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All hail our postliberal prince

The new King is deeply invested in the new communitarian politics

Artillery Row

The accession of Charles to the throne is highly unusual in a number of respects, of which two stand out. Firstly, no heir has waited longer to become monarch in the history of the British monarchy. Secondly, he has an unusually highly-developed set of intellectual, philanthropic and practical interests. He has become most closely associated with environmentalism, but his preoccupations range widely, from architecture and urban planning to food, health, religion and art. He has, famously, not been reticent to share his thoughts on many issues of public concern. 

Combine these two facts and we face a unique situation: the accession of a monarch who has had decades to develop — and publicise — a large body of definite ideas and beliefs, summed up in hundreds of speeches and several books, that amount to an overarching philosophy. In tandem with this, he has built up something of an empire of charities and institutions which have promoted this philosophy, ranging from, most famously, Poundbury and Duchy Originals, but also including organisations such as the School of Traditional Arts and his Countryside Fund.

Charles’s extensive, indeed exhaustive, activities (not even his harshest critic could accuse him of idleness) have most usually attracted ridicule. For decades, he was often caricatured as a slightly crankish, rather eccentric reactionary, famous for harrumphing about the “monstrous carbuncles” of modernist architecture, chatting to his pot plants and wearing leeks in his lapel. More recently, his outspoken stances on environmental issues, particularly climate change, have garnered him the disdain of many right-wingers, who have painted him as a lefty globalist, a shadowy Svengali supporting the radicalism of the eco-riff raff.

The fact that he has been attacked both for being a Blimpish conservative and a hard-left radical seems contradictory, but in fact it illustrates rather neatly his paradoxical philosophical, cultural and political outlook. In a sense, both sets of critics are right. Charles is both a reactionary and a radical: a traditionalist who is extremely sceptical about capitalism; an arch-critic of free market globalisation and the power of large corporations who remains a quintessentially tweedy English country gentleman — in short, a postliberal prince and now King.

Charles critiques the mechanistic, secularised view of the universe

This means that he actually fits very poorly into any mainstream contemporary political category, but perhaps the most absurd claim is that he’s a left-wing “globalist”. His disdain for the orthodoxies of what became known as the Washington Consensus — the post-Cold War economic and political framework that prescribed free trade, deregulation, privatisation and so on — doesn’t require much reading between the lines to discern. The idea that the man famous for his keen and sympathetic interest in Islam and obvious ease with ethnic and religious diversity is some top-hatted reactionary villain straight out of leftist central casting is equally implausible.

Charles’s influences and views are famously a bit of a hotchpotch: accusations that he is something of a religious syncretist with tendencies to lapse into somewhat vague spiritual eclecticism are not totally without foundation. However, a look at his speeches and particularly his 2010 book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at the World reveal a rather more systematic worldview than is often acknowledged. 

Despite the garnishing of quotes from Gandhi and respectful references to Islam, Charles’s worldview merges fairly coherently a number of recognisable ideological and spiritual traditions. Firstly, a tradition of prophetic Victorian social criticism of industrialism and economism rooted in the ideas of John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle and William Morris. Secondly, a tradition of localist agrarianism of which Wendell Berry is a particularly well-known exponent. Thirdly, a form of latitudinarian Christian Platonism that is highly open to the insights of other faiths.

Charles’s worldview is underpinned by a critique of the mechanistic, secularised view of the universe that he sees as having become dominant in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly during the Enlightenment. Rather than seeing the natural world and society as an organic unity imbued with sanctity and meaning, in which human beings cooperate with the divine will, recognise natural limits and harmonise with the divine purposes inherent in creation, he argues that Western society at this time began to see the universe as inert, purposeless and disenchanted, a soulless machine. In this outlook, at best God was a distant, indifferent First Mover, and at worst did not exist at all.

This gave rise to a view of nature as simply a wild mass of raw materials to be tamed, mastered and exploited in the most ruthless and utilitarian fashion. Although to my knowledge Charles has never directly quoted him, his view is perfectly summed up by Thomas Carlyle’s famous attack on the “Mechanical Age”:

Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery … the age which, withs its whole divided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends … Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one.

Charles defends what he sees as a traditional view that he argues is found in different forms in Islam, medieval Christianity and indeed in the customary wisdom of many indigenous peoples, which emphasises harmonising with nature, integrating man’s intuitive and rational natures, and working with the grain of the deep order and purpose inherent in God’s creation. In contrast, industrial society is rooted in the quasi-deification of human will: by objectifying nature and seeing it purely as a collection of raw materials to be transformed into abundance for the satisfaction of human convenience in the most “efficient” way, this deep sense of connection and holism was lost. Modernism in art, architecture and music, he argues, gloried in this discordance and defiance of nature: in doing so it became ugly, disconnected from the due sense of proportion and natural order that is the basis for true beauty, as well as spirituality and ethics.

This basic worldview underpins Charles’s preoccupations. The mechanical mindset, he argues, needs to be set aside in favour of the rediscovery of traditional, more human ways of living. He advocates preserving working techniques which are meaningful, sustainable and give full scope to the creativity of the human spirit, working in harmony with God and nature. In his book, he praises William Morris, making very positive references to his critique of “the human degradation of work” in an industrial society and his defence of art, beauty and human dignity against shoddiness, mechanisation and alienation. Charles’s role in setting up the School of Traditional Arts, which aims to preserve and pass on traditional arts and crafts techniques, reflects this sort of Morris-esque viewpoint very directly.

This perspective explains Charles’s horror at modern industrial farming and environmental degradation, and his admiration for Wendell Berry, who, in 2015, he described as one of his all-time heroes. Modern agriculture, Charles argues, is perhaps the most spectacular, and potentially the most disastrous, example of humans “disconnecting ourselves from the wealth of traditional knowledge that has guided countless generations to understand the significance of Nature’s processes and cyclical economy”. By treating nature like a machine rather than a complex, interdependent organism, agribusiness risks fundamentally destroying the underlying basis of the whole natural world which produces the food we rely on: its biodiversity, the integrity of its soil, the entire delicate balance of the eco-systems and feedback loops that sustain it.

He reflects a wider swathe of public opinion than Truss or Starmer

Charles doesn’t stop here. He fundamentally rejects the entire atomised, individualistic view of the world that has become so central to contemporary liberalism. As he put it in his book, “service to community and doing work that is useful to society is as important as the individualistic pursuit of personal benefit.” Human beings are fundamentally defined by the quality of their relationships, both to each other and the natural world, he argues. They seek “mutual support, love, loyalty and identity” mediated through “the networks of people and organizations, the post offices and bars, the churches and community halls, the mosques, temples and bazaars … that hold our communities together”. The drive towards the incessant commodification of all forms of human life threatens the relationships and communities that underpin a rich human life. It makes us sick by confining us to poorly designed, anti-social cities that isolate us both from each other and the natural world.

His ideal community would appear to be something akin to a modernised version of the unified economic, social and cultural life found in a mediaeval monastery, integrating traditional forms of honest productive work, a rich community life, strong local leadership and the “welfare” functions now taken over by central government. This indeed is not many miles away from various communities he extols in his 2010 book, such as Church Farm in Hertfordshire, which combines an old-fashioned farming set-up with a day-centre, a shop and a café. It isn’t going too far to describe his ideal as a sort of Kingsnorthian guild-cum-distributist homestead, with a distinctively English green wellies-and-black Labrador feel.

He is clearly sceptical of both large corporations, who are the chief agents behind this incessant drive to exploit, master and commodify nature and human beings; and the state, which he sees as having been, in practice, the enablers of this process of free market globalisation. State and market have worked hand-in-glove to destroy traditional forms of life and work, impose a sterile cultural homogeneity and destabilise society — all in the name of growth and “freedom”. “Expertise” has too often, he contends, been simply the application of the top-down logic of the agents of this economistic capitalist radicalism. Such technocrats ignore local traditions and the actual preferences, idiosyncrasies and uniqueness of communities. Charles oozes distrust for “planners” and higher-ups who wish to impose the “wisdom” of the globalised elite on the “little people” who like what they know and know what they like.

In this sense, he is the best sort of populist: one who wants to give the people the very best. Although naturally he could never openly say such a thing, one gets the very strong impression that he believes in strong, paternalistic, traditional leadership to protect the masses from the snake-oil offered to them by the philistine bourgeois profiteers, speculators and spivs. I, for one, am with him.

Charles is not a wildly original thinker or outstanding intellect (although he is no fool), but a mixture of his background, indifference to expert opinion and a doughty common sense has combined to give him, ironically, a far better insight into the mixture of cultural conservatism and economic radicalism that is very common among the electorate but almost totally absent among our political classes. Despite being a hereditary monarch, I think he reflects a far wider swathe of public opinion than Liz Truss or Keir Starmer, who either represent chiefly Ayn Rand-reading investment bankers, or hummus munching lecturers in gender studies at second-rate provincial universities.

Reading his book, which contains far more wisdom than any manifesto or statement proffered by any elected politician recently, made me rather wish that it was he, not Liz Truss, who had taken occupation of 10 Downing Street last week. It may be ill-advised for him to directly interfere with the business of government (although I’d vote for this King’s Personal Rule in a heartbeat), but I strongly hope that, by a mixture of wise albeit discrete counsel, symbolic gesture and tone-setting he can find ways of continuing to exert influence on our national life.

God Save the Postliberal King!

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