July 11, 2009
(Cross-posted at Post Right)
It’s probably a bad idea to get into the habit of linking as heavily to the Times as I have been in the last few week, but, I was really quite impressed by this weekend’s profile of David Cameron… Go take a peek:
Conservatives — or Tories, as they are also called — are counting on Cameron to rescue them from the ideological confusion and public contempt that has been their lot since New Labour, behind Tony Blair, drove them from power in 1997, handing the party its worst drubbing since its founding in the 1830s. Tories have spent 12 years mulling over, and fighting over, a version of the problem that now confronts American Republicans. Cameron’s rise has led some conservative thinkers in the United States, notably the Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, to suggest that Republicans follow his lead. Speaking to Charlie Rose in April, Brooks described Cameronism as the “natural alternative” to the “technocratic” politics of Barack Obama and summed up Cameron’s philosophy this way: “You’re going to champion the technocrats in government; I’m going to champion every other institution in society, whether it’s family, career associations, the church — every other association you can think of.” A pragmatic kind of communitarianism runs through a lot of Cameron’s policies. His advisers, particularly the party’s shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, argue in defense of local institutions, from schools with competitive enrollments to small post offices, whose contributions to community cohesion don’t appear on the bottom line and are often invisible to orthodox Thatcherites.
At times I’m inclined to agree with Brooks that the Cameron-model may be the only real alternative open to the Republican party in the age of Obama and Palin. If the big business/big government model remains effectively dead, Paul-style libertarianism stays vibrant but fringey, and the Dems succeed in positioning themselves as the party of bureaucratic competence, then the kind of broad-minded communitarian ethos represented by someone like Cameron might very well have a chance. That is, of course, provided they can find the right leader for it, a mighty big if indeed.
And that leadership vacuum is hardly the biggest problem faced by those sympathetic to Cameron’s thinking. Maybe the biggest issue is the danger that those ideals would amount to nothing more than another stale rehashing of compassionate conservatism, only this time with a communitarian gloss. Granted, the last time we contemplated the dreaded double-Cs, they were completely derailed by Bush’s foreign misadventures, profligate spending, shameless pandering to social issues divorced from concrete institutions, and generally lame policy approach. That said, it seems the repeated failures of similar policies in the American scene are reflective of the fact that Americans just aren’t given to serious communitarian policy agendas… For all the civic vitality that characterized our early history, we’ve really wandered far from the place where those organizations play a significant role in our lives, and that ideologies based on them can inspire political action. (The obvious exception here being churches, but as Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone, if we take their vitality in the context of our broader civic decline, their growth is more indicative of the system’s failure to provide other outlets than indicative of genuine growth of social capital.)
The other problem, and to my mind the one most likely to damn an American Cameronism from the get-go, is the gulf separating our political situation from that of Britain. Cameron’s policies, for better or worse, are being articulated against a functional if debt-ridden welfare state with a working health care system, some measure of a social safety net, and a history of state involvement in civic life. The questions that American politics is faced with right now drive primarily in the opposite direction, namely, how to get a functional health care system, solve educational dilemmas, and construct a energy system not based on the impoverishment of future generations, all of which have been construed primarily as government’s problems and will likely remain so. Moreover, the primary issue we share with Britain, debt, won’t be solved by anything other than cuts in government and tax hikes, both of which fit comfortably into existing (or reviving) political categories. To me, it seems these differences pose an insurmountable barrier to Republican absorption of Toryism’s better impulses, and barring some radical shift in the American situation, I see little chance of any serious communitarian options emerging in the next few years, though I wish it weren’t the case.
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.
May 5, 2009
David Brooks sees a problem in the GOP’s obsession with cowboys. Namely, that cowboys need towns to have a story, and the GOP doesn’t really have any concrete policy points for the town (and city!) crowd:
If the Republicans are going to rebound, they will have to re-establish themselves as the party of civic order. First, they will have to stylistically decontaminate their brand. That means they will have to find a leader who is calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable.
Then they will have to explain that there are two theories of civic order. There is the liberal theory, in which teams of experts draw up plans to engineer order wherever problems arise. And there is the more conservative vision in which government sets certain rules, but mostly empowers the complex web of institutions in which the market is embedded.
Both of these visions are now contained within the Democratic Party. The Republicans know they need to change but seem almost imprisoned by old themes that no longer resonate. The answer is to be found in devotion to community and order, and in the bonds that built the nation.
To me, the operative question, as Brooks mentions, is that the Right does not understand the communities of cities in the way it intuitively understands the communities of small towns, and thus is lost when it comes to civic virtue. The city through their lens is contradictory and largely negative: its a place for the thriving of free-enterprise, a place riven with contradictions arising largely from government failures to encourage the markets, a place incapable of becoming the Real America because it is so dominated by cowboys and bureaucrats and so lacking in real people, a place where ethnicity plays a constant role and where communities are innately in flux. What they fail to see, by and large, is that cities have much more diffuse but equally present communities which can be quite strong, which often can be augmented by good policy decisions, and which can be a foundation for the stability the country needs.
Now all of this wasn’t a problem for the GOP so long as their electorate was distributed between small towns and suburbs in the West and Midwest, huge swaths of the South, and enough of the coasts’ urban areas. But as the country becomes more urban, more racially diverse, and more divided by class contradictions, the GOP will have to come up with some way to speak to precisely the groups Brooks lists, the young, the middle class, and the upper middle-class, all of whom are increasingly concentrating in urban areas. As much as the branding problem Brooks points to is about personality, it is also about location: Obama is fully comfortable in the urban milieu, and can speak the language of that milieu far better than any major Republican figure, especially the likes of Sarah Palin or even John McCain.
And I think that may be the ultimate test for the Republican part in the coming years: whether or not it can get past the language of the cowboy, and even the townsfolk, and learn to speak in the language of the neighborhood.
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.