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Shattered Society

Liberalism, Right and Left, has made lonely serfs of us all. Does the Red Tory tradition offer a remedy?

In February 2009, British philosopher Phillip Blond’s essay “Rise of the Red Tories,” published in London’s Prospect magazine, sparked a transatlantic discussion about the failure of politics, both Left and Right, to address our most pressing social problems. “We are a bipolar nation,” he wrote, “a bureaucratic, centralized state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered, and isolated citizenry.”

Each side has had its revolution. Liberals’ cultural coup overthrew traditional mores and installed government as the fount from which all blessings flow. Conservatives swore allegiance to the market, enthroning capitalism as arbiter of ultimate worth. In so doing, both enslaved the individual to forces beyond his reach and leveled the intermediate institutions that once grounded and valued him.

Blond’s call for a new dynamic civic movement based around association has become a book, Red Tory, just released in Britain. He explains, “Red because it caters to the needs of the disadvantaged and believes in economic justice; Tory because it believes in virtue, tradition, and the priority of the good.”

During Blond’s recent American speaking tour, New York Times columnist David Brooks observed that in this country, rising contempt for the political class has taken a more libertarian expression, most recently in the Tea Party movement, but allowed that civic association might be more effective in restoring public trust.

Here we offer a taste of Red Toryism, along with a discussion of whether these ideas could gain traction in the U.S.—or whether they even should.

We live in a society of decreasing circles. More and more of us know fewer and fewer of us. We live alone and eat by ourselves, often with a TV or computer rather than a human being for company. If we do marry, the time an average relationship lasts decreases with each passing year.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, we abandon our old and increasingly care badly for our young. Our grandparents can recall a vivid life in which aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces wove together the social fabric of a stable, mutual society. Nearly half of all children are born out of wedlock. Many grow up without a father, some without any loving parent at all. The young people emerging from this background, denied any real education in public and private virtues, are easily seduced by glamorous dreams that promise consumption they cannot afford. Untouched by ideals of love and fidelity, they operate free of commitment, discipline, and responsibility. These unreformed teenage idioms become adult habits and ruin lives by creating people unable to bond or relate.

For men, especially those at the bottom of the social scale who are increasingly losing out in education and career advancement, an emasculated life at the margins of society awaits. For successful young women, having a degree is fast becoming an indicator of a childless future. No one would choose this outcome nor wish it upon anyone else, not least because it drains the energy from domestic life and compounds the terrifying fate of getting old alone. Everywhere we look, the ties that bind are loosening, and the foundations of a secure and joyful existence are being undermined.

What is the origin of this degradation? Looking back over the past 30 years, we could blame longer working hours that families must put in, a situation itself compounded by the financial necessity that in most households both adults must work, higher levels of personal debt, job insecurity, distrust of institutions, and fear of each other. Our society has become like a ladder whose rungs are growing further and further apart so it is increasingly difficult to ascend. Those at the top have accelerated away from the rest of us by practicing a self-serving and state-sanctioned capitalism that knows no morals and exists only to finance its own excess. Those in the middle are being crushed by bureaucracy and the effort of squaring stagnating wages with higher demands. Those at the bottom are more isolated and despised than ever before.

But decisive as these factors are, they do not add up to the social disaster that we are living through and that many, perversely, increasingly regard as normal. A healthier society could have resisted these trends. A society that still had strong families could have ensured a lifestyle that secured rather than undermined the economic base of the household. A society that still had neighbors who knew one another could have created trusting communities, and they could have produced institutions that served the needs of people rather than the bureaucratic demands of a distant and hostile state.

But through 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.

The loss of our culture is best understood as the disappearance of civil society. Only two powers remain: the state and the market. We no longer have, in any effective independent way, local government, churches, trade unions, cooperative societies, or civic organizations that operate on the basis of more than single issues. In the past, these institutions were a means for ordinary people to exercise power. Now mutual communities have been replaced with passive, fragmented individuals. Civil spaces have either vanished or become subject-domains of the dictatorial state or the monopolized market.

Neither Left nor Right can offer an answer because both ideologies have collapsed as both have become the same. Those who construe the libertarian individual as the center of current rightist thought actually draw upon an extreme Left conception that finds its original expression in Rousseau, who held that society was primordial imprisonment. It was Rousseau whose social theory forced the diversity of the world to conform to the general will—which was but this same individualism writ large—thereby sponsoring the rationalist and secular red terror of the French Revolution. In fact, any anarchic construal of the self requires for its social realization an authoritarian statism to control the forces that are unleashed. Collectivism and individualism are but two sides of the same devalued and degraded currency. And this has been the history of recent modernity—an oscillation between the state and the individual that gradually erodes civil association, which is in reality the only check on the extremes of either.

