Defining Red Toryism (Again)By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Wichita, KS Cato Unbound put up a mini-sympoisum on “the Red Toryism of Phillip Blond.” It featured essays by Patrick Deneen and Jacob Levy, both responding in part to Blond’s essay “Shattered Society”, a version of which Blond gave as a speech when he visited Georgetown University earlier this year. An additional contribution by Reihan Salam and a further response by Blond himself were also promised, but never materialized, and now CU’s gone on to another topic. (Though Jacob has posted his response to Patrick here.) I feel bad for not having written up some thoughts and sent them in sooner; Blond’s Red Tory ideas fascinate me (as my many comments on them demonstrate), and wanted to throw my two cents in, discussing (again) what I think Red Toryism does, or at least could, mean. But hey, better late than never.
I don’t have much to say about Blond’s essay itself; his claims are essentially the same as those he advanced when he spoke at Villanova, and while I wasn’t there, what I heard in the recording of his lecture was enough to give me serious pause, as my comments in this Front Porch Republic thread indicate. Very simply, Blond struck me as much more willing to engage in a foolish bit of caricature, to lump together all the things which he dislikes both philosophically and politically (the writings of Rousseau and the progressive leftism which in some ways counts Rousseau as an intellectual ancestor on the one hand, the liberal individualism of the modern capitalist marketplace on the other) however distinct they actually be, than he had been when he wrote his earlier “Rise of the Red Tories” essay, which is part of what sparked the fascination with him in the first place. I’ve finally gotten a hold of a copy of Blond’s book, so perhaps will have something more to say about Blond’s own arguments once I’ve finished it. But the caricaturing which Blond employed in his essay leads me directly to Jacob’s contribution, since that is what he most immediately focuses on. Jacob’s response to Blond (and, by extension, to Patrick as well) came in for some comment and criticism on FPR; let me see if I can build on that, clarifying (if only for myself) where I think Jacob’s right and where I think he’s wrong, and see if I can make a case for Red Toryism (which may not, it should be noted, be the same as Blond argument at all).
Let me begin with the phrase Red Toryism itself. The use of the “ism” implies a degree of ideological coherence: a package of theories, organized around and/or grounded by a shared set of philosophical or religious beliefs, that together present a normative argument for, and an idea of how to politically or socially advance, the conclusions, priorities and aims of those theories. This isn’t the only way to think about “ideologies,” of course, but it is mine, one that I’ve used a few times in the past. Jacob, however, wants to eschew ideological talk–he considers it a distraction, each and every one of them weighted down with too much “specific baggage.” This is a reasonable point, but it is also an effective rhetorical move by which to begin his response, because it means that he wants to move away an intellectual consideration of the from the different ways in which people might plausibly organize and package together the various theories of politics and society which their foundational beliefs potentially support. In place of such (arguably ahistorical) intellectual considerations, he proposes that we look solely at different “isms” as “party-ideas”–and that, of course, means that we must ask first of all what parties are advancing those ideas. Looked at in such a way, he is able to more firmly associate Red Toryism with “Toryism simpliciter” the “red” part of the label being a mere “retro-fit (like ‘pocketwatch’) that only has to be invented after some other version has come around.” Red Toryism is, therefore, just another iteration of the party-idea of Toryism, meaning conservatism more generally. And who are the conservatives? Jacob answers:
Conservatism is the party-idea of slowing the pace of change, of preserving order and returning to real or imagined lost virtues and communal ways of life. One part of conservatism’s base has traditionally been the armed agents of the state–the military and police. But the rest of its social base has an odd character. It is the alliance of the rural landlord and the rural peasant, of the established-church priest and his relatively poor flock. It is the party idea of resisting the changes associated with the urban middle class and working class alike, of protecting traditional ways of life (including, importantly, traditional hierarchies) against the disruptions associated with both markets and politics….
