The Idea of a Red Tory (2): why conservatives can’t be peer to peer (Andy Robinson)

Andy Robinson argues that conservatism can’t be peer to peer, then adds an analysis of the social/political role of Red Toryism as “New Conservatism”:

1. Why conservatism can’t be peer to peer:

“The reason Blond cannot be peer-to-peer is his complicity with neototalitarianism (outlined previously). While his aspirations aim towards a type of ‘community’ which has some horizontal aspects (as would also be true of Stalin!), the means to this end are fundamentally hierarchical, and rely on vertical forms of agency.

In practice, conservatism tends not to be very ‘peer-to-peer’ because it relies on a prescriptive moral position connected to social authoritarianism: people are expected to conform to traditional prohibitions in fields such as sexual morality, to defer to ‘superiors’, to obey those in authority and so on. However, it has also never been as single-mindedly vertical as some varieties of authoritarian socialism. Conservatives such as Burke and Oakeshott tend to emphasise society against the state, and want power to be located primarily in social networks which are viewed either as more natural or moral than the state (expressing God’s will, organic society, etc), or as more beneficial (social forms which persist in time are treated as more trustworthy responses to social problems than state ‘social engineering’ from first principles). A consistent conservative, therefore, should not support totalitarian or intrusive states (though in practice conservatives very often weigh the benefits of authoritarianism for social morality as outweighing its costs for social composition – particularly if they take the situation to be one of social breakdown). Tradition, including customary entitlements, is thus the conservative answer to the problem of how to limit the state.

It also would not tend to support peer-to-peer, horizontal, autonomous, voluntary kinds of society for two reasons: firstly, conservatives tend to privilege time-honoured forms of social life over newly invented ones, and are suspicious of relations which fail to preserve tradition; secondly, conservatives usually favour societies which, while possibly informal and not state-dominated, are also deeply hierarchical. Conservatism in its traditional form is connected to ‘concentrated informal sanctions’ (the power of social elites), against both the ‘concentrated (or diffuse) formal sanctions’ of various state regimes and the ‘diffuse informal sanctions’ of horizontal forms of life. This means that conservative networks tend to be ‘reactive’ networks rather than affinity-networks; they have some node of identity in them which acts as an ersatz verticality.

In practice, something like a ‘peer-to-peer conservatism’ can be observed empirically in the practice of societies which are diffuse and acephalous in social form (hence reliant on the network form), but doctrinally conservative – the Pathan/Pashtun of Afghanistan/Pakistan being a particularly apposite instance of this combination of attributes. In societies of this kind, tradition can be an iron law, but only to the extent that it is upheld by communities in the present. It is dependent on the power of interpreters of tradition whose position is rather like that of Clastrean chiefs; they are dependent on their ‘soft’ power over those who accept their authority, for their ‘hard’ power to enforce conservative standards against deviants. In social terms, this leads to a degree of looseness – taboo practices can persist in informally tolerated ways, power-holders cannot accumulate unconditional power, often being turned in practice into mediators as much as authorities, and ‘traditions’ can be rewritten when there is widespread consensus for doing so – but its cruel edge should not be minimised – societies of this kind can be viciously repressive of certain kinds of difference (e.g. women who deviate from patriarchal standards), prohibited in concentrated informal ways such as decisions of traditional elders and village councils, but enforced in diffuse, ‘peer-to-peer’ ways which actualise such centralised power (e.g. codes of honour enforced violently through kinship systems). The Taleban, incidentally, are an outgrowth of Pashtun society, but of its ‘restive youth’ stratum particularly, and hence combine an appeal to social conservatism with a sociological position rather distant from it – they actually have a residue of ‘modernity’ about them in many regards.

I have also seen arguments that groups such as the Ecuadorean indigenous movement CONAIE should be viewed as ‘militantly conservative’, in that their aim is to preserve traditional forms of society, even while it is subversive of the dominant order within their nation-state. I think this is slightly inaccurate, because indigenous societies are typically too reliant on diffuse informal (rather than concentrated) sanctions and too open to interconnectedness with other forms of life to be considered truly conservative. It does, however, raise the question of the relationship between conservatism and communitarianism, as the Ecuadorian movement in particular is strongly communitarian. The paradox is that it is communitarian about communities which are not strongly repressive, so that the content of its communitarianism is more formal than prescriptive (i.e. an emphasis on the importance of community, rather than the universal validity or unquestionability of certain community preferences).

