Red Tory

Phillip Blond
28 November 2009

Editor's note: You may have read in the papers that Phillip Blond launched his ResPublica think tank with the blessing of David Cameron. He does not mention OurKingdom in his list of places he publishes so we have brought this out from our archive - we originally published it on the 23rd September 2008 after it appeared in the e-book Is the future Conservative? edited by Jon Cruddas MP and Jonathan Rutherford, produced jointly by Compass, Soundings and Renewal.

Phillip Blond (Lancaster, University of Cumbria): The Conservatives are now in a position to define a post-neoliberal direction for Britain.

There is nothing left in the left. The liberal left is now dominant; and by any objective ascertainable measure this ascendancy has been a miserable and manifest failure. Inequality is approaching levels last seen in the Edwardian age, social mobility is at pre-war levels, and ordinary workers are getting a lower percentage share of GDP than they did under Macmillan. Everywhere the economy tends to the monopoly benefit of the very few at the expense and dispossession of an increasing many. Furthermore, Labour has pursued ineffective authoritarianism at every opportunity, including its attempts to end habeas corpus and recapitulate the power of the executive over judicial and civic authority - not least, perhaps, because of its clandestine cooperation with foreign powers in acts of torture and extraordinary rendition.

The question of why this has happened must occur to those of a more traditional socialist disposition. The answer lies in an original and gradual abandonment of its own key principle: community.

The problem with liberalism

The left-wing loss of society takes place in two stages: the post 1945 embrace of the state and the post 1968 embrace of the individual. This double act of infidelity originates in a coupling with a tradition entirely foreign to the earlier more nuanced communal traditions of civic and religious socialism - liberalism. And it is the resultant concord with liberalism that has helped to produce the real legacy of the post-war left: an authoritarian state and an atomised society. Why has liberalism produced these two outcomes?

To understand this we need to briefly examine the ruinous consequences of the French and American revolutions. Both of course arose from a legitimate critique of absolute aristocratic power. However, the liberal philosophy that replaced a decadent aristocracy produced, as De Tocqueville recognised, the centralised and absolutist French state and American society, where each man is separated from his fellows and 'narrowly shut in himself'. This oscillation between public autocracy and private solipsism occurs because liberalism has no philosophy of community. Without an account of the social, liberalism follows an empty subjective logic of individual assertion and an objective logic of an equally empty enforced universality.

Modern liberalism is committed to the idea that no substantive objective norms exist, and that all value claims are therefore equally subjective, equally valid and equally empty. Liberalism is therefore really a philosophy of power. For if there are no objective limits to human volition (which is all that liberal freedom means), then for liberals will and self-grounding and self-validating choice is all there is. In a society without objective values, will and power become the only source of value. Finding itself confronted with the competing claims of isolated and potentially warring individuals, the liberal state thus takes the only path it can to ensure peace. It enforces a purely formal contractualist and utilitarian order, void of any notion of an inherent good or a guiding telos. This in turn ensures that the price of individual liberty is a purely notional equality, which cashes out as a liberal indifference to difference and the formal erasure of any cultural distinction in favour of an enforced judicial uniformity.

For example, the liberal state claims a purely formal equality without accounting for the real differences of culture, character or wealth. Failing to account for the latter ensures that all substantive issues are left to private contractual resolution - a relationship where the most powerful individual is always dominant. This is why liberal democratic states which promise a formal equality of opportunity are also synonymous with material inequality, the destruction of a plural and a high culture and the increasing rule of unprincipled elites. The liberal failure to think about community leaves less powerful individuals at the contractual mercy of the more potent; just as the liberal state destroys differential communities, as it believes that in order to secure equal rights we all have to be the same.

The state - the first left-wing loss of society

Of course the post 1945 welfare state is to be welcomed on many levels. Indisputably there is a proper and just role for the state, and one of those will be ensuring the health and welfare of its citizens. However, there were unintended but nonetheless serious consequences for the left of its embrace of statism. Over time the more reciprocal and exchangeist working-class understanding of universal welfare became supplanted by an authoritarian state that through claims of efficiency and efficacy rendered superfluous all the intermediate working class associations based around co-operatives, trade unions, churches, local democracy, mutual insurance and friendly societies.

This separation out of managers from managed withdrew power from working-class communities and made concrete the abandonment of the earlier paleo-corporatist alternative: a Christian influenced model of joint cooperation around a common good. Despite this being the original inspiration of the welfare state, the statist view of the new compact prevailed and ordinary people were progressively denied a role in their own institutions. Instead there was a redrawing of the post-war settlement around the oppositional lines of class. Denied power to help shape and participate in shared notions of a common goal for the country and the industrial enterprise, workers were left with the oppositional power of collective bargaining. The promise of nationalisation was a red herring, offering a proxy form of public ownership that disempowered the workers through administrative bureaucracy, and enshrined a permanent managerial inefficiency in industry. With both sides embracing entirely sectarian interests, trade unions and managers were unable to strike a common bargain and create joint notions of investment, wages and profit.

