The Real Radicalism of Old Orthodoxies

The Power and the Glory : Graham Greene : 9780143107552

In my many years as an atheist, I always had a bit of a dirty secret, one that the few people I ever discussed it with – who were similarly good secular humanists – could not understand. I loved the two chief English Roman Catholic writers of the mid twentieth century: Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. In particular, I loved their novels of faith and doubt, of good and evil, especially Brideshead Revisited and The Power and the Glory.

I had in those days little or no real knowledge of Christian theology, and I would have struggled to articulate in any way that would have made any sense to my own worldview why I loved these novels. My love for them was stubborn and instinctive, but I felt embarrassed about it. In retrospect, however, it seems clear that what I found compelling about them was that they were both powerful testaments to the idea that, however flawed and broken individual human beings are, whatever sinful or ridiculous – or indeed whatever ostensibly harmless and rational – things we do, there is this towering bulwark of profound transcendental truth, this measure of human life and morals, that stands quite above and beyond us and imbues all human life with this electric charge of dignity and shame and significance that cannot be found elsewhere.

I think that unconsciously what made me love them so much was the implicit contrast with the worldview I actually faced day-to-day, which drained all colour and life out of the world: the secular-liberal-materialist orthodoxy that I encountered in various forms where I had lived and worked: the great yawning beige spiritual chasm of suburban Essex, and then even more sharply among the complacent and preaching secularism of bien pensant Cambridge.

What underpinned the unconscious premises of those worlds – very different as they are – was a profound sense that, whatever you did, within certain boundaries of order, utility and social acceptability, nothing really mattered very much. The only significance our behaviour and beliefs had was immanent in a very trivial set of social relationships that valued bland security, pleasure and material comfort. As a youthful leftist I thought that the central choice was between a belief in a radical reordering of these social relationships – one that I now see actually altered the forms but left the substance still very much in tact – and clinging to the status quo. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I believed – or at least I thought I did, at a conscious level – that security, pleasure and material comfort were all there is, that morality was just a prudential way of making these desires hang together – but they weren’t distributed fairly because of some mechanistic disordering of our economic relationships. Politics was just a disagreement about the mechanisms – and there was nothing beyond politics.

The great alteration in my life came when I realised that the commonplace ways of viewing our social and political relationships that appear to be so different – far-left socialism, reformist social democracy, neoliberalism, radical libertarianism etc – actually have far more in common than anything that divides them, and that the real radicalism is to reject the cosmic mechanistic indifference that underlies all of them.

What does this commonality consist of?

Most basically, it is the view that, since no transcendental, didactic, spiritual order exists, the only significance that anything has is what human beings conventionally agree to bestow on it. Since human beings find it very difficult to agree on much except the need for a few basic conditions of bare and animal existence – the need for material sustenance, some basic degree of physical security, respect for the instinct towards avoiding pain and seeking pleasure etc – society can be reduced to a set of technocratic agreements about how best to order these lowly considerations. We might argue about which mechanistic combination of policies and institutions and regulations and laws and taxes is best to divvy up the raw materials we agree are important, and on what basis that divvying up should be conducted, but that’s where real debate ends. Beyond, that, so long as no-one other than oneself is harmed, anything goes. Morality is made into a lowly and pragmatic thing – or else a vastly abstracted set of arbitrary parlour games between cheese-paring scholars disconnected from any social or personal reality.

As there is no transcendental or spiritual reality, such a reality can’t limit the scope for or regulate the justifiability of humans manipulating physical and social reality as we please. The only limits to the imposition of sheer human willpower on nature and society are practical ones, which we might disagree about, but only in some technical sense. The ends to which this imposition of our might are aimed at are regulated either by the merely materialistic aims all agree on, or by disagreement that represents merely the expression of interests or power politics or moralistic propositions that are adopted purely subjectively and arbitrarily, perhaps as a thin veneer to justify aforementioned interests or power.

In this view, humans are, in essence, neutral beings: technologically advanced animals. They may be more or less intellectually or practically limited, but they have no pre-ordained ends, spiritual being or moral nature. The point of life is merely to satisfy one’s preferences, which are spontaneously and individually generated, part of some undertheorized ‘inner self’ which is probably no more than a bundle of arbitrary and ultimately chemical predispositions and desires. The only good is giving free-rein to this self, this bundle of desire and preferences, insofar as it’s compatible with the pragmatic arrangements needed to secure our basic mutual security and material existence.

Such a worldview tends to be linked to a metaphysic of determinism. We’re no more than chance assemblages of physical forces acting out a pre-ordained script, one programmed into us by inexplicable, vast forces, like evolution or economics or whatever other material phenomena that exist and play themselves out without rhyme or reason. This implies quite clearly that no-one really has any agency or responsibility for their own actions, which could hardly have been otherwise.

Of course, such a worldview is packaged in fluffy terms. If there are no fusty rules to obey, except a few pragmatic rules of thumb that ensure the unalloyed rule of pleasure and material security can continue, then anything goes! We need not fear judgment or shame, because we’re just marionettes without any real free-will anyway! We no longer need to feel restricted by boring old ‘repressive’ moral laws or traditional authorities or religions – we can just be ourselves and ‘get on with our lives’!

The problem is, of course, that it’s not entirely clear why, in such a worldview, anyone would really want to ‘get on with their lives’ at all, as the whole business has been reduced to a level of such insignificance, banality and purposelessness that it seems to be barely worth one’s time. There can’t really be any drama or romance or even love in an existence that has been stripped so bare. Life becomes like passively watching a play in which one features as a silent extra, a play with no jokes and no pathos, in which one knows the outcome in advance. It’s hardly any wonder that the majority of secular-materialists, of left and right, agree so passionately about people’s right to die, either assisted by someone else or through suicide, as and when they want, for any damn reason they might think of, from the relatively understandable (pain) to the merely causal (boredom). Because if you adopt this worldview, then…why not?

In order to try to cope with all this, the inhabitants of secular-materialist times either try not to think about the real implications of the rather terrifying universe they now suppose themselves to live in, either by not thinking much at all or by unreflectingly trading off old ideas despite substantially rejecting them (e.g. Christian morality in the repackaged, empty & distorted form of Human Rights™), or amuse themselves by ever more ‘transgressive’ and absurd assertions of arbitrariness and amorality in the rather quaint belief that they’re being radical and ‘daring’ and avant-garde. Hence the online cottage industry of secularist-materialist stupidity, in which articles are churned out advocating for things such as, in no particular order, incest, the legalisation of drugs, transgenderism, transhumanism, paedophilia, polyamory etc etc etc.

The truth is, of course, that such people are not in the least ‘radical’, except in these sense that they wish to apply the stale orthodoxy of our secular epoch a bit more consistently. Insofar as it’s radicalism, it’s a horrible parody of radicalism that seeks to apply the self-defeating remedies of a sick liberal order in ever more extreme doses in the hope that it will kill or cure.

No, the real radicalism is to reject this entire set of beliefs and embrace the real alternative: traditional catholic Christian belief and morality (whether Roman, Reformed or Eastern Orthodox).

It was the fact my hungry secular soul yearned for these things that attracted me to Waugh and Greene. In their world, God very much does exist, and has all sorts of purposes – and the inevitable concomitant of purpose, restrictions – in mind for us. A transcendental, overawing spiritual edifice is there, extending far up unto the sky, towering over you. It’s odd and it’s gothic and it’s romantic and it’s exciting and it’s dramatic and by God does it make the world come alive again. It even makes sin and transgression a lot more interesting. It stands watching over a world of choice and good and evil and sin and virtue and true freedom and responsibility and meaning, where the drab monochrome of contemporary secular materialism fades away and in its place the most intricate, richly coloured, multi-textured work of glorious, heavenly beauty appears. It turns the world from one bland pile of steaming gruel that makes no impression on your jaded palette to an aromatic dish of spices and seasonings and delicious fresh tastes.

Welcome to the new radicalism of the 21st Century.

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Pull Yourself Together: Prince Harry and the Culture of Fatalism

There is a sketch from the brilliantly dark 00s TV show ‘Monkey Dust’ in which a man who is ‘at the end of his tether’ desperately seeks a therapist. An indifferent receptionist tells him that the only person who can see him is Major Wadcock, who has ‘worked here rather a long time’. Wadcock, an elderly war veteran, tells the man, who is struggling to deal with losing his father, ‘For God’s sake pull yourself together man! I lost 120 men and 2 toes in Malaya and you don’t see me blubbing. Next!!!’

I rather enjoy this puncturing of the touchy-feely self-indulgence of our age, a spirit summed up by Prince Harry, who has decided that an epic tour of self-pity and bemoaning his supposed victim status is the right path to help him recover from his past traumas. It made me reflect on the wider cultural malaise that he embodies.

Now, all joking aside, despite his massive privilege, clearly Harry has had a life marked by trauma. Losing his mother when he was a boy, before being asked to parade in the funeral cortege, is enough to affect anyone’s sang froid. No doubt being a member of the Royal Family, particularly in the context of the saga of his parents’ marriage and mother’s death, has not always been a laugh a minute. The fact that he has otherwise lived a life of extraordinary material privilege doesn’t mean he has not suffered in important respects. I am no fan of Prince Harry, but it’s futile to deny these realities.

The contrast between Major ‘Pull yourself together’ Wadcock and Harry’s ‘look at my trauma!’ tour symbolises the change in popular attitudes towards mental health and coping with the sort of adversity that Harry has indeed faced. In many ways, Harry’s mother’s death was the crucial watershed in public attitudes. The outpouring of maudlin sentiment and popular emotionalism that accompanied Princess Diana’s death was seen as a repudiation of the long hegemony of emotional repression and stoicism which marked our national life. The Second World War seems to be the other important landmark. The war generation – of which Major Wadcock is a caricatured, comedic symbol – cemented this sort of stiff-upper-lip attitude as our cultural default setting: men and women who had witnessed genuine death and suffering preferred not to talk about it, and the collective consensus was that pulling one’s self together was about as good a reaction as any to this and life’s other suffering.

The truth is that this sort of folk morality was never quite what it seemed. My father was taught at school in the late 60s/early 70s by a survivor of a Japanese POW camp. He was clearly a deeply troubled man who nowadays would probably have been diagnosed as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. A fundamentally gentle man, he had blackouts from time to time when he would become hysterical and violent, imagining he was back in the camp and being tortured by his Japanese captors. He injured several boys while teaching them metalwork, lashing out at them because he was convinced that they were his persecutors. Sympathy with his plight meant that this was covered up. Clearly a man so troubled should not have been teaching schoolchildren, although one can also sympathise with those who didn’t want to disgrace him, given what he had suffered, and so tried to gently coax him into retirement rather than just dismiss him.

And indeed during the war and just after ‘pull yourself together’ was manifestly not an altogether satisfactory response ,whatever its real virtues. Many struggled to cope with loss and witnessing terrible suffering, and no amount of stoical bromides could prevent some of them from suffering terrible mental health problems, sometimes suicide, more usually self-medication through drinking. Blitz spirit existed side-by-side with blitz shock and grief, and it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise.

I am not a mental health expert and don’t pretend to have any special insight in that area, but there is no doubt that taking seriously the plight of those suffering the aftermath of genuine trauma, grief and difficulty, those suffering mental health problems, is far more humane. Treating such issues rather than ignoring them or acquiescing in the solution of widespread self-medication through alcohol or similar is obvious common sense. My dad’s teacher should have received help of some kind: leaving him to cope with the aftermath of torture and near death on his own was deeply unsatisfactory.

The problem is that we have gone from one unhealthy extreme to another, from a culture of soldiering on and repression to a culture of mawkish self-indulgence and public parading of every human difficulty or trauma. From not talking about difficult things, people are encouraged to do little else, as publicly and openly as possible.

So in our current cultural moment, the case for a dose of Major Wadcockism is strong. Let me explain.

The reality is that almost everyone faces adversity and suffering at some point in their lives. Not everyone will have witnessed their mates being mown down on Sword beach or experienced being thrashed to within an inch of their lives by a Japanese prison guard, but pretty much everyone will experience the death of a loved one. The number of people who manage to negotiate their life without ever experiencing family breakdown/divorce or depression or loneliness or dysfunctional family relationships or problems with drink or drugs or abuse or some adversity on a significant scale is small. I am certainly not myself one of those lucky people, although I have been luckier than many.

Given that the vast majority of us encounter such problems, it seems to me that the worst thing that we can do in response to such traumas is to embrace an ethic of fatalism, or even a sort of perverse pride in being able to claim a particularly pity-inducing level of victimhood. Losing a sense that one retains agency in one’s own life and that one remains responsible for one’s own actions and responses to those difficulties is the worst possible thing that can happen. To paraphrase Marx (of all people), we do all individually make our own histories, even though we never make them under circumstances of our own choosing. The fact that circumstances can be difficult never takes away our ability to choose how to respond to them. Even the man condemned to hang can choose whether to die with calm dignity or weeping like a child. Those who lose sight of this become the most pitiable of all. They end up being bit-players in their own lives, acquiescing in the worst possible scenario of the multiple possibilities that were open to them.

That said, it is undoubtedly true that some people encounter circumstances that limit their choices to an extreme degree, and it would be quite wrong not to recognise this. The child growing up in the Gaza strip or a refugee slum-camp have every right to feel aggrieved at their situation, and simply exhorting them to ‘pull themselves together’ and nothing else is manifestly heartless and quite stupid. In some cases, people are given little or no choice but to acquiesce in a fatalistic acceptance of terrible situations.

However, the sort of self-indulgence and glorying in victimhood that I am decrying seems to me, paradoxically, to be more prevalent – and an awful lot less excusable – in societies and among individuals that do not face such extreme circumstances. Indeed, one could be forgiven for concluding that the more mild such circumstances, the more likely that a toxic brew of therapeutic narcissism, extreme self-pity and utter fatalism will take hold.

Ironically, Prince Harry has become more whingy and self-indulgent the less his life has become genuinely characterised by trauma. Losing his mother and being part of the circus that surrounded her death was terrible, but it also happened 24 years ago. He is wealthy and no longer within the ‘emotional prison’ (as he would see it) of his family, having moved to the US and given up being an active royal. He’s also married to someone who is undoubtedly attractive and whom he claims (and I have no reason to doubt his claim) he loves. He also has a beautiful son and another child on the way. And yet he has chosen this point in his life to engage in an orgy of self-pity and ‘me me me’ emotional exhibitionism.

In this sense, Harry is no more than a fitting symbol of our age, at least within wealthy western countries. Few people who live in the USA or UK face appalling circumstances on the scale of the Brazilian slum-dweller or sub-Saharan AIDs victim. Indeed, it is among the most wealthy, affluent and ostensibly fortunate even within our relatively privileged societies that one witnesses the most extravagant embodiments of narcissistic self-regard and whining victimhood-mongering. Stoical soldiering on is more likely to be witnessed (although far from inevitable) among those relatively low in our social scale, even among those who do have genuine problems: the food bank users, those who live in poverty-scarred, forgotten communities, those who work zero-hours contracts in Amazon warehouses. Even if their struggles are a good deal milder than the most troubled people in the world’s poorest countries, they do have genuine problems, and they are at least more likely to act with a bit of dignity than the exhibitionist wealthy whingers of our liberal ruling classes, who often fish about to find some plausible grounds for victimhood when none really exists.

The reason for this is that the fundamental assumptions of our hyper-liberal culture undermine self-reliance, resilience and basic responsibility, and those further up the social scale – with the exception of the genuine social conservatives (who often hypocritically preach liberal permissiveness to the rest of us) – are most exposed to those corrosive values (although we all are to some degree, and the working classes are by no means exempt).

Let us examine some of these assumptions.

One assumption is that the guiding principle of life should be choice. Any obligation or duty that isn’t consciously chosen by an autonomous, freely consenting individual is oppressive, and even when chosen, if it isn’t an obligation that can be thrown off at short notice on a whim then it is still oppressive. This is the basis upon which all moral, social, cultural and even biological norms, institutions and phenomena that restrict us in ways we haven’t consciously chosen – from norms of sexual self-restraint and monogamy even down to our biological sex – are assailed as oppressive.

