By Patrick J. Deneen
On the evening of Thursday, March 18, and much of the following Friday afternoon, there will be public events at Georgetown University devoted to discussions about a growing political movement in England that goes by the name “Red Toryism.” The brainchild of Phillip Blond, the “Red Tory” movement attempts to move beyond the well-rutted Left-Right positions of our time, instead seeking to combine a more Left-oriented concern for the depredations of concentrated wealth in advanced industrial economies with a more conservative defense of “virtue, tradition and the idea of the good.”
Invoking the likes of Benjamin Disraeli and G.K. Chesterton, Phillip Blond has become something of a political force in England, even recently providing counsel to the likely future Prime Minister of England, David Cameron. D.C.-area residents have the opportunity to listen to Blond on Thursday and Friday of this week along with an all-star line-up of commentators, in order to consider a radical rethinking of contemporary political and economic assumptions.
Blond burst onto the scene especially with the publication of his remarkable essay in Prospect magazine, “Rise of the Red Tories.” In that essay, Blond traced the origins of the contemporary economic and even moral crisis not (as is typically the case) to one partisan politician or another, but rather to the very origins of modern liberalism itself, a philosophy that arose claiming to combat monarchical and aristocratic power by positing the priority of the rights-bearing individual. Ironically, it was this philosophical settlement that ultimately bestowed upon modern humanity the worst of both worlds, namely “state authoritarianism and atomised individualism.” Describing the concomitant rise of these two transformative modern entities, Blond writes:
[Liberalism] sought to protect the rights of the individual from arbitrary abuse by the king. But so extreme did the defence of individual liberty become that each man was obliged to refuse the dictates of any other–for that would be simply to replace rule by one man’s will (the king) with rule by another. As such, the most extreme form of liberal autonomy requires the repudiation of society–for human community influences and shapes the individual before any sovereign capacity to choose has taken shape. The liberal idea of man is then, first of all, an idea of nothing: not family, not ethnicity, not society or nation. But real people are formed by the society of others. For liberals, autonomy must precede everything else, but such a “self” is a fiction. A society so constituted would be one that required a powerful central authority to manage the perpetual conflict between self-interested individuals. So the unanticipated bequest of an unlimited liberalism is that most illiberal of entities: the controlling state.
Contemporary party arrangements have tended to understand one or the other outcome of this settlement as the root of contemporary problems. For conservatives in the Thatcher/Reagan mold, the State threatens the liberty and independence of the individual (particularly the economic freedom of autonomous individual actors in free markets, itself premised upon the atomized and individualistic liberal anthropology of Hobbes, Locke and Adam Smith). Liberals have seen the market as the threat, and have argued on behalf of the need for a centralized State to trim its excesses. What Blond perceives – echoing the discerning analysis of Distributist thinkers such as Chesterton or Hillaire Belloc in his penetrating work The Servile State or Robert Nisbet in his classic work The Quest for Community, or even the more recent work of the agrarian writer Wendell Berry – is that the centralized modern State and the concentrations of wealth and power deriving from modern “free” markets are mutually reinforcing entities.
What both of these entities mutually seek to eviscerate are the “mediating” institutions of society, those allegiances to more “partial” associations that stand in the path of the simultaneous realization of the atomized individual and the centralized State. Partial associations – whether in the form of more local forms of governance, civic associations, strong bonds of community, religious devotions, and family – are simultaneous obstructions to both radical individualism and encompassing State power. They are the traditional bulwarks against both aspects of the liberal settlement, and as such, have been mutually the object of attack by both the State and the Market. “Conservatives” and “Liberals” alike have (with different emphases) contributed mutually to the destruction of the “Associational State.”
The recent economic crisis – fueled simultaneously by the depredations of radical free agents in the market (buying and selling abstractions of financial instruments that at some point had some actual relationship to homes, that most basic building block of human associational life) and the State system that ended up supporting this economic and social arrangement – lifted the veil on this deeper symbiosis. The crisis exposed the fact that what had been sold to the American and British public for some 50 years – that one had to choose between the State and the Market – was in fact a grand illusion, and that the Left hand was as intent in making the citizenry the subjects of the Servile State as surely as the Right hand was. While inchoate in its anger and inadequately schooled in the causes of the modern crisis, the tea party movement – in its anger toward both parties – reflects this growing understanding that the purported political alternatives of our time represent no real choice at all.
Blond arrives in the U.S. to lecture at Georgetown University on Thursday evening, March 18, and to participate in panel discussions with various journalists and academics on the afternoon of Friday, March 19 (among the participants are the “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank). From D.C., Blond will travel to Philadelphia, where he will lecture on Monday, March 22 at Villanova University. For more information on all of these events, see this announcement.
UPDATE: David Brooks provided a very positive assessment, and good summary of Blond’s ideas, in his New York Times column.
By Patrick J. Deneen |
March 17, 2010; 8:39 AM ET
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