The 1960s New Left, to counter the authoritarian state it created, built a personal zone free of control in which to repudiate all standards and sell the poisonous idea of liberation through chemical and sexual experimentation. But when these New Left individualists preached personal pleasure as a means of public salvation, they were not resisting state control. They were, through their demands for freedom without limit and life without responsibility, undermining all autonomous self-governing structures, leaving a dreadful legacy of anarchic individualism that required state authoritarianism as the only way to re-impose order and society. Contemporary libertarian individualism and statist collectivism created each other and are locked in a fatal embrace that destroys the civic middle and the life and economy of the associative citizen.

This whole scenario dawned on me when I realized that my left-wing friends didn’t really believe in community. They only believed in choice. They supported abortion because they found it validating, a demonstration of real personal autonomy. But they think that fox hunting is terribly cruel and so should be ardently opposed. No doubt the same dispensation finds similar expression in the United States.

The Left harbors a deep and abiding hatred of fixity and tradition, a loathing of anything settled. In Anthony Giddens’s Third Way—the book that was behind the Blair revolution in Britain—he talks about how a new cosmopolitanism will free people from nature, and one gets the sense that Cool Britannia so envisaged is the permanent destruction of taboo and tie. According to the Blairite radicals we have to constantly rewrite ourselves by a willful assertion that wipes the slate clean and lets us begin again through the permanent act of choice—as long as such volition shows no teleology or direction. Nobody is told what to choose because the moral act in our contemporary paradigm isn’t what is chosen, it’s the act of choosing itself. Indeed, to choose is to repristinate and repeat the idea of oneself as an isolated, atomistic agent.

The contemporary Right all too often believes exactly the same thing, but expresses it through economics. The dominant actor for right-wing theory is the self-interested individual. The invisible hand is meant to mediate goods and allocate resources according to the price system and the efficient market cycle. But that “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.

What has been exposed is the shared agenda of cultural libertarianism on the Left and economic libertarianism on the Right. There really was no difference between them because both were upholding the same perverted liberal ideology.

The breaking of that ideology began in the United Kingdom when David Cameron was elected as Conservative leader and began using the phrase “broken Britain” to refer to the dislocation that was happening in our society. Suddenly conservatives were talking about social justice, and it wasn’t the failed form of “compassionate conservatism.” It was a revival of an original One Nation Toryism that was acutely concerned with the interests of the bottom half of the population.

This was violently attacked by the Left. Liberal journalists were caught in a bind: “This is nonsense. The lives of the poor are fine. Oh no, we can’t say that: we’re left-wing. Well, it’s not broken, it’s just different. If people want to have seven partners in one week and to take drugs in front of their children, that’s their choice. But wait, that can’t be right. We just won’t talk about it then.” The Left was completely wrong-footed, and conservatism, which had been out of power for three elections and could easily have been out for another, rose to the top of the polls by adopting the mantle of social justice.

This was not wholly unique. During the 19th century, the Tories were far more radical and more inclined toward the cause of the poor than were the liberal Whigs. It was the conservatives who largely led the campaign against slavery, who argued that the conditions of the white working class in the mills were analogous to those of black slaves, and who pushed for reduced working hours. It was the Tories who through the factory acts opposed the Whigs forcing women and children to work 16 hours a day.

Conservatives need to look back to William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle, and John Ruskin, who were critics of authoritarian statism as well as denouncers of self-serving capitalism. As conservatives, they hated the cultural consequences of industrialization—the creation of a landless, dispossessed mass forced to work at subsistence levels, cut off from any cultural enrichment. Then came Hilaire Belloc’s 1912 tour de force, The Servile State, in which he denounced both capitalism and socialism for instituting master-slave relations. The capitalist monopolizes land, ownership, and capital, forcing the formerly self-sufficient to work for subsistence wages. The socialist dispossesses in the name of general ownership and communal monopoly. For the worker, both have the same result.

Because this new conservatism echoes a nobler and more radical past, it has great resonance. But it is still allied with the idea of the old neoliberal model of markets. Conservatives can care for social justice, but they still have to support the political economy that had done great damage to the bottom half of society. In 1976, the bottom 50 percent of the British population had 12 percent of the wealth (excluding property). By 2003, that percentage had fallen to 1 percent. So much for the idea that assets and equity will through market mechanisms evenly distribute themselves. A recent UK government survey showed that asset inequality between the 90th percentile and the bottom tenth was 100 to 1—a massive capture of assets by those at the top of the tree.

