The Next Radicalism: Comments on After the Politics of Left and Right
Open Democracy, May 24th 2010
This is my response to comments and discussion on my recent essay, After the Politics of Left and Right: The End of ‘Modernisation’ and ‘Progressive Politics’.
This is a perplexing, fascinating time both in terms of the big issues and values, and the immediacy of day to day politics. This sees the hesitant start of the ‘new politics’ of the Con-Lib Dem administration embracing a very unBritish politics, the final burial of ‘New Labour’ and the crisis of the neo-liberal project and with it the ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ of recent decades. Yet, at the same time, we witness the first announcement of public spending cuts which will cause huge difficulties.
J.K.B Sutherland is right to ask ‘is there anything of the political lexicon remaining at all? – left, right, conservative, Labour, progressive and so on, concluding that maybe ‘what Karl Popper meant by ‘all politics is problem solving’’ coming to pass. In part we need to find a new language of politics which does not draw its inspiration from the 20th century, or more accurately the 19th and 18th centuries, and develop new lexicons, philosophies and identities.
Some people doubt this is possible – and believe that the retreat from meta-politics to micro-politics, a world without utopias and visions – is actually an advance; the argument that the road to utopia leads to the gulag and death camp. This seems to mistake the multiple ways in which imagining utopias is part of the human condition, and the closing off of them, and denial of their pull, diminishes us.
Russell Jacoby in ‘The End of Utopia’ (1) found two utopian paths: the utopian blueprint which stretched from the Owenite vision of ‘New Harmony’ to the Nazis and Soviets; but another utopian tradition drew loose, general principles about the possibility of a different economic and social reality, and motivated reformers and radicals of the left throughout history to campaign for justice, democracy and civil rights. The first he saw as horrendous; the second, vital to all of us.
This brings us to the challenges of democratic engagement and who, how and what are the ‘public’ and ‘publics’ raised by Keith McBurney when he writes about the desire for ‘a call to ownership of our personal and plural will, i.e. popular sovereignty’. The old model of party is increasingly broken and discredited as McBurney states, increasingly concentrated upon ‘factional, fractional minorities’ who aspire to and grasp increasingly monopoly, monarchical power.
Yet, the scale of ambition and horizon on how we imagine the people and popular sovereignty is often threadbare, talking about band-aids such as Citizen’s Assemblies, juries and other deliberative forums. Instead, I feel the answer to the democratic deficit of our politics has to be found in going back to some fundamentals such as what is the kind of story and stories we want to tell as a society, country and place? And how do we want to tell it, inhabit it, and imagine it? What kind of form will it take? And whose voices will be prioritised and heard in this and by whom?
This is not a set of abstractions, but was a set of practical questions I recently explored in two projects on stories and mass imagination in what we termed ‘futures literacy’: Scotland 2020 and Glasgow 2020 (2). People told stories about the future, and created and imagined worlds of the near-future at a Scottish and Glasgow level, which were shaped by philosophy and the importance of values: what kind of principles and values would be embedded and shape the society of the future.
This brings us to the language of ‘the official future’ – and as Neville Cramer points out the way seemingly ‘uplifting words’ and phrases are used to mean something entirely different. For example, the mantra of globalisation has preached a freedom gospel which has wrong-footed the defensive mentality of much of the centre-left across the world. It promised in a utopian like way brave new uplands of hope and prosperity, sweeping away restrictions and outmoded practices, and empowering us all as consumers in public and private life. The reality was of course very different.
What then of the tribes which so shape us? As Stuart Cosgrove comments, ‘tribes often define themselves in contra-distinction to rival tribes’ and increasingly resemble warring football fans. Labour tribalism has been historically one of the factors which has disfigured the party’s basic DNA and the wider centre-left cause in the UK.
This takes me to Mike Rustin’s recent analysis (3), which in an impressive overview addresses the crisis of neo-liberalism, and the prospect of a post-neo-liberal order. Rustin’s argument is nuanced and subtle, and he is on strong ground delineating the differences between the crises of the 1970s which led to the collapse of ‘the welfare settlement’ and the crises of the 2000s to the present, created by the contradictions of the neo-liberal regime. Yet at the same time, Rustin’s five point plan for a ‘progressive evolution’ shows the paucity and powerlessness of the post-neo-liberals: more active government, constitutional reform, reducing inequalities, enhancing international institutions, and addressing climate change.
I hope that does not see too critical of a persuasive piece, but I do think we need to be more imaginative, daring and radical. A post-neo-liberal politics demands that it is:
- Not just about the left;
- Is not just about ‘our’ tribe or tribes;
- Not just oppositional;
- And given the demise and crises of socialism, social democracy and progressive politics finds a new form and cause.
Instead we need to aim higher, recognising that we will need an immediate set of responses to the day to day politics of the multiple crises of the UK and globally, while mapping out a more long term politics. This would include:
- Are we talking about a project of ‘the left’ or ‘centre-left’ exclusively, or a wider project, ‘a popular front of the mind’ which keeps left sensibilities and asks others to join on ‘our’ terms, or a more fundamental and totalising rethinking of political terms?
- What is the story or set of stories we wish to tell? It used to be about a sense of ‘progress’, but that has become problematic, challenged by greens and stolen by neo-liberals.
- What is the agency or set of agencies we imagine our politics being informed by?
- What institutions are central to our politics? Left wingers used to have a very sure idea of the merits of the state (redistribution, planning) and the importance of trade unions; both are still important, but we now know more about their limits.
- If we can acknowledge that socialism is no longer a viable project, and social democracy in deep crisis, what name or set of words can we use to describe a project which draws from the best of these traditions?
This would seem to entail a coalescing of values around the need for a new egalitarianism, democracy and liberty, and green, feminised politics. This may sound like a call to a ‘new left’ of the 1960s or 1980s, but many elements would be new and very different, such as a scepticism towards modernity and its utopian promise, and the view of the state and authority. Out of the numerous challenges of the early years of this century, a new political dispensation may arise in the West, which draws from some of the best of left and right, acknowledges the limits of the market and state, and sets out a new ethics for modern life.
1. Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, Basic Books 2000.
2. Gerry Hassan, Eddie Gibb and Lydia Howland (eds), Scotland 2020: Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation, Demos 2005; Gerry Hassan, Melissa Mean and Charlie Tims, The Dreaming City: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination, Demos 2007.
3. Mike Rustin, ‘From the Beginning to the End of Neo-Liberalism in Britain’, OpenDemocracy, May 19th 2010, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/mike-rustin/after-neo-liberalism-in-britain