Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Crisis of Conservatism

The long assault by capital on labour since the mid-70s has been marked by the political right's adoption of radical tropes: against tradition and the futile resistance of progress, for personal liberty and creative destruction. One school of thought, exemplified by John Gray in the UK, is that true conservatives have actually been marginalised and that neoliberal parties, in their embrace of technocracy and the perfectibility of humanity, are the ideological continuation of Robespierre and Marat. Another school, exemplified by Corey Robin in the US, sees the adoption of progressive tactics as a continuation of the strategy of Burke and de Maistre: the counter-revolution must be revolutionary. One interpretation is romantic and pessimistic (humanity is stupid so we should err on the side of caution), the other cynical but optimistic (revolutionary change is possible).

The two most politically successful tropes employed by the right were the casting of organised labour as "dinosaurs", whose restrictive practices hindered the emergence of the thrusting new economy of the 80s and 90s, and the diagnosis of the welfare state as pathological and in need of "reform" through the injection of market discipline. These radical tropes started to lose momentum around 2000, reflecting the defeat of organised labour and the erosion of the clear distinction between the public and private sectors. The growth of low-wage, insecure work and the periodic financial crises in the health service shifted the narrative. Few people today consider trade union power to be a major issue, while most agree that "sorting out" the NHS is a matter of funding not further reorganisation. Since the millennium we have seen the emergence of two new tropes, which are both a response to the waning power of the older pair and the consequence of new social developments, working class xenophobia (notably in respect of EU migration) and demographic ageing.

The first trope is a revival: the characterisation of the working class as uniform, prone to prejudice and ripe for demagoguery. The mob, in other words. In the US, this is the mood music around the rise of Donald Trump, despite the ample evidence that much of his support, like that of Bernie Sanders, stems from concern over the operation of capitalism (aka "trade" or "Wall Street"). In the UK, this is most obvious in the attempts to "understand people's legitimate fears over immigration". When Justin Welby excuses xenophobia as a response to low-wage jobs and stressed public services, he doesn't turn attention to the root cause (under-provision) but instead legitimises the idea that the working class is only capable of expressing itself in this vulgar way. The salience given to prejudice reflects a belief that the lower orders are incorrigible: their bad habits and worse opinions are innate and no longer amenable to improvement or exhortation. Rather than being reformed, they must be managed.

The traditional view of the poor, from the Reformation to Victoria, was that their moral inadequacy made them incapable of becoming effective workers. In a similar vein, the idle rich were those whose moral shortcomings made them illegitimate custodians of wealth. This idea, that success was dependent on personal virtue, was undermined by the collective sacrifices of the first half of the twentieth century, the Great Depression as much as the two world wars. This socialist turn prompted a further cycle of reaction that crystallised in the 1970s with the belief that ineffective workers were the product of welfare state indulgence and malign trade unions. Personal failings had been replaced by collective shortcomings. The Thatcherite revanche restored the individual as the centre of social policy but treated failure as a symptom of personal economic redundancy rather than moral laxity, despite gestures towards "Victorian values", reflecting the secular shift from the religious to the utilitarian.

Today, Tories castigate British workers as "lazy" rather than as dupes misled by shop stewards, while the popular understanding of "welfare dependency" is shifting from the product of perverse incentives to the result of a congenital inability to integrate into the labour market. Though there is still talk in government of "turning round lives", not to mention a vast industry of self-improvement that has substituted for the religiously-channeled impulses of old, it is becoming increasingly acceptable to express the belief that people are prisoners of their genetic inheritance. This leads not only to antique caricatures of the underclass as "chavs" and reckless breeders, but to a regretful tolerance of reduced social mobility (maybe an Old Etonian really is the best possible Prime Minister) and even a flirtation with eugenics.