[C]onservatism is bitterly anticapitalist, much as it is anti-urban and for much the same reasons. The traditional rural elite finds that the creative destruction of the market threatens his status; the traditional rural poor resent that the city draws away their young to a godless and promiscuous life while also disrupting their stable economy. A local economy based on primary goods (farming, fishing) could be stable for generations, and then suddenly become uncompetitive for mysterious reasons of finance or long-distance trade, apparently decided far away by other people. Conservatism as a party-idea is in large part the attempt to defend against those disruptions — or to express resentment after they take place.
By setting up the argument along these terms, Jacob makes it plain that in arguing against Blond–and really, arguing against the very notion of Red Toryism in general–he is in fact arguing against “the party of the traditional elite,” one which gains the support “of those they have traditionally dominated” by offering them an “alliance…against the tacky, educated, often-Jewish new money city slicker.” And moreover, since “the aristocrat sets the terms of the alliance,” it is a given that the avocations of the rural, the local, and the traditional, are really negligible in the debate: this is a debate between those who support the spread of personal liberty (the party of “liberalism”) and those elites who benefit from the wealth it creates, but who also have no wish to see its opportunities shared by any who is not already part of their class.
Let me admit to the obvious: there is much truth to be uncovered by looking at Red Toryism solely through this frame. It is, of course, true that anyone sympathetic to preserving small communities and front porches, who praises the virtues of farming villages and local economies, is going to have to, one way or another, confront the fact that they are talking in terms of limits, restrictions, and boundaries, and obviously those who are already on the inside of those lines (whether cultural, moral, economic, or political) are in a position to benefit to the exclusion of others. There may, of course, be a host of reasonable arguments to support any number of such arrangements, but one cannot pretend that it doesn’t at least potentially involve a certain level of self-righteousness, of territoriality, of close-mindedness and defensive superiority…all of which are exactly the faults so stereotypically–yet also, to be sure, often accurately–attributed to the aristocrats, elites, and upper-classes that make up the pantheon of reviled Fat Cats throughout history. So does this mean that the jig is up: that people sympathetic to Red Toryism have to recognize that their talk of “paternalism and protectionism, [and] the insulation of the poor from market forces” is really just all about protecting the privileges of aristocracy?
I don’t think so, and the reason why begins with the limits of Jacob’s framing of his analysis. For he leaves another party-idea out almost entirely: socialism. Jacob does acknowledge the fact of this constellation of views, but as it “quintessentially represented the interests of the organized industrial working class, and disproportionately represented the ideas of professional intellectuals and urban artists,” he simply does not take it seriously as an element of the Red Tory package. In this Jacob is, surprisingly, voices a perspective on the possibility of a Red Tory ideology that is actually a kind of simplistic mirror image of that which Peter Lawler has regularly advanced on the Postmodern Conservative blog: that Red Toryism is just a weird, incoherent longing by socialists or Marxists or various wanna-bes to see “Tory values” protected or promoted, all of whom fail to understand that putting socialist alongside anything conservative is simply oxymoronic. So for for both Jacob and Peter, Red Toryism is just a confused conservatism, only for Peter it is redeemable (because it is, after all, “Tory”), and for Jacob it isn’t (because it isn’t liberal). Both of these perspectives are, I think, wrong for essentially the same reason: they fail to appreciate that the Red Tory idea, properly understood, is a left or socialist conservatism, not a traditionalism that happened to oddly pick up a few egalitarian rhetorical tropes along the way.
