A new communitarian conservatism?

Here is an extremely interesting article on the development of a new ‘Red Tory’ conservative communitarianism in Britian.  I am told by a Canadian friend that similar things are afoot in Canada (George Grant is apparently the person to read there).  Red Tory conservatism would be a culturally conservative movement that rejects neo-liberal economics.  There are substantial overlaps with John Paul II’s critique of ‘rigid capitalism’ in his encyclical ‘On Human Work’ (Laborem Exercens).  Both re-focus liberal economics on the common good and both reject the atomized relativism of modern liberal individualism (rooted in Lockean and Jeffersonian notions of the individual) in favor of an embodied communitarian and personalist ethic.  Students in Contemporary Euro will see shades of the Heideggerian and Levinasian critique of subjectivity here.  I find myself attracted to this Red Tory view, but wonder if American conservatives (at least, non-Catholic American conservatives) are anywhere close to being ready for something like this, or if they are simply too wed to liberalism.

Here is a taste of the critique, but link to the article for his list of concrete policy suggestions, most of which concern a re-localization of the economy and a call for conservatives to abandon big business.  

‘To understand why the legacy of liberalism produces both state authoritarianism and atomised individualism, we must first note that philosophical liberalism was born out of an 18th-century critique of absolute monarchies. It sought to protect the rights of the individual from arbitrary abuse by the king. But so extreme did the defence of individual liberty become that each man was obliged to refuse the dictates of any other—for that would be simply to replace rule by one man’s will (the king) with rule by another. As such, the most extreme form of liberal autonomy requires the repudiation of society—for human community influences and shapes the individual before any sovereign capacity to choose has taken shape. The liberal idea of man is then, first of all, an idea of nothing: not family, not ethnicity, not society or nation. But real people are formed by the society of others. For liberals, autonomy must precede everything else, but such a “self” is a fiction. A society so constituted would be one that required a powerful central authority to manage the perpetual conflict between self-interested individuals. So the unanticipated bequest of an unlimited liberalism is that most illiberal of entities: the controlling state. Even the most “communitarian” liberals—from philosophers like Michael Sandel to politicians like Ed Miliband—cannot promote community without big government. They see the state as the answer, when it usually makes the problem worse. The legacy of liberal individualism is the restoration of the very absolutism that it originally sought to overthrow—a philosophical tragedy that can be summed up as: “the king is dead, long live the king.”   ‘

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

14 thoughts on “A new communitarian conservatism?”

  1. This kind of conservatisim is a breath of fresh air. I am extremely attracted to this view as well. In my history class we are reading Gordon S. Wood’s “The radicalism of the American Revolution.” Wood says that the first republicans had this view of conservatism in mind. As a conservative, I think that this red tory view is truly the essence of conservatism. We should have a more cosomopolitian outlook. I am glad you brought this up.


  2. I will read all this soon, and comment on it, but in the meantime: WTF is this business with the Pope agreeing to let this antisemitic Cardinal back into the fold if he recants his Holocaust denial?! Honestly, this is so medieval! One would expect Benedict to say: that’s it for you, you idiotic clod, don’t come back until you really have demonstrated genuine remorse for your stupid and evil words and actions. But instead: go ahead, say it out loud, “I was wrong to deny the holocaust” (write it 50 times on the blackboard, even) and then you can put your red hat back on….. Sorry to hijack your post; I promise to be back on topic next comment.


