In the 1980s, recognizing the anti-human nature of totalitarian regimes, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher minimized government and promoted the free market, hoping to prevent the rise of totalitarianism by giving more liberty to the individual. Unfortunately, they underestimated the influence of mega-corporations. These quickly grew big enough to eclipse the role of government. Today, these entities nearly mimic some authoritarian regimes by imposing certain ideologies, and exploiting the middle and working classes.
In effect, the Thatcherite and Reaganite idea of individualism went too far—and ignored the ‘common good.’ In fact, Thatcher and some neoconservative thinkers actually began to deny the very reality of society and common good.
The concept of a neoliberal ‘free market’ is fundamentally nihilistic. The concepts of the common good, ethics, and culture don’t play into it at all, for the simple reason that its creed and motto—from beginning and end—remains focused on one thing: profit. ‘The customer is always right’ must rank among the most nihilistic claims ever made. Since the only goal of the free market is profit, the market must offer everything the consumer asks for, regardless of ethics and values. The principal neoliberal economic value is thus popularity, which goes hand in hand with vulgarity—something mega-corporations today exploit.
The neoliberal free market has thus led to our current plight, in which everything is on sale and nothing has real value, in which the basic systems that uphold a functioning society have collapsed. Let us consider a few areas—e.g., culture, human rights, ecology, racism, and migration—in which the free market, unguided by ethics, has proven as dehumanizing as the totalitarianism it purports to oppose.
Culture and religion
Since the French Revolution, there has been persistent hostility towards the Christian creed in the West. Progressives consider it regressive, harmful, and, in extreme cases, evil. In the past, Christianity was attacked in the name of rationalism and nationalism; now, it is attacked in the name of ‘progress.’
Western culture—and the orthodox Christianity at its core—has been systematically demonized by powerful media, NGOs, and even educational institutions. The desecration of churches is now accepted as a common—and unavoidable—element of a progressive, pluralist society. ‘Gibbonian historiography’ is alive and well: prejudice towards other religions is unacceptable; but there are different rules for orthodox Christianity. The situation recalls Chesterton’s observation that what progressives call love for other religions is really hatred of Christianity.
In the end, Christianity is the only bulwark against the demolishment of ethics under progressivism and the unleashing of totalitarianism. Once that defence is destroyed, other religions will also be forced to comply with neoliberalism’s creed of secularism, scientism, hedonism, and materialism. This is what progressive neoliberalism has in common with the totalitarianism of the 1970s and 1980s: it puts forth a creed that everyone must accept, on pain of degradation and social ostracization.
Women’s rights and neoliberal capitalism
Nowadays, corporations—modern-day champions of feminism and gender-equality values—often punish or even fire their female employees for getting pregnant without having planned it, while they simultaneously promote infanticide as both a solution to and liberation from ‘the patriarchy.’ Numerous examples can be found—from Walmart to Hollywood. Thus, they denigrate the value of motherhood and family and convert their employees into worshippers of Moloch.
The same questionable ethos applies to sexual exploitation: corporations today, and their progressive allies, have converted prostitution and pornography into ‘sex work’ and ‘a right’—as long as there is profit to be made—so that they come to resemble the fantastical patriarchy they apparently despise. In short, they will promote every woman’s right—except the one which God or Nature granted them: the dignity of motherhood.
Nature and ecology
It is hard to deny that the environment has suffered as a result of neoliberal economics and corporate exploitation. Thousands of miles of forests and green areas have been destroyed, and our air and water have been contaminated by both governmental and private initiatives.
Yet, many self-identified conservatives, loyal to neoliberal economics, deny the climate problem. For them such cases are either fabricated or left-wing concerns. Indeed, for such people, the term conservative has become an oxymoron, since it entails, literally, the conserving of valuable institutions, ideas, and things—among which the environment is surely one.
For traditional conservatives—people like Burke, Belloc, Chesterton, and Scruton—we conserve these things not only for ourselves but for future generations. Since 1971, the Catholic Church has also articulated the theological case for taking care of the environment, a case represented in recent years by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. The Church has interpreted environmental exploitation not only as self-destruction but as a sin against God and His creation.
Human rights, racism, and corporations
Liberal economics has also had a malign effect upon the perception of race. Mega-corporations tend to be the first to show support for even the most irrational racial politics—including the neo-Marxist BLM’s agenda—for one simple reason: it’s popular and they profit from it. Where, in the past, racism was exploited by big business, it is now condemned—not so much because it is wrong but because it simply doesn’t pay.
