Monday, March 22, 2010

"Counterfeiting Conservatism"

An article of that title, authored by yours truly, has now become available to non-subscribers at the American Conservative website. This does not relieve you of your civic duty to subscribe.

In this article, I argue that American conservatism has become an "ism" by dint of the fact that conservatism has always been in a certain sense defined by what it has opposed. It has taken its cue from various forms of progressivism - liberalism, libertarianism, capitalism, communism, cosmopolitanism - and has tended to occupy space that has been vacated by a left-ward moving opponent. Thus, even where conservatism has remained more "conservative" than its opponent on the Left, over time (particularly in the U.S.) it has become more liberal.

I implicitly take to task the current stance of many "conservatives" who lay the blame of our current woes at the feet of "Progressivism" (i.e., Glenn Beck and his smarter West Coast Straussian counterparts). By way of a backdrop, I've argued elsewhere that there is far less difference between the stance of conservative liberals (Lockeans) and Progressives than they might suppose. In the article itself, I note that critics of Progressivism more often than not actually have ended up supporting Progressive positions, among them an emphasis upon Nation over locality (defined by the Lockean philosophy of the Declaration), a dedication to spreading democracy (and free markets) throughout the world (hence, a similarly homogenizing spirit as one finds in Progressivism), a devotion to progress (now defined as scientific progress, albeit stopping only short of scientific progress of human nature itself), and an embrace of civil religion (I note that the "Pledge of Allegiance" was originally written by Progressives in order to solidify national devotion to the abstract idea of America).

I conclude by suggesting that modern conservatism has betrayed what should be its fundamentally Augustinian devotions, and has instead embraced the twin heresies of Manicheanism and Gnosticism.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Science and the Decline of the Liberal Arts

My essay "Science and the Decline of the Liberal Arts" is now available in its entirety on The New Atlantis website.

Here's an excerpt:

When conservative critics of our universities nowadays lament the decline of liberal education, they usually decry its replacement by a left-leaning politicized agenda. But the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally displaced by scientific education buttressed by the demands of global competition. While conservatives might wish to apportion blame to those increasingly irrelevant faculty whose postmodernism has become a form of stale institutional orthodoxy, the truth is that the rise of this sort of faculty was a response to conditions that were already making liberal education irrelevant, a self-destructive effort to make the humanities ‘up to date.’ These purported radicals — mostly bourgeois former children of the 1960s — were not agents of liberation, but rather symptoms of the neglect of the liberal arts in a dawning new age of science reinforced by global competition.

Read the whole thing here.

America's Potemkin Village

In the wake of Phillip Blond's visit to Georgetown and the imminent passage of the Healthcare bill, we need to state clearly the nature of the moment: our time is defined by a pincer movement mutually arising from, on the one hand, liberalism's tendency to understand the human creature in individualistic and monadic terms, and on the other, the rise of a centralized Nanny State. Our current political alignments regard these two as opposites, the one the philosophy of heroic Randian individuals, the other, the specter of the Nanny State - or, conversely, on one side, greedy industrial plunderers, and on the other, the Government as protector of and provider for the people. The pincer movement is directed against all intermediary and binding associations: both the Market and the State seek to be monopolistic in their spheres, disempowering or dislocating intermediary identifications. Community, family, church, society - all are to be remade in the voluntarist image, and their functions are to be replaced by the State.

In the wake of Phillip Blond's visit, there can and will be much debate about many aspects of his policies and positions, but I think his main point - identifying the unholy alliance between economic individualism and State collectivism - was powerful and undeniable. While he cited the work of Chesterton and Belloc, he might too have invoked the name of Robert Nisbet as well. And, perhaps above all, his analysis echoed the insights of Tocqueville in his masterpiece Democracy in America.

Many readers of Democracy in America - and doubtless more with only passing acquaintance - know that Tocqueville warns against the rise of a centralized, bureaucratic, “tutelary” government, the “soft despotism” of the centralized Nanny State. It is these passages of Tocqueville that have always been the most admired by conservatives. But most readers fail to see that Tocqueville understood the rise of the centralized tutelary State not to be result of a coup by centralizing despots, but rather, the consequence of our ever-greater tendency to embrace a Lockean form of individualism. Throughout Democracy in America he wrote of the ways in which associational life strengthen citizens, giving them the tools and capacities and talents for finding together the means of achieving the particular good within their communities, and providing for them a familiarity with, and love for, civic freedom. The tendency for democracies, over time, toward separation, solipsism, individualism – suspicious of groups and people that make claims upon individuals, more tempted by private than public concerns, increasingly understanding freedom to be doing as one wants – renders democratic people ripe for the rise of the tutelary State.