  3. I am not an expert on canon law, but here is what I take to be the short story of this holocaust denier:
    There was a schism after Vatican II, with some ultra-conservative Catholics (lay and clergy) seeing Vatican II as an unforgivable concession to modernity. One of these fellows was ArchBishop Marcel Lefebvre (who is not, as far as I know, in any way an anti-semite). He refused to recant his rejection of Vatican II and, without authorization from Rome, ordained 4 bishops. One of these bishops was this boob who is a holocaust denier. They immediately incurred excommunication by participating in a schismatic act. Since these conservative break-away priests have expressed some interest in submitting to Rome, a process of reconciliation was started. The holocaust stuff is a ‘sideshow’ (albeit an extremely shocking one) to the real issue with these priests.
    I have a few thoughts:
    a) None of this changes the Church’s view. It does not alter Pope JPII’s statement on the Holocaust in 1998, nor does it change the Church’s teaching that anti-semitism is a sin.
    b) It demonstrates a tin-ear from the Vatican. Pope JPII was considerably more adept at managing the media, and this public relations fiasco was only too predictable. Either Pope BXVI does not have that PR ability, or he was given a terribly insufficient briefing on this matter.
    c) I don’t know that the rejection of anti-semitism reaches the level of dogmatic teaching. Only a rejection of the authority of Rome (itself a dogmatic teaching) or some other dogma incurs excommunication. This means, sadly, that a great many people with all sort of views ranging from the silly to the evil are not denied participation in the life of the Church. In saying that, by no means am I trying to diminish the evil of anti-semitism. Nor would the Pope.
    d) I rather doubt that the efforts to reconcile this schismatic group will get very far unless they accept Vatican II, which will mean (i) accepting Vatican II’s teaching that religious freedom is a basic human right and (ii) rejecting anti-semitism, which Vatican II teaches is a sin.


  4. I’m not sure why traditional liberalism can’t get linked up with a more regulated capitalism. Indeed, the lesson to be learned from the ongoing collapse seems to be that it is not in an individual’s enlightened self-interest to belong to a society that does not regulate capitalism. Liberalism’s basic law is you can do as you please so long as you’re not harming another, threatening another, or providing an obstacle to their own pursuits. We’re learning now that we need institutional buffers (oversight agencies) in order to enforce this basic law.


  5. I suppose Huenemann might be right in theory – so long as he trusts the government to not become a tyranny. (The diagnosis of excessive and disordered individual freedom leading to tyranny mirrors almost exactly Plato’s forecast in the Republic). Even if tyranny seems unlikely, it requires great trust in the central authority to manage and regulate the economy – regulation that gets ever more complex and expensive in order to keep things going or to try to jump start them (100s of billions in bailouts for big business and a trillion dollar stimulus that many economists think will accomplish little). You’ll forgive me for taking the FEMA-Katrina fiasco to be the rule of government involvement rather than the exception. All this because of our undying love affair with the atomized individual and the cult of self-interest. And none of this, of course, takes into account the cultural question, this only speaks to the economic aspect.

    The question is in a sense Levinasian. According to liberalism and modernity, we are first and foremost individuals. Society comes only as an ‘afterthought’ through some social contract, but the function of society is simply to protect the individual. But what if community comes first? What if heteronomy is ‘older than’ autonomy? What if we are first social beings, inter-dividuals (to use Girard’s phrase) rather than individuals? This would completely re-order our notion of society, culture, and governance. One will note here that almost all American conservatives are fundamentally liberal on this point, they are deeply attached to liberalism’s individual. Hence Red Toryism, a conservatism that is first of all communitarian. In brief – what if we are our brother’s keeper?

    How might this reshape the way we think? Here is what John Paul II says about the right to private property in ‘On Human Work’. JPII first re-affirms the right to private property, even when it is a question of the means of production. But ‘at the same time [the Church’s view] differs from the program of capitalism practiced by liberalism and by the political systems inspired by it. The difference consists in the way the right to ownership or property is understood. Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute or untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: The right to property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.’

    The common good always takes precedence over the individual right, which is almost precisely the opposite of liberalism. Here is a sample application: ‘Man has the right to leave his native land for various motives – and also the right to return – in order to seek better conditions of life in another country, though this fact is not without difficulties. … The most important thing is that the person working away from his native land, whether as a permanent emigrant or as a seasonal worker, should not be placed at a disadvantage in comparison with the other workers in that society in the matter or working rights. Emigration in search for work must in no way become an opportunity for financial or social explotation.’ (JPII, ‘On Human Work’).

    That is the redness in Red Conservatism. Any and all attempts to keep ‘aliens’ (the Other) out are ultimately derived from placing the ‘I’ (our ‘claim’ to this land, these jobs, these resources) over and above the common right to use of God’s creation. The error is the error of the mine over the yours, for those that have read Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.