With conflict enshrined at the heart of the industrial order, ineffectual management and restrictive working practices, coupled with ever higher wage demands and inappropriate profit-taking, led to a fall in investment from the late 1960s onwards. Since investment began to fall so did innovation, exports and market share. Against the background of falling profits, British workers began to demand more and more of less and less. Consequently when Keynesianism, which lasted from 1945 to the oil shocks of 1973, finally collapsed it was because the state subsidy for the failure of the British model could no longer sustain itself - the wage price spiral meant that the state had to borrow money to borrow money. Then as we know the miserable pragmatism of Callaghan ushered in the economic neo-liberalism of Mrs Thatcher.

The individual - the second left-wing loss of society

I do not want to pretend that all was wrong in the late 1960s left. The opposition to the war in Vietnam seems just and noble, as does the campaign for civil rights and the advancement and liberation of women. Moreover, many of those on the new left were not cultural iconoclasts they also wished to preserve high culture and extend its benefit to all. However, what requires analysis is how this legacy decayed into mindless consumerism and an aggressive low culture founded on the hedonism of a relentless and mindless sexualisation of culture. A development that has robbed children of their childhood, freed men from any responsibility to women and condemned women to a male model of advancement at great cost to themselves and their offspring.

The victory of economic liberalism in 1979 could not have happened without the New Left's cultural libertarianism of the late 1960s. The cultural politics of the left was (and still is) in covert and complicit alliance with the neoliberal right. Through the late 1960s politics of desire, the left constructed the political anthropology of a wholly self-interested libertarian self. Not content with sidelining the autonomous institutions of the working class through the medium of the state, new left liberals set about destroying their collective culture of mutual and reciprocal virtue. Decrying the white working class as unfashionable, religious and reactionary, decadent middle-class elites looked with disdain on settled patterns of sexual codes, moral responsibilities and extended families. In the name of individual liberty, the avant garde licensed pornography, drugs and sexual experimentation as aesthetic forms of self-expression. But in so doing they commodified the human body and allowed the most exploitative forms of capitalism to shape and define sexuality, desire and human relationships. Such that at the end of the 1960s a new a-social being was created. Self-enclosed and relentlessly in search of glamour and stimulation, this new left creation sought a politics of limitless self interest. Defining all others by reference to itself, it considered any restriction on freedom as a violation of choice and a restriction of will. It was thought that both will and choice should be thoroughly unconstrained, and here we can see that left-wing values were already proto-Thatcherite and entirely neoliberal.

The left was fatally undermined when it embraced equality through the state and liberty through the individual - a paradigm that is liberal in origin and fatal to the idea of the communal. For unless community is thought of as the primary category, equality and liberty conspire against fraternity.

The economy - the Conservative loss of society

Some of what Mrs Thatcher attempted was in hindsight justifiable. It was clear that what passed for corporatism at this juncture was anything but a discernment of the common interest - ineffective industry was being subsidised by the state which in turn was enshrining a model that had already failed. Mrs Thatcher decided to dispense with the entire post-war settlement and side with management and shareholders against, as she saw, it the restrictive practices and unwarranted wage demands of unionised workers. It was an unprecedented rejection of the Keynesian commitment to full employment and effectively ended the wage price spiral of the 1970s. The refusal to bail out this bankrupt model with public expenditure was an important contributory factor in the extended recession of 1979-81. The downturn was exacerbated but not caused by Thatcherism. Macro-economically, an indiscriminate policy of free market natural selection forced each productive unit of the economy to modernise or die.

Unfortunately this was too ideological a conversion to free market fundamentalism, and it meant that much of Britain's valuable manufacturing industrial base and many viable companies were eradicated in the firestorm that eschewed both supply-side investment and a demand-side commitment to employment. Britain had made an egregious error - it had sided with finance capital against all other forms of investment, and needlessly abandoned an industrial base that, though in need of extensive and selective outlay, was capable of modernisation. Between 1979 and 1987, whilst Japanese manufacturing output rose by 67 per cent, UK manufacturing output was at a zero growth rate. Indeed, during the recession of 1979-981 the manufacturing sector fell by 19.6 per cent in the UK and nearly 1.7 million jobs were unnecessarily lost.

This helps to explain how Britain created its desolate post-industrial areas of poverty and welfare dependency. For many working-class areas, socially weakened by left libertarianism and economically exposed as a result of a lack of investment and an oppositional legacy of union activity, this recession was the last straw. It propelled generations of working-class families into permanent unemployment and perpetual poverty. But this was only a local instantiation of a wider economic shift. Most crucially, Mrs Thatcher dispensed with the idea that a nation's private capital surplus should commit itself to the realm in which it was generated. She severed completely the notion of a 'national capital', loyal to locality, community and country. There was a systematic erosion of all subsistent mutual relationships in the national economy.