I’m inclined to view communitarianism as a conservative trope arising within some movements which are not inherently conservative, and as a defensive outcome of the colonial onslaught on forms of life. In extreme cases (Fiji comes to mind), the corrosion of indigenous lifeworlds does give rise to forms of social conservatism which emerge out of the transmutation of indigenous cosmologies. This arises when immanence is replaced with loss. The nexus of conservatism typically focuses on a lost Golden Age and the attempt to restore it by fetishistically performing its external/formal attributes (clinging to tradition, rejecting ‘modern’ innovations, etc). This nexus is rather different from that of indigenous cosmology, which is lived as immediate intensity. It is easy to see, however, how indigenous cosmologies connected to lifeworlds which are lost and can no longer be performed immanently, can transmute into conservatisms. The transmutation involved is that the immediacy of indigenous cosmology – which is quite rightly remembered as intensity – is constructed as lost, and its recovery connected to formal performativity of its external attributes (which, while they may have been automatic in its immanent and ecological context, are connected to lifestyle regulation and psychological repression when performed outside this context). Of course, such external performance cannot actually reproduce the lost immediacy and immanence, since its generative structure is transcendental, and repressive both socially and psychologically. Rather, its reconstruction requires the recovery of the relationality of its context, either through a more thoroughgoing, ecological restoration of its conditions of existence or through the recreation of this immanent relationality in new contexts. This is why the other possible pole of indigenous reconstruction intersects with autonomous social movements and with anarchism and autonomism.

The Golden Age myth is actually extremely widespread in ideologies of the right, including conservatism, reaction/ultraconservatism, and fascism, and its significance should be understood in terms of its relationship to the transcendental function of the elevation of past over present and the psychologically and socially repressive basis for its performance (in Britain today, this would be the ideal of the 1950s; one can also compare cases such as hindutva, salafiya, Nazism, Serbian ultranationalism, etc). It should not – as is commonly done by non-conservatives and anti-totalitarians – be taken as evidence that seeking a better world is as such unjustified and is a socially dangerous myth, and/or that progress is always better than a romanticised past. The Golden Age myth is often a way of handling real experiences of loss and trauma, albeit in a distorting way, and the affirmative energies underlying it need to be released into affirmative forms of ‘propulsive utopia’ (see Bonanno), rather than simply dismissed because they can sometimes be captured by reactive forces. What should, rather, be abandoned is the repressive modality of producing social performativities which conservative and related ideologies share with progressivist modernisms and anti-perfectionist centrisms.

This is connected to peer-to-peer and networks on a deeper level than the sociological – the various reactive ideologies also depend on the denial of horizontality at the level of flows within the self (insisting on the molar self as referent, rather than molecularity of becomings), and working to protect the molar self from decomposition by warding off flows which exceed the self and carry it away from its imagined purity into the chaos of unregulated networks (see Theweleit’s excellent study of Freikorps discourse). Strong identities thus implicitly preclude transversal connections by regimenting connections to the world in line with transcendental/despotic signification and the maintenance of a hierarchy of values (the self / pure / integrated / class / race / dominatory masculine ‘heroism’ at the top, and difference / impurity / floods / the undifferentiated mass / women at the bottom). In concrete terms, this limits reactive networks in their ability to form transversal connections across certain kinds of difference. A hindutva network for example may be internally horizontal, and so might a salafi network, but a hindutva activist and a salafi could never form horizontal connections to one another, without shattering their respective identities. In this sense, a hierarchy operates as the outer limit (even if only conceptual/imaginary) of the network.”

2. Analysing the current political role of Red Toryism

“Blond poses as radical and ‘outside’, but basically he is an ideologue of the mainstream. he has recognised a very real problem that the British state is separated from society, but he misdiagnoses the problem in the ideology of the party in power, when in fact it is a structural problem. The difficulty is that, if the neototalitarian substitution of state for society and the decomposition of everyday social relations through repressive forms of governmentality are not addressed, the three problems Blond identifies – a top-heavy state, a fragmented and atomised society, and a drastic split between the two – remain insoluble.

