Friday, 8 January 2016

The Centre Cannot Hold

It occurred to me the other day that Jeremy Corbyn's reshuffle was actually an exercise in HR best practice: lots of discussion and listening; a willingness to negotiate within limits; performance improvement plans for some; written warnings for others; and a decisive removal of the mood-hoovers. Despite most journalists presumably being familiar with performance appraisals and key job responsibilities, this approach was presented in the media as chaotic and further evidence that the "new politics" (a phrase now treated with outright contempt by many commentators) is both hypocritical and misguided. What I think it highlights is a crisis at the heart of neoliberal practice.

Will Davies recently made the observation that neoliberalism has been far more successful ideologically than economically: "One way of understanding it is as an effort to anchor modernity in the market, that is, to make economics the main measure of progress and reason ... Today, we inhabit a post-1960s common sense, in which self-respect and individual taste are our defining ethical commitments. These then become tangible via the exercise of economic choices". In other words, neoliberal paradigms and metaphors have colonised areas of life well beyond the purely economic, from people management through informal social interactions to personal improvement. It's the hegemony, stupid.

The problem is that the failure of neoliberalism to deliver within the economic sphere (historically weak growth, greater inequality, structural unemployment etc) calls into question its normative role in society, i.e. it's justification as a universal set of techniques that can also be applied to relationships and the care of the self. Davies concludes, "If I am right, and neoliberalism represents a perspective on modernity, and not only on the economy, then the challenge of abandoning or replacing neoliberalism comes to appear far greater than previously thought". This is not just because of neoliberalism's ideological tenacity, but because technology has expanded the sphere of the economic into the private realm. As Ursula Huws puts it, "The new economy makes it harder than ever to untangle capitalism from our daily lives".

This is primarily a problem for the political centre, including the Labour right, which cleaved to the market in the 80s and 90s, and can be seen in their anxiety over the revival of nationalist and sectarian politics as a substitute "organising principle" for society. For the left, not just in the UK but across Europe and North America, the solution has been to revive the notion of "trust in the people", expressed through popular democracy, agitation and self-help. This provides a universal narrative ("the people have been disempowered by the market") that not only unites disparate strands on the left (including ones that were antagonistic in the 80s) but has the potential to be attractive to centrist voters worried over market dysfunction in areas such as housing and public services. Though much of this is consciously anti-market, it preserves many neoliberal practices through its adoption of managerialist norms and its reliance on social media. Jeremy Corbyn "crowdsourcing" PMQs is as revealing as his approach to HR.

The intellectual failure of neoliberalism presents little challenge to conservatives who can simply revert to a more traditional advocacy of the market inflected by national and sectional priorities, dropping the happiness-index along with the "green crap". The Tories' rehabilitation of the City of London would have proceeded quicker but for the coalition, but it still moved at a rapid enough pace. The coming EU referendum campaign, taking a leaf out of the Scottish Independence playbook, will clearly focus on the risks and losses of exit, rather than the potential of the single market or the modernity of Europe, leading to some liberals cynically signing up to "project fear". In areas like education, housing and the environment, the Tories make little attempt to pretend they are doing anything other than looking after their own.

Their appeal is that they are self-interested, but that their self-interest is congruent with that of key voting groups (pensioners, rentiers etc), which is a return to Thatcherism but without the lofty principle. Neither Cameron nor Osborne sound convincing when they talk of making Britain great again, and social engineering is clearly passé, to judge from Oliver Letwin's transformation and Ian Duncan Smith's increasing eccentricity. If Donald Trump combines an anti-establishment vibe with the promise of an activist government (that wall won't build itself), which is rhetorically reconciled by an appeal to "trust the nation", David Cameron is asking us to "trust the establishment". No wonder he appears increasingly at ease in his Old Etonian skin. A couple more years of this and he'll look like Nicholas Soames.

The traditional response of the centre would be to advocate "trust the state", both as a restraint on market abuses and as means of managing society in the collective interest. The problem is that the ideological success of neoliberalism makes the former politically difficult (consider the painfully modest moves in this direction by Ed Miliband), while the sociological embedding of neoliberalism leaves the latter open to the charge of reviving the "nanny state" and curtailing personal liberty. The centre needs to rethink the activist state, which means substantive policies in the areas of housing (e.g. re-empowering councils), economic security (e.g. a basic income), and the NHS (e.g. reversing marketisation). The current hyperventilating of the Labour right, which reflects its own anxiety rather than any particular Corbynist outrage, is the result of its intellectual timidity since 2009.