The second trope is the recasting of inequality as a matter of intergenerational fairness. Just as the first trope assumes a uniform working class, so the aggregation of the second obscures the variation in wealth within age cohorts. It also prioritises the concerns of the middle-class young, such as student debt and the difficulty of getting a mortgage. Working class concerns, such as employment opportunities and the level of rent, are sidelined in the media by tales of PhDs working as baristas and how difficult it is to save for a mortgage deposit. As part of their week-long focus on the topic, The Guardian reported that "through the 1980s and into the 1990s one in three 16- to 24-year-olds who were household heads were able to afford to buy their own home, compared to one in 10 today". What should surprise us is not the decline but that even 10% of household heads under-25 now own property. Where did they get the money? You have to suspect that many are the children of the well-off, who have been gifted flats or houses "as an investment", rather than precocious entrepreneurs. This is not a poor country.

The idea that the old are living it large ignores the increasing role of property in the composition of nominal wealth. Many people in their 60s and 70s are finding their modest savings inadequate to the task of producing an income in an era of ultra-low interest rates, forcing them to cannibalise their chief asset through equity release (often arranged informally through relatives who will inherit their property), while others have already pledged their homes to meet the anticipated cost of elderly care. The Tory success in securing the OAP vote through the "triple-lock" is effective not because the old are selfish and biddable but because they are fearful that they may be reduced to dependency on the state pension. The generation looking to their buy-to-let investments to provide an income stream in retirement are, if you'll excuse an aggregate simplification, well short of the state pension age.

The two newer tropes overlap in the idea that the elderly working class are the most intolerant and ignorant. This isn't without statistical foundation if you reduce society to intersections on a Venn diagram, but the portrayal, memorably embodied in Gillian Duffy, the woman that Gordon Brown dismissed as a "bigot" who then confounded the media by not voting UKIP, is little more than a non-sweary version of Catherine Tate's Nan. As ever, the problem is an assumption of uniformity. This prejudice led last year to the media's expectation that UKIP would win the Oldham West by-election, the common folk rejecting "poncified" Labour and expressing their limited political nous by voting for a party without a coherent economic policy. Ironically, the chief result of the demand that we "understand" working-class xenophobia (an inversion of the usual conservative demand to understand less and punish more) has been the normalisation of middle-class bigotry: Sayeeda Warsi's "dinner table test". Nigel Farage remains more popular with small business owners than workers.

This year, centrists have been forced to admit that the economy (and specifically jobs, wages, housing and social support) matters a lot more to the majority of working people than the smell of cooking from next door. This doesn't mean that immigration will lose its power as an emblem of anxiety, but that economic issues hitherto judged beyond political debate ("there is no alternative") are now back on the agenda. In the US, this is largely the achievement of the presidential nomination process. Had Bernie Sanders not run, Donald Trump's protectionist rants could more easily have been dismissed as populist rhetoric. That Sanders has made more substantive criticisms of TPP and TTIP, not to mention Wall Street and the corporate degrading of America's manufacturing base, has meant that the issue of the economy could not be neutralised through bromides about high-tech or education.

In the UK, this looks to be a result of the EU referendum campaign shifting attention from government deficits to national capability. While the prima donnas of the leave campaign continue to waffle about sovereignty and border controls, the remain camp have clearly identified their vulnerability to the charge that neoliberalism damaged the country long before 2008 and that the real danger is not bigotry, which is never going to grow beyond its natural constituency, but the siren call of economic nationalism that hasn't been heard since 1975 (it was successfully muted by the media in 1983). This explains why the Labour leadership is suddenly flavour of the month. Despite Corbyn being presented as unpopular and unrepresentative, he must be kept on side by the establishment. If he were to advocate Brexit, he would immediately become both respectable (it would be hilarious to see Johnson and Gove's contortions) and a tribune of the economically marginalised.

It should come as no surprise then that John McDonnell has decided to take this opportunity to advance the case for national investment, and that centrists are grudgingly supportive. In this context, the interventions of Dan Jarvis and Rachel Reeves are comedy gold: "Let’s be frank, New Labour’s approach wasn’t enough. It didn’t get at the root causes. New Labour didn't see with sufficient clarity the downsides of globalisation. They knew it meant cheap consumer goods. But, they didn’t recognise that too often, it meant cheap labour too". I believe the phrase is "laugh my fucking arse off" (English subtitles). Since 1997 we have seen the emergence of a new helot class of the low paid, formalised through a minimum wage and in-work benefits, while property ownership and further education are inexorably evolving into the privileges of the well-off. This wasn't an accident, Dan.

