Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Lifting the Spell

Despite the current prominence of the DUP deal and the SNP retreat over indyref2, there is little doubt that we're witnessing a revival of two-party politics in the UK. For many commentators this suggests the abandonment of the political centre and even the death of liberalism, terms that some are using interchangeably. This strikes me as both a category error - the "centre" is a term of political praxis while "liberalism" is a term of political theory - and a misunderstanding of the political dynamic that emerged in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum. Liberalism remains hegemonic across all developed societies, making it the most successful political philosophy in history. While it's essential menace - the unfettered operation of capitalist markets - has become ever more obvious during the neoliberal era, its progressive gains, in the form of social tolerance and pluralism, continue to pile up. What was noticeable about the new age of austerity ushered in during 2009-10 was that it was initiated by pragmatic liberals (which includes Cameron and Osborne), not by ideological conservatives, and that the advance of social liberalism continued without a pause.

The rightwing upsurge detected in the middle years of this decade, which culminated in Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, was not only a more complex phenomenon of dissent and resentment than the cartoon characterisation of the media allowed, but it was clearly ideologically inconsistent, combining demands for both a smaller and a more activist state, not to mention both protection and freer trade, and so bound to crumble as soon as it tasted power. Casting this as a generational conflict (Brexit as the final legacy of the baby-boomers) or as the emergence of a new dominant paradigm (somewheres versus nowheres) were all-too obvious attempts to deflect attention from socio-economic realities. Insofar as we are now in an era two-party politics it is one in which the "dividing line" is once more between the haves and have-nots, hence the emblematic importance of property rights and the way that centrists have found themselves out of tune with wider society as they chunter about the evils of state requisitioning in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The inconsolable hysteria of the likes of Nick Cohen and John Rentoul does not reflect a defeat of liberal thought (which makes their talk of internal exile and keeping the faith all the more hilarious), but the failure of centrist practice. Indeed, as many have noted, the greatest contemporary threat to social liberalism comes not from the right but from Third Way ultras determined to sacrifice substance for the preservation of empty forms. You might think that centrists would be galvanised by Macron's victory in France, and there has certainly been no shortage of gushing profiles before and after his ascension (largely ignoring the limited enthusiasm displayed by the French electorate), but most intelligent British liberals quickly appreciated that what France is about to witness is not a classic Third Way administration in the mould of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, that could serve as a new epitome across the West, but a revival of traditional French dirigisme and chauvinism that will be both less sympathetic to the UK over Brexit and more offputting to a British audience.

If we think of the Third Way as the culmination of the reformist strand of postwar social democracy, whose long march through the political institutions started in the late-1950s with Tony Crosland's The Future of Socialism, then the post-1980 wave was marked less by its attitude towards markets or consumerism than by its focus on managerialism. While the fundamentals of property and the means of production were ruled out of bounds ("There is no alternative"), all else was tractable, from school performance to personal fitness, giving rise to a sometimes manic solutionism (that Bob the Builder ran for most of the New Labour years, with his mantra "Can we fix it? Yes we Can!", was apt). I would argue that the Third Way has been in decline as theory since 2000, having served its purpose as a vector for the political consolidation of neoliberalism in the 1990s. Though New Labour would continue to win elections and Barack Obama would pick up the baton of Bill Clinton, the growing disenchantment of voters in the UK and the persistence of popular "hope" in Obama's charisma were indications that the Third Way was running on little more than fumes by 2008. 

Practice tends to live on after theory has crumbled, simply because of inertia. In the case of the Third Way, this has been a lingering decline marked by pigheadedness. As Emmett Rensin summed it up, "The most significant development in the past 30 years of liberal self-conception was the replacement of politics understood as an ideological conflict with politics understood as a struggle against idiots unwilling to recognize liberalism’s monopoly on empirical reason". The point is not just the formal obsession with fact-checking and the appeal to authority but the substantive contempt. While liberalism has become socially hegemonic and thus expansive, its self-declared political practitioners have become intolerant and insistent on a narrow definition of plurality. Centrists are increasingly illiberal. This can be seen not only in the increasingly silly equivalence of its enemies (Corbyn routinely namechecked in tandem with Trump) but in an obsession with decorum dressed up as principle and applied in trivial circumstances, hence the insistence that free-speech must be defended first on campus and that anti-semitism must be stopped first in the Labour Party. Meanwhile, in the real world ...