Blond’s doctrine is remarkably similar to the mainstream of Blairism: here, too, communities are to be put at the centre of politics, and the state is incited to re-moralise social life and rebuild shattered communities (witness ideas such as the ‘Respect’ initiative, the idea of opposing ‘parallel lives’ and breakaway communities, the ‘inclusion’ agenda, the promotion of ‘citizenship’ in schooos…). Hence, the pattern is simply repeated. The neototalitarian imaginary which has taken over the mainstream in Britain, and which permits little dissent within accepted frames, is based on the idea that something is fundamentally wrong with society and that the state needs to take action to solve it – restricted of course by the requirements that the state be neoliberal and repressive, hence that the means it uses are rather curtailed in variety but extremely intrusive.

In fact, British political discourse is largely structured around a mixture of repression and trauma. Britain went through an authoritarian moment in the mid-80s when political options were foreclosed, and political space has never been re-opened since this point. Britain is thus in a similar position to post-authoritarian societies in which the past has not really been overcome, but has become unspeakable (e.g. Chile). The state ‘seceded’ from society in this period by adopting authoritarian forms to smash social movements, and since this point, the drift in executive authority and state-society distance has worsened. (This has been articulated in a frame limited to the Blair period by Oborne). In some ways, it is a classic Bonapartist scenario – the Establishment let loose its reins on the state to allow the state to smash opponents it no longer had the power to defeat itself; in doing so, it also gave the state control over the Establishment itself, leading to a reconstellation of social forces with the ‘political class’ rendered autonomous and at the top. This corresponds with a simultaneous restructuring of capital away from social insertion and towards externally-oriented finance and the ‘global city’ model.

So, Britain is in effect ‘occupied’ by a political class and its apparatuses, in alliance with a transnational capitalist grouping with little connection to Britain. This has led to the decomposition of old forms of social insertion, both sociological and imaginary. The majority have experienced this trauma as loss (some in the first period – the death of Old Labour, some in the second – the loss of Establishment patronage and Old Britain), but the loss has not been recognised as such, since to do so would require challenging the very pervasive ideological presentation of the transition either as continuity (Britain is and always will be a liberal democracy) or progress (Britain moved out of the old era of destructive ideological conflict).

This all makes sense when viewed in terms of Kropotkin’s ‘political’ and ‘social principles’: the ‘political principle’ seizes increasing power at the expense of the ‘social principle’; society is recomposed in authoritarian ways, and as a result, everyday horizontal connections are either decomposed or reclassified as anti-social/subversive. The history of Britain since the mid-80s is a history of a series of further attacks on the ‘social principle’, from the Criminal Justice Act (partying and protesting is anti-social) to ‘dispersal zones’ (congregating with one or more other people is anti-social), ‘New Public Management’ (breaking the social principle within professions and public service bodies through surveillance and gleichschaltung) to rearrangements of public space (attempting to coopt spatial users into a regulation based on fear). Notice also the decline in political engagement – falling party memberships, falling voting figures, reduced newspaper readerships and so on.

Of course, this leads to a situation where people experience a lack of horizontal connections, permanent fear of arbitrary power and of horizontal but desituated Others, a lack of community, etc.

The logical way of responding to such awareness is to bemoan the 80s counterrevolution and its subsequent continuation, to condemn the continued rule of the ‘political class’ and to demand a reversal of the transitions which have composed an increasingly authoritarian state. Yet this would raise old traumas – one would effectively have to admit that Thatcher needed to be beaten in the mid-80s, that the foreclosed possibilities are markers of the necessities of political openness. One would also have to reverse the dominant valorisations in public discourse today – for instance, to value freedom in public spaces (as a condition for horizontal composition) rather than regulation of public spaces for ‘security’.

Such a logical response is blocked by the dominant ideology and its effects – it has in effect been rendered unthinkable, and the trauma is ‘repressed’ (while remaining active as a Real).

With the trauma unresolved, it has been refracted ideologically through the technique of identifying Others viewed as the barrier between an imagined harmonious past or pure essence and the actuality of ‘broken Britain’ – criminals, ‘chavs’, migrants, political dissidents, etc, and corresponding discourses on cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, human rights etc – creating a climate of fear where people dare not think outside dominant categories. (This was a discourse unleashed initially by the political class itself, as a way of legitimating authoritarianism – see Hall’s ‘Policing the Crisis’ – but it has taken on a dynamic of its own through its connection to the news-value-seeking logic of the tabloids, and ultimately becomes disciplinary against individual politicians who are always under criticism for not being tough or effective enough, even while clearly reinforcing the total system). The result is a ‘choiceless democracy’ (or polyarchy) – parties which are extensions of the deep state compete to appear as the best bearer or articulator of the homogeneous official ideology. No movement from this ideology is possible without slipping precariously close to categories of exclusion.