Yet, racism is still promoted in other forms. If yesterday it was said that ‘white people’ are ‘superior,’ today they claim nearly the same thing by presenting themselves as the self-righteous ‘educators’ of minorities, lecturing on how a certain ethnic group should think, act, and vote.
As we witnessed in the summer of 2020, by supporting the BLM riots, many corporations succeeded in protecting themselves. It is curious that those on the Left appeared not to notice the self-serving element to corporate activism—or that, during the BLM protests, many small businesses were damaged or destroyed. In the meantime, many of the very same ‘anti-racist’ corporations have factories in Third World countries, or in China, where workers are not only paid a pittance, but also suffer terrible working conditions. In China, both Muslim Uyghurs and Chinese Christians have been deprived of basic human rights—and, in some cases, sent to concentration camps—yet many Western corporations condemn or censor criticism of China. Indeed, poor working conditions can be found even in European and American factories, where ethnic minorities often form the bulk of the workforce.
Migration and humanism
Though they might manage it slightly differently, neoliberals and social democrats tend to have a similar approach to migration. Countries like Germany—led until recently by a neoliberal (supposedly ‘conservative’) party in the CDU—have accepted millions of migrants in the noble name of humanitarianism or multiculturalism. And if this has provoked reaction from both the Right and far-Right, it is for very different reasons. While the far-Right is preoccupied with race, the traditional conservative is merely concerned with order and safety.
A massive influx of migrants endangers a country’s political and social order. The safety of both sides—citizens and migrants—is at stake; yet both are exploited in order to achieve political and economic goals. Ironically, it is often the politicians who cause such migrant crises—some directly, by advocating interventions in the Middle East, and others indirectly, by not opposing the ideas of the professional humanitarians, who proclaim their deep sympathy for migrants.
Of course, one can see the motive behind it all: the desire for cheap labour to stimulate the economy, regardless of the socio-cultural consequences. Hence, both migrant and native conservatives end up marginalized, a situation which sometimes leads to political or religious extremism.
Yet neoliberals do not admit responsibility. Instead, they deny the consequences of their social engineering by treating migrants like uneducated children. Against these abuses, it’s worth mentioning that both Pope Benedict XVI and his African intellectual disciple, Cardinal Robert Sarah, have championed the moral goodness of not migrating but rather doing one’s duty by bringing order and prosperity to one’s own homeland. Pope Francis has also criticized the dehumanization and abuse of migrants by both politicians and corporations.
A conservative—and Catholic—conclusion
We often hear populist conservatives—and those on the far-Right—blaming some of the problems listed above on cultural Marxism, but this is a mistake. These are not Marxist problems but neoliberal ones. The main goal of Marxism is the revolutionary rule of the proletariat.
As an ideology that evaluates everything through the market prism, neoliberalism insists on limiting the government’s involvement and enhances the power of corporations–which, in turn, embrace and propagate ‘trendy’ beliefs such as ‘wokeism,’ and thus undermine the family, religious and traditional values, culture and civilization. Both Marxism and neoliberalism are totalitarian—but in different ways. Marxism leads to a hard totalitarianism; but neoliberalism is a hybrid system which can be defined as ‘soft totalitarianism’—a term originally coined by American writer Rod Dreher.
The late British philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, recognized the threat of free market neoliberalism early on, stressing the need for a reasonable limit to economic libertarianism because it put ‘sacred things’ at risk. Among these, Scruton listed the unborn, family, religion, tradition, culture, civilisation, environment, and liberty—all things that cannot be traded in the market because they are priceless.
What is destroying our civilization, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has taught, is the “dictatorship of relativism.” Unfortunately, thanks to neoliberal economic ideology, which denies real value in favour of a perceived value which can be turned into profit, this is a notion that has flourished. That’s why there is a need for a reform of conservative thinking around Europe.
The goal for all of us should be a reconceptualization of the ideas of Christian faith, family, and community; these should stem from our core values—so that the human being is not reduced to a materialist category. There is thus a need for a conservatism that is guided by the light of the perennial truths on which Western civilization was founded.
The means towards such a reform of conservative thinking are various—and common good politics and Christian democracy are both important steps in the right direction.