The need is pressing. As Paul Mason notes, "With rightwing nationalism and social conservatism achieving, in many countries, about 25%, and the radical left pushing close to the same, there may not be room for more than one pro-global, pro-market centrist force in between the two". Though he's making a point about Spain and Greece, it clearly has a resonance in the UK as well. The LibDem wipeout may have led the Labour right to assume the centre ground was there for the taking, and some no doubt believe they're only being held back now by the self-indulgence of party members who voted for Corbyn, but the evidence from both the general election and the one by-election to date is that electors are heading away from the centre, not towards it, while the Tories appropriation of traditional centrist policies, such as the minimum wage, makes a distinct and persuasive offer more difficult.

I think the "hysteria of the moderates" owes more to a fear that politics is entering a phase of greater polarisation than a frustration with the management skills of the Labour leader or sensitivity to the machinations of the paper tiger that is Momentum. Of equal psychological import is the growing despair among those of a similar vintage to Corbyn, such as Polly Toynbee, at the realisation that the scruffy upstart has a better claim to embody their nostalgic social democracy than the besuited PLP, and that the latter are now so flaky that you couldn't rule out a "Reg Prentice" or two. Again, the Labour right's revival of the spectre of 80s-style internecine warfare, like its retreat to the laager of national security and tabloid patriotism, reflects a fundamental lack of imagination about what a future Labour government would do. The flip-flopping over tax credit cuts in the summer will take on a huge significance when the political histories are written.

So why the policy vacuum? The neoliberal paradox was to promise choice in society but a monopoly in governance. Third Way politics, as envisaged by Anthony Giddens, assumed that there was no alternative to capitalism and that modernity had eroded the class basis of political action, replacing it with a "dialogic democracy", in Jurgen Habermas's phrase, centred on lifestyle choices. As such, concepts such as "left" and "right" were increasingly meaningless and progress required a "radical centre" that would provide the focal point for dialogue and coalesce the technocratic talents needed for a "post-historical" state. The years since 2008 have undermined the appeal of technocracy, not just in the revelations of the malign intersection of finance and government, but in the anti-democratic fumblings of the EU and the intellectual exhaustion of the "caste" in key states such as France.

Much of the current angst of centrists can be traced to a fear that Giddens' analysis was wrong, not just in its "end of history" delusions but more importantly in its assumption that a politics of lifestyle would bias towards the cautious ("ontological security"), the rational (utility maximisation), and the primacy of the market (choice as liberation rather than anxiety). The charge that the left are indulging in "expressive" politics is reminiscent of the dawning realisation of Frankenstein that he had created a monster in his own image. As such, it reveals the underlying reactionary temper of the "radical centre", the fear that the mob are trivial and stupid and must always be manipulated, which famously came to the surface in 2003.

So what is stopping the Labour right from filling the void? Ultimately, the fragmentation of the centre arises from globalisation and the consequent accentuation of the isolationist/internationalist dynamic that exists in all societies, but which is particularly acute in the UK because of its geography and multi-national history. Social democracy provided the outlet for both a soft nationalism and principled internationalism (a combination today rebranded as "civic nationalism"), while traditional conservatism started from a nationalist base but conceded the necessity for international engagement through a variety of strategies from post-imperial noblesse oblige to realpolitik. Both were essentially centripetal, in the sense that the political cost of moving towards the centre was low.

Neoliberalism led to a huddling in the middle ground, but the structural changes it effected in the global economy then worked to hollow-out the centre as a viable political space. The nation was progressively disempowered by free capital movement and the opportunism of multinational corporations, while supra-national institutions that promised to moderate them, such as the EU, revealed themselves to be complicit in the process and lacking in democratic legitimacy. At the same time, national governments increasingly ceded control of domestic public services to the private sector and confessed themselves powerless (and even admiring of the fact) in the face of the market.

Well before 2008, the once-novel pitch of sleek modernity and global integration left people feeling isolated and beleaguered through neoliberalism's insistence on self-reliance and the rejection of traditional solidarities. Where social democracy and conservatism offered coping strategies in the face of capitalism, neoliberalism demanded unconditional surrender. It cannot provide adequate social protection in the face of globalisation and financialisation (despite the Labour Party's hopes in the 80s and 90s for private-public partnerships and the EU), while it tends to erode the wider social base of traditional conservatism even as it reinforces the privileges of wealth.

