The Red Tories and the Civic State

mPhillip Blond

Irving, TX. It has been sometime since I have called myself a “conservative.” It is not that any of my opinions have changed, but rather that conservatism forgot just what is was trying to conserve. Increasingly, it became, under Reagan and the Bushes, “neo-conservatism,” and with that philosophy I have only two quarrels: it isn’t new and it isn’t conservative. Or rather, what is “new” about it is the attempt to pass off Enlightenment Liberalism as something worth conserving. As one of neo-conservatism’s founders, Michael Novak, noted, “neo-liberalism” would be a more apt description.

In practice, neo-conservatism was little more than state-supported, monopolistic capitalism with a veneer of “family values” rhetoric. Never mind that the position of the family actually deteriorated in the last 30 years, both culturally and economically. It wasn’t necessary to actually deliver on any promises to the family, since the Democratic alternative of support for abortion and homosexual “marriage” ruled out that path. The end result of such “conservatism” was bloated government complete with debts we cannot pay, obligations we cannot meet, wars we cannot win, and an economy that cannot work.

One had to be even more skeptical of the conservatives when they got “compassionate.” The single program initiative of this “compassion” was the further expansion of the Department of Education, which is a department in search of a job. The job it choose for itself was to impose unfunded mandates on the states under the rubric of “no child left behind.” The department grew with its mandates, even as actual education shrank.

Therefore, I can be excused if I was somewhat skeptical when hearing of the “progressive conservatives” of England. The name sounded a little bit too much like “compassionate conservatism,” just another attempt to dress up a shabby liberalism in the borrowed finery of the conservatives. Further, the English situation struck me as even worse then the American one, with Thatcherism even more destructive of true conservatism than was Reaganism.

But a few weeks ago in Nottingham I got to meet Phillip Blond, one of the “Red Tories” and a founder of the progressive conservative movement. His address was actually about Distributism, and it was backed up with facts and figures in a way that most Distributist presentations aren’t, alas. Perhaps I was wrong, and there was more to the Progressives than a little political cross-dressing. Upon returning to the States, I looked up his speech that is considered a founding document of this movement, The Civic State. What I found is one of the most remarkable short political speeches that I have read in decades.

In Blond’s analysis of the last 30 years, both the Conservative and Labour parties have tended towards the same end: bloated monopolistic capitalism and a bloated welfare state. Thatcher established a “Market fundamentalism [that] abandoned the fundamentals of the market.” Meanwhile Labour entered into a “Faustian bargain” with monopolistic capitalism which:

[E]nsures a permanent ascendancy of the middle class over the working class and creates an antagonistic feudal structure—where any genuine extension of power and ownership to the poor is resisted by the liberal middle classes who fear mostly for their own status and their sole assumed inherited right to social mobility. (Just look at British schooling)

Blond argues that modern conservatism should reject both alternatives (which turn out to be the same) and replace the market state and the welfare state with the Civic State, which:

[A]ims to blend the benefits of welfare and the market mechanism not by favouring one or the other, but by exceeding both. The Conservative’s new civic settlement privileges the associative above the alienated, the responsible over the self-serving and (yes I know this is shocking) the communal over the individual.

This civic state has three main tasks in the current crises: The re-moralization of the markets, the re-localization of the economy, and the re-capitalization of the poor. As the the first, it is a timely project since it is the major theme of Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate. Both men call for markets which serve the public good rather than just private interests. As Blond puts it, the market must have a purpose:

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