Monday, 15 August 2016

Marriage Guidance

One meta-narrative in politics at the moment is the idea that there is a reconfiguration underway between liberalism and authoritarianism. David Edgar laid this out in the British context: "Conservatism used to be an often uneasy compound of Tory social paternalism and anti-statist economic liberalism; while on the left, an alliance between progressive social liberalism and egalitarianism created the best of postwar Britain, from the welfare state to the social reforms of the 1960s and 1970s". In other words, both left and right were each an uneasy marriage between liberal and authoritarian impulses in which the binding was largely down to the congruence of class interests. On the left, organised labour found common cause with middle class progressives who benefited from the expansion of the welfare state. On the right, economically liberal capitalists found common cause with conservative rentiers and working class Tories obsessed with hierarchy and security.

What the meta-narrative suggests is a realignment in which the two liberal strands increasingly combine in opposition to the two authoritarian strands. As Edgar puts it, "The new fault line splits both alliances in half: allying economic with social liberalism (the coalition that brought you the coalition) on the one side, and economic intervention with social conservatism on the other. As a result, an ever-deepening wedge now divides Labour’s aspirational, liberal, globalised wing from its traditional base. Although good news for the Conservative party, this is best for the populist right, which has rushed to fill the vacuum created". This isn't a new narrative - it underpins much of the Blue Labour and Red Tory guff since 2008 and the various attempts to define a "post-liberalism", not to mention the "UKIP will take the North" trope - but it has a particular salience in the Brexit era because economic nationalism is back on the table along with pessimism about the persistence of xenophobia and other nasty working class habits.

In fact, this fluidity goes back to the 70s when, to pick a topical example, euroscepticism was found mainly on the left as a defence of economic unilateralism. In the 80s it moved to the centre as a liberal response to the perceived drift towards a more socialist Europe under the influence of Jacques Delors (many anti-EU parties, such as UKIP and AfD, started out not on the authoritarian right but in the centre) before being colonised by the traditional nationalist right, ironically after the UK's success in advancing the single market and EU expansion at the expense of "social Europe". Instead of being a defence against globalisation and neoliberalism as many hoped, the EU has come to be seen as the facilitator of those very same forces, which explains popular French euroscepticism (even though the FN has no intention of advancing workers' rights or promoting solidarity, it has been able to exploit this disillusion). In fact, we have been living through an era of ideological confusion for almost 50 years. This "realignment" is simply modernity.

Neoliberalism started combining economic and social liberalism in the early-90s, building on the freedom trope of the 80s. As Flipchart Rick notes of the years since, a paradox is that "this period saw a victory for the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right. The trouble is, most voters were never really that keen on either". However, it is worth remembering how Bill Clinton's Democrats and Tony Blair's New Labour were only too happy to indulge authoritarian policies, from military intervention through incarceration to state surveillance, which is why their Republican and Tory successors offered dreams (shrink the state, hug a husky) and then delivered government programmes that were more of the same plus tax cuts for the rich. For many among the working class, McJobs and precarity didn't look like economic liberalism so much as the exploitative practices of classic laissez faire, while social liberalism looked like a glorification of middle-class values: gay marriage but not the decriminalisation of drugs. As with many things, the economic plus social liberal combo was more apparent in the metropolis than the country at large.

Insofar as the binding on the left has frayed, it is largely due to the failure of neoliberalism to satisfy the working class priorities of housing, wages and job security. New Labour sought to advance the interests of vocal fractions of the working class, such as those who could afford mortgages or secure mobility via further education, but this simply pointed up the contrast with the less vocal "left behinds". The marriage on the right has held up better, essentially because the affair that liberal capitalists had with New Labour has run its course (the PLP revolt reeks of the desperation of a spurned lover). The Tories can afford to move towards greater authoritarianism now simply because big capital and finance capital are both constrained post-Brexit. Taking back control is meaningless for most citizens, but it has a real meaning (as a threat) for domestic capital. The state temporarily has an enhanced degree of influence over the rules of the game and it should be obvious that some conservatives intend to use this opportunity to sculpt a more nationalistic dispensation.

We tend to underestimate the degree to which global political ideologies are influenced by nationally-specific ideologies of government and public administration. In other words, there is not a single ideology but multiple, often in contention and persisting for centuries. For example, German Ordoliberalism clearly bears the imprint of Prussian Cameralism, while French corporatism bears the imprint of Colbert and Napoleon as much as De Gaulle. Similarly, US neoliberalism owes more to Locke than Hobbes, while the reverse is true of British neoliberalism (the representative UK neoliberals were Jack Straw and Theresa May, not Gordon Brown or George Osborne). The full economic consequences of Brexit will not be known for decades, but this year clearly marks the end of the zombie neoliberalism that dates from late 2008. This does not mean that neoliberalism itself is dead, merely that it has mutated once more (Simon Wren-Lewis suggests it is intellectually weak but politically strong, though persistence is usually a sign of intellectual tenacity).

I suspect that Will Davies is right in foreseeing a shift of the efficient markets hypothesis from the realm of finance to labour (via the gig economy) and a greater emphasis on the need to sweat personal assets in the new mercantilist age ushered in by Brexit. In other words, neoliberal theory will pragmatically go with the authoritarian flow. The political consequences of the UK leaving the EU will ultimately arise from the economic, but that means we are faced with an interregnum that could last all the way up to a general election in 2020. In this period, the vacuum has initially been filled with self-conscious appeals to history that are more stylised than substantial, such as Theresa May's apparent rediscovery of Rab Butler and Owen Smith's chanelling of Nye Bevan. If Jeremy Corbyn is guilty of looking back to the 70s and 80s, it appears his opponents have even longer memories. These tributes are merely a way of buying time while the political establishment (the civil service as much as government) debates the neogotiating position it will adopt not just towards the EU but towards the various UK capitals.

