Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Timeless Values

The Iraq debacle and the crisis of 2008 meant that New Labour was never required to explain its wider failure (despite winning three general elections, it was progressively losing popular support). Though specific issues have been thoroughly criticised since - PFI, the poor returns to education, the lack of economic dynamism, the erosion of human rights - the neoliberal programme has largely escaped discredit. Even the claim that Gordon Brown spent too much in the later years is essentially an attempt to suggest that New Labour back-slid, reverting from its youthful Blairism to the slovenly ways of old tax-and-spend Labour. This has allowed the Blairites to continue presenting themselves as a progressive force in politics, sloughing off unhelpful baggage as the errors of Brown and Miliband. In this they have been ironically helped by the accommodating nostalgia of the Corbyn insurgency, which has been big on performative decency but light on policy specifics beyond the tried and tested (free childcare, nationalised railways etc). We appear to be stuck in one of those Gramscian moments when the new cannot be born, giving rise to the morbid symptom of Harriet Harman's interim leadership.

The criticism of Liz Kendall (more than the other candidates, who are clearly neither as "new" nor as Blairite) has often been about character, in which the left accusation of "Tory" (aka bitch) is as irrelevant and insulting as the Daily Mail speculating about her weight. British political culture has always been significantly more concerned with personalities than the "ishoos" that Tony Benn used to insist on, not least because it has managed to preserve the form of court politics, from Prime Ministerial patronage to the absurdity of the House of Lords. Though many have criticised the policy desert of the leadership contest, what commentators are really bemoaning is the lack of personality and novelty (the simultaneous eclipse of Boris Johnson means the Tories offer no respite), hence the excitement generated last week by the Old Pretender's latest intervention (the Young Pretender having presumably decided that familial loyalty obliges him to sit this one out).

As a hegemonic ideology, neoliberalism does not encourage self-doubt, but it is striking nonetheless how the Blairites have continued to annihilate their own past, insisting that historical inevitability requires the party to move further to the right ("win from the centre") rather than attempt to recapitulate any earlier purity. As Tony Blair insisted, "This change requires new thinking. And 2015 is not 2007 or 1997. So yes, move on. But don’t move back!". The theme of irresistible change is one of neoliberalism's key borrowings from Marxist thought. This is not the classical liberal belief in benign progress - social advance moderated by individual liberty - but the idea of change as a simultaneous threat and opportunity, a dynamic that creates its own contradictions and anxieties: the "global race", the need to invest in personal human capital, the surrender to the wisdom of the invisible hand etc.

The economic dimension of neoliberalism attempted to assuage the understandable fear of ceaseless change by claiming that the aggregate product of markets would be a form of optimal stability (the Great Moderation), which in turn suggested that even bigger markets (further globalisation) would lead to even greater stability. This has obviously lost credibility in recent years, with the restoration of "normalcy" requiring the cognitive dissonance of a belief in the market's simultaneous reliability and unreliability (the Chinese are embarrassing to the global order because they make this overt). In contrast, the political dimension has traditionally sought to leverage fear rather than assuage it, with the "global war on terror" being a prime example of how this then follows the pathways of economic interdependence. As Blair explained in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: "Today the threat is chaos; because for people with work to do, family life to balance, mortgages to pay, careers to further, pensions to provide, the yearning is for order and stability and if it doesn't exist elsewhere, it is unlikely to exist here" (so let's stabilise the fuck out of other countries).

This rhetoric insists there is no connection between the positive urgency of modern life and the negative threat of chaos. Instead, instability is framed as an external rather than an internal force; while the new economy is assumed to be the collective will of the people, rather than a politico-legal design. Warming to the theme of history's march, Blair casts globalisation as evidence of human progress: "But globalisation is a fact and, by and large, it is driven by people. Not just in finance, but in communication, in technology, increasingly in culture, in recreation. In the world of the internet, information technology and TV, there will be globalisation. And in trade, the problem is not there's too much of it; on the contrary there's too little of it. The issue is not how to stop globalisation. The issue is how we use the power of community to combine it with justice". Of course, this is "justice" in the sense that Rawls and Nozick redefined it, subordinate to principles of liberty and property and cavalier about historically-situated community.

