Saturday, 8 May 2010

Red Tory and the UK election

In an ABC piece, Scott Stephens discusses Philip Blond's Red Tory proposals in the context of the UK general election:

Blond's solution to the ever-deepening British malaise comes in the form of four imperatives: we must restore virtue to public life and discourse (calling for a new "high mass culture" in place of the inane mediocrity of the commercial media, and a recovery of John Reith's understanding of the BBC's vocation as providing "equal access to all things great"); we must re-moralise the market (placing capitalism at the service of the common good by embedding it in society); we must re-localise the economy (through such things as community land trusts and cooperatives); and we must re-capitalise the poor (through the provision, not simply of welfare, but of increasing scales of property ownership).
In response to Scott's post, several commenters worried that such ideas are an attempt to undermine the separation of church and state: Australians tend to be very sensitive on this point, especially when they have no idea what "the separation of church and state" actually means. So I offered a comment in reply:
The "separation of church and state" designates the state's monopoly on coercive violence. This is quite distinct from the question of the relation between theology and politics. Every coherent political philosophy already presupposes a theology, since it embodies a particular vision of what constitutes a good society. If these "theological" questions became explicit instead of covert – i.e., if we could actually have a debate about what a good society ought to look like – so much the better.

17 Comments:

Daniel Hartley said...

This may sound like a very naïve question, but why is 'a particular vision of what constitutes a good society' necessarily theological? What differentiates a theological projection of a good society from a non-theological one?

Anonymous said...

'Every coherent political philosophy already presupposes a theology, since it embodies a particular vision of what constitutes a good society.'

ah - I see Daniel has stumbled on the same thing as me. I find it very peculiar.

stephanie louise fisher

Nick said...

Yes. Shades of Lesslie Newbigin are heard in your response, Ben. I like it.

John Hobbins said...

Daniel and Stephanie,

For background, you might read a bit of Jacob Taubes.

Ben Myers said...

It's because any political philosophy presupposes a particular doctrine of humanity: e.g., what does it mean to be human? what are human beings for? what has gone wrong with human society? (On this latter point, Carl Schmitt famously observed that "all genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil" — and of course "evil" is a theological category, not a political one.)

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, in the run up to the election, worries about Blond's ideas here in the UK have concentrated on other aspects of the book's proposals. The most vigorous repudiation has come from Jonathan Raban, writing in the LRB last month: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n08/jonathan-raban/camerons-crank.

Sam said...

Presupposing a particular doctrine of humanity hardly equals a theology.

The statement to the contrary negates the possibility (and, in fact, reality) of genuinely secular comprehensive visions, anthropologies, etc.

It's wrong to conflate having fundamental assumptions about reality - which I think is true about any serious political philosophy - with those assumptions being theological.

The better argument is that because all political philosophies have recourse, if only implicitly, to such fundamental assumptions, it begs all of the most important questions to hold a priori that none of those fundamental assumptions can be about or have reference to God.

That is true; but it's not the same thing as saying every coherent political philosophy presupposes a theology, which is false.

Shane said...

Your view on the separation of church and state are incorrect.

In the first place, even the medieval authors like Thomas who would have understood the church to possess the right to coerce would have recognized that the church and state are separate entities with separate functions.

In the second, in the modern world, the notion of separation of church and state is much broader than just the point about coercion, although that is certainly an important dimension of it. Here's another important dimension though: the separation of church and state means that you can't require people to be Baptists or Anglicans or whatever in order for them to stand for public election. Yet another important aspect: public facilities such as schools and universities, etc. are not allowed to proselytize. Neither of those cases are about "coercion" in any straightforward sense, but I think they're important dimensions of the separation of church and state that also need careful theoretical examination.

As a side note, I'm inclined to think that France and Belgium have actually violated the separation of church and state in a very serious way by allowing the state to dictate the conditions for muslim women to observe their religion for very spurious-sounding reasons.

Shane said...

I also agree with Sam in being very underwhelmed by your reasons for thinking that some theology MUST lie at back of every political theory. Perhaps we could get clearer if you told us just what you meant by a "theology" in this context?

Ben Myers said...

I'm not making a normative point (that politics "must" presuppose theology); it's really just a historical point about the theological roots of western politics. (To quote Schmitt's Political Theology once more: "all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.")

So I agree completely with Sam's point that these presuppositions are secularised theology — but a secularised theology is theology nonetheless.

Ben Defoe said...

I think we shouldn't get distracted from Ben's main point which is that the separation of Church and State is not the same as the refusal of theological analyses in the "public" realm.

Daniel Hartley said...

I had a feeling Schmitt was lurking behind this! Not really sure how to respond. Marxism, for example, comes from an inheritance and critique of Christian theology; the real question is, I suppose, at what point does one's fundamental critique of theology render what one thinks or believes to be no longer a theology? Can anything be sufficiently secular so as not to be 'theological'? And what do we mean by 'theology' here?

Karl Hand said...

Heya Ben!!!

I'm kinda going on a tangent here, but what interested me was your phrase "monopoly on coercive violence." I couldn't decide whether the tone of voice was pejorative, cynical or something else...

Could you clarify? Is is a social evil that the state has this monopoly?

kim fabricius said...

David Cameron is disingenuous at best and mendacious at worst. There are significant divisions and ructions in the Tory party, masked by the united front of the campaign, but it is not only neoliberal at its core - it would have done bugger-all during the economic meltdown - but also, notwithstanding Bond's talk about "recapitalising the poor", its provision for social welfare would be exiguous. Moreover, for all its rhetoric about the restoration of "virtue" (old Tory "Back to Basics" in neo-Thomist dress) - a euphemism for "traditional" values, itself a euphemism for "reactionary" values - a Tory government would, in fact, be repressive, and bad news indeed for, say, single mums and gay and lesbian people. Bond's project, I fear, would quickly morph into a programme of the Christian Right Lite - but heavy enough to be quite odious. What are Bond and his RO colleagues smoking?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Karl. I'm thinking here of Max Weber's definition of the state as "the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory"; thus it is only a "state" insofar as it upholds and preserves this monopoly. (For this reason the church/state separation, with its delineation of legitimate violence, is fundamental to the emergence of the modern nation state.)

I accept that this is an accurate definition of the state. And since I don't see how any state could exist apart from this monopoly, I don't see any point in striving for some kind of non-violent state. I guess that explains some of my own attraction to messianic politics (e.g. Benjamin, Taubes, Agamben) — one takes the power of the state with utter seriousness, but one's hope is basically directed against the state, not for some improved form of statecraft.

Mark said...

Regardless of some of the comments, that post is a golden compact statement of what is wrong with much of modern politics. Politics is about power and its uses. Where it comes from and what should be done with it. Those are theological questions. I'd go further and say that any coherent politics has a theology at its base, even if they don't know it or refuse to talk about it. The refusal to have that primary discussion and instead want to talk "issues" or technocratic "solutions" ensures we get the one party state with two (or three) heads. Walling off theology means we get the unlimited power of the state alone without the limits.

nwcc said...

Well said Mark.

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