Tocqueville over and over describes such people as “weak,” shorn of the resources that provide an avenue toward a true form of freedom. And so, he writes toward the conclusion of Democracy in America that the individual freedom claiming to do what we want will lead to the most debased form of modern tyranny, willing subjects to a tutelary State. Tocqueville writes, with acute insight:

Since … no one is obliged to lend his force to those like him and no one has the right to expect great support from those like him, each is at once independent and weak. These two states – which must neither be viewed separately nor confused – give the citizen of democracies very contrary instincts. His independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals, and his debility makes him feel, from time to time, the need of the outside help that he cannot expect from any of them, since they are all impotent and cold. In this extremity, he naturally turns his regard to the immense being [the tutelary, bureaucratic, centralized State] that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement. His needs and above all his desires constantly lead him back toward it, and in the end he views it as the unique and necessary support for his individual weakness.” (II.iv.3)

Tocqueville’s analysis provides us with a unique understanding of the sources of modern centralization and the rise of the administrative State. Often we tend to view its rise as the result of a collectivist spirit, and assert in its opposition a hale defense of individualism. Tocqueville’s analysis suggests that those concerned with the rise of the tutelary State should not defend individualism as such – but instead, defend associational life and the spirit of self-government that it engenders. The spirit of liberty that impels individuals toward the liberation born of freedom from obligations and responsibility finally makes us servile dependents upon the State.

In perfect confirmation of Tocqueville's fears, take a minute to watch this video, courtesy of the U.S. Government in its efforts to promote the Census:

The commercial - entitled “A March to the Mailbox” - portrays an ordinary Joe getting off his couch (in a bathrobe) and marching out of his house – picket-fenced – where suddenly the streets fill with neighbors and friends, the names of whom he knows entirely. He states that by filling out the Census form, he’s helping Pete’s school and roads for his neighbors car pool and Risa’s health-care and so that – I quote – “we can get our fair share of Federal Funding.” As I watched it (in growing horror), I saw it as the perverse fulfillment of Tocqueville's analysis - that the very community spirit being portrayed in that commercial would itself obviate the need for that sort of ad. The ad portrayed a vibrant community of people who know each other and genuinely wish each other's good, but in fact the need for the commercial at all was born of the widespread absence of any such reality. Rather, the reality is that each person is to fill out this form in the privacy of his own home in order to be relieved of the obligation to do anything further to help fellow citizens that are increasingly unknown to him. Having won the Cold War, our government is now producing and airing commercials that portray what can’t be described in any other way other than our very own Potemkin village.

Friday, March 19, 2010

David Brooks on Phillip Blond at Georgetown

Phillip Blond has begun his "American tour" with a lecture this evening at Georgetown University under the auspices of the program which I direct, The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy. While the Georgetown men's basketball team flopped, Blond soared. With perfect timing, a column by David Brooks about Blond appears in today's New York Times. At the risk of copyright infringement, I quote it in its entirety here:

The United States is becoming a broken society. The public has contempt for the political class. Public debt is piling up at an astonishing and unrelenting pace. Middle-class wages have lagged. Unemployment will remain high. It will take years to fully recover from the financial crisis.

This confluence of crises has produced a surge in vehement libertarianism. People are disgusted with Washington. The Tea Party movement rallies against big government, big business and the ruling class in general. Even beyond their ranks, there is a corrosive cynicism about public action.

But there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian. This alternative has been explored most fully by the British writer Phillip Blond.

He grew up in working-class Liverpool. “I lived in the city when it was being eviscerated,” he told The New Statesman. “It was a beautiful city, one of the few in Britain to have a genuinely indigenous culture. And that whole way of life was destroyed.” Industry died. Political power was centralized in London.

Blond argues that over the past generation we have witnessed two revolutions, both of which liberated the individual and decimated local associations. First, there was a revolution from the left: a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores; a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities; a welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aide societies and self-organized associations.

Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.

The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

The free-market revolution didn’t create the pluralistic decentralized economy. It created a centralized financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities. The effort to liberate individuals from repressive social constraints didn’t produce a flowering of freedom; it weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers. In Britain, you get a country with rising crime, and, as a result, four million security cameras.

In a much-discussed essay in Prospect magazine in February 2009, Blond wrote, “Look at the society we have become: We are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry.” In a separate essay, he added, “The welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures.”

The task today, he argued in a recent speech, is to revive the sector that the two revolutions have mutually decimated: “The project of radical transformative conservatism is nothing less than the restoration and creation of human association, and the elevation of society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign station.”

