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For those following Brexit’s twists and turns, there has been – and continues to be – a lot of moving parts and concepts to try to keep abreast of. It’s a big ask for a domestic UK audience to attempt to understand even the contemporary events. For anyone in the UK seeking, should it even exist, a deeper explanation of the Brexit saga, you’re not at all helped by much of the mainstream media coverage that appears to be written by people who were born yesterday and have already forgotten everything they ever learned. Non-UK readers? You must be gluttons for punishment to even try.
There is one, repeating, piece of terminology which is used – misused – so frequently that it justifies some clarification. The term is “Tory”. It’s one of those words which is employed so casually and as so much of a catch-all, it is in danger of becoming meaningless. And that’s just in the UK media. As non-UK readers will also come across the word, with much less exposure to it through history, all kinds of wrong thinking are probably being generated. Even in Canada, where Tory is a popular term for a party in that country, and Australia, where it is less-frequently encountered (but still heard) there are significant differences between what the word Tory would imply for a person living in those countries and what it means to a UK reader.
What readers will not find in this short explainer post is something which is, as is the custom in modern written material, festooned with links or excerpts from sources. Existing explanations of Toryism are almost universally inevitably limited to descriptions of particular Tory governments in the UK, or notable Tory policies. As such, they are backward-looking – and invariably fail to convey what is the Tory idea.
Nor will the reader find either during or at the end of this piece any attempts to impart any definitive views of what Toryism, specifically for our purposes here, Old Toryism, is or isn’t. Rather, my hope is that the reader will be introduced to some notions which are old, ancient even, but will then reflect on how they are as present as ever and manifest themselves in our modern-day lives.
In doing so, my wish is that, rather than being told what to believe, the reader will think for themselves what to believe. In doing so, it may also be possible to do what is becoming something of a trend in the mainstream media, certainly in the UK, and try to fit the Brexit phenomena into a broader historical and cultural context.
What, then, is the ideological basis of the Old Toryism? Put simply, it is the right to govern – to rule – based on the ownership of property and the membership of class.
The first aspect – ownership of property – generates the second aspect. Drawing this out in a little more detail, the rulers are selected by the property-owning upper class on the basis of their fitness and expertise in ruling. The fitness and expertise in ruling is demonstrated and identified by how well the owner of property maintains and expands their property. For the Old Tory, there is inevitably property ownership. There is inevitably class division. And rulers are inevitably selected from the ruling class. There is always a hierarchy. Whether you rule, or are ruled over, depends on your place in the hierarchy. That place is derived from your property ownership. It matters not whether that property ownership was acquired in this life or merely bestowed on you by inheritance from those who had to pass it on to you because they couldn’t take it with them to the next one.
How are readers prone to react to this idea? Instinctively, the reaction may well be one of outrage because, as a mostly progressive and liberal audience, Naked Capitalism’s readership is not only conditioned to resist such notions but might also feel compelled to rebel against them when expressed.
However, it’s worth scratching a little below the surface of our comfort zones here, because although we might not like to admit to it, there’s potentially a secret, repressed (or maybe not so repressed) Old Tory in many of us.
For example, assuming you own a house or apartment – even if mortgaged – or perhaps rent your accommodation, you will enjoy certain property rights associated with the title to it or the payment for use of it. Within your ownership or usage domain, it’s a virtual certainty that you would resist as strongly as you could any attempts by another actor to, for instance, tell you how you furnished your property. Or who you could invite into or onto it. Your thought-processes – whether you consciously acknowledge them or not – give you a sense of entitlement to rule over what you have acquired. And you think you’re entitled to rule as you see fit.
If you are brave enough to be honest, you might also confess that, having gained an interest in a piece of property, whether through ownership or rental, you also extend your gaze beyond it. Assuming you have some long-term connection to where you live, through job, family or financial commitments, you’ll probably have views on zoning changes (such as allowing vacation rentals or commercial development in your area). You’ll probably want educational or healthcare facilities to be delivered in a particular way and to a particular standard. You might like certain environmental constraints to be imposed, or lessened. You will have opinions on transportation and what is appropriate or inappropriate — and this may extend beyond your immediate community to your county or borough.
None of these spheres of influence are inherently yours. You have merely anointed yourself as a rightful instigator of how these things are run based on nothing more than your investing – either time or money or both – in a place with your presence and almost certainly some of your financial capital, too.
