A Conservative Case against Capitalism

A Conservative Case Against Capitalism and Industrialism

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The purpose of this paper will be a critique of capitalism and industrialization which I would call capitalism’s natural offspring. The very nature of this critique will come from a profoundly Catholic and Conservative perspective. Most people who have criticized capitalism and industrialism have often done so from a left-liberal political perspective and outlook. This can be seen from the writings of individuals such as Marx and Engel, as well as from ideas such as Socialism, Communism, and various other modern liberal ideologies. However in presenting this conservative critique of capitalism and industrialism I will show that there are in fact various conservative and religious critiques against the effects which capitalism produced. Some of these critiques involve the effects of capitalism and industrialism in the development of crony capitalism and a more centralized government, the natural dispossession of property rights, its negative effect on the environment, the rise of Imperialism, and lastly on the breakdown of traditional morality and the nature of the family.

Introduction: How Capitalism and Industrialism came about

Before I go on to describe the negative effects of capitalism and industrialism I thought it would be beneficial to give a quick overview and summary of the historical and metaphysical atmosphere which gave rise to capitalism and industrialism in general. This historical understanding will help us to better understand some of the factors regarding the effects of capitalism and industrialism better. As we will see the main factor of laissez faire capitalism and industrialism is Enlightenment thought.

Laissez faire economics and later the overall Industrial Revolution played a large role in the transformation of modern society. The modern European roots of Laissez faire economics traces itself to the influences of Enlightenment thought during the 17th– 18th centuries, which were characterized by various revolutions in scientific, philosophical, theological, sociological and political thought. These revolutions and novelties “swept away the medieval world view and… in which the traditional hierarchical political and social orders (the French monarchy, the privileges of the French nobility, the political power and authority of the Catholic Church) were violently destroyed and replaced by a political and social order informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded, ostensibly, upon principles of human reason.”[sup]1[/sup]

This metaphysical understanding of the atmosphere around this period of the Enlightenment should help us see the product of capitalism and laissez faire economics, as well as the second byproduct of the overall Industrial Revolution that naturally came about through the entirely of the Enlightenment. Based on the many fundamentals of Enlightenment thought which naturally looked down on hierarchical authority, laissez faire capitalism naturally came about as a result. Key players in the development of capitalism were Vincent de Gournay, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, and many other individuals which greatly influenced this understanding of economics based on individualism.  “The pervading theory of the 19th century was that the individual, pursuing his own desired ends, would thereby achieve the best results for the society of which he was a part.”[sup]2[/sup]

Similarly it could be argued that capitalism and laissez faire economics naturally lead to the Industrial Revolution which I would say was primarily the byproduct of laissez faire capitalism and Enlightenment thought. This Industrialization brought in production by the use of machines and characterized by technological change and economic growth. The Industrial Revolution lasted from about (1750-1850). This industrialization lead for example to the migration of large populations from rural self-sufficient regions to urban industrialized cities.

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Crony Capitalism: Big Business and Big Government

One of the unintended effects of capitalism is that it led to a larger and more centralized government with likewise more unintended control in both the public and private sector. This seems contradictory, especially since laissez-faire capitalism holds the view of a “hands off” approach to government. Shouldn’t a purely capitalist market naturally prevent big government? In principle this is held to be true but in practice quite the opposite occurs.

One of the problems with laissez-faire capitalism or “pure capitalism” is seen in what Chesterton once spoke of when he said that “the problem with capitalism is not that there are too many capitalists but two few.” Although adherents of pure capitalism state that capitalism naturally leads to competition, which in turn naturally keeps businesses small and checked by this power of competition, we see that in its historical practice, this is not the case. Think back to the Robber Barons of the 19th century at the time of the Industrial Revolution. This shows that in practice capitalism had led to giant businesses and corporations.

This development of big business and corporatism, which was highly influenced by capitalism gave rise to what is known as crony-capitalism. Crony capitalism is the situation in which big business and big government have a close mutual relationship with each other. This is what Chesterton describes as the marriage of Hudge and Gudge in his book What’s Wrong with the World. This reality can easily be seen in the nature of various government regulations such as the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), The Meat Inspection Act (1906), and various others. Surprisingly big business was for most part in favor of such regulations. The reason for this is that these regulations naturally work as barriers to market entry, which naturally cuts down competition. In the case of these meat laws mentioned, large meat packers wanted government involvement in the industry because it gave the big packers an advantage over the smaller meat producing companies. “Government inspections added a large fixed operating cost of producers due to administrative overhead, which effectively serves as a large barrier to market entry.”[sup]3[/sup]

Another example of crony capitalism can be seen in the recent example of the bailouts during the 2008 economic recession. Because of the nature of how interwoven big business and big government are, it makes sense why the U.S government was quick in bailing out many of the companies like GM and many banking industries that had gone bankrupt. Government had relied too heavily on the success of these giant corporations and banking in regards to the success of the economy.