Now I view myself a pro-market thinker who advocates a popular capitalism and is persuaded by what the utopic thought on the Right wanted: a market economy of widely disbursed property, of multiple centers of innovation, of the decentralization of capital, wealth, and power. But neoliberalism has delivered none of these things. It has instead produced centralization; reduction in plurality; the driving upward, not the driving downward, of opportunity, leverage, and innovation. It has re-inscribed the very things it purported to end.

A vast body of citizens has been stripped of its culture by the Left and its capital by the Right, and in such nakedness they enter the trading floor of life with only their labor to sell. These individuals created by the market-state settlement cannot form a genuine society, for they lack the social capital to create such an association or the economic basis to sustain it. All neoliberalism has done is change class to caste and cut people off from the means whereby self-improvement can result in a genuine change in circumstance.

But most people don’t know what has unhinged their lives, what has driven them and us apart from each other. We don’t know why the ideology we spout and the language that we claim as our own has delivered a situation radically different from what they purport. Liberalism has linked Left and Right into the most illiberal political formation we have yet crafted. I attack it in my book from the point of view of liberty itself:

I am in part appalled by the legacy of modern liberalism precisely because I take myself to be a true 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. Since in this life we cannot know all that can be known and all human knowledge is conditioned by our own lives and the culture in which we are immersed, we can never transcend this condition and know directly and completely the ultimate principle of everything that exists…

But it does not follow that there is nothing to be known. Unfortunately, all too many British students, who have suffered the misfortune of ten weeks of bad French philosophy, or empiricistic analytic philosophy of a more homegrown kind, emerge from university with the deep and abiding conviction that there is no such thing as objective truth and that everything cultural is arbitrary. They carry into their twenties and beyond the view that any claim about truth is hierarchical and therefore synonymous with fascism and all manner of evil and conservative consequences. Happily convinced by the radical import of this message, too many of our talented young people give up on the possibility of transformative politics and assiduously work their way into the managerial and governing class of our country. Once there, with self-interest duly satisfied, they repeat and institutionalize the same compliant liberal nostrums, which ironically translate into increasingly centralized and bureaucratic procedures that exclude the poor and those who have not been so well-positioned or so well-advantaged to work the system. While the idea of a universal relativism doesn’t survive the first brush with serious rational reflection, such juvenile dictums have permeated our governing elite and undermined the foundations of all our great institutions…

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 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 collectivization—and back again.

This defines our political life. The Left loves collectivization: the state is a moral proxy for anything I do; the state protects my rights so my little individualisms can subsist and my cultural liberalism can then be defended by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Right enforces an economic system that supports exactly that vision.

Those dominant oscillations in the West—between the extreme liberalism of the Right and the extreme collectivization of the Left—are one in the same and subtend from the same origin: from a violent, secular liberalism that broke with the antique model of liberty and has essentially destroyed both the Left and the Right.

I want to suggest three ways to move forward: economic, political, and social.

First, we must acknowledge that the whole of our free-market economy has been captured by the Chicago School. Because we’re only focused within competition law on price utility as the interpreter of what would be a good outcome, the bigger your company, the cheaper you can deliver goods. So we pursue monopoly in the name of freedom and asset capture in the name of wealth extension. What we have produced as a result, from the Right, is a whole ideology of competition but no competitors. We’ve created a condition in which large businesses dominate—via a rigged market of rent-seeking capital—in an economy that cuts off for the majority the path to mobility and prosperity.

What do you do for people who aren’t that clever, or that well positioned, or that rich, but who are hard-working? Well, it’s permanently low wages for you—and for your children, and your children’s children. You say you would like to open a store or a business, to have some financial autonomy? Well, we can’t have that. The truth is, we can’t create a situation in which you could prosper because you can’t compete—you can’t bully suppliers, you can’t cross subsidize, you can’t access the supply chains that are already controlled by the new monopolies, so you can’t capture the price utility that those big concerns can. (No matter that the corporate model is subsidized by various tax breaks.) Consequently, there is no route out for many of those in the bottom half of the population.

Until we can change that economic structure, we cannot break the law. So staying within the private sector, we need to adopt an older liberal model and broaden it with a Catholic, distributist, or even Austrian account of the notion of various plural senses to give human beings a chance at a stake in the world. An economy not wedded to a single market model susceptible to the winds of global finance could spread wealth throughout the sectors, creating a resilient and plural economy capable of self-sustaining in the face of the collapse of one segment.

