There’s A Blond Wondering Around Georgetown

Phillip Blond in Prospect Magazine:

We live in a time of crisis. In such times humans retreat to safety, and build bulwarks against the future. The financial emergency is having this effect on Britain’s governing class. Labour has withdrawn to the safety of the sheltering state, and the comforts of its first income tax rise since the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, the Conservatives appear to be proposing a repeat of Thatcherite austerity in the face of economic catastrophe. But this crisis is more than an ordinary recession. It represents a disintegration of the idea of the “market state” and makes obsolete the political consensus of the last 30 years. A fresh analysis of the ruling ideological orthodoxy is required. Certainly, this new thinking isn’t going to come from the left. New Labour is intellectually dead, while Gordon Brown promises an indebted return to a now-defunct status quo. But, in truth, Brown’s reconversion from post-socialist free marketeer to state interventionist is only plausible because the Conservatives have failed to develop an alternative political economy that explains the crisis, and charts a different future free of the now bankrupt orthodoxies. Until this is achieved, Brown’s claim that the Conservatives are the “do nothing” party has real traction, and makes the result of the next election far from assured.

On a deeper level, the present moment is a challenge to conservatism itself. The Conservatives are still viewed as the party of the free market, an idea that has collapsed into monopoly finance, big business and deregulated global capitalism. Tory social thinking has genuinely evolved, but the party’s economic thinking is still poised between repetition and renewal. As late as August 2008 David Cameron said: “I’m going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer,” and that “radical social reform is what this country needs right now.” He is right about society, but against the backdrop of collapsing markets and without a macro-economic alternative, Thatcherite economics has been wrongfooted by events.

Thankfully, conservatism is a rich and varied tradition, and re-examinating its history can provide the answers Cameron needs. These ideas are grounded in a conservatism with deeper roots than 1979, and whose branches extend into the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism—or red Toryism. This is more radical than anything emerging from today’s left and should be the way forward for the right. The opportunity to restore a radical, and progressive, Toryism must not be lost to the economic downturn.

To date, neither political party has offered a plausible analysis of the origins of the meltdown. Brown denies all responsibility while George Osborne and Cameron hold him wholly and uniquely culpable. Given that no reasonable person can think either position is tenable, both parties have surrendered the intellectual high ground. But the financial crash does provide an opportunity to think through a renewed “one nation” conservatism. Cameron says that Disraeli is his favourite Tory. Disraeli attempted to ameliorate a society destroyed by the rampant industrialisation of 19th-century capitalism, whereas Cameron’s chief target (until now, at least) has been a 20th-century creation: a disempowering, dysfunctional state. Nineteenth-century Tories criticised liberal capitalism, while 20th-century conservatives condemned the illiberal consequences of statism. But 21st-century Tories, especially against the backdrop of the current crisis, must inveigh against both in favour of the very thing that suffers most at the hands of the unrestrained market and the unlimited state: society itself. And conservatism, so imagined, could reject the politics of class—of “our people”—and the interests of the already wealthy in favour of a national politics that serves the needs of all.

It was Edmund Burke who famously spoke of conservative radicalism being founded on the little platoons of family and civic association. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” This is the true spirit of Cameroonian conservatism and, taken seriously, it represents a break with the monopoly logic of the market state. But to recognise this innovation for what it is we have to contrast the potential of Cameron’s civic communitarian conservatism with what it aims to transcend: the corrupt and rotten postwar settlement of British politics.

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative:

“Red Tory” Philip Blond is giving a talk this evening at Georgetown University, hosted by the invaluable Tocqueville Forum. Well worth attending if you’re in the D.C. area. And tomorrow Tocqueville is hosting two panel discussions on Blond’s ideas, the first featuring Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, and yours truly, the second with John Millbank, Andrew Abela, and Charles Mathewes. Details are here.

Blond’s Red Toryism is not welfare statism — he’s for breaking up and devolving much of the British welfare system, and he prefers a morality-infused market to further government regulation. But how would that work? His talk will give some ideas. (As does his upcoming book, Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it.)

Patrick Deneen in WaPo:

Contemporary party arrangements have tended to understand one or the other outcome of this settlement as the root of contemporary problems. For conservatives in the Thatcher/Reagan mold, the State threatens the liberty and independence of the individual (particularly the economic freedom of autonomous individual actors in free markets, itself premised upon the atomized and individualistic liberal anthropology of Hobbes, Locke and Adam Smith). Liberals have seen the market as the threat, and have argued on behalf of the need for a centralized State to trim its excesses. What Blond perceives – echoing the discerning analysis of Distributist thinkers such as Chesterton or Hillaire Belloc in his penetrating work The Servile State or Robert Nisbet in his classic work The Quest for Community, or even the more recent work of the agrarian writer Wendell Berry – is that the centralized modern State and the concentrations of wealth and power deriving from modern “free” markets are mutually reinforcing entities.

