The Red Tories and the Civic State

It has been sometime since I have called myself a “conservative.” It is not that any of my opinions have changed, but rather that conservatism forgot just what is was trying to conserve. Increasingly, it became, under Reagan and the Bushes, “neo-conservatism,” and with that philosophy I have only two quarrels: it isn't new and it isn't conservative. Or rather, what is “new” about it is the attempt to pass off Enlightenment Liberalism as something worth conserving. As one of neo-conservatism's founders, Michael Novak, noted, “neo-liberalism” would be a more apt description.

In practice, neo-conservatism was little more than state-supported, monopolistic capitalism with a veneer of “family values” rhetoric. Never mind that the position of the family actually deteriorated in the last 30 years, both culturally and economically. It wasn't necessary to actually deliver on any promises to the family, since the Democratic alternative of support for abortion and homosexual “marriage” ruled out that path. The end result of such “conservatism” was bloated government complete with debts we cannot pay, obligations we cannot meet, wars we cannot win, and an economy that cannot work.

One had to be even more skeptical of the conservatives when they got “compassionate.” The single program initiative of this “compassion” was the further expansion of the Department of Education, which is a department in search of a job. The job it choose for itself was to impose unfunded mandates on the states under the rubric of “no child left behind.” The department grew with its mandates, even as actual education shrank.

Therefore, I can be excused if I was somewhat skeptical when hearing of the “progressive conservatives” of England. The name sounded a little bit too much like “compassionate conservatism,” just another attempt to dress up a shabby liberalism in the borrowed finery of the conservatives. Further, the English situation struck me as even worse then the American one, with Thatcherism even more destructive of true conservatism than was Reaganism.

But a few weeks ago in Nottingham I got to meet Phillip Blond, one of the “Red Tories” and a founder of the progressive conservative movement. His address was actually about Distributism, and it was backed up with facts and figures in a way that most Distributist presentations aren't, alas. Perhaps I was wrong, and there was more to the Progressives than a little political cross-dressing. Upon returning to the States, I looked up his speech that is considered a founding document of this movement, The Civic State. What I found is one of the most remarkable short political speeches that I have read in decades.

In Blond's analysis of the last 30 years, both the Conservative and Labour parties have tended towards the same end: bloated monopolistic capitalism and a bloated welfare state. Thatcher established a “Market fundamentalism [that] abandoned the fundamentals of the market.” Meanwhile Labour entered into a “Faustian bargain” with monopolistic capitalism which:

[E]nsures a permanent ascendancy of the middle class over the working class and creates an antagonistic feudal structure—where any genuine extension of power and ownership to the poor is resisted by the liberal middle classes who fear mostly for their own status and their sole assumed inherited right to social mobility. (Just look at British schooling)

Blond argues that modern conservatism should reject both alternatives (which turn out to be the same) and replace the market state and the welfare state with the Civic State, which:

[A]ims 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.

This civic state has three main tasks in the current crises: The re-moralization of the markets, the re-localization of the economy, and the re-capitalization of the poor. As the the first, it is a timely project since it is the major theme of Pope Benedict's Caritas in Veritate. Both men call for markets which serve the public good rather than just private interests. As Blond puts it, the market must have a purpose:

For Conservatives it must be the extension of wealth, assets and the benefits of ecological and social well being to all. Freedom from the monopoly dominance of state bureaucracy and market power would allow independence for the formation of community and autonomy and a rebalancing of the demands of work, family and childcare.

As for re-localization of the economy, Blond notes that the Blair/Brown worship of monopolies “produced the paradox of competition without competitors,” favoring the big-box stores over local production and retailing. Blond (incorrectly, I believe) attributes this dominance to “economies” of scale, when in fact it is attributable to government subsidies. The Wal-Mart distribution model, for example, would collapse if their were weight/distance tolls on the so-called “freeways.” But in any case, it is true, as Blond says, that,

Small and medium businesses are how millions of ordinary people own and secure the wealth for themselves and their families. The present market dispossess them and re-categorizes them as permanent members of the low-waged shop serving, rather than shop owning, class.

Of all the tasks, the re-capitalization of the poor is the most pressing from the distributist point of view. Blond notes that in England in 1976, the bottom half of the population owned just 12% of the nation's liquid wealth, but by 2003 that number had dropped to just 1%. In the same period, the share enjoyed by the top 10% rose from 51% to 71%. Clearly, the bottom half of the population has been dispossessed even of the share it had. In the same period, the median wage has flat-lined. Such concentration of wealth is not only inconsistent with a free-market economy, it is economically unsustainable. Markets depend (for those who have not forgotten economics 101) on a broad base of solvent consumers and a wide distribution of productive capacity.

Blond concludes by noting that this conservatism “represents a deep and profound critique of the pre-existing extremes and a restoration of something close to the real heart of Britain: an organic conservatism that cares for all.”

I cannot see any “red” in Red Toryism, and much that is true conservatism. It remains to be seen whether such a conservatism gains any traction with the Tories. David Cameron, the party leader, has endorsed the movement, more or less. But “party leader” is an amazingly pliable profession; we will have to see how it all plays out. Nevertheless, if there is any chance of this program regaining control of the conservative movement, then it may be safe to call oneself a conservative again.