This means, among other things, that any effective response to social decomposition is foreclosed in advance or rendered as intolerable to the dominant discourse.

Hence a situation when everyone – even the regime leaders – admit that something is wrong, that Britain is ‘broken’, that people are ‘too atomised’ and show too little respect for each other, that the revolution of the 60s and the counterrevolution of the 80s have ‘gone too far’, that certain virtues have been lost in the recent transitions… yet at the same time, the persistent attempts to address these failings are ‘utopian duplication’, simply repeating the nexus of the problem. The solution to the effects of the ‘political principle’ is taken to be… more of the ‘political principle’. The critique of the system as too atomised, too split between the state and society, too centralised, etc., becomes a supplementary critique – a necessary part of the dominant ideology, and not at all a bearer of critical force.

(There is much more that could be said… about the role in all this of militarised masculinities for instance, which provide a transmission belt from the ‘mainstream’ into the ‘symptom’ (of ‘crime’, violence, etc) which is permanently disavowed. But I think this is enough to situate Blond in the conjuncture).

In this context, we can situate Blond as someone who rehashes old themes in a slightly rearranged configuration.

What Blond proposes are actually measures which retain or even strengthen the neototalitarian state.

Take for instance the idea of loosening the reins still further on what he calls ‘frontline civil servants’, people such as police, community wardens and council officials, who already have draconian and vastly abused powers (the ability to issue ASBOs banning any act they happen to disapprove of, even if it is illegal; the ability to extort money under the pretext of summary on-the-spot fines for vaguely defined public order offences, etc). Of course the power of these petty incarnations of sovereignty will be directed mainly at the various Others. Hence also, an ideal of greater community, but enacted by the state; furthermore, enacted by the state using neoliberal/neototalitarian means, which basically come down to attempts to coerce participation either directly or through economic bribery/punishment – people will be forced to behave more communally, or else their benefits will be cut off, they will be fined for being anti-social or given ASBOs, etc. What could it mean to loosen their reins further? I suspect it would mean eliminating the few remaining judicial constraints – things like the duty on police to record instances of stop and search, the prohibition on wardens using force/violence, and various proportionality and human rights limits imposed by the courts.

At most it might mean loosening New Public Management to a sufficient degree to create a margin of ‘discretion’ – though this is unlikely to be implemented; if it were, it would generate at one degree remove a wave of tabloid outcry over why this man who had gone on to kill had not been charged for peeing in the street two years earlier, that suspected terrorist had not been raided because some civil servant had decided a phoned-in report was unreliable, or the other free party is left untouched because a local official deems it is not really much of a nuisance (we are seeing this already at an alarming tone of intensity with regard to social workers who ‘should have caught’ various well-publicised cases of abuse, and people who commit suicide after persistent bullying, where the media alleges police inaction). In tabloid discourse, a single failure to act – however reasonable at the time – is always proof of a widespread and pervasive culture of impunity, a sign of a systematic liberal bias at all levels of the state (or inability to act due to human rights laws, etc) – however statistically unlikely the response in question – and hence, politicians complying with this discourse have to constantly build in surveillance mechanisms to make sure officials don’t ‘fail to act’, that they always have the legal power to act, etc. So Cameron will end up saying to Blond: nice idea, but unworkable.

Notice also the centrality of the trope of overcoming left-right divisions: Blond’s ‘red Toryism’ is here indistinguishable from (pre-election) Blair’s ‘Third Way’ fusion of conservative and socialist values. This is really a way of identifying with the ‘post-ideological’ coordinates of the ‘post-politics’ of political class rule – rejecting in practice both the deep insertedness of conservatism and the social justice of social-democracy, even while upholding them as ideals or goals. (In a way, these people are all children of Eurocommunism or perhaps of Deng Xiaoping).

