thomas_jefferson_by_charles_willson_peale_1791

The June issue of TAC has an excellent essay by Phillip Blond, which was partly adapted from a speech he gave at the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown.  In one of the responses to the essay, Dan McCarthy considers how Red Toryism might work in America.  Nicholas Capaldi argues for the defense against Blond’s indictment of liberalism.  Professor Patrick Deneen of Georgetown also has a response (not online) that is both sympathetic and critical.  They are all worth reading, but I recommend beginning with Blond’s essay.

As someone who admires the political and philosophical writings of George Grant, the Canadian Red Tory philosopher and outstanding critic of American empire, and who finds much to recommend the political persuasion of the Country tradition championed by Bolingbroke and carried on in this country in modified form by the Jeffersonians, I have been very sympathetic to Mr. Blond’s ideas ever since I first came across them. To the extent that Red Tory ideas seem to have informed some part of the latest Tory manifesto, I have also become more sympathetic to what Cameron is proposing to do, but I don’t have nearly as much confidence as Mr. Blond does that Cameron represents the beginning of the “breaking” of liberal ideology. As Prof. Deneen says in his response, Mr. Blond may be too hopeful that the damage can be undone, but one of the things that is genuinely exciting and interesting about Blond’s recommendations is that he articulates a vision of order that is humane, realistic, and one that is based in our national civic and constitutional traditions.

Red Tories are really “red” only in that they believe we have obligations to all of our countrymen, and they hold that social solidarity is a vital part of love of one’s country. They regard the landscape as part of the nation’s heritage no less than its customs and institutions. Red Tories are also keenly aware that the commonwealth is not served if dependence on centralized government is replaced by dependence on concentrated private wealth, which is the reason for their emphasis on political and economic decentralization. Without both, relative political and economic independence of local communities is impossible, and once this has been lost self-government and liberty gradually erode and vanish.

In the American context, one could very easily call Red Tories Jeffersonians, and this is where we see the predicament for Red Toryism in the United States. The political inheritors of Jefferson’s party are overwhelmingly committed to centralist solutions for neoliberal ends, and the supposed vehicle of political conservatism in America has been antithetical to the Jeffersonian persuasion since its inception. As George Grant argued over forty years ago, American conservatives on the whole are dedicated to supporting and cheering a liberal, technological empire that is irreconcilable with the decentralized and humane political order Blond describes. Unfortunately, Mr. Capaldi’s critique seems to fit Grant’s description only too well.

When I began to mention the idea of political decentralization at a gathering at Princeton last year, someone immediately made the objection that this is not what businesses want. Indeed, uniformity across entire continents (and ultimately around the world) is what large firms would prefer, which is not actually an argument in favor of a highly-centralized system imposing uniform regulations. If anything, it should remind everyone of the pernicious collusion between governments and corporations. Perhaps I should have pressed the point, but I had the feeling that there was no use in trying to argue that conservatives should not be privileging what is useful to concentrated wealth, but that they should instead be concerned above all with what best serves the commonwealth. Judging by previous “debates” of this kind I have had in the last four years, I suspect it would have been a bit like talking to a wall.

That is probably what engaging with Mr. Capaldi’s critique will be like as well, but the subject is important enough that I think it is worth trying. Naturally, Capaldi argues that Blond has misunderstood the liberal tradition, but that is not the heart of Capaldi’s argument. He writes:

The drive to turn all of society into an enterprise association comes from people who have not made the transition to individuality. There is a whole complicated history behind this, but what is important is to recognize that the most serious problem within modern liberal societies is the presence of failed or incomplete individuals. Either unaware of or lacking faith in their ability to exercise self-discipline, incomplete individuals seek escape into the collective identity of communities insulated from the challenge of opportunity. These are people focused on avoiding failure rather than on achieving success. Incomplete individuals identify themselves by feelings of envy, resentment, self-distrust, victimization, and self-pity—in short, an inferiority complex. Anti-Americanism abroad and lack of faith in American Exceptionalism at home are the clearest manifestations [bold mine-DL].