In recent years, the radical tropes employed by conservatives since the 70s have started to blow up in their faces. For example, the street activism of the Tea Party, together with the celebration of disrespect by shock-jocks and Fox News, has destabilised the Republican Party in the US more than the Democrats. This counter-productive turn is incipient in the newer tropes as well. The patronisation of the working class as atavistic and economically illiterate may prompt alienation in the short-term - and there is plenty of evidence that disillusion with politics is greater among the working class - but it might also trigger greater class consciousness in reaction, which is why it makes tactical sense for Labour to shift from the managerialism of Jarvis and Reeves to the creation of the mass movement advocated by Momentum and others.

Intergenerational fairness moves the issue of wealth distribution from the social to the private sphere. Paradoxically, this Thatcherite denial of society places increased stress on that traditional redoubt of conservatism, the family. The fairness of distribution between the generations becomes a point of potential conflict within the home (all too often a literal struggle over property ownership), rather than a social conflict negotiated through politics in which the family's interests are largely common. A likely reaction to this is for more of the older generation to become politicised, in the sense of deliberately pushing the issue of distribution back into the social sphere, as the best means of advancing their offspring's interests without familial grief. It's worth remembering that "baby boomers", as beneficiaries of the welfare state in its heyday, are not repelled by the idea of government intervention.

Presenting anxiety over immigration as an understandable if regrettable response by the unsophisticated to competition over resources, from jobs to hospital beds, is problematic for the right because it suggests that social tensions could be eased through demand stimulus and public investment as much as by reduced immigration. Consequently, this exculpation must be accompanied by an insistence that low wages are actually the fault of "lazy" workers and that the travails of schools and the NHS are the fault of under-performing teachers and junior doctors. But this gives rise to a further problem in that ever broader swathes of society are denigrated as shirkers and inadequates by priviliged individuals who implausibly claim to be fighting against elites. The crisis of conservatism is that it is running out of enemies to shield the rich from popular anger, and increasingly prone to antagonising its peripheral supporters. The belief that it can always rely on the self-interest of pensioners and property owners may prove to be its biggest miscalculation.


  1. While anti-refugee sentiment in Eastern Europe is clearly xenophobic (and enabled by the lack of a colonial past to render naked ethnic nationalism taboo there, as it did further west), isn't anti-immigration sentiment in the UK (and to a lesser extent in the Netherlands) more about "space, not race"?

    If the UK is overpopulated enough to need a Town and Country Planning Act (with the resulting unaffordable housing), is it really wise to allow so much immigration? Of course greedy landlords love immigrants from the Third World (and temporary migrants from Eastern Europe) as they are far more tolerant of overcrowded living conditions than native Brits.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 March 2016 at 18:03

    "isn't anti-immigration sentiment in the UK (and to a lesser extent in the Netherlands) more about "space, not race"?"

    No! I remember Frankie Boyle saying we should have Dulux paint charts at airports to control immigration. This very nicely summed it up for me.

    This article is confusing, I am taking from it that there is no crisis of conservatism?

    “Few people today consider trade union power to be a major issue, while most agree that "sorting out" the NHS is a matter of funding not further reorganisation. “

    I think we are living on different planets here. The only reason trade union power is not a major issue is that they don’t have power, but if they did it would be an issue. Even worse, because they have been so weakened any slight gaining of strength is now seen as a threat. So in fact the threshold for what constitutes Union power has been very much lowered. So 1 – 0 to the conservatives. The NHS is being dismantled in front of our eyes, so if the public think funding is the problem then this is totally irrelevant because the reorganisation is happening anyway! 2 – 0 to the conservatives.

