Saturday, March 20, 2010

Communitarian Conservatism

From an moderately interesting column by David Brooks -- who routinely makes interesting observations or points to interesting work by others, then somehow finds his way back to the blandest moderate Republican conclusions -- I discovered the interesting work of British conservative Phillip Blond. Blond says that our societies are "broken" because of the decline of community. Community has been undermined by liberalism of both the left and the right. "Left liberalism" promoted narcissistic self-expression and demolished community standards; "right liberalism" promoted a market freedom that has led only to "monopoly finance" and globalized insecurity for working people. Blond describes contemporary Britain as "a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry." The left
has produced a managerial state that has destroyed the old mutualism of the working class. And it has destroyed both middle and working class morality; in the name of permissiveness, it commodified sex and the body, creating the licentious empty pleasure-seeking drones of the late 1960s. This left-libertarianism repudiated all ties of kith and kin and, though it was utopian in aspiration, its true legacy has been the dystopia of divided families, unparented children and the lazy moral relativism of the liberal professional elite.
Meanwhile, the economics of Thatcher and Reagan has led to "the triumph of monopoly and speculation in the name of free trade and modernisation."
Thus the ability to transform one's life or situation steadily declined as wealth flowed upwards rather than downwards and a new oligarchical class, asset rich and leverage keen, assumed market freedom was synonymous with their complete ascendancy. Market fundamentalism abandoned the fundamentals of markets.
Blond's solutions involve the decentralization of power, so that each community can decide more of its own destiny, and economic policies designed to "re-capitalize the working class." He wants zoning rules that will keep mega-stores away from most neighborhoods, so small butchers, bakers, and grocers can prosper. He want the British post office to expand its banking functions, to put affordable banking within reach of everyone. He wants the big banks split, and their capital distributed among local banks that invest in their own communities.

I like many thing about this analysis. I agree that the mad world of contemporary finance is the opposite of conservatism -- the great derivatives casino is a completely new experiment, and it is working out badly for everyone but the very rich. I also have my doubts about the "anything goes" attitude toward relationships and sexuality. I agree that the two kinds of permissive liberalism -- the moral and the economic -- have combined to create a world in which the rich get richer while the poor are mired in social and economic despond. I can at least give a nod of assent to Blond's claim that "the welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures."

I think, though, that Blond has a nostalgic view of what community life was like before the 1960s. I have noticed that as soon as people from tight-knit communities -- villages, ethnic urban neighborhoods, and so on -- can afford it, they move out. A big part of what has happened to traditional communities is that the ablest people have left. Does Blond propose recreating the intense hostility toward outsiders that once kept villages united and ethnic enclaves pure? Bringing back the limits on opportunity that kept all blacks or hillbillies or Greek immigrants poor and dependent on each other? "Community" is a nice word, but in practice small communities are often xenophobic, intolerant, narrow-minded and willfully ignorant. I encounter self-proclaimed "communities" all the time in my work, when they constitute themselves as historic districts, the main point of which is often to dictate what color their neighbors can paint their houses. Is that the kind of neighborhood empowerment Blond has in mind? As for bringing more small businesses into poor neighborhood, the experience of both Britain and the US has been that this often leads to conflict between owners and their neighbors, especially when the owners are (as is usual) immigrants.

And what, exactly, does he propose to do about the breakdown in marriage among the poor? He is hardly the only one worried about this, but solutions are elusive. One thing that might work would be to provide more decent jobs for unskilled, ill-educated men. Would Blond support that, or would that be another disempowering expansion of state power?

I am not sure that our society is "broken", either. We have problems, but so has every other society in history. In some ways we have made extraordinary progress: in improving the rights of women, in reducing racism, in cleaning up the environmental wreckage left by industrialization. I would like to see curb on international finance and more efforts to help poor people start businesses, find jobs, and otherwise help themselves, but I have no in interest in going back to the 1950s. If that is the agenda of the "new conservatism", count me out.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I often tell my students that living in a medieval village (or Greek polis, or any other pre-modern community) would be like living in high school your whole life. Everyone would know everyone else, their reputations would be fairly well fixed by early triumphs and/or failures, and you'd probably replay the same conflicts and situations over and over. The order of the day would be obsessive, hypervigilant fears of insult, cuckolding, property infringements, and the like. Communities like this can give life an interest and intensity that many find lacking in their lives today. But happiness, or at least peace of mind, would be out of reach.

Fascinating, though-provoking post.