No doubt Jacob could develop a strong argument against this reading of Red Toryism; after all, if we want to think about “party ideas,” then the Red Tory idea was born in Canada, where Jacob now resides. The party which advanced it was a gang of various intellectuals and patriots who sought, in different ways, from the late 19th up through the mid-20th centuries, to borrow the progressive elements of Benjamin Disraeli’s “one nation conservatism” and apply them to continent-spanning, mostly classless, and (at the time, anyway) primarily rural modern state. It grew out of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Progressive Conservative party; it recognized the necessity of collective action in order to develop egalitarian policies which would benefit and empower diverse localities across the nation, and it assumed the continuity of a common cultural and religious base in order to articulate and harness the democratic support which such collective actions would need to maintain legitimacy. That ideal, quite plainly, never found a strong political basis as Canada became increasingly pluralistic (not to mention constitutionally torn over the place of Quebec in the federation), but its basic communitarian sensibility–a conjoining of egalitarian priorities with a determination to conserve the shared identity (and the various traditional supports that such depends upon) which makes them politically possible–endured in isolated instances throughout Canada, up to the present day. Is it “conservatism”? It is when you look at its professed cultural concerns, but not when you consider who was articulating that ideology, and why, in the first place. Is it “socialism”? Gerry Neal, determined to save Red Toryism from the wanna-bes which Peter mocked in his post, insists it is not:
Toryism…maintains that most basic social unit, the family, is itself prior to the individual, and that society is not a contractual construction of individuals, but a natural outgrowth of the social life that begins in the family. Families live together in neighborhoods, worship together in churches, and out of their cooperation form communities, which generate the customs, traditions, and prescription that form the cultural and social foundation upon which the political and economic edifice which is the country is built. Society is organic, because the institutions which comprise it, have their distinct functions which cooperate together to make the whole work, the way a body’s organs and systems work together….
Society, we are told by progressives and “Red Tories,” has a responsibility to the widow and the orphan, to the poor, the sick and the infirm, and to the needy in general. They are correct in principle but err in their application….The welfare-state is not an “organic society”. It is an attempt to re-create by government the organic society which liberalism had sought to destroy. Organic society, however, cannot be created by government fiat. It must grow naturally, out of the everyday communal life that is generated by the cooperative efforts of families, churches, and neighborhoods.
This, then, is the proper argument to have about Red Toryism: not to sideline it by reducing it to conservatism or traditionalism in a simplistic sense, but to ask how, and if, it can propose socialist-egalitarian and culture-respecting policies simultaneously; how and if, that is, it can present a persuasive alternative to straightforward progressivism. Many people doubt that–and one of the reasons why is apparent in the failure of Blond’s argument, at least as Jacob presents it, to actually explain what it really is that such culture-conserving policies could theoretically accomplish which progressive liberalism isn’t doing already. After all, even if we grant (as I do, at least) that there is something intellectually appealing about the mix of vaguely localist, populist, and socialist values and concerns articulated by Canada’s Red Tories and progressive conservatives a half-century ago, something that isn’t by definition fatally compromised by the historic taint of the aristocratic landowner and the rich clergyman of yore (a possibility that, as I said above, shouldn’t be denied, but has to be confronted and struggled with), there remains the fact that, in the 50 years since, Canada and Great Britain (which is where Blond’s ideas arguably may now enjoy a political window of opportunity, though I personally doubt it) and the United States and, really, pretty much the whole of the Western world have become immensely more rich, diverse, complex, interdependent, secular, and individualistic–all of which suggests that Red Toryism, whatever its internal coherence, is less workable and less politically appealing that ever. The usual conservative response is to emphasize the variety of harms which all that liberal progress has visited upon Western states, and thus make cultural conservatism seem more necessary than ever. Blond does exactly that in his essay–and Jacob, mostly, and mostly rightly, makes mincemeat of him:
It is undoubtedly true that there has been a long-term decline in some of those organizations [meaning local governments, trade unions, cooperative societies, civic organizations, etc.]. But, again, there have been variations and cycles, and there is considerable reason to think that the last generation has been better than the one before. At least in the United States…church attendance has shown no measurable decline, and the density of counter-establishment civil society institutions (schools, media outlets, churches, and more) created by fundamentalist Protestants over that time has been stunning. This does nothing for my social capital, but it’s simply false to think that the last generation has seen some new collapse of the intermediate institutions of civil society. It seems to me that Blond is uninterested in such historical niceties, and that he is pronouncing the conservative’s eternal complaint.
For my part, I believe there are plenty of reasons for cultural pessimism, and consequently some room to speak of broad social disorder and decline. But Blond does not, at least not in the aforementioned article, put the emphasis on the proper set of causes–that is, the socio-economic ones, the (let’s be blunt) Marxist ones, of social power and inequality. Both he and Deneen are eloquent about the “conspiracy between the state and the market,” but neither explain, I think, very clearly exactly why the concentration of power which contemporary government bureaucracies and business corporations enjoy is so resist to the sort of freedom enabled through the application of liberal policies as to necessitate the development of a different, new (or old?) ideological approach. After all, as Jacob ably documents (and reiterates in his response to Patrick), individual freedom enables persons to “create and inhabit and maintain and perpetuate [civic] organizations and institutions”; so why isn’t the answer just more liberal freedom?
