Red ToriesBy Daniel Larison for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
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