SPEECH: The Future of Conservatism
Phillip Blond's speech to launch ResPublica
What is conservatism? Various derogatory claims are often propagated. Firstly some claim that it is a mere pragmatism – that it has no ideas, guiding theme or undergirding foundation, that it is doing what works without direction or belief. Such a vapid managerialism is indeed ubiquitous, but its reach does not extend to modern conservatism. Others say the Tories are the party of vested interest – they represent the status quo, they will always defend the rich against the poor, the strong against the weak and the haves against the have-nots. Again this description captures a position, but it is not one occupied by modern conservatism. Others still say that conservatism is best expressed by a pure libertarianism, that extreme individualism, the glorification of self-interest, and the hatred of society is what best represents Tory philosophy. That again captures much, but not modern conservatism.
Indeed, if one was being objective, it could be argued that utilitarian managerialism, a rabid and sordid defence of the status quo, and a deep and abiding belief in a corroding libertarian individualism best characterizes the contemporary left rather than the emergent right. For modern conservatism despises the destruction by target and audit of ethos and professionalism, is completely committed to tackling vested interest and illegitimate hierarchy, and views with horror the left libertarian denial of the norms of a decent civilized life and the codes of an abiding and sustaining community.
What then is modern conservatism – what does it care about, what does it seek to conserve? Why nothing less than society itself. The project of radical transformative conservatism is nothing less than the restoration and creation of human association, and the elevation of society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign station.
Conservatism at its best has always been a care for the world and for those who live in it. Conservatives led the campaign against slavery. Conservatives such as Richard Oastler and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, led the factory reform movement which campaigned throughout much of the 19th century for a reduction in working hours for women and children; in 1867 the second great reform bill under Disraeli was far more radical than that envisaged by Gladstone and it increased the franchise by 88%; and in the twentieth century the conservatives extended pensions under Baldwin, in the 1920's Noel Skelton – terrified by collectivisation and influenced by Belloc and Chesterton – first spoke of a property-owning democracy, a tenant of fundamental and transformative Toryism repeated by Eden and Churchill and Mrs Thatcher.
The question though is what is the validity and merit of conservatism at this moment in time? Why should its message be heard? What does it have to offer? Well, simply put, under the present leadership it recognizes that the old options are no longer viable – both state and market have visibly and manifestly failed, and we cannot and must not return to the bankrupt version of either. If we British are to enjoy a better and more stable future, then we need a new deal and a new settlement.
There are three dimensions to this new order: a civil state, a moralised market and an associative society.
The Civil State
There is much that is right with the state and there is much that is wrong. What is right is that the state embodies in structured form a common concern – it represents the coalesced will of the people that there is a level below which you cannot fall and an undertaking that we as a body politic have a stake, a care and indeed a provision for you and every other citizen. In that sense, the welfare state really does represent the best of us. In that sense, the great triumph of the left is indeed the 1945 Labour government which laid the foundation of the modern welfare state. But what the working class thought would save and secure became something that gradually and over time eventually helped to destroy them. Why? Because the state, instead of supporting society, abolished it. The welfare state nationalised society because it replaced mutual communities with passive fragmented individuals whose most sustaining relationship was not with his or her neighbour or his or her community but with a distant and determining centre. Moreover, that state relationship was profoundly individuating – unilateral entitlement individuated and replaced bilateral relationship.
The working class did not ask for this. They wanted something far more reciprocal, more mutual and more empowering. All existing working class welfare organisations were sidelined by a universal entitlement guaranteed by the state based upon centralised accounts of need. Local requirements, organisation or practices were simply ignored and thus rendered redundant. Thus, the welfare state began the destruction of the independent life of the British working class. The populace became a supplicant citizenry dependent upon the state rather than themselves, and the socialist state aborted indigenous traditions of working class self–help, reciprocity and social insurance. Rather than working with each another in order to alter their situation or change their neighbourhood or city, relying on the welfare state only to get them through a temporary rough patch, working class people increasingly became permanent passive recipients of centrally determined benefits. As such, welfare ceased to function as a safety net through which people could not fall, becoming instead a ceiling through which the supplicant class – cut off from earlier working class ambition and aspiration – could not break. This ‘benefits culture' can be tied directly to the thwarting of working class ambition by a middle class elite that formed the machinery of the welfare state, yes to alleviate poverty, but also to deprive the poor of their irritating habit of autonomous organisation.
The new civil state would restore what the welfare state has destroyed – human association. This new civil state will turn itself over to its citizens; it will foster the power of association and allow its citizens to take it over rather as it had originally taken over them. A new power of association could be delivered to all citizens so that if they are indeed in an area that receives public services in a form that can be identified both by sector and by type; and if area-specific budgetary transparency is delivered such that each place knows what is being spent on it; then if those services are less than they should be in terms of quality, design or applicability; then there should be a new civil power of pre-emptory budgetary challenge that is given to any associative group that claims to represent those in its area – to take over the budget of that service so that they can deliver what is required to those who need by those who care. So envisaged this would allow citizen groups – if they meet appropriate and proper standards of civic representation and organisational efficacy – to take over the state in their own areas to either be commissioners of their own services or run them for themselves and each other. They could do this with welfare so as to tie local need to local provision and so make jobs for themselves – where none existed before – or indeed they could manage, run and own, as an estate or specifiable area, the services that had previously failed them so they would not fail themselves or each other. So conceived the monolithic state could gradually be broken down into an associative state where citizens took over and ran their own services so that universality would not be compromised but in fact would be more achieved, as each particular area or need would finally be in a position to meet that need by delivering, via this new power of budgetary challenge, the services by and to the new associative state.