As I have argued before when speaking of the place of Marxian categories when thinking through the question of localism and traditionalism, Marxism, and socialist thought more generally, concentrates our attention upon basic Rousseauian insights into the production of dependency and alienation in and through individualistic modern life. That’s not the only place to find those arguments, of course, and just as surely one may not find them persuasive, but at least that way of thinking puts the proper questions on the table, ones that a liberal like Jacob and a communitarian like Blond (whether he would accept the label or not) can argue over, rather than making it a slam-dunk for those who would paint Red Toryism as a media stunt. As I put it then:
Marx…recognized the truth of the Burkean (though for him it was really more Hegelian, and therefore Rousseauian) insight into the connection between consciousness and communal, historical, material reality. Repairing the human consciousness did not mean a continuing project of subjective liberation, with the aim of making the burdens of modernity privately manageable, but rather addressing issues of power and and place and production that make the transformations of modernity–and most particularly the spaital ones, with solid traditions and properties and roles and locales evaporating into the thin air of free trade and the cash economy–into alienating burdens in the first place….The Rousseauian perspective says, okay, our original, grounded nature has been lost, we’re in chains….Rousseau’s response (to this problem, and thus Marx’s too) preserves true conservative seriousness…it respects the need for embeddedness and connection by suggesting that we remake our chains–that we remake modernity, and resist those who would portray our restless condition as a fait accompli, the emergence of which was inherent to our natures. Why can we do that? Because within and through modernity the deep structure abides; we’re just having difficulties actualizing it, because we’ve been so intent in fighting internecine battles within liberalism that we’ve ignored all the other ways in which we could be responding to the world.
Of course my language in that final sentence anticipates a reference to the old liberal-communitarian argument, which Jacob also notes:
[Blond’s argument] is much the same [as the] complaint that surfaced in Anglo-American political theory in the 1980s and came to be labeled “communitarianism”…One of the most important pieces of writing from that era’s denouement was Michael Walzer’s “The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism”…and [in that article] Walzer saw, as Blond does not, that communitarianism is a permanent feature of and within the life of modern liberal societies, not a root-and-branch critique of them. Its value is corrective–to round sharp corners, soften rough edges, and slow rather than reverse changes.
I’ve used that very article multiple times before, and Jacob and I can continue to argue over what it conclusively demonstrates and what it doesn’t (for what it’s worth, I interpret Walzer’s argument as foregrounding the question of substantial–meaning moral or cultural or metaphysical–commitments; liberalism can provide a substantive politics, but it can also be a way of involving oneself in a politics with a different, non-liberal substantive grounding). Either way, the point for this post is that Blond, in simply writing off Rousseau (as Jacob smartly puts it, “Blond’s depiction Rousseau has just enough truth in it to be wildly misleading”), Blond empties his attempted articulation of a Red Tory position of exactly that kind of substantively socio-economic critique that someone who truly wants to talk about how the alienating and undemocratic concentrations of political and economic power needs to be countered by promoting and equalizing communities simply must have.
As I said before, I still need to read Blond’s book; what I’m dealing with here, and what I am using to frame my response to Jacob’s trenchant criticism, is something less than Blond’s complete Red Tory argument. Perhaps he has developed, or at least points the way towards developing, a persuasive “party idea” that democratically partakes of both conservatism and socialism equally, and does so without the help of Rousseau, Marx, or anything drawn from the actual egalitarian tradition that animated those who first articulated the Red Tory label a half-century ago. Perhaps–but I am doubtful. In the meantime, Jacob has obliged me to raise the philosophical bar for Blond’s arguments even higher…but he hasn’t convinced me that, whatever the limitations of his own articulation of this particular ideological vision, the vision itself isn’t worth continuing to pursue.