Wednesday 11 February 2009

Phillip Blond on liberalism

In a previous post on Phillip Blond's 'Red Toryism' I argued that 'Red Toryism''s concrete policy proposals fall well short of its stated ambitions. But what about the deeper, philosophical basis of 'Red Toryism'?

Striking here are Blond's arguments against something called 'liberalism', which he sees as a shared perspective across right and left. According to Blond: '...if both 20th-century socialism and conservatism have converged on the market state, they have done so by obeying the insistent dictates of modernity itself. And modernity is nothing if not liberal.'

So what, according to Blond, is the problem with liberalism? And do his criticisms have any validity? Kieron O'Hara has already argued that Blond's account of liberalism is awry so far as Adam Smith is concerned. However, the problems go much wider than this.

(1) Anti-social emphasis on liberty. According to Blond, liberalism is so extreme in its emphasis on individual liberty that it ends up prescribing an individualism that is deeply anti-social. As he puts it:

' 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...'

The main problem with this comment is that it confuses 'dictates' with 'responsibilities' and/or 'moral obligations'. Liberals certainly do not hold that we are obliged to refuse, or even permitted to refuse, genuine responsibilities that we have to others. According to John Rawls, for example, we have a 'natural duty' to support and help maintain just institutions. As such I have a responsibility as a citizen to work for, and to support, measures that make my society just, and to carry out all the responsibilities that justice implies, e.g., to pay a fair share of taxes, participate in juries when my turn comes, join and participate in organizations that further just causes, e.g., trade unions. To 'repudiate society' would, therefore, be a highly illiberal thing to do.

(2) The 'fiction' of the autonomous self. According to Blond, the anti-social individualism of liberal thought is related to a flawed theory of 'the self': in valuing 'autonomy' so highly, liberals imply that 'the self' is properly something that exists independently of any specific community attachments or affiliations. But such a 'self' is a 'fiction':

'...real people are formed by the society of others. For liberals, autonomy must precede everything else, but such a "self" is a fiction.'

Liberals hold no such theory of the 'self'. One would have to be pretty daft not to think that, as a matter of fact, people are 'formed by the society of others', and, whatever other daft ideas liberals might or might nor hold, this is not one of them.

What liberals do think is that people have a capacity to critically interrogate the ways of life in which they are brought up; that they can choose to reject some aspects of their inheritance on reflection; and that this capacity, along with the freedom to act on it, is very valuable and worthy of strong protection.

For example, if a boy grows up in a community that takes a dim view of gay sex, and then finds himself having a gay sexuality as he grows up, liberals think it very important that this boy/man have the opportunity to stand back and consider, in an informed way, how he wishes to lead his life. The liberal does not prescribe any particular line of choice. All the liberal asserts is the value of allowing individuals to approach these kinds of dilemmas in an open and informed way and to act on their own judgement without fear of legal sanction by the community in question.

This is what 'autonomy' is about; and it clearly does not entail any preposterous idea that individuals are, or can be, formed outside the 'society of others'.

(3) Liberal community equals 'big government'. According to Blond, when liberals do try to correct for their anti-social individualism, they look inevitably to 'big government' as the answer. As Blond puts it:

'Even the most "communitarian" liberals - from philosophers like Michael Sandel to politicians like Ed Miliband - cannot promote community without big government. They see the state as the answer, when it usually makes the problem worse.'

Again, I do not recognise this as an accurate account of what liberals believe. When, for example, Tocqueville worried about the problem of 'individualism' in America - the problem of people turning inwards to their familes and friends to the extent of becoming indifferent to the wider society - he did not see the solution as more 'big government'. He argued the 'Americans' had tackled the problem by devolving power down to local communities. John Stuart Mill echoes Tocqueville, calling for a strong layer of local self-government. So, too, does Michael Sandel. In other words, these liberals all call for a shift in the direction of political decentralization and local empowerment which Blond himself advocates as part of the cure to an excessively powerful central state.

Nor do liberals stop there. Sceptical of efforts to initiate 'communism' via the central state, Mill welcomed experiments in communism initiated within society. When Leonard Hobhouse, the New Liberal, wrote The Labour Movement, a statement of his 'liberal socialism', he identified socialism with the coming together of three things: strong local government; trade unionism; and the cooperative movement. The central state had a role, in his view, but not to the exclusion of key roles for these other kinds of community.

