The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
August 23, 2005

Heroes or Heroics? Neoconservatism, Capitalism, and Bourgeois Ethics

Posted by William Coleman

What do neoconservatives think of capitalism? Dr William Coleman - the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics - argues that neoconservative thinkers tend to glorify heroic, marshal virtues over bourgeois, mercantile ones. Neoconservatism, argues Dr Coleman, is thus a variant of anti-economic thought. The views expressed in this article are those of Dr Coleman, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors, or Director.

In 2002 Pat Tillman, a professional American footballer, dropped a US$3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals so as to volunteer for the US Army. It was tacitly understood that his decision was occasioned by the atrocities of September 11. His enlistment was excitedly hailed by Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal, and respectfully saluted by many other pundits. Tillman was made a Ranger, and posted to Afghanistan. On 22nd April 2003 he was killed while on patrol south of Kabul. The US Army posthumously awarded him a Sliver Star for "for gallantry in action with marked distinction".

Tillman's enlistment was untypical: there was no recruitment spike after September 11. What was behind his untypical response is inevitably unclear. But one cannot avoid inferring that the material rewards Tillman was receiving provided him little fulfilment. The prospect that his "finest hour" would consist of some peak of comfort and entertainment was, it seems, not an inspiring one. On this hypothesis, September 11 constituted an answer to Tillman's sense that, in the face of all the comfort offered by capitalism, something important was lacking.

But September 11 was not only an answer to Tillman. It seemed to also be an answer to a class of US intellectuals restless and dissatisfied with the spectacle of the busy and self-absorbed material abundance of the 1990s. This is brought out vividly in Robin Corey's fascinating investigation of the mood of neoconservatives in the decade preceding 2001. ["Endgame: Conservatives after the Cold War", Boston Review, March 2004].

The comments Corey elicits in his interviews of neoconservatives are just so telling – and at points so bizarre – that his paper deserves sustained quotation.

Conservatism, [Irving] Kristol complained, "is so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination…" Kristol confessed to a deep yearning for an American empire: "What's the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role? It's unheard of in human history. The most powerful nation always had an imperial role." But, he continued, previous empires were not "capitalist democracies with a strong emphasis on economic growth and economic prosperity." Because of its commitment to the free market, the United States lacked the fortitude and vision to wield imperial power. "It's too bad," Kristol lamented. "I think it would be natural for the United States . . . to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. Not what we're doing now but to command and to give orders as to what is to be done. People need that. There are many parts of the world — Africa in particular — where an authority willing to use troops can make a very good difference, a healthy difference." But with public discussion dominated by accountants — "there's the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what? Prescriptions for elderly people? Who gives a damn?"

Corey goes on to quote Robert Kaplan's complaint that the "material possessions", of "healthy, well-fed" members of "bourgeois society" "encourage docility". And Donald and Frederick Kagan's hostility for "the happy international situation that emerged in 1991 … characterized by the spread of democracy, free trade, and peace" which was "so congenial to America" with its love of "domestic comfort".

Democracy, Free Trade, and Peace? Oh fie!

But our neoconservatives need not have fretted. For there soon exploded on the scene September 11. Oh happy day! Kristol's vision of the US Army as present "to command and give orders as to what to be done" could be richly fulfilled.

To the historian of the discontents of capitalism this mood of "neoconservatives" is entirely recognisable. For it closely resembles the reaction of the "counter-Enlightenment" to the enlightenment's advocacy of comfort and ease.

During the Enlightenment economists had sought to legitimate "luxury" (i.e. "refinement in the gratification of the senses"). In this vein, "Civilisation" was used by Smith as synonymous with economic development. J.B. Say recommended "comfort" (using the English word) as the goal of life. French should import this English term "comfortable", said Say, and it was so borrowed. Say disposed with a shrug those who disapproved of his esteem of comfort:

I have heard deplored the introduction in our customs of coffee, chocolate and one thousand other superfluities that our fathers did well without. They also did without shirts…. It was only under the reign of Henri III … that one began to dine with forks. America was discovered when we had not yet glass in our windows. Is it not better that we have acquired the need for these than have the merit of knowing how to do without them?

This elevation of comfort and ease was accompanied by disesteem for the non-bourgeois values of glory and heroism. We may think of Mandeville heaping scorn on "the great madman", Alexander the Great. Or Montesquieu asserting that the commercial republic was founded on virtue, not "honour".

