Rod Dreher

The English conservative philosopher John Gray reviews Philip Blond’s “Red Tory,” and finds it wanting. He judges that Blond’s economic prescriptions would require a level of protectionism that is completely unrealistic. Plus:

The real objections to the programme set out in Red Tory are not purely practical. The core of Blond’s political thinking is a belief in an extra-human source of authority. ” If there is no transcendent value in any sense,” he writes, “then all that is left is the given variety of nature on the one hand and the imposition of artificial norms on the other.” Who would have imagined, even a few years ago, that the central issues of politics would ever again be framed in theological terms?
Secularists will be horrified, but there are advantages in the return of theology. Much in recent discourse – not least the ideology of market fundamentalism – has consisted of faith masquerading as science. By re-linking political argument more explicitly with religion, Blond has usefully clarified the debate.
Once again, though, he seems unaware of the difficulties of his position. Ours may be a post-secular society (I think so myself) but that is very different from reverting to any version of Christian orthodoxy. Britain today is home to a plurality of religious traditions, ranging from varieties of theism through to the many strands of Hinduism and the godless spirituality of Buddhism. There are also many kinds of agnosticism and scepticism, some indistinguishable from undogmatic versions of faith.
This rich and interesting diversity is one reason why Blond’s project of reinstating a more unitary culture is so deeply problematic. Today there is no possibility of reaching society-wide agreement on ultimate questions. Happily such agreement is not necessary, nor even desirable. No government can roll back modernity, and none should try. We may be in a mess. But the pluralist society that Britain has become is more hospitable to the good life than the imagined order of an earlier age, which in the end is just one more stifling utopia.

When Philip was in the US recently, the criticism of his position that rang the most true to me was that he had not adequately answered Alasdair MacIntyre’s fundamental criticism about political and social relations in secular modernity — namely, that without an agreed-upon source of transcendent morality, we are doomed to be at odds on very basic questions. Personally, I believe that social peace under these conditions is purchased by prosperity, and should that prosperity go away, we’ll be in a world of trouble. And I think it is possible that Gray, whose work I esteem, errs on the side of being too quick to dismiss the past. On the other hand, people of my inclination (and Philip’s) should guard against taking out our legitimate frustrations with the present by romanticizing the past. As Alan Ehrenhalt memorably wrote in his 1995 book about Chicago, “The Lost City”:

We don’t want the 1950s back. What we want is to edit them. We want to keep the safe streets, the friendly grocers, and the milk and cookies, while blotting out the political bosses, the tyrannical headmasters, the inflexible rules, and the lectures on 100 percent Americanism. But there is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved. Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a pipe dream in the end. This is a lesson that people who call themselves conservatives seem determined not to learn.

I take Gray’s, and Ehrenhalt’s, point. But. Driving home from work on Friday, I got lost, and ended up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia. I’d ridden past it on the train once with a Philly friend, who called it “Mordor.” It looked pretty horrific, and bitterly tragic, too, because there was plenty of evidence that once upon a time, this was nice part of town — not a rich one, but one that worked. And now it’s a blasted heath, but one that people live in. I wonder if the underclass people of that neighborhood find our contemporary society, with its rather different view of authority, more “hospitable to the good life” (Gray) than whatever imperfect and oppressive situation the underclass/working class in this city lived with in the 1950s. I would say that the relaxation of standards and the throwing off of stifling conformity has probably made life more satisfying for the bourgeois. For the working class and the poor, it’s a different situation. Ehrenhalt writes of the “libertarian fallacy” guiding the thought of the Baby Boomer generation, which Ehrenhalt defines as “the idea that the world is full of repressed libertarians, waiting to be freed from the bondage of rules and authority.” Most people, writes Ehrenhalt, aren’t like that at all. Ehrenhalt concludes an early chapter of his book saying that if you go talk to people at, say, an working-class Catholic parish about the years before Vatican II, you won’t hear complaints about how repressive the Church was; you’ll hear them recall those times as among the best of their lives. Ehrenhalt says people like that aren’t the sort who write the history of our eras, but they recall the collapse of both community and authority they’ve lived through in the past few decades as a grievous loss.
All of which is simply to say that however impractical Blond’s ideas for the good society might be in our pluralistic, secular age, what he’s trying to speak to are real human needs, and an attempt to restore the sense of community we had before the victory of the market state (Ehrenhalt: “The difference between the 1950s and the 1990s is to a large extent the difference between a society in which market forces challenged traditional values, and a society in which they have triumphed over them.”). Gray’s point, I suppose, and Ehrenhalt’s, and MacIntyre’s, would be to tell Blond he’s a dreamer if he thinks we’re going to get all that without a restoration of traditional cultural authority, of the sort that I don’t think even Blond is pushing for. I think they’re right … but at the same time, I want to live in the kind of world Phillip Blond is advocating for, or at least a realistic approximation of it, so I am happy to see him advance.

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