and sustaining attachments. However, D’Souza agrees with the Party of Yeah that the Information Revolution is likely to repair much of the damage that the Industrial Revolution has done. Our increased affluence has permitted us to devote money to the restoration of the environment, and use of the Internet saves energy and natural resources. The demands of the market forced first fathers, then many mothers into an external workplace, but the Internet should enable parents to work at home again, restoring the close family bonds and parental supervision of old. The easy flow of information will also permit people to leave suburban sprawl for smaller communities more conducive to human relationships and a harmonious existence with the land.

D’Souza thus endorses the Party of Yeah’s confidence in the power of markets and technology to benefit humanity. His leanings are most evident in the next chapter, which traces the historical development of liberal capitalist thought and associates it with the best achievements of American society. This chapter, which suffers from a mode of arguing that implies that thinkers like Hobbes and Locke created commercial society, and from the elision of conflicting ideas within the American tradition, also contains his harshest words for the Party of Nah, whom he calls "whiners and losers." Yet D’Souza’s enthusiasm for capitalism is not, finally, unalloyed. He too is concerned by those "eternal dilemmas" Irving Kristol wrote of. True happiness, he writes, requires a life that is meaningful. And in our present age of easy affluence, a sense of meaning is hard to come by. In earlier decades, "the battle for dignity and against degradation . . . provided a seriousness to life, a sense of victory over the elements, an unquestionable moral depth." But now, in the United States at least, the acts of providing for oneself and one’s family are no longer suffused with such moral purpose. D’Souza proposes that "affluence itself is partly responsible for eradicating the moral horizons that give significance to life." People who continue to seek sustenance in material things are rapidly discovering that satisfaction does not inhere in accumulation, and that "the good life" is more than "a life filled with good things."

D’Souza ultimately leaves his conception of the good life sketchy. One can infer that his understanding of that ideal involves closer ties with family, community, and nature, but not much else. D’Souza claims that the liberal writers whom he otherwise so admires were silent on the question of how to pursue happiness. He suggests that we take up the works of the ancient thinkers and consider their ideas on the subject, which range from the view that "contemplation is the highest and most satisfying activity for a free human being" to the various endorsements of "a life devoted to a great and heroic action, the life devoted to the private joys of family and relaxation, the life dedicated to teaching, the life charged with political involvement, the life devoted to the service of others, the life devoted to prayer." Clearly, this covers a broad spectrum of human activity. D’Souza’s reticence, or perhaps confusion, should not be unexpected in this democratic, relativistic age, in which people are extremely reluctant to impose their understanding of "the good" on others. Indeed, it has been shared by many other recent critics of capitalism. D’Souza differs from these, however, in appearing to believe that the good life, whatever it might be, can be fully achieved within the framework of capitalism, and that capitalism creates no insurmountable barriers, economic or cultural, to its realization.

D’Souza’s prescriptions on how we might move our society in the direction of the good life also seem a bit weak. Reading the classics is one thing on which he insists. Other than that, he proposes that we "permit a portion of Social Security funds to be invested in stock and mutual funds." This policy will give average America a sense of stake in the market system and thus "soften the blow for the losers" in our economic race, who might otherwise turn to despair. More reading and Social Security reform thus constitute the whole of his positive suggestions. This paucity must stem in part from the vagueness of his view of the good life. But D’Souza has also encountered a difficulty endemic to conservative social criticism.

Conservatives are comfortable when the maladies they identify can be attributed to the overreach of government. But when problems originate from outside the political sphere, they tend to follow impassioned denunciations with an odd silence. This has been particularly true of conservative critics of capitalism. Daniel Bell ended Cultural Contradictions by calling for the development of a new public philosophy, one which would seem to involve a greater role for the state, but he strenuously avoided mentioning the state or specifying its role. Elsewhere he and others, including Novak and Kristol, have made hopeful predictions of a new Great Awakening, which is usually vague in its theological content but consistent in its rejection of excessive materialism. D’Souza echoes this hope with talk of an imminent "spiritual renewal." He is more optimistic than most, believing that this renewal will be engendered by prosperity itself, which has made possible the luxury of reflecting on its inadequacies. But this talk is ultimately only speculative. All conservative social critics run up against a fundamental barrier: that the principal instrument at our disposal for achieving social change is the state. And the state, for a variously weighted combination of its inefficacy and its coercive tendencies, is more horrible to conservatives than the cultural deficiencies they lament. This dilemma has not disappeared with the new affluence, nor is it likely to be resolved any time soon.

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