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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