The mild and tranquil hedonism of the Enlightenment was not to live undisturbed long into the following turbulent century. The bitterest antipathy to the bland hedonism of the 18th century was expressed in the de-Christianised religiosity of Thomas Carlyle. The "light comfortable kind of 'wine-and-walnuts' philosophy" of utilitarianism was, he declared in 1850, a "Pig Philosophy", and the Pig Science was political economy. As a substitute for wine-and-walnuts Carlyle proposed "Hero-Worship".

Carlyle's judgment of the ignobility of comfort resonated with certain critics of capitalism in Germany at the close of the 19th century. One such was the anti-economist Werner Sombart, ultimately to become a herald of the Nazi revolution of 1933. Sombart adopted the word "comfortism" to designate the aspiration to a standard of living that he so detested. He appears to have had a genuine loathing of the material aids to life: to Sombart the British soldier's safety-razor was a proof of degeneracy of British capitalism. Happiness and comfort, were offences against the good; this was so since the good lay in resistance and strength in the face of unease. Consequently, heroism was the great achievement of human existence, war was its occasion, and honour (not "happiness") was its reward. Sombart sought to condense the contrast between "bourgeois society" (safe, careful, comfortable) and its seeming opposite form of society, "war" (dangerous, violent, exciting) in the choice: "Heroes or Hawkers?"

There is, then, an easy parallel between the scolds of bourgeois comfort at the close of the 19th, and those at the close of the 20th.

But the questions both groups raise are not so easily answered. Is "bourgeois society" less glorious - less heroic - than anti-bourgeois forms of society? And if so, does this matter? Might this actually be a good thing?

Some advocates of capitalism have denied that it is any less heroic than its rivals. Indeed, some of its advocates have sought to find a superiority of capitalism over its alternatives on the very criterion of heroism. To Schumpeter, the worst thing about socialism was not that it was "impossible" - or that it was inefficient - but that it lacked glory. To Schumpeter the capitalist entrepreneur was a hero, and the socialist planner his soft-footed antithesis. In a similar way George Gilder praised capitalism on account of it being a romance plot, and not a balance sheet. Gilder was to become a visionary of the information technology revolution, and that revolution provided an array of putative capitalist heroes: Jobs, Gates, Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

But this move doesn't really work. Jobs, Gates and Bezos are more prodigies than heroes – so young and so clever. Their stories are fairytales, not sagas. They are, in truth, capitalist celebrities. And what is more inglorious than a celebrity?

But it is not my contention that there are no heroes in bourgeois society: 343 firefighters died in the Twin Towers. Rather, the contention is that our heroes do not perform the heroic in the ordinary context of capitalist society; rather, they perform it outside its ordinary context.

The less heroic flavour of the context, and ethic, of capitalist society probably flows from several of its features.

Feminism: Bourgeois society gives an unparalleled eminence to women. But heroes are masculine. Granted: courage, fortitude, defiance and self-sacrifice belong also to womankind. But there is no escaping that the heroic ethic is inextricable from a masculine ethos. Sombart recognised the enemy his ethic of heroism had in feminised societies. And that gave Sombart another reason for objecting to the Enlightenment.

Individualism: Under bourgeois society each life has a significance. Individuals have rights. Each person is an end in itself, rather than a means to some other end. This sense of values means our society is less willing to enjoin the sacrifice of the few for the many.

The negative value of cost: Heroism does not cohere with the value maximisation of the market. Cost is the opposite of value. But heroism is only heroism if it is costly. And the more costly it is, the more valuable it is. Thus a hostility to cost amounts to a hostility to heroism. The exception is where heroism secures some benefit worth the cost. But, plainly, it does not always do so. "Why climb Mt. Everest?" The New York Times asks George Mallory. He can only reply: "Because it is there". And the bourgeois judges this absurd.

Rationality as a preferred strategy: The bourgeois ethic amounts in large measure to the substitution of calculation for will as the favoured means to ends. Rationality, organisation, and foresight are to get us there, rather than an unthinking courage and steely inflexibility. As a consequence, our Benjamin Franklinesque world asks for no "heroics". Rather, when disaster strikes, the area is cordoned off by police, the well-prepared Disaster Plan implemented, and busloads of grief counsellors marshalled in the rear. But let no-one "play the hero", please.

Should we, then, join with Sombart, and declare for Heroes over Hawkers? No. Partly because of the merit of the factors that attenuate the heroic ethic under capitalism: human rights, rationality, etc. If you like, an enervation of the heroic ethic is one of the prices of civilisation.

Further, if the heroic ethic is weaker under capitalism, then this is not all bad. There is something potentially pathological about the ethic of heroism. The ethic commands the triumph of self-command over a certain feeling, namely fear. And that triumph borders on fanaticism. It is the fanaticism of Kamikaze pilots. Or September 11 terrorists.

