Red Tory: A New Lament For A Nation

Phillip Blond, the main architect of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s “big society”, is coming to Canada this week.  The timing couldn’t be better as our political parties get set to offer up their competing versions of what ails us and how we might go forward together.

Blond is gaining a lot of attention with a blistering diagnosis of U.K. society that will, I think, resonate profoundly with many Canadians and tap into our growing sense that here too something needs changing and that our current politics are not up to the task. The ideas, laid out in speeches, articles, a new website and most recently Red Tory, a book named for a term invented right here in Canada, are getting picked up by conservative thinkers on both sides of the ocean and are being put into play by Cameron’s coalition government.  Blond’s wide-ranging work — part academic thesis, part political tract, part sermon — is in fact being embraced and vilified across the political spectrum.  It shows, for better or worse, that there is room in politics, even during elections, for big ideas.  But it also shows, I believe,  a troubling trend, a growing dependency on nostalgia as the inspiration for public policy.

First, what is the big idea at play here?  Society, they say, is broken.  The culprits:  the uninterrupted growth of the state, which now reaches into every aspect of our lives, becoming increasingly centralized,  authoritarian and remote;  free market capitalism that has given free rein to greed and to corporations with no loyalties to community or country; and the glorification of the individual and a narrow notion of freedom that has turned us into atomised consumers,  undermining our sense of responsibility to one another.   The results: rising inequality and plutocracy,  loss of community and mutuality, the hollowing out of civil society, and ultimately, the loss of meaning and civic virtue. This is Putnam on steroids.  We aren’t just bowling alone, we are helplessly alone in the face of an increasingly authoritarian state, greed-driven monopoly capitalism and a world of selfish competition.

Little wonder that Red Tory is creating a stir. Here Blond is criticizing social democrats with their faith in the state, and Thatcher Conservatives and Blair’s New Labour with their faith in the markets, and all liberals for their glorification of the individual.  His equation of  Thatcher and Blair raises pretty tough questions about just what the so-called “third way” was really about.  In short, it seems that just about everybody has been wrong and for quite a while now.  And the solution: nothing less than a new politics – “the big society” – in which we recreate community and mutual responsibility, curtail the state and the corporation, and promote local autonomy and social enterprise and a shared sense of the common good.

So, what are we to make of all this?  The diagnosis, even if over the top, will be compelling or at least recognizable to many of us, especially in our darker moments.  We do worry about the increasingly closed, bureaucratized  state that seems not only remote, unresponsive and inaccessible but also more and more intrusive and authoritarian particularly in the name of public security and safety.  And it is an unexpected pleasure to read Blond as he explores the human and social costs of free market policies: the unsupportable levels of inequality, the power and reach of corporations, the interpenetration of money and politics — one could forget for a moment the Tory part of Red Tory.  For Blond, the big box supermarket chain is the perfect symbol of what is wrong here — and he has a ready audience for these concerns.  And surely, too, many of us have worried about how hollow is the narcissism and self-preoccupation of our consumer society and how hard this makes it for modern citizens to find any common ground or  shared purpose.

Some of his solutions, though less clearly spelled out, will have resonance too – the importance of local initiative and control, voluntarism and social responsibility, cooperatives, mutuals, social enterprise, and other forms of association and community self-help.  All this has enormous appeal as it seems to be putting people and their relationships at the centre of things — where they belong.   Blond’s work is brimming with good and important ideas and we ought to be watching with great interest as the U.K. government implements at least some of them.  We are already seeing examples of social enterprise that show promise, and thinkers like Davies have set out ways to encourage mutuals and meaningful employee ownership.   We are also seeing examples of social entrepreneurship where citizens are taking control over issues that matter to them, not waiting for government.  And Blond’s understanding of the need to harness the market and regulate the corporate sector for the common good is a refreshing voice in a neoliberal world.

