One Solution: One-Nation
Essays Politics Religion

One Solution: One-Nation

Anthony Daoud

Neoliberalism is in crisis. Its credibility is actively challenged by a plummeting stock market, decreasing enthusiasm for international trade, and renewed nationalist movements. Since its genesis in the postwar era, neoliberalism has interconnected nations through a soulless system of free-moving goods and people, promoted at the expense of sovereignty and tradition. Neoliberalism ambitiously promised satisfaction via the global export of liberal values and import of cheaper goods, yet now, as it wanes, many find themselves yearning for simpler and more meaningful times.

The best antidote to our current malady is Benjamin Disraeli’s one-nation philosophy. The nineteenth century British prime minister and Earl of Beaconsfield predicted liberalism’s calamitous fruits when Enlightenment ideals began radicalizing MPs in the House of Commons. To forestall liberalism’s further encroachment upon Britain, Disraeli proposed a twofold solution: religious revival to strengthen social order, and a paternalism that resembles a past noblesse oblige.

[1] For Disraeli, paternalism is the middle way that combines government regulation and enterprise. It reflects social order whereby the “aristocracy,” the rich in a contemporary context, have a duty to help the poor.

Not only sensible, these remedies are, as we will see, tailored toward the common good and therefore in continuity with the classical and Thomistic traditions. For Thomas Aquinas, the common good is secured by governments that correspond with the natural law, which cultivates virtue and orders things to their natural ends. Like Aquinas, Disraeli thought temporal authority must govern according to the natural law so that both the government and the governed can reach their ordained ends.

[2] Disraeli builds on Thomas’s project. Where the latter discusses the form of a good political community, Disraeli proposes how to achieve this through a democratic framework.

[3]

Neoliberalism’s Ailments

Our industrial communities and domestic manufacturing have been sacrificed to a monolithic, globalized economy by intransigent politicians who seek to benefit a remote business elite. Vital industries have moved to nations where exploitative labor practices depress production costs. Economic inequality has likewise spiraled out of control and sown vitriolic class divisions in the process. Whereas economy, technology, and culture all once sustained domestic life, they have now assumed a life of their own; the ordinary family has lost control over reality. Our Baconian ambition to conquer nature and ourselves has perverted daily experience. Technology and the economy were originally subordinates of human life. The roles have since been reversed. We’ve been conditioned to chase material goods blindly and have found ourselves at the mercy of a tumultuous world economy. Previously judged on their adherence to justice and prudential wisdom, our leaders are now assessed by, and fanatically obsessed with, securing financial growth.

The increasing complexity of the world inspired Oswald Spengler to write of the economy: “Hunger awakens the ugly, vulgar and wholly unmetaphysical sort of fearfulness for one’s life under which the higher form-world of a culture miserably collapses and the naked struggle for existence of the human beasts begins.”

[4] He rightfully condemns unobstructed markets for contorting our social nature by systematically valuing “distinction and apartness” over community-building. This atomization has molded the globe by turning culture, environment, and personal relationships into fungible commodities.

The solution to all of these troubles cannot be attained by an erratic egalitarian response. As Josef Pieper intimates in his analysis of distributive justice, the common good is diametrically opposed to the “common utility“ proposed by socialists.

[5] The economy, like governance, ought to have its telos in the common good rather than in individual appetites.

Misconceived History

Distrust of markets and technology has been a consistent feature in conservative intellectual milieus since Edmund Burke. This distrust was most strongly felt by Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Ruskin, who initially supported mercantilism against capitalism—which they considered a corollary of the liberal Enlightenment. Unsurprisingly, their qualms with Adam Smith’s Theory on Moral Sentiments and John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding stemmed from the works’ revolutionary relativizing of human existence.[6] For this reason, the early British Counter-Enlightenment figures were concerned about the application of Adam Smith’s self-maximizing individualism to economic theory.

But their resistance was in vain. In 1846, shortly after Coleridge’s death, Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel and the Whig coalition controversially repealed the Corn Laws. These tariffs were implemented on all grain imports to protect British agriculture from outside competition and were tremendously beneficial to the rapidly growing British economy.[7] But, by 1815, Parliament began to ease the restrictions to exempt colonial imports if domestic prices rose too high. Peel’s decision to revoke the Corn Laws signaled a decisive shift towards free trade and early market capitalism in Britain. It also formally integrated free-market dogmatism into the Tory agenda and turned the party into a vehicle for Enlightenment liberalism.

Disraeli sought to weaken the Whig-utilitarian domination over Britain by preserving local governments, introducing commercial codes, and regulating labor conditions. Shortly after entering politics he helped pass the Labouring Classes Lodging Houses Act of 1851. This legislation gave communities the capability to provide financial aid to unmarried working people. The Reform Bill of 1867 was, likewise, implemented upon Disraeli’s election as prime minister. It expanded the voting franchise to urban laboring classes, a shift away from the aristocratic democracy of previous years.[8]

Benjamin Disraeli’s one-nation philosophy is the culmination of Burke’s, Coleridge’s, and Ruskin’s reluctance toward unfettered capitalism. While Disraeli’s thought remains extant in British politics, it ought to be encouraged in and inspire the rest of the Anglosphere. A one-nation approach can ameliorate the ailments of contemporary politics.