What conservatives forget, or seem unable to acknowledge, is quite how damaging an entirely individualist economy is to society. A rootless market that focuses only on a profit that it subsequently offshores is, outside of cost efficiency, wholly indifferent to how or where this surplus is produced. An economy so construed disregards all other relationships and in the end undermines productivity innovation and indeed society itself. However this was the ideology that became hegemonic during the 1980s. Notions of mutuality and a shared business ethic were seen as an archaic overhang, a dispensable obstruction to profitability. Thus the relationships necessary for a long-term ethic of work were undermined. The obliteration of work as a shared endeavour is exactly what led to the disastrous target-setting agenda of New Labour, which attempted to manage the resulting and ongoing collapse of British productivity through an intensification of unilateral managerialism.

All of this took place against the background of a rapidly changing political economy. Capital became almost exclusively short-term and speculative, dedicated only to itself and whatever place offered it the greatest return. Claiming that this was the only future shape of globalisation, the Thatcherites decided (and of course New Labour subsequently concurred) that the City of London was central to the strategic future of the UK. Since other options (such as advanced manufacturing) are difficult and require long-term investment, and of course a new compact between labour and management, all of these were eschewed as Britain became an economic monoculture, with much of the domestic economy forced into a deregulated regime of credit and financial services. This had a short-term growth benefit. Credit replaced wages as a means of inflating demand, as Mrs Thatcher restricted public expenditure while boosting private consumption. In a sense Mrs Thatcher was a public monetarist - reducing inflation and wage pressure through restricting the demands of labour - but a private Keynesian - inflating demand by slashing interest rates in half and devaluing sterling - a dual policy which increased aggregate demand and revived a hitherto flagging British economy. But since growth now took place without any 'capital labour accord', there was no basis on which the proceeds of this growth would be distributed widely. Thus, while it can be argued that Mrs Thatcher created a short-term environment for growth, outside of trickle-down economics there was no mechanism to ensure that the proceeds of this growth would be distributed at all.

Under the guise of free market rhetoric Britain began to develop a form of monopoly capitalism, an economic system that hugely benefits the already rich at the cost of the dispossession and expropriation of the poor. Thus, according to the Office of National Statistics, the percentage share of wealth (excluding property, which means predominantly income and savings etc) enjoyed by the bottom 50 per cent of society was 12 per cent in 1976, but by 1999 had declined to 3 per cent, while in 2003 it was just 1 per cent. Contrast this with the top 10 per cent who over the same period saw their share of wealth rise from 57 per cent in 1976 to 72 per cent in 1999.

Mrs Thatcher seemed unaware of the ways in which advanced capitalism can manipulate a market through asset capture, leverage and economies of scale to serve monopoly interests. At the end of her premiership, despite the revival of entrepreneurship the investment base for such activity had vanished; speculation had increased ten-fold, poverty had doubled and the process of the concentration of wealth was systemically cemented. The fact that New Labour intensified these trends speaks only to the ascendancy of the Thatcherite model (now finally unravelling), and to the bankruptcy of the left. Conservatives have to finally draw a line under Thatcherism, for it is the Thatcherite and neoliberal paradigm that is presently collapsing all about us - and it has taken the pale acolytes of New Labour with it. If the Conservatives wish to avoid a similar fate, and if they really want to recover British society and the British economy, they will have to establish a new concord between capital and labour and between the economy and society. To address the current crisis they will have to reach back into their traditions for earlier and more radical 'one nation' solutions, and that, I believe, is what they are currently attempting to do.

The New Conservatism

If socialists have abandoned the social because of an alliance with liberalism, it is also true that the conservatives have extended that individualist liberal legacy by adopting a wholly liberal account of the economic sphere. The fact that both traditions became conflated in New Labour only serves to explain quite why the present government is so awful.

Initially, however, Cameron and his shadow chancellor George Osborne tried to brand the conservatives as a more successful variant of New Labour. They repudiated Thatcherism but only so as to embrace its Blairite correlate. However, a truly distinctive and critical conservatism was starting to take shape, and it was doing so at the behest of former leader Iain Duncan Smith, who had felt the need to produce a conservatism radical enough to alleviate the poverty of inner-city Britain. 'Breakdown Britain' came out in December 2006, and refocused conservatism around a new agenda. The thesis of 'the broken society' (the original insight of Dr Liam Fox) was reborn, to produce a nascent form of the first post-Thatcherite vision of conservatism. A genuine conservatism was born around an account of the origins and nature of this broken society. It is the Conservatives who now wish to resurrect the communal and restore the social. The tory logic of family, locality and civil and voluntary society is a truly radical agenda. Moreover, the attempted restoration of society is founded upon a successful critique of the centralised state and to a lesser extent the libertarian individual.