A more implicit example of the rise of government due to capitalism can also be seen in the natural reaction against capitalism which came about through socialism. Socialism was based not on the individual (individualism) but on collectivism (statism). This natural reaction against capitalism didn’t really solve the problem but just shifted the problem somewhere else, as we will see in the next section regarding capitalism and its effect of dispossession and restriction of property rights.

Anti-Proprietorship and an economy of dispossession

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I could not think of a better suited title for this section than calling it anti proprietorship and an economy of dispossession, since this is in fact the effect that capitalism had on society in various levels. This effect was namely in the process of disposing classes and individuals from the acquiring and owning of private property. In pre-Industrial society, various economic systems encouraged the wide-spread ownership of private property in a decentralized way. Capitalism and industrialism greatly changed this reality.

Capitalism, industrialism, and furthermore the effect of socialism which was a natural reaction against them, greatly limited the owning of private property. Capitalism was based on profit and the allocation of the means of production to private individuals. Since in such society the number of capitalists were limited such as in the case of the Industrial Revolution, this limited the ownership of private property. This is what G.K Chesterton meant when he talked about the problem of capitalism being that there were too few capitalists in practice. Similarly Socialism which worked as a natural reaction against this system also limited private property into the hands of the state.

In focusing back on capitalism and its effects, Hilaire Belloc in writing about the restoration of property, mentions how capitalism limited private property not only by the fact that there were naturally only a few capitalists, but also that the very nature of work found in capitalism also limited the widespread owning of private property. Hilaire Belloc states:

When men have become wage slaves they think in terms of income. When they are economically free they think in terms of property. Most modern men living under industrial conditions regard economic reform as essentially a redistribution of income; property is for them an illusion; the reality behind it is income… (Restoration of Property pg. 103)[sup]4[/sup]

What Hilaire Belloc is saying is that capitalism created a system of wage slavery in which employment did not mean freedom but only a means by which to get by. In such system workers would have little to no way of owning private property since their wages only served to  get the workers and their families through the day. This can still be seen today in a variety of levels. Think about many workers in big corporations like Walmart for example. Many of the ordinary Walmart workers generally get paid just enough to get by in life, furthermore they could not possibly have enough to own their own capital or private property for that matter. As a matter of fact many workers might not even get paid enough to even get by. This is why the government often makes up for this reality by government assistant programs which we end up paying in taxes. This situation came about through capitalism and its effect of limiting private property.

Without touching upon the topic at length it should be pointed out that the Enclosure Movement in England was a historical aspect of the effect of dispossession that capitalism brought about. This movement legally stripped independent and self-sufficient peasants of their land and relocated them to urban factories in which they were turned to wage slaves in essence. Before this event occurred, peasants in the rural regions of England had been able to be self-sufficient and had more ownership of private property.

Environmentalism and Machinery

Laissez-Faire capitalism and the Industrial Revolution also negatively affected the environment, as well as to an unhealthy reliance of machinery and technology in society. This lead to the destruction of most agrarian rural communities, the environment itself, and a process of machinery and technology which created an inhumane situation. J.R.R Tolkien and Gandhi were two of the most outspoken critics of this effect of industrialism and capitalism.

Gandhi criticized this over reliance on technology and its effect on the environment, and the destruction of the traditional agricultural and local rural communities, which was a consequence of the industrial aspect of capitalism. Gandhi “feared that this overdependence on machinery may destroy the stable and long-established agrarian village communities which is environmental friendly and which for him constituted the core of the nation’s strength, not just material, but ethical and spiritual.”[sup]5[/sup]

Similarly J.R.R Tolkien objected to capitalism’s influence of industrialism and modernization on similar grounds. Tolkien did not like what industrialism and modernization were doing to the English rural countryside and environment. “Tolkien lamented the triumph of the machine as he described the Industrial Revolution and all its pomps.”[sup]6[/sup] These criticisms of Tolkien on the effect of industrialism can be seen in his letters and in his literary writings such as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

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Perhaps one of the nastiest effects of capitalism and industrialism was in the rise of imperialism which was a natural effect of capitalism. Gandhi himself states that it was the industrial aspect of capitalism which lead to the rise of imperialism. He states that the very nature of industrial capitalism lead to a desire for mass profit and production, which in turn lead to a necessity of imperialistic objectives do to the scarcity of resources. Gandhi criticized industrialization and urbanization because he believes that “the distinguishing characteristic of modern civilization is an indefinite multiplication of wants… to satisfy these wants, one had to forage far and wide for raw materials and commodities.”[sup]7[/sup]

This reality can be seen in the fact that many governments and supporters of capitalism “authorized some of them (capitalists) to explore, conquer, and colonize distant lands in search of commercial opportunities. Thus early capitalism developed in the context of imperialism… Indeed imperial expansion and colonial rule were crucial for the development of capitalism.”[sup]8 [/sup]This reality can be seen in the Imperialism of the late 17th and 18th centuries such as the Scramble for Africa, The Opium War, and the various imperialistic attitudes of Western nations towards Japan.