Economically, Blond lays out three big areas of reform: remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor. This would mean passing zoning legislation to give small shopkeepers a shot against the retail giants, reducing barriers to entry for new businesses, revitalizing local banks, encouraging employee share ownership, setting up local capital funds so community associations could invest in local enterprises, rewarding savings, cutting regulations that socialize risk and privatize profit, and reducing the subsidies that flow from big government and big business.

To create a civil state, Blond would reduce the power of senior government officials and widen the discretion of front-line civil servants, the people actually working in neighborhoods. He would decentralize power, giving more budget authority to the smallest units of government. He would funnel more services through charities. He would increase investments in infrastructure, so that more places could be vibrant economic hubs. He would rebuild the “village college” so that universities would be more intertwined with the towns around them.

Essentially, Blond would take a political culture that has been oriented around individual choice and replace it with one oriented around relationships and associations. His ideas have made a big splash in Britain over the past year. His think tank, ResPublica, is influential with the Conservative Party. His book, “Red Tory,” is coming out soon. He’s on a small U.S. speaking tour, appearing at Georgetown’s Tocqueville Forum Friday and at Villanova on Monday.

Britain is always going to be more hospitable to communitarian politics than the more libertarian U.S. But people are social creatures here, too. American society has been atomized by the twin revolutions here, too. This country, too, needs a fresh political wind. America, too, is suffering a devastating crisis of authority. The only way to restore trust is from the local community on up.

An impressive audience turned out tonight, notable for its youth and evident hunger to find a different way. Both current party configurations have yet to get a clue. The question that was posed several times, and which needs serious consideration, is whether and how Blond's "Red Tory" analysis can be applied to the American situation. The diagnosis is surely spot on, but the remedies will likely need to be more local. What needs to be thought through on this side of the pond is the American iteration of the answer to the question "what is to be done"?

For those in the DC area, Blond will be part of two panel discussions tomorrow (Friday, March 19) on the Georgetown campus from 12-4 p.m. For more information, click here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring Tour Dates

The Deneen Spring speaking tour will be making upcoming stops in Dallas and Philadelphia. A.K.A., Tocqueville on Tap.

Saturday, March 20
Dallas, TX
"Land of the Pilgrim's Pride: Tocqueville and the American Founding Vision"
Adolphus Hotel
1321 Commerce St.
1 p.m.

Note that I'll be sharing the stage with the world's leading PoMoCon, Peter Lawler, as well as Brad Watson of St. Vincent College. RSVPs are requested.

Click here for more information.

Thursday, March 25
Philadelphia, PA
"Tocquevillian Freedom"
Eastern University
Eagle Hall Great Room
7 p.m.

Click here for more information.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Red Tories in America

Not long ago at "Front Porch Republic," John Medaille published a post entitled "The Red Tories and the Civic State."  In that post, John reported on the efforts of the British thinker Phillip Blond to fashion a new (old) way of thinking beyond the current Left/Right continuum in ways that echo the thought of, among others, Benjamin Disreali and G.K. Chesterton.  That post attracted a comment of encouragement and appreciation by Phillip Blond himself. As a result of that comment and subsequent correspondence, Blond will arrive in the U.S. to lecture at Georgetown University under the auspices of the Tocqueville Forum on next Thursday, March 18, followed by several panels discussing his work and ideas on the following  day. Information about the two lectures can be found below. Any and all readers are welcome and encouraged to attend. For those more far-flung, or locals who may have conflicts, a recording of his Thursday lecture at Georgetown will be available online a few days after the event on the Tocqueville Forum website.

For those who would like to become more familiar with Blond's views (very sympatico with FPR sentiments), see his essay "The Rise of the Red Tories."


Red Toryism and the Associative State: A Radical, New Political Settlement

Thursday, March 18 7:00 - 8:30 PM
Location: ICC Auditorium
Reception to follow

Featuring Phillip Blond, Director of ResPublica, a public policy think tank

Is there an alternative to the monopolization of society and the private sphere by the state and the market? Phillip Blond will outline his vision of an Associative State: strengthening local communities and economies, ending dispossession, redistributing the tax burden and restoring the nuclear family.

Phillip Blond is the Director of ResPublica, launched by David Cameron MP in November 2009. Phillip was born and raised in Liverpool, and was trained as philosopher and theologian at the Universities of Hull, Warwick, and Cambridge. He was until recently a Senior University Lecturer in Christian Theology and Philosophy but left academia for politics and public policy. He first made an impact on British politics with a series of articles in The Independent and The Guardian and Prospect arguing for a new brand of radical conservatism - in which he allied social and relational conservatism with a transformative, Tory political economy, on which he will elaborate at his lecture.

