Red Tory Blues

Concreteness and relevance are this book’s greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses.

Allow me to explain.

Most books from Christian theologians these days (perhaps this term is a stretch in Blond’s case, but as John Milbank himself is rumored to have been the ghost-writer for the meatier core of the book, it is probably apropos) seeking to engage the problems of modern politics and economics with a “third way” that eschews both statism and free-marketism, reasserting a holistic, mutualist, communitarian and ethical kind of human society (and such books are perhaps a dime a dozen these days), suffer from a glaring lack of concreteness. It is effortless for critics to dismiss them, labeling them pie-in-the-sky fantasies that offer no substantive engagement with real-world political realities and no plausible and concrete policy solutions. Such criticisms, I should hasten to add, are more often than not quite unfair, because such concreteness is not always possible or even desirable, at least not the kind of concreteness the critics want. Nevertheless, the critics do have a point. 

Blond’s book, however, is ironclad against such criticism. It is nothing if not concrete. It is aimed squarely at the problems facing Britain in 2010, not “modern society” in general, and it backs up its diagnosis of the problems with an overwhelming dollop of statistics and examples on almost every page. Nor is Blond content (as are so many of the books in the aforementioned genre) with a single slim chapter at the end venturing some “practical solutions” or “blueprints for change”–the whole last half of the book is dedicated to outlining a thorough and specific policy agenda to remedy the problems described in the first half. This latter half is particularly concrete, delving into the minutia of British local-government policy and the inner workings of various bureaucracies and outlining new structures that could be created.

Needless to say, this kind of concreteness was at times rather tiresome even to an American as disenchanted with his homeland and enchanted with Britain as myself. I really had no idea how most of these branches of British bureaucracy worked, and I really couldn’t bring myself to care half the time, much as I tried. This is, of course, why the book took me eight months to read–the majority of that time was spent very slowly picking away at the latter half of the book, which often seemed only very indirectly relevant to Americans or “Red Tory” sympathizers more broadly. The first half of the book, on the other hand, contained (especially in the Introduction) some fascinating critiques of the symbiotic relationship between the ubiquitous state and the liberated free market, critiques of great interest to any citizens whose countries have been infected with the malaise of corporatocracy in the last three decades.  However, even this section was frustrating at times for the sheer volume of statistics that Blond kept pulling out of his hat. We all remember what Mark Twain said about statistics, and even if our society and our politicians are obsessed with them, I don’t see that we should cater to the obsession as obsequiously as Blond does. 

The other great strength of this book is “relevance.” Too many books in the aforementioned genre, for all their wonderful theologizing, are simply inaccessible to a world of politicians and economists that does not share the theological assumptions. Now, that’s no reason to stop doing the theology, or to dumb down our thinking to the secularists’ level, but we do need someone who can translate a diagnosis of the problems and a stab at some possible solutions into terms that the wider world can readily grasp and act on. Blond meets this need, and writes a book distilling many of the concerns and ideas of Radical Orthodoxy (a theological movement all about the need for explicitly theological language) into completely non-religious terms, terms accessible to average policy-makers and even average citizens. 

However, it should come as no surprise that a great deal is lost in such translation. The intentional absence of theological language or explicit Christian commitment in this volume (though it was readily discernible just beneath the surface at many points) gave the whole thing an air of studied vagueness, appealing to platitudinous terms like “community,” “character,” “empowerment,” “justice,” etc. Not only is that frustratingly vacuous at times, but it’s just stylistically annoying too. 

Of course, in the end, the gravest doubt one must express about Red Tory is whether, for all its concessions to be relevant and concrete, it achieves its goal of being realistic. Blond believes (or claims to believe) that there is still enough residual sense of virtue and longing for community in England’s green and pleasant land that, if only the government would stop carelessly trampling out its last vestiges, civic virtue and reciprocal community would spring up anew, bright and promising. But based on what I’ve seen in 15 months here, I am tempted to think that, from a worldly perspective at least, this country is too far gone. The state and the market’s ambition to atomise society into unprincipled, aimless, detached individuals has almost run its course and I’m not sure that course can be reversed, save by an act of God. Which is, of course, why theology, not politics or economics, will have to shoulder the burden.

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