The Moralised Market
The great paradox of the neo-liberal account of free markets that has dominated discussion, and determined practice and indeed economic reality for the past thirty years, is that in the name of free markets the neo-liberal approach has presided over an unprecedented reduction of market diversity and plurality. It has both reduced the type of provision available and the number of providers. In the name of freedom we have produced economic concentration and in a number of areas monopoly dominance or indeed something very much like it. A perverse corporatism has produced industries that are too big to fail, and consequently they have been made bigger again.
The most obvious example of this is banking – where we have lost diversity (building societies) and subsequently plurality (all of the building societies that demutualised have vanished, collapsed or been absorbed, as have many other providers) – where we now have only four major high street banks, and the government's great pro-competition measure is to turn over just 10% of banking capacity to an as yet unnamed and un-constituted new entrant. In part this is because UK competition policy has become far too enthralled with the efficiency doctrine of the Chicago School and has permitted far too many mergers to go through, which has produced significant market concentration that in turn narrows the supply chain and threatens economic security through eliminating diversity of supply. Market concentration produces supply risk that, because it is done in the name of market freedom, blinds regulators to its true import and systemic danger.
So, as a radical pro-market thinker, I would like to see genuinely rather than putatively free markets and systems of economic exchange. But to achieve free markets we must overcome their neo-liberal construal. Why? Because markets conceived on a neo-liberal model require the bureaucratic and authoritarian state. Why? Because if the economic actor is conceived as purely self-interested, as obeying no external codes, as living only by the internal dictate of his/her will and volition, then this actor needs regulation and tight external control. Otherwise, they will violate the rights of others who, also conceived on a similar aggressive model, will seek to do the same. Something external to this model is required in order to police this model, something with absolute power and authority: the state. Thus, neo-liberalism or market fundamentalism requires all the bureaucracy and external management of the state in order to function and trade. Hence there is nothing efficient about neo-liberal efficiency and nothing free about its freedom.
By way of contrast, a capitalism based on trust does not require external regulation or control. A capitalism based on reciprocity – free, open and honest exchange – has little bureaucracy or state power associated with it. A civil economy drives down the cost of suspicion that self-interest creates and crowds in good rather than bad behaviour. A culture of internal ethos rather than external regulation creates a whole new model of social capitalism that radically reduces the barriers to market entry that suspicion creates, and it prices in the very things that human beings most value and like about each other: trust, human affection, and open and honest behaviour. We can create a civic economy based on trust, sustainability and reciprocity. Such an economy generates shared ethos and common goals in the place of zero sum exchange and the bureaucracy of state regulation.
Such a model would produce a much freer economy than the ideology of free markets has yet produced. With lower regulatory barriers to market entry, smaller and medium-sized businesses would have a real chance to compete, develop and grow. And if it was able to retreat from micro-management, the state could go about creating the infrastructure for ethical exchange, and so drive down the cost of transactions and drive up the volume and productivity of the trade and economy conducted within its borders. The aim of this new market would be to build reciprocal and mutual relations so that more diversity, more choice and more providers are brought in to ownership, exchange and prosperity.
A re-moralised market would reward responsible long-term investment and create the conditions for mass ownership and entrepreneurship and the real extension of opportunity. It would be so much better than what we have now.
The Associative Society
To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affection.
Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790
Both state and market, reconcieved and rethought, would serve society rather than serve themselves. They would become centrifugal forces of distribution; they would deliver power, prosperity and democracy to society and to all the groups families and individuals that constitute it. But what is that society?
It is certainly not the collective uniformity and homogeneity represented by the state. The state as a mass act of collectivisation cannot represent all the diversity and differentiation of our culture and our lives. A bleak Maoism where we must all say and do and think the same is certainly the outcome of a society viewed solely through the state – but this is not any society that anyone would want to belong to. Similarly and contra an extremist liberalism, society is neither a collection of self-willing individuals, nor an aggregation of permanently separate wills that always requires a proxy representation which always by its own terms must be illegitimate. Such a construal reveals that individualism and collectivism are two sides of the same debased coinage producing a society that endlessly oscillates between state authoritarianism and anarchic libertarianism.
The truth is – and this is a truth recognised by Burke – is that human beings are individuals always born into relationships. We are always-already (unless we are feral) in society but not eclipsed or diminished by it. All social contract theory is in this sense wrong – we are born already in ethos and already enmeshed in culture code and practice, and we do not need a state or a contact to tell us where we are. But what is this society? This society is civil – it is formed by the free association of citizens – and these groups balance and express both individual freedom and collective formation. Association is outside both state and market, and yet it makes the proper functioning of both possible. Association expresses both individuality and community. Association marks the politics of the future: it is the way we will deliver our state, and it is the way we will free our market.
These associations themselves are not post-modern verities. They are not arbitrary collections of whim and sophistry arrayed against the void. They are not oppositional groups that pit opinion against opinion and so rewrite and replay the conflict expressed at the individual level. They are groups that take a view on objective value. They are organisations that attempt to discern what is right and what should be done in any given situation. As essentially conserving and conservative, they must believe in something worth preserving or else they would be permanent revolutionaries believing that nothing is inherently valuable or good so that nothing need be preserved. On the contrary, because they believe in something valuable, they can offer it to others, because without an account of value there can be no proper distribution of what is valuable.
The associative society is like this: it is good men and women taking responsibility and trying to ascertain the common good. And because they acknowledge that there is such a thing then, in contrast to the liberal thesis of liberty arising from permanent conflict, they can make common cause with those that differ and create a free and equal society based on such a debate.
And if we are to re-build and heal our broken society, it will be from the bottom up through civil association. In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity. They are the means by which we achieve our end; they are not the end itself. That end will be decided by free citizens in association sharing the practice and discernment of the common good. Contemporary transformative conservatism recognises that the common good is its true goal and is indeed the basis of the new Tory settlement.