Blond at Georgetown

Your faithful correspondent donned a collared shirt and ventured into Georgetown last night to listen to Philip Blond’s presentation on “Red Toryism” (Blond’s Wikipedia entry is here; the Porch has a good introductory post here). Blond’s ideas have attracted a murderers’ row of the League’s favorite bloggers, so I thought I’d (briefly) summarize his presentation and offer a few thoughts of my own.

As I understand it, Blond’s argument goes something like this: Both the political Left and political Right have embraced a philosophy of radical liberal individualism, which undermines civic virtue and communal solidarity by valorizing individual choice above all else. Consequently, our political system oscillates wildly between government encroachment and radical deregulation because political rights have become wholly contingent on our relationship to the state. Blond seeks to revitalize conservative politics by restoring what he terms classical liberalism, which emphasizes civic virtue, subsidiarity, and explicitly moral political goals that go beyond maximizing choice. In the realm of ec0nomics, Blond calls for breaking up “corporate oligopolies,” local competition, and encouraging poor and working class citizens to become “stakeholders” in the economy (shades of Bush’s “ownership society?”). In the realm of politics and civic life, Blond stressed the importance of civil society and spoke out in favor of radical decentralization, a concept he explicitly links to Catholic subsidiarity.

Despite my nasty libertarian streak, I found a lot to like in Blond’s talk, particularly in his enthusiasm for decentralization and local competition. My only quibble is that while Blond’s diagnoses are often compelling, his proposed solutions are sometimes less so. When talking about the importance of political subsidiarity, for example, Blond spoke of “giving democracy back to the streets,” which sounds more like a Students for a Democratic Society slogan than a concrete political program. “Driving capital to the periphery” and decentralizing our financial system sound great in theory, but I’m still left to wonder how economic subsidiarity works in practice. One important caveat: I’m new to Blond and was late to the lecture, so my first impressions may not do justice to the Red Tories’ program.

Blond’s philosophy also seems better suited to cultural renewal than, say, political or economic reform. His most compelling examples of Red Toryism in action – A Birmingham neighborhood taking back the streets from pimps and drug dealers; the persistence of Northern Italy’s artisan economy – struck me as the result of cultural factors that aren’t easily replicated or recreated through state action. When we do transmogrify a cultural agenda into a political one, the results are sometimes messier than anticipated, which may have been what Ross Douthat was getting at when he asked Blond about the parallels between his philosophy and Bush’s compassionate conservatism at the end of the presentation.

One last observation: Blond spoke movingly of the plight of poor and working class citizens stuck in low-wage service jobs with no prospects for social mobility. His economic vision stresses the importance of creating stakeholders – skilled artisans, small businesspeople, and so on –  who feel more invested in their communities. This reminded me of the American experience after World War II, when millions of returning GIs received free college educations and federally-backed homeownership loans helped create the American middle class. But while these programs were largeky  successful, they’re not exactly models of decentralized governance. Is Blond willing to compromise or moderate his small government sympathies to create new economic stakeholders? I ask because state efforts to create or impart social capital – from public schools to the Federal Housing Administration to Bush’s compassionate conservatism – are rarely characterized by decentralization or subsidiarity.

Exit question: Is liberal society, as Blond suggests, fundamentally dependent on older traditions, cultural practices, and civic institutions? Does radical individualism undermine these institutions? I know Blond isn’t the first to make this argument, but his prognosis was both unusually grim and surprisingly persuasive. I’d be curious to hear what the League’s commenters and contributors have to say on the subject.

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24 thoughts on “Blond at Georgetown

  1. I didn’t think this was muddled; I thought it was good.

    I would say Blond is really more in the tradition of republicanism (small ‘r’), historically called civic humanism or civic virtue. Sometimes (I think rather badly) called communitarianism. Also sometimes called left-wing conservatism. This strand of thought has basically lost out to all forms of liberalism:

    State liberalism: progressives/New Deal liberals
    Conservatives: corporate liberalism, anti-Welfare State liberalism
    Libertarianism: individual choice liberals, freedom as primary political motive liberals

    I’m reading Michael Sandel right now who makes many of the same arguments, so I’ll have more to say on that next week.

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  2. I’m not sure they traditions have to be “older’ per se. Then we might end up in social conservatism. But I do think minus some cultural practices, the individual valorization element of liberalism does need a counterweight in republican theory-practice. Absent it that it does isolate, marginalize, and alienate people from one another which in the end I think has deleterious consequences.

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  3. “Is liberal society, as Blond suggests, fundamentally dependent on older traditions, cultural practices, and civic institutions? Does radical individualism undermine these institutions?”

    I find the choice of language here interesting. Blond asks if a liberal society is “dependent on” older traditions and not if a liberal society is “the product of” older traditions. Blonds choice of phrasing here I think is key to understanding the foundation of all traditionalism. The older traditions here are completely static whereas the other phrasing implies that traditions are dynamic. Without knowing exactly what older traditions, cultural practices, and civic institutions he is speaking of one can’t really answer that question. If particulars were given I think we’d find that these traditions, practices, and institutions haven’t been as static as Blond’s phrasing suggests. If we make the leap from dependent on to evolved or developed from this claim looks like it could be accepted by anyone and essentially not saying anything at all.

    The next question is also interestingly phrased. Why radical individualism and not individualism? Is it only individualism in its most radical form that is a threat or individualism as such? If that difference is important what does it look like in the real world? It also seems to exclude the notion that individualism or radical individualism is not something that exists alongside but is in fact a product of these institutions. Why?

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    • Dan –

      Blond isn’t a collectivist, which is why he explicitly describes himself as a “classical liberal.” When he refers to “radical individualism,” he’s critiquing a society that views personal choice as the ultimate public good. But clearly, his vision of civil society leaves plenty of room for individual autonomy.

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      • Will,

        Thanks for the clarification but I can’t help but see “radical individualism” as anything but a straw man. I mean where is the society that views personal choice as the ultimate public good? Where are the political philosophers advocating this as a guiding principle of policy?

        The whole thing reminds me of the crusade against “relativism”. It’s seems like a simple slight of hand designed to disparage those who disagree rather than a serious critique.

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          • I’m inclined to agree with Dan H. It’s a strawman I encounter all the time as a professional in the libertarian movement. Our choices are not limited, however, to “government” and “isolated individualism.” We’d say that there’s a third thing, civil society, that grows when government is small, and retreats when government is too large.

            Isolated individualism is a personal preference, but most people, and even most libertarians, don’t prefer it. It’s certainly not what we’re trying to establish as a movement.

            One criticism that might be less of a strawman is that our policy preferences will produce it unintentionally, which (may) be what David Brooks was getting at in his column. But David Brooks would blame libertarians if the sun failed to rise, so I’m not sure how seriously to take him here either.

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            • I’m frustrated because I really want to take folks like Blond seriously but can’t with the kind of things Jason points out. The people who take a lot of the foundational issues of Blond seriously, and who do the most interesting work in political theory are guys like Cavanaugh (an Anarchist) and McCarraher (A Marxist). It’s no coincidence in my mind that they are both Catholic and both fierce critics of pluralism.

              The problem with these options however, is that they aren’t selling in the political marketplace so Blond attempts to synthesize them with liberalism. This puts him in the awkward position of trying to sell a package billed as a radical departure from liberalism without actually taking any radical stances. At best it comes off as a rhetorical exercise devoid of substance and at worse it comes off as a pitchman ignorant of his product and the competition. Lenin would have called it an infantile disorder and I think he’d be right.

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  4. Civic virtue should be a given to anyone, regardless of political orientation.

    Having said that… I find my jaw dropping when I hear a new breed of Republicans openly declare their love for the philosophy of Ayn Rand — a person who obviously despises civic virtue in any form. I wonder, “Have these guys ever raised children? Or seen their own parents grow old and feeble?”
    What planet do they live on?
    :-S

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  5. Both the political Left and political Right have embraced a philosophy of radical liberal individualism, which undermines civic virtue and communal solidarity by valorizing individual choice above all else. Consequently, our political system oscillates wildly between government encroachment and radical deregulation because political rights have become wholly contingent on our relationship to the state. Blond seeks to revitalize conservative politics by restoring what he terms classical liberalism, which emphasizes civic virtue, subsidiarity, and explicitly moral political goals that go beyond maximizing choice

    Say what? What he seems to be advocating is not classical liberalism, but classical republicanism, of the sort studied by J.G.A. Pocock, and exemplified by Machiavelli (at least in the Discourses) and Algernon Sidney.

    This is also somewhat different from what I had thought Red Toryism was, so I’m at least intrigued. But I am confused.

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  6. Blond’s argument goes something like this: Both the political Left and political Right have embraced a philosophy of radical liberal individualism, which undermines civic virtue and communal solidarity by valorizing individual choice above all else. That philosophy is also the basis of the economy, right? I mean, I’ve definitely heard something like that philosophy expressed by the political parties. Also by every single advertisement I’ve ever seen. So even if one of the parties emphasized “civic virtue, subsidiarity, and explicitly moral political goals that go beyond maximizing choice”, would it really make any difference in terms of the culture?

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  7. If you missed the lecture by Phillip Blond, it is now available in streaming audio here: https://mediapilot.georgetown.edu/sharestream2gui/getMedia.do?action=streamMedia&mediaPath=0d2117cd27760d9e012788c51caf002f&cid=0d21b6201df9d7e6011e20cfb5eb0052&userFrom=. If you attended, you know the lecture almost demands a second listen. :) Find more about the Phillip Blond lecture and the Tocqueville Forum here: http://www.tocquevilleforum.org.

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