Big Societies, Christian Communities, and Tories (Red or Otherwise)By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
I don’t have anything intelligent to say about the election in Great Britain tomorrow (or, depending on when you see this, beginning in a few hours). The truth is that there are elements of the platforms all three parties that I find interesting, appealing, and that I–as a foreigner without a say in the election living 4500 miles away–I could legitimately imagine myself hoping for something from. Labor is, still, despite everything else, a party committed to egalitarianism; people whose intelligence and skill I like and admire are voting Labor, and that tells me something. The Liberal Democrats are the only party in a position to actually make electoral reform happen–and as I happen to like their proposed reforms (proportional representation just makes sense), I can see the point of treating this as “the election to change all elections.” And then, well, there are the Conservatives. David Cameron has said and done some interesting things, but the most interesting of them all–associating the party with Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism–has been only inconsistently embraced (if it’s been embraced at all) by Cameron’s Conservatives. And perhaps that’s for the best, because I think Blond’s ideas themselves need a little bit more work to be made into something that one could truly build a government (or at least a theory of governing) upon. In regards to that work…there, at least, I might have a few things to say.
For over a year now, ever since Blond’s original Red Tory manifesto hit the internet and became required reading for a certain sort of conservative thinker (including myself), various communitarians and localists and traditionalists have been giving Blond a serious look. Front Porch Republic was, to some extent, a central figure in bringing Blond to the U.S. a couple of months ago, and it is at FPR that Blond’s ideas have received some of their most intense comment and critiques. However, it seemed to me that the strongest consensus theme to come out of the period of intense consideration which followed his visit to America (see E.D. Kain, Lee McCracken, and others) might be best stated this way: Blond’s–and Cameron’s–vision of decentralizing the power of the British state, and empowering communities to have authority over (and take responsibility for) it, so as to make the defense and provision of welfare, equality, health and security less an elite bureaucratic task and more a democratic, associative, communitarian one, necessitates the existence of a sphere of authority and action within which those associations, and the money they would require to perform their tasks, could be located. What would be the substance of that sphere? It cannot be “the free market,” because the financial realities of neoliberalism and globalization have made corporations the dominant players in that market, and corporate power is, as Blond rightly notes, no more friendly to democratic, associative, and local action than a centralized bureaucracy could be. It cannot be “society,” despite Cameron’s “Big Society” talk, because, as John Gray astutely observed in his review of Blond’s book, a society that can recognize and organize within itself the norms and practices capable of taking on the tasks mentioned would have to be one which was in moral agreement on what constitutes a “norm,” and modern liberal states like Britain, and the U.S., do not have that today:
The core of Blond’s political thinking is a belief in an extra-human source of authority….Secularists will be horrified, but there are advantages in the return of theology. Much in recent discourse–not least the ideology of market fundamentalism–has consisted of faith masquerading as science. By re-linking political argument more explicitly with religion, Blond has usefully clarified the debate. Once again, though, he seems unaware of the difficulties of his position. Ours may be a post-secular society (I think so myself) but that is very different from reverting to any version of Christian orthodoxy….Today there is no possibility of reaching society-wide agreement on ultimate questions. Happily such agreement is not necessary, nor even desirable. No government can roll back modernity, and none should try.
So what does that leave us with in terms of finding a realm, a context, a sphere for reforming action, facing as we do on the one hand a desire to empower communities, localize wealth, preserve culture and revitalize democracy, but also facing on the other a world where the technology, mobility, diversity and opportunity which modernity provides is not seriously eschewed by much of anyone? It leaves us with, well, the modern liberal procedural state, that’s what. (That is assuming that the socialist revolution and/or a peak-oil catastrophe doesn’t dramatically change the world around us, but I assume neither of those will happen by tomorrow.) Ross Douthat had it (mostly) right: in our modern, complex, interdependent world, “government and civil society are so intertwined, in so many areas of the commonweal, that disentangling the one from the other requires a surgeon’s patience and finesse….Would-be decentralizers are forced to choose between the excruciatingly difficult task of turning a welfare state built by liberals to conservative ends…and the near-impossible task of straightforwardly cutting programs that their constituents–and, more importantly, their interest groups–have come to depend upon.”
