Red Toryism: why intermediary institutions aren’t enough

Lately, some intelligent traditionalists, such as Patrick Deneen, have gotten all excited about Philip Blond’s “Red Toryism”.  Blond, it is claimed, is encouraging conservatives to reject their compromises with free-market classical liberalism and return to their authentic communitarian selves.  This, of course, sounds like something right up my alley, so why is it that I’m suspicious?  Probably I wouldn’t be if all of Blond’s fans were folks like Deneen or Rod Dreher.  As a matter of fact, though, Blond’s number one fan is David Cameron, and Red Toryism has, at least officially, been integrated into the new and improved British Conservative Party.  Now David Cameron, for those of you who don’t know, is a Leftist dirtbag who’s arguably killed off the remains of organized conservatism in England.  Peter Hitchens has compiled a useful collection of evidence of David Cameron’s hard Leftism here.  The indictment is long, but here’s a sample:  he has declared an end to the Tory’s (imaginary) “war on single motherhood” (meaning Tories can no longer believe that the lack of a father is in any way sub-optimal), and he wants to force all schools (even religious ones) to promote the homosexual agenda.  Here’s my point:  if Blond is the real conservative he’s been made out to be, he should be anathama to Cameron, as Cameron should be to Blond.  What’s going on here?

What’s going on is that we’re running up against a limitation on a certain formulation of conservative doctrine.  When the Right first came into existence during the French Revolution, it was easy to say what we were for, namely all the things the revolution was against:  monarchy, Church, patriarchy.  It was all very specific:  we didn’t have vague principles of “family” and “religion”.  The family and Church we were defending had distinct, hierarchical, authoritative structures, or else we weren’t interested in them.  What, though, is the common thread in all of these?  Is there even a common thread?  It would certainly be nice to be able to name a single overriding principle that makes someone a conservative.

The most natural candidate would be Authority.  I wasn’t around then to advocate this idea, but someone with the same name took more-or-less this position.  “Authority” has an unpleasant sound to it, though.  It’s pretty hard to recruit young people to dedicate themselves to the cause of authority against the cause of “freedom”.  By the end of the 1800’s, one of the three causes–monarchy–was judged untenable and silently dropped.  Now we have two principles–family and Church.  Can we find a common thread between the two?

Here’s where the American conservative thinkers come in, starting with Robert Nisbet.  The answer was negative:  both Church and family are not individuals and they’re not the state.  They’re something else; call them “intermediary institutions”, “mediating institutions”, or “civil society”.  From this new category, Nisbet and others developed a powerful formulation of principles:  conservatism means defending intermediary institutions; liberals are the ones who, because of their individualistic ideology, are destroying these institutions.  If the liberals get their way, individuals will be helpless and isolated atoms, while the state will grow into a monstrous tyranny.  Intermediary institutions check the power of the state, and they allieve the alienation of modern life.  It was about this time that Tocqueville was reimagined as one of the founding fathers of conservatism.

Far be it from me to attack the Nisbetian/Blondian formulation of conservatism; it identifies profound truths, and it does gather up a large number of conservative concerns and justify them by a general principle.  In fact, that’s one main problem–the principle is too general.  The institutions conservatives really care about are “intermediary” (i.e. they are non-governmental), but so are a lot of other things:  bowling clubs, Star Trek conventions, Microsoft, Doctors Without Borders, etc.  In fact, voluntary and professional associations are arguably more important and natural parts of the Nisbetian/Blondian scheme than the traditional objects of conservative concern.  These voluntary/professional societies may be worthy things, but they’re not what we’re most interested in.  Furthermore, and here’s the biggest problem, the liberals can completely transform an institution we do care about, like the family, without making it a direct organ of the state.  “Intermediarity” doesn’t identify the distinct nature of the things we’re trying to conserve.  So sure, David Cameron is happy to defend the family, since for him, the family has no definite structure:  it’s just any collection of people living under the same roof, usually with some of them having sexual relationships.  An explosion of sodomitical households would be a great boon according to this type of conservative.  Homosexual and single-parent households are just as “intermediary” as heterosexual ones.  Another example: if Christianity were to disappear from England but be replaced by a bunch of book clubs and credit unions, would these new Tories mind?

I almost think that, if it’s the patriarchal family and the established Church that a conservative is interested in, he’s better off saying “the patriarchal family and the established Church” than inventing some generality that doesn’t capture the true nature of his concerns.  We should certainly accept the Red Tory insights into how individualism and statism go together, but we must remember that our vision is larger than this.

10 Responses

  1. Over at Front Porch Republic, Caleb Stegall wrote a summary of the CLS v. Martinez (the recent Supreme Court case about the Christian Legal Society at a California law school). What was most intriguing about his analysis, and most pertinent to your post here about intermediary associations, is his second footnote, where he talks about “un-free associations.” I think he’s trying to get at the same point you’re trying to get at, which is that the intermediary associations we care most about, and which really matter, but which have no place in American law, are not mere voluntary associations, like a bowling club or a book club, but “un-free associations,” such as family and Church, which have a claim of authority over us.

    Here’s a link to the article:

  2. Hi Stephen,

    Thank you for pointing me to this excellent article. Stegall does a better job making my point than I did. I recommend anyone else reading this to read all of Stegall’s article. The most relevant part is the second footnote on the bottom.

    I doubt that I could find the reference, but this also put me in mind of an “On the Square” piece on First Things years back. R. J. Neuhaus was reviewing an article in some ISI publication by a student who had just discovered Nisbet. The article recommended that conservatives return to the idea of defending voluntary societies as our main goal. Neuhaus pointed out rather forcefully that the Church doesn’t see herself as a voluntary society.

  3. Toryism was the forerunner of Conservatism.

    Conservatism’s root ideology and consequential belief and practice structure really died in the decade following the end of WW11.

    What we’ve been experiencing under its intermittent rule since then, is cold Monetarism and Keynesianism interspersed with Atheism in the guise of Secularism.

    It’s a foregone conclusion that any political movement or party that abandons its core moral values and principles, will inevitably caused itself to get smashed up on the rocks with pieces of of it drifting into various enemy camps.

  4. Hello Octalia,

    I’m afraid there’s a lot of truth to your claim. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any truly nonliberal political movements since WWII. Even the Christian Democrats were committed to a slow-motion surrender to the Left. I believe de Gasperi once said something about the Christian Democrats being a “party of the Center, moving to the Left”.

  5. True, the Church doesn’t see herself as a voluntary society. As a result, secular society thinks the Church is demanding “special privileges” for herself which she doesn’t deserve. Any claim of “privilege” is bound to rile our society up because no institution, not even the Hobbesian/Lockean state, is supposed to make a claim of authority upon our own individual wills.

  6. […] that slow and steady change is best and “little platoons” should be protected.  As I’ve argued before, this is not an adequate basis to resist the Left.  In particular, we have no way to fight Leftist […]

  7. […]  (Admittedly, one would not get this impression given the Right’s last half century of vague talk about “civil society” and “voluntary associations”, as if it were all the […]

  8. […] itself on “civil society” and “intermediary institutions” (e.g. Nisbet, the Red Tories) always has the weakness that it can’t explain why we should want to preserve the things […]

  9. […] but that it is more damaging to our work.  One example is a sociological conservatism’s craze for “mediating institutions” which ignored the all-important distinctions between a […]

  10. […]  (Admittedly, one would not get this impression given the Right’s last half century of vague talk about “civil society” and “voluntary associations”, as if it were all the same to us […]

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