Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Despair of the Small C.

It has become apparent that Phillip Blond, the court philosopher of the Conservative Party, is displeased as ResPublica has produced a report entitled Children and the Big Society, which is critical of the 'Big Society' on the grounds that its failing children. The report questions the closure of parks, play schemes and community projects. It suggests that the government should give the people who are effected the right to challenge the decisions being made. An unrelated study on Sure Start children's centres found that 250 centres (7%) will close or are expected to close. 60,000 families will be affected. Staff at 1,000 centres (28%) have been issued with "at risk of redundancy" notices. Blond has said "Our poor record on child welfare obscures the dark reality – the appalling experience that some children endure on a daily basis. Our research found a strong correlation between low levels of trust and poor environment and poor health, negligent parenting, child abuse and low achievement." 

Phillip Blond is the proponent of a radical communitarian brand of conservatism, which he calls 'Red Toryism', the stated aim of which is to deliver power, property and purpose to the kind of communities that have been disenfranchised by the politics of the last 30 years. This is the thinking behind the attack on policy and Blond's recent comments, let alone the recommendations of the report to pilot a number of large-scale community building projects to protect and help vulnerable children. It is precisely the kind of conservatism which is unwelcome in the Whig Republic across the Atlantic where the use of the word "Tory" would raise some eye-brows while the word 'red' would rouse the usual anti-communist fervour. One might write it off as the window-dressing of the most right-wing and cynical government in years, though it is true that Red Toryism is just another fad in the Conservative Party it should be welcomed as a partial return to the politics of ideas at least.

Red Toryism is arche-political in that it is nostalgic for a prelapsarian form of community in which culture, virtue and belief are still alive and well. The arche-politics of Phillip Blond might be summarised as a communitarian form of conservatism, which adheres to an organic conception of society that is under threat from the corrosive effects of liberalism. It is different from neoconservatism which is communitarian in that it is a kind of radical particularism and a descriptive form of moral relativism, which holds that individuals are embedded in communities which provide a sense of identity and moral values. At the same time neoconservatism retains an economic liberalism which is incongruous to an intolerance of pragmatism, cultural diversity and moral relativism. In classic fashion the market undermines all attempts at social cohesion, whilst it derives security from the strong state necessary to constrain the market's tendency to relativism, pragmatism and so on.

The relation of dependence between economic liberalism and social conservatism, with its' fundamental contradiction, is nothing new and it remains a source of disarray in conservative thought. Phillip Blond charges the Chicago School with the responsibility for the monopoly as the dominance of the market. At the same time he maintains that he believes in the free-market to the point that there can be a range of business models in competition and even different forms of market in competition with one another.  So Phillip Blond has argued the case for a civic economy based around the wide distribution of property, assets and ownership at a local level with a strong emphasis on free association. In regards to the Coalition, Blond has recently said "It's been communicated very badly partly because it hasn't been thought through radically enough. I think the great missing middle of the Big Society is the economics."

He went on to add "For me, it's not really about volunteering and philanthropy, it's about changing the agenda for those at the bottom of our society and in my view the Government hasn't really thought through, across all departments, the radical economic implications of that." Blond is deeply critical of the way the cuts are being made, libraries and children's centres are being closed before the right to challenge councils and the right to take them over has been established. It would seem that there is a "competition" between a set of conservatisms in government, which is no surprise, with Red Toryism being kept in the corner as a prop. Blond found the oik's decision to sell Northern Rock to the highest bidder "unimaginative" and argued for a kind of people's Dragons' Den, in which people could bid for money to start businesses and enterprises. Perhaps the man who supposedly sets Cameron's mood music is just another philosophic conservative kept around to remind the free-marketeers that there is more to life than spreadsheets and yield curves.

For Phillip Blond the Right of the free-market has failed and the Left of the state has collapsed because there is an underlying link between Left and Right, which has actually deprived the political discourse of a genuine opposition. He detects the link in the form of libertarianism that underlies asocial leftism and right-wing economism. So we find sexually promiscuous leftists concerned with the immorality of American foreign policy and social conservatives sat in the bath going through page after page of economic data. Liberalism lies behind the Left and the Right, the failures of both Left and Right are the consequence of liberalism which he traces as a "corrupt tradition" to Rousseau. According to Blond the Left is the carrier of the individualist strain that has corrupted conservatism, the only way to challenge the inefficient state and the unscrupulous market is to reassert the notion of society. Thus, Blond is one of the intellectual fathers of the 'Big Society'.

It may seem that conservatism as a party rather than a political philosophy is far more inconsistent, riddled with internal tensions and prone to frenzies. But the problems within the party actually reflect the problems of conservative thought. Conservatism incorporated aspects of liberalism throughout the 19th Century to the point that in the 20th Century it became even more ardent a defender of the free-market than the liberals. Edmund Burke was at the very beginning and his embrace of pieces of liberalism cannot be seen as just part of the adaptive process that took place later on. In the case of Burke modernism and liberalism were constitutive of conservatism. He was always a defender of the rights of property, though no apologist for colonialism, he was a pro-market Whig with no yearning for a bygone feudal era and little respect for the monarchy. Burke took the position on the rights of property that the owners had a duty to "improve" their property, to increase their wealth and thereby increase the wealth of all classes.

So it is not simply the case that the conservatism of '79 was an aberration of a political tradition and it may even be that the Toryism promulgated by Phillip Blond is the anomaly. The irony is that Blond writes of the only two powers left in Britain - the market and the state - is that the opening for the Red Tory comes a direct result of the ideological crisis. The forces of the market depend on the state for intervention, e.g. bailouts, tariffs and subsidy, but actively undermine the state at every turn in a bid for 'freedom' - which can only be maintained by the limits established by the state. The financial crisis led to enormous bailouts of banks across the West, the market had to be saved by the state it had bragged was no longer necessary to regulate financial services. The dominant ideology began to go into crisis and this country we needed to replenish the old discourse. As the rift opened up between individualism and statism a space emerged into which the Big Society could enter, fill the gap as the old ideology could be patched up and relaunched in a more radical form.

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