What both of these entities mutually seek to eviscerate are the “mediating” institutions of society, those allegiances to more “partial” associations that stand in the path of the simultaneous realization of the atomized individual and the centralized State. Partial associations – whether in the form of more local forms of governance, civic associations, strong bonds of community, religious devotions, and family – are simultaneous obstructions to both radical individualism and encompassing State power. They are the traditional bulwarks against both aspects of the liberal settlement, and as such, have been mutually the object of attack by both the State and the Market. “Conservatives” and “Liberals” alike have (with different emphases) contributed mutually to the destruction of the “Associational State.”

The recent economic crisis – fueled simultaneously by the depredations of radical free agents in the market (buying and selling abstractions of financial instruments that at some point had some actual relationship to homes, that most basic building block of human associational life) and the State system that ended up supporting this economic and social arrangement – lifted the veil on this deeper symbiosis. The crisis exposed the fact that what had been sold to the American and British public for some 50 years – that one had to choose between the State and the Market – was in fact a grand illusion, and that the Left hand was as intent in making the citizenry the subjects of the Servile State as surely as the Right hand was. While inchoate in its anger and inadequately schooled in the causes of the modern crisis, the tea party movement – in its anger toward both parties – reflects this growing understanding that the purported political alternatives of our time represent no real choice at all.

Blond arrives in the U.S. to lecture at Georgetown University on Thursday evening, March 18, and to participate in panel discussions with various journalists and academics on the afternoon of Friday, March 19 (among the participants are the “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank). From D.C., Blond will travel to Philadelphia, where he will lecture on Monday, March 22 at Villanova University. For more information on all of these events, see this announcement.

Rod Dreher:

Greetings from Georgetown, where we heard tonight the English public intellectual Philip Blond introduce Red Toryism to an American audience. Blond is an engaging speaker and and real optimist about the possibility of positive political change (at dinner tonight after the speech, it was encouraging for a pessimist like me to hear him speak so vigorously about how world-changing ideas can start small). He’s just received a huge launch in this country, courtesy of David Brooks’ Friday column.

That David Brooks column (obviously, in NYT):

But there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian. This alternative has been explored most fully by the British writer Phillip Blond.

He grew up in working-class Liverpool. “I lived in the city when it was being eviscerated,” he told The New Statesman. “It was a beautiful city, one of the few in Britain to have a genuinely indigenous culture. And that whole way of life was destroyed.” Industry died. Political power was centralized in London.

Blond argues that over the past generation we have witnessed two revolutions, both of which liberated the individual and decimated local associations. First, there was a revolution from the left: a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores; a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities; a welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations.

Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.

The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

The free-market revolution didn’t create the pluralistic decentralized economy. It created a centralized financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities. The effort to liberate individuals from repressive social constraints didn’t produce a flowering of freedom; it weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers. In Britain, you get a country with rising crime, and, as a result, four million security cameras.

In a much-discussed essay in Prospect magazine in February 2009, Blond wrote, “Look at the society we have become: We are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry.” In a separate essay, he added, “The welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures.”

David Blackburn at The Spectator:

Blond’s premise is unanswerable – the twin revolutions of left (prescriptive rights) and right (free market liberalism) have, perversely, centralised power. Everything is highly contestable.

First, Blond has an advanced case of David Miliband Syndrome: he expresses himself exclusively with meaningless abstractions:

In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity…We can create a civic economy based on trust, sustainability and reciprocity.’

Markets are Blond’s schtick. From what I can gather he’s agin ‘em. He fixates on what he perceives as the ‘unprecedented reduction of market diversity and plurality’. The Luddites would object to the idea this is ‘unprecedented’, and the prosperity of all that followed them undermines the assertion that a ‘reduction of diversity’ entrenches poverty. But Blond is unperturbed. He argues that local shops should be protected from larger competitors through co-ops, mutualism and state intervention when necessary.

It’s deeply conflicted thinking. Consumers are at their most powerful in a genuinely competitive and well policed market. Blond’s ideas don’t address competition; they simply replace corporatism with mutualism. Rooted in an Enid Blyton historical fantasy of cottage industries, Blond would manipulate and skew markets. He’s attracted reams of criticism. Iain Martin’s and Alex Massie’s critiques are essential reading. Perhaps Blond’s sojourn in the States reflects his growing isolation in conservative circles.

Alex Massie’s critique, from November 2009:

I think Blond is bemoaning a certain homogenisation of urban life and, sure, there’s something to that. But the fact remains that, for instance, it can never have been cheaper (in terms of a percentage of average wages) to feed your family and you’ve never had as great a choice of provisions with which to do so. I bet Blond disapproves of supermarkets (fair enough) but poor people like supermarkets. And they’re not stupid to like Tesco or Aldi or whatever.

Similarly, the horrors of the modern economy have brought us to a situation in which the average person spends much less time at work each year than did their grand-parents or great-grandparents. I think it’s about 800 fewer hours per annum in Britain. This too does not seem a negligable gain.

For that matter, one financial crisis, no matter how serious, does not prove the “failure” of markets. Apart from anything else, they’ve not been tried* for decades in areas as trivial as secondary education (except for the rich) and health (ditto).