Curiously, another assumption equally pervasive is that we are all puppets of our social environment (although never biological reality). It is a sacred orthodoxy of our age among liberals and leftists that it is in some way heartless to suggest that people might have responsibility for their own lives to any important degree. They hold that, although we’re not constrained by our biological sex, we are constrained within socially constructed gender roles: hence the bizarre belief among gender studies students that even chickens’ behaviour – let alone humans’ – is determined by their upbringing and social conditioning, not by their evolved sexual behaviour. Liberal orthodoxy holds that drug addicts or people in poverty are only and solely passive victims of their social circumstances, their environment, their family background etc: their own choices can never be taken into account in explaining their plight. Even moderate views that suggest that personal choices and social environment interact to produce these outcomes, and neither constitutes the sole explanation in isolation, are condemned as blaming people for their own poverty or addiction or unhappiness.

It’s not difficult to see the glaring contradiction here. Choice is everything, but no-one can be blamed for their bad choices. We are – or should be treated as – totally autonomous individuals, but we’re also trapped by our social environment.

The obvious consequence of this is a weird sort of fatalism. This odd mixture of ideas blocks off two wise and sane responses to life. The first is the sense that there are many things we cannot choose or change, and we’re best trying to make the best of them. Human will is not infinitely powerful, we’re not all-conquering Promethean superheroes, and so being content involves some degree of acceptance of this. The second is that where there are things that can be changed – either in our individual choices and behaviour or our collective institutions and environment – we do have some agency to do so. Human life is where our given circumstances interact with our choices. Accepting that not everything is in our control is the crucial precondition for realising that some things are in our control. God has created many realities that we cannot alter in order to give us a context of meaning and stability within which we can develop and co-operate in order to control the realities that He has left within our scope. We are free, but within certain constraints. Hyper-liberalism has led to the paradoxical view that we’re not free, but the scope for our unfreedom is totally unconstrained.

This bizarrely leads to a sort of cultural left-liberalism that is simultaneously very radical, in a totally futile way, and also very conservative, in a very effective way. In theory we can alter everything, bend all things to our will, including even nature and human biology, but in practice we are so shaped by our circumstances and social environment that we can change nothing. So we rail at the things that we cannot, in fact, change, while passively accepting many things that we could indeed change, both individually and collectively.

This leads to an impasse in which the only reaction that makes sense is a culture of narcissistic therapy and fatalistic self-pity, in which one performatively attempts to get sympathy for the unfortunate things that cannot be altered, but steadfastly refuses to take the sensible actions that could result in genuine alterations and improvements in one’s life. Prince Harry could try to leave the celebrity-Royal nexus and do an honest job that doesn’t shamelessly play on who he is – or at the very least retire to quiet, modest obscurity – rather than what he’s currently doing: making a sort of weird semi-career as a media celeb out of publicly slagging off his own family, the only reason why anyone has heard of him in the first place. If he is abused on social media, he could simply log off – but then he wouldn’t have something to flail against and use to garner sympathy. He is a man with an awful lot of choices, but without the gumption to make any of the right ones.

The old ‘pull yourself together’ stoicism – embodied by his grandmother – was probably too ready to remain silent on those unfortunate things we cannot alter in life, neglecting the possibility that one doesn’t have to cope with such adversity alone, and it might have overestimated the scope for our own agency and responsibility, believing that anything could be simply ‘shrugged off’ and overcome. However, whatever the faults of such an attitude, it was a good deal wiser and more excusable than the noxious blend of the weepy passivity and faux-radical self-righteousness that has replaced it.

In this contrast one might see some insight as to why the Queen remains popular, a symbol of duty and sanity, and Prince Harry is fast becoming a figure of fun and ridicule in the UK – a fact which suggests that on some deep level, the majority in this country still feel in their bones the power of the old belief in resilience and responsibility. It is that thought that gives me some hope.

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Abroad Thoughts From Home: On Travel

‘I travelled among unknown men,

In lands beyond the sea;

Nor, England! did I know till then

What love I bore to thee.’

Wordsworth

I’ve always hated travel, particularly foreign travel. Like sunshine, Line of Duty and coffee, it’s just one of those apparently wildly popular things that leaves me cold. When people tell me that they’ve been to some far-flung destination, to Thailand or Peru or India, they are rather taken aback – even annoyed – when my reaction is ‘Oh no, poor you’. Their descriptions of crystal-clear oceanic paradises, bejewelled palaces and breath-taking sunsets don’t move me in the slightest. All very well, I think, but could you get a decent cup of tea while you peered over the Serengeti? Were you nursing a thighful of mosquito bites while you admired the Taj Mahal? Was your awe at Macchu Picchu tempered by a nagging doubt that you’d lost your luggage and would have to sell yourself into white slavery to afford a plane ticket home?

As this may suggest, some of my antipathy towards foreign travel comes from simple logistical anxiety. While in foreign climes, I live in constant fear of being mugged or losing some key item, like my passport or wallet, and having to make myself very unpopular over a lot of awkward paperwork at the British Consulate – or worse. These anxieties make relaxing and enjoying it difficult. On a similar note, I just can’t be bothered with the faff and administrative fidgey-widginess that comes from all that planning and booking and whatnot.  Still more of it comes from having spent much of my first year at university listening to 18-year-old Grace Blakeley types bore on about how much they enjoyed building a school for disabled Asian children in between 72 hour beach parties during their gap years.

I do, however – at the risk of being accused of attempting to find thinly veiled rationalisations of my inveterate prejudices – think I have a few rather more weighty objections to foreign travel.

It seems almost compulsory, whenever anyone is asked about their interests and hobbies, in some personal bio or similar, to say, alongside those other perennial-but-tedious favourites walking and cooking, ‘foreign travel’. I am surprised at the number of people who appear to live almost solely for expensive foreign travel. They go about their everyday lives purely as the means to the end of paying for their big trip to Barbados or their annual cruise around the Balearics or whatever, and will talk about precious little else. 48 weeks of workaday grind is redeemed, apparently, by a month in sunny climes.

Younger people appear to see constant foreign travel as some badge of rectitude, proof of one’s open-minded, cosmopolitan tendencies. Indeed, these people seem to imply, those who aren’t constantly jetting off to some exotic and ideally ‘culturally enriching’ foreign land are insular, parochial, not really ‘living their best life’ (a nauseating phrase that deserves to pass into oblivion as soon as possible). A particularly irritating acquaintance of my wife’s once said (without a trace of self-awareness) that ‘I don’t think you can really say you’ve really lived until you’ve felt the wind ruffle your hair while you ride on a motorcycle through the Golden Triangle’ (somewhere in Thailand apparently). How can you really appreciate the full range of what humanity and nature have to offer until you’ve experienced the world’s rich panoply of different people, places and cultures?

The amusing thing about these people is that it is almost always the case that they probably don’t know their own neighbours or their local area. They think nothing of helping to build a school in the Gambia, but they wouldn’t dream of helping their local Church or community centre out with its gardening or cake sale or fundraising. Even if the city they live in contains genuinely deprived areas – which it probably does, as it’s probably London or some university town – one can put money on them being serenely indifferent to the problems of unsatisfactorily plebeian and unexotic poor people. Local poverty gives so much less opportunity for posing as the saintly good Samaritan in pictures with photogenic African children, I suppose.

The real issue here is that the human diversity that really matters is staring you in the face already. You don’t need to travel 4000 miles to find it: it’s all around you. Human beings contain multitudes wherever and whoever they are, and the motley group of people who happen to live within, say, a few miles of you encompass – if only you knew it – a bewildering array of different beliefs, attitudes, socio-economic situations, problems, dreams, fears, loves and heaven knows what. As importantly, the truly meaningful and enduring relationships, the ones that will give you a true home in the world and allow you to do consistent and unglamorous good are the ones on your doorstep.

Travel is only ever going to give you a very superficial insight into the ways that other peoples live, their problems and joys and relationships and so forth. Turning up and deigning to try their delightfully exotic looking food, pat their stray dogs and sample the carefully curated and airbrushed version of the ‘local experience’ that they think you’ll want to spend money on – or even turning up and spending a few weeks helping them install a water pump or whatever – is only ever a passing fancy. It’s attractive precisely because, however exotic and novel the experience, it’s temporary and you can forget about it all when you’re safely back home. If you can be bothered to look, you can’t forget about what you see when you open your front door so easily, which is why so many try not to see in the first place.

I think what makes foreign travel so incredibly appealing to so many people is, partly, that they are so alienated from their everyday existences, their neighbourhoods or towns or workplaces or even families. If you’re going to be bored and alienated, then best to do it staring out at a shimmering ocean, quaffing a Daiquiri, enjoying some decent weather, I suppose. Ultimately, however, a pattern of alienation and atomisation punctuated by hedonistic and superficially exciting forms of escape is no way to live. Attempting to find a richer, more satisfying, more dutiful existence at home would be time better spent, even if the cocktails are more expensive and the weather rainier.

The most troubling thing is that it belies a serious antipathy towards genuinely experiencing human diversity, an antipathy travel encourages or at best provides a diversion from. The archetypal modern man or woman will spend much of their time either socialising with people exactly like them (same opinions, same tastes etc), or travelling abroad to gain a passing experience of a cultures and peoples that may be different in some picturesque way, but which they will never have to have anything more to do with subsequently. The only place that they might find some genuine human diversity – people who actually see the world differently – is at work, although given the rise of working from home and the attempt to impose intellectual homogeneity on many workplaces, I wouldn’t bet on that. One can’t help but feel that the fact that so many younger people struggle with intellectual disagreement and heterogeneity nowadays is because there are so few contexts in which they might have to put up with the company of people who have very different outlooks and views to them. Given that they are most likely to meaningfully interact with fellow western travellers of a very similar socio-economic background and opinions to them while travelling (the locals are serving the drinks and changing the bedsheets), travel is very much not the solution to this problem.

A visit to one’s local pub is a more likely solution. I’ll certainly find more human diversity and interest in my local pubs – one of which adjoins a council estate – than I could from some whistlestop tour of Cambodia or the Baltic States or wherever. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘It is quite proper that a British diplomatist should seek the society of Japanese generals, if what he wants is Japanese generals. But if what he wants is people different from himself, he had much better stop at home and discuss religion with the housemaid’. I fear, however, that that is, in their heart of hearts, the last thing that most of the ever-so-sophisticated, cultured middle classes actually want. What they really want is superficial difference masking people much like themselves and cultures much like their own.

I will say this much for foreign travel, however. It never fails to make me appreciate how much I love home. I do actually recommend the occasional foreign jaunt – if only to sharpen up one’s appreciation of the superiority of England, of the familiar, of the everyday.

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A Plea to Save the Church of England

The Church of England is dying, and the process is being hastened by a process of managerial euthanasia overseen by its episcopal leadership.

Almost as bad as this is the fact that our (not-so) slow death is only the second stage of a process which will first see us transformed into a set of charismatic quasi-nonconformist wannabe ‘megachurches’ that totally reject traditional Anglican doctrine and practice. We won’t even be allowed to die with dignity.

We have to do everything we can to stop this. We have to save the Church.

Coming to the Church through tradition

My path to the Church of England was unusual. I was bought up in a home that wasn’t so much anti-religious as one in which religion played no role whatsoever (well, the secular religion of Marxism did to some extent, but certainly not Christianity). It was just never really mentioned. Until quite recently, I was a secular humanist, and if you’d told me that I’d end up a (I hope) devout Anglican I’d have thought you were quite mad.

What brought me to the Church? Well, many things. Partly because I had a total collapse in my confidence that any kind of meaningful moral framework could be sustained without God and gradually I came to see smug liberal secular humanism as a totally incredible intellectual edifice which was an awful lot less believable than the historic creed of the holy and apostolic catholic church. Partly I converted due to a process of reading more and more theology and apologetics and becoming increasingly convinced in the power, truth and coherence of the doctrines and faith of the Church. Partly the help and love of my wife, who was baptised a few years before me. Partly a hundred other things.

As part of this process, I read a lot of historic Anglican divines. The luminous devotional prose of Jeremy Taylor; the spare intellectualism of the judicious Hooker; the sacred simplicity of the poetry of George Herbert; the inspired sermons of John Donne. I read John Jewel and E.J Bicknell and Charles Gore and many Anglican writers across the centuries. I became increasingly convinced of the authority of the Church of England, a church Catholic and reformed, based on ‘one canon, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period’, centred around preaching the word of God and administering the sacraments: the visible body of Christ on earth.

I then looked around and saw that this country has the richest physical and cultural testament to this spiritual inheritance imaginable, an aesthetic heritage that is everywhere around us. Thousands of beautiful Churches and many sublime Cathedrals. Hundreds of choirs working to sustain our historical choral traditions. A literary canon underpinned by the deep faith of so many subtle, intelligent Anglican lay writers, from Jane Austen and W.H. Auden to Wordsworth and Laurence Sterne, not to mention Christina Rossetti, Barbara Pym, John Betjeman and many others. I had a spiritual awakening that became an aesthetic one too.

At the heart of all this are the glorious cadences and rich, sonorous tones of the Book of Common Prayer. My road to Christianity began, I think, because I came across, when I was volunteering in a second-hand bookshop, a very old, very tiny copy of the BCP in the store room at the back. It was too battered to sell and stock that was not sellable we were allowed to take home. I slipped it into my pocket and read it surreptiously, feeling like an apostate to the Church of Secular Humanism. It felt like a little shard of my dormant ancestral faith – and my heritage as an Englishman – piercing through my shirt into my side when I felt its dainty bulk through my jacket. I started going to Church and meeting a very kind, very erudite priest who prepared me for my Baptism.

But gradually, the reality of the Church of England of the 21st century began to dawn on me.

Painful realities

The Church that me and my wife attended – I was just starting, she’d been going for a few years – is a down-at-heel Highish Church in our home city. It is a truly beautiful building on the inside, and the (unpaid, semi-retired) priest who kept the show on the road was a true Christian who did her best in trying circumstances. The congregation was small and generally elderly. It was a shame that it wasn’t BCP, but I had that for morning and evening prayer and it celebrated the Eucharist in a dignified and moving fashion, using some BCP language for canticles and similar. It became a sort of home for me.

But gradually, the problems became clearer and clearer.

Firstly, as it was a team ministry our habitual priest did not always take the services. I noticed increasingly that the sermons that most of the other priests gave were, more often than not, either banal, irrelevant, or heretical.

Most common was the party political broadcast (always for the Lib Dems) dressed up very scantily as a piece of preaching. We had sermons against Brexit (Christ was a Remainer, essentially), endless ones about Climate Change, others about any fashionable left-wing cause under the sun. I sometimes agreed with the politics of the sermons, sometimes disagreed, but I wondered whether I’d stumbled into the wrong building of a Sunday. Was this a local Greenpeace meeting? Had someone neglected to tell me that I’d accidentally joined Amnesty International?

Worse still were the sermons that even I (who hadn’t spent years studying in a theological college) could tell were heretical. The one where the Resurrection was said to be merely a metaphor and compared to Pokemon. The one where the Wedding at Cena was said to be the product of Christ’s skill in chemical engineering. And so on. It was some time before I realised that the fact that these priests had gone to theological college was often precisely the reason why they spouted heresy.

I was keen to get involved, try to change things. I joined the local DCC and PCC. I was desperate to offer my services and get involved. I rather wish in a way that I hadn’t, because it was unbelievably disillusioning.

What became clear very quickly was that all the meetings talked about were money and bureaucracy. If the discussion ever strayed onto anything to do with worship (let alone social action to help the disadvantaged or evangelisation), the Rector of the team ministry would say ‘that is my decision, PCCs and DCCs have no power over worship or services’ – or, it was implied, anything but coming up with ideas to help us pay our Parish Share. If anyone challenged her, the reaction was extremely defensive and brittle.

Other than moaning about being broke and failing to think of ways to deal with it, the only other thing that happened in meetings was the distribution of the managerial pronouncements of the Church at diocesan or national level, which usually were about nothing other than trivia, routine matters, things that seemed curiously irrelevant (my PCC spent more time talking about the transfer of responsibility for a very old graveyard to the local council for upkeep than it ever did about worship), or safeguarding, which is important but took up an amount of time that seemed ridiculous.

I have spent years involved in another voluntary organisation (the Labour Party, for my sins), and I know this sort of stuff is necessary. I have no illusions: boring stuff has to be done. Treasurers make their reports, nuts-and bolts stuff is arranged, agendas written and minutes produced. But the problem was that in this parish there was nothing else – other than worship on Sunday, a cake sale and a few other bits and bobs which were nice, but not really embodying the fullness of Christian duty and faith, shall we say.

Then came Covid.

