book review of phillip blond’s ‘red tory’

23 04 2010

by Sebastian Wright

Two events intervened just prior to my reading of Phillip Blond’s ‘Red Tory‘, which made me doubt the necessity of the exercise. The first was the publication of Jonathan Raban’s wonderfully enjoyable lampooning of it in the London Review of Books, under the title of ‘Cameron’s Crank‘. Whilst Raban is a bit hard on Blond’s writing skills (personally, I think the book is pretty well written; its more the dubious intellectualism at fault) he does a great job of cutting to heart of the parochial, nostalgic sentiment that prevails throughout. In the same issue of the LRB, John Gray reviews a book by Tim Bale on the Conservatives from Thatcher to Cameron, and concurs with Bale’s assessment that, in regard to the Red Tory retreat to socially conservative anti-liberalism, ‘Conservatism of this kind spells potential disaster for Cameron and his party.’

Phillip Blond, Red Tory-in-chief

Which leads to the second point. This ‘disaster’ seems to be unfolding in front of our very eyes. With the Blond-inspired ‘Big Society’ idea apparently falling flat on the election trail, and inverse rhetoric about the ‘broken society’ also not winning over many fans, Cameron has recently decided to adopt a tougher, more conventional Conservative message, evident in the Conservative party’s billboard promising to cut the benefits of those who refuse to work.

The premature fate of Red Toryism?

With such a run of misfortune, and generally poor reviews, one might wonder if expending the energy in reading and reviewing ‘Red Tory’ is worth the effort? I would argue that it is still worth a punt, if only for the fact that with the current paucity of ideas floating about in mainstream politics—and particularly in Conservatism with Thatcherism on the wane—it is unlikely that Red Toryism will just go away. If the best method of defence is attack, I think Marxists should try to keep track of these new ideologies; particularly at crossroads such as the present in which much of the steam of neoliberalism is running out, whilst at the same time massive fiscal deficits surely spell the end of the Third Way social democratic settlement.

So what is there to learn from ‘Red Tory’? Well, if anything, the book suffers from trying to answer too many problems. Blond’s introduction catalogues a litany of complaints about modern Britain (the emphasis is always on ‘our’ country) that almost anyone could find something to agree with—or more likely, join with him in disgruntlement about. Everything from loneliness, to promiscuity, to the financial crisis, to the democratic crisis—to all of these Blond has an answer: Red Toryism. What is it to be a Red Tory? Apparently, it involves returning back to a local ‘associative economy’, where the different classes get along, everyone knows their place, the rich look after the poor, and everyone is joined together in common virtue (and belief—although he keeps a low profile in expounding this last point).

All of this is well documented elsewhere, by myself and other readers of Blond’s work. However, in order to extract some more interesting insights from ‘Red Tory’  Blond’s personal story of why he broke from the left acts as a  general lesson in where the left has gone wrong. Not for the reason that Blond’s rejection of the left is to be endorsed, more for the fact that his original affiliation with it signalled all that in my opinion has been wrong with the left since the 1980s. This is a telling quote:

I hated Scargill, yet still sympathised with the miners… What I liked about socialism was its concern with social justice – the idea that our society should be ordered according to principles of equity, goodness and fairness… I could never for the life of me understand why some despised those who differed from them by virtue of social class… And I agreed with the ethical critique of unrestrained capitalism.

Despite the fact that Blond does not have much time for Rawls in Red Tory, he mostly concurs on the categories: justice, ethics, fairness, etc. Everything, that is, other than working class empowerment and action. What ‘Red Tory’ amply demonstrates is the utter uselessness of these notions for advancing a radical, leftwing political cause. At a time when many on the left still call for ‘global justice’ and ‘fairness’ (to use the Lib Dems favourite term, if we can even consider them as left) Blond’s comfort with all these things, whilst proposing an arch-socially conservative vision, demonstrates their  ambivalence. The same goes for his endorsement of the environmental agenda, which he counterpoises to the destructive and irresponsible tendencies on the left, epitomized by the likes of Scargill.

It is probably also worth pointing out that Blond does have some good points. For instance, he correctly points to the dissolution of the basis of Third Way style social democracy; he understands that reform in how we vote for Parliament is unlikely to make much difference; and he recognizes the limitations of the state for empowerment. And yet all this is recuperated into a mostly incoherent diatribe that answers few questions immanent to our contemporary social reality. The undercurrent of nationalism and localism is clearly at odds with his feigned concern for immigrants and internationalism. His defence of capitalism is premised on some extremely suspect idealised notions of what capitalism should be, subtracted from any substantial political-economy or empirical studies.

It is hard not to conclude reading ‘Red Tory’ that Blond is simply trying to will back into existence the lost world of warm beer and cricket matches on the village green that John Major once spoke of as the epitome of Britishness. Radicalism, for Blond, means a return to an organic social order; one which arguably never existed, or was only ever kept stable by the patriarchy, racism, nationalism and elitism he is willing to credit the left as having undermined. Since his lost world is one that probably never existed in the first place, nevermind in the 21st century, it is more than likely that these ideas will play the role of rose tinted gloss for a whitewash of the expected privatisations and anti-immigrant purges the Tories will soon be calling for.

The lost world of the Red Tory future
About these ads

Actions

Information

7 responses

24 04 2010
Bill Butlin

An excellent review – also really enjoyed the Raban article.

24 04 2010
caroline

i thought red toryism was interesting, but seems to have been completely superseded now since the financial crisis (the wake up call that the ‘old’ economic realities and class had not disappered) and the tories turned back into the party of the rich cunts they really are.