Sybil: Or the Two Nations

In Sybil: Or the Two Nations, Disraeli discusses the critical disjunct between society’s upper and lower classes, formulating two nations out of a single sovereign territory. Nicholas Shrimpton’s insightful introduction to the second installment of Disraeli’s Young England Trilogy describes the work as “a [seminal] report on the Condition of England and a proactive contribution to the political debate over what should be done about it.” Through protagonists Charles Egremont and Sybil Gerard’s amorous relationship, Disraeli analyzes the “impassable” gulf between the conditions of the working class and aristocrats in Victorian England. Extrapolating on their vastly different experiences, Disraeli writes, “[they are] as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” The immediate aim of one-nation political philosophy is to bridge this experiential divide between socioeconomic classes with a shared patriotism.

Chastising Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel for relinquishing traditional principles to appease the Whigs, Disraeli succinctly denies Peel's leadership: “but we forget, Sir Robert Peel is not the leader of the Tory party."[9] Passionately listing his party’s great legacy before Peel’s term, the Earl of Beaconsfield concludes his diatribe by suggesting Toryism will only “rise from the tomb” when it formally adopts paternalism. Thus healthcare, social security, and aid for the unemployed would not only be valued but become integral components of a robust government oriented toward the common good. Contrary to today’s left-wing populists, however, none of Disraeli’s concerns originated from a utilitarian perspective. He neither identified materialism as Victorian society’s chief ailment nor pined for a proletariat revolt, as did his contemporary Karl Marx.

But Disraeli’s grievances were not directed toward the wrong culprits. Examining the origins of Whig historicity under the frolic politician John Wilkes, Linda Colley notes that Wilkes drew upon radical thought to shape the Whigs into a liberal political organization that would envision society as “progressing” linearly towards an undetermined apotheosis.[10] Similarly, John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism defined progress as the result of pursuing personal liberation and maximizing material.

Poverty was rampant in the period that Sybil was written. Accelerating urbanization created densely populated cityscapes where poverty was aggravated by dire living conditions—unhygienic spaces and inadequate civic infrastructure. Urbanization’s rise almost entirely restructured the family, in which all members became obliged to work. Mothers and children were formally removed from the home and forced into the labor force to accommodate Britain’s growing economy. The liberal project was steadily taking form as the family evolved into a unit of atomized individuals engaged in a series of contracts. Even marriage was stripped of its transcendent purpose, reduced to a voluntary contract.[11] Religion retreated as atheistic ideologies proliferated. The positivism of Auguste Comte, the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, and the evolutionary naturalism of Charles Darwin all reflected religion’s growing recession in the nineteenth century.

The Whig-utilitarian coalition successfully expunged the faith, family loyalty, and traditions that together naturally built communities. Rather than an expression of past wisdom, the newly transformed Whigs now considered culture to be a shackle on human potential. This new doctrine of self-maximization drew an immense gulf between laborers, who could not afford to experiment among lifestyles, and aristocrats, who could and did.

Religion and Tradition

Disraeli described religiosity not as merely social glue but as recognition of God’s eternal sovereign authority. It is here where one-nation’s compatibility with the common good is clearest. Only a religious society can direct its members toward the attainment of their transcendent ends. Under divine auspices, governments are delegated the power to provide citizens with an environment conducive to the cultivation of virtue. On a personal level, faith injects purpose into life—a responsibility to love and worship. It is hence God who provides us purpose, without which we are hopeless.

In Sybil, Disraeli notes how the edifice of Westminster Abbey represents transcendence over class by rising above “the strife of factions” as a spiritual and intellectual beacon.[12] Amidst a citizenry fractured into two-nations, faith stands as a force for harmony by establishing tradition and communities and domesticating our Faustian souls. Religion is, moreover, necessary for grasping a society’s inner form. It is impossible to have a cultural anthropology without understanding the religion from which a culture originates.[13] A society’s moral language is also grounded in its religious commitments. Waning faith uproots the ordinary meanings of virtue and vice, and hubris takes their places. It is plain to see that, among other reasons, Disraeli’s disdain for the liberal Whigs and utilitarians resulted from their antipathy towards Christianity and their advocacy for humanism.

In Disraeli's eyes, religion occupies a unique place in society because it is inextricable from it. It is not from a bygone age but continues to animate the world in architecture, language, mathematics, and music. The abandonment of God has driven us from full participation in and appreciation of cultural traditions, because culture is the progeny of religion. Neoliberalism’s nonviable course will continue to see our cherished traditions wane and social splintering increases. Reinvigorating faith under Disraelian philosophy would embolden personal identity by oxygenating tradition and a nation’s formative bonds.