Having little or no sense of individuality, they are incapable of loving what is best in themselves; unable to love themselves, they are incapable of loving others; incapable of loving others, they cannot sustain life within the family; in fact, they find family life stultifying. What they substitute for love of self, others, and family is loyalty to a mythical community. Instead of an umpire, they want a leader, and they conceive of such leaders as protectors who will relieve them of all responsibility. This is what makes their sense of community pathological. What they end up with are leaders who are themselves incomplete individuals and who seek to control others because they cannot control themselves. They prize equality and not competition, and in place of a market economy and limited government, we get economic and political tyranny.

So Capaldi essentially believes that moral failures longing for fulfillment in “mythical community” are responsible for economic and political centralization. What is odd about this is that he has repeated parts of Blond’s argument explaining the interdependence of individualism and collectivism, but bizarrely has skipped the part that explains why there are few or no social institutions to fulfill the function that the “mythical community” fulfills so poorly. Capaldi seems to have completely missed how the “creative destruction” of the market contributed to the breakdown those institutions to make so many people turn to abstract “mythical communities,” and he has also missed that faith in “American Exceptionalism” is an expression of this effort to find meaning in an abstract identity that imposes no obligations and offers its adherents congratulatory praise. Capaldi seems to agree with most of Blond’s description of the state of affairs, but refuses to acknowledge that the reigning institutions of “a liberal order” have some significant responsibility for the state of modern liberal society.

Obviously, Blond isn’t really arguing that “political and economic freedom” is responsible. He is saying that we have steadily been losing both kinds of freedom on account of the centralizing tendencies in government and business. Indeed, throughout his entire essay he insists that we should not confuse neoliberal arrangements for those of a free society, and he proposes that we move towards a decentralized order to move towards a free society. He argues against a “rigged market” and says, “I believe in the free market, but we haven’t had a free market.”

Capaldi’s reaction is a common one. He sees Blond criticizing state capitalism and concludes that he is attacking “markets” generally, despite Blond’s repeated statements that he considers himself a “pro-market thinker” who believes in “popular capitalism.” What is strange about Capaldi’s resistance to Blond’s essay is that Capaldi has already conceded half of Blond’s argument, and he wouldn’t have to repudiate his support for “markets” in order to accept the other half, but for whatever reason he insists on investing a state capitalist system with virtues that it does not possess.

Cross-posted at Eunomia

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Nathan P. Origer May 10, 2010 at 12:24 pm

As George Grant argued over forty years ago, American conservatives on the whole are dedicated to supporting and cheering a liberal, technological empire that is irreconcilable with the decentralized and humane political order Blond describes. Unfortunately, Mr. Capaldi’s critique seems to fit Grant’s description only too well.

I find this to be a particularly compelling point, one that you’ve made in different forms before (here and here. You and McCarthy, as I recall, disagree somewhat, Dan McC. pointing out that we had Tocqueville the decentralist liberal and Bismarck the centralizing conservative; notwithstanding whether these two labels are quite accurate, I think the larger point remains crucial, that even in its nascent states, classical liberalism is not averse to statism — and that “free markets” require the State; what is it that Polanyi quipped? The free market required planning; planning did not? Something like that.

Ultimately, I think that, as puzzling as it was to many, Blond’s conception of himself as an ‘antique liberal’ is important — He was not, I suspect, referring to the earliest of the “liberal”s — Burke and Tocqueville (although they are important to him) —, but to the Greco-Roman tradition, to the ‘Liberty of the Ancients’, in the language of Constant. And there, we find the roots of the human flourishing desired by Blond and on the Porch.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 10, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Daniel,

What is odd about this is that he has repeated parts of Blond’s argument explaining the interdependence of individualism and collectivism, but bizarrely has skipped the part that explains why there are few or no social institutions to fulfill the function that the “mythical community” fulfills so poorly. Capaldi seems to have completely missed how the “creative destruction” of the market contributed to the breakdown those institutions to make so many people turn to abstract “mythical communities,” and he has also missed that faith in “American Exceptionalism” is an expression of this effort to find meaning in an abstract identity that imposes no obligations and offers its adherents congratulatory praise.

