Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Blond, Burke, and the new radical conservative communitarianism

Blond's article arguing for a radical, progressive conservatism or conservative communitarianism resembles the pioneer work of Berger & Neuhaus ("To Empower America") and the liberal communitarianism of Michael Sandel.

Blond's argument, though, is distinctive in that it situates itself squarely in the English conservative tradition of Edmund Burke, whose radical conservatism rested on the "little platoons" or, as Berger & Neuhaus put it, the mediating structures of family and civic association that mediate between unencumbered, alienated individual and leviathan state.

"These ideas are grounded in a conservatism with deeper roots than 1979," Blond says, referring to the year of neoliberal Margaret Thatcher's election victory, "and whose branches extend into the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism—or red Toryism. This is more radical than anything emerging from today’s left and should be the way forward for the right. The opportunity to restore a radical, and progressive, Toryism must not be lost to the economic downturn."

Like the philosopher and Burkean conservative Roger Scruton, Blond grew up in an English working-class environment and saw the devastating effects of both

1) the cultural revolution of the left that destroyed traditional manners and mores along with a legal revolution that subordinated responsibilities of "reciprocal indebtedness" (MacIntyre) to the rights of the individual as unencumbered self; and the welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations; and

2) the market revolution from the right that produced an unprecedented "centralization and concentration of capital"--Marx's term for competition leading to fewer and bigger capitals, as one capital kills many--that is, giant chains like Wal-Mart drive out local shop owners and the fishmongers, butchers, and grocers of yore become their employees.

Scruton has made clear his discomfort (to say the least) with both the upper-class Toryism of garden parties and with the ruthless libertarianism of Margaret ("there is no such thing as society") Thatcher. Blond doubtless feels the same way.

What he is proposing is a manifesto for Britain's Conservative Party as it heads into an election period in which its commanding lead over the hapless governing Labour Party has shrunk dramatically. Blond argues that the idea of the "market state" on which political consensus rested for the last 30 years is now obsolete. His approach to social justice is that of the U.K.'s Centre for Social Justice, which also offers the Tories and their leader David Cameron a way forward in fixing what they have rightly dubbed "Broken Britain."

His prescriptions are bold and sweeping, yet with plenty of historical Tory precedent--from Burke's little platoons, through Disraeli's "one-nation" conservatism, to the idea of a "property-owning democracy" in the 20th century. Here is a flavor of them:

"The next step for conservatism is to reverse the old politics of class, by restoring capital to labour. Cameron should reject the Marxist narrative that paints Tories as wedded to a disenfranchised proletariat. On the contrary: conservatives believe in the extension of wealth and prosperity to all. Yet the great disaster of the last 30 years is the destruction of the capital, assets and savings of the poor: in Britain, the share of wealth (excluding property) enjoyed by the bottom 50 per cent of the population fell from 12 per cent in 1976 to just 1 per cent in 2003. A radical communitarian civic conservatism must be committed to reversing this trend. This requires a considered rejection of social mobility, meritocracy and the statist and neoliberal language of opportunity, education and choice. Why? Because this language says that unless you are in the golden circle of the top 10 to 15 per cent of top-rate taxpayers you are essentially insecure, unsuccessful and without merit or value. The Tories should leave this bankrupt ideology to New Labour and embrace instead an organic communitarianism that graces every level of society with merit, security, wealth and worth."

Blond is director of the progressive conservatism project. I wish him well and I understand his article has caused a stir in the Tory party; but I suspect that in winning the party to this political platform, he and his project have their work cut out for them.

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