5 comments:

Sam,  Monday, July 27, 2009 at 2:30:00 PM CDT  

There is nothing “red” in Blond’s analysis. And yet I find confusing his idea of a “permanent ascendancy of the middle class over the working class”. Is the middle class one and the same with the “liberal middle class”? And by “liberal middle class” does he understand the upper-middle-class liberals defined by Christopher Lasch as “a new class” whose livelihood rests “not so much on ownership of property as on the manipulation of information and professional expertise”(Revolt of the Elites)? The upper-middle class liberals did indeed entered into a “Faustian bargain” with financial and monopolistic capitalism. Acting as “experts” and “uber managers”, the “new class” supports the “techno-bureaucracy of the global managerial order” (Samuel Francis). The financial and monopolistic capitalism – globalism – has proletarianized the middle class and almost wiped out the working class by encouraging the formation of an underclass through massive illegal immigration and outsourcing. Both the neocons and the liberals approved of the process. Distributism should restore the dignity and material independence of the “old” middle and working classes, the pillars (together with the small farmers) of any future distributist order.

JimB Monday, July 27, 2009 at 5:40:00 PM CDT  

I have to say that his statement of the problem is concise and right on target, and I agree with the three goals as an answer to the two extremes.

What is (still) lacking is any specifics of HOW to accomplish those goals. This has been my greatest frustration in trying to learn about distributivism.

Paleo's latest post essentially says the same thing (something I have been saying for a year) - that what is needed is a WORKING MODEL that we can point to RIGHT HERE in the US.

I am at a complete loss as to how to go about it. Do we have to wait for a complete collapse before we can start ? Right now the power rests with the oligarchs and for a variety of reasons they aren't about to offer a "hand-up" - as they are (literally and figuratively) "above it all".

Decentralist Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 10:46:00 PM CDT  

JimB do you mean what policies could be pursued or how we are to organise bringing them about?

I consider myself a distributist, at least in the broad terms of wanting a distributive state of property and society, and increasingly inn the more narrow Catholic/Anglican sense. But I too find the actual talk about policies less than up to scratch among my fellow distributists, one is forced often to turn to similar movements(in terms of their ideas on property, at least.) like mutualists, Georgists and various other kinds of decentralist movements.

But I believe with their help a decent idea of the decentralist policies can be sketched. They'd involve things like something similar to a Georgist LVT, something similar to mutualist banking and LETS schemes, stricter abandonments rules fo land and presumably the removal of corporate personhood, or a very large change in it, as well as all subsidies, or at least those to big business. There is also the area of guilds which could receive public support and status(I 'm not sure I personally support this.). There are many other policies, and obviously I have talked about economics, but just this little sketch should be enough to bring about a much greater distributive state.

If however you are talking about how we get support for this then I guess the answer is simply the usual way of trying to raise support and educate people and hopefully winning over public opinion.

JimB Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 7:45:00 PM CDT  

Decentralist said...

"JimB do you mean what policies could be pursued or how we are to organise bringing them about?"

I guess both - but more so plans - but even further than that procedures.

Decentralist said...

"But I too find the actual talk about policies less than up to scratch among my fellow distributists, one is forced often to turn to similar movements(in terms of their ideas on property, at least.) like mutualists, Georgists and various other kinds of decentralist movements."

And that is precisely the point that others (particularly people like Thomas Woods etc) use to say that distributivism is just a "sentimental longing for the good old days."

They are quick to point out that there are no working models and the distributivist's fire back "look at Mondragon" - but that won't fly because it's a different continent, culture etc, and it's 100 years old.

I am absolutely convinced that we need a working model here in the US to point to if it's ever to be taken seriously by Americans who are all from Missouri when it comes to wanting proof of a concept.

I'm thinking that with the recent introduction of Co-ops as a solution to health care reform that that could be a good place to start. There are MANY Catholic Dr and clinics that have stopped prescribing contraceptives to bring their practice in line with Catholic teaching. Many report an initial tough transition, but then report that their practices came back even stronger than they were before. If they could be organized into a co-op under the distributivist banner - it could be a start.

See:
http://www.tepeyacfamilycenter.com/

John Médaille Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 9:09:00 PM CDT  

The absolute answer to the charge that something can't exist is to point out that it does exist, and clearly with Mondragon and the Emilian models, they not only do exist, but exist on large scales over long periods. The idea that such models don't count because they are on different continents, different cultures, etc., is somewhat contemptuous of Americans. However, one doesn't have to go to Spain. Examples are all around us. ESOPs, coops, mutual banks, credit unions, farm coops, etc. Distributism, although the name is new, is an old system, in fact the most natural system, and finding examples is child's play. Robert Waldrop, who addresses my class each year, founded the Oklahoma Food Coop about five years ago, which does about $1M/year. And he is supply limited; He can sell all the organic produce he can find.

What is hard to find is a working example of a "real" capitalist system. There are none that I know of, and when they did exist, they proved themselves highly unstable, so unstable that there was near universal agreement to go to the government-managed capitalism that we all live under.

I appreciate the hard-headed realists who want real examples, and I agree with them. But if you want realism, you have to go with distributism; all the Romantics, like Tom Woods, are pure capitalists, longing for a system that never was, never could be, and never will be.

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