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Red Tory: liberalism and liberty

For this blog post I thought I’d give a quick review of the book Red Tory, which has thus far been quite a success, and elicited many reviews either side of the pond. To my mind, the American response has been much more thoughtful than the reception received here in the United Kingdom, where reviews have quite often centred on challenging the bolder claims with a raft of statistical porn, rather than engaging with the real meat of the argument. Of course, there is an irony in this: the socio-cultural elite that Blond claims profits most disproportionately from liberalism seem to have responded by saying that things can’t be all that bad because their life is quite nice actually, thank you very much, before hurrying off to find excel charts to prove it. Which, in its own way, neatly demonstrates the point

Anyway, to get on to what I think is the central issue Red Tory seeks to address (this account will necessarily leave certain things out, for which I apologise)…

For Blond, the contemporary embrace of liberalism has brought with it the slow erosion of authentic liberty, both socially and economically. In the social sphere, Blond maintains that it is the left that have been the most zealous of converts, pursuing a private libertarianism based, perhaps paradoxically, upon a radically right-wing account of the individual. The intellectual grounding for this move comes in the form of Rousseau and the liberal tradition that descended from him: Rousseauian liberalism is charged with cultivating an atomised individualism that mitigates the claims of the social in the name of personal liberty. As such, those external influences that once situated and directed individual behaviour and lifestyle became depicted as unwarrantable limitations on the freedom of the individual, the repudiation of which has lead to the hedonism of centre-left accounts of ‘freedom’.

Thus, Blond contends that the social vision of the left is premised upon little more than the absolute sovereignty of individual agency, in pursuit of which traditional social, cultural and moral constraints have been dissolved, a private libertarianism that requires an authoritarian state to police it. The need for such an overbearing external authority is simple: if there exists no legitimate source of authority beyond the individual will, then the maintenance of order has to come from an authority contracted out specifically for this purpose, an authority that has an absolute monopoly on social control. For Blond, the irony is that this authority, as with the Rousseauian notion of the ‘general will’, does not for the social liberal appear oppressive because in truth it is little more than a macro-level reflection of the social liberal himself: its mandate is simply to uphold the absoluteness of liberal accounts of individual freedom. Thus, in a time of frenzied commitment to personal ‘freedom’, liberalism has delivered an almighty state apparatus that rigidly and robustly upholds the primacy of liberal thought itself, and acts rigorously against those who counsel against it. This is a trade-off that social-liberals think worthwhile: after all it is state authoritarianism that delivers their agenda, and state authoritarianism that scrupulously preserves it.

However, it is not just in the persecution of dissenting voices that the intimate relationship between social liberalism and state authoritarianism has eroded genuine liberty, and here we move on to the second aspect of Blond’s critique of social liberalism. For Blond, the consequences of social liberalism have most dramatically affected the life chances of the poorest, who are least capable of absorbing the pernicious consequences of the widespread familial, marital and social breakdown that the ‘social revolution’ has brought with it. Rather, it is those already in a position of strength who are better able to mitigate the side-effects of their new found ‘freedom’, by calling on reserves of wealth and social position simply unavailable to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. As such, the social underclasses can no longer compete with their more empowered counterparts, as the complex social fabric that once provided both safety net and ladder has been rent apart by the sterile individualism of social liberal thought. Here, Blond is drawing upon a rich vein of conservative thought, from Burke, to Belloc, to Chesterton, with the latter perhaps putting it most pithily: ‘Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else.’

The dramatic inability of the poorest to compete on equal terms in contemporary society, and the gradual dissolution of those social and filial ties that cultivated a certain socio-economic resilience in the poorest communities, provides the link to the flip-side of Blond’s critique, that being the economic neo-liberalism that has destroyed genuine economic autonomy. Following in the footsteps of Hilaire Belloc, Blond maintains that the poorest have become fodder to capitalist interests, who in return for locked-in labour agree to provide the welfare support demanded as part of the exchange. Thus, welfare and waged labour are two manifestations of contemporary servitude,  and help cement the power of the capitalist classes over the contracted labouring classes. The intimate relationship that has flourished between statist governance and big business is in reality little more than an expression of this status quo: the latter can deliver the social agenda of the former, whilst the former can in return structure the social to better service the interests of the latter. Here, the market apes the state, and vice-versa.

So it is that, for Blond, neo-liberal economics has become little more than the demand of the plutocracy to dissolve those regulatory constraints that seek to protect a plurality of interests. ‘Free-marketeers’ thus campaign vigorously for the freedom of the powerful to distort the markets according to their own whim and fancy, and maintain, having already accepted the economic servitude of the multitude as normative, that this is in the best interests of the many. Accordingly, it is the charge that neo-liberal economic systems have entrenched a monopolist economy that, having purchased its power through its contract with the state, demands that market freedom be oriented to the interests of only itself. The result is not freedom, but continuing disenfranchisement in the name of freedom, as more and more lose their economic autonomy and approach the market as waged consumers rather than as genuine producers.

As I hope that very quick whistle-stop tour demonstrates, what we have on both sides of this critique is nothing more complex than this: liberalism erodes liberty. It destroys it in the social realm, because it embraces state authoritarianism as the upholder of its account of freedom, a freedom which institutes a bourgeois individualism the consequences of which are most harmful for the poorest – leading to a loss of both social and economic liberty. Equally it destroys liberty in the economic realm, because it defines freedom as the unencumbered sovereignty of the powerful to dominate the markets as they see fit. The endless alternation we see today between market and state (or by the false caricatures of right and left) is thus the false illusion of difference: on Blond’s account, both disenfranchise, and both are complimenting sides of the same stifling burden.

At root, then, Blond’s account of liberalism appears to be as much a statement on the unjust appropriation of power as it is about the erosion of liberty, with the suggestion that liberalism orders society toward the benefit of the powerful, dismantling those social safeguards that once constrained power and in so doing leaving the weakest acutely vulnerable. That is, liberalism draws power vertically upwards, and places it in the hands of those at the top of either the state or the market (or, quite frequently, both).  As such, Blond’s dual analysis of both economic and social liberalism implicates the plutocracy as much as the socio-cultural oligarchy, and accuses both of employing emaciated accounts of ‘freedom’ as a means of fashioning a world that more completely reflects and serves their own interests. And they’re both willing to push on to more and more domination of others in order to achieve it.

And I’ll leave it at that for now, though I might well return to it again soon – there’s plenty to explore.

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