25 04 2010
neccessaryagitation

@Caroline

I doubt these ‘red tory’ ideas are going to disappear; they do have some basis in conservatism; its not just cheap rhetoric for electioneering. For instance Duncan Smith set up his social policy thinktank back in 2002 when he was ‘shocked’ at the deprivation on the sink estates.

Fact is, though, these ideas are noxious and pregnant with a repressed orthodox Catholicism and longing for the return of the British Empire. The more you dig in to what red Toryism is all about, the worse it gets. He devotes a whole chapter to union bashing for instance.

26 04 2010
Arthur Bough

As I wrote in my blog Red Tories we should not assume that Tories like Blond or even Cameron are being disingenuous when they argue the idea that ordianry working and middle class people should have some control over their lives through the establishment of Co-operative ventures to provide some key public services.

The key idea of Marxism as opposed to the earlier Moral Socialism is that bosses do not attack workers because they are evil bastards – in fact many rich people, particularly in the 19th Century were very Philanthropic – but because the laws of Capital accummulation force them to act in specific ways. Ultimately, the bourgeoisie adopted certain social measures – Welfarism – because they facilitated the creation of the kind of working class Capital required without the budren falling on individual Capitalists. This drive to reduce what economists call “Externalities” is what is currently causing them to look at alternative ways of providing such Public Services – that is true of the discussion over socialised healthcare in the US, just as its true of the discussions around Red Toryism here.

At the same time that Marx and Engels were advocating the establishment of Co-operatives, Marx noted in his Address to the First International that the bosses representatives were also advocating them provided they were kept within limits that did not threaten the bourgeoisie. That is the point about Red Toryism. For the Tories, Co-operatives are not as they are for Marxists an integral part of the Labour Movement, an organ of class struggle, but essentially no different froma Partnership or some other form of small Capitalist enterprise. They are a means of simply turning workers into bosses. Where for a marxist a Co-op is the beginning of the process, a means of transcending Capitalist relations, for the Tories they are the end itself.

In that respect they tie into the Tory concept of individualism. the worst aspect of Red Toryism is that it will play to those entrenched aspects of statism that already dominate the left, and particualrly the tendency for much of the left to develop its politics not by thinking for itself, but simply by being opposed to something, by placing a minus sign wherever its opponent places a plus.

In fact, for Marxists the fact that the Tories have opened up this discussion should be welcomed. We should insist that the door they have opened a crack be kicked wide open. Public service Co-ops should not be limited to simnply being service providers limited by whatever budget the central state deems fit, but should be providers to local communties themselves organised on a basis of Co-operatives, and direct democracy. Instead of being individual Co-operatives that function on a Capitalist basis, but simply owned by workers, they should be an integral part of a national Co-op Federation as marx suggested with a strategy for spreading Co-operative production and distribution throughout the economy.

Finally, there is no reason that such provision should be restricted to just Public Services. If workers can run these themselves they can run every business themselves. Worekrs should have control over the £500 billion in their pension funds to use to buy up most of the commanding heghts of the economy, and to run on a Co-operative basis.

In short we do not have to allow the Co-op form to be limited to the class content that the Tories would impose on it, we should take the form and fill it with our own class content.

27 04 2010
Edgar

Wasn’t it Catholics who set up the Mondragon co-op?

For all their repression they sometimes seem more advanced than the ‘revolutionary’ left.

28 04 2010
Nathan Coombs

@Edgar, A single co-op makes very little difference; or sometimes worse, it can lead workers to internalise and capitalist discipline. For the capitalist class, a few co-ops here and there is of no importance; it doens’t threaten them. If anything, they like it because then they can tell people to quit complaining and point to an inconsequnetial alterarnative.

28 04 2010
Arthur Bough

But Nathan Mondragon is not a single Co-op, it is a whole host of Co-ops involved in production and distribution including Eroski one of Spain’s largest retailers. More than that it has established its own Co-operative University that trains and educates workers. The Modragon Co-op has expanded to other European countries. Throughout the world Co-ops employ more people than do the multinationals, and in quite a few countries, Co-ops dominate production in certain branches of industry. In Briatin, for example, the Co-op is the biggest farmer.

For the last 100 years the number of Co-ops has been growing with a spurt approximately every 20 years. Now its true that Marx and engels and the First International, and after them Kautsky and the Second International, and after them Lenin argued that whilst worekrs should establish Co-ops they needed to do so within the context of developing a National Co-operative Federation, so that profits could be accrued centrally, and used to spread Co-operatives on a wider basis. But, some moves to this effect have already been made both at a national and international level e.g. Euro Co-op. But, the main reason that such a development has not occurred is that workers themselves have had to scrabble towards such conclusions largely themselves, because the left has for the last 100 years abandoned the ideas of Marx for the setting up of such Co-ops i.e. for working class self activity, and has adopted instead the statist notions of Lassalle and the Fabians – and that is as true of teh so called revolutionaries as it is of the reformists.

Just as many marxists have abandoned workers to the tender mercies of the reformists in the workers parties in order to pursue their own sectarian pipe dreams, so workers taking socialism into their own hands in creating co-ops have been left to the ideological leadership of various religious groups, anarchists and so on. Worse it has been demonstrated that some Trade Union bureaucats fearing loss of their own social position have deliberately tried to undermine Co-ops.

If we are to talk about inconsequential alternatives it is difficult to think of that provided by the various Left sects, who have become further and further detached from the class and from the real world. How much more inconsequential can you get than to keep advising workers to continue defending those same state capitalist solutions that have failed the workers for the last 100 years, even whilst ridiculously doing so whilst saying the point is to get worekrs to lose their illusions in the State! Even whilst as Marx pointed out in his criticism of such Lassallean politics you defend state capitalism, whilst trying to hide your shame with calls for “workers control”.




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 16,925 other followers

%d bloggers like this: