Red Tory: Liberalism and the loss of liberty

If one fully engages with Phillip Blond's critique of liberalism, and how it has shaped society, market and state, an intriguing perspective reveals itself: one is forced to question the true extent to which the Tory 'philosopher King' has been embraced by the right
Michael Merrick
24 April 2010

Phillip Blond's recently released book Red Tory has thus far been quite a success, and elicited many thoughtful reviews either side of the pond.  As of yet, however, British responses have often tended to focus on Blond's place within contemporary political economy, on where his ideas might slot into the 'progressive conservatism' agenda, and what role he might play in the continuing decontamination of the Tory brand. In reading Red Tory, it soon becomes clear that Blond cannot be pigeon-holed quite so easily, that he already appears at odds with the progressive conservatism of which he is deemed part, and that the Red Tory thesis fires arrows both left and right, primarily because it attacks something that is prevalent on both sides of the political divide: for Blond, it is liberalism that is the chief enemy, for liberalism erodes liberty.

To begin with the social sphere, Blond maintains that the left have been the most zealous of converts to the liberal cause, pursuing a private libertarianism based, perhaps paradoxically, upon a radically right-wing account of the individual. The intellectual grounding for this adoption comes in the form of Rousseauian liberalism, charged as it is 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 led to the hedonism of centre-left accounts of 'freedom'. Here, horizontal ties of kith and kin, culture and tradition, associative ties traditionally recognised as legitimate on both the right and the left, were suddenly the chains from which one must break free, and not the sturdy supports upon which to found progress. 

Thus, Blond contends that the social vision of the left, and increasingly the right, is premised upon the absolute sovereignty of individual agency, in pursuit of which traditional social, cultural and moral constraints are anathema, 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 individual will, if 'society' is an unwelcome and illegitimate regulator, then the maintenance of order has to come from an authority contracted out specifically for this purpose, an authority with an absolute monopoly on social control. For Blond, the irony is that this authority, premised upon the Rousseauian notion of the 'general will', does not for the social liberal appear oppressive because 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 freedom. Thus, in a time of frenzied commitment to '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: 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, for Blond 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 socially 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.'

Whilst this critique of metropolitan liberalism would appear to place Blond firmly within traditional Tory territory, it would be more true to say that Blond is rejecting a social liberalism which, having been embraced far more fanatically by the political left, automatically places all dissenters as necessarily on the right. Yet this characterisation necessarily conflicts with the Red Tory thesis, not only by rejecting the social conservatism that once stood at the heart of the Labour movement (and often still does), not merely by ignoring the radical right-wing individualism at the heart of liberal thought, but also by offering liberalism as the default stance of authentic left-wing thought; if Blond's thesis is correct, and if left-wing politics was traditionally concerned with the liberty of the dispossessed, then liberalism frustrates precisely that empowerment. In short, liberalism is an authentic enemy of the left, not an enlightened expression of it. So that when Anthony Barnett asks, “who on the left is putting forward in a single, overarching presentation, an integrated project to reform the state, the economy and civil society?” the Red Tory reply might well be that until the left reforms itself, its attempted reform of anything else will risk merely enforcing the power interests of the status-quo.

Accordingly, 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.

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.

This message has found far more favour within the contemporary Tory hierarchy, as talk of moralised markets and the mutualised state has offered them the opportunity to counter the dogmatic devotion to markets, whilst simultaneously weaving in their own version of the small state economy, expressed through the somewhat cumbersome title of 'the Big Society'. Yet here, the dangers of adopting Blond's somewhat attractive critique of economic neo-liberalism whilst simultaneously ditching his unfashionable critique of social liberalism becomes clear: on Blond's account, 'society' is fundamentally rejected by social liberalism, meaning that any resuscitation would have to be generated not by society itself, but by the state. Apposite, then, that David Cameron's recent vision of the Big Society includes an Alinksy-esque 'army' of state-trained and maintained community organisers. As such, perhaps Blond's legacy will have less to do with the kind of policy options that William Davies outlines, but rather the urging upon the political classes the notion that neatly dissecting  economic and social liberalism as if they were wholly independent phenomena is not conducive to authentic transformation of either market or state.

In the end, what is offered by Blond appears to be nothing more complex than this: liberalism erodes the liberty of the most vulnerable. It destroys it in the social realm, because it embraces state authoritarianism as the upholder of freedom, a freedom which institutes a bourgeois individualism the consequences of which are most harmful for the poorest; and it destroys liberty in the economic realm, because it defines freedom as the unencumbered sovereignty of the powerful to dominate and structure the markets according to their own best interests.  As such, Blond's analysis 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. Red Tory, then, is as much an attempted statement on the unjust appropriation of power, and the accusation that liberalism orders society toward the benefit of the already powerful, dismantling those social safeguards that once constrained power and protected the most vulnerable.

With such a large target in view, it is little wonder, and perfectly understandable, that some feel Blond to be immersed in the abstract and lacking in the all-important detail. Little wonder, too, that he can find both enemies and allies on both sides of the political divide. On the right, Blond's account has antagonised both the Thatcherite and the libertarian wings, whilst on the left it has provoked both the social liberals and the statists - a significant achievement. Even so, for the time being Blond, fortunate enough to find himself thrust forward just as the old order was beginning to creak at the seams, remains an important part of the political landscape. We shall have to wait and see if this is destined to continue beyond the closing of the ballot boxes on May 6th.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData