Thick Moralising? Red Tory returns fire

No sooner had our piece appeared – ‘Thin Economics, Thick Moralising: Red Toryism and the Politics of Nostalgia’. Bulletin for the Study of Religion 40.1: 16-24 – than a Red Tory appeared out of the woodwork to defend Red Toryism. It is over at Rob Beck’s ‘Sublunary Sublime‘. Alex Andrews dove in for an immediate rebuttal – below – and I chipped in with a comment – also below. Makes it clear to me that the Red Tories need some solid Leninist analysis: Red Toryism resembles Narodism, which developed a classic case of bourgeois rural utopian dreaming. But the likeness aslo explains why the Red Tories have so effortlessly supported the neo-liberal policies of the ConDems in the UK.

SS original.

AA’s reply:

I only just noticed this response, not having been in the habit of regularly googling myself! Thank you for it.

Our response was necessarily polemic and perhaps a little short partly because we were and are not simply intervening in a dry academic debate, but in the actualities of public policy and the austerity agenda that is already having delirious effect on the very possibility of civil society in the UK. From the perspective of March 2011, I think our concerns were justified – Blond’s vision (whether he intended to or not) is providing cover for the wholesale destruction of the gains of the welfare state – including the farming of the wholesale public sector privatisation and introducing the market to an unprecedented extent in both pre-18 education, higher education and the National Health Service. Meanwhile John Milbank, through his journalistic output in both the Guardian newspaper has been month on month been defending Conservative policy – from their welfare reforms, to the Big Society, to their university reforms cutting 80% of the funding of the humanities and so on.

One technical point – Red Tory hadn’t come out when we first wrote the article – so if it seemed to miss some of specificity of his work there, then fine. However, the central thrust of the piece I stand by – and you’ll have to wait until I publish my thesis (which deals with communitarianism such as Blond’s and neoliberalism) to read me take on this.

The dialectic between localism and capitalism I do stand by most strongly. There is a book shortly coming out on this from the Zer0 stable I have been lucky enough to be privy to which has an developed critique of localism that I find highly satisfactory. People argue that localism allows use-value to flourish, and you hear this not merely from Blond but from Marxists, green socialists, anarchists, myriad communitarians, the Telos group and so on. However, I think this forgets that this debate was had out between Marx and Proudhon in the 19th Century. Though I have no problem thrashing Marx for many errors, I think these texts are crucial in explaining why localism can provide no resistance – I suggest you consider them. In addition, the idea that local small scale industries are not exploitative depends upon ore unexamined conceptions – on the contrary I believe small scale industries and even self-employment can be sometimes more exploitative – having worked in small businesses I’ve seen that craft worker spend so much time . I’d add that capitalism, for the Marxist tradition is also entirely arbitrary (Brenner is a Marxist, of course) the result of the class struggle and the triumph of the bourgeois over feudalism. On the entirely arbitrary character of capitalism and the contingency of its construction we can be entirely agreed.

Is it the “centrality” bit you object to? Maybe if we seemed to argue the most important bit about Catholicism was this we certainly are wrong and over-egged. However, I do think RO tends towards an intellectual justification by faith despite its avowed allegiance to the Catholic tradition.

As for the discussion of virtue, I’m a bit busy at the moment to get into the technicalities here. It is something I have put a fair bit of thought to and is in the PhD – I am broadly sympathetic to noting that of the extant forms of ethical reflection, it is by far and away superior, if only that it actually is the way people ethically reason “in real life” – ie its is the ethical reasoning immanent to actually existing social practices even in modernity. This is where MacIntyre isn’t radical enough – he doesn’t see that liberalism is a virtue ethic because pace Brandom-esque “Making It Explicit” all morality is a virtue ethic in form, even if it claims to oppose it (forgive the sketchy thoughts here)! Indeed, as many have pointed out (including Eagleton, MacIntyre and McCabe no less!) Marxism shares a good deal with this Aristotelean tradition of virtue ethics – indeed Marx quite liked Aristotle as is well documented and it aims at some sort of eudamonic flourishing. But I’d add to this, precisely as we did in the article, these notions often were not the result of a communal (and even intimate society) but of abusive hierarchy. Or to cut an extremely long story short – I think the problem with Blond is that the way in which he re-organises the polis (as virtue needs a proper polis for it to work) is all too close to a) the way it looks now b) is pretty similar to neoliberalism described by actual neoliberals (he cites Ropke who invented the term and Hayek who made to its propagation in the book directly!) c) this is all about as threatening to the status quo as dog walking.

Fact is, at the end of the day, I am not in favour of hierarchy, but egalitarianism. If that makes me ‘modern’ so be it. I find it very difficult to believe that an ontology based upon the hierarchical division of the universe would not cause that to be reflected socially.

Regardless of all that my charitable critique of Red Toryism and the Big Society and the Tory government will be given on the streets soon enough! Cheers.

And my brief comment:

I’ll respond in full later, but the crucial issue is localism. I would like to tackle it from the side of my reading of Lenin. In the late 1890s the Narodniks held to a very similar position as RT, thinking it was deliciously radical. Lenin systematically shows it up as a bourgeois utopia fixed on a rural life that never existed. Not only was localism a means for greater exploitation, but the bourgeois nature of the movement meant that it had no trouble supporting liberal positions – so also now, witness the seamless RT support of the neo-liberal programs of the ConDems.

Further, the historical narrative of capitalism that we all tend to favour is based on an anomalous history. Diakonov makes this argument in his ‘Paths of History’: Europe is in the curious position of being an historical anomaly, yet it is an anomaly that has been taken as the norm.


Revised version of Thin Economics; Thick Moralising: Red Toryism and the Politics of Nostalgia

A good number slipped over to Scribd to read the earlier version of the red tory piece, but there is now a revised and thereby much better version now up.