Covid

I need not say, I hope, that I appreciate how difficult the past year has been for everyone including priests. I am sure that many priests have worked hard to do their best for their flock.

But it is no exaggeration to say that I have been deeply, deeply shocked by the Church’s reaction to Covid.

Firstly, at the level of my own Church. The Church was shut as soon as possible and for as long as possible, opening only for the bare minimum for private prayer. The precautions taken were extreme to the point of ludicrousness (the Lady Chapel was closed because of the risk of someone catching Covid from the seats!). No-one came for private prayer much because the Church (which is enormous) had been transformed into what looked like a cross between an empty supermarket and a testing room at Porton Down.

Once we were allowed to hold services again, our Rector…did nothing. Services were only allowed to happen again months after they were permitted nationally, and even then no-one ever saw her. They were only allowed once every three weeks at my Church. They were shambolic because the zoom audience at home was prioritised and no-one knew how to properly work the technology.

Nationally, I was incredulous at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s order that priests would not even be allowed to celebrate the Eucharist in their own church. The alacrity with which Zoom was not simply adopted as a last resort, but embraced eagerly by many priests struck me as deeply alarming. The importance of the physicality of the sacraments, of the importance of bodily community, was brushed aside. Indeed, it became very clear to me that the priests who adopted the majority position – liberal anti-traditional evangelicalism – and even more so their more charismatic and emotionalist allies showed little or no interest in the Eucharist. My books had told me that Holy Communion was an ‘effectual sign of God’s grace’, a channel of grace and mercy, a key means of conveying to the faithful Christ’s spiritual power and love. My eyes showed me that only a tiny fraction of the Church’s actual priests thought the same.

The Church was instead obsessed with showing that it was an efficient albeit small part of the voluntary sector-cum-welfare state – noble, but proffered without any reference to any of the rest of its mission. Many priests fled indoors and abandoned their flocks. Distracting zoom services bedevilled by technological cock-ups and their inherent flatness became the be-all and end-all.

Perhaps worst of all, most priests embraced a safetyism which seemed to belie their (supposed) belief in eternal life. Fear, chiefly of death, became the dominant, almost the only note in the Church’s rhetoric. Bare life with little or no spiritual enrichment or saving grace became the priority. Death had sole dominion.

I left my Church and found one that deigned to open and seemed to value the Eucharist.

Wider issues

I am still a relative newcomer to the Church of England, and so my knowledge of its structures and policies is imperfect. No doubt I’m not right on every detail.  But even so, after I started reading the Church Times (itself largely a mouthpiece for the liberal evangelical establishment) and various other blogs and articles – as well as reading some of the documents sent to me as a PCC member – a number of wider issues became clear.

I had always been under the impression that the parochial system – whereby everyone in the country is in a parish and (if they wish it) under the pastoral care and spiritual guidance of their local Priest – was the jewel in the crown of the Church. And yet it was clear that the Church centrally sees it as a drain, a bore. It talks sneeringly about the burden of funding poor parishes. It actually squeezes money out of the local churches through the Parish Share, while relying on an army of often unpaid older priests to keep parishes (just about) going. It is now talking about a whirlwind of sackings, of gutting the parochial clergy altogether.

I thought to myself – well, the Church of England must have some money. And it is a fair point that much of it is tied up in pensions, paying employees and maintenance of buildings. But it became clear very quickly that its remaining money is being poured into grand ‘strategic development funding’ projects that sound suspiciously like either a) white elephants or b) means of shifting all the funds to grandiose evangelical propaganda projects (or both). Not only that, but such projects seem to be picked not according to any evidence of their effectiveness for revitalising the church, but purely for fitting in with the ideological and theological idiosyncrasies of the Welby agenda.

But that’s not all. It became clear to me that the liberal church Establishment doesn’t, as I assumed surely anyone would, see our heritage of churches – from exquisite Suffolk churches dating back to the Middle Ages to grand Victorian edifices, from those built around the time of St Augustine’s mission up until the apogee of the Oxford Movement – as a gift and a precious tradition. They see them as horrible burden, a pointless money pit that is totally unnecessary because ‘the church isn’t its buildings’.

But the poverty of the church leadership’s aesthetic sense, its total refusal to understand the power of the ‘beauty of holiness’, the great gift of those wonderful architectural, musical and literary heritages that most national churches would be absurdly proud to cherish and guard, doesn’t stop there. Suddenly I noted story after story in the Church Times about plans to close down the Church’s choirs, the backbone of its justly famous choral tradition. I found the casual cultural vandalism involved, the heedless desire for ‘change’ and innovation for its own sake or to satisfy the greedy importunities of the secular culture and ‘woke’ politics that the Church slavishly tries to follow, to be as shocking as it was disgraceful.

This was all the more shocking when I began to regularly read the jobs pages in the Church Times. While plans to sack more and more parish priests, to cut and cut and cut, where either announced or hinted at in the main pages at the front, in the less read pages at the back of the paper the Church was advertising to create a baffling army of ‘change enablers’, ‘diversity consultants’ and ‘missional archdeacons’ – an enormous tier of middle management with no function other than spouting jargon, diverting funds away from the parishes and completing the management consultant-isation of the Church. Whereas no money can be found for parishes, or to prevent priests being sacked, or to sustain choirs, endless money apparently exists to be funnelled into a Kafkaesque tangle of obscure bureaucracy.

I also began to hear stories about how some Churches were generally not living up to their requirements to provide the basic services that they are required to by Church law. A traditional set liturgy, participation in the Holy Eucharist, and the celebration of principal holy days is being set aside in many places – most usually observed in the most perfunctory way at 7am in the morning when no-one will attend –  in favour of the formless emotionalism and often heretical pronouncements of ultra-Evangelical groups, who have no respect for the traditional beliefs or formularies of the Church that they treat like a dying host, to be sucked dry for its buildings and resources (if they even need old-fashioned things like ‘buildings’).

I know these people. They were the ones who drove me away form any chance of conversion to Christianity when I was a student. They formed the core of ‘CICCU’, the strident group of happy-clappy bigots and fanatics who put off generations of Cambridge students from the Church for good by their shallow screeching and lack of intellectual engagement. They think that the Lambeth Quadrilateral is a brutalist tower block building in South London and that Apostolic Succession is a concept taken from the study of Social Anthropology. Most pertinently, they are not Anglicans – from no discernible Anglican tradition, not Low, Broad or High. They are Dissenters who are feasting on the corpse of the Established Church – and the Established Church is writing a menu with its own name as the main course while serving itself onto a plate.

What to do?

Covid is going to accelerate the long-term crisis that sees the Church of England’s numbers collapsing, quite regardless of the kamikaze policies of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Given the age of its congregation, sadly a sizeable proportion of its congregation will either die or never come back to Church. But these challenges will only become terminal if we fail in our duty to campaign to prevent our Church being made into a soulless cocktail of middle-management, woke race politics and heresy that is as bitter as it is icy cold. It needs to discover its strength in its traditions; its devotion to Christ, the Word of God and the Gospels; its sacraments; its rich liturgy; and its cultivation of beauty and spiritual enrichment and rapture in art, music and literature.

Such a movement will, I feel, have to come substantially from the laity. A large percentage of the leadership and many priests buy into the numbing jargon, secularist defeatism and knee-jerk liberalism that is becoming our new creed. The statement of good old Christian dogma, the revival of the traditional faith of our Fathers and Mothers, and the revivification of our heritage will only become from below.

This is because the episcopal establishment desperately wants the approval of these utilitarian, secularist, liberal times. They want to be loved by the atheist wreckers and the woke liberals who run our other major institutions. They want to marry us to the spirit of this age, but they don’t seem to understand that any Church that marries the spirit of the age will soon be left a widow. They fail to understand that what we stand for is profoundly counter-cultural in an age of relativism and nihilism. We should be a Rock of Ages, but they are throwing us as pebbles into the sea of doubt.

So I suggest that we set up a movement to save our church, uniting laity and those priests willing to help, bringing together traditionalists of High, Broad and Low church. If we don’t and our decline continues at its current rate, the consequences are clear. There will no Church left to save.

A sketch of our agenda

Here are my thoughts on some priorities

  • Open our churches as soon as safely possible, prevent a drift to online fundamentalism in the form of ‘zoom first’ dogma
  • Stop hiring endless new tiers of middle-management while our parishes suffer
  • Stop using meaningless management-speak and jargon that no-one understands. Speak in plain English
  • Re-resource the Parish properly and put the Parish at the heart of everything we do
  • Stop pouring money into SDF white elephants
  • Reject the intrusion of ‘woke’ race politics into our church – it is against Scripture, against tradition and highly divisive.
  • Evangelise on the basis of the dogmas of the holy and ancient (but reformed) catholic faith, our traditional formularies, and scripture. Get back to the basics of our beliefs and tradition, in which we should have confidence.
  • Put the sacraments, performed physically in person in our Churches, and a dignified, traditional liturgy at the heart of our Church and its worship
  • Save as many of our beautiful churches as possible for worship
  • Prevent any merger with the Methodists – who would form thousands of nonconformist allies for our Church leadership’s drive to make us into Dissenters
  • Emphasise the importance of beauty in bringing people to Christ
  • Stop cringing to the spirit of this secular age. Take on the cant and false orthodoxies of this liberal era
  • Campaign against heretical and in favour of dignified and orthodox preaching by the clergy. Keep to the theological orthodoxy of the historic Church
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Honour, Virtue and Life: A Short Postliberal Christian Manifesto

It increasingly occurs to me how utterly pointless most of what passes for political debate is. While contemporary politics is conducted within the parameters of a certain set of debased spiritual, moral and cultural norms, engaging in the transitory arguments of this or that ‘debate’ makes no more sense than arguing about the architectural plans while the ground you are preparing to build on is made of quicksand. The only debates worth having are at a far more foundational level.

Without a diligent rooting out of all the errors that ‘progressive’, nihilistic secularism has introduced into our cultures, societies and economies, individually and collectively, we are doomed to live lives of ever greater vacuity, despair, error and futility. None of the prominent alternatives presented before us even ask the right questions or acknowledge the important things – the answers do not lie with sterile cosmopolitan left-liberalism, or the new authoritarianism of the militant far-left, or the demonic might-is-rightism of ‘MAGA’ style right wing populist brutalism.

The purpose of this article is to put forward a short sketch of the principles that might be the basis upon which we could live human lives again. I hope that the secular postliberals can live with the Catholic (in my personal case Anglo-Catholic) elements of what follows: if they can’t, tough, Christian postliberals have done enough watering down to get secularists on board already, but ultimately that is futile, as none of any of what follows makes sense without a universe created and ordered by God.

  • Character and Virtue Against Bureaucracy, Rules and Legalism

The human soul cries out against the attempt to replace character, virtue and common-sense human decency with the empire of bureaucracy, the never-ending and ever-growing web of rules, regulations, orders and tick-boxes designed to create political and pragmatic order out of moral chaos. If your values are hedonism, bare existence, nihilistic self-will and the worship of mammon (however distributed), then you can spend every second until doomsday furiously working to find ever more human corners and niches and crevices to insert your never-ending permutations of soulless legislation into – it still won’t do you any good. The Mechanical Age intensifies all the time, applying its belief in the pulley, the crankshaft and the axle to ever more minute and intimate elements of life, to ever less effect, though at the cost of mounting human anguish.

Only a culture nourished upon the unblemished foundations of an uncompromising and unapologetic belief in an objective, unchanging natural moral law, which invests every person, object and institution with a healthful and rightful purpose and telos, can properly flourish. Such a culture erects upon this foundation the building blocks of true character, decency and virtue, all of which place moral chains on the formless appetites of erring individuals and give them a meaning and purpose and right-orientation that is attributable ultimately to the creative power and grace of God. Such moral chains, such boundaries and limits, liberate us from the tyranny of self-will and sin and make us truly see that the only true freedom lies in service to God and our neighbours.

  • Place, the Person and Loyalty

The universal – the unchanging and unyielding and universal moral constitution of the universe ordained by God – can only, however, be accessed through the local, the actual, the particular. God has sanctified every last atom of His creation and, through His incarnation, scandalous in its particularity, has shown us that the way to the transcendent and the true and the good is through flesh and blood, the here and now, and the circumstances that His providence has thrown into our path. There is no place in the world that cannot be the site of virtue and grace and beauty, and there is no person who cannot be the means by which we, in some sense, access the divine. We learn love and charity and temperance and justice through the irreducibly specific circumstances of various institutions, including but not limited to our families, our homes, trade unions, our churches and our nations. These particularities can also pervert our morals and our virtue and our right relation to God, but, if ordered as well as we as weak human beings can manage, with the help of God’s grace, they can orientate us to the divine and the health-giving. They become the stable platforms from which we can participate in the universal, and they thereby deserve our self-sacrificing love and loyalty. Serving this immense and complex web of persons, places, beings and institutions, which is far greater than the sum of its parts, becomes our service to the common good.

  • Honour and Romance

The charm and the joy and the buoyancy of these, our particular circumstances; the transcendence infused into the everyday by God in general, and more specifically in His church and sacraments; and the loyalty and awe that all of this inspires in us makes the only sane reaction to our life and this world that of a radical re-enchantment. Nihilism, determinism and materialism are literally insanity: it is no coincidence that Nietzsche ended up as gibbering madman, and it is no coincidence that no-one except the mentally unwell live their everyday lives as if such self-refuting doctrines are even partially true. The romance that touches everything, from the most humble and everyday human action to the most dramatic gesture of chivalry, is fathomless and of supreme importance. It makes squabbling and scrabbling and shouting over money-grubbing and preferment and brown-nosing and everything unconnected to true morality and honour and beauty of no consequence whatsoever. Actions that are undertaken with no regards to earthly calculation or concern, but purely because they are right and good and conduce to the purposes of God – because they embody virtue – no matter how unpropitious or even hopeless the circumstances, are always the highest and noblest thing we can aim for. Apparently hopeless or heroic self-sacrifice for others and for God can never be in vain.

  • For Beauty

A major way that God touches us with His gifts and His sanctity is through His gift of beauty. Beauty brings us near the divine; it is a supremely and inherently meaningful experience in itself, but it also helps us to discern His purposes and paths for our life. Ugliness and greyness corrode the human soul and reduce us to bare life. God has endowed the world with many forms of beauty, but none of them have typically been prominent in the way we have lived our lives and ordered our societies over the past 150 years – both Soviet Communism and consumer capitalism managed to produce vast panoramas of soul-destroying disfigurement and environmental degradation. Greyness, shallow posturing and mannerism, brutalism and shoddiness are inflicted on the people, who long for true beauty. No-one stares at a modern housing estate or out-of-town industrial estate and gasps in awe, like they would do with a Gothic Cathedral or a Morris and Co stained glass window. We must banish ugliness from the lives of the people.

  • Labour and Workmanship Against Speculation and Shoddiness

The point of human life is for all people and things to develop in line with their God-given purposes, to bear fruit in the form of their true, objective ends. Labour is the means by which we effect this in the case of things – the natural resources gifted to us by God. Doing a shoddy job because one has to make a living, botching a task through lack of time, doing something for the sake of it to look busy, doing something purely for the purpose of profiteering – none of these forms of labour can ever be to the glory of God and therefore they cannot be justified. True labour is carrying out a task that was meant to be, that develops something or someone’s inherent purpose or flourishing – their vocation – well, with care and diligence and attention – with true workmanship. Anything that inherently, as an end in itself, promotes human worship, virtue, joy, love, life or health is blessed as an end of labour. Anything that does not is not a valid end of human endeavour. High standards in accordance with God’s purposes and nature are their own justification. All human endeavours that do not conduce to these right ends are pointless – and worse, demonic. There is not an iota of justification in this world for producing worthless, shoddy tat; for financial speculation purely for the sake of making money out of money; for any number of things that make up the dark heart of our modern ungodly and out-of-joint economic existences. A cleaner who does a good job in mopping a floor is infinitely more valuable than any speculating spiv in the City, no matter how many millions they are paid, and no matter how badly the cleaner is treated.

