A couple of you have pointed me to this wonderful piece of news from that collection of wet and windy islands euphemistically known as the ‘United Kingdom’:

Academics will study the “big society” as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a “significant” amount of its funding on the prime minister’s vision for the country … It is claimed the AHRC was told that research into the “big society” was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.

Unlike the general doom and gloom, digust, anger and despair it seems to have caused, I reckon this is a great piece of news. Why? Since AA and I have already been working on this topic for a while, we feel like we are in the box seat. So I’ve come up with a research proposal that – a little counter-intuitively perhaps – includes Messrs Philip Blond and Alasdair Maclagan.

Title: Lenin and the Big Society: In Search of the Bourgeois Utopia of Red Toryism (a project also known as Maclagan and the Blond Boer).


1) Maclagan will seek out Gandalf in the misty woods of Nottinghamshire, hoping to make spiritual contact with his theological master, J.R.R. Tolkien.

2) Blond will undertake an exhaustive study of his family tree in order to identify his hobbit forebears.

3) Boer will engage the elves, making use of elvish magic to clone Lenin from his mummified corpse, so that Lenin himself may join the research group.

4) AA (and VM/BY) will ensure the whole project maintains the highest level of scientific integrity.

Picking up an earlier promise:

Red Toryism as a bourgeois utopia? I want to suggest that on top of a supposed return to conservative values, or even dipping into the tradition of Roman Catholic fascism (via Chesterton and Belloc), the determining feature of Red Toryism is its bourgeois foundation. The way into that argument is via Lenin’s critique of Narodism (or ‘populism’) of the late 19th century.

The Narodniks arose in the 1860s and 1870s in Russia, especially after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. They argued that capitalism was evil, especially in its international variety, and that Russia could avoid capitalism by focusing on the rural community – the famed ‘village commune’ (mir or obshchina). In this wonderful village could be found cooperation, communal values, virtue, the absence of exploitation and of capitalist relations. Indeed, they argued that the small peasant producer was far more efficient than the large capitalist estate with all its machinery and farm labourers and so on. In short, the source for socialism in Russia lay in emphasising the village-commune, overthrowing the autocracy and spreading peasant values throughout society. So enamoured with the village-commune and rural life were the Narodniks that they spent time learning peasant customs and dances, wearing peasant clothes and cooking peasant food.

The catch: the Narodniks were not peasants at all but bourgeois intellectuals. The village-commune was an ideal that hardly lived up to reality – as they found with the infamous ‘going to the people’ in 1874. The Narodniks went to the countryside to teach the peasants how to bring in socialism. No-one was interested. So the Narodniks decided the peasants were stupid, lazy and superstitious, requiring intellectuals to teach them the correct path. It’s a bit like the bourgie couple that takes a drive in the countryside, finds a cute village, sits in a cafe for a while muttering about how beautiful it all is, and eventually meanders into the real estate office to check out property prices – only to find that the locals are suspicious of them and that all the others in the real estate office are bourgeois visitors like themselves.

Lenin devotes a great deal of space in his early pieces to critiquing the Narodniks. He tackles the economic arguments and shows that the fabled village-commune has always been the basis for exploitation, that small producers are far less efficient, that the dialectic of capitalism is to break up the encrusted patterns of feudal oppression. Lenin isn’t stupid, so he does not write the Narodniks off completely. He appreciates their role as early socialists, he admires the desperate bravery of the Narodnaya Volya (‘People’s Will’) assassination group, and he also traces the subsequent influence of their ideas on the Socalist-Revolutionaries and Trudoviks.

All along, the deep problem of the Narodniks was their class base. The idealised rural village, the dreams of communal lives of virtue and cooperation, the effort to find an alternative path to socialism – all these are part of a bourgeois utopia. The outcome: when a limited parliament was established by the tsar after the 1905 revolution, those influenced by Narodnik ideals were all too ready to do deals with the bourgeois parties, especially the Cadets, or Constitutional Democratic Party.

The analogy with red toryism is remarkably close. Supposedly a return to progressive conservative values and opposed to liberalism, red toryism valorises the local over the global, family over its discontents (gays, single parents, promiscuity), virtue over cynicism, common custom over bland commercial labels, the communal values of the ‘big society’ over the dreadful effects of trans-national capitalist exploitation. And yet, with the 2010 ‘victory’ of the ConDem coalition in the UK, red tories – notably Philip Blond and Alasdair Maclagan – have become apologists for one neo-liberal policy after another.

A contradiction? A betrayal of the earlier espousal of conservative positions? Not at all, for like the Narodniks, the red tories are primarily bourgeois intellectuals. The local community was always a bourgeois utopia for this lot, so much so that they couldn’t give a damn about any community. Instead, with their class basis, they were always going to revert to type and do deals on any bourgeois/neo-liberal project.

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.

Is it just me, or are we in a season of stunningly stupid political developments:

1) Australia: the new conservative party (which used to be called the liberal party) takes an official position denying climate change.

2) Australia: Nick Minchin, former senate leader of aforesaid party, denies that both passive and active smoking are bad for you.

3) Australia: in response to the boring and widely praised budget by the Labor government, Tony Abbott, leader of the former liberal party, and Joe Hockey, finance spokesperson for the same party, state that there was no recession in 2008-9 or indeed global financial crisis, that it was all scare-mongering to justify stimulus spending. Must be something in their coffee.

4) UK: the conservatives and liberals form an alliance after swearing the abyss between them is impassable,  all of which shows that the political caste is really only interested in its own preservation.

5) UK: the red tories have come out in support of liberalism, which has until now been the source of all evil. In the process, both red tory and radical orthodox proponents – Alasdair Maclagan, John Milbank, Phillip Blond et al – have lost any shred of credibility they might have had.

6) New Zealand: the prime minister, John Key, states – in the midst of land claim negotiations –  that he is happy to be having dinner with the Ngati Porou rather than Tuhoe, since in that case he would be dinner.

The people have spoken, but we don’t know quite what they have said.

Ed Miliband, Energy Secretary

Fuck, I am enjoying myself with the British election and its aftermath. Complete disaster from a leading world ‘democracy’, people shut out from voting, all these men in business suits scrabbling for power. But the greatest pleasure is the pile of egg on Philip Blond’s face. End of an era, he prophesied, the death of liberalism, the birth of a new society under the oh-so-private-school-I-have-a birthright-to-power Cameron. In an apocalyptic frenzy that was really a reflection of the UK election cycle, Blond and his blue labour backer, Alasdair Maclagan, must really think that Cameron is about to sell his soul to the devil: a deal with the wet-lettuce Clegg, a Liberal democrat, the purveyor of all that has led us to the edge of doom. Plus, you’ve gotta love the Vulgar Marxist’s entertaining posts while the vote was unfolding.

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.

Soon to come out in the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, a pre-publication of our piece on Red Toryism. Some reading while I am away from those blanketing waves of  internet and mobile-phone connectivity.