Red Tories and the Radical Outlook

April 23, 2009

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentleman, Chris Dierkes has an interesting post considering the prospects of Red Toryism becoming (a) tyrannical or (b) another lame consumer option.  Read.

The only way I think that form of hegemonic liberalism of the kind Blond decries ever could be dethroned would be a structural matter.  i.e. the decline/fall of the nation-state as the primary means whereby liberalism has been historically enacted (e.g. negative climate scenario/energy shock, collapse of the financial order???).

The best version of a communitarianism I can find (one that so far, though its very very early doesn’t show tyrannical aspirations) is the movement oftransition towns/resilient communities.  This movement is not a top-down led process via a large government. [Blond may have put in his affiliations with the wrong crowd??].  It’s hallmark is its more spontaneous formation and rather chaotic (in the scientific sense) way of being.  Trying to enforce communal spontaneity is like commanding someone to relax: they will try to relax and therefore create tension/stress causing them to tense up.

If Red Toryism ever comes to power it needs to think long and hard about that paradox and whether there is a way not around it but perhaps through it.

Wait a minute. Structural Transformation? Economic Crises? Utopian schemes? Specters over Europe, Batman! It’s implicit Marxist political economy at work again! (Maybe. Bear with me here.)

Not that this is a bad thing, at least in the ways that its usually bad;  in fact, its been a given in most discussions both of history and of radical anti-liberalism, left and right, for so long that its easy to pass over…  I’m guessing that anyone reading this probably doesn’t need to have the Manifesto spelled out for them, but for the sake of argument, we can say that the Marxist line boils down to two core historical/sociological assumptions: first, that liberal capitalism was inevitable given the existing class structure of Europe, and second, that anti-liberal sentiment would ultimately drive in a  Utopian direction stemming from a shift in underlying structures on par with those that brought about liberalism. This outlook, for better or worse, has framed the entire way we understand the emergence of capitalism and often our place in it, and has informed pretty much everyone with any sort of radical leanings.  If there is to be change which truly challenges liberalism, which tames its excesses and rebuilds the bonds the capitalism severs, it must be tied to structural changes in the base of society. Political actions, be they piecemeal or gargantuan, are not sufficient to bring about real change; real change must be from the foundations up, period.

Its a dramatic idea, and its certainly piqued the imagination of many on the far left.  What I’ve really come to appreciate in recent weeks is how this same picture seems to underlie the crunchier part of the anti-liberal spectrum, albeit in more subtle ways;  in fact, the recognition that cultural dissolution is explicable only in the context of consumer capitalism is one of the things that marks off crunchyredtorycons from other branches of conservatism more generally.  

What the crunchyreds are relying on here, though, goes beyond a general recognition of the importance of the economic base to the assumption that substantive change at the level of culture requires a change in the base itself.  The agrarian leanings of many in that wing of the movement are the most prominent example, though there are others.  The question I’d raise is whether Red Toryism need have such strongly radical tendencies. If the form of anti-liberal resistance is to be traditionalist villages or the Dreher’s Benedict option, then we are consenting to the model Marx originated, albeit implicitly.  The ways that Chris is suggesting that the issue be approached seems to entail it; either society as a whole must be transformed (opening up the obvious  concentration of power issues) or we must strike out and find alternative modes of living in which liberalism can genuinely be opposed. Failing this, genuine conservatism will only be one lifestyle amongst others ala the final chapter of Anarchy, State, Utopia.

What’s interesting about this kind of thinking and the historical narrative that underlies it is that it generally isn’t entirely accurate. In fact, in many cases it’s outright wrong. Liberal capitalism, in all its variations, emerged in a scatter-shot manner, and the movements which eventually brought its extremes under control were carried out by a wide range of people in a lot of different theaters using a lot of different means, all attempting to restore some measure of the more humane agrarian order that predated capitalism  (As Polanyi  famously argued.) So if the fear is that the only alternatives to liberalism will be either hopelessly faddish, in danger of becoming tyrannical, or anti-worldly utopian, then maybe Red Tories ought to imagine themselves as playing a fundamentally different role in society, that of the reformer working at multiple levels on sometimes disparate projects addressing problems as they arise in the model of earlier reformers of capitalism, rather than the radical striking off in new and potentially totalitarian directions. At a bare minimum this leaves lots of room for critique and changes of direction should power become concentrated and ensures that the direction is towards society as a whole, not just towards a consumer demographic or isolated Utopian communities. It also puts them in a position to draw on the best parts of the leftist and conservative inheretence, which can be a pretty priceless thing if building up an intellectual synthesis is the order of the day.

One almost wants to say,”The point is not to enforce spontaneous communal action. The point is to be spontaneous communal action.” But the point is to not be faddish, so one probably shouldn’t.


6 Responses to “Red Tories and the Radical Outlook”

  1. R.O. Flyer said

    Good stuff here, John. Digging the blog man.

  2. […] revise it wholesale are not just silly but dangerous and potentially heretical.  I’ve made some attempts to address the latent radicalism in some  Red Tory corners, and I’ll say it again here: Red Toryism will succeed where it conceives of itself as a […]

  3. HC, you refer to several “things” in the course of your post. For example, you mention “liberalism” and its “excesses”, “anti-liberal” and “humane agrarian order”. Liberalism, like conservatism, has so many definitions, one has no clue as to how to interpret your words. Perhaps, and this is a request, perhaps you could point me to a primer somewhere, anywhere, illuminating your particular use of common conservative words and phrases? I ask this because I want to read you to understand your thoughts – otherwise why read you at all?

    If, on the other hand, these phrases are simply dog whistles to your fellow travelers, with little inherent meaning, then by all means, tell me now!!!

    I enjoyed your posts at Upturned Earth, and I’d like to read more of you.



    • H.C. Johns said

      Hey thanks jake, glad to know you’re enjoying the blog. One of the problems of this format of writing is that there’s little place for offering things like basic definitions, which is part of why it can be so interesting and so exasperating at the same time. I’ve been meaning to make a general-statement-of-purpose-kinda post for a while and I’ll probably have one forthcoming in the next week or so where I’ll take a stab at those kinds of things. So thanks for the excuse!

  4. I look forward to your post.



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