  • A Culture of Life

No-one owns their own lives or bodies: God does, and he intends those lives for certain purposes not of our sole choosing, within moral parameters that we must accept. Autonomy is not an absolute value: it is one of many goods, and one that is not at the top of a sane human being’s priorities. None of us are ever truly autonomous – we all depend on others – and at the beginning and end of our lives we are all particularly dependent and fragile. God gave life to all of us for a very good reason, and only He can take it away. He has placed upon us onerous duties – duties which fall particularly heavily on the strong and mighty – to ensure that all life is preserved and flourishes and that we do everything to ensure that everyone lives not lives of mere bare existence, but lives rich in health and life and the true joy of embracing our vocation and function. Abortion and euthanasia are grave sins – how many wonderful artists or scientists, how many novelists or linguists, how many human lives touched by genius, have been aborted before they left the womb? But refusing to, both individually and collectively, look after, feed, cloth, love and house every one of God’s sons and daughters is equally sinful. Life is precious and infinitely valuable; it starts at conception but it does not end at birth.

  • For the Poor and the Lowly, and Against the Wisdom of the ‘Wise’

Status and wealth and the credentials given out by our society do not constitute wisdom or importance. Those who are disrespected and lowly and sneered at are more likely to be the bearers of God’s wisdom. Popular common sense, the decency and humanity of the ordinary democratic man or woman, is almost always saner than the ravings of obscurantist intellectuals. Prominence and status produce complacency, arrogance and vanity. They breed a thirst for novelty and upending steady tradition and truth for the sake of relieving their boredom. True expertise and wisdom – that of the true artist, or the scientist who makes a pioneering discovery, or the engineer who can build the best bridge, or the priest who is particularly in touch with God – are to be valued, and certainly the variety of God’s gifts and purposes implies differentiation. But the usual pattern is that of disconnected, vacuous, nihilistic elites who have reasoned themselves into positions no sane person can hold sneering at the masses, who have been more sensible all along.

These elites might be corporate vultures or they might be self-styled ‘left-wing’ radicals – they are always in their way ‘progressive’, avant garde and disdainful of virtues they cannot profiteer from, whether in terms of status or money. They like change and constant revolution because it makes them feel important and superior, and gives them the role of a privileged vanguard who is ‘needed’ to guide the hoi polloi in the ‘right’ direction. Sadly, their gambits have had much success in the past three or four hundred years, but they haven’t won yet because their values are attempting to put the round pegs of a cold and inhuman narcissism into the square pegs of human decency. Most people abhor ‘progressive’ destruction and want to hold onto the things of value – often the product of the painstakingly developed wisdom of tradition – that we already possess. They only want to change what is intolerable or abhorrent, that which grinds down their souls and makes them hunger for spiritual, aesthetic and moral nourishment – which is often a great deal, but rarely the things the false, idolatrous elites object to.

Put very simply, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent’; ‘the first shall be last; and the last shall be first’.

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Thick Liberalism: Understanding the Opponents of Postliberalism

I note that recently postliberals have been accused of having an excessively ‘baggy’ definition of liberalism – as someone put it to me recently, ‘liberalism just means stuff you don’t like’. I think that there is some truth in this accusation, at least insofar as we have been too woolly in our expression, and it got me thinking. Postliberals need to be precise about the nature of its various opponents, and not lump them all together under lazy general labels. It is always wise to ‘know thine enemy’. So I think we need to try to tease out distinctions and be clear about how we should classify those we wish to critique.

The first thing to note is that clearly postliberals aren’t only critical of various forms of liberalism (of left and right), but also of the far left, of radical/extreme leftism/progressivism, although we do sometimes tend to elide liberalism and radical leftism, or talk about them in quite vague ways (although this is partly because there are a lot of grey areas and overlaps). So although I will focus on liberalism, we can’t neglect the far/radical left.

The distinction that strikes me as a wise starting point to examine these definitional questions is that of pluralism and tolerance versus anti-pluralism, as it is perhaps the most fundamental dividing line between different liberal visions of politics and society. So that is where we will start.

Liberalism, Toleration and Pluralism

Traditionally, liberals believed in tolerating different – especially marginal – groups and viewpoints and advancing procedural methods of ensuring that the basic rights and liberties of those groups and views – to be free from violence and persecution, to express themselves, etc – were protected. It is, of course, quite possible to dislike such groups and views, but believe they have a right to exist without harassment. Toleration does not imply approval – indeed, if it implies anything, it implies putting up with something despite not approving it.

It seems to me that this is not necessarily the same as ‘neutrality’, the idea that the state should be ‘neutral’ between different groups and views (if that is even possible). One can be tolerant and believe in pluralism while also believing it is fine for the state and/or the majority of the population to give a privileged position to one particular viewpoint or framework or group.

An example of what I mean taken from the religious sphere is as follows. In England and then Great Britain from 1688, the state (de facto and then de jure) recognised that religious groups outside of the Church of England should be tolerated (firstly just Trinitarian Protestants, but later on Jews, Catholics and non-Trinitarian Protestants, and eventually atheists and other groups), given the freedom to exist, worship, publish their views etc. But the British state was obviously not, for a long time, ‘neutral’ between different groups: the Church of England was given official state recognition and a privileged position in all kinds of ways for a long time, most obviously through establishment – which technically endures to this day, although mainly as a formality and in general ‘neutrality’ now reins supreme in the UK in the religious sphere.

So there is a distinction between tolerant pluralism and neutrality. There is also a distinction between both of those things and the anti-pluralism that is gaining ground, particularly within mainstream and public bodies, from QUANGOs and public corporations to universities and large corporations. It hasn’t yet entirely prevailed, but it is getting there.

This anti-pluralist view takes certain values – diversity in terms of race, gender identity, sexual orientation etc, autonomy, novelty/anti-traditionalism– and attempts, as Eric Kaufmann argues in his Whiteshift book, to make them into sacred dogmas, which one either has to believe in and implement, or at least pretend to believe in and/or not resist/contradict – or else. Such a view maintains that there is no scope for legitimate disagreement with these principles, and therefore those who disagree with them should not be tolerated: at the very least, they should be sacked, denied employment, hounded, no-platformed etc.

This anti-pluralism would seem to be antithetical to liberalism, and more compatible with – or at least less directly contradictory to the basic commitments of elements of – the Left, and generally this is the case. Such anti-pluralism has usually prevailed on the Far Left, sometimes pretty explicitly (in the form of a totalitarian, anti-democratic Communist state), sometimes slightly more subtly (in something like Marcuse’s idea of ‘repressive tolerance’). One would think that it would be anathema to liberalism – and to some extent you’d be correct.

However, certain forms of modern liberalism have often ended up in the unhappy position of abandoning what one might think of as one of the saving graces of classical liberalism. Tolerance or neutrality might seem like uninspiring and empty ideals, but at least they’re not overtly oppressive and totalitarian ones. But even they are being lost in the thinking of many modern liberals – how come?

Thick and Thin Liberalism

John Gray showed how some forms of liberalism have lost their tolerant credentials in his conception of ‘the two faces of liberalism’.

He argued that the one ‘face’ of liberalism is essentially a positive doctrine of what constitutes a moral, good life – one defined by values of individual autonomy, social diversity, anti-traditionalism etc. One might associate this will J.S. Mill. Let’s call it ‘thick liberalism’.

The second type of liberalism is one that sees conflicts between competing views of the nature of the good – legitimate pluralism, in effect – as inevitable, and sees liberalism as the way of finding some way of managing these divides, finding a modus vivendi, or perhaps some minimalist ‘operating consensus’ between outlooks, views, and groups which are simply incompatible. In this viewpoint, the only indisputable ‘good’ is the bare protection of minimum ‘negative’ liberties, or a kind of managed ‘neutrality’ or procedural consensus. One might associate this type of liberalism with Isaiah Berlin, or in a slightly more modern form, Habermas and to some extent Rawls (though much divides those thinkers in some respects). Let’s call it ‘thin liberalism’.

In thick liberalism, there are moral values that are indisputably good, and about which no legitimate or reasonable disagreement is ultimately possible. In this view, valuing social homogeneity, or tradition and the authority of the community over the individual, or virtue (rather than, say, hedonistic utility) is simply illegitimate. If the promotion of these ideals necessitates a non-democratic and elitist political or governance structure, so be it. In reality, it almost certainly will necessitate elitism and a disdain for democracy, because the values it sees as objectively true are often not especially popular.

In thin liberalism, legitimate disagreement and pluralism are accepted, and the emphasis is to set up a framework of institutions and procedures that can manage disagreement, often through rights-based or legalistic means. These institutions and procedures must be, to some extent, insulated from democratic pressures, although so long as democratic politics is applied only to issues that don’t affect the underlying ‘neutrality’ of the state, then some element of representative democracy will be accepted.

Now, thin liberalism has its drawbacks (as we shall discuss), but it’s pretty clear that it’s less noxious than ‘thick liberalism’, which cannot tolerate dissent and implies significant intellectual intolerance.

We can now see how some liberals – ‘thick’ liberals (if you’ll excuse the expression) – can be anti-pluralist and repressive. The overlap between them and the radical left can be considerable: let us consider the differences between different types of ‘thick’ liberalism and far/progressive leftism.

Thick Liberals and the Far Left

Firstly, let’s look at the Far Left.

The old-school unreconstructed Marxist Far Left tends to be anti-pluralist in an old-fashioned and overt, class-based way. The interests and views of proletariat – or at least what Marxist-Leninist elites decide to be the ‘real’ interests and views of the proletariat – rule, ok? This has the virtue of being simple to understand, albeit obviously toxic. This is now a minority view within academia and left intellectual circles, although it is far from dead and still rears it ugly head from time to time.

The newer ‘Social Justice Warrior’ Far Left tends to put less exclusive emphasis on class and the proletariat. They decided that actual proletarians – the ones who have been more-or-less contentedly voting Labour or Tory for decades and aren’t terribly interested in revolution – are a total disappointment many years ago. So they decided to adopt new groups, seen as historically oppressed by the insidious operations of capital, the state, and culture – ethnic minorities, the nations of the Global South, sexual minorities, students, etc etc – as their standard bearers (in a strict hierarchy of victim status, you understand, with class at best equal to the other factors, and usually seen as the least important), and develop all kinds of ways of showing how every aspect of the status quo is in some way oppressive, hateful, evil etc. This kind of view is now ubiquitous among academics and left intellectuals, especially at the lower and non-managerial level.

Secondly, let’s look at thick liberalism.

The thick liberals of the left have a lot of crossover with the SJW far lefties – in fact, they can be close to being indistinguishable. However, lefty thick liberals are more inclined to see their ideal as quite compatible with some form of capitalism than the SJW Far Left. Perhaps some elements of capitalism constrain elements of individual autonomy and diversity and need to be regulated, but generally, so long as the forces of traditionalism and homogeneity (etc) can be totally extirpated – by suppressing free speech, for example – they are pretty relaxed about the (highly individualistic) ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ represented by consumer capitalism, so long as the big multinationals have enough black people and women on their boards. They are more keen on emphasising the positive virtue of self-expression and ‘authentic’ consumer-style autonomy granted by identity politics, in contrast to the SJW Far Left’s preference for emphasising the extent to which it represents a power struggle against evil structures of oppression. This kind of view tends to be view of the university authorities, the vice-chancellors, managers and bureaucrats, who find enough common ground with the lower-level more SJW left academics to run along fine most of the time. It is also pretty common among state institutions and many large corporations.

Then there is a thick liberalism of the right, which sees the positive and unquestionable moral values of liberalism in far more economic terms. Autonomy, diversity etc find their apotheosis not in affirmative action, hate speech laws etc, but in the free market, in a kind of pro-open borders, pro-free trade libertarian utopia which cannot tolerate any other form of economic organisation. You can find this view in some enclaves of academia – in places like George Mason University in the US – and in Silicon Valley tech firms and some other large multinationals. These people do at least have the virtue of being less oppressive when it comes to issues such as free speech, as they are more interested in the nexus between economics and morality than that between cultural and morality.

I think that is a fairly defensible taxonomy, insofar as it goes. But what of the more honest, old-fashioned liberals who do believe in tolerance? What is the problem with them?

Thin Liberalism

Undoubtedly, the ‘thin’ liberals are less sinister. They do sincerely want to find some way of living that accepts genuine differences of opinion, and doesn’t try to impose its highly contentious liberal world view on the rest of us. Berlin, Rawls and Habermas might be boring as hell a lot of the time, but at least none of their adherents are likely to try to sack any academic who disagree with them.

However, I think that such liberals suffer from other problems.

Firstly, ‘neutrality’ is always a bit of a nonsense in politics. The way it works tends to be that liberals come up with some set of procedures, which, once followed, result, they argue, in ‘fair’, ‘neutral’ decisions. But, of course, the outcomes of liberal procedures are never ‘neutral’: they can’t be, by definition.

For example, one might say that one will tolerate both those who are pro-choice, and those who are pro-life, and accept that both views are legitimate ones. This is fine, insofar as it goes – it is certainly better than the thick liberal and radical left position, which ultimately sees a pro-life position as illegitimate, not something that really should be tolerated.

However, the state’s laws will ultimately embody one view or another. Either abortion will be legal, or it won’t be. Ultimately, most questions of politics involve making a determinate decision one way or another. Proceduralism is an attempt to pretend that such decisions are ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ when really, they never are. Liberal proceduralism in practice usually eschews democratic decision-making, because they don’t trust electorates, full of emotions and passion, to be ‘neutral’.

But then again, their preferred mechanisms and procedures of decision-making – courts, bureaucracies, ‘basic structures’, codified constitutions – aren’t neutral either. They will always tend to tilt towards a more substantive vision of liberalism, a thicker liberalism, that most decidedly is NOT neutral, not least because the people who dominate ‘neutral’ liberal institutions are judges, academics, lawyers, etc, who mostly are liberals.

The emphasis on ‘procedures’, ‘neutral mechanisms’ and the ‘non-ideological’ also tends to unconsciously favour values that amount to a kind of social lowest common denominator and that are easily integrated into legalistic procedures and decision-making matrices: values that are easier to quantify, define and make a practical basis of policy. I would suggest that the value that has tended to be favoured by this tendency is that of utilitarianism, which, whatever else it is, is not ‘neutral’ or ‘non-ideological’: liberal utilitarianism is as much a substantive ideological position as any other.

Conclusion

It seems to me that the most honest approach to these hugely important issues of pluralism, tolerance and ‘the good’ is for societies to accept legal toleration of a variety of views and groups, and to ensure that their right to freedom of expression and other basic liberties are entrenched, while also being clear that there is a substantive vision of the common good that it will choose to privilege over the others. Neutrality is simply not an option: it is a fantasy – so the next best thing is toleration plus frank acknowledgement of the substantive moral position that is being privileged. Such a position could be a way in which some form of liberalism might function (although it doesn’t show any signs of doing so, and I hope we might be able to come up with something a bit better than that!)  – but it also seems to me to be a good framework for postliberalism to operate in.

Anyway, I hope that this presents at least one step towards something of a more precise delineation of the types of liberalism that we postliberals object to, and why.

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What is Tory Socialism?

I have deliberately given my blog what may appear to be a paradoxical, and indeed provocative, title. However, Tory Socialism is not purely a slogan designed to annoy liberals (although I hope it will, of course): it also expresses a real tradition of thought. In this post I am going to try to explain what is meant – or at least, what I understand – by Tory Socialism.

Introduction: Progressive v Tory Socialism

To many, the idea of ‘Tory Socialism’ will seem absurd. Conservatism and socialism are widely supposed to be mortal enemies, embodying totally opposite principles. Socialists, we are told, are ‘progressive’: they believe in equality, social justice and the liberation of individuals from all those institutions of hierarchy, arbitrary privilege and tradition that are held to oppress us (and some of us a lot more than others). Socialism represents, most of its current proponents would argue, true emancipation, via the action of collective institutions such as (usually most prominently) the state. Conservatives, in complete contrast, are decidedly not progressive: they glory in hierarchy and tradition; they believe equality – certainly economic equality – to be a chimera, the pursuit of which is likely to lead to consequences worse than the disease: social disorder, pauperism, and ultimately tyranny. They support free markets and capitalism, not attempts to impose patterns of social justice from above.

One premise of Tory Socialism is that this presentation of the opposition between these two outlooks is vastly overdrawn; highly simplistic; and, in sum, disastrous. It assumes that socialism is necessarily ‘progressive’ – which is false – and it ignores the major tension within conservatism, between its defence of capitalism and its belief in tradition and social stability.