Perhaps the most ironic example of centrist blindness in the UK this year was the failure to appreciate that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were actively triangulating Labour to absorb the centre from the left. It has been amusing to see centrists attempt to rationalise this after the fact with wonkish guff about "rival conceptions of what politics is supposed to look like ... a contrast between a voluntary-activist mode and a professional-operator mode". This blindness probably owed much to the liberal misunderstanding of the working class that fuelled the narrative around UKIP. As any fule kno', the appeal of the Kippers to working people in the North and Midlands was limited, regardless of the natives' attitude towards the EU. UKIP's focus on Islam in the general election and its predictable desertion by voters showed it had nothing to offer working people. As the song said, "It says nothing to me about my life". The media mischaracterisation of social reactionaries (often comfortably-off retirees) as the "left-behind" played a part in this, despite the obvious inconsistency of the claims that the "traditional working class" is both practically extinct and politically pivotal.

Just as important was the inability to appreciate that the EU is actually quite a marginal issue for many voters, and even more so now that the question of membership has been settled in the eyes of most, hence the centrist surprise that Brexit wasn't the centrepiece of the general election and that the Lib Dems failed to increase their vote. Ignorance is not necessarily the result of stupidity: attention is a limited resource and there is no shortage of issues, from NHS funding to housing, that seem more immediate to people than the possible consequences of Brexit that might transpire at some point in the future. While the deliberate cultivation of ignorance by the rightwing media was undoubtedly a factor in forming opinions over the last 30 years, the liberal failure to critically engage with the EU in a national discourse (compare and contrast with Syriza's efforts in different circumstances and over a much shorter period) meant there was no positive message that could form the foundation of the remain campaign come 2016, hence the centrist decision to support Project Fear. This was not a crisis of liberalism but of centrist compromise and managerialism. Compromise wasn't possible (who even remembers Cameron's "deal"?) and the EU sovereign debt crisis revealed the naked power dynamics behind the technocratic veil.

In retrospect, British centrist timidity can be traced to an ongoing reluctance to align the UK's geopolitics with its capabilities in the wake of the Falklands War, which would eventually culminate in the error of Iraq, and to spell out the likely consequences of globalisation beyond the need for education and reskilling, which would contribute to the phenomenon of the left-behind. In this setting, the EU became an almost covert operation to ameliorate the effects of marketisation while reforming the economy along more rational, continental lines. But, as often with progressive politics, the dreams of the future were pale echoes of the past that were quickly overtaken by events. In reality, the lasting social change was happening in the realm of housing and personal debt while the economy was being twisted into a shape that suited the City and corporate London. These were domestic or global initiatives that (rightly or wrongly) were not seen as consequential on the EU. The evacuation of the political centre is rooted in the crisis of 2008 and the subsequent failure of austerity, but it also represents a final rejection of Third Way politics. In the US, this was trigerred by the Democrats' catastrophic choice of Hillary Clinton as their Presidential candidate. In the UK, it was trigerred by the "lifting of the spell" of the EU in 2016. The ironies are many.


  1. Ben Philliskirk29 June 2017 at 12:27

    "While liberalism has become socially hegemonic and thus expansive, its self-declared political practitioners have become intolerant and insistent on a narrow definition of plurality. Centrists are increasingly illiberal."

    Isn't this because 'pragmatic' liberalism effectively shares the ideological contradictions of capitalism? Liberal theory and capitalist ideology focus on freedom both in the abstract and in terms of specific 'freedoms' (contract, choice, speech, conscience, etc), yet they also fixate on the need for hierarchy, leadership, inequality and property (cult of the entrepreneur, the strong leader who both embodies virtue AND makes the trains run on time).

    While the general socio-economic context of capitalist society is determined by capital, which cares little for popularity and makes do with dependence and the default consent that comes from having few seemingly credible alternatives, liberal/centrist politicians can only rely on TINA for so long because both the populace and capital are not dependent on any specific group or ideology.

    Thus liberals/centrists can thrive for short periods when all the ideological, economic and social cards have been dealt in their favour (c.1989-2008), but normally flounder in their inherent contradictions at other periods. 'Managerialists' at other times have had to hitch their wagons to broader social forces, and the autonomy they enjoyed in the 90s and 00s is now disappearing. As you suggest, while keeping a residual 'social liberalism' they will have to decide whether to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the camp of the 'haves' (as Macron has) or work more willingly with the 'have nots' (the PLP?). Or sulk and go into well-deserved 'internal exile'....