    The long hoed for attack on the welfare state and the obliteration of the distinction between public and private is happening in front of us and indicates the objective of the conservatives has been attained. 3 – 0 to the conservatives.

    The result of the 2008 crisis is that neo liberalism is even more entrenched than it was before, via austerity and other such measures. 4 – 0 to the conservatives.

    You are presenting the successful attainment of conservative goals as a defeat for conservatism! You need to stop listening to Arsene Wenger!

    By doing this you fail to recognise that the centre is now utterly conservative! I think?

    1. Herbie,

      I'm arguing that there is a crisis of conservatism, but that it has arisen as a consequence of conservatives successes over the last 30 years (under both Tories and New Labour) and the hegemony that has made the centre "utterly conservative" in its thinking. To put it in football terms, they're facing a David Moyes moment.

      The 1970s conservatives analysis - that an underperforming economy was the fault of organised labour and that the welfare state was badly managed - has lost its bite both because the Tories shot the fox of the trade unions and because their (and New Labour's) panacea for the welfare state (marketisation) has produced worse outcomes at greater cost.

      Despite the Tories' fondness for further restrictions on strikes and the continuing privatisation of the NHS, these "reform impulses" are proving less and less popular, hence they are notable by their absence from manifestos (famously Lansley's NHS reforms) while the "core message" has been a return to an almost parodically antique form of conservatism in austerity.

      This suggests that conservatism is at a crossroads. It can either double-down on the radical tropes or it can adopt new ones. In the US, conservatives have largely chosen the former path. The problem is that the rhetoric has legitimised both insurgency and the promise of an activist state (and it is this combination that produces Donald Trump), which isn't what conservatives actually want, hence the GOP panic.

      In the UK, there has been a search for new tropes, with the innate shortcomings of the working class and intergenerational fairness to the fore. The problem is that this risks alienating both working class voters, as aspiration gives way to bitterness and division, and middle class voters, as economic antagonism shifts to the family.

    2. Herbie -- "No! I remember Frankie Boyle saying we should have Dulux paint charts at airports to control immigration. This very nicely summed it up for me."

      It seems to me that Frankie Boyle is a defender of mass immigration, so why is he more trustworthy than the opponents of immigration when we are trying to determine what motivates said opponents?

      And incidentally, why do defenders of mass immigration always tar their opponents as "racists" rather than as "Malthusians"? Is racism considered more morally objectionable than Malthusianism for some reason (perhaps the spread of environmentalist thinking in the left)?

  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment16 March 2016 at 17:09

    "that an underperforming economy was the fault of organised labour and that the welfare state was badly managed - has lost its bite both because the Tories shot the fox of the trade unions"

    I don't think it has lost its bite at all. If there really was a crisis of conservatism what would have happened is this, people would be asking, maybe the attack on unions is actually undermining the economy, we need stronger unions. But no, this is not the narrative, which to me proves that as soon as we see increased union activity the tabloids and right wig media will easily be able to trot out the old unions holding the nation to ransom argument. Actually they did it in relation to tube strikes and it worked!

    "Despite the Tories' fondness for further restrictions on strikes and the continuing privatisation of the NHS, these "reform impulses" are proving less and less popular,"

    How popular they are is irrelevant, the party in power are adopting these positions. People have long held the belief that the railways should be nationalised, but this belief may as well not exist because only a Corbyn government will implement it.

    "This suggests that conservatism is at a crossroads. It can either double-down on the radical tropes or it can adopt new ones."

    No it doesn't it suggests something else, which I have long held to be true. the right wing can lie, break promises, miss economic targets and get away with it. The left are judged by a different standard and would get hammered. One law for the right, one for the left. Nothing has changed at all.

    "In the UK, there has been a search for new tropes"

    Well, all we can say is the right wing always have their eye on how to divide the workers. It doesn't reflect conservatism at a crossroads but simply reflects the right's consistent creativity in this regard. It also shows that the right wing narrative is able to manipulate peoples minds than the left narrative.

    It is the left who are in crisis. the right are still smiling, smugly. And I can't blame them!