In order to unpack this, we first need to understand why socialism is not necessarily ‘progressive’. The great historian of political thought J.G.A Pocock once remarked (writing in the 1980s):

“Even today, it might not be impossible to classify English Marxist thinkers as either progressive radical Whigs for whom socialism is the rebellious but natural son of liberalism, or alienated Tory radicals who denounce liberal capitalism, instead of praising it for it revolutionary role, as the destroyer of popular community and moral economy.”

I would contend that this distinction is really the key to understanding the difference between two different traditions: Progressive Socialists, and Tory Socialists (who actually are almost never Marxists). These traditions admit of a considerable degree of internal variation, but it seems to me that the basic outlines are quite clear. Let me outline Progressive Socialism as a prelude to a full analysis of the nature of Tory Socialism.

Progressive Socialism

The proponents of this tradition are, as Pocock put it, essentially “radical Whigs for whom socialism is the rebellious but natural son of liberalism”. The two main strands of intellectual influence that feed into this type of socialism are Marxist socialism – whether of a revolutionary or revisionist social democratic variety – and utilitarianism – whether of a cruder Benthamite, or slightly more subtle Millian, variety. It is a very broad tradition, incorporating a whole range of strands of leftism, from out-and-out Marxists (usually Trotskyites), through old-school Fabians, to the pinkest utilitarian reformists of post-war social democrat vintage, including ‘social’ liberals.

One might very plausibly contend that this disparate group of leftists have more to divide than unite them. They disagree on all kinds of issues: revolution versus reform, the extent to which the state should intervene in (or totally eliminate) private enterprise, and so on. This is true.

However, they have an awful lot to unite them.

Firstly, they have inherited the Whig conception of history as inevitably progressive, unfolding towards some desirable teleological endpoint. Perhaps this progress happens slowly (reformist Fabians), perhaps not-so-slowly (Trotskyists), but in any case, the present is only valuable insofar as it is stepping stone to some predetermined destination of benevolent futurity, and the past is something purely to be overcome. There is a related tendency to fetishize the new and the different; the modern and ‘up-to-date’; movement and change.

This leads naturally onto their second characteristic: they are anti-traditionalist, as they tend to see progress as emancipation from inherited and ‘given’ institutions, practices, habits and relationships – most especially the family, religion and the nation – all of which are seen almost solely as chains, as means by which people’s potential for improvement and true ‘self-realisation’ are stifled. Tradition and custom are written off as always and only the accumulated sediments of the superstition, the inherited and unmerited privilege, and the more-or-less cynical means of oppression and exploitation that make up the rock of ages.

This abhorrence of what they deem to be the superstitious and arbitrary gives rise to their third major feature: they are self-proclaimed rationalists. They worship science and technology, and tend to think that the methods peculiar to those areas of human understanding should be applied to morality and politics, the principles of which they therefore think can be ‘tested’, improved and applied in an objective, rationalistic and indisputable manner. Politics is therefore something that can only be left to the ‘people’ if they have been educated to the requisite standards of rationality (which in practice ends up strongly implying rule by experts and technocrats). They think that politics is merely an instrumental procedure for answering a series of questions that have a right and wrong answer, akin to flying a plane or performing brain surgery.

Such rationalism and anti-traditionalism gives rise to a mindset which privileges whatever can separated out from the particular, arbitrary chaos of reality and conceived in terms that are abstract; universal; cosmopolitan. Hence the fourth feature of Progressive Socialism, its disdain towards the particular, the specific and the familiar. A special attachment to one thing over another on any grounds other than superiority in abstractly rationalistic terms is seen as arbitrary. Taken to its extreme, this is well summed up by the Godwin’s mother example. Philosopher William Godwin argued, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, that if one had a choice between saving one’s own mother and the great writer Archbishop Fenelon from a fire, one should ignore any particular connection one might have to the former and choose to save the latter, on the basis that he will make more of a contribution to human intellectual life and truth. Such a mindset not only makes you intensely relaxed about seeing your own mum burn to death, it also lends itself to a disdain for the nation, or even any really meaningful conception of patriotism, and makes internationalism and a bloodless cosmopolitanism inevitable.

The fifth major feature of the Progressive Socialists is that they are materialists: they tend to be atheists, or maybe, at a push, people who accept only a very privatised and modest type of personal religion. They see politics largely – usually solely – in material terms, as question of the production and distribution of wealth, of satisfying people’s animal requirements. They will admit no spiritual dimension to their world or their politics. They are usually utilitarians of one sort or other, but they can vary according to the criteria upon which they think the lucre of materialism should be distributed. Some – usually the slightly less disagreeable type – are Kantians.

The Progressive mindset can be seen very clearly in this classic and much quoted passage of Marx’s The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

This passage can appear to have a form of ambivalence, insofar as traces of nostalgia or sentimental regard for ‘fixed, fast-frozen relations’ and ‘ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions’ can be detected in the text – profaning the holy and melting the solid into air don’t sound particularly pleasant – but the basic tone of the passage is clear: it is one of admiration and excitement. Marx saw capitalism as a great, progressive, necessary and inevitable force, that would clear away the superstitious trash of the past, dissolve all illusions and fantasies, and thereby provide the basis for the ultimate liberation of humankind. Whigs, and later liberals and bourgeois capitalists, are all, in this view, agents of positive and inevitable change, bringing into being necessary stages of historical development without which socialism would be impossible. There is a clear note of admiring wonder in his eulogies to the capitalists, who have accomplished awe-inspiring feats through ‘disturbance’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘agitation’.

The nature of Marx’s social, economic and political thought is a massive subject, and I am not going to get sidetracked by discussing it at great length. But it seems to me pretty clear that Marx was, generally speaking, contemptuous of the idea that there might be anything of worth preserving from history or custom, which was merely a huge back-catalogue of the irrational, the stupid, and the sentimental (always a harsh pejorative in the Marxist vocabulary). In his socialist future, the revolutionary transformation of social conditions would be accelerated even further than capitalism had dared to dream: the family, a bourgeois sham, would be abolished; there would clearly be no place for religion at all; and all nations would be dissolved in the brotherhood of man. We might pity the peasants whose common lands were enclosed, whose traditions of moral economy were shattered, and who were forced into wage labour, but ultimately, all that will turn out to be a price worth paying.

Other forms of socialism bred from the same stable will vary in the extent to which they will consistently follow through on these insights, but they basically share the same tendencies. Modern forms of ‘accelerationist’ techno-utopianism – see Inventing the Future by Srnicek and Williams, or Postcapitalism by Paul Mason, for example – take these elements of Progressive Socialism to a range of new extremes that Marx could only dimly have imagined, extremes that have now been made possible by developments in technology.

In an important sense, therefore, Progressive Socialism in its various forms is merely one logical conclusion of Enlightenment liberalism, in which all sources of irrationalism, of constraint, of tradition are blown away like cobwebs. The major difference is that the Progressive Socialists see collective social, economic and political organisation – usually embodied in its highest form as the state – as the means to the end of true freedom, and see capitalism itself as, ultimately, the last major barrier to full emancipation. But in essence, Progressive Socialism is the tearaway child of Whiggish liberalism, except it tends to change the adjectives and add another stage in after capitalism.

The Tory Socialist Tradition

So what of this other tendency? What is Tory Socialism?

There is much to be said about Tory Socialism as historical tradition. Various figures have, at one time or other, been said to embody it in some sense, either practically or intellectually. Many would invoke 19th century figures like Richard Oastler or the Earl of Shaftesbury, Tories who allied their Church and King loyalism with a zealous desire to protect the poor from the encroachments of capitalist exploitation by opposing the Poor Law Reform Act and campaigning for factory regulation. Some 18th century figures, like the Tory, republican, Jacobite deist – and all-round cad – Viscount Bolingbroke, could even be seen as its progenitors. Leading Tory politicians who were amenable to state action to tackle the social ills produced by unregulated capitalism, like Disraeli or MacMillan, might be invoked. On an intellectual level, romantic social critics and moralists like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ruskin would probably be seen to be part of such a tradition – I would include a thinker such as R.H. Tawney too. Some of the elements of the early Labour Party whose roots were more associated with the earthy patriotism of working class Toryism than earnest chapel-going liberalism might also be mentioned, most notably Robert Blatchford –  a tradition that lingered on well into the Party’s later history in the form of figures like Bevin and Attlee. One might trace it back as far as William Cobbett, who combined an agrarian nostalgia and patriotic sensibility with a hearty desire for political and social reform.

I will write about Tory Socialism as an historical tradition more at some other time, but it’s certainly worth saying now that ‘Tory Socialism’ is not a tidy or self-consciously well-defined tradition. Tory socialists have spent more time doing than theorising and are more interested in questions of morality, piety and culture than academic political theory. Within the Tory socialist tradition, there is a lot of variation and many tensions. One might say that some are more Tories than socialists, and others more socialists than Tories. Nonetheless, I want to have a stab at sketching what some of the general features of such an outlook might be said to be, rather than getting bogged down in the historical detail.

At its most fundamental, to go back to the wonderful Pocock passage quoted earlier, Tory Socialists are those ‘alienated Tory radicals who denounce liberal capitalism, instead of praising it for it revolutionary role, as the destroyer of popular community and moral economy.’ Such an outlook accepts the truth of Marx’s description of the tendency of liberal capitalism to sweep away all sentimental or customary institutions and practices and destabilize established social life, but rather than welcoming it and wanting to take it further, Tory Socialists see such a tendency as a deep and terrible tragedy, an appalling threat to human dignity and virtue. They perceive, in the particular, the customary, and the traditional, a set of deep and powerful resources that, as well as potentially being valuable in themselves, can be used to resist the attempts of liberal capitalists to commodify, degrade and profane every place, everything and everyone. Capitalists, in short, know the price of every commodity, but the value of nothing they commodify – and, argue Tory Socialists, the historical alliance between capitalism and conservatism is nothing more than a historically contingent, and highly unstable, compound of two largely contradictory principles.

The Poor Law Reform Act is a pretty good historical example. The legislation, passed in 1834 abolished (at least in theory, the extent to which it was implemented in practice is disputed) outdoor relief paid to the poor, confined poor relief to the context of the workhouse only, and aimed to make the conditions of the workhouse so truly unpleasant that only the most desperate would ever voluntarily enter it. This included separating out different types of pauper into different workhouses, so that no account would be taken of family ties.

This legislation, where implemented properly, had a number of obvious effects. The previous system (which itself was far from perfect) did at least allow terrible wages to be somewhat subsidised and the worst impacts of poverty and unemployment ameliorated during periods of economic distress, and it did allow families to be kept together in tough times. The new system was intended to ensure that workers could only sell their labour at its bare market value (helping finally create a free labour market, crucial to the development of capitalism). If that value was not enough to support a family, then the family would have to be broken up as the price of each individual member of that family staying alive (barely, if they were lucky).

Tory radical Richard Oastler objected to the Act as contrary to his deeply held Christian beliefs. He called it ‘a gross & wicked law’, arguing that, ‘if it was truth, the Bible was a lie’. It was to dehumanise the poor, to treat them like animals. It amounted to the wealthy and privileged abdicating their duty to treat the poor decently. It also had the impact of dissolving the venerable institution of the family and making a mockery of the sacred bond of marriage (as husbands and wives would be imprisoned in different, sex-segregated workhouses).

In other words (although Oastler would doubtlessly have not put it like this), the implicit Tory Socialist critique of liberal capitalism was that it paid no heed to timeless Christian duties of mutual love and care, and it dissolved sacred ties of matrimony and the family unit (it was wryly observed that someone had ignored the famous line ‘those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder’ (contained in the Book of Common Prayer marriage service) when drafting the parts of the bill that meant that married couples would have to be split up when entering the workhouse).

It might be argued that opposition to liberal, free-market economic policies on the basis of the impact it has on tradition is not so much Tory socialism as simple Tory reaction, as many of the traditions, customs and institutions of England before the advent of the unleashing of capitalism were largely oppressive and irrational. One might be able to give a few examples wherein the impact of such policies on customary social bonds and institutions had a detrimental effect on (some) working people, but, broadly speaking, the sweeping away of the welter of irrationalism of European ancien regimes was no bad thing. Just ask the French peasants who, pre French Revolution, were weighed down with customary taxes and subject to all kinds of oppressive manorial rights and dues – or English peasants who were obliged to pay tithes to the Church.

This is to ignore the wider moral and political framework within which Tory socialism (at least on my account) operates. Let me elucidate this.

The Tory Socialist Outlook

To Tory socialists, each human being is an infinitely valuable moral being made in the image of God, in possession of an immortal soul, and deserving of dignity and respect. Hence all human beings require, first and foremost, a context in which their dignity can be respected and protected and they can flourish according to their God-given gifts, in accordance with the duties that morality requires and the discipline of a wider social and moral order. In order to have dignity and be able to flourish, they need to be assured that they will be able to have access to the goods, such as adequate food, housing, decent wages and working conditions, that are a sine qua non of dignity and decency. There needs to be means to prevent wealth and power becoming excessively concentrated in such a way as to make oppression and injustice likely – or perhaps inevitable, given the fallen nature of humankind.

However, human flourishing is much more than a ‘knife and fork’ question. Human beings do not live by bread alone. They are not simply desiccated utilitarian machines burning up units of pleasure like calories, nor are they simply heedless, irresponsible rights-bearers constantly in search only of liberation from the burdens imposed on them by the community and protection against the oppression they constantly suspect others of subjecting them to. They find true fulfilment within a context that is both social, and which they did not and cannot entirely choose; within a web of inherited social relationships and institutions that provide them with the kind of discipline and wisdom they could never uncover for themselves as individuals. This fulfilment requires a social, cultural, spiritual context in which they can find meaning, community, and incentives to live a virtuous and full human life – and such a context implies continuity and the passing of wisdom from generation to generation. It does imply that they will have rights – but it also means that they have social duties, such as the duty to be one’s brother’s or sister’s keeper, to make a contribution to their community and nation, and to look after their family and neighbours. It inevitably means that custom, particularity and tradition must be seen not solely as a burden, or as an arbitrary imposition, but as a precious inheritance which is more likely to be a source of cultural nourishment than simply a source of oppression.

The Tory socialist critique of capitalism is that the rule of markets and profit undermines, and, if allowed to be taken to its logical conclusion, inevitably destroys, this precious and delicate ecosystem of customary relationships, institutions and practices that allows humans to truly flourish in a rounded and full way. Human beings require many goods, but by reducing the measure of all social and economic life to one metric – money – liberalism and capitalism suck the life out of the institutions that sustain many of those other, material and non-material, cultural, moral and spiritual, goods.

One thing that human beings require to truly flourish is an economic and social context which encourages virtuous behaviour – mutual love and care for one another, loyalty, prudence, fortitude, temperance, and so on. The motor of capitalism is inevitably vice. Unrestrained competition and unregulated markets inevitably reward the greedy and exploitative. To increase their profits, many firms need to encourage vicious habits in the general public. They encourage imprudent borrowing, partly because they can make an unjust profit out of usury, and partly because the monies borrowed are then available for people to waste on unnecessary consumer goods that they don’t really need. Capitalism inevitably ends up encouraging speculation and spivvery, the attempt to make money by manipulating prices and glorified gambling rather than honest labour and productive endeavour, often with side-effects that reduce humans to indigence and desperation. Capitalism has no room for loyalty – the loyal consumer is the stupid one, the one who misses out on the best prices because they aren’t constantly switching their custom from one place to another. There is always money to be made out of exploiting people’s worst characteristics – their gluttony, their lust, their fear. If one attempts to introduce the rule of money and profit as the only valid principle, applicable to all areas of life, as capitalism inevitably tries to do, then one inevitably acquiesces in the rule of vice.

Human beings also need a sense of the sacred. Even secular liberals have their own sense of the sacred – they have elevated principles such as their rather odd and Godless conception of human rights to the status of sacred principles (in a totally incoherent way, but that’s another story). In the 21st century, in wealthy western countries, few retain anything like committed adherence to one of the established religious traditions that provide a theological and affective framework for thinking about and worshipping the sacred, but the yearning for the transcendental, the sacred, the holy remains – it cannot be eliminated. Even in a country like the UK, the majority of people would describe themselves in some vague way as religious or ‘spiritual’ – and outside of western Europe, the world is the most religious it has ever been: 75% of the world’s population adhere to one of only 4 religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism), and just 14% are non-religious.

