Seeing Red (Toryism)
ED’s post on Philip Blond and his (quixiotic?) brand of Red Toryism is definitely worth the read.
Blond goes way too far in trying to argue–in a way weirdly reminiscent of Jonah Goldberg–that liberalism is the path to left wing totalitarianism.
But if we backed up a bit from that excess, Blond has a point. Or rather he learned a very insightful point from his teacher (theologian) John Milbank.
Namely that liberalism–particularly of the libertarian or contemporary right-wing version–argues that individualism and (the bugaboo) of statism are entirely separate entities. The left standing for statism and the right (libertarian) standing for individualism. Milbank’s argument–which I’ve never seen a persuasive refutation of–is that the individualist strain of liberalism (read: classical liberalism) only exists with the creation of a strong over-arching state entity. This argument is made most forcefully in Hobbes’ Leviathan of course, but shows up elsewhere as well. It’s that framing that allows Milbank to come out against human rights. Milbank it should be said doesn’t really go for Blond’s Red Toryism however heavily influenced by Milbank Blond most certainly is.
For one Milbank would be more open (I think) to criticisms of failed former traditions (esp. aristocratic ancien regime ones), which Blond at times seems more romantic towards (i.e. more traditionally right-wing).* A point ED I think properly raises relative to Philip B.
Moreover, though this trend of state plus individualism is discernible across a wide spectrum of politics, there has to be some understanding of degree and on the ground politics. It’s better to live in Britain than say Saudi Arabia or France during the 60s instead of the Soviet Union.
Where Blond would score more points is not in trying to argue that there is some direct line from John Stuart Mill to Chairman Mao, but in critiquing the modern shading of corporate power and state influence along the lines laid out by Belloc in The Servile State for example. Asking whether at some point (without calling people liberal fascists or saying that Mussolini’s dream has come to fruition mind you) when are the two distinguishable? Who is really running the show?
And what do you do in an age when capital has run out ahead of governance? When there is no framework for collective action? I would say, tweaking Blond, that more paradoxically (or dialectically) there isn’t any longer a state reality with any teeth. The Leviathan, such as he exists anymore, is global capital, a reality as brilliantly analyzed as it was poorly named by Hardt and Negri. [Only an Empire needs a Multitude to overcome it].
The intrinsic connection between statism and individualism has been neglected by a couple of factors I think. One, the modern political philosophical ploy (from Hobbes, Rosseau, & Locke to Rawls) of the original state of nature and the hypothetical social contract obscured the actual historical arising of the state and the modern world. The social contract/original nature ploy worked as an ideological cover. Second, postmodernism, particularly post-structuralism didn’t focus on this state-individualist relationship, at least to the degree of critique, because it either favored a general state view or eventually ended up in a kind of quietistic apoliticism, rather thinking about friendship, narratives, and a kind of nihilistic self abandonment.
So on the one hand we have the Milbank critique which is a major achievement and step forward in my book. On the other the negative tendency towards romanticism of the past and the reality that market capitalism and liberalism have brought the most people out of poverty of any political-economic system. A badge of honor libertarians proudly wear and are right to point out.
Which leaves us if we would eschew the romanticism of the past as well as the naive sunny belief in free market liberalism (i.e not seriously take to heart Milbank’s critique) with a profound paradox, the one which I think is the central political and social question for our day.
That paradox is:
Market economics and liberalism are both the greatest political and economic achievement in human history to date and simultaneously the very thing that is preventing the further evolution of human social and political relations. And worse is taking us careening towards some very dark and potentially catastrophic futures.
Capitalism as Rushkoff said is in bondage to corporatism. The politics of true freedom is held captive by liberalism. And yet the past alternatives are not to be romanticized.
The only thinker I can think of willing to live in that paradox and accept both of its truths might be Jurgen Habermas.
For those interested, a better piece to read than Blond’s (at points) hyperventilation is this one on the politics of paradox (or perhaps the paradox of politics) by Milbank.
* Though Mibank has his own romanticism with his rather out-there quest to overthrow the nominalism of western secularity and restore Thomas Aquinas’ realism. A nominalism which Milbank blames on Duns Scotus. For those keep track at home, I just got a Duns Scotus reference in.