‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

06 October 2009

Does Red Toryism Have an American Future?

Several weeks ago in a posting for Front Porch Republic, Mark Mitchell introduced the work of Phillip Blond and asked, ‘Do his ideas translate to the US?’

Blond, director of the nascent ResPublica think tank, is a British theologian and political philosopher who became popularly known in mid-2008 for his advocacy of Red Toryism—which shares a common provenance with its Canadian cousin, though their trajectories have diverged—that he summarised this year in two well-received essays, ‘The Civic State’ and ‘The Rise of the Red Tories’. (More of Blond’s writings can be found on this PDF list of readings in Progressive Conservatism.)

He describes Red Toryism as a ‘conservatism with deeper roots than 1979 [thus, anti-Thatcherite], and whose branches extend into the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism [RT]’. Blond expanded on this theme—and hints at the connotations of ‘red’—in a chapter he wrote for Is the Future Conservative?:

It is the Conservatives who now wish to resurrect the communal and restore the social. The tory logic of family, locality and civil and voluntary society is a truly radical agenda. Moreover, the attempted restoration of society is founded upon a successful critique of the centralised state and to a lesser extent the libertarian individual.

To return to Mitchell’s question of U.S. suitability, one possible answer begins with (1) an hypothesis from George Grant—that British Toryism has its roots in a feudal consciousness, whereas American conservatism is born of the individualism of the Enlightenment—and (2) a quote from Benjamin Disraeli’s Vindication of the English Constitution: ‘Nations have characters as well as individuals, and national character is precisely the quality which the new sect of statesmen in their schemes and speculations either deny or overlook.’ But first an overview of what it means to be a Red Tory.

Blond’s primary antagonist is monopoly capitalism, in which the few (with the compliance of the State) own the means of production and the many are wage earners; his prescription is to ‘recapitalise the poor’ and share the capitalist means of wealth production following the distributive guidelines as sketched in Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State, which took as its own model the independent farms and artisan co-operatives of the late Middle Ages: ‘Above all, most jealously did the Guild safeguard the division of property, so that there should be formed within its ranks no proletariat upon the one side, and no monopolising capitalist upon the other.’

Blond argues that monopoly capitalism has been allowed to thrive because of an ideological liberalism that favours the logic of the market over the demands of the community—a situation aided by State welfarism that has used redistribution schemes to keep the working poor content and subservient: this forms the basis of Belloc’s ‘servile State’. Blond’s answer is to break up these monopolies that have grown up under State sponsorship and to return to the ideal of self-reliant, property-owning communities:

The civic state aims 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 [CS].

In these respects, Blond’s ideas translate easily into an American culture built upon the mythology of individual initiative and small-town independence. But, for Belloc at least (Blond is more circumspect in his accounts), the State was not principally a malign force, and was rather one factor among many in realising the common good—an ideal shared by organic Toryism.

In The Servile State, for instance, he wrote of the mediaeval Crown as a protector of the interests of the poor and of central government as a regulator of stability by ensuring that no one class in society became so large as to unbalance the harmony of the whole (though it is doubtful that this is a subtle endorsement of redistribution as contemporarily conceived):

The King of England would have had in his own hands an instrument of control of the most absolute sort. He would presumably have used it, as a strong central government always does, for the weakening of the wealthier classes, and to the indirect advantage of the mass of the people.

It is here that Blond’s developing thesis (if he keeps true to a foundation laid by Belloc) may part company with American political practice, if we are to accept Grant’s thesis that the United States by-and-large subscribes to this Enlightenment axiom, ‘that government is best which governs least’, and Disraeli’s belief that ‘nations have characters’ which should not be dismissed as irrelevant.

While libertarians will fully support the end of monopoly capitalism as the removal of unfair government intervention giving free play to competition, subtleties in the Blond-Belloc approach to the State—that revolve around contradictory British Tory and American conservative sensibilities—are open to discussion by the left and the right: Can the State be a legitimate means of last resort, where and when civil society is found wanting? Such is ‘subsidiarity’ as defined by Catholic Social Teaching.

More controversially, can civil/voluntary associations and the State take upon themselves certain quotidian functions (perhaps once exclusively the domain of the private sphere) that contribute to the public good? Health care reform is the battleground for this debate, as Democrats, Republicans, and ordinary citizens argue the merits of co-operative and government-sponsored health insurance—the so-called ‘public option’—and whether or not this aid for the middle class is the slippery slope (and Trojan Horse) toward single-payer, ‘socialised’ medical services. As Blond warns, ‘British conservatism must not, however, repeat the American error of preaching “morals plus the market” while ignoring the fact that economic liberalism has often been a cover for monopoly capitalism and is therefore just as socially damaging as left-wing statism [RT].’

In answer, then, to Mark Mitchell’s initial query, it seems likely that America will eagerly follow Phillip Blond’s path along civic empowerment, if its full benefits are spelled out, but that any Red Tory lessons leading to State activism may be a road too far.

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