Capitalism either destroys, or more likely perverts, this yearning for the sacred. It encourages the worship of false idols – consumerism, wealth, celebrity. The sacred must be respected – by definition, it cannot be trafficked, degraded, bought or sold – but capitalism recognises no such categories or restrictions: anything can be bought and sold if it is profitable to do so. Most religions recognise, for example, human life itself as sacred. The tendency of capitalism is to attempt to introduce the rule of profit and markets to the realm of even human lives and bodies, through practices such as surrogacy, the organ trade, abortion, legalising ‘sex work’ and so on. This destroys our sense of the sacred and eliminates all human dignity, even unto life itself. The only taboo still recognised is actual chattel slavery, but even that still continues in great numbers under the surface of a globalised capitalist world order.

Human beings also need a sense of place, of rootedness, of stability. Most people can only flourish in a context where they know where they will be, who their neighbours and workmates will be, and in what community they can meaningfully participate tomorrow, and the day after. People develop affections and loyalties to their towns, their countryside, their local environment: they yearn for home and delight in nature. Constant change and movement disorientates people. It loosens the bonds of community, it disturbs the often spatially located habits of virtue, worship and friendship that are gradually built up and developed over time.

Capitalism, of course, has no respect for place, home or nature. If there is a profit to be made by desecrating nature, or rapidly stripping your town of its historic nature and character, then some firm will try to do it. Capitalism relies on mobility and constant change. Firms want people to constantly move about from place to place to suit their needs: spatial mobility, ultimately to the level of the globe, is inherent in the nature of capitalist labour markets. Capital, when unregulated, is footloose and recognises only the need to move to wherever it can increase it return: it has no loyalty to any place. Bosses have to be constantly changing their products, coming up with new gimmicks and fashions, building in obsolescence to make sure we can never get too attached even to the things we buy, in order to maintain and increase their profits.

Human beings also need a sense of community and solidarity. This doesn’t simply mean solidarity as a functional means to an end – like a trade union seen purely as a mechanism for securing higher wages (although that is one of the valid purposes of a trade union). It means community and solidarity as valuable ends in themselves, and as means of pursuing ends the value of which cannot be accounted in pounds and pence. Through association, co-operation and collective loyalty, both to each other and to our institutions at large, we can develop virtues of mutual service, find meaning to our lives, and play our part in the accomplishment of important ends that all human beings needs to flourish (such as health, worship of the sacred, cultural enrichment, education, and so on).

Tory Socialists see in the institutions and practices that we have inherited means of encouraging virtue, respecting the sacred, breeding community and solidarity, and protecting our sense of place. They therefore see these institutions and practices as bulwarks against the tendency of liberal capitalism to encourage vice, profane the sacred, destroy popular community and solidarity, and uproot us in the service of money-grubbing and profiteering.

Perhaps the best way of summarising the Tory socialist outlook on life is this wonderful quotation from Anglo-Catholic socialist intellectual R.H. Tawney:

“All decent people are at heart conservatives, in the sense of desiring to conserve the human associations, loyalties, affections, pious bonds between man and man which express a man’s personality and become at once a sheltering nest for his spirit and a kind of watch-tower from which he may see visions of a more spacious and bountiful land. All decent people are against a creed which tries such things by the standard of ‘utility’ as though there were any end of life except life itself.”

The Partnership in Virtue

In order to understand the way in which Tory socialists defend key inherited practices and institutions, let us consider the notions of ‘practices’ and ‘internal goods’.

Alasdair MacIntyre outlines these ideas in his classic work After Virtue:

“By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

There are thus two kinds of good possibly to be gained by playing chess. On the one hand there are those goods externally and contingently attached to chess-playing and to other practices by the accidents of social circumstance […] in the case of real adults such goods as prestige, status and money. There are always alternative ways for achieving such goods, and their achievement is never to be had only by engaging in some particular kind of practice. On the other hand there are the goods internal to the practice of chess which cannot be had in any way but by playing chess or some other game of that specific kind. We call them internal for two reasons: first, as I have already suggested, because we can only specify them in terms of chess or some other game of that specific kind and by means of examples from such games (otherwise the meagerness of our vocabulary for speaking of such goods forces us into such devices as my own resort to writing of ‘a certain highly particular kind of’); and secondly because they can only be identified and recognized by the experience of participating in the practice in question. Those who lack the relevant experience are incompetent thereby as judges of internal goods.”

He goes onto explain that a crucial difference between internal and external goods is that external goods tend to be individually possessed, and acquiring them is a zero-sum game: ‘characteristically they are such that the more someone has of them, the less there is for other people’. This means that they are usually the objects of competition ‘in which there must be losers as well as winners’. Internal goods are quite different – their ‘achievement is a good for the whole community who participates in the practice.”

Different institutions exist to cultivate different practices, to the end of realizing different internal goods that tend to the real, diverse needs of human beings, and allow the full range of human virtues to be developed. If external goods become the measure and the managing principle of our institutions, then they become corrupted.

Let us take an example. The internal good of the NHS is health. Doctors get paid well, they get social prestige (nurses, sadly, less so in terms of the salary aspect)– but these are the mere external goods of being a good doctor or nurse. The real internal good of the NHS is to make us well, and that isn’t achievable in any way other than doctors and nurses cultivating the practice of medicine. If some members of society are excluded from its remit, then health and healing are not fully realised in our society – hence the NHS’s (socialist) principle of being based on need, not ability to pay. Of course, it needs material resources to do this, and nurses and doctors need decent material compensation, but to introduce any other principle as the rule of the NHS – money, or the discipline of internal markets, or indeed bureaucratic box-ticking unrelated, or related only perversely, to health and healing – is to wreck it as an institution.

The NHS is an institution we have inherited relatively recently, but similar principles apply to older ones. The Church is the pursuit of the internal good of worship and sanctity. Our unwritten constitution seeks the internal good of strong and efficient government under the rule of law. Our monarchy embodies the internal goods of national unity and wide participation in civic honour, glory and magnificence. Marriage is the vehicle for pursuing the internal goods of mutual comfort and society, romantic love, and reproduction. The BBC should be the institutional framework within which the nation can acquaint itself with its cultural legacy, promote learning and new cultural endeavours, and inform itself. And so on. Reforms that allow the mechanisms of these institutions to better pursue the particular internal good they aim at can be welcomed.

These institutions, bound together within a framework ultimately refereed by the state, combine with our natural affection for the places we call home, and the island we inhabit and have learned to love, to collectively form our sense of community and nationhood as Englishmen and women: a collective partnership in virtue, in humanity, and in honour. As Burke put it, society:

“…ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.”

Marketisation, privatisation, deregulation – all of the instruments of neoliberal capitalism – wreck this Tory and socialist conception of the unity and virtue of the nation (a nation whose membership is not, let me emphasize, a function of race, but rather commitment to and participation within its life and institutions over time). Globalization attempts to undermine any sense of particularity, national attachment or local community altogether. The proponents of free market capitalism and neoliberal globalization try, quite literally, to make our society into nothing better than a low and vulgar commercial contract that pertains only to our ‘gross animal existence’.

It is important to expand on this a little and explain in what sense Tory Socialists are necessarily patriots. Human virtue and collective flourishing require contexts that are collective, but also exclusive. The natural affections that we have for our family; our local community; and the clubs and institutions that we join and contribute to – Burke’s ‘little platoons’ – can expand outwards in scale, but they cannot do so indefinitely. As 18th century radical Major John Cartwright wrote,

 “Our family, our parish, our country, are the immediate spheres in which, by the limitation of our faculties and the boundedness of our powers, Providence has required us to perform in an especial manner the duties of Christianity.”

The limitations of our powers as human beings mean that we have to limit the spheres in which we perform our most active and civic duties, and the social context in which we derive meaning and purpose cannot be infinite. The largest meaningful unit in which humans can still retain a sense of their agency, responsibility and participation, and for which they can still have meaningful affection, is the nation state, and so this must be the outer limit of our collective partnership in virtue. This is not to say that we do not still have some important duties – the most basic and fundamental duties that are owed to all human beings – to those from other countries. It does not mean that we need hate or denigrate other nations.  It does, however, mean that we must accept the reality that he who loves the whole of humanity, in practice loves no-one; that he who is a citizen of the world is, indeed, ultimately a citizen of nowhere; that to be a true socialist, one must be a true Englishman (or woman).

Further Reflections

Let me draw out a few further reflections on what Tory socialism means.

Firstly, it clearly is socialism. Although it requires us to respect our historical institutions, it may require reform of those institutions to ensure that everyone can participate in our social partnership of ‘every virtue, and in all perfection’. It may require new institutions to tend to areas of human need that our historic inheritance has neglected – the creation of the NHS in the 40s would be one example, the crying need for decent, humane national care service today would be a contemporary case. A Tory socialist society is keen to ensure that everyone can play their part in helping to realise the internal goods that they are particularly suited to help collectively cultivate – indeed, they would say that playing such a role is the duty of every individual – while enjoying and participating in the other internal goods that they need and are provided by other institutions. Virtues and internal goods within institutions are better cultivated by co-operation and a sense of artisan cultivation and vocation than competition and dehumanising alienation. There can be no virtue in a society in which markets and profit rule supreme.

With regards to material issues and economic equality, a Tory socialist society realises that everyone needs, as well as virtue and culture, the material conditions and external goods that are required in order to flourish and live a decent and humane life, and that the excessive accumulation of external goods beyond what anyone can reasonably need or use tends to corrupt individuals. So, through a mixture of civil society, the state and the institutions that are a backbone of the good society, those goods will be provided to all, and gross inequalities will be trimmed back to ensure that large disparities of wealth and power are impossible. It will, nonetheless, be recognised that perfect material equality is neither possible, nor probably particularly desirable. So long as everyone is given the wider context in which they can flourish and cultivate their talents, virtues and duties, in which their particular affections and attachments can be maintained, and their essential, but differing, needs are met, then obsessing over exact predetermined patterns of equality or social justice is not so important.

This leads to the second major point: Tory Socialists operate in a different moral universe to Progressive Socialists, and utilise the full range of human moral experience. The classic manoeuvre of Progressive Socialists is to outline some abstract principle derived from convoluted philosophical logic-chopping, measure reality against it, and when reality doesn’t measure up to it, attempt to manipulate reality until it does, or at least believe that this is the correct response (they aren’t very good at actually changing reality very much in practice). Progressive Socialists therefore fail to see the value of the elements of reality that simply don’t register to them, because they don’t fit into the very narrow set of categories they have decided to elevate above all other considerations as measuring sticks (utility, distributive justice etc). When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

So, if one reads progressive academic leftist political philosophy (as, sadly, I am obliged to for my work), then a very common manoeuvre is to argue that certain features, because they weren’t, or couldn’t have been, chosen by an individual, and are a matter of brute luck, should be corrected for. For example, some people are born in very poor countries; they didn’t and couldn’t have chosen to be born in, say, Eritrea; therefore it is not justifiable to expect them to continue to live in Eritrea. They have an absolute right, therefore, to be able to emigrate to a wealthier country where they will have better life chances. To deny them that would be condemn them to a morally arbitrary disadvantage.

The fact that there might be other things to value about living in such a country, and other means of addressing the issue of economic impoverishment, does not occur to such a mindset. An individual born in Eritrea will have been born into a family there, and (presumably, I know nothing about Eritrea) will be an inheritor of a rich web of cultural meaning, of patriotic spirit, of spirituality and other associations. They may not have chosen it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t derive meaning from it and value it. They might prefer to stay in their country and attempt to contribute to its development – to try to help make it a better country to live – because it is precious to them, because it is theirs. They may very well think that leaving and abandoning their country is a dereliction of duty.

The root cause of this kind of blindness is that the moral register of Progressive Socialists is very narrow, and the diverse range of potential sites of human moral sustenance, belonging and meaning has been narrowed down by them in such a way as to exclude anything considered ‘arbitrary’, ‘irrational’ or ‘exclusive’. But of course, all human life is, in some sense, arbitrary, irrational and exclusive. No one chooses their family, or their language, or their looks, or their hometown or many other features about themselves – such things are always going to be matters of ‘arbitrary luck’ that simply cannot be corrected. Without some degree of exclusivity, life would be pretty grim: being friends with one person rather than another, loving one person and not another, are all examples of ‘exclusivity’. They are unavoidable features of the human condition – indeed, they are positive sources of meaning, joy and life to most of us. People are members of the human race and their material conditions are important – but so are their sense of national identity, their religion, their family ties, and a hundred other things about them. Tory socialists say: why not value the multifarious ways in which people find meaning and navigate their way through life, rather than focus on only a few, and them usually in an unhelpfully rigid and abstract way? Why not appeal to people’s sense of loyalty, of loss, of sanctity – as well as their desire for care and compassion, and their desire for individual ‘liberation’?

Another important point is that Tory Socialists are sceptical about this language of ‘liberation’ or ‘emancipation’ in general, and put at least as much emphasis on the principle of restraint as they do on liberty. A decent society is not simply about liberating people from restraints, stripping away everything about them that is ‘arbitrary’ and freeing them from the burdens placed upon them by the moral standards of society, the duties they owe others, and so forth. If one were to strip away every particular or ‘arbitrary’ thing about human beings – their nationality, their family, their social background, their religion – then one would be left with nothing much at all. The man behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ is no man at all. The only thing that would be ‘liberated’ would be pure, formless, corrosive self-will, a mere empty id.

In contrast, Tory Socialism is about realising that it is within the context of restraint and obedience, within the limits placed on our appetites by community, moral principles and just discipline, that we can truly realise our moral potential, cultivate healthy relationships and virtue and live a truly human life.

Ruskin put this well when in the following passage:

You hear every day greater numbers of foolish people speaking about liberty, as if it were such an honourable thing; so far from being that, it is, on the whole, and in the broadest sense, dishonourable, and an attribute of the lower creatures. No human being, however great or powerful, was ever so free as a fish. There is always something that he must or must not do; while the fish may do whatever he likes. All the kingdoms of the world put together are not half so large as the sea, and all the railroads and wheels that ever were or will be invented, are not so easy as fins. You will find, on fairly thinking of it, that it is his restraint which is honourable to man, not his liberty; and, what is more, it is restraint which is honourable even in the lower animals. A butterfly is more free than a bee, but you honour the bee more just because it is subject to certain laws which fit it for orderly function in bee society. And throughout the world, of the two abstract things, liberty and restraint, restraint is always the more honourable. It is true, indeed, that in these and all other matters you never can reason finally from the abstraction, for both liberty and restraint are good when they are nobly chosen, and both are bad when they are badly chosen; but of the two, I repeat, it is restraint which characterises the higher creature, and betters the lower creature; and from the ministering of the archangel to the labour of the insect, from the poising of the planets to the gravitation of a grain of dust — the power and glory of all creatures and all matter consist in their obedience, not in their freedom. The sun has no liberty, a dead leaf has much. The dust of which you are formed has no liberty. Its liberty will come — with its corruption.

Finally, it is worth noting that Tory socialists also have quite a different view of history relative to Progressives. They recognise that there is nothing inevitable about history, and it is always a mixed story of both improvement and decline. The past contains much to admire and learn from, but shouldn’t dictate all our current actions. Decline is always as much a possibility as progress, and technological and material progress does not necessarily imply moral or spiritual progress. We should attempt to preserve what is valuable, and gradually, sensibly reform the elements of our past inheritance that retard, rather than assist with, human virtue and flourishing. However, it is almost certainly the case that institutions, practices and frameworks that have developed gradually in response to real human need, in all of its richness and variety, are likely to contain much that can sustain us and protect us against capitalist degradation.

This does not imply a totally uncritical attitude to all existing traditions and customs. Some traditions and customs are themselves vicious. All good traditions are living ones, that grow and develop and adapt to circumstances, that use their rich inherited framework as an invaluable, but by no means an unchangeable or rigid, resource with which to navigate the challenges of social life. But Tory socialists recognise and respect the powerful conservative insight that good things are easy to unthinkingly tear down and destroy, but they are very difficult to build up. However, they don’t let that insight ossify into the view that all change must necessarily be a corruption, a decline, a falling away from a perfect golden age, and that only venerable and ancient institutions are any good. Good institutions and practices have to start somewhere, after all, and the institutions we inherit may need sensitive reform to make them conduce better to the ends that they are meant to help us pursue.

The final issue, which hangs over everything is: do Tory socialists have to be religious? I don’t want to open this can of worms at length now, but I would suggest that if one sees human life purely in terms of utility and materialism; if you think that we are nothing more than brute beasts of the field, bodily machines that can be treated in an accordingly mechanical manner; and can admit no spiritual or sacred dimension to the human experience at all, it’s probably pretty difficult to appreciate the Tory socialist dimension. It is not a coincidence that most of its adherents have been Christians.