(4) Liberalism cannot support a politics of the common good. According to Blond, the difficulty liberals have with community is related to the fact that their philosophy cannot support any understanding of society's common good. As he puts it:

'Liberalism can only be a virtue when linked to a politics of the common good, a problem whch the best liberals - Mill, Adam Smith and Gladstone - recognised but could never solve. A vision of the good life cannot come from liberal principles.'

Well, it all depends on what one means by 'common good' and 'vision of the good life'. What liberals are certainly wary of is the idea that the rationale for state action should rest with a 'vision of the good life' in the sense of a particular religion or similarly encompassing philosophical view: a view that tells us in a comprehensive way how to lead a good life.

But this doesn't mean liberals reject the idea of politics being based on a conception of society's common good. The values of freedom and justice in distribution which liberals like John Rawls advocate represent a view of the common good. And, as I noted above, liberals hold that we should lead lives that are bounded by the responsibilities that flow from this common good; and that we can and should participate in a range of social institutions in order to help achieve this common good.

Liberals don't believe in theocracy; but they do believe in citizenship.

Postscript (February 13): For an interesting discussion of the theological roots of Phillip Blond's 'Red Tory' anti-liberalism, see Theo Hobson's article on the Spectator's site. While Hobson is critical of Blond's anti-liberalism, his position is too concessionary in that he also denies that liberalism has a 'social vision'. Liberalism does have a 'social vision': a vision of a society of free and equal persons and of citizens actively committed to maintaining this society.


Captain Fun said...

These 'red tories' - are they sort of 'titian red' ?

Sunder Katwala said...


Two very interesting posts. I think the Red Tory thesis of Blond is pretty distinct from other 'progressive Conservative' arguments, and is going to struggle to carry even what Richard Reeves wants to identify as an emerging ProgCon constituency.

It seems sensible to address - as you do - the Blond argument on its own merits, rather than to buy the idea that this is an emerging Cameronism, for which the evidence seems pretty much entirely lacking.

Firstly, it critiques social liberalism, as you mention here. This has not had much attention, because the Prospect article focuses on the red economics, not its more right-facing social argument. But the Tory Mods have found a (post hoc) acceptance of social liberalism a high profile and pretty cost free way to show that they have changed. (Hence Oliver Letwin arguing that the ProgCon project is thoroughly liberal - mistakenly claiming this was to defend it from a Fabian charge of illiberalism - even while Blond is arguing in some detail as the 'thought leader' of the ProgCons that it should indeed be anti-liberal).

Secondly, it demands a much greater price from Tory interests and constituencies in its economic arguments. I would very much like to see this redder Toryism develop on asset and wealth ownership; I will not hold my breath, but the fact there is some acknowledgement of the value of this at the fringes of debate on the right can be used to develop arguments to prioritise a much wider ownership of assets.

The Cameroonian ProgCons will, I think, broadly endorse the idea that the right got the better of the economic argument (whatever the problems that has now) and the left on social questions (to which they now come to terms with a new status quo). Blond is arguing for a reversal of this - to reassert a traditional rightist critique on social issues, but to combine it with a localist, protectionist economic argument which is a leftist economic shift.

Interesting, but I see the Cameron project doing neither of these.

Bruce Smith said...

Isn't Phillip Blond's point really that Enlightenment Liberalism failed to highlight the need for us all to accept responsibilities towards each other. So that instead of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" it would have helped to have said "the pursuit of social happiness" or words to such effect. Likewise when Deng Xiaoping in China said "It doesn't matter what colour the cat is as long as it catches mice" he has proved himself wrong. Today after the Sub-Prime Disaster it matters very much what colour the cat is.

Anonymous said...

"'Even the most "communitarian" liberals - from philosophers like Michael Sandel to politicians like Ed Miliband - cannot promote community without big government. They see the state as the answer, when it usually makes the problem worse.'"

This is quite funny. Because most people with any sort of knowledge of the recent academic debates/fights in and around modern liberalism would know that Sandel is usually classed as communitarian critic of liberalism. So to recruit him to the forces of liberalism, and chuck him in with Dworkin, Rawls et al is rather funny, methinks.