I believe in the free market, but we haven’t had a free market. In a brilliant paper, the head of monetary stability at the Bank of England, Andrew Haldane, recently asked why the speculative economy has done so well. Because the state has taken all the risks. Capital will always seek the highest return, and if you look at the rise of the state and the way it has legislated the banking sector, it has essentially (through deposit, capital, and liquidity insurance) taken on the risk of investment banking activity. Investment bankers can take any risk and not pay any price. Because of this, all capital is centralized. Why would you go to Wisconsin to open a smelting plant when you can get a much safer and higher return in Wall Street or the City of London because you are engaging in the highest return activity at a risk premium covered by the taxpayer? The most you can lose in high finance is your original stake, and sometimes not even that, as there seems no limit to what the state will do for finance capital. If you add up all the debt in the UK—personal, state, and corporate—it comes to 468 percent of GDP. This could mean 10 to 20 years of de-leveraging—a generational economic contraction. There’s nothing free about that.

Along with the private sector being captured by big capital, the public sector has been captured by the big state. The public sector should be broken up—not privatized out, so that big-money interests could essentially gain the difference between the wages of those in the public sector and the wages they were prepared to pay, but turned into employee-owned co-ops. Let’s have worker buy-outs instead of multi-leveraged management buyouts that game both stakeholders and workers. Let them de-layer and de-managerialize their own professions, and let them have a stake and deliver the service they’ve always wanted.

In terms of public assistance, I argue for a power of budgetary capture. Millions of welfare dollars are spent, yet all that ever does is make recipients passive. Ordinary people, recipients of public largesse, can’t in any way create the associations and culture that can be part of their own renewal. So why not allow citizens’ groups to take over government budgets and run them for themselves? Imagine women bonding together because they don’t want to see their children fall into crime and degradation. In giving these people power over their own communities with the public money that has been subsidizing rather than transforming their lives, we will be giving the poor capital. And if they can gain access to the market, they might really create the free economy that everyone has been claiming but no one has been delivering. Then we’ll have a situation in which the state won’t regulate the small and the intermediate out of existence, a situation in which people can genuinely compete.

In the political realm, we have to admit that democracy doesn’t work particularly well, mainly because it’s hugely centralized and substantially captured by vested interests. We need to turn it upside-down—a doctrine of radical democratic subsidiarity that would allow local associations both to select and vote for their own candidates. We can’t do that in the current political settlement. It’s too locked; there are too many vested interests. But if, like budgetary capture, we had a democratic capture, we could send democracy back to the streets. If we could ally that political economy with actual democracy, we could really have bottom-up associations and render the central state increasingly superfluous.

This sort of subsidiarity isn’t a fetishization of the small. It’s a belief in the most appropriate, and that can even be large transnational corporations. I don’t, for example, believe in a localized nuclear industry. In addition, there will always be a role for the state as a kind of ultimate guild or virtue culture that can step in when things go wrong. In that view, it’s not Robert Nozick’s night-watchman state nor is it the centralized state of the Fabian socialists. The state becomes a facilitator of the sort of outcome it wants, but it has to be agnostic as to how people realize that outcome. And only if the outcome isn’t being realized—for instance, if poor people aren’t being educated—should it step in.

Finally, the real recovery has to come in civil society itself. Society should be what rules, what regulates, what is sovereign. Both the state and the market must be subservient to renewed civil association. This requires a restoration of social conservatism that recognizes the claim of the common good over the free agency of the individual. Rather than being a reactionary force that makes war on minorities or vilifies one-parent families, it should, for example, promote the understanding of the family as a feminist institution that because of its reciprocity and mutuality liberates both men and women to pursue the ends that most of them want, which is human flourishing, probably involving children. It should also reach beyond the family to restore the social square. Placing people in relational matrices recreates for those who don’t have a nuclear family the possibility of a civic and extended one.

In Britain, there’s a part of Birmingham called Castle Vale that has had no government money. But they drove from their streets the drug dealers, the prostitutes, the criminals. They took complete control of their area purely through social capital and self-organization, and all the indices of crime and violence dropped to rates unseen by any sort of state action. By having that social capital, they were able to capture political and economic power.

This is the essence of the Western liberal tradition: the rise of association—a state that isn’t dictated by the oligopolies of the market and the central government. The task of a radical conservative politics is to recover this: the middle life of civil society. Villages should run villages, cities cities, and neighborhoods their own streets and parks. Additionally and most importantly, a transformative conservatism must take on the rampant individualism of the self-serving libertarian, not least because an individualism that undermines all social goods by denying a virtue-binding code and moral belief is not a conservative philosophy. On the contrary, extreme individualism is a leftist construct and should be recognized and abandoned as such.

The future is there to be gained. It is the politics of the middle, the life of the civic, and the empowerment of the ordinary. It is to be hoped that a radical conservatism embraces this opportunity and creates and facilitates this future for us all: free association and a self-organizing citizenry producing the norms and the universals that alone license a civic state, a plural society, and a participative economy.

Phillip Blond is director of ResPublica in London. This essay is partially adapted from a speech delivered at the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown University.