This nature of industrial capitalism deviated away from the self-sufficiency of pre modern agrarian life as Gandhi states “our ancestors discouraged us from luxuries and pleasures, we had managed with the same kind of plough as existed for thousands of years ago, we had retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remaining the same as before.”[sup]9[/sup] This self-sufficiency changed through the effects of industrialism. Not only did it change the nature of self-sufficient populations but it also forced them into modernization and urbanization just like the Enclosure Movement mentioned earlier on.

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Morality and the Family

The last main effect that capitalism and industrialism caused was the breakdown of the family and traditional morality and ethics. Much of Enlightenment thought which influenced the overall development of capitalism and industrialism was at its root cause. This involves the Enlightenment’s revolutionary attack on the nature of a hierarchical mode of authority in which the family, the State, and religious institutions like the Catholic Church played in society.

In starting with the family it is not hard at all to see the many ways in which capitalism broke down the institution of the family. Pre-industrial and capitalist society naturally held the family as the organic unit of society. For this very reason, all economic life was situated around the importance of the family. This meant that society during this time had the specific role of helping the family to flourish and be taken care off. This was the economic reality of the medieval age. Capitalism and its industrial influence naturally destroyed this reality as it no longer looked to the family as the organic unit of society but rather to the individual.

As we look at the working conditions during the Industrial Revolution which was for most part influenced by laissez-faire capitalism, we see how these working conditions helped in breaking up the influence of the family as an institution. Think back to the drastically long hours in which parents would be off at work and consequently not being able to do their main role of child-bearing. This was a reality not only for fathers but for mothers as well. This reality compelled a Cardinal to once state “I do not understand how a woman can train her children in the hours after they come from school if she works all day in a factory.”[sup]10[/sup]

Child labor can also be seen as a consequence of the breakdown in the authority and influence of the family. Many kids in order to help their families make a living had to be away from home and at work. This consequence undermined the authority and influence of parents, since they no longer had a major influence in raising their kids. It was no longer the family and parents who were raising their kids but the workforce. Many children picked up immoral customs and conducts which they had imitated from fellow workers.

We can see how this economic system based on capitalism also broke down traditional morality and ethics. The traditional view that prevailed from Aristotle and Aquinas to Smith was that all human relationships, including economic ones, were regulated by justice. This justice as held by individuals such as Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas was viewed as composing all of the order of virtue. In this view, the market and economic life was influenced by morality, ethics, and institutions like the family and the Church. “Western Civilization grew up emphasizing the importance of individual freedom within that order, and the need for individuals to be enlightened as to the character of nature and freedom through the guidance of authoritative societies like the family and the State.”[sup]11[/sup] For this reason the influence of the Enlightenment on capitalism and laissez-faire economics, naturally caused these authoritative elements to be seen in suspicion.


These are the many ways in which capitalism and industrialism have negatively affected society. Although it is true that capitalism and industrialism gave rise to certain perceived benefits such as a greater productive outlook, an increase in economic growth, and lastly an increase in the efficiency of the allocation of resources, its negative effects on society far outweigh these relative benefits. These negative effects include the degrading of traditional morality and the role of the family, the restriction of private property, crony capitalism, the rise of imperialism, and lastly its effects on agrarianism and the environment.


    1) Bristow, William. “Enlightenment.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 20 Aug. 2010. Web. 23 May 2015.
    2) Laissez-faire.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 23 May 2015.
    3) Suede, Michael. “Meat Packing Lies: Exposing The Fiction Of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.” Libertarian News. N.p., 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 23 May 2015.
    4) Belloc, Hilaire. The Restoration of Property. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936. 103. Print.
    5) Streekumar, Nishikant Kolge. “Gandhi’s Criticism of Industrializaiton and Modernity.” (2008): n. pg. 61 The Institute of Gandhian Studies. Institute of Gandhian Studies. Web. 23 May 2015.
    6) Wood, Ralph C. “The Catholic Fantastic of Chesterton and Tolkien.” First Things. First Things, 2 Jan. 2008. Web. 10 June 2015. Par. 10
    7) Streekumar Op. Cit., pg. 59
    8) Bentley, Jerry H. “The Transformation of Europe.” Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the past. Vol. 2. N.p.: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Pg. 510-11. Print.
    9) Streekumar, Op. Cit., pg. 59
    10) Purcell, Edmund Sheridan. “Social Reformer.” Life of Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster. New York: Macmillan, 1895. Pg. 647.
    11) Rao, John C., Dr. “Introductory Anti-Capitalist Manifesto.” For The Whole Christ. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2015. Par. 10

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