06 May 2010

A 'Red Tory' Against the 'Market State'

Writers for The American Conservative magazine like to accuse more mainstream Republicans, neocons in particular, of being radicals rather than conservatives. Sometimes, however, they serve up rather radical-sounding ideas themselves. The June issue of the unorthodox monthly introduces Americans to the thought of Phillip Blond, a British Conservative who coined the term "Red Tories" to describe those Britons who criticize both the conventional Left and the conventional Right. Both sides, Blond says, have succumbed to a pernicious libertarian individualism that has undermined civil society, leaving us with what he calls a "market-state." He perceives the same sort of convergence that Mark Lilla describes in America, a synthesis of a "left-wing" desire for personal autonomy and a "right-wing" demand for economic autonomy that saps the state's will to discipline individuals or regulate the economy for the public good, but doesn't actually reduce the size and power of government.

[T]hrough the privileging of alternative lifestyles, the prioritizing of minority politics, and the capture of markets by monopolies, we have destroyed the sustained and sustaining society. Little wonder that in a world in which binding norms, civil behavior and notions of the common good have ceased to exist, frightened, isolated individuals call upon an increasingly authoritarian state to impose the order that we can no longer create for ourselves.

Blond takes a long view of history, tracing both right-wing and left-wing libertarianism to Jean-Jacques Rosseau's belief that, in Blond's words, "society was primordial imprisonment." Like Lilla, Blond detects something Jacobinical in the present mood, something more dangerous, however, than what Lilla describes. "Any anarchic construal of the self," he proposes, "requires for its social realization an authoritarian statism to control the forces that are unleashed." Individual liberty paradoxically calls a more powerful state into being because it destroys all the intermediate "civil society" institutions that might otherwise regulate personal conduct. Those include "local government, churches, trade unions, cooperative societies or civic organizations that operate on the basis of more than single issues." These, Blond claims, were "a means for ordinary people to exercise power." But if we are all individuals, civil society disintegrates, leaving only the biggest possible government -- and not an effective one.

Blond sees the same paradox at work in the economic realm. "The invisible hand is meant to mediate goods and allocate resources according to the price system and the efficient market cycle," he notes, "But the 'free' market produced a massive centralization in capital, and it fed an asset bubble whose expansion and disastrous contraction has been underwritten by the state." Blond insists that he's a "pro-market thinker," but he finds that unregulated markets in a "neoliberal" regime only result in monopolies that limit opportunities for most people and stifle the innovation that freedom is supposed to foster.

Blond regards himself as a classical liberal. "I believe in a free society where human beings, under the protection of law and guidance of virtue, pursue their own account of the good in debate with those who differ from them and in concord with those who agree," he writes. All of this, he argues, depends on our recognition of common bonds that unite us as people and limit us as individuals.

If we are just empty, atomized individuals whose only mode of progress is whim and personal inclination, then no common bond can exist between us, because bonds limit will and subject us to something other than ourselves. For the [modern] liberal, there is no more profound violation than that. Moreover, a self-interested individual needs the state to police relationships with other individuals. Ergo, extreme individualism leads to extreme collectivism -- and back again.

The above sums up Blond's account of "a violent, secular liberalism," and from that point I read through the rest of his essay waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never did; Blond shows admirable reticence in refraining from what seemed like an inevitable insistence on religion as the only thing that might save us. But he had already included churches as only one category of several within civil society that might play the necessary role of regulating individual conduct without requiring an oversized state. Instead of playing the religion card, Blond wraps up with three recommendations. Conservatives, he writes, need to come up with an alternative to free-market ideology that would check the rise of monopolies and make sure that opportunities really are available to everyone. Second, as an alternative to the libertarian mantra of privatization, Blond calls for the conversion of the public sector into "employee-owned co-ops" that empower beneficiaries instead of (allegedly) rendering them passive. Finally, people need to rebuild some kind of civil society to which "both the state and the market" will be subservient. "This requires a restoration of social conservatism that recognizes the claim of the common good over the free agency of the individual," Blond emphasizes. Again, some people will see that recommendation as a blank on which they'll automatically write in a church's name, but there's nothing in Blond's article that says that people can't create new associations, if not new traditions.

Blond's "Red Tory" philosophy supposedly has influenced David Cameron, the Conservative leader who may end up the next Prime Minister of England tonight. If so, we may see some of his ideas put into practice soon, but I suspect that Blond himself won't hold his breath for that. His article was a first step toward gaining a foothold for some modified form of "Red Toryism" in the U.S., and the Conservative has published a number of responses from American writers. I'll take those under consideration at another time.

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