I think this is particularly well said, and underscores an important lack in American public life. We have lost, or at least have greatly weakened, the few (probably necessarily pre-liberal) social institutions and habits which the United States might have claimed to have had at one point, and consequently when we imagine (or at least when a few solidarity-minded folk attempt to imagine) various “red” concerns, the only way it can be instantiated is through “mythical” communities–expressions of civic attachment which, nowadays, have little or no moral substance behind them, because are always moving away from those traditional forms or practices where they might have been able to develop such. The state moves into the resulting vacuum, as arguably it sometimes must. Britain is better off than we (and Canada too), but not a whole lot: Americans see Cameron’s “Big Society” talk, and can see nothing but more government, and they’re not entirely wrong. After all, in a mobile, pluralistic society, where there is no firm social consensus on what people should be attached to, and where the profit-hungry motivations of corporations are obviously untrustworthy, what other venue or agency could express that solidarity?

Well, there can be something more, but obviously it’s going to be difficult to articulate it, and as time went on I became more and more doubtful (though still basically admiring) of how Cameron and Blond chose to articulate it. At least they were focusing on the right thing: transform broad, national, egalitarian commitments into policies which can be more reasonably actuated on more local, more democratic settings. Who knows if it might ever (or might yet ever) work? But for “conservatives” like Capaldi, the obvious answer is strictly, philosophically libertarian: people haven’t made the “transition to individuality” yet! It is reactions like those which remind me, once more, why British conservatives are better than our conservatives. Unfortunately, George Grant’s diagnosis remains correct.

avatar Bruce Smith May 10, 2010 at 6:44 pm

I think unnecessary confusion is introduced by arguing that Phillip Blond’s version of communitarian mutualism can only be implemented with a theological extra-human source of authority to develop the necessary norms or at least provide the impetus for creating them. What Phillip Blond’s ideas are dealing with at root is dominance and not morality. Dominance is ecologically based and it’s been with us for many millions of years. What we fail to understand is the long standing human and ape methods of dealing with this ecologically determined dominance.

We share with apes a common ancestor but this ancestor according to Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson in their book “Demonic Males” would as a male have been subject to the twin pressures of reproducing his genes whilst ensuring sufficient food resources to nurture the replication of those genes. Where territory had to be shared with other animals liking the same food types killing was used by our common ancestor to thin out the numbers of these animals when food resources became restricted due to climatic change. Our common ancestors would also kill members of other bands of their own species for this purpose. Indeed band sizes would split naturally once they reached between 50 and 100 members simply because it was harder to keep track of who was your ally and who was not beyond these numbers. The development of affiliation, or alliance, was part and parcel of the alpha male drive to ensure replication of the alpha male’s genes. To stay in position as top jock you needed allies since there would always be younger males trying to usurp you. In addition our male common ancestors in order to ensure their gene replication would dominate the females of their own troupe perhaps including the extreme abuse of rape and infanticide of the babies the previous alpha male had sired. As we know only too well abuse of females and murder of our own species remains as a legacy disposition passed on from this common ancestor. The male developed as the alpha member of the band simply because the female was made vulnerable by responsibilities for child rearing.

