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Thursday, June 05, 2008

On Red Tories and Libertarians

Over the past week or so there have been a series of interrelated flair-ups in the conservative blogosphere: some were related to George Packer's article on the intellectual exhaustion of the conservative movement in America, while other were responses to Mike Huckabee's accusation that the Republican party's ideology has suffered from the rise of libertarianism in its ranks. All of them, however, were ultimately--to my mind at least--about one thing: namely, how to make sense of the many disparate "dissident conservatives" (to use Ross Douthat's phrase) out there, and whether or not there's any way to get them together to recreate the fusionist magic of William F. Buckley, whether by creating some kind of new consensus or, conversely, rejecting some aspect of the old consensus once and for all.

It's a good question. Will anything, in terms of practical politics, come from all this intellectual ferment on the margins which Packer ignored, or did he rightly ignore it as something that will never move beyond the margins? Ross--who forthrightly owns up to his own cynicism/realism regarding such matters--is doubtful: "the gap between the Paulite paleos or the 'Wendell Berry-Michael Pollan Right' and the American political scene is roughly the size of the Grand Canyon." But others are hopeful, or at least more committed, arguing that "a tactical alliance of decentralist leftists, populists, libertarians, and conservatives is not only a good thing, but is a necessary thing if progress is to be made on any common goal."

At present, I don't have much of a dog in this fight; despite sharing the same name and more than a few principles, my own brand of "left conservatism" is significantly different from that kind which gets drawn into disputes between paleocons, and until further notice (or until Huckabee runs again) I still tend to hope and believe that the kind of traditionalist-plus-egalitarian reforms we need are more likely to occur amongst the Democrats than elsewhere. Still, when I see that list of potential allies in favor of remaking our late-capitalist society (or, at least, the Republican party) into one more respectful of popular sovereignty, humane living, family and neighborhood support, and local values, I'm attracted, and I have to ask: can Red Tories and Christian Democrats join up as well?

My fear is that the answer would be a reluctant but firm "no." Why? The answer, I think, comes out in an exchange between John Schwenkler (a relatively new blogger whom I've just discovered; I wonder if we ever crossed paths while at Catholic University?) and Rod Dreher over Huckabee's comments. Dreher allows that his criticism of libertarianism (which he doesn't back down on in terms of substance) ignores the possibility that "a pluralistic society like ours, some accomodation with libertarianism is probably the best chance we neotrads have of carving out a communal life for ourselves," which is something I have to agree with; this is related to what Steven Lukes once called the "libertarian constraint": the fact that no society can ever be healthy without some decentralized means of communicating and empowering our diverse and specific tastes, allegiances, groupings, preferences, etc. Lukes was right, and Schwenkler is too...except that, almost immediately, I see him as taking the proverbial mile: "it is in our best interest to ally ourselves with the forces of unbounded freedom rather than those who wish to care for us all from the cradle to the grave." Or, as Schwenkler puts it in another post:

If, as is surely possible because what they’d be saying will be true, the Paulites and the Neo-Trads can convince the fast-growing homeschooling, home-birthing, raw milk-drinking, organic-farming, and backyard-gardening segments of the population that the State is their enemy and not their friend, that they’ll be best able to live the lives they deserve if the gummint just stays out of their hair, then we will have the makings of a movement. Call them the Farmer’s Market Republicans, or maybe the Joel Salatin Coalition. Just watch your backs, folks - they’re on the move.

Well now. We're not homeschoolers (though most of my brothers and sisters are), we haven't had our children born at home, I don't particularly think much of the organic movement, and I didn't think much of Ron Paul either. Still, we do garden in our backyard, we do prefer local and non-homogenized milk, we're definitely--what with our ill-concealed Luddism--something of a neo-traditional family, and we go to the farmer's market all the time. So, we're all good, right? Oh wait, there's that stuff about "the State" (always with the capital letters with these people...) and the "guvmint" being our "enemy." Hmm. Nope, sorry, can't go with you there. The government is often stupid, frequently a threat, in need of constant watching; that I agree with. But I would say the same--and more--regarding Wal-Mart, or MTV, or any of the corporate entities which shape the options and opportunities we have as citizens. And as for "unbounded freedom"...well, freedom to do what? To protected from whom? Some bounds are a good and necessary thing, and it seems pretty reasonable to assume (as ought to follow from any proper understanding of subsidiarity and distributism, and therefore ought to be obvious to anyone who speaks blithely of a "communitarian-libertarian alliance") that more than a few of those bounds will probably need to be set by agencies and in forums broad enough to be comparable to...well, to governments--local, state, and national--in action. I'm as much a fan of "Third Ways" as any good populist (I even have Allan Carlson's book to prove it), but too often advocates of such reforms seem to eschew the egalitarian corollaries which must (or at least should) attend them in our democratic age, and end up apparently believing that sustainable communitarian localities will emerge without any structuring or maintenance of the socio-economic playing field at all. That's a libertarian (or anarchist) fantasy that I can't accept.

