Thursday, 2 July 2009

A Red Tory riposte

I have had a friendly note from my recent sparring partner Mr Phillip Blond asking if he might clarify a couple of things about the Red Tory worldview, which has been so endlessly discussed recently on Next Left that I had anticipated he might be notifying us that Faber & Faber were keen to put us on a hefty publicity retainer.

Next Left is rather committed to the right to reply, particularly given the elevated nature of much of our readership.(See Stuart's rather excellent post earlier on liberalisms and communitarianisms, to which Jonathan Rutherford has offered an interesting response in the comments thread).

So here is Phillip's encyclical to the Fabians:

"I wish you would stop trying to misrepresent me about the 14th vs the 21st century: I never said that. I said that history isn't always progressive and that one century isn't self-evidently and always an advance on the former - in fact thinking like this is foolish and blinds one to what is lost and what is gained. Saying what is new is always best is just as stupid as saying what is past was always better. We need an account of the good to judge the past and the future and indeed without such there is no politics of the present.

Secondly, I am not illiberal. My main point is a philosophical and historical one that liberty (which I believe in) is not produced from liberalism. Indeed my intellectual argument is that that pure liberalism or liberalism as first philosophy cannot produce liberty - indeed it produces an anarchic individualism that requires a surveillance state. Thus liberalism produces the very thing it seeks to avoid: an authoritarian individual and an absolutist state. This is a serious point and to have it charactured as anti-liberal is either an inane misreading or an outright misrepresentation. In fact liberalism is not liberal at all."

I don't entirely accept the first point, simply because Phillip's refusal to accept this as a sensible question - it was something of a knockabout debating point - was really rather fairly reported in my post about this, where I wrote:

Pushed later, he refused to play. He had some good arguments for refusing to express a preference between medieval times and modernity. It was simply ahistoric to put the question in those terms. In any event, if the route to the 21st century had to be through the horrors of the 20th, then he would prefer not to get here.

On an earlier occasion, what Blond had written about the need to recover and update the medieval model of plural and local power relations, corrupted from the 14th century onwards, was this:

The late middle ages especially were marked by a vast plurality of horizontal relationships, often overlapping, and a myriad of reciprocal and mutual duties and responsibilities. Likewise it is right that a medieval network of a predominantly horizontal communal and social order, exemplified by the church but also including guilds and agrarian communities organised around differential property relationships, was destroyed by the new vertical "secular monarchs". From the 14th century on, they asserted their power and corrupted a pre-existing highly plural and reciprocal community with demands for top-down allegiance, authority and control. Updating and recovering this earlier medieval model for the modern age is of course the task.

Still, while it was fun while it lasted, it may now be time to think of a new point.

On the inane misreading of Blond's critique of liberalism, and his argument about who is and is not liberal, I do admit to being slightly lost.

I think I have called the Red Toryism "anti-liberal" rather than illiberal, following Jonathan Derbyshire's excellent ( New Statesman profile of Blond).

Blond's argument is that he is anti-liberalism but the true liberal, because it is liberalism which is illiberal and not liberal.

(Or, as Stuart wrote earlier, "a nihilist liberal politics of arbitrary freedom must be replaced with one of collective morality’).

Those liberals who reject the Red Tory account of liberalism often make a similar charge back.

So the Red Tories and the "liberals" seem clear about what conceptual territory they wish to stake claim to, and also to deny that their opponents have a valid claim to it. This appears to be a pretty foundational dispute about what liberty means.

So whose liberalism is it anyway?

Could a Phillip Blond- Richard Reeves prize bout help to settle the question?

A good moment to hand back to the studio, and Dr Stuart White.


alexyeahdude said...

God, it is easy to get lost in definitions of liberalism - especially if you start including the mad american versions.

Anyway I always though this: "liberty is not produced from liberalism" was the basis of so-called New Liberalism, which is what spurred the Liberal welfare reforms of the early 20th C. If that's what red tories are about then you can count me in.

I'm completely lost with the medieval stuff. It started as a hypothetical, didn't it?

John said...

Is Philip Blonde trying to imply all athiests are authoritairian Stalinists, and only christians trust other people with power.

I think no religious institution is mutual, because all power stems to the high priest, his appointees and the holy script.

Stuart White said...

I'd pay serious money to see a Blond-Reeves face-off....

But seriously, here are some thoughts on Phillip Blond's medievalism and critique of liberalism.

(1) Medievalism. There is a history of 'medievalism' on the left. Its there in William Morris and Guild Socialism. Perhaps more relevant to Phillip's concerns is the 'pluralist' movement of the first two decades of the 20th century (which had connections with Guild Socialism).

One of the major pluralists was John Neville Figgis, a theologically conservative but socially and political radical Anglo-Catholic monk and Cambridge historian of ideas. Figgis argued that the very idea of a 'sovereign state', with authority to order social life in any and every sphere, was oppressive or threatening of oppression. He argued for a pluralist, federalistic polity in which sovereignty would be split up, with distinct institutions having authority in different spheres. here, he was looking back in part to the medieval polity, without wishing to just revive it (e.g., he accepted a separation of church and state).

More recently, Paul Hirst sought to revive interests in the pluralists, editing a collection with excerpts from Harold Laski, G.D.H. Cole and Figgis. And his book Associative Democracy (1994) set out his own updates and revised version of pluralism. My sense is that Phillip Blond's medievalism is, at least in part, a reflection of this pluralist perspective. At least, I hope it is....

(2) Liberalism. At one level, Phillip just wants to point out that being a critic of a philosophy of 'liberalism' doesn't necessarily make one 'illiberal' in policy. Fair enough, though we need to see a lot more details of Red Tory policy before we can really judge how liberal/illiberal it is in this sense.

So far as Phillip's critique of liberalism at the philosophical level is concerned, he is on very shaky ground. The problem is that he mischaracterises the core principle at the very heart of liberalism. He thinks that premise is a commitment to some kind of raw, unqualified freedom of the individual. But most major liberal thinkers don't take this as their starting premise. Rather, they believe at base in something like 'equal liberty' or 'liberty for all'. The commitment to liberty is a moral one, and so intrinsically shaped by a concern for what one individual can reasonably claim consistent with the claims of another. This means that liberalism, at base, is other-regarding and expresses an ethic of social responsibility. Its not, at base, the amoral a/anti-social creed that Phillip takes it to be.

Phillip's criticisms might be valid against an imaginary 'liberalism' of his own construction. But they have little bearing on the actual intellectual tradition of liberalism.

So there....

Sunder Katwala said...


how much (serious money)?

Perhaps liberal republicans would joust for a prize purse, while red tories would want to do it for the glory.