It is, then, but a short step from saying that you don’t think a waste incinerator should be built in your town – because, after all, you live in the town, don’t you? –- to the tech billionaire thinking that they have a legitimate voice in who should be the next candidate from president because, after all, they live in the country, don’t they? Proportionately, you both have the same invested in the things you are seeking to have some control over. To deny the billionaire’s right to rule over, at least in part, how the country is governed is to – if you are being intellectually consistent – to deny your own right to rule over, at least in part, how your homeowners’ association is managed or how your child’s school is run or what gets built in your back yard.
I am positing here that, withing each of us, lurks an Old Tory. Our ownserships, or investments, give us a right to rule. Others, who have similar rights as a result of similar ownerships, belong to the same class as us. As a class, we have class interests and we will not hesitate to use our class loyalties and class associations to bring about what we want to happen.
Of course, many of us would think, or would like to think, that such such Old Toryism is tempered by our pluralism or liberalism. We don’t, or we hope we don’t, ignore that ideas and theories should govern our decisions at least as much as – possibly even a lot more than – our ownership of things and our class associations with others who own the same sorts of things as we do. We’re probably similarly incensed by the notion of inherited privilege and a right to rule based merely on who one’s parents are. Other concepts such as meritocracy comfort us that, regardless of the station into which we were born in life, our talents are sufficient to ensure advancement. Implied, too, is that with that advancement, comes a proportionately greater share of the material pie. Also implied is a more forceful ability to influence society’s choices as we demonstrate our capacity for more nuanced decision making than those who lack our particular merits.
For the UK in the latter half of the 19th century Old Toryism, too, proved unable to withstand this onslaught of progressive thinking. Socialism turned the entire theory of the inherently divine right to rule by those who owned the most on its head. Instead, it was those who provided the work, not those who owned the capital, who should sit at the top of the hierarchy. Note that socialism sought to preserve the continued presence of the hierarchy – along with class divisions within it – but put the workers in the position of ruling. Theoretically, as the workers came to dominate and replace capital, the hierarchy would disappear, as would class, because everyone would be an equal worker enjoying an equal distribution of society’s collective output. Or, for those who could not accept that capital would ever truly be banished, Liberalism advanced the belief that the political economy could influence markets and apply democratic, social and even moral forces onto them so as to remove the inequities of both winner-takes-all laissez-faire capitalism and also inherited wealth and privilege.
Toryism morphed into Conservatism (although the old “Tory” label still stuck, indicating Conservatism’s ideological heritage) which combined free market philosophy with doses, of varying strengths, of statism and corporatism. Liberalism became Social Democracy, where individual freedoms and capital freedoms were honoured, but curtailed by generous applications of government interventions which had the aim of ameliorating the worst excesses of untrammelled markets. How could Old Toryism possibly survive, with its intellectual origins traceable back to antediluvian models for society such as feudalism? Surely the medieval and rigidly hierarchic power structures it required of landed gentry, local squires, established church and – if parliamentary or democratic institutions existed at all — also a very limited franchise of voters who could vote because they were deemed capable of excising their votes “responsibly”, were gone, never to return?
It seemed so. Centralised administration formed an alternative structure that replicated the old hierarchical certainties. Mass affluence dissolved the rigid class differentiation and associated class struggles. A managed economy delivered socially useful provision of healthcare, education and essential public works. A free market economy occupied the remaining territory and delivered consumer durables.
Where did it all go wrong? The causes of the demise of the post-war consensus are overdetermined, but it is possible to glean that, with the benefit of hindsight, the structures it employed – a strong centralising and administrative base – were too susceptible to the reemergence of old class instincts. A credentialed class gained a monopoly on policy definition and then defined policies which embedded what quickly became a self-serving influence over supposedly citizen-led programmatic political government. A managerial class brought a closed shop to running both business and government but set its own rules gamed the system to reward itself, no matter how well or badly it delivered. And, crucially, feckless, rootless international capital, dominated by a new billionaire class had no loyalties to anyone but itself. Both Conservatism and Social Democracy then became powerless in the face of a new hard-line tyrannical Liberalism, intent on nothing more than preserving this newly beneficial — to these particular class interests – setup. Socialism willingly allowed itself to be captured by the same authoritarian progressiveness and identity politics, with identity struggle replacing, unsatisfactorily, class struggle.
The UK thus finds itself at a crossroads. Brexit is a reaction to fragility of pluralism, the political economy and the social contract. Do the people try to fix the problems which have emerged in the system which was built in the post-war period — which, given that it’s already gotten broken, is suggestive that it might not ever be entirely stable in the long term? Do they return to previously enduring structures and philosophies, such as Old Toryism, with its promise of stability and durability seemingly able to hold the property-owning elite into a noblesse oblige quid pro quo — but at a price of a rigid and often unfair or capricious class hierarchy?
Or is there something completely new being formed?