But notwithstanding its merits, the approach, at least as I understand it, also presents real challenges and dangers.  Its radical localism, its vision of community control of key services, will depend on local capacity which is inevitably uneven,  on new funding models not yet fully developed, and on the willingness of communities to take on more responsibilities, which is not assured.   Most people are already stretched for time and many may not want to become “service managers”.  And, if the state uses these new models to justify deep cuts, localism could easily become compulsory volunteerism or what we usually call offloading. So, for example, voluntary firefighters are important and deserve our respect and support – but they also deserve the best of training and equipment and the support of professionals and they cannot be expected to do the whole job.   We know that community health care and social services are important but they cannot do it all.  They cannot take on research and science, health surveillance, infrastructure and procurement, redistribution, and the pooling of risk to ensure that everybody is covered for care.

Communities cannot do it all and society cannot be reduced to the sum of its communities.  How, in the face of radical localism, do we achieve any measure of trust and solidarity across communities?  Modern society depends on some measure of reciprocal responsibility and mutual accommodation with strangers as we seek solutions for shared problems that cannot be solved at the community level – climate change,  the degradation of our environment, poverty at home and globally.   Bond powerfully takes up the issue of rising inequality and he wants to “recapitalise the poor” so they can break out of their cycle of dependency.  But the risk of radical localism and a weakened state is the perpetuation of these inequalities and the privilege,  prejudice and distrust that come with them.

The radical emphasis on community, taken to its extreme, looks awfully like a desire to roll back modernity and return to the “big society” that never was.  For a country like Canada,  in particular, making local community the centre of action, however attractive, misses the realities of mobility, the growing desire for variety and appreciation of diversity.  It also offers little on the inevitable challenges of finding solidarity across dispersed and diverse communities.  We should welcome the commitment to rebuild a robust and independent civil society but not as a community alternative to the state or as a rejection of pluralism.   Here Blond’s approach looks awfully like other more traditional conservative anti-governmentalism steeped in nostalgia masquerading as policy.

Blond knows that he is vulnerable to such criticism but denies accusations of nostalgia with a simple, ‘the past WAS better than the present’.  But his romantic discussion of poverty before the rise of the social democratic state belies the point.  Bond argues that the state stripped away the self-organizing capacity of the poor, diminishing them and trapping them into dependency.  One gets a picture of bucolic medieval communities where church, charity and community ensured happy, well-adjusted poor, only to be undone by the heavy hand of the interventionist state.  But this isn’t history.   Missing from this picture is any sense of the vulnerabilities, of the expulsion of the undesirable, of the imprisonment of beggars, of child labour and workhouses, and the demeaning dependency on charity typically reserved for the “deserving poor”.  This is indeed nostalgia not memory,  not history — or, as historian Charles Maier put it, it is “history without guilt”, dangerous because it reflects a longing for a time that never was, a sense of loss for something we never had,  and therefore can blind us, in this case, to the limits of community and the important role the state has played in freeing the poor from misery and dependence.  The contribution of free education, universal access to health care, help in tough times, pensions, for starters, deserves more than passing mention that some good was done.  And surely these “intrusions” can’t be seen as having enslaved the poor.

Few would disagree that we must reinvent how we deliver public services, that when badly delivered they can deepen dependency, that we must get the incentives right, that no one size fits all, that we have to find more empowering approaches. But Red Tory’s anti-state rhetoric confuses the picture as does the uncertain idea of a “civic state” where local communities take over the functions of government.  There are promising new models being tried out here and there that could help to make government work better, but the overall thrust of Red Tory is likely to lead to massive withdrawal of state programs, with the nostalgic hope that families and communities will fill the void.  In the end, Blond joins Thatcher in the more traditional conservatism of Edmund Burke. What unites these three thinkers is their belief  that our answers reside in “the little platoon” into  which we were born – “to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affection. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”

And this brings us to the crux of what is most troubling about the “big society” – and that is Blond’s desire to rediscover the true Britishness that has been lost.  He equates this with civic virtue and the common good, a return to some shared idea of the noble life, and he finds this in the past – before the ravages of secularism, liberalism and multiculturalism and the cultural relativism they imply.  He is invoking a time when people knew right from wrong, took responsibility, were dutiful, when the elites had a sense of noblesse oblige, when communities had more control of their destinies.  Was there such a time?  Certainly not for women, or people who practiced minority religions, or no religion, or people who were different or despised.  No wonder Cameron declared multiculturalism a failure.  This is all a part of trying to roll back modernity – to what?  To whose “high culture”?

Certainly, it is useful to debate these issues, to make sure that multiculturalism does not degenerate into  islands of separate communities or a country bound together only by its diversity.  And that means for a country like Canada a significant investment in civil society.  It means state support for those diverse organizations that speak for the otherwise invisible, the marginalised and vulnerable, organizations like Egale, or the AFN and Elizabeth Fry and John Howard and the Civil Liberties Association.   It means support for local, national and international non-governmental organizations to do what government cannot do as well.  It also means encouraging new types of association that can push and prod government and hold it to account, associations that cut across our differences based on democratic values, human rights and a commitment to mutual aid and the peaceful resolution of conflict, associations that do not impose a single version of what it means to be Canadian but bring us together to hash out our best understanding of the common good and how to pursue it, associations that serve not  as a substitute for the state but as necessary ingredients to revitalising our democracy and our citizenship.

I expect that whenever problems seem intimidatingly complex, nostalgia provides some comfort.  We see it in the Tea Party’s rewriting of history that turns robber barons into entrepreneurial pioneers or slave owners into the champions of freedom.  We see it from the left when it reminisces about the days of the great equality movements when fundamental change seemed possible, even close at hand,  reconstituting those days into some idyllic time that never was,  forgetting the missteps and mixed motives.  Nostalgia is a sort of utopian thinking and can be helpful in linking us to enduring values that may be at risk.  It can be an impetus for action – as Camus said it, “every act of rebellion is a nostalgia for lost innocence.”  But it cannot be the basis for politics or policy.

So, Blond is right that we need to rebuild civil society and has some pretty exciting ideas – but just as the state without a strong and independent civil society is an empty shell that serves the powerful, strong civil society without the state is a myth.  While we ought to learn from history, the model of civil society drawn from nostalgia is not the answer, nor is a sense of the common good derived from a romantic recollection of a particular tradition.

But, for all their warts, Red Tory and “big society” are reminders that politics and elections can be about ideas, even big ideas about citizens taking back their democracy and taking on the future.

22 Responses to “Red Tory: A New Lament For A Nation”
  1. Wascally Wabbit says:

    Alex – your summary of what is clearly a fascinating read offers some interesting ideas and possibilties for Canada’s structural problems.
    I tend to look at this from a different perspective – but come to similar conclusions. I have for some time taken a position that cities – certainly the largest cities like London, New York, even Toronto no longer offer the economies of scale that urban architects thought was infinite. Their advantages will very soon be lost as the advantages of clustering around a large scale power source – invariably near water – and are replaced with local power – at the home – in the village – solar and wind – others yet to be invented. Until we find the sustainable alternative to oil / petroleum – I suspect the amount we travel will be totally different in a generation. But the premise of using more local enterprise as the starting point to taking back politics – fits with this anyway. Thanks for pointing us to these ideas.

  2. The recipe is not one or the other, but one AND the other, in balance. Thanks Alex. I appreciate your contribution. As time permits, I will read more of your postings!

  3. Catherine Soplet says:

    Social entrepreneurship can nimbly incubate public policy, on location. Social entrepreneurs cultivate value in community relationships which in turn derive $$’s to meet the metrics of state and market.

    Without connections, there are no neighbourhoods. Without nieghbourhoods, there is no tax base.

    The state’s best leveraging of resources to develop an independent, civil society is via public education. This was Egerton Ryerson’s response to 1800’s waves of immigration, socio-economic disparity, geo-political restructuring and shifts in economic engine. Public education is why Ontario led Canada’s prosperity until the end of the 20th century — there is a correlation to breakdown in equitable access to even delivery of common curriculum and Ontario’s decline in lead since the late 1980’s..

    Inequitable access to public edcuation, and to knowledge-economy necessary post-secondary education, is leveraging the current plutocratic trend. Socio-economic disparity serves nobody, posit the authors of “The Spirit Level”.

    Let’s rebuild neighbourhoods with the idea for “Citizen Apprneticeship” . Let the state incent peer-tutor clusters in public education to pomote language fluency and literacy with value for post-secondary education. Let youth build Registered Education Savings Plan value with facetime instead of $$’s, with federal settlement and post-secondary fudning streams delivered through existing provincial and ddistrict school board jurisdictions.

    I am hopeful that 2011 federal and provincial campaigns will build upon the headlined education plank in the platforms.

  4. Michal Hasek says:

    Thought provoking. Good to address these issues today.
    Thanks Alex.

  5. SherryGreens says:

    I found your post through the twitter feed. I completely agree with you. Pure localism and community control is not the answer, as it ignores the invisible, those that cannot speak, those with “weaker” communities. It does not ensure that acceptable standards of education, healthcare and environmental responsibility are met. However there has to be a balance. For me – I don’t think that governments are as much to blame, as an uninterested voting population who are self-interested in our consumer culture. Really – corporations are to blame, consumerism is to blame, TV is to blame. Many people sit in their houses at night and watch TV, being fed commercial after commercial, while they don’t even know their neighbour’s name let alone are involved in any way in their community. I believe localism is important to bring some of that back, so I am really passionate about supporting local food and local farmers. Buying your food at the farmer’s market connects you to that farmer, and you start to think about his situaiton, and our shared stake in this world. For the goods we do consume – I also believe in buying as local as possible. This creates community connections, which we need to feel really happy. Happier than watching old reruns everynight!

    Great post, it really makes you think!

  6. andre cliche says:

    Thanks again Alex for this other thoughtful subject. I would be interested to know if you think that there are countries that have found ways to make the “social contract” works better between private sector, civil society, local communities and the State?…

    • himelfarb says:

      Merci encore Andre. While I am no expert, a number of relatively less or much less diverse societies such as Sweden and Norway on the social democratic side of the equation and Japan on the other side have been relatively successful in achieving the necessary levels of trust. I think many countries were looking to us to be the model for achieving trust across diverse communities. It would be wonderful to oblige.

  7. Wascally Wabbit says:

    Alex – your last reply prompted me to come back with a further observation. I am not Canadian by birth – but rather – by choice. Growing up in the UK in the 40’s and 50’s – i saw what the social contract could do to rebuild – post WWII. Lend-Lease plus a left leaning Labour government – made rationing and all the sacrifices seem worthwhile. I also grew up in a school and social and religious circles where I mixed and mingled with kids my own age who were displaced from wartime Europe and who were scarred and formed by that experience. I met a second wave of those in ’56 – Hungarian teenagers who matured stuffing Molotov cocktails down the turrets of Russian tanks – and Jordanian kids who related tales of Israeli planes flying low over their homes. I suspect that I’m one of just a few of your readers who can remember where I was when the news of JFK’s assassination broke! When I and my family decided that we wanted to leave England for “new pastures” – we had a choice – of places like Australia or New Zealand – but – in large part because of PET and his Just Society – we chose Canada. On arrival, the wisdom of that choice was self evident – but sadly, over the intervening years – it seems our leaders who succeeded Trudeau have had less vision. My concern (and fear) now is – that we will not find another (or our Obama) in my lifetime!

    • Himelfarb says:

      As an immigrant myself I have always felt that Canada’s distinctive contribution was in the unique way it combined three sets of values: New World values of freedom and equality of opportunity which immigrant families like my own sought and to an impressive degree found; northern values of mutual aid and community and a commitment to real equality that made freedom and opportunity possible for people like us; and pluralism built on a foundation of First Peoples, French and English and now includes Canadians from every part of the world that has required new kinds of association across all of our differences. My concern is that this requires strong government and strong civic society both,a new kind of leadership and enhanced citizenship.