Conclusion

Wherever socialists have let their progressive tendencies dominate, one of two things tends to happen. In a non-democratic or revolutionary context, if they manage to win power, they tend to inflict disaster, destruction and death. Power requires them to encounter and deal with the actual masses, who tend to be rather more attached to their traditions and important elements of their existing social relations than Bolshevik cadres can appreciate, and rather less willing to sacrifice themselves to the dynamic forces of historical progress than their Party masters would like. In this scenario, the workers tend to find their new progressive masters little better than their old capitalist ones. Every October Revolution produces its own Kronstadt.

Alternatively, in a more democratic context, the more progressive socialists become, the more likely they are to simply lose elections.  You may be progressive comrade, but I’m afraid that about 85% of the workers you purport to represent…aren’t.

This is why, in practice, progressives historically never entirely had things their own way within the left. The Labour movement always had strong counterbalances to the progressive tendencies that the Labour Party contains within it: the unions, most of the workers, and crucially, the voters. The Labour Party had strong Tory socialist elements within it.  It was a mixture, and the dynamic tensions between its various wings did, perhaps, have productive results.

The danger is that the Left, and more specifically the Labour Party, is now becoming a Tory Socialist-free zone. They increasingly take Progressive Socialism to ever more extreme lengths, laced with a healthy dose of ultra-divisive cultural identical politics, and ignore the lessons that us disaffected Tory radicals might have to teach them.

I hope that one day they might learn to stop worrying and love their Queen, Church and nation, as well as trade unions, the NHS and the welfare state, all of which are rich parts of our wonderful national tapestry.

I’m not holding my breath though.

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On the Side of the Angels

The phrase ‘on the side of the angels’ is usually understood to mean ‘on the side of the forces of good’ – and indeed this is more or less what it has now actually come to mean.

However, the original meaning of the phrase was somewhat different. Its originator was flamboyant raconteur, novelist and sometime leader of the Tory Party and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who coined it in 1864 during a speech to an audience of clergymen. He intended it ostensibly as an intervention in the lively controversy over the relationship between science and religion that then raged in the aftermath of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. His exact words were:

What is the question now placed before society with the glib assurance the most astounding? That question is this—Is man an ape or an angel? My lord, I am on the side of the angels.

On the face of it, this may appear – and to some extent perhaps was originally intended – as a simple rejection of the Darwinian idea that humans ultimately evolved from lower primates. The implication is that Dizzy was arguing in favour of holding to a pre-Darwinian view of the literal truth of the book of Genesis: in other words, what we would now call creationism.

Now, contrary to the casual belief of many atheists, few modern Christians are creationists. The vast majority of us accept the basic scientific truth of the theory of evolution. Insofar as this is the sole point at issue in Dizzy’s original statement, the ‘on the sides of the Angels’ quotation becomes simply a trivial piece of misplaced, albeit piquant, phrase-making.

However, it is clear that this is only part of what Dizzy was getting at. The real meaning of his statement was a basic assertion of the special moral status and dignity of human beings relative to animals and other sublunary beings. The actual practical process by which human beings came to exist as they are now, whether via evolution or Genesis-style creation, is not the main point at issue (although there is no doubt that modern Christian acceptance of the truth of evolution creates some prickly theological questions). The more important point was the idea that human beings have a unique moral and existential status that puts them on a considerably higher plane than beasts or inanimate matter.

Dizzy did not, as a Christian, literally mean to argue that humans are ‘angels’. Christian views on human proximity to the cherubim and seraphim vary, from gloomy Calvinistic conceptions of our total depravity, due to original sin, to the sunny-but-heretical views of human goodness advocated by Pelagius back in the 4th-5th centuries. However, the general Christian view is that, despite the Fall and the taint of original sin, human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore, if highly imperfect, liable to sin and therefore in need of grace, they are nonetheless only ‘a little lower than the Angels’: in possession of God-given qualities that are both unique and hugely significant.

Let us examine in a little more detail what it is that marks out human beings in the Christian view. What, in Dizzy’s terms, is it that makes us (a little lower than) angels? Most fundamentally, we are made by God in His image, and have been given a soul, which is the precondition for immortal life and elevates us to a position of unique dignity within creation. Being uniquely endowed with conscience, free-will and reason, we are the only creatures able to discern and obey the objective moral law (even though, as fallen beings, we find it a struggle, and need Revelation and the grace of God to help us). Not only can we discern morality, we can also communicate it using our unique powers of language. We were put into the world to worship and glorify God and to fulfil our divinely ordained ‘telos’ – by the means of our pursuit of labour and family life, the realisation of our powers of mutual service and love within society, our pursuit of invention and artistic creation, and the fulfilment of our moral duties. We are given stewardship over the world, its animals and natural environment, to husband and conserve it for future generations. As such, it is naturally assumed within this Christian perspective that divine revelation and the redemptive and sacramental power of Christ and His Church were given to human beings exclusively.

This basic framework of thought, based upon the fundamental ideas of human dignity, natural law, and moral duty, was, with considerable variations and complications, the bedrock of Western culture and civilization until the 19th century. Our capacity for screwing everything up being almost as great as our moral dignity, history rarely entirely lived up to the promises of this framework, but human frailty did not prevent this view of our purposes and meaning in life being acknowledged as the basic normative blueprint. Human dignity might have been regularly impugned, the moral law ignored, and the laws of nature disregarded – wars were fought, massacres committed, rapine and rape perpetrated – but there was a basic consensus that such sinful disobedience of God controverted the ideals civilization claimed to be based upon. Hypocrisy was widespread, but hypocrites at least implicitly acknowledge that their actions are wrong. They do not attempt to argue that vice is virtue.

For a long time, many of these Christian assumptions drifted on within the ideas and culture of Western societies despite the fact that belief in the underlying dogmatic and spiritual foundations of Christianity – and therefore this basic view of the world – declined.  They still do in many cases. Certainly, your bog-standard Western human rights-based liberal outlook is an (overall pretty incoherent and ultimately rootless) attempt to secularise the basic Christian outlook.

Indeed, politics in the West has been, until remarkably recently, a series of battles between politicians, thinkers and activists– socialist, liberal and conservative – who, whatever their differences, operated within a fundamentally Christian framework of assumptions regarding the nature of human beings, the world and society – or at least a lightly secularised version of that framework. From centre-right Christian Democrats through centrist rights-based liberals to mainstream social democrats, many of whom owed far more to Jesus Christ than Karl Marx in their basic outlook (whatever their notionally revolutionary heritage might have been in the case of many European socialist parties), their basic frame of reference was a shared one, rooted in a common Christian inheritance.

It seems to me that there are a lot of deeply worrying signs that this is no longer the case. If pre-19th century we inhabited a Christian moral universe, and for the past 150 years we have inhabited a kind of secularised imitation of that Christian framework, the risk is that we are plunging into an era that explicitly rejects all its trappings, from human dignity to the moral law. Whatever the many flaws of the various 19th and 20th-century secular tribute acts to Christianity, this outright rejection of it is far worse.

Take, for example, the widespread tendency among many left-leaning avantgarde academics and intellectuals to argue for something approaching an equal moral and even political status for animals, usually based upon giving primacy to the fact that humans and animals share the ability to sense pain – that is, reducing humans to the lowest animalistic common denominator and thereby robbing them of their special status by ignoring their many unique qualities. Consider the implicit anti-humanism of many on the techno-utopian ‘accelerationist’ left, who talk about human beings as if they are not even animals, but merely hedonistic robots that can be engineered and manipulated according to convenience, to an extent that frankly borders on the old evil of eugenics. The incredibly casual, dismissive and shallow attitude that most of the so-called liberal left has towards such issues as abortion, euthanasia, prostitution and similar  – an attitude which implies that, in their view, such issues don’t even touch on any serious underlying moral qualms or problems – suggests a similar indifference to the idea that each individual human being might have a dignity and status that elevates him or her above that of a mere chunk of flesh.

Many on the godless libertarian right are hardly any better – they similarly see human beings as selfish, pleasure-seeking, amoral beasts with no interest in anything above basic bodily functions and the pursuit of wealth as a means to mere fleeting sensual pleasure. A measure of their moral seriousness and grasp of the nature of human dignity is the fact that, according to them, the major outrages of modernity are state restrictions on our rights to freely purchase heroin or engage in acts of sexual congress with animals. They merely differ from modern secular leftists on the issue of the means of promoting, and the correct distribution of, degraded utilitarian grubbiness.

The fundamental problem is that this is the inevitable outcome of rejecting the underlying theological premises of the Christian worldview. For a long time Western civilization rumbled along on the basis of a kind of zombie cultural Christianity, but that was never sustainable, even if it was better than the moral nihilism likely to replace it. It was rather like expecting a tent to remain a viable shelter after you’ve taken all of the pegs out: the structure might endure for a little while, but eventually its lack of any form of anchor will tell and it will blow away. If you deny that human beings have souls and are made by God; if you deny the existence of an immutable, objective moral law encoded into the very essence of the universe by the Divine Power; if you reject the idea that human beings are uniquely endowed with conscience and reason to (try to) obey those laws; if you lose respect for the inherent, God-given sanctity and dignity of all human lives – then ultimately, anything is permitted, and harking on about human rights or humanitarian outrages really makes very little sense. Every major attempt to outline some variation on the kind of moral system that does uphold these essential principles – including Kantianism – falls down without the basic spiritual underpinnings of Christianity (or at least some kind of theism). Accept an atheist viewpoint and human will and arbitrary power-plays become the last – indeed the only coherent – arbiter of our common and political life.

This should create particular problems for the Left. Socialists should, one would think, be particularly loathed to abandon a framework that places so much emphasis on the moral importance of every human being, however apparently lowly, poor or maligned. Any framework that ultimately upholds the awesome sanctity and dignity of all human life and the supreme importance of mutual loving service is hardly compatible with free market fundamentalism, which, if it means anything, means placing no weight on the basic value of human life or dignity unless there’s a profit to be made. That is not to say that socialism is the only ideology consistent with Christianity, but it is to say that no other coherent and viable metaphysical, spiritual and moral system is available to underpin the basic values of socialism. Yet the vast majority of socialists – with the exception of the dwindling band of Christian socialists – reject it as much, if not more, than anyone else. At best, they replace it with a makeshift materialistic utilitarianism that, as we may find out to our cost, is compatible with all kinds of outrages against human life and dignity.

The rejection of a Christian view of human dignity and moral status – from all sides – is starting to tell. Of course, a framework that was deeply engrained in the culture and intellectual life of the West for 1500 years has taken a long time to decay – but it definitely is decaying, and the vacuum left by its decline is being filled by any number of evil and vile intellectual concoctions. Such a decay implies the rise of a nihilistic Nietzschean world of clashing, atomistic human wills, of arrogant human pride and sin, of ‘might is right’, in which infanticide can be no more condemned than a questionable taste in interior décor: in which, to put it in the simplest terms possible, nothing is sacred and anything is permitted.

The reality is, of course, if you want anything at all to be sacred, and you want some things not to be permitted – as surely any decent human beings does – you have to accept the existence of both a transcendent sanctifier and a transcendent forbidder. Or, as we used to (and some of us still do) call Him, God. However much we wish that it wasn’t such a straight choice, a straight choice it is: belief in God, morality and human dignity; or in Atheism, wilful amorality and human degradation. Angels or beasts.

Like Dizzy, I’m on the side of the angels.

 

 

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The 21st Century Gentleman: A Modest Proposal for Contemporary Masculinity

The Heirs of Redclyffe

The 1853 novel ‘The Heir of Redclyffe’ by Charlotte M. Yonge, although now long since consigned to obscurity, was a massive bestseller in its day. The plot revolves around the travails of Guy Morville, heir to the Redclyffe baronetcy and fortune, as he is traduced and misrepresented by his conceited and self-regarding cousin Phillip.

Guy is strongly prone to bouts of temper and brooding rage (supposedly the hereditary curse of his family line), as well as being drawn to the pleasures of indolence and wasting his time in self-indulgence. However, by a rigorous internal struggle, prayer and adherence to Christian principles, he wins his internal battle against these temptations and manages to master his own passions. This is particularly put to the test when Guy asks for a large sum of money from his guardian, and refuses to divulge the precise reasons for wanting it. He actually wants to use the money to pay the debts of his feckless uncle and support his defenceless little niece – as well as endow a religious community and their charitable enterprises. Although he is falsely accused by Phillip of wanting the money to fritter it away gambling, he refuses to reveal the true reasons as a point of honour (he has been pledged to secrecy) and is forced to give up his proposed engagement to his true love Amabel (Amy) as a result. He bears all of this with fortitude, despite the immense test presented to his virtue and self-restraint by Phillip’s behaviour.

Eventually Guy is cleared of suspicion and marries Amy. During their honeymoon in Italy, they come across Phillip, who insists on travelling through a fever-ridden area out of stubbornness, and contracts a terrible illness. Guy, who has forgiven him, selflessly nurses him through his illness and saves his life, but at the cost of his own. Guy, it turns out, has inherited a weak physical (rather than moral) constitution. He contracts the illness and dies. Guy’s heroics constitute an act of self-sacrificing love which ultimately redeems a much chastened and ashamed Phillip. Clearly, Guy’s actions are intended as an allegory of the example and passion of Christ.

Guy was intended by Yonge – an Anglo-Catholic and acquaintance of Oxford Movement divines like John Keble – as the ideal of a kind of chivalrous, Christian masculinity. I want to suggest that we would do well to return to such an ideal in age that seemingly struggles to conceive of any coherent or meaningful ideal of masculinity. In short, my proposal is that men in the contemporary world would be well advised to become themselves the heirs of Redclyffe.

Woke v Bloke

Most modern commentators would find the fictional example of Guy Morville irrelevant or simply bizarre. Contemporary debates are polarised between two visions. On the one hand, there are the woke-leftists and their raging against ‘toxic masculinity’. On the other, there are the figures, often on the alt-right, who stridently affirm all of the worst elements of contemporary masculinity, to the extent of equating manhood with the worship of strength, power and money.

Let us consider the first line of argument. It revolves around the argument that men are trapped into attempting to conform to traditional norms of male behaviour that are harmful both to themselves and women. These norms are usually seen as consisting of such things as violence, aggression (both towards other men, and sexual and physical aggression towards women), homophobia, misogyny, intense competitiveness, courage, toughness, stoicism, and similar traits. ‘Toxic masculinity’ leads, it is argued, to domestic violence and sexual harassment (and worse), as well as men themselves experiencing mental health problems, higher suicide rates, and so on, as they fail to live up to the stereotype of the dominant macho man.

This kind of view has created a backlash from those who are keen on asserting a supposedly traditional view of masculinity and gender roles in response. They tend to stress innate biological differences between the sexes and justify the norms that are seen by detractors to be the basis of ‘toxic masculinity’ as a healthy expression of ‘natural’ male traits. This tends to be seen in almost socially Darwinist terms: attractive, strong and powerful men are rightfully dominant in terms of worldly success and attracting women, and anyone who disputes this is simply a ‘weak’ man attempting to justify his own inability to successfully compete with his ‘Alpha Male’ rivals. This has reached its apogee in such distasteful phenomena as womanising internet ‘personality’ Dan Bilzerian or the ravings of anonymous Nietszchean proto-fascist ‘Bronze Age Pervert’.

Both of these lines of argument are flawed.

The ‘toxic masculinity’ argument mainly comes from critics signed up to the dogmas of the cultural-left gender studies orthodoxy that is the standard background ideology of most contemporary academics. Such academics, influenced by trendy theorists such as Judith Butler, will often deny the significance (to any degree) of biological sex and see gender roles as ‘performed’, and therefore socially constructed. They reject biological determinism only to replace it with other forms of determinism – often a form of cultural determinism which assumes that human behaviour and morals are prescribed purely by one’s cultural environment (but never biology or nature, and certainly not transcendent standards given by God).

The same critics tend to see human history as a straightforward story of male privilege and patriarchy, and therefore categorise the characteristics that have been seen as ‘typically’ male – which themselves are a curate’s egg of reasonable (stoical, courageous) and unpleasant (aggressive, misogynistic) – as by definition toxic and hateful, usually on the basis of an actually very moralistic, but very half-baked, revulsion at the status quo. Insofar as such critics have a view of what an alternative masculinity might look like, it seems to be nothing more than a negation of the traditional norms of toxic masculinity, as they define it, with very little positive content.