Roundtable Response to Mr. Blond

Friday, March 19 12:00 - 4:00 pm
Location: Copley Formal Lounge

12:00 - 12:30 PM Lunch

12:30 - 2:00 PM Panel 1
Ross Douthat, Op-ed Columnist for the New York Times
Rod Dreher, Director of Publications, Templeton Foundation
Daniel McCarthy, Associate Editor of The American Conservative

2:15-4:00 PM Panel 2
Andrew Abela, Associate Professor of Marketing and Chair of Business and Economics, Catholic University of America
Charles Mathewes, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, University of Virginia
John Milbank, Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at the University of Nottingham

Respondent: Phillip Blond, ResPublica
Moderator: Patrick Deneen, Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Chair Associate Professor of Government, Director, Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, Georgetown University

RSVP for both events or either event
to Tara Jackson at

(RSVP required for lunch on Friday.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Appetite Control

Here is my most recent offering in "The Hoya," Georgetown's campus newspaper.


A curious confluence of events took place last week at Georgetown.

First, a most unusual speaker graced the campus: a self-described Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist farmer named Joel Salatin. Salatin owns and runs Polyface Farm in Swope, Va., and has received some fame through appearances in the pages of Michael Pollan’s bestselling book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and in the film, “Food, Inc.” He spoke in terms both uproariously funny and profoundly moving about germs, earth, pigs, food and love. Author of the book “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal,” Salatin defended farming practices that mimic and respect the rhythms of nature, resist the industrial model that plunders the earth, restrain our tendency to see the world and its creatures merely as things for our pleasure and use and call upon humans to be good stewards of the earth.

Another event of interest was the second-annual “Sex Positive Week,” during which various campus groups explored human sexuality and, particularly, stressed forms of sexuality that would liberate individuals from traditional strictures and restraints.
A story on the Student Activities Commission involvement in the week’s events (“SAC Funds Sex Positive Week,” The Hoya, Feb. 19, 2010, A7) quoted organizers as stating that “Sex positive means respecting an individual’s right to do with their bodies what they want.”

I was struck by the juxtaposition of these events, since both dealt with the elemental kinds of appetite — for food and sex. Those two objects of our desire — both derived from instincts and impulses of the human body — are linked together by Aristotle in his discussion of the origins of political community. In “Politics” he wrote,

“Just as man is the best of animals when he perfected, when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all. … Without virtue he is the most unholy and savage of animals, particularly with regard to sex and food.”

Aristotle is pointing out that humans who are unable to restrain their most elemental appetites will prove unable to govern themselves in every other area of life.

The Christian tradition — building on this insight — named excesses in these areas lust and gluttony, and regarded them as two of the seven deadly sins. Indulgence in either was not to be considered a form of freedom, but the enslavement to desires without limit.

Salatin himself made this classical connection explicit during his lecture by comparing eating with most intimate sexual acts. He suggested that those who eat a plate of food without thinking of the effect its preparation has on the earth and its creatures, essentially act in the same way as those who engage in one-night stands. In a sense, fast food is comparable to fast sex: It is a kind of consumption that treats another as an object for our own satiation. We consume solely for the sake of our own pleasure, and in the process are likely to damage the object of our desire and even ourselves in ways that are thoughtless and utilitarian.

We live too much in a “food positive,” as well as a “sex positive” age — one in which we tend to defend self-seeking satiation of appetites as the individual right to do with our bodies what we want without thought of the moral ecological system that is damaged by our consumption. This is a stance that contributes equally to industrial sex — or pornography — and industrial farming. The first treats people — and the second, animals — merely as objects for our use and enjoyment.

Both of these are obscene, but in our current political arrangement, each party finds only one sin to be problematic.

And therein lies a great problem. The great and pressing issues of national and international import that face the current generation — indeed, which will burden today’s students throughout their lives — are rooted in the inability to govern our appetites and the tendency, instead, to assert our “right” to do what we want. This lack of restraint underlies the contemporary environmental, financial and debt crises — all of which are part of a broader moral crisis.

Our refusal to exercise governance over our most fundamental appetites has manifested itself not only in the individual excesses of lust and gluttony, but in the degradation of the earth, in the greed that nearly devastated an economic system and in the shameless “borrowing” from future generations in the name of current enjoyment. As I sat listening to Salatin, it was humbling to realize that the powerful and educated in the world’s imperial city stand to learn a great deal from a simple farmer from the provinces.