The point of outlining all of this, however, is to explain that counter-dominance strategies were developed to reduce the amount of personal power abuse by alpha males which was usually the use of affiliative association by females and lower ranking males to challenge the alphas. This strategy became easier to develop when food resources were abundant and less pressured by other animals or apes. The use of fire and the cooking process also developed the bond between male and female where the female cooked and the male protected the food store from theft by other males. This extended to the egalitarianism of the hunter-gatherer tribes in sharing food resources for the survival of the shared genes within the tribe. The use of affiliative association to defeat the violence and dominance of alpha male’s personal power was really the development of institutional power which in a tribal context developed normative ways of handling conflict such as taboos but also using religion to play a reinforcing role to bolster the norms. The advent of agriculture, domestication of animals, property ownership and particularly the accumulation of money blew apart these egalitarian norms allowing the return of the legacy abusive alpha ape personal power now found in concentrated, or elite, capitalism and statism.

The task before us I believe is not really to get too hung up on analyzing whether Liberalism is at fault for preventing human flourishing (since Liberalism itself is a political philosophy concerned with mechanisms for dealing with dominance issues) but to determine the best means of forming affliative associations (institutional power arrangements), and at what levels of society, to counter selfish personal power dominance by the alpha ape types, or rather in modern parlance individuals given to egoistic and sociopathic disposition or as Capaldi argues fully individuated Libertarians! It is not I would argue a matter of resorting to the moral arguments of religion (useful though they are) to achieve this it’s to see that unfair dominance simply requires the most efficacious counter-dominance arrangements.

avatar Franklin Evans May 15, 2010 at 10:09 am

As a lifelong social liberal — stipulating the sometimes contradictory views of that label — and having been present when Blond spoke at Villanova, I continue to be rather non-plussed over some of the assertions at the abstract level, the primary one being that some sort or form of liberalism has a stranglehold on society and can be blamed for centralization and the loss of community.

My experience, of about 40 years duration and continuing, and certainly anecdotal, is that liberals are the last bastion of localism. In my lifetime and where I’ve lived, the merchant class has usually been nearly all conservative, and the larger the merchant’s milieu the more conservative they seem to get.

I’d like to move beyond the conservative-liberal “divide”, and start working on a common ground based on the balances between necessary localism — particularly the care and education of children — and necessary centralism, like ethical standards for holders of public office.

avatar Nathan P. Origer May 15, 2010 at 10:29 am

@Franklin

My experience, of about 40 years duration and continuing, and certainly anecdotal, is that liberals are the last bastion of localism. In my lifetime and where I’ve lived, the merchant class has usually been nearly all conservative, and the larger the merchant’s milieu the more conservative they seem to get.

I think the problem here isn’t so much whether the local merchants are liberal or not — and, actually, once or twice before, the point about liberals and localism that you make has been uttered, at least by commenters, here —, but the understanding of what Blond means by ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. The salient point is that what passes for conservatism today is economic (neo)liberalism dressed with “social conservatism” — any sort of “real” conservatism has been pushed aside as the Right has drifted leftward, as the Left has done the same.

You’re quite right to note the tendency of the merchant class to belong to the so-called Right, but Blond —and we Porchers, official and not — want to revive a more ancient, community-oriented sort of conservatism.

avatar Franklin Evans May 15, 2010 at 10:59 am

Nathan,

…we Porchers, official and not — want to revive a more ancient, community-oriented sort of conservatism.

Exactly that. It’s what attracts me here. One quibble: I would choose “erstwhile” rather than “ancient”, though at 54 years old I might resemble either one.

As a society, we’ve had our ups and downs. I am a child of the post-WWII immigration wave, and I grew up with a keen (and sometimes, rubbed-in-my-face) awareness of the differences in what seems to be defined as “community”, between my parents’ and their parents’ sense of it, and the one I lived in. Some differences we embraced (with my parents leading the way), some differences we disliked and/or opposed (racism a prime example, though not without its similarities to continental attitudes). We, my family and our neighbors, never lost sight of one priority that seems to be under siege: children. There isn’t only one thing to point to for that siege, to be sure, but it never ceases to amaze me that people in government (for example) can demonstrate a strong commitment to that priority in their own lives, but still make or compromise to decisions that detract from it.