      • dreessen says:

        Wow, Alex, as a Canadian by choice myself, now I know why, when we shared an office in a former life, your discourse always resonated so well with me! Thanks for formulating Canada’s value proposition so succinctly.

  8. Wascally Wabbit says:

    I must admit Alex – I see it more where I am currently living – on an island populated with the fifth and sometimes sixth generations of families who came here in the early to mid-1800’s – and the seven First Nations Bands that welcomed them and helped them through those first winters…

  9. Wascally Wabbit says:

    Alex – having now read both your analysis of Philip Blond’s book Red Tory – and today Lewis Lapham’s editorial in Lapham’s Quarterly – – I have a sense that Mr Lapham has a better grasp of the history – at least from the American perspective – than Mr. Blond – of the evolution of western society to this point – though I have to admit I sensed – as I finished reading – that Mr. Lapham is offering no practical solution to reverse this trend…

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for the link. i agree with you and Lapham. That is why I describe what Blond has to say as “nostalgia”, a false pastoral, a longing for what never was, “history without guilt” – and that is why his remedies are a mix of exciting possibilities and dangerous smokescreens. We need to rebuild civil society, locally, nationally and internationally, not just locally and reinvent government not let it whither as Blond would do. Nonetheless, at least the debate is on.

  10. sunsin says:

    Whenever I hear one of these puerile hymns to the wondrous Volk who never were, the Horst Wessel song begins to play in my head. For all its window dressing, this type of glutinous sentimentality for the unreal and impossible has a definite Fascist tint.

    There is no way back. Or more precisely, there is a way back but now that non-whites and non-Christians and non-males can vote and participate in politics, it’s not likely it will ever be taken, and a good thing too. It is the road to Hell.

    The only question with people who put forward such schemes is whether they are extremely stupid or deeply dishonest. Your description of this ugly piece of work inclines me to the latter. He doesn’t want freedom and empowerment. He wants to be Lord of the Manor again, with us all licking the blacking off his boots.

    • Wascally Wabbit says:

      Sunsin – your comment is apropos and timely. Yesterday, one political party was slimed by a media outlet – in an action most reminiscent of those days in the 1930’s when whole groups of people were socially diminished – without apparently any protest from the public at large.
      The bad news is that these things still occur – that people who are so cynical think that normal folks will not take note and respond or react – that they would in effect acquiesce!
      Apparently not Canadians. I think Mr. Harper was under the impression that his total audience was the rather socially conservative largely rural constituency that Mr. Manning spoke to and collectively brought together to form the Reform Party – but – in order to expand from that limited base – Mr. Harper had to cast his net further and that was his undoing.
      What he has found to his rue is that while people may be conservative in that too drastic a regime change will unnerve these voters – when they are presented with too black and white a scenario – they will be forced – these same folk who may have had experience of other dictatorial regimes – which is why they came to Canada in the first place – to look seriously around for any alternative which is not so paternalistic – they have all seen too many Uncle Joe’s and Adolphs and even Josefs and Fidels to want to be living in yet another such regime in the place they though was the source of the milk and honey!

  11. Ian says:

    I am an air force brat, so I think I have a different idea of community. When I was growing up we moved around a lot. One day I asked my parents ‘where do we come from, where is our home?’. They told me that everywhere that we landed in Canada was our home. So in my mind, Canada is the community.

    The creation of economic redistribution, universal health care, education grants, Canada pension and old age security programs were just some of the many tools created by the community, for the betterment of the community.

    We were a community that was progressive and forward looking until the great neo-liberal experiment took hold. And what is the great neo-liberal experiment? In a word, the experiment is greed.

    The experiment in greed must be extinguished before we can continue down the more human and progressive road that we were on. There is no point in going backwards, attempting to recreate past experiments in greed. We must move forward and create communities free from greed. And that includes the community of Canada. Simple.

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