Practical and institutional plans are still in the process of formulation and construction. The most developed policies draw on the recognition of the damage done to society by the state and they attempt a redirection of funding from an act of central imposition to a response to local need and initiative. In terms of funding and laws, the aim will be to allow ordinary citizens the opportunity to group together under the auspices of a common interest and apply for funds that otherwise would be circulated down the slow bureaucracy of the system to induce another ineffective state outcome. It is envisaged that schools and the voluntary sector will be among the first to be opened up, but this could be extended to other areas of provision. The logic of central support for local government and regional or city ventures will be disaggregated and decentralised down to neighbourhood groups and applicants. On the family more development is required: parental leave is welcome, but more radical proposals, such as allowing the transfer of the marriage tax allowance from a non-working partner to the wage-earner would allow a mother to care for young children. Perhaps most liberatingly, the centralised target agenda of Labour's audit state will, hopefully, vanish. It represents a left Thatcherite elimination of ethos and trust, and has proved fatal to effective management and the wider augmentation of performance.

But if conservatism is to be more than just moralism plus the market, the logic of a revivified conservatism must also be applied to the economic sphere. The development of an economy that genuinely shares the benefits of growth is a precondition for transforming the lives of us all. The primary economic basis of a new conservatism is that all should be owners of some realisable or tradable asset. For an increasing number wages are no longer enough to secure the fundamentals of life. In some diverse and yet to be achieved manner, everybody needs an alternate source of income, be it share ownership, employee share options, or an equity stake in a local mutual enterprise. Conservatives need to acknowledge that poor people are poor not just because of dysfunctional behaviour but also because they lack capital and therefore the ability to invest and transform their lives. So ending poverty must mean tackling income dispossession (perpetually low wages which force people into debt is a form of indentured servitude) and lack of initial possession. Asset welfare could initially accompany and then replace income welfare, and then end altogether, since self-subsistence would have been achieved. Mortgages need to be provided, in a mixture of at-cost loans and shared equity, to the most blighted areas of Britain, to ensure a property-owning democracy extends to those who lack this most primary form of stabilisation and security.

Local economies should be developed and encouraged, rather than the current situation of regional clone towns where every shopping centre is the same. Monopoly capitalism, especially in our local retail centres, needs to be penalised, with differential tax and rate benefits accruing to the producers and retailers of local markets. Likewise, decentred regional and central funds could help neighbourhood entrepreneurs to secure a family business and change a street and its environs. In this regard, Conservatives need to realise that in the end the free market is unpatriotic. A disengaged capital has no loyalty to Britain, its people, its history or its future. Conservatives must recover the notion of 'patriotic capital' - a resource dedicated to a renewed Britain of real investment and widely distributed property.

The current tax burden needs to be redistributed so that corporations and the individually wealthy pay a far fairer share of their income to the Treasury so that everybody else pays substantially less. At the latest estimate, the tax loss to the treasury of the amount held in offshore tax havens by the individually rich amounts to at least £110 billion a year - roughly what it costs to finance the whole of the NHS. The loss from corporate tax avoidance is probably twice this figure. Instead of relentlessly agreeing to big money bidding down the local tax regimes, we could initiate a general agreement on tax - and since we already do this under the auspices of GATT for tax on trade, I see no good conceptual reason (except ideology) as to why similar concords cannot be struck in this area.

Perhaps the least developed aspect of the current conservative renaissance is the most important: culture itself. Conservatism may well provide the institutions and funding for a revival of civil society, and if it limits the state to achieve this, then it might also, to attain a similar end, constrain the market. But what is most crucial is that we have a culture of interactivity and mutuality to fill this vacated space. Currently, with our emphasis on glamour and sedentary pleasure, we wholly lack any defenders of a high culture. Instead we have a debased public realm of constructed gratification and unreflective demand. High culture is high not because of any perceived elitism on the basis of class, but because the better is superior to the worse, and the good is desirable over and above any evil. We can have any form of public space we want, but unless the Conservatives really go back to the future and try to restore a common but high civilization, one that binds all Britons together in a vision of a culture worth participating and believing in, then we will fragment into the self-interested libertarian subjects that we so very nearly already are. A recovery of a national virtue culture is required. One that allows all the different cultures, races and creeds of modern Britain to eschew multi-culturalism and create a new binding common way of life of shared values and higher belief. For it is only on this basis that something called society can be restored.

Phillip Blond is a Senior Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at the University of Cumbria. He is currently writing a book entitled Red Tory on radical conservatism.

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