‘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)

27 November 2009

An Organic Tory Appraisal of ResPublica’s Launch

Yesterday morning witnessed the launch of another conservative think-tank, yet with a welcomed twist: instead of an addition to the number of laisser-faire organisations, Phillip Blond’s ResPublica has an ambitious aim: ‘the project of radical transformative conservatism is nothing less than the restoration and creation of human association, and the elevation of society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign station.’

Blond is a British theologian and academic who has garnered much attention in the realm of politics and the media for his promotion of ‘Red Toryism’, which he describes as a movement that sidesteps the atomising effects of the neo-liberal market and the enervating effects of the State.

Red Toryism, therefore, is in one manner a repudiation of ‘Third Way’ thinking, if the Third Way is seen as a middle route of accommodation between business and government. While not absolutely inimical to the interests of either sector, Blond argues that when they are combined, a collusion is formed that is detrimental to the welfare of the common citizen, resulting in monopoly capitalism and the ‘servile State’ (the topic of Hilaire Belloc’s eponymous volume on the rise of a permanent proletariat).

Instead, in his opening speech for ResPublica, ‘The Future of Conservatism’, Blond calls for a new age of the ‘civil state’ and the ‘moralised market’.

As one who is anxious to defend the idea of the State against its ubiquitous naysayers on the right, I applaud Blond’s assertion that ‘the state embodies in structured form a common concern—it represents the coalesced will of the people that there is a level below which you cannot fall and an undertaking that we as a body politic have a stake, a care and indeed a provision for you and every other citizen.’

In my own formulation, borrowing upon the personalist philosophy of the individual embedded in communal relationships—echoed in Blond’s ‘shout-out’ to Edmund Burke’s society of past, present, and future generations—the State is at the very least a provider of last resort, confirming that all citizens have access to the necessities of life without which society itself suffers: basics such as food, clothing, and shelter, elementary education and healthcare provisions. The assumption is that if any of these bare requirements are lacking, not only the individual suffers, but society as a whole is denied the corollary benefits of its citizen’s success.

Statism, however, is the constant conservative bugbear; it is the apotheosis of the State that, in the words of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, ‘would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself.’ In Blond’s critical assessment,

The welfare state nationalised society because it replaced mutual communities with passive fragmented individuals whose most sustaining relationship was not with his or her neighbor or his or her community but with a distant and determining centre.

Blond next addresses monopoly capitalism by sketching out his vision of a moralised market: when corporations are allowed, through State connivance, to drive out competitors and, through mergers and State-sanctified obstructions, thwart new entrants, then it is only the State that can police what stalls remain on the high street (the British equivalent of the American ‘Main Street’).

If a true free market economy were allowed to thrive, then the competitive urge to win customers would serve as its own system of regulation—freeing the State from micro-management to those minimum functions of upholding the formal laws of the marketplace—and be a boon for sometime proletarians to become owners of productive property in their own right. (In Blond’s general prescriptions for the free economy, it is amazing how close this radical Red Tory comes to espousing the anti-monopoly, libertarian economic policy of theorists such as Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.)

Blond concludes his remarks with a summary of the ‘associative society’. In the past—most notably his speech for the launch of the Progressive Conservatism Project (now posted on ResPublica), a Demos think-tank division of which he was briefly director—his triad of goals had been to ‘re-moralise the market, re-localise the economy, re-capitalise the poor’; and while he has spoken previously about dissociative society, this, to my mind, is his fullest explication of the associate society.

I note this well, for when Blond speaks about association expressing ‘both individuality and community’, that ‘it is good men and women taking responsibility and trying to ascertain the common good’, he broaches what is often termed Thomistic personalism.

The best introduction to personalism is Jacques Maritain’s The Person and the Common Good, which, ‘In reaction to excessive claims in the name of individualism and equal excesses in the service of collectivism,’ explained J.W. Koterski, ‘attempts to make the necessary distinctions between the inalienable rights inherent in every human being as person and the duties intrinsic to membership in civil society.’

Maritain wrote that an individual in community is to be considered ‘a part in a whole’, whereas an individual qua person is to be considered ‘a whole in a whole’. More specifically,

it is in the nature of things that man, as part of society, should be ordained to the common good and the common work for which the members of the city are assembled. It is in the nature of things that he should, as the need arises, renounce activities which are nobler in themselves than those of the body politic for the salvation of the community. It is also in the nature of things that social life should impose numerous restraints and sacrifices upon his life as a person, considered as a part of the whole.

As for being a ‘whole’ in his own right, ‘Man is constituted a person made for God and life eternal, before he is constituted a part of the city’.

This dynamic is captured beautifully by Pius XI in Divini Redemptoris: ‘It is society which affords the opportunities for the development of all the individual and social gifts bestowed on human nature [...] for in society they reflect the divine perfection, which would not be true were man to live alone.’ ‘But on final analysis,’ the Pope reminds us in this encyclical,

Society is made for man, that he may recognize this reflection of God’s perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.

In Blond’s casting, then, society is neither ‘a mass act of collectivisation’, nor ‘a collection of self willing individuals’: ‘Such a construal reveals that individualism and collectivism are two sides of the same debased coinage producing a society that endlessly oscillates between state authoritarianism and anarchic libertarianism.’

In his own formulation of a personalist conception of society, Blond believes that

This society is civil—it is formed by the free association of citizens—and these groups balance and express both individual freedom and collective formation [...] In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity. They are the means by which we achieve our end; they are not the end itself. That end will be decided by free citizens in association sharing the practice and discernment of the common good.

All in all, there is much in Phillip Blond’s inaugural address for an organic Tory to admire. Having followed the development of his Red Tory thesis over the course of a year, I have noticed a clarification and deepening of ideas: a communitarian bent has become more amenable to individual impulses; a scepticism of the internal operations of the free economy has become more accepting of the legitimate needs of the market; and a sometime ambivalence toward State action has become more generously aware of its benefits for the common weal.

An important question concerns the reception of Blond within the fold of the British Conservative party, with a national election no more than six months away and its formation of Government likely in hand. From the perspective of a domestic policy framework, Blond’s articulation of a conservative vision should be acceptable to both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ Tories (he has been silent on other affairs that the Ministry will face, such as parliamentary reform, overseas wars, and the fate of UK within the European Union). As such, he already has the confidence of leader David Cameron and key members of the Shadow Front Bench.

Moreover, Red Toryism has the potential to appeal to voters who would otherwise cast ballots for Labour or the Liberal Democrats—a boon for any political party which aims to enlarge its power base and core support.

For Phillip Blond and ResPublica, then, their future in British politics has enjoyed a promising start. This organic Tory awaits further announcements with anticipation.

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