But I would grant that the relative weakness of the heroic under capitalism is not all for the good, either. It seems plausible that the weaker "heroic context" in capitalism is a cause for loss; for there is a human need for drama, and a peaceable world frustrates that. That frustration may be seen in the fall in suicide rates during times of war. During both World Wars suicide rates in the United States declined. Australia's lowest suicide rate occurred in 1943.

Yet the attempt to nurture the heroic ethic in the face of the unheroic context of capitalism can cause mischief. For a frustrated urge for self-heroisation yields Walter Mittys. And the phenomenon of ridiculous self-heroisation is not limited to such crushed worms as he. The urge to self-dramatisation is blatant in the very dashing Tony Blair. Neither should we ignore President Bush's remarkable exhibition of himself on 1st May 2003.

The commentary upon Bush's arrival by jet plane on the USS Abraham Lincoln that day has ignored the issue of self-dramatisation. Instead there has been an interest in the ludicrous aspects of the event: Bush being spun around in the White House swimming pool as a part of "water survival training". Or in the flim flam: the USS Abraham Lincoln being angled so as to keep live television cameras from getting sight of San Diego skyscrapers; the USS Abraham Lincoln delaying its arrival by 14 hours by taking "lazy circles", so that it would not be at San Diego before the President took off; the timing of the landing for what photographers call the "magic hour", when the afternoon light creates attractive golden contrasts. Or in the sheer falseness surrounding it: that, contrary to initial White House claims, the USS Abraham Lincoln was near enough to San Diego for the President to land on the aircraft carrier by helicopter, as all Presidents did up until that date.

Instead focussing on the hokum of the event, I suggest we might usefully pause to wonder what it was that made Bush want to act in this way. Recall, he originally intended to arrive, not in a staid submarine hunter, but in an F-18 Hornet, the USA's front-line strike-fighter. What sort of inner mental landscape makes a 56 year old man - who has never heard a shot fired in anger in his life - want to arrive on an F-18? I suspect that a common attempt at explanation would hypothesise a wish to cut a dazzling figure. The landing was the aeronautical equivalent of hot-rodding. Or of middle aged men jumping on a Harley-Davidson. More Flashman than Mitty. Yet contemplating 1st May 2003, future biographers might want to keep in mind that Walter Mitty zoomed into the world, in 1939, on the pages of the New Yorker, as a military pilot landing a plane.

My point is that there is glory, and there is vain glory. And the quest to produce the former may produce the latter. Or an ignoble mendacity. In May 2004 the US Army issued a 1600 page report on an investigation into Tillman's death. It concluded that, contrary to Army claims of 2003, Tillman was not "killed by enemy fire while storming a hill, barking orders to his fellow Rangers as the Army would have the world believe". He was shot from behind by his own troops, and his uniform burnt to hide the deed.

We would do well to consider whether more gallant exploits, or more cowardly lies, will be fathered by any declaration by intellectuals for Heroes over Hawkers.

Dr William Coleman is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). To read Dr Colemann's previous articles for the Social Affairs Unit, see Anti-Economics.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Authors and readers please  — will someone tell me what a neoconservative actually is ? I've heard them being criticized so much, but how do I recognize one if he/she/it turns up on my front doorstep?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at August 23, 2005 07:08 PM

Robert, it may help you to recall that Marx said je ne suis pas Marxiste whilst giving yourself a pat on the back for having got Dr Coleman's point.

My only other suggestion is that taking any form of political philosophy too seriously is probably an early indicator of mental illness...

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at August 23, 2005 09:40 PM

Neo-Conservatives resemble that breakfast cereal called Grape Nuts, which as we know are neither grapes nor nuts.

Posted by: s masty at August 24, 2005 04:55 AM

It would be interesting to know what Dr Coleman thinks of objectivism. While capitalism, according to Ayn Rand, is the economic system that is moral, there seems to be a lot of heroism attached to it as well. I'm not an objectivist myself and I do find the heroism somewhat strange.

Posted by: Dennis at August 25, 2005 09:24 AM

Dear Dr. Coleman: I am going to rush out (all right: post on and buy your book. My own, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Capitalism (2006), has similar themes. I think you are spot on to say that conservatives from the get go have been suspicious of bourgeois virtue, or as they would say "virtue." The enemies of the way most of us live are not only of the left. Sincerely, Deirdre McCloskey

Posted by: Deirdre McCloskey at May 19, 2010 08:00 PM

You make a great point, Bev. Maybe there has been too much focus on me, me, me. It will be interesting to see if olppee can be taught to be heroes. I think some parents do teach it to their kids.

Posted by: Hardik at March 14, 2012 01:15 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement