Saturday, October 30, 2010

Why a Republican victory on Tuesday won't solve our problems: An introduction to Red Toryism

As soon as we get this Tea Party thing out of our system this Tuesday--which is simply the attempt to replace one form of political individualism with another--let's talk about Philip Blond and Red Toryism.

Blond, a British cultural critic who runs Res Publica, is an influential British thinker who is closely associated with Prime Minister David Cameron. His economic views, which incorporate Catholic social teaching and the economic thought of Hillaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, are the basis of "Red Toryism."

Red Toryism rejects both the valueless, plutocratic capitalism that infects much of conservative thought as well as the quasi-moralist socialism articulated by the left. The right, he says, is controlled by monopoly capitalism that concentrates capital in the hands of a small economic elite, while welfare state socialism plays its part in the system of monopoly capitalism by trying to redistribute some of the capital of the economic elite back down to the poor and lower middle classes through a huge government bureaucracy. They are the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the capitalist system, each with its captive constituency that returns it to office again and again--and gives each a turn in power from time to time, as is about to happen in America.

There's got to be something more than a Republican Party that takes money from the middle class and gives it to the rich in the form of corporate welfare to assuage it's big corporation constituency and a Democratic Party that takes money from the rich and gives it to the poor in the form of socialist welfare to get re-elected.

Blond is leading a movement in Britain which advocates steering a course between capitalist conservatism, which serves the interests of big business, and welfare state socialism, which serves the interests of big government.

The original proponents of this "middle way" between monopoly capitalism and state socialism were Chesterton and Belloc, who called it "Distributism." They advocated this view from the offices of the periodical the New Witness (later, the Eye Witness). The principles of Distributism were set forth most notably in two books: Chesterton's The Outline of Sanity and Belloc's Servile State. It stressed the important of individual ownership of property as the central economic principle and the institution of marriage and the family as the central social unit.

Many of the ideas underlying Distributism can be seen in the various agrarian movements of the 20th century and is central to the writings of the Kentucky writer Wendell Berry.

A third political way like Red Toryism is simply absent in America, but the possibility of something like it arising is latent in the social conservative movement. Social conservatives play the same role in the national Republican Party as minorities play in the national Democratic Party: they are in thrall to their respective parties, who use them for their own political purposes but in large part don't really have any serious intention of advancing their agendas.

The social policy of Red Toryism, being a fundamentally Christian movement (Blond is a trained academic theologian whose mentor was John Milbank of Radical Orthodoxy fame), is understandably conservative (in the true sense of that word). Blond explains his pilgrimage from the left:
My leftish affiliation ended. Many of my left-wing friends suddenly seemed to me to be right-wing….Despite all their rhetoric, all they really believed in was unlimited choice and unrestricted personal freedom. They seemed in important ways to have been stripped of integral values and to have embraced a rootless cultural relativism…They seemed to delight in abortion, for example, and made a fetish to choose, as if this were a real exercise of human freedom and unimpeded will, but they hated fox hunting because they thought it was cruel.
In America, Distributism is currently being propounded at the Distributist Review, which has recently reviewed Blond's book.

If we're going to have a real revolution, it's going to have to be into something better, not just one of two versions of same political individualism.


Guy Murdoch said...

"There's got to be something more than a Republican Party that takes money from the middle class and gives it to the rich in the form of corporate welfare to assuage it's big corporation constituency..."

I am always baffled by statements such as this. It reminds me of the "seemless garment" idea that has destroyed the political effectiveness of the social conservative movement within Catholicism. By trying to put themselves above "party politics" the Catholic bishops created a policy that meant their moral pronouncements could be ignored if you could produce a prudential argument that, on whole, your social policy could be deemed compassionate. Voila, welcome to fully funded abortions within a (soon to be) government run health care system.

It is also disingenuous to claim that Republicans are particularly indebted to big corporations. Democrats get a whole lot of money from corporations (in some years more than Republicans) and they are much more effective at returning the favor. For example, even when the Bush administration started to get uneasy with what Fannie and Freddie were doing to promote "home ownership" they were pummeled by Democrats (and the press) for being against the little guy. So sure, the Republicans aren't really up to the task of fighting the Democrats, but since not even their friends stand up for them can you blame them?

It would be fun if Republicans could be celebrated as the cool, counter-cultural, avant guard party by being a little bit "red", but responsibility and hard choices and failures are part of life and wishing it were different won't change that.

Andrew said...


It won't work until they have a much better name. Distributism is too hard to say.

Localism won't work for other reasons, though it has a lot to say for itself.

Save the world; name the savior.

Martin Cothran said...


I agree with you on the name. I also suspect you're right that it won't work, although I would also say that it is the only thing that can work. I find it ironic that it is making more headway in Britain, which has become a largely secular country, whereas the United States is still a largely religious country.

Martin Cothran said...


I don't understand your first paragraph. I don't always go along with the policy statements of the American bishops, but I don't see the process by which their positions (particularly the "seamless garment" position) lead to Obamacare (if that's what you're saying).

I agree with you that the Democrats are into corporate welfare now as much as the Republicans, but it is hardly a compelling defense of the Republicans to say that the Democrats are just as bad (I'm thinking of some particularly interesting campaign slogans one could develop from this).

And, in terms of the regular form of welfare, go and look to see who will take over the Appropriations and Revenue Committee when the Republicans take over the House: Kentucky's own Hal Rogers--the King of Bringing Home the Bacon. Rogers is as pure a welfare state Republican as they come.

While Sarah Palin is out rightly excoriating the Obama-led left for their big government policies, Roger's is listening with a big smile on his face as he boxes up his belongings and gets ready to move back into the big office of a committee chairman where he can direct more federal funds back to the fifth district and help other influential members to do the same.

All in the name of "smaller government."

And let's not forget who was standing with Senate majority leaders before the cameras to announce the first big stimulus package: another Kentucky Republican, Mitch McConnell.

Martin Cothran said...


I should also ask what you mean by the term "work" in the statement "localism won't work." Do you mean that it will never get a chance to be tried? Or that, if it could be tried, it wouldn't work? We have tried the two major parties. Do you think that has worked?

Guy Murdoch said...

The seamless garment is not causal, but it did make it possible. The Catholic bishops, nurtured on the seamless garment idea went along with "health care reform" based on "compassion" and Bart Stupak's meaningless amendment. But does the final law allow federal funds to be used for abortion "care", you bet it does. That is what happens when you blur distinctions. And, if you can't get bishops to care about vital distinctions, how can you expect the rest of us to?

And that is my issue with most Distributists/Agrarians/Red Toryists. For whatever reason, they seem to find it necessary to say the Democrats and Republicans are equally bad. But this is simply not true, and it is not true in the same way that the seamless garment is not true. The kind of individualism that Democrats support (abortion, redefining and weakening marriage) is a moral issue with pretty clear evidence showing their destructiveness. The kind of individualism that Republicans support (less regulation; lower, flatter taxes; more power to the states) is a prudential issue. Do these or don't these promote human flourishing? We might disagree, but there is an argument to be had.

So every time Distributists equate Republicans and Democrats they are helping their moral enemy to score points against someone with whom they simply disagree.

When you throw in corporate welfare and pork, you are introducing a completely separate argument. From where I sit, these have nothing to do with my central complaint against Distributist/Agrarian/Red Tory arguments that Republicans and Democrats are equally individualist, just in different ways.

KyCobb said...


"I also suspect you're right that it won't work, although I would also say that it is the only thing that can work."

Wow, an anti-capitalist conservative. I would never have suspected you were so radical, Martin.

Thomas said...


"The kind of individualism that Republicans support (less regulation; lower, flatter taxes; more power to the states) is a prudential issue."

This tends to be based on a normative view that private property is something close to absolute (i.e., the allodial theory of property). That is, economic conservatism/libertarianism assumes that when one owns property, that ownership and use is not subordinate to a common good that can often override private interest. That is a fundamentally moral judgment, not merely a prudential one, and it arises directly out of Liberal political theory, in conflict with traditional political theories as well as Christian social teaching.

The Red Tory argument is that both Republicans and Democrats are forms of the sort of political Liberalism advocated by J.S. Mill. As an historical fact, this is absolutely correct.

Thomas said...


It might be more accurate to say that communitarianism is a concrete form of capitalism. If capitalism is a system in which citizens are free to own the means of production without being subject to the ownership or control of others, then people like Phillip Blond have no problem with it. The objection is against an abstract capitalism that, while affirming the possibility of capitalism for everyone, in actuality has become "capitalism for the privileged few, and indebted servitude for the many."

Distributism advocates the widespread private ownership of the means of production. The government policies and economic system it has fostered has, over the last three decades, produced something quite different: private ownership of the means of production, but the increased concentration of this ownership in an economic elite, and increased indebtedness and lower wages for everyone else. The perversity of the neo-liberal project has been that it co-opts a belief in economic freedom and opportunity for all into a system that increasingly dispossesses the great majority.

Guy said...


(I apologize for the all caps. I am not shouting; I just can't get the tags to work.)

Please reread the quote you pulled from my post. It says LESS regulation; LOWER, FLATTER taxes; MORE power to the states.

The first two modifiers are relative terms about the quantity of thing, but neither of them imply there will be none of the thing. The third term addresses subsidiarity, a pretty important part of Catholic social theory.

So, yes, the things I am talking about are prudential. They make an argument about how authority should be balanced and what quantity of regulation and taxation is OPTIMAL for HUMAN FLOURISHING which is the point of Catholic social teaching.

And, by the way, Catholic social teaching itself places a pretty high value on private property.

Thomas said...


The prudential issues you raise are grounded (at least tacitly) in a political philosophy. And that's a good thing: if a political position weren't grounded in some form of political philosophy, it would be irrational, because prudential decisions are always dependent upon a logically prior judgment of what ends are worth pursuing (i.e., a normative judgment).

And I would guess, from your response, that a certain private property doctrine partially grounds at least part of your position, so it's important to be clear about the Christian approach to private property.

Biblically, there's little reason to defend any kind of absolute ownership of private property: for example, Paul counsels Christians not to care for their own possessions and to hold all things in common, which the church in Acts did. The Church Fathers took a generally negative stance on property, regarding as the cause of sins such as greed. At the very least, they regarded the rich as having no right of their superfluous property, regarding it as rightly belonging to the poor. St. Thomas agreed:

"[W]hatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose ... says ...: 'It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom.'"

Once we agree that possessions of the wealthy that exceed their needs are, at best, held by them in trust for the poor, and that they have no natural right to use it for their own enrichment when there are needs that are not met, then we've taken a long step away from Republican style individualism toward something like distributism or communitarianism. Which makes sense given that distributism is really just an elaboration on the papal encyclicals concerning social justice.

KyCobb said...


Blond was pretty clear that distributism is post-capitalist. Capitalism is more than the mere existence of private property, it requires the existence of capital markets, which will result in private accumulations of capital, which Blond opposes. He wants to return to a pre-industrialized era, which he described as a "golden age".

Thomas said...


Phillip Blond is clearly not against capitalism as such. What he's against is an illusory capitalism where most people are not capitalists because the great majority of capital is concentrated at the top.

KyCobb said...


I am glad to see that someone cares about the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. I can't see the GOP or the Tea Party embracing Blond's ideas, however.

Guy said...

Can you point me to a politician on the national stage (including governors) who has the makings of a distributist? I'm curious as to what one might look like in the political arena.

Also, who is someone, in politics or of notable achievement, who would fit the description of distributist who could be drafted to run in the Republican primary for governor of Kentucky in 2011? (You would just be electing the Democrat if you ran as a third party.) I think we have until January 25 to recruit.

Kentucky seems to be as likely a place as any for a distributist to get traction. As native son Dwight Yoakum sings: Baby, Why Not?

Thomas said...


There have not been many distributists on the national stage in the US, though they have been influential in certain in certain areas of legislation in the past (i.e., antitrust law). I think there are several reasons for this:

1) The political principles influential at America's founding were largely dictated by Enlightenment liberalism, to which Catholic social teaching is opposed.

2) The historical opposition America has had against political parties such as the Tories.

3) The failure of the Catholic laity to be faithful to the part of the Magesterium that deals with social, economic, and political issues. It's ironic that the Red Tory movement, largely an Anglican movement, is more mindful of Catholic teaching than American Roman Catholics have generally been (at least in the US). Given the numbers of American Catholics, you would think they could produce or support a political movement in accordance with the dictates of their faith. Instead it seems they readily identify themselves with left-liberalism (rejecting the part of the Church's social teaching on things like abortion) or right-liberalism (rejecting the part of the Church's teaching on distributive justice and the social duty to care for the poor). Each have their own excuses why the Church's teaching is not binding on them, and this attitude has squandered opportunities for political movements based on or influenced by the Magesterium (distributism, Red Toryism, etc.) from the support from those who are bound by such teaching.