Of course, I can understand the lure of this argument, especially in the United States. We don't really have any kind of Christian socialist tradition whatsoever, and when you combine that with our overwhelmingly Protestant and thus not-particularly-institutionable religious culture--and they lay on top of that the cultural deformations of the 60s and 70s--you end up with the belief (a belief which only the occasional radical or conservative has ever tried to change our minds about) that civic religion cannot be substantive, that social justice has no grass roots, that any kind of collective action will always just end up being communism and secularism in disguise. But just because the argument makes intuitive sense doesn't mean it's correct: Lee McCracken points us towards a short piece by John Milbank (whom I've praised before) which recently appeared in the Guardian, underlining the fact that outside the U.S., social conservatism and economic egalitarianism needed undermine each other:

Is it really so obvious that permitting children to be born without fathers is progressive, or even liberal and feminist? Behind the media facade, more subtle debates over these sorts of issue do not necessarily follow obvious political or religious versus secular divides. The reality is that, after the sell-out to extreme capitalism, the left seeks ideological alibis in the shape of hostility to religion, to the family, to high culture and to the role of principled elites. An older left had more sense of the qualified goods of these things and the way they can work to allow a greater economic equality and the democratisation of excellence. Now many of us are beginning to realise that old socialists should talk with traditionalist Tories. In the face of the secret alliance of cultural with economic liberalism, we need now to invent a new sort of politics which links egalitarianism to the pursuit of objective values and virtues: a "traditionalist socialism" or a "red Toryism." After all, what counts as radical is not the new, but the good.

Obviously, this kind of claim isn't going to be very persuasive in the American context; even a decentralized social democracy is going to involve bounds and duties that act against and place limits upon the liberal presumptions that animate even most so-called "conservative" critiques of our current system. But that simply shows, I think, the mistake involved when you have so many of us aforementioned populists and localists and traditionalists fighting hard over this label. (In Europe, or at least some parts of it, "conservatism" still means conserving the boundaries and norms and ways of life of a community, rather than some extended dance around a presumably sacrosanct "unbounded" individual freedom.) Liberty is hard enough issue for even liberals to productively deal with, as this debate between William Galston and Michael Lind shows; perhaps it would be better for those willing to align themselves with some kind of conservatism--even of a "left" source--to get over our own attachment to it.

But then, there's that "libertarian constraint," again; the sort of thing my libertarian friend Jacob Levy keeps reminding me of. And so the back-and-forth continues...though for the moment, it still seems likely that whatever sort of coalition emerges--if any coalition ever does emerge--from all this marginal intellectual action, it'll keep my sort of populist/socialist/traditionalist on a pretty short leash. I guess I should be grateful for the bone that folks like Schwenkler are willing to throw us, and perhaps settle for that:

Of course, it’s also not specious to reject this (small-l) libertarian line of thought and argue instead that what is needed is a sort of economic affirmative action, a set of policies that give a deliberate boost to certain worthy forms of life or segments of the business sector which - whether through “market forces”, state intervention, acts of God or the devil, or plain dumb luck - are currently at a competitive disadvantage. And I think that this kind of argument needs to be given a fair hearing. But it’s crucial to recognize that the Law of (Supposedly) Unintended Consequences applies here to at least as great a degree as it does in the case of “regular” affirmative action: state action is always a crude instrument for promoting virtuous social change....Nobody gets to have it both ways, and as always the truth is bound to lie somewhere in the middle....But it seems to me that if there’s anything that “small is beautiful”-types and doctrinaire libertarians ought to be able to agree on, it’s that a bit more freedom from would, in the present circumstances, make for a corresponding increase in our freedom for.

Maybe--as long as we refrain from pointing out too loudly that an excess of the former always gets in the way of the latter, perhaps--they might let Red Tories into their coalition as well? If so, then maybe someday (with the second coming of Huckabee, perhaps) there could be a genuine social democratic argument for the Republicans, after all.


Anonymous said...