  6. I think I’d rather take the CCC, TVA, National Guard, USFS, OSHA, EPA, and Social Security Administration as the rule, and Michael Brown’s FEMA as the exception. Each of those entities still had/has significant flaws, but imagine what would have happened without them.

    Using Plato to back your argument doesn’t do you any favors! No one after the 20th c. can look at his republic and really think of it as anything other than fascistic.


  7. Even if Plato’s own positive program is fascistic, that does not mean that his diagnosis of disordered freedom is wrong. From Levinas’ point of view (and Heidegger’s I think), Plato is already a ‘modern philosopher’ in that he is a philosopher of the Same who constantly marginalizes the Other.
    I quite agree that we would be worse off without Social Security, OSHA, etc. Red Conservatism (and Catholic social thinking in general) starts to look pretty Democratic here (liberal in that sense). But having ‘safety nets’ is too little, too late. They are insufficient for addressing the basic economic and cultural evils (enormous wealth production while most in the world are at serious risk of not having clean water, the culture’s refusal to protect her most vulnerable members, etc etc) that travel with atomized individualism. The problem is ‘older than’ particular policy suggestions, the problem is rooted in the conception of man and his relation to community.

    I added a bunch of stuff to my last comment, by the way.

    Aside – am I striking a more ‘liberal’ tone that Huenemann? Ha!


  8. I’ll say more about this great topic later on, but for now I want to clarify an issue that was briefly brought up.

    The disaster of Hurricane Katrina was not the fault of FEMA or of the administration, though I’d like to blame them myself. It was instead the long time coming result of many many decades of internal, local, state corruption, regardless of the race and gender of our people there (I’m originally from Louisiana). In all that time nothing was done to fix the levees which were in terrible shape, and in the moment of impact, no call for assistance or to utilize the National Guard was made until it was far too late. When it was, many units around the area, including mine, the 1st Cavalry Division Special Troops Battalion (a merger of my old unit, the 13th Signal Battalion, 312 MI, 4-5 ADA and a number of others which were then deactivated), were pretty much scrambled out of dinner, and needed to get ready for deployment. It was a giant logistical nightmare, because so much of our equipment was still being repaired from our time in Iraq, adding on to problems that are regular in deployments from the start. When Rita showed up some time later, we were much better prepared and it actually became a high point for our unit, but before then it was a clusterf*ck. My grandmother, who still lives in West Monroe, LA, knew the levees would fail, because of this history of poor gov’t, and in fact New Orleans was somewhat spared due to the dramatic lowering of the hurricane’s power just before hitting the city. To perhaps the fault of FEMA though, there were also Mississippi towns that went ‘missing’ (term from our company Sergeant Major the morning of our scramble) and nothing of their situation was ever reported on as far as I can remember.

    Sorry for talking too long, as for the National Guard, they’re a useful tool, but only as good as their leadership (state gov’t) allows them to be, and its notable that at one time that tool was used to block 9 black high school students from entering Little Rock High School.


  9. I don’t believe a form of government exists that can sufficiently address atomized individualism. The beauty of our democracy is that it is based on liberal values. If we limit the power that an individual has on others. We prevent tyranny from taking place.

    A truly selfish individual will gravitate towards power like a fly to a light bulb. By limiting their power to act against individuals we prevent them from taking too much power.

    Many of our founding fathers believed that religion and philosophy was necessary for the republic to flourish. They believed that it would help produce good citizens, and that they in turn would help the weak. Perhaps the weakening of religion and philosophy’s influence on society is a the key factor in this atomized individual problem.


  10. Hurricanes are massive vortexes caused by mixtures in heat, moisture and air currents, including theoretically some hot winds out of north Africa. I made no claim to what caused them, only to the problems that lead to the catastrophe, which Bush is often blamed for in SNL/Daily Show lore. He sure didn’t help himself with that ‘we dodged a bullet’ speech though.


  11. I was. That is actually the big problem with the internet. Sarcastic remarks via text message, instant messenger, and email have gotten me into trouble in the past.


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