Sometimes, if I understand him correctly (not as simple a task as it ought to be), it seems as if Blond wants to take us back to the 1930s – at home and at work. I think he’d like everyone to live in small towns or, preferably, villages too. Now there was much that was good about the 1930s but time, and society, moves on and it’s futile to suppose that the clock can be wound back. Equally, for all that progress or, if your prefer, time, causes some valuable things to be lost, it also brings valuable improvements. In the end, Blond comes across, perhaps unwittingly, as a nostalgist. And, I’d hazard, it’s but one hop from nostalgia to full-blown reactionary status.

Because, of course, even when the state was smaller, that hardly meant an absence of coercion (especially, one might note, for women). Social mores can be just as stifling as the state even if they also have overwhelming local support and play a significant, even important, role in fostering social cohesion. Look at the Western Isles for instance, or pockets of Bradford today. Which is also why it’s important that there be a means of escape and that the individual, no matter how much Blond dislikes such folk, be, to use a think tank word, “empowered”.

That doesn’t mean that more mutalisation, an emphasis on local and voluntary associations and trying to expand and widen opportunity are bad things. They’re not. But whether Red Toryism is more than a few good (and less than earth-shattering) ideas buried benath a mass of bewildering and sometimes contradictory assumptions is something that, for now, remains a matter of some confusion.  Certainly, it’s apparent belief that you can have everything and it’s apparent belief that trade-offs are extinct suggests that more work needs to be done. Time will, I guess, tell.

*Yes, yes, yes. Just like “true” Communism, “proper” or “authentic” libertarianism can never fail because it will never be tried…

Zach Dundas:

I’m way too much of a Big Government nerd to go all the way with Red Toryism, or any kind of Toryism at all—I’m in the middle of two books, one about Teddy Roosevelt’s brilliant national-forests land grab, one about the Great Society, and between them, I’m geeking out so hard on the benevolent state that I might end up with pin-ups of Gifford Pinchot and Lyndon Johnson in my locker. And, anyway, until my theoretical Middle Earth Liberation Front arises, there’s no electoral outlet for the radical decentralism that Blond articulates.

On the other hand, I like a nice cup of tea or a pint of real ale, and can’t help but feel some sympathy for a tradition which, in a broader manifestation, produced “If Pooh Were President.” I think it would be awesome if the American right would drop the crazy act and go after Wal-Mart or something Red Tory-ish. Get down with your bad selves, boys. (Q: Have there been any Tory females since Thatcher? Reply confidentially.)

Will at The League:

Despite my nasty libertarian streak, I found a lot to like in Blond’s talk, particularly in his enthusiasm for decentralization and local competition. My only quibble is that while Blond’s diagnoses are often compelling, his proposed solutions are sometimes less so. When talking about the importance of political subsidiarity, for example, Blond spoke of “giving democracy back to the streets,” which sounds more like a Students for a Democratic Society slogan than a concrete political program. “Driving capital to the periphery” and decentralizing our financial system sound great in theory, but I’m still left to wonder how economic subsidiarity works in practice. One important caveat: I’m new to Blond and was late to the lecture, so my first impressions may not do justice to the Red Tories’ program.

Blond’s philosophy also seems better suited to cultural renewal than, say, political or economic reform. His most compelling examples of Red Toryism in action – A Birmingham neighborhood taking back the streets from pimps and drug dealers; the persistence of Northern Italy’s artisan economy – struck me as the result of cultural factors that aren’t easily replicated or recreated through state action. When we do transmogrify a cultural agenda into a political one, the results are sometimes messier than anticipated, which may have been what Ross Douthat was getting at when he asked Blond about the parallels between his philosophy and Bush’s compassionate conservatism at the end of the presentation.

One last observation: Blond spoke movingly of the plight of poor and working class citizens stuck in low-wage service jobs with no prospects for social mobility. His economic vision stresses the importance of creating stakeholders – skilled artisans, small businesspeople, and so on –  who feel more invested in their communities. This reminded me of the American experience after World War II, when millions of returning GIs received free college educations and federally-backed homeownership loans helped create the American middle class. But while these programs were largeky  successful, they’re not exactly models of decentralized governance. Is Blond willing to compromise or moderate his small government sympathies to create new economic stakeholders? I ask because state efforts to create or impart social capital – from public schools to the Federal Housing Administration to Bush’s compassionate conservatism – are rarely characterized by decentralization or subsidiarity.

Exit question: Is liberal society, as Blond suggests, fundamentally dependent on older traditions, cultural practices, and civic institutions? Does radical individualism undermine these institutions? I know Blond isn’t the first to make this argument, but his prognosis was both unusually grim and surprisingly persuasive. I’d be curious to hear what the League’s commenters and contributors have to say on the subject.

UPDATE: Chris Dierkes at The League

E.D. Kain at The League

Rod Dreher

UPDATE #2: Jason Kuznicki at The League

Patrick Deenen at Front Porch Republic

More Kain at The League

UPDATE #3: Shawn Summers at FrumForum

UPDATE #4: Daniel McCarthy at TAC

E.D. Kain at The League

Daniel Larison

UPDATE #5: Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic

Daniel Larison

More Kain

Ross Douthat

UPDATE #6: Deenen at Cato

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3 responses to “There’s A Blond Wondering Around Georgetown

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