    1. Liberalism is essentially the ideology of capitalism, so its internal contradictions (e.g. being both pro-private property and anti-privilege) reflect the contradictions of actually existing capitalism.

      Centrism is not necessarily liberal, being simply a method of pursuing politics that presumes opponents on both flanks. Crucially, it requires both "extremes" to be roughly balanced in strength and equivalent in public perception. New Labour required both the strawman of Clause IV (the Bennite left already having been marginalised) and Tory incompetence and sleaze post-1992 to thrive.

      Contemporary British centrists made the mistake of assuming that UKIP and the Tory ultras were the right extreme and that Corbyn & co could be painted as an equivalent left extreme, thus carving out a space in the middle (you will recall the pre-election murmurings about forming a new party). In fact, voters appear to care more about austerity than Brexit, which meant shifting the key dividing line to roughly where the Labour right are.

      The centrist impulse isn't going to disappear but it obviously risks being caught in a trap of its own making by falling on the wrong side of this divide (consider Chuka Umunna's ill-judged single market amendment this week). The problem for media liberals is that their role - as theoreticians rather than practitioners - requires a potential political centre. While this is in abeyance, they will bleat.

    2. Ben Philliskirk30 June 2017 at 08:46

      "Centrism is not necessarily liberal, being simply a method of pursuing politics that presumes opponents on both flanks."

      That's right, but I was treating it more as a matter of self-identification. Centrists are likely to regard themselves as 'liberal' even if they advocate ID cards, immigration restrictions or the abandonment of habeas corpus, while politicians like Corbyn or Dennis Skinner, who have been consistent supporters of civil and personal liberties, are always going to call themselves socialists rather than liberals.

      As you correctly point out, liberalism is the hegemonic position, so to be 'liberal' in the centrist sense merely requires that you reject explicit commitments to more definite interests or ideologies. So Corbyn and Skinner are not 'liberals' because their commitments to social democracy and the interests of the less privileged take precedence, while Cameron and Osborne miss out because their relative 'social liberalism' takes second place to their undoubted positions in, and advocacy of, the political, social and economic elites.

  2. Does "hegemonic" square with China? (Bleats the pedant, admittedly)

    1. I could be pedantic and point to the adjective "developed" (as distinct from "emerging"), but I think even China is having to cope with liberal hegemony, albeit in weaker form, in Hong Kong.

      If you think about the social change in China generally over the last 40 years, it looks increasingly "liberal" despite the CPC's monopoly on power.

      The moral is not to confuse liberalism with democracy. This is the secret of neoliberalism and has been since the Pinochet coup in Chile. Of course history tells us that liberals have always been qualified/reluctant democrats.

  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment2 July 2017 at 10:46

    The interesting thing about the DUP is how easily they will ditch ‘cherished’ principles simply to, well, whatever it is they have got! You would think, whatever else you may think about it, that anti gay views were born from some deeply held religious conviction, and those convictions were the word of god and in no circumstances would they be sacrificed for some cheap short term deal. Well you would be wrong! It appears that the DUP’s social views are nothing but window dressing, here today and gone tomorrow!

    We saw the same with the liberal democrats. I think this tells us something about politics, the decadence and the superficiality of Western societies.

    The so called right wing upsurge (I must have missed the lull) is for me a product of why should I pay my taxes to fund losers and lazy people combined with a good dose of dark skinned people are by nature dirty, lazy and leeching, and probably disease ridden in some way.

    I do think actually voting for the Tory party must eventually begin to be soul destroying. I mean how long can you keep applauding such bestial cruelty and callous sadism (I guess we should ask an Israeli about that). How long can you keep nodding along to Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Fallon before your very soul is damaged beyond repair?

    I mean attacking lazy people may seem like justice to some but families with disabled members being forced into food banks, isn’t that what Grandpa dies fighting against?

    New labour basically capitulated before this barbarism and thought there is nothing you can do but pander around it.

    No wonder Corbyn seems like an urgent cool breath of fresh air! It is because he is!

    “which would eventually culminate in the error of Iraq”

    Why did I know it was an error before it started yet they didn’t. It wasn’t an error it was blatant criminality. It isn’t as if they have learned from their error, look what the lunatics have done to Libya and are doing to Syria!

    Again no wonder Corbyn feels like cool breath of fresh air!