I would take exception only to Ross’s framing of the problem in strictly liberal-conservative terminology; the whole point of trying to resurrect older labels–like “Red Tory”–is (for me, anyway) to disentagle communitarian, democratic, local, egalitarian, and culturally and socially conservative concerns from their debilitating rhetorical relationship with a fundamentally liberal way of conceiving of social life. Individuals can and do exist in and through communities, and those communities are capable of governance on behalf of collective goods. Still, the problem remains–since we are globalized, and we are liberated, and we are technologically advanced, and since are aren’t going to back away from those realities anytime soon, from whence do those tools of governance come? From organized bureaucracies–and that means, from the government. A more communitarian ideology would, I think, better enable the transfer of power from bureaucratic agencies to more associative and democratic ones, and that is the real value of seeing Red Tory ideas taken seriously…but still, in the end, there must be some authority capable of making the transfer. And that is the real stumbling block for American “conservatives,” so-called: they look back at Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” his efforts at faith-based initiatives (a historical defense of such was much discussed and critiqued at Front Porch Republic), and they see failure, an over-reliance upon the state (whereas I would argue those were some of Bush’s few successes). The struggle for Cameron’s Conservatives, to whatever limited extent they really do want to take seriously Blond’s ideas, is to figure out a way to conceive of the state as having the moral authority to play the distributor and reformer of power.
In a couple of recent posts, Camassia speculated on what has to be necessary for politics to have an “endpoint,” to actually be “functioning,” in the sense of contributing towards a particular moral goal. She wasn’t making a connection with Cameron or Blond by any means, but her thoughts are relevant to present election all the same. If I might, perhaps unfairly, squish her posts together, she concludes:
The way that American politics are structured…assumes that [the] state can never really be an organic community–like an ant colony, or more to the point, a family–so if it appears to be unified, it is because one person or community is oppressing the others. So the best we can do is to minimize the damage of different communities living together, by containing their disputes within a nonviolent political structure. Sometimes, this can bring about agreements that benefit the majority of people. But it does seem to preclude the idea that America, or any nation-state, can find a lasting unity….If you take it as the natural and desirable condition that most people are going to pursue their own interests and those of their in-groups (however they might define them), where do you get the people who are going to selflessly and impartially guarantee that everyone is able to do so?
Cameron’s “Big Society” is, despite its flaws, a worthy attempt to rhetorically struggle with the (to many, frustrating) reality that sometimes it is necessary for the state to act teleologically–especially in the case of an attempt to re-order the political and economic infrastructure of a society. I kind of suspect that, ultimately, Cameron, and Blond, are not quite up-front enough about this reality, though; perhaps because of the Conservatives usual corporate and free-market supporters, or perhaps for some other reason, they do not, on my reading of them, seem entirely capable of focusing properly, always shifting the fault for Britain’s asocial individualism away towards those causes that seem least amenable to state action. But it is state action that will be necessary, and it will have to be a state capable of acting in the civic realm with a degree of real moral authority.
If anything, I think the Red Tory concept (wonderful as an ideal, less than wonderful as being currently pursued electorally, assuming it is being so pursued at all) has thus far gotten too far away from the radical orthodoxy roots of Blond’s education. Of course, it’s too much to ask any political party, any election, to create a civic religion from scratch…but I suspect that if any attempt to get beyond the liberal-conservative hegemony, and really explore a communitarian, Red Tory (or whatever) alternative is to be made plausible, it’s going to have to develop hand in hand with a broadly Christian sense of responsibility and obligation, a sense that could enable the government to re-assess and re-apportion its own powers. Failing that, you’re going to end up hoping that society will somehow be big enough, or the market will somehow be moral (or regulated!) enough, to make the localization and democratization you hope for a reality–and as worthy as such efforts may be, there’s no promise they won’t backfire, creating even more of exactly the sort of amoral, undemocratic bureaucracies that you wanted to get away from in the first place. So I suppose, were I British citizen, this is what my vote would come down to: would voting for Cameron begin the development of something that may take decades to really come to fruition? If he’s not thinking as part of long-term civic transformation (and if that’s not what Blond expects of him, assuming he expects anything at all), then I think I’d rather take my egalitarianism and/or electoral reform straight away, and leave my deeper thoughts and questions for the next campaign. Who knows? Maybe, by then, peak oil catastrophes and religious revivals will have this whole argument settled, and we’ll be able to go on to other, better things.