Hence, also, the attempt to pass off (or more worryingly perhaps, to really believe) rather conventional, mainstream, unchallenging ideas lacking in reflexivity or critical sense as ‘radical’, ‘new’, transformative, etc. (In African ‘choiceless democracies’, this takes a similar but simpler form: ‘change’, the ‘new’, ‘hope’ and the like as empty slogans in their own right).

Ultimately, Blond’s visibility is most likely a flash in the pan. Cameron, like Blair, is a creature of the political class (not the Establishment, and certainly not ‘society’). Image-conscious, and open to fusions with the deep state and the tabloids, his space within the system is rather limited, which will not stop him doing a lot of damage within the space it does give him. Since members of the political class are driven by publicity and official ideology first and foremost, they are not really responsive to high-minded ideals. Blond will likely vanish from the field just as quickly as Blair’s early intellectual referents such as Etzioni, Hudson and Field, and his slogans vanish just as quickly as the ‘Third Way’, ‘stakeholder society’ and their ilk. In the political class, seeking a ‘radical’ intellectual agenda is a political effect of seeking to mobilise discontent with an existing regime in hope for change. Their function is as signifiers, not as guiding beacons. And they lose their sign-value once a regime is in power, since to call for ‘radical’ change then becomes to question the continuities which have persisted.

While Blond’s motivations may well be more credibly academic, Cameron will have adopted him on the advice of spindoctors, for symbolic effect. This whole ‘red Tory’ line – characteristically kept at one degree of remove, so Cameron can reap the benefits without the risks – is probably a rhetorical response to the sad attempts by Blairites to roll out class politics as a point-scorer against the Tories, attempts which the Tories have echoed (the ‘Whelanism’ anti-union demo for instance), and which are equally absurd on both sides. Yet Cameron is vulnerable – he is from an extremely upper-class background, ex-private school and part of an elite Oxford University drinking club, and his Shadow Chancellor looks and sounds the archetypal ‘toff’, not to mention the ever-visible Boris Johnson (the three of them apparently drinking buddies at Oxford). It is also possible that Cameron is gearing up to form a national government with the Blairites, in the event of a hung parliament (since the parties now have more in common with each other than with the distinctly off-message Liberal Democrats). This would explain the ‘Red Tory’ stuff – emphasising similarities with Labour.

Look on a policy level, and Cameron is ‘more of the same’ – and I expect worse around the corner. Announced policies so far: a massive attack on squatters and travellers, including criminalising squatting in Britain for the first time since the Norman Conquest; banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, despite its lack of any connection to political violence, for holding views anathema to the dominant ideology and the tabloids; and repealing the Human Rights Act, the last judicial barrier to neototalitarianism, a barrier effectively forced on Britain by the ECHR and the EU (and one which Cameron will have difficulty doing without, unless he wishes to secede from Europe).

This could be the tip of the iceberg. There are at least two other cases where a ‘Third Way’ ostensibly socialist government was replaced by a right-wing party after a long spell in government: Australia under Hawke/Howard, and Spain under Gonzalez/Aznar. In neither of these cases did the rightists reverse any of the atrocities of the Third Way. In both cases, they started new onslaughts of their own – in Spain, this included draconian attacks on opposition parties including the banning of Batasuna, and vicious ‘anti-terror’ laws; in Australia, it included the privatisation of universities, further attacks on union and protest rights, and finally the atrocity of the ‘intervention’ in which entire Aboriginal communities suffered colonial occupation and moral policing. In neither case did the rightists have much of an electoral margin; in both cases they were replaced within a couple of elections, and in both cases there was a popular upsurge corresponding, I suspect, to the cutting loose of groups bought off through patronage under the ‘Third Way’. In both cases, the Labour equivalent moved back to the left in its rhetoric to gain re-election. But in neither case did it do anything progressive in turn, once re-elected. Aussie Labour’s flagship policy at the moment is to impose a Chinese-style blanket firewall on the Australian section of the Internet. The PSOE has yet again gone after squatters, seeking to clear all squats from Madrid (though after a few pitched battles I daresay it has backed off). One could refer similarly in this context to the Reagan-Clinton-Bush-Obama series; and to the persistent rotation of two deep-state parties which lasted decades in Turkey. In short, once a neototalitarian system is locked into a political system, it is not easy to break out of it; certainly the movements of mainstream parties do not cause such a shift.”

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