The division in the Tory party over Europe, as much as the "ideological schism" in Labour, is a symptom of the way that neoliberalism has sharpened the isolationist/internationalist tension. Largely by accident, the only party that has managed to develop a coping strategy is the SNP, but their success is built on shaky foundations. The emblematic "our oil" has been undermined by the operation of a global market, while the "Nordic model" that supposedly reconciles free enterprise with generous welfare is already history. Consequently, both the SNP and the Tories now have a joint interest in maintaining a low-level antagonism between Scotland and England, providing a "loyalty" appeal that substitutes for eroded solidarities and diverts attention from the continuation of failed neoliberal economics.

The Labour right (and by extension the broader centre in British politics) can only revive itself by moving on from neoliberalism, but that in turn requires it to define a distinctive position on the isolationist/internationalist spectrum, and it cannot do that this side of the EU referendum. The centre needs to win the vote to stay in, which means reciting the neoliberal catechism and pursuing "project fear" in the meantime, but then needs to tack hard towards a more isolationist stance (in terms of greater national control over the economy) to secure domestic support. The problem is that Cameron's Tories are trying to carry out the same manoeuvre while Corbyn's Labour has a more convincing offer when it comes to economic self-determination, even if it is being drowned out by a pro-EU media ahead of the vote. Unfortunately, the morbid symptom of weeping Blairites will be with us for some months yet.


  1. Surely there is a more positive spin that can be put on the pro-EU campaign? Given that one of the main factors that reconciled Labour 'sceptics' to the EEC's existence was the acknowledgement that it could provide an arena for social protection at a time of increasing economic internationalism, it should at least be possible to resurrect this argument as an aspiration, even if German economics is making it more difficult at present.

    I suspect that the roots of the Blairite European predicament lie in the fact that the common instrumentalist view of the EU, that it is not a political space to be fought over but an organisation out of which we obtain vague benefits or penalties, puts their own line in a position where it is difficult to obtain popular support. Their support for the EU is based on the supposed economic benefits and the diplomatic opportunities it provides the UK, but at the same time they fear giving the EU too staunch a welcome because of their fear of the masses and the belief that popular nationalist prejudices must be appeased. As you suggest, the Blairite 'weltanshauung' is more outdated now than that of the 'Old Labour' whose arguments they maligned and ridiculed in the 90s.

  2. No one in the UK is going to try and sell the EU on the basis of ordoliberal discipline, despite the overlap with our homegrown austerity, so that leaves a choice between a "left" position of institutional reform to create a more democratic Europe and a Tory position that centres on elite negotiation of national privileges.

    There is no longer a middle ground where the EU can be cast as technocratic common sense aligned with historical inevitability, and thus something both desirable and irresistible. This is a result not only of the design flaws of the Euro, but the evidence of recent years that alternatives are possible, if not yet permissible.

    The left position is anathema to centrists, not only because of its leftiness and association with "erratic Marxists" like Yanis Varoufakis, but because it implies the possibility of a more independent line in foreign affairs, which gives Atlanticists the willies (the salience of Trident and NATO in coverage of Labour owes as much to the EU referendum as concerns over national security).

    In the circumstances, project fear is the default option because it works for all the pro-EU fractions: pragmatic Tories, neoliberals, and the Labour right. It also means that the pro-EU left (and the SNP) can be marginalised, much as they were in the 70s.

    1. I think you're right that 'project fear', as you put it, is the road the Blairites will go down.

      I have a feeling that the experience of working together with the mainstream Tories in the referendum campaign might well bring about closer personal links to go with the undeniable similarities in policy across the centre-right. If so, it could precipitate a sustained bout of floor-crossing, providing that the referendum result doesn't blow the whole thing out of the water.

      That said, I get the feeling that there is an unspoken understanding among establishment politicians across the main parties that the interests of neo-liberalism and the foreign policy consensus are best served by their advocates being spread across both sides of the House of Commons.

    2. In theory, the EU could cause a lasting split in Tory ranks, and that might lead to the Labour right seeking to join forces with the Tory "left" in a centrist national government (shades of 1931), but I think this unlikely. The failure of New Labour means the moment has passed.

      As you note, the "system" depends on a duopoly that drags both sides towards the centre. Unbalancing this risks either an outright victory for one of the "extremes", or the prospect of a coalition obliged to cede substantive policies to secure left or right support.