One of the key features of the political implementation of globalisation has been the promotion of Carl Schmitt's "state of exception" (the idea that sovereignty is the power to proclaim an exception to the normal rule of law) from the national to the international sphere. Intervention in the affairs of another state has historically been justified through an argument between realism (states pursuing rational if morally-ambiguous self-interest) and liberalism (the imposition of one's own moral order, justified in the name of humanity or progress). Realism was the default position in the postwar era of detente, with the wars of the 1990s marking the shift towards liberal intervention. 2001 marked the globalisation of the state of exception with the birth of the apparently never-ending "global war on terror". Though there was a lot of facile talk about "blowback" in respect of US foreign policy after 9/11, the longer view will surely be that this was part of a wider process of globalisation in which al Qaeda did its bit by globalising terrorism (on a similar note, the symbolic power of IS is the idea - owing as much to postmodernism as the Quran - that the caliphate can be proclaimed anywhere).

Giorgio Agamben described the US attitude towards prisoners of the "global war on terror" in 2005: "What is new about President Bush’s order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnameable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POWs as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of people charged with a crime according to American laws". In a globalised, porous world, this style of governmentality easily seeps back into the domestic sphere. Historically, we have tolerated the systematic abuse of human rights abroad and have had no difficulty compartmentalising our behaviour (consider David Olusoga's documentary series on the compensation of British slave-owners), but now we see little odd in repatriating this instrumental contempt for the rights of others, from curbs on domestic free speech, via suggestions that we strip UK citizens of their passports, to denying benefits to women who have the temerity to have a third child.

Though we are still prone to judging communities en masse, e.g. asking all Muslims to apologise for jihadis, the wider trend is towards a more individuated scheme of responsibility, seen most clearly in the "personal plans" and sanctions of welfare reform, as befits a marketplace of isolates paying mortgages and furthering careers. The consequence is that we start to lose sight of people's individual social grounding, and are then surprised to be disoriented by the chaos of the market. This has produced the amusing sight of the Labour party fretting about entryism by Toby Young and Derek Hatton (yer barred!), both excited at the prospect of paying £3 to vote for Jezza. Ironically, if they'd limited the leadership vote to full party members and union affiliates (i.e. actual communities), they wouldn't have had this problem, but that's the market for you. The vetting process appears to be to ask wannabes to agree with the statement "I support the aims and values of the Labour Party, and I am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it". Tough.

As Tony Blair claimed last week, Labour's preference for heart over head "makes us mistake defending outdated policy with defending timeless values", though he rather ruined the effect by reducing those values to managerialism: "what is right as a matter of policy is right as a matter of principle". What the Blairites are reluctant to concede is that the "timeless values" that attract Labour supporters are not the likes of liberty or meritocracy, let alone pragmatism or the market, but the sort of instinctive solidarity and equality of outcome long dismissed by hardcore neoliberalism as the garden path that leads inevitably to the road to serfdom. Of course, the Labour establishment isn't going to diss these values to their face. From the Blairite permanent revolution to the reinvention of sterile historic forms by Tristram Hunt and Maurice Glasman, the aim is to regulate dissent. The mooted coup by John Mann and others is pure Carl Schmitt: we demand a state of exception now. What Corbyn's bemused candidacy has inadvertently revealed is that the timeless value of New Labour is intolerance.


  1. I think a lot of people forget that 'Blairism' and 'Thatcherism' were actually minority positions in their respective parties that achieved dominance through their alliance with the traditional right and centre, and their ultimate electoral success.

    What the Kendall candidacy has demonstrated is that Blairism is not a pragmatic ideology, but essentially takes the rather dogmatic form you have described. It is not intrinsically a populist or electorally popular project because, after all, who wants rule by David Brent? The leadership campaign has also shown up the pragmatic centrists, who have had virtually nothing to offer in terms of policy or personality.

    And the irony is that they all say that it is Corbyn that is unelectable.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment30 July 2015 at 14:30

    It is funny that there is no economic evidence which says high public sector as a % of the whole economy is bad for the economy. In fact if you could draw any conclusions you would say the reverse was true.

    It is often said that neo liberalism was a response to the failings of Keynesian policies or more precisely a response to the problems created by Keynesian policies. The argument was that capitalism needed a sort of see-sawing between demand and supply side policies. So why is the see saw not swinging back? I think one answer is that the story just told is only partially true and that the adoption of neo liberalism wasn't just a genuine response to the problems of Keynesian policies but it was a class project to discipline workers etc. Therefore a class fightback is required.

    I think a dose of old fashioned Corbynism is precisely what the UK and the neo liberal world needs, assuming the end of capitalism itself is not nigh.