Russell, nice post. I think you shouldn't concede too much (from your point of view) to the libertarians, though. They have a habit of stealing argumentative bases to the tune of "If you oppose government intervention in this one particular instance, then you have to be in favor of dismantling the entire regulatory/social welfare state." Also, to paraphrase Stalin, "How many divisions to the libertarians have?"

More interesting to me, in light of your committment to a broadly egalitarian economic agenda (which I sort of have mixed feelings about), is how you see the relationship between egalitarianism and traditionalism in concrete terms. Viz., do you think that some measure of egalitarianism is a necessary condition for the kind of traditionalism you support? Or is it even stronger - that egalitarianism will lead to, or at least tend to support and nourish, more "traditional" ways of life?

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the comment, Lee.

Also, to paraphrase Stalin, "How many divisions to the libertarians have?"

True. But then, of course, none of us have any coalitions by which we could fight our way to real political relevance in the U.S. at the moment. And so, perhaps a little tactical--if not intellectual--détente is necessary.

[D]o you think that some measure of egalitarianism is a necessary condition for the kind of traditionalism you support? Or is it even stronger--that egalitarianism will lead to, or at least tend to support and nourish, more "traditional" ways of life?

I'd answer yet to both questions, with qualifications. Obviously, respect for tradition doesn't in any real way depend upon egalitarianism--on the contrary, given that many traditions depend upon the maintenance of, or at least the acknowledgment of, some sort of order or hierarchy (local or natural aristocrats or whatever), egalitarianism can easily end up opposing them. But we are, for better and for worse, modern Americans (or Westerners), convinced of the value (if only for prudential reasons, though often for philosophical ones as well) of liberal freedoms. And moreover, I'm a believer in democracy. You put all this together, and it seems reasonable to conclude that traditional and communal differences will only flourish--indeed, only be tolerated--in contexts where basic equalities in recognition and opportunity exist. The closer we come to achieving that sort of fundamental social (and to a degree, economic) equality, the more likely it is (I hope, anyway) that the resources for communities to become more self-sufficient and sovereign and self-governing will be widely available. That's how I square the circle, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Then I guess my follow-up question is what substantive differences (if any) do you see between a traditionalist-egalitarian policy and a liberal-egalitarain one that would prevent a liberal/traditionalist coalition of sorts (at least as far as economics is concerned)?

Russell Arben Fox said...

[W]hat substantive differences (if any) do you see between a traditionalist-egalitarian policy and a liberal-egalitarian one that would prevent a liberal/traditionalist coalition of sorts (at least as far as economics is concerned)?

Liberal egalitarian policies are rarely cognizant of the ways they deprives communities, families, neighborhoods, etc., of the basic social and economic requirements for sustaining themselves, or else--and this is the essence of the globalist argument, here--they assume that said requirements have been mostly rendered impossible by the technologically advanced, liberal democratic world we live in. And, of course, that assumption is in many ways correct. But not in all ways. And so, in the meantime, this hypothetical traditionalist-egalitarian platform would borrow a lot from the old populists (or distributists), aiming to localize the economies which support industries and farms (and the people who work on them and buy their goods) as much as possible, and then using things like unions, public ownership of certain key resources, selective protectionism, and so forth to try to prevent abuses and keep a democratic eye on things when localization isn't a practical option. It'd be a mixture of policies, and some of it would look pretty similar to what you see in some Christian Democratic platforms today, or what we had back during the New Deal for that matter. (Which is why most libertarians can't handle the Red Tories, as much as there may been an overlap in basic orientations; in the end, they appear to be so defensive of personal freedom--and not without reason!--that even when they understand the argument for positive empowerment/liberty, they shy away from what could be involved in making it a reality, or even just more likely.)

Joshua Grimm said...

Russell, thanks for the post. I'm an undergrad working from within the Reformed tradition (especially as mediated by thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper) who in the past has read a lot of the libertarians, Kirkians, and paleocons. Recently, however, I've been reading Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank (and on a popular level, have drifted more in the CrunchyCon direction). And I find much insight in their cultural criticism, political theories, and (in Milbank's case) theological politics.

All of that's background for the following questions: how do you think Milbank's idea of the Church as a "counter-polis" (concretely) fits into the kind of possible Red Tory/Paulite alliance you've discussed here? And how can (re: your post on Milbank's theological politics) a revival of that concept avoid being swallowed up by late-capitalism, with its celebration of (for lack of a better word) 'niche' communities?