I was very excited for Roland Boer’s response to Phillip Blond’s Red Tory, despite it being no surprise that he is extremely critical of Blond’s work and his Radical Orthodoxy influence. I imagined that Boer would bring something insightful to this ‘new’ debate, to help point out how the “Red” part of Red Tory might become more Red, just as the Tory part has already been amplified among libertarian and conservative voices. Unfortunately, I only found a knee-jerk reaction and bland criticism that barely engaged the argument of Red Tory. Perhaps I thought too much of Boer, or perhaps he just didn’t care enough.

But this piece is especially disappointing because I take Boer to be an important voice among writers working at the intersection of Theology and Marxist thought. Overall, “Thin Economics; Thick Moralising” remains unoriginal, hasty, and lacks serious depth; in short, the very same critique BA levels at Red Tory (I’ll use BA for Roland Boer and Alex Andrews).

One of BA’s main drivers is to critique Blond’s localism. For BA, at least as we’re lead to believe from this piece, localism is at best a petty version of green washing and, at worst, an actual progression of capitalism itself. Says BA, “rather than seeing localism as a resistance to the uniformity of transnational capital, localism is actually one such shape late capitalism takes.” Localism is but a dialectic stage within globalization, so much so that localism ends up creating more capitalism: “localism . . . supplies the raw materials and research arms for capitalism’s perpetual search for what is new – style, fashion, taste.”

BA’s narrative here is shockingly abstracted from both history and Blond’s larger point. Why did BA not address the sources of capitalism? What to make of Robert Brenner, Michael Perelman, and Karl Polanyi, who all argue that capitalism arose, not from some necessary economic stage, but from an arbitrary act of political power to remove poor people from their land and to place them within factories. Blond highlights this in his introduction to Red Tory. Does BA simply refute this thesis? Then he should come out and say so.

There’s no doubt that late capitalism thrives off of individuation and deterritorializes everything in its search for new markets to exploit. However, BA misses that localism actual disrupts the free-for-all of capital, in that it privileges the “use-value” vs. pure “exchange value” that current forms of capitalism thrive on. In fact, the Conservative that Blond stresses has to do with the original sense of “to-conserve;” conserve resources, economic growth and communal norms. Localism, in this sense, might be the very boundary that hyper-capitalism cannot surpass. For Blond the local is not simply another market-in-waiting without telos or purpose; rather, it is the very short-circuiting of the system itself. In short, localism, such that Blond advocates, doesn’t allow for an arbitrary capitalism and in so doing exposes its historical and accidental character.

But what’s really interesting is BA’s take on historical theology, such when they write, “Catholicism stresses the centrality of the doctrine of justification by works.” Now, this occupies a brief point in BA’s argument, but the glossing over of a historical error like this is astonishing and really begs the question: have BA engaged the theological arguments underlying the text? Surely, given BA’s intellectual and academic backgrounds, they don’t really believe this.

The pithy nature of BA’s response is to be expected, I suppose. If you write off the entire history of the Western church as oppressive tout court, if you buy wholesale into the modern project, and if you think that talk of morality is really covert talk of sex, then there’s really no reason why you would take the time to try to understand the argument. It might also make you forget, as BA seem to do, that various forms of Socialism were no friend of homosexuality, and that early Marxism had little, if anything, to say about the institution of slavery (Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History).

But more than localism, more than utopia, and more than the genealogy of capitalism, what BA really can’t stomach is Blond’s talk of virtue politics. Talk of virtue “fails to answer the question as to who decides on the virtuous and the unvirtuous.” The subtext being, of course, “no one is going tell me what to do!”

Sadly, BA thinks that Blond and Milbank only read Aristotle and not the Marxist Aristotelian tradition, such as is represented by Alasdair MacIntyre. Again, if you do away with historical theology, you forget that it was Christianity that realized a new politeia far beyond the ground work laid by Aristotle; woman and slaves could also become citizens and so capable of exercising virtue, which meant political participation. But BA does not talk about this form of morality, and this is probably because they slip into what Terry Eagleton describes as the “characteristically bourgeois mistake of confusing morality with moralism” (After Theory, 143). Blond does talk about the family, but he does so to point out that the rather obvious fact that we are who we come from, that our past does have an effect on our future, and that we should probably be thinking about this.

As to why BA so grossly misses Blond’s take on morality, perhaps it is that once you do away with what is local, as BA does, then you do away with virtue. Virtue then can’t appear to be anything but an arbitrary and violent imposition from above, whether elites, Rome, or some absentee landlord. Virtue only ‘works’ within shared norms, education, and a common good.

So who then decides what virtuous behavior is? As Wendell Berry reminds us, it’s the person who is engaged in their respective practices in relation to communal needs. The person working the land, such as the farmer, is the virtuous person, not a Monsanto. The virtuous person is the small independent publishing company, developing orders according to need, not Amazon with its provocative algorithms to drive sales. The virtuous person is the one who has perfected their respective craft and who carries the burden of the intimate connection. For Blond, the centralized state makes the same mistake as the oligarchic market – too much power is concentrated in the hands a few; it cannot be virtuous simply because it’s so far removed from what is intimate and communal.

I recognize that it’s entirely fair for BA to claim that Red Tory is not Red enough; especially if your version of Red means Marxism. However, if you begin with the notion that maybe the enlightenment wasn’t all that liberating, that maybe the “dark ages” weren’t all that dark, then you start to see Blond as doing something other than simply trying to return us to merrie England. As people like Herbert McCabe and MacIntyre have noted, the battle lines are really between a Catholic (understood as what is universal) communitarianism and some libertarian ethos, of which some forms of Marxism fall into.

For next time, I hope that BA delivers a more impassioned and charitable critique for the sake of radical thought, if not for the sake of us all.

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