The prognosis that the left is irretriveably split, that the marriage cannot survive, obviously serves a variety of interests on the political right and centre. This is why the simplistic dichotomy - the division between "Labour's aspirational, liberal, globalised wing" and its "traditional base" - is so patently false. You don't need to look far to find evidence that working class Labour voters aren't racist homophobes who overwhelmingly voted leave, while there is no shortage of evidence that its "aspirational, liberal, globalised wing" is marked by intellectual timidity and middle class bigotry. Similarly, the idea that the Tories are about to institute full-blown central planning or nationalise the railways simply because they have rehabilitated the term "industrial strategy" is delusional. This political realignment remains more an expression of centrist hope in respect of electoral representation than a reality in the economic and social spheres, and the reason for that (which I hinted at in the opening paragraph) is the power of class interests.

Historically, the political advance of the left coincided with a period when the electorate and the workforce were almost perfectly coterminus: the era of social democracy and high levels of employment. Once democracy became unavoidable after WW1, the strategy of the right was to first delay it through appeals to responsibility and then construct an anti-labour majority. Thus fear of female superficiality in the UK's "Flapper Election" of 1929 give way to an ideological emphasis on women's innate caution, financial prudence (their role as consumers antagonistic to producers) and desire for social respectability. By the 1950s, the right was obliged to augment this conservative appeal with pro-labour policies in the areas of housing, education and welfare, or risk electoral annihilation. One Nation Toryism, which is routinely invoked in the name of every new Conservative administration (even Thatcher's in 1979), remains a communitarian gloss for a reactionary and divisive politics.

The conservative revanche of the late-70s required not only the elevation of the market above planning, and the reinterpretation of liberty as financial freedom, but the promotion of management as an intrinsic good in the face of "problematic" labour. This was founded on the idea of human capital, which rebranded workers as valuable but individual resources and managers as stewards rather than exploiters. The marginalisation of the left in the 80s and 90s obviously owed a lot to the defeat of organised labour and the emergence of a professional political caste, but it also owed something to the hegemonic spread of managerialism in both the public sector and service industries. This still provides what passes for a policy platform among centrist politicians, from Labourites talking about "electability" to Democrats dissing Trump's "unfitness for office". Managerialism, not iffyness about gay marriage or a hankering for the death penalty, is the essence of authoritarianism, and that remains hegemonic across both Labour and the Conservatives.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 August 2016 at 18:11

    I think this is completely wrong.

    I would say New labour and the Tories share the same authoritarian streak. The Tories like this because it helps control morality and promotes order, in the fascist sense and New labour argue it promotes security against the bad people. If you look at the policies in relation to internet security and government collection of online data then you would be hard pressed to know who is more authoritarian, the Tories or Labour’s so called 'aspirational', 'liberal', 'globalised' wing.

    Opposition to the big data culture and the use of it to spy on everyone has come from the Liberal democrats and the left.

    The centre of politics, which includes the hard right Tories and neo-liberal New Labour are singing from the same hym sheet where authoritarianism is concerned.

    It is why I see only dystopia. For example, New Labour bomb nations into submission, create displaced people everywhere, the result of this is some minimal violence against those who did the bombing, this minimal violence is used as an excuse to bring in all sorts of security measures. New labour and Tory types see how effective this is and hey prsto you have a template!

  2. Reminds me a bit of twenty years ago, when ex-SDP types like Marquand and Toynbee were hailing 'New Labour' as the opportunity to heal the 'progressive' void that was created when the Labour movement split definitively from the Liberals. Of course, they were to be somewhat disillusioned when Blair's managerialism turned out to be both too neoliberal and too authoritarian for their liking.

    I think recent events have proved your last paragraph exactly right. The Tories and the Labour right are both essentially managerial, but just tack in slightly different ways to try and keep an increasingly tenuous grip on their vote banks. The Labour right has always been eager to be part of the establishment, but their desperation to achieve this has been only too plain to see over the past year as the members have tried to drag it to a much more anti-elitist position. I suspect there could well be many Labour MPs who are almost desperate for a crisis over leaving the EU so they can become part of a fully managerialist national government. If Corbyn wins again it might be their best way out.

  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 August 2016 at 19:02

    I am actually confused by this article. Are you saying New labour are authoritarian or not? And if they are who are the 'aspirational', 'liberal', 'globalised' wing of the Labour party? Or are you making the point that the 'aspirational', 'liberal', 'globalised' wing are really authoritarian and the labour base is really liberal? The base are not liberal!

    "Similarly, the idea that the Tories are about to institute full-blown central planning or nationalise the railways simply because they have rehabilitated the term "industrial strategy" is delusional."

    Who the hell thought this?

    "You don't need to look far to find evidence that working class Labour voters aren't racist homophobes who overwhelmingly voted leave"

    You don't have to travel far to hear a racist comment in working class wards in any major town or city. I have yet to hear straight from the horse's mouth the articulate working class reason to vote leave.

    1. Yes, I'm saying New Labour were authoritarian, just like the traditional "Labourist" right, which can be seen in the current behaviour of their remnants.

      I think you've misunderstood that I was criticising David Edgar's claims. Those are his words you're quoting. I am sceptical of the whole realignment idea, which is invariably a centrist pipe-dream, not least because it relies on a belief in homogenous social blocks, such as bigoted proles.

    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 August 2016 at 20:15

      Yes, I thought you were quoting Edgar favourably! And I agree with your point about managerialism. I disagree with your optimism about the proles! I actually think the proles are bigoted because they are atomised and not one homogenous social block!