avatar Bruce Smith May 16, 2010 at 8:24 am

Yesterday I decided to use an eight feet wooden garden stake I bought last year as a support for a hibiscus plant that was planted five years ago. Every year till now my wife and I have tried to support it with a mixture of inadequate stakes such as old broom handles and spindly bamboo poles. The hibiscus though has always grown too quickly and become top heavy with its luxuriant blooms threatening to topple over. When I bought the stake from the big box store I didn’t bother looking at the sticky label on the stake but decided yesterday prior to driving the stake in that it would look better without it. I peeled it off and looked at it. “Made in China” it said. Suddenly the full implication of that message hit me. Here was a softwood stick made from some deciduous, or coniferous, tree that the Northern American continent is full of but Americans, or Canadians, can no longer afford to create these sticks because of an economic and ecological process gone utterly cuckoo! You can take John Locke’s famous dictum that when a man melds his labor with nature he is entitled to the benefits of that melding and turn it on its head. It no longer applies. Human greed has destroyed it. Here in Northern America it would seem you can only stand and stare at the trees or voluntarily, or expensively, chop them up use the wood in your fire pits. Maybe even worse the wood in the garden stake did come from North America originally but had to be sent to China to be turned into a garden stake.

Because yesterday was such a lovely sunny day my neighbors were out working in their yards I went over to see a couple of them to show them the label. It was clear from the conversation that they regarded me as a very foolish fellow to complain. This was the way it was. “The stake was cheap wasn’t it?” seemed to be the line of reasoning why worry. Or even more subliminal “we’re all living in a lunatic asylum learn to like it!” This has left me puzzled ever since. What’s wrong with me that I rebel against being a caged lab rat? What happened to my lemming mentality? Why do I still believe in democracy when so many clearly do not? Why don’t people see the hibiscus is going to topple over in the next storm?

avatar D.W. Sabin May 17, 2010 at 6:40 am

Smith,
As to your flopping Hibiscus, aside from a chained foraging Iguana, try another proven method even better than an American Hickory Stake: It is a concept that would work with government, it is called “pruning”. Come to think of it, the Federal Government has been doing what you tried to do, prop up the rank growth with a stake labeled “Made In China”.

The beauty of global consumerism is that it satisfies the urge for individual choice through the act of shopping while putting another nail in the individual’s coffin with every purchase. The fact that we increasingly see individualism as being at odds with community is exhibit one in the point of no return.

People see problems trumpeted on every front and so they need a big strapping government to solve their problems….before the rubber bullets and sonic cannons are hauled out to adjust attitudes.

At some point, it would be nice to see a stark graphic that depicts a comparison of top tax rates, community core health (local ownership and employment) and Government Efficiency from the 1950′s to now. Talk about an 800 pound gorilla. Ho Ho Ho.

avatar Bruce Smith May 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm

For me the hibiscus stake is a symbol of both the state and the market failing especially with regard to climate change and jobs. Since capital bought the state in the USA a long time ago you can’t just argue its only the state’s fault. You can of course argue that it’s the opposite in China where the hybrid communist/fascist state rigs the currency and let the American capitalists into the country in the first place. For the record the hibiscus in red flower form is thought to originate in China and the Latin name hibiscus rosa-sinensis translates as “Rose of China”.

avatar Jeff Taylor May 21, 2010 at 12:18 am

Daniel, Thank you for this essay. Your analysis of Jeffersonians as the American equivalent of Red Tories is excellent.

avatar Dan's Former Roommate May 30, 2010 at 11:30 am

It’s truly a shame that so many American ‘conservatives’, even many who consider themselves religious, rush to defend the Nietzschean logic of people like Capaldi. I guess American exceptionalism is a sort of link between the two. But I wish they would read MacIntyre’s critique of Nietzsche. And I wish they would read George Grant, although Grant’s medicine, ironically, would probably be a bit too stiff for many of these wannabe Nietzsches.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: