In Defense of Red Tory Crunchy Communitarian Somethingorother.

May 7, 2009

Well, I see my dear old friend R.O. Flyer has decided to go after Craig Carter. More power to him says I; there’s really nothing better than dueling Yoder scholars. (Except of course, dueling yodlers.) But in the process he makes some rather harsh statements about Red Tories, Crunchy Conservatives, and Communitarians that give me pause. Example:

So, what we have here is a sort of Christian traditionalist anti-liberalism. Although most of these folks know quite well that we can’t turn back the clock in order to abort Scotus’ fetus, they sort of act like we should or that we should at least try to steer history in the direction of a society based on “Christian” values. Now how these folks understand Christianity is highly problematic I think and looks something a bit like pre-Vatican II Catholicism, I suppose. Or, perhaps a time before all of that…a time before the nominalists; a time before Ockham; a time before Protestantism. A true conservatism, in this view, is a sort of reappropriation of medieval economics usually all within the framework of a sort of participation metaphysics grounded in a hierarchical ontology (read Radical Orthodoxy). Let me just show my hand here: such a nostalgia for Christendom is utter bullshit; it is quite simply a wretched reading of history and, frankly, it is Constantinian.

There’s more here.  There are a number of things I can say in defence of the position that R. O. is attacking, a few clarifications I’d like, and a few areas where he’s basically correct. I’ll start with the last and end with the first, in true communitarian style.

First off, R.O is correct to recognize that the bulk of modernity ain’t changing, and that attempts to 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 reform movement, and fail where it proceeds as a Utopian project. Likewise, the refusal to acknowledge that modernity has brought many things to light which are of value cannot possibly construe itself as traditional, since these things (e.g. gay rights) are founded very deeply in both the enlightenment and romantic response. Those who refuse to recognize that those are legitimate moments in the life of our culture have a very limited notion of tradition. One cannot, as Carter seems to think, throw off 500 years of history as if it had produced nothing of worth.  The real question, and this is why I use the terms “right” and “conservative,” is how one should go about (a) moderating the excesses of the traditions we are given, (b) connecting that moderating project with the constellations of meaning given by tradition and (c) ground that project at the economic, cultural, and intellectual  levels.  This approach is quite distinct from Left approaches, particularly those of post-structuralists, but also for the social engineering carried out by urban planners and capitalist entrepreneurs alike.

This brings me to my second concern, which is that there is a frustrating conflation of terms going on in R.O.’s post. To begin with, I tend to see Red Toryism as being distinct from Crunchy Conservatism, and both are distinct from Communitarianism. Communitarianism, as I understand it, is a multi-faceted political and philosophical outlook which holds that tradition and community matter at the meta-ethical, ethical, and political levels and that our questions, our culture and our policy should be grounded in that fact. Given that background, there’s a huge range of positions available, as the differences between someone like Charles Taylor and, say, Alistair McIntyre should demonstrate. I see crunchy conservatism as being defined more by a set of broad policy points (localism, family values,  environmentalism, distrust of government), and attendant cultural attitudes; its more an outlook than a coherent political program, also contain a huge range of opinion and outlook, and is mostly an American phenomenon.  Red Toryism is unique in that it seems to actually have some real political potential in Britain, and yes, has supporters among the Radical Orthodoxy crowd, as well as a whole history of British utopians, socialists, agrarians, etc. who have a very particular view of nature, humanity, and community that doesn’t necessarily jive with American sensibilities. Each of these approaches share a distrust of liberal economics and the culture it spawns, but I don’t think there’s any wide-ranging consensus over any of these issues beyond that starting point; indeed, the difference that exists within that spectrum on an issue like gay marriage should give any easy categorization some trouble. So if R.O. wants to see a continuity between Carter’s invective, Dreher’s anxieties, and my aimless cryto-liberostoiccatholic ramblings, I suppose he can, but I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained by it.

Now that I’ve made my qualifications, I think there are a couple charges R.O. levels that are either unfair or untrue. I’ve already outlined the sense in which this can be seen as genuinely conservative, and why this doesn’t entail rejecting science or some of liberalism’s social innovations. Likewise, the charge that a communitarian outlook requires radical medievalism has been dealt with before. What then is it that R.O is reacting to? It seems then, that the central concern is that taking on liberal society’s excesses from a Christian basis amounts to Constantianism, the capitulation of Christianity’s inherent radicalism to the values and conceits of Imperial Rome.  This is hard for me to address given that R.O. hasn’t fleshed out why he thinks this is the case, and I’d be curious to hear more about it, since it involves us in bigger and more interesting issues. Speaking only for myself, my commitment to Christianity is somewhat limited, and I’m actually rather fond of Roman thinking, so the charge carries a bit less weight than it might for Christians arguing these points, but even given that, I have a hard time seeing how committing to localism, emphasizing a real economy, supporting the existence of families, internalizing externalities, and promoting respect and appreciation for the past amount to the things that word brings to mind. So what’s really the problem here? Or is the charge directed more at Carter than at the political outlook he exists at the fringes of?

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7 Responses to “In Defense of Red Tory Crunchy Communitarian Somethingorother.”

  1. R.O. Flyer said

    Thanks for this great post, John. I’ll work on a more thorough response. I should say that my posts weren’t directed at you, but I suppose our discussions about red toryism and communitarianism have got me thinking more about all of this.

    Your point about a more reformist vs. utopian anti-liberalism is interesting to me. As a matter of fact, I’d usually be much more inclined to hold to a more thoroughgoing radicalism vs. reformism. My concern about all of this stuff being ‘bullshit’ is not so much a judgment concerning the realizability of such a vision (though I have my doubts), but more of a criticism of the naive idea that before liberal modernity everything was way better. I find it particularly interesting when Craig Carter (a Baptist) talks about wanting to go back to the old middle ages. Now, this is not necessarily to make a concession to the benefits of liberal modernity, that is, I don’t think global capitalism is necessarily better than the middle ages. But, I don’t think we should read history uncritically either.

    Also, you’re absolutely right. My concern is all about Constantinianism. I’ll try to post on that soon.

  2. Alex said

    Communitarianism is in empirical reality a dead end for any kind of radicalism, either of right or left. This is because the mainstream political parties have already absorbed it’s insights (supposedly). During the late 90s there was a large-scale take of of communitarian ideas in left-leaning European political parties and the Democractic party in the states. The ideas of the likes of Macintyre, Sandel and Taylor with regard to “thick communities” and “social atomism” as well as their critique of broadly Rawlsian liberalism were mediated through the more policy orientated recommendations of Amitai Etzioni and Robert Putnam. The results were the Clinton adminsitration, but more vitally, in the UK, New Labour, both of which carried on the neoliberal project under a slightly more moderate name and a more fuzzy/cuddly ideological over-coding. See the essay Neo-Liberalism and Communitarianism: Social Conditions, Discourses and Politics by Hans-Jurgen Bieling in Neoliberal Hegemony: A Global Critique edited by Dieter Plehwe, Bernhard J. A Walpen and Gisela Neunhöffer. Sadly people seem to have very very short memories indeed.

  3. Alex said

    The (supposedly) above is not meant to say that if properly absorbed/taken seriously communitarianism would work out fine, but that it was tried and failed because of the gulf between political philosophy no matter how noble and the actual ideological conditions on the ground.

    • H.C. Johns said

      I don’t see how neo-liberal adoption of communitarian language proves anything about the viablity of its policy proscriptions. One variation on communitarianism was tried, it was unserious, and it failed. That is a single instance and you’re not entitled to draw conclusions on that basis. That’s like saying that because the People’s Republic of China isn’t Republican, Republicanism doesn’t work. Clearly it does, but it requires a culture and economics that are friendly too it. So too with a serious communitarianism.

      Look, There are many many other ways a communitarian agenda can unfold that differ significantly from what the Clinton administration tried to do, that are carried out by different groups and that have different levels of success. Part of what I’ve been trying to argue with this blog is that it should be local, ameliorative, and amenable to cultural conservatives. This is some ways out from what the Clintonites sought, particularly with their emphasis on globalization. So I think you would do well to not shove this very multi-faceted round peg into the square hole of single instance judgments.

      • Alex said

        The point is this. The field of power is such that this is going to occur, the power is in the hands of the neoliberals and politics that pays no attention to these structures is going to remain little more than hot air. You can say this is an invalid inference, but look back at the literature, look at Tony Blair’s own writings on the subject in his book on his ‘vision for Britain’, look at the rhetorical tropes, read the article I suggested – it was quite serious, lobbyists even took up the communitarian name. Indeed the very combination of “local, ameliorative, and amenable to cultural conservatives” is very much on the agenda, to speak Blairspeak, the New Labour project was all about ’empowering local communities’, the ‘third sector’ of socially run businesses intended to increase social capital, things which can appeal to cultural conservatives and progressives alike. The politics of the current UK Conservative Party, where the interest in Red Tory analysis is highest, have similar concepts.

        A blue sky politics that pays no attention to the world as it actually is is worthless. How precisely are you going to prevent this happening again to communitarian concepts?

  4. H.C. Johns said

    Okay, so you’ve basically said that nothing can change so long as neoliberalism remains the underlying fact. Granted.

    (A) As we all learned last year, neoliberalism is an extraordinarily unstable system. It could easily have ended (politically and economically) had governments not stepped in. So the theater in which I’m suggesting this is quite a bit different than it was during the blair and clinton eras. In the US at least, you have serious populist anger directed at capitalism for the first time in at least half a century, if not a century, with a concurrent implosion of the republican party only amplifying the political possibilities.

    (B) The foundations of the current neo-liberal order are also due to change, not just in a regulatory sense but in terms of fundamentals. Fuel prices, food prices, and the availability of credit are all going to remain problematic for the foreseeable future. None of these bode well for neo-liberalism. They do bode well (comparatively) for the kind of localized systems I am advocating for. This differs from 20th century attempts at communitarianism as well.

    (C) So I would argue that this kind of politics pays very close attention to the world as it is. We are at a point where the primary categories of neoliberalism are genuinely in question, and the right is going to have to come up with some new ideas. We keep it from becoming irrelevant by making the central ideals of its politics hostile to those who would corrupt it, namely the institutions of globalized neoliberalism that the liberal wing is now devoted to saving. We offer genuine alternatives based on hard economic fact (small local banks fail less, debt is bad, ditto fuel fluctuations, global warming, etc.) and we pursue policies to enable those interests. These ideals can be explained and they are already understood by a wide range of people across the table, left and right. This is a genuinely viable political program this time around, not just a gloss on neo-liberal thinking.

    (D) I’m not just suggesting this as a political project, but as a cultural outlook and an aesthetic ideal as well, as the talk about coherence of tradition should indicate. So even if it is “hot air,” politically speaking, it need not be so in these other fields I’m talking about.

    That said I will dig up the article you mentioned, since I get the feeling I’m not going to be able to answer your objections till I’ve read it. Thank you for the recommendation in any case. If you’re actually interested in continuing the conversation I’d suggest we move it over to longer form blog posts, since we both seem to be writing at some length and my blogging time per day is limited.

    • Alex said

      Thank you for the continued civil discussion.

      I’m writing on this topic for my PHD yearly review and will post at length about it over at my blog, so you can check it out over there. Though I would say that the primary categories of neoliberalism are far from dead – the G20 London meeting decided to shure up the institutions of IMF and the World Bank, the very motors of globalisation. As you note, the defaults are already being re-established.

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