In contrast, the Nietszchean reactionaries are determinists of a different kind. They not only argue that biological differences between the sexes exist, but also that such natural differences should determine our behaviour and moral values: men tend to be more aggressive, they are genetically programmed to be promiscuous, they are physically stronger and better at fighting; and therefore they ought to be aggressive, promiscuous and good at fighting: such qualities are the true measure of manliness.

Both views are self-evidently absurd. The reactionaries are more easily written off, for the very simple reason that any non-psychopathic human being can see that confusing what is with what ought to be, equating might with right, is repugnant. It is a doctrine that ends in the gulag and the death camp – or in this context, in the moral ascendancy of the rapist, the bully and the misogynist.

It has to be said that the cultural left’s viewpoint is hardly much more convincing, although it is less obviously morally disgusting. Any first-year psychology undergraduate will tell you that human behaviour is always a result of the interaction between nature and nurture, and never exclusively determined by one or the other. The evidence that there are very significant biological differences between men and women which tend to shape different patterns of behaviour is immense, and everyone knows that it is true from everyday observation, however much they may deny it. Gender is not simply an arbitrary ‘performance’, it is clearly related to biological differences between men and women, even though biology does not simply ‘determine’ every man and every woman’s behaviour, and cultural norms and institutions also are significant.

Moral Chains

What might a saner position look like? It is ultimately quite simple: there are biological differences (on average – there are always outliers) between men and women, and these differences have behavioural and moral significance. So far, one must agree with the reactionaries. However, whatever the biological propensities of men may be, they certainly do not determine the moral content of masculinity: on the contrary.

At this point it is probably worth observing one of the curious features of both the cultural-left and Nietzschean-reactionary positions: they both have very implausible view of the ideal of ‘traditional’ masculinity. Both seem to accept that sexual promiscuity and aggression, for example, are part and parcel of ‘traditional’ masculinity, but it only takes a cursory knowledge of the history of depictions of ideal masculinity – of which Guy Morville might be a nice example – in western culture to know that this is obviously nonsense, at least until recently. When Edmund Burke said that, in response to a threat to the person of Marie Antoinette, he ‘thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult’, he clearly was dealing in a very different currency of masculine behaviour than modern reactionaries, who treat women like debased sexual objects. Bilzerian, in contrast to Burke’s high-minded gentlemanliness, would, one can only imagine, have used the French Revolution as an opportunity to add Marie Antoinette to his Instagram harem.

Of course, most leftists would dismiss such an idea of chivalric behaviour as nothing more than a piece of ideological chicanery. However, there is a very important element of truth contained in something like a Morvillesque-Burkean-Chivalric view. It is precisely because of the (very often anti-social) biological drives and impulses of (particularly) men that it is most incumbent upon them to place ‘moral chains on their appetites’ and show restraint, and act honourably. If anything sums up ‘traditional masculinity’, it is those ideals.

Of course, many will simply scoff and say that whatever lip service was paid to these ideals in the pre-feminist era, the reality was very different: women were still mistreated, abused and oppressed. It must be admitted that such critics are, insofar as their arguments go, correct. Many men never lived up to the traditional masculine ideals of chaste, honourable and restrained behaviour towards their wives, daughters, mothers – and, sadly, their mistresses and prostitutes. Masculinity in practice tended indeed be characterised by much of what the ‘toxic masculinity’ brigade argues. Furthermore, the kind of arbitrary power held by men in an era when women were not able to own property or vote was immense, and, men being what they are, such arbitrary power was predictably abused. So far (at least) are feminist arguments perfectly reasonable.

However, just because such ideals were often ignored in practice, and because they were caught up within a broader set of now discredited assumptions about the natural intellectual superiority of men and the need for those assumptions to be baked into a society’s social, legal and political institutions, that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, and relevant.

The traditional conception of masculinity recognised the biological imperatives of (most) men. It recognised that men do tend to be inclined more towards certain vices, such as promiscuity and aggression. Traditional masculinity did not simply endorse these tendencies – it instead focussed upon ways of restraining and repressing them, or at least regulating and channelling them into more acceptable channels, because of an acute awareness of how immoral such tendencies are, and how prone men are to indulge them. Denying the reality of these behavioural differences – differences that surely account, in part, for the fact that the vast majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by men – makes it difficult to formulate an ideal of masculinity that can adequately face up to them. Unlike contemporary discourses of ‘toxic masculinity’, a traditional conception of chivalric masculinity acknowledged these biologically-driven differences, but did not make the mistake of equating ‘is’ with ‘ought’.

Specifically, such a viewpoint recognised the importance of restraining man’s sexual drive by keeping it within the legitimate boundaries of marriage. Traditional masculinity demanded proper and respectful behaviour towards women, in which the woman’s wishes were always the final arbiter and fidelity and monogamy were the highest values. Man’s aggressive drive was to be regulated by rigid self-discipline and codes of honour, and channelled into the rightful channel of courageous defence of one’s family and compatriots – and more widely, the defenceless and the weak. Honesty and upfront, plain-dealing behaviour (and never trickery or deceit) should define one’s dealings in the world.  In other words, masculinity was a moral and cultural code that was framed around an ideal of the virtues and duties particularly incumbent on men given their characteristic infirmities and abilities  – with stoicism being the fitting emotional manifestation of such a generally selfless, even self-sacrificing, attitude. Such a general code of masculine ethics tended to be heavily bound up with Christianity. Guy Morville is a classic example of such ideals.

The list of qualities that are usually given as constituting ‘toxic masculinity’ today are a curious mixture: some vestigial elements of a genuine vision of Christian, gentlemanly masculinity have been blended with the exact pernicious tendencies that those chivalric values were designed to restrain. It is noticeable, however, that many of the genuinely traditional masculine norms are not mentioned in these lists, or are indeed inversed: dutiful self-restraint and straightforward honest plain-dealing are never mentioned as a part of ‘traditional’ masculinity by either the woke-left or the Nietzschean reactionary right. This is no surprise: such traits don’t suit the woke left’s tendency to dismiss all history and tradition out of hand as simply ‘oppressive’, nor do they suit the reactionary right’s embrace of a totally selfish and individualistic hedonism. The only traditional masculine values that have been retained are those that are sufficiently ambiguous to be easily disassociated from their essentially gentlemanly and Christian origins (such as courage).

The Spirit of the 21st Century Christian Gentleman

So, what are the characteristics of the Christian gentlemanly ideal? It seems to me that the following might be taken as the main attributes:

  • Self-restraint – There is nothing more manly than being able to show firm mastery over one’s own desires and passions, and nothing more pathetic than constantly giving into one’s short-term passions at the cost of one’s self-respect. A true man should always restrain his often disordered or exploitative desires whenever they are against the claims of chastity, sanctity or justice. This doesn’t mean just in sexual terms, although it certainly does mean that. It also means that one should show self-restraint, for example, in terms of material gain, not pursuing more wealth than one needs to live a decent life.
  • Loyalty and commitment – A true man realises that his real happiness will be found in the context of committed, long-term, stable relationships. This most obviously applies to sexual relationships. As such, a true man, if not called to chastity, should marry and be loyal and faithful to his spouse. He will show an undying love and constant, unwavering dedication to the interests of his children, whom he will help to look after and bring up. But it applies more widely: a true man should be loyal to his friends, any institutions he is a member of, and prepared to go to some lengths to fulfil his commitments to them. He will never welch on a deal, abandon his workmates on a picket line, or fail to buy a round. He is always, always faithful unto death.
  • Self-sacrificing love – A true man should always put his needs last and be prepared to sacrifice his own interests, and, if necessary, his life, to others, particularly those in need, and to women and children.
  • Hard-work – A true man will never be a free-rider and attempt to live off the work of others. He will seek to pay his way and find honest and dignified work.
  • Dedication to protecting and caring for the weak and defenceless – True masculinity is not about exploiting the weak and helpless, but rather dedicating oneself to their interests and always stepping in to defend and help them. No true man can live with himself if he fails to act to stick up for the underdog or the person who can’t defend themselves.
  • Honesty, honour and plain-dealing – The true man never lies or deceives, or acts in an underhand, dishonourable or manipulative way. His word is his bond, and he sticks to his promises. He will always be upfront, honest and straightforward in all dealings, including in his professional and private life. There is nothing more cowardly or unmanly as the cheat or the sneak.
  • Calmness and stoicism – The true man seeks to quietly and calmly do his duty, and does not look to burden others in the process. He doesn’t complain or whinge, because it is a selfish and pathetic thing to do. If he has emotional problems that affect his mental health, he seeks help discreetly and doesn’t flaunt his problems before the world.
  • Courage and firmness – A true man doesn’t flinch from doing his moral duty when it is difficult or hard, and will, if absolutely necessary, fight to protect his family, his friends, his nation and those who are weak or defenceless with courage, but never recklessness or cruelty.

Clearly these are high ideals, and few live up to them – but they are, I would suggest, worth striving towards.

It may seem that talking about the ideals of the Christian Gentleman is a bizarrely anachronistic and inappropriate foundation for a non-toxic form of masculinity in the contemporary world. Let me address such objections.

Firstly, it might be argued that such an ideal seems to be associated with a hopelessly hierarchical – even feudal – world. This seems to be a very superficial issue to me. Put simply, there is no necessary connection between the social structure of pre-20th century Britain (or Europe) and the underlying values that I want to suggest should form the heart of a modern vision of masculinity. Self-restraint, loyalty, dedication to protecting the weak and defenceless, toughness and stoicism, honesty and plain-dealing: none of these virtues are inaccessible to any man. When I say ‘gentleman’, I do not mean it in the socially exclusive way in which it was used historically: any man, regardless of social status or wealth, can be a true gentleman. Guy Morville was the heir to a baronetcy, but his virtues were not ones that particularly depended upon his wealth or social status (although his donation of money to needy causes was one demonstration of his noble nature). It is, however, doubtlessly the case that such gentlemanly virtues are probably more easily pursued by those who themselves possess economic security and an important measure of dignity, within the context of a society without gross inequalities of wealth and power. That, however, is all the more reason to simply help everyone to achieve economic security and eliminate poverty and dependence.

The Christianity issue is, in a secular age, a more obviously difficult one. As myself an Anglo-Catholic, it seems to me that the only path to achieving victory over one’s own vices and having any hope of reaching the standard of moral living inherent in such an idea of masculinity is to follow a way of life defined by faith in Christ, prayer and participation in the holy sacrament. The way of Christ can never be irrelevant or ‘anachronistic’ – if the contemporary world rejects this, then the contemporary world is simply wrong, and deeply lost. Clearly, many won’t agree with me here. However, let me give some reflections that might at least sound plausible to, at the very least, the fair minded agnostic.

I would firstly point out that Christians understand only too well the nature of human – and especially male – frailty. Most men who honestly reflect on the baser elements of their nature can recognise in those shameful elements of their thinking and behaviour a specific manifestation of Original Sin, of human beings’ propensity to wilful pride and choosing the wrong path. A Christian understanding of human baseness, but also the potential for repentance and reconciliation, reflects the moral realities that we encounter in our lives all the time and which are particularly relevant to thinking through how to be a better man specifically, given the particular strength of the temptations that men are heir to. Those who believe in an underlying, objective, God-given moral reality are far more likely to find the motivational capacity to successfully pursue self-restraint and hate sin and vice. Those with the armour of faith find themselves far better able to endure stoically the vicissitudes of life and resign themselves to God’s will, no matter how difficult to understand it might appear.

Whether these reflections sound plausible or not, they will not be convincing to those without faith. However, let us consider the implausibility of the secular viewpoint.

The criticism of ‘toxic masculinity’ has often been linked to the #MeToo movement, and the broader critique of male sexual harassment, entitlement and violence that that movement is part of. Whichever way one looks at it, it seems to me that this is, at least in part, an attack on a vice that men tend to be especially prone to. The perfectly reasonable moral point at the heart of it is that men should restrain their sexual impulses, and treat women respectfully and not simply as sexual objects. It implies behaviour characterised by restraint, honour and protecting the weak.

In practice, it obviously means that men should not use any power they have over women to humiliate or abuse them. This works at all kinds of levels: at the most obvious, it means that men should not rape or sexually assault women, but it also implies a code of behaviour that is much more extensive than that, and much more ambitious. It implies, I should think, that men should not attempt to manipulate or coerce women into sex in far more subtle ways (e.g. the wealthy boss making an advance on a younger colleague when she feels that turning him down would be more than her career is worth); it certainly implies not using prostitutes; it means that men should refrain from making women uncomfortable by staring at them inappropriately or leering at them or making suggestive or sexual comments to them; and also that men should refrain from the wider culture that encourages the attitudes that leads to such behaviour by, for example, not watching pornography and not going to strip clubs (and similar). It also means that mean should act decently towards their spouses and partners and be faithful and loyal to them: committed, monogamous, loyal relationships are far more likely to be a context for respectful and decent male behaviour than casual encounters or unstable relationships to which the man is reluctant to commit.

It seems to me that the underlying secular moral philosophies of much of the contemporary left and right are very poorly placed to come up with plausible reasons for following such a code of ethics. The underlying materialism of, e.g. Marxism, liberalism, and indeed much modern conservatism, socialism and libertarianism, encourages the idea that the purpose of human economies, societies and polities is almost purely to gratify the biological and material needs and desires of individuals. Such utilitarianism doesn’t tend to be a very good motivational or spiritual framework for encouraging self-restraint and self-sacrifice. It doesn’t have much place in it for values such as loyalty either. One might respond and say that such materialistic philosophies do have a basis for self-restraint, on the basis that harmful behaviour needs to be restrained for utilitarian reasons, on the basis of such ‘ideals’ as autonomy and consent. Such a thin view of our moral nature might be a plausible ground for forbidding rape or out-and-out sexual assault. However, it provides no basis for opposing faithlessness and adultery, or a cold, self-seeking sexual quid-pro-quo so long as the man is debased enough to desire such a contractual relationship, and the woman sufficiently lacking in self-respect to accept it. It’s no basis for opposing much pornography, so long as some form of ‘consent’ can be shown to have operated in its production. The best that the atheists might be able to come up is some Kantian talk about the ‘kingdom of ends’ and the ‘categorical imperative’, or some variation thereof – which is simply a thinly secularised version of Christianity which does not, in fact, work without belief in God in any case.

Of course, more broadly speaking, capitalism itself is pretty antithetical to the values of a genuine chivalric, Christian masculinity. Capitalism is not well-known for placing much value on self-restraint, or loyalty. Indeed, much modern consumer capitalism is an enormous exercise in profiting out of, and, as such, encouraging, legitimising and glorying in people’s vices, and attempting to commodify and debase everything, including human sexuality and honour. It doesn’t have much time for calm stoicism either: capitalists have too much to gain from monetising people’s inability to restrain their own emotional incontinence.

The other issue harks back to an earlier point. Much of the modern ‘woke’ left takes the left’s traditional emphasis on nurture over nature, environment over biology, to a ridiculous extreme, just as the modern reactionary right take their traditional emphasis on biological determinism to a similarly silly degree. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. However, both extremes, and indeed even this ‘middle path’ that emphasises the interaction of nature and nurture, implies that human beings are still mere marionettes, determined by a mixture of their environment and their genes, with no ability to make their own moral choices. The only way to escape the determinism of biology or environment is for there to be some transcendental power that instils in us the true capacity for moral decision and free-will: a spiritual nature that is neither mere material nature nor mere external influence. That requires the existence of a soul, and ultimately God. Only men with souls can choose, with free-will and responsibility, the true path of gentlemanly masculinity and live a virtuous and meaningful life – if assisted, I would add, by the grace of God, prayer and the power of the sacraments.

Can you be a good man without the help of chivalry and Christian faith? Probably, but in general this is largely because men who do act honourably and uprightly are still conforming to the ideals of those traditions, which are so engrained in our culture that they persist even now, if in a secularised and watered-down form. However, these ideals are like plants in a desert, living off their sap. They will fade without deep and real moral and spiritual nourishment. Only a recovery of the spirit of the Christian gentleman can form an enduring basis for a truly honourable and enduring masculinity.

Perhaps young men could do worse than read The Heir of Redclyffe after all.

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