Paternalism

Disraeli’s paternalistic model, meanwhile, counteracted the laissez-faire economics of the liberal Whigs and utilitarians. For these two groups, the atomization of individuals into autonomous, totalizing agents represented the pinnacle of human liberty. The self was the sole unit of importance, regardless of community effects or outrageous wealth accumulation. This ideology perceived intermediary institutions and a priori attachments as obstacles to individual liberation that had to be either circumvented or eliminated entirely. Disraeli, however, firmly believed a nation could be sustained only if nationality superseded economic class. Critiquing the avarice plaguing British cities, Disraeli said:

“In great cities men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of cooperation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes; and for all the rest they are careless of neighbours. Christianity teaches us to love our neighbour as ourself; modern society acknowledges no neighbour.”[14]

Liberalism’s creed of self-aggrandizement severed the historically rigid bonds between Britain’s classes. Noblesse oblige assuaged economic stratification by fostering an inter-class solidarity wherein the aristocracy benevolently aided the poor. In so doing, the political community mirrored the family. The advent of Enlightenment liberalism, however, degraded the relationship between rich and poor. Isolation replaced a historically cooperational economy, pitting “neighbors” against one another. It is unsurprising that Disraeli vociferously criticized Britain's nineteenth century opulence as reflective of a fraying culture.

One-nation political thought considers society to be organically hierarchical, meaning social classes have an inherent obligation towards each other. Although Disraeli drew inspiration from feudalistic noblesse oblige, paternalism is not an irrational attachment to an exploitative past. Mutual reciprocity was a channel to strengthen nationhood. The seventeenth century’s introduction of standing armies created the modern Weberian state without creating corresponding obligations between its constituents; Disraeli sought to introduce these obligations.

A paternalistic system, wherein the gentry supports the laboring class, could reconcile the “two-nations.” Inspired by the common good, there was an obligation incurred on society’s upper class to aid the financially disenfranchised who would be fortified against the market’s propensity to disintegrate national unity and prey on the vulnerable. Providing needed aid to the working poor also reinforces the Aristotelian notion of the political community as an enlarged family unit. It imposes a purpose on the economy, which no longer exists as an end in itself.

Disraeli’s paternalism also implicitly advocated for a return to subsidiarity which would naturally complement the “restoration of true religious feeling.”[15] Fr. Thomas Crean OP and Dr. Alan Fimister, inspired by Thomas Aquinas, define subsidiarity as the restriction of higher levels of authority from interfering in the tasks that could be accomplished by lower levels.[16] Disraeli gestured towards subsidiarity but believed that paternalism’s realization was wholly contingent on a religious amelioration. This mutual dependence means government investment in social programs would complement a reinvigorated dispensation toward communal well-being. The pervasiveness of liberalism’s individualistic ethos means the state will need to assume a role in guaranteeing paternalism. But this measure in turn presupposes a religious renewal, meaning care for the common good must animate the state’s action, in contrast to secular regimes which unmoor themselves from the natural law.

In a 2019 article, British historian Lord Alistair Lexden recalled former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s 1924 address in which he announced that paternalism engendered national attachment, compared to which, if defended, “nothing else matters in the world.” Although some accuse Disraeli of statism, one-nation philosophy only seeks to expand government into certain spheres—not across society as a whole. While aiding the poor through healthcare and social security programs is paramount, there remains a democratically determined spending limit. Disraeli stressed the need to empower local communities so that the laboring classes could equally partake in governing. Financial responsibility can, therefore, coexist simultaneously with a proactive government. Nor would the state, oriented toward the common good, dare exceed the level of paternalism needed to reconcile the “two-nations” because to do so would violate the principle of subsidiarity.


It’s time to revisit Benjamin Disraeli’s political theory. Status quo conservatism is losing appeal because it lacks concrete distinctions from liberalism. In a way, its raison d’être has been lost. A one-nation alternative can forestall the formation of socioeconomic “nations” by fostering paternalism and religious revival. Intrinsically conducive to the common good, Disraeli’s political philosophy proves to be an antidote to widespread detachment and a source of empowerment for those left weakened by neoliberalism’s ruthlessness.


Notes

1. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. ^

2. St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regno. ^

3. St. Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality, and Politics, trans. Richard J. Regan, ed. William P. Baumgarth and Richard J. Regan. ^

4. Oswald Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West). ^

5. Josef Pieper, Zucht und Maß. Über die vierte Kardinaltugend. (The Four Cardinal Virtues). ^

6. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XXVIII: “Good or evil is nothing but pleasure or pain, or that which occasions or procures pleasure or pain to us. Moral good or evil, then is only conformity or disagreement of our voluntary to some law, whereby the food or evil, pleasure or pain is drawn on us by the will and power of the law-maker.” ^

7. John Prest, "A Large Amount or a Small? Revenue and the Nineteenth-Century Corn Laws," The Historical Journal 39, no. 2 (1996): 467-78. ^

8. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil: Or the Two Nations. ^

9. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind. ^

10. Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. ^

11. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government. ^

12. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil: Or the Two Nations, see Book VI Chapter IV. ^

13. Christopher Dawson, Religion and Progress. ^

14. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil: Or the Two Nations, see Book II Chapter V. ^

15. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind. ^

16. Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister, Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy. ^