Continentalism and the free market

_ Dr. Dušan Dostanić, Institute for Political Studies. Belgrade – Berlin, 18 October 2023.*

European continentalism according to Algis Klimaitis is oriented to the political-cultural heritage of Europe, is rooted in the European understanding of space and of political community. Defined in this way, the concept of continentalism returns to European tradition, conservative values and authentic European heritage. In this sense, continentalism is not a universalist concept and is anti-globalist at its core. Continentalism rejects moral universalism, stands against the idea of a world state, but for several, relatively self-sufficient and authentic large areas.

Continentalism does not mean advocating an alternative vision of globalization with Europe as the hegemon replacing the United States.

Continentalism stands for the multipolar world order, for cultural plurality and the plurality of socio-economic models rooted in these cultures. In the words of Carl Schmitt, for continentalists the world is a “pluriverse.”

If Europe wants to emancipate itself from the domination of the United States and be sovereign in its foreign and security policy, protect its own interests and become an independent geopolitical player, then Europeans must rediscover their own identity and positions. They need their own socio-economic model based on this identity. For this, Europeans should build a new model out of their conservative tradition, breaking away from Anglo-American conservatism – free market, competition, very big fear of so-called “big government.”

In the European conservative tradition, both trade and competition were viewed with suspicion from the very beginning. That there was a tension between European conservatism and the free market was already clear to liberal, market-oriented writers such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek. They recognized that the sharpest criticism of the free market came from continental conservatives, not from leftists. The claim that capitalism worsens the position of workers originally came from conservative politicians. Yet, in terms of the history of ideas, this conservative critique even goes back to the 16th to 18th centuries. Veit Ludwig Seckendorff, for example, warned against the negative aspects of luxury and the abuse of trade and opposed the spread of manufactories and commercialization. Moreover, throughout the 18th century, conservative circles appealed to rulers to turn to agriculture rather than trade (Justus Möser, Graf zu Solms, Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schiller). Early German conservative criticism of capitalism can be found above all in Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, Adam Müller, Fichte, Thomas Mann, Röpke, Lorenz vom Stein.

The 19th century saw the emergence of social conservatives who recognized the importance of the social question and understood it as a crisis of social life that could not be solved by charity. According to Hermann Wagener, the crisis was caused by the community-damaging forces of economic liberalism, which disintegrated the old, traditional and organic structures of the social and economic order and led to widespread hardship and poverty. Lorenz von Stein, the most prominent representative of social conservatism, recognized that exploitation and poverty are, on the whole, characteristic of industrial society and the rule of the market. He said that with industrial society, a new kind of poverty is taking hold – both material and spiritual.

Hermann Wagener’s idea of social reforms (social kingship, king as protector of workers) were inspiration for Bismarck. The old world, the estates had perished, conservatives wanted to create something new. Thus, a creative idea of conservatism emerged already in the 19th century.

Already during World War I, Werner Sombart pointed out the difference between the English and the Continental understanding of economics. His criticism of utilitarianism and commercialization, expressed in the opposition between homo oeconomicus and homo heroicus, was mainly an articulation of the old conservative thinking. For example, Sombart quoted not only Fichte, but also Adam Müller. The same is true of Thomas Mann and his “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen”. The separation of culture and civilization, of Germany and the West, is in reality the separation into conservative, aristocratic Germans and decadent, materialistic, individualistic merchants from the West.

The conservatives of the 20th century go even further. Hans Freyer criticized the market economy from a völkisch point of view because it destroyed the people and national identity. Like Möser and Herder, Freyer advocated respect for uniqueness and cultural particularities and criticized capitalism for abolishing these particularities and depriving life of that meaning that only collectivity, namely the people and the specific national culture, could provide. According to Freyer, the open society is a meaningless society.

Wilhelm Röpke and Ernst Nolte are also skeptical of market forces. The application of the principle of competition to all areas of society is seen as harmful. Nolte is also aware of the political fickleness of entrepreneurs. In times of economic boom, entrepreneurs call for the opening of borders and the influx of labour, while in times of economic downturn they leave the care of the unemployed to the state.

The profound connection between mass immigration, with its destructive consequences, and the logic of the free market and the general commercialization of life has also been pointed out by other conservatives. The consequence of the unbridled global market is “The Great Exchange” (Renaud Camus). Or, to paraphrase Alain de Benoist, those who criticize immigration but remain silent on capitalism had better remain silent.

Since the end of the 20th century, the left has succeeded in making its peace with capitalism, according to Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, for example. Companies like Amazon, Google, Twitter or Microsoft are the most important promoters of the left’s worldview. Indeed, big business or “soft commerce” “needs a counterculture, needs to be challenged, to serve the endless appetite for the ‘unrestrained pursuit of pleasure’ that feeds the market. It uses the artificial rebellion of culture creators to its advantage. It even institutionalizes it (“wokeism”).

The dominance of green-left liberal ideas in the political scene is a direct consequence of the success of the capitalist economy, which is based on the ideas of progress and permanent growth.

To quote Hungarian President Victor Orbán: “Today the left and big business are globalist. The reason for this is quite simple: if a company wants to achieve higher profits, it had better not have any obstacles standing in its way.” These obstacles are national interests, certain values, indigenous cultures, strong families or simply the things that conservatives would like to preserve. The left and corporations, socialism and capitalism are no longer antagonistic forces. They have become a unit and together they work for the ideals of a “Great Reset” and fight traditional structures, identities and cultures.

In summary, conservatives have always been very concerned about the negative effects of the free market and unrestricted competition. The market was seen as a mechanism with dangerous vulnerabilities that undermined community, traditional structures, religion, morals and culture. The logic of the market promotes commercialization, value relativism and the mass immigration of people of foreign cultural origins. Any justification of competition that sees it as a value in itself and insists on market principles everywhere is not and cannot be conservative. The market and competition should remain limited to their sphere and be disciplined. Othmar Spann’s words apply to conservative continentalism, namely that the economy should serve the people and not the other way around.

*Presentation at the “Conference of European Continentalism” on 18 October 2023 in the German Bundestag in Berlin.

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