Off the Shelf Review: Will Hutton

Please note that this article was written for, and originally appeared in, Canvas, a student politics journal for which I was the Founder and Editor between 2010 and 2012. The article is available here.

Anticipating a cumbersome talk on old left politics did not seem to fire up a great deal of enthusiasm as I took my seat in the Student Union Auditorium on a cold Monday evening. I was equally bemused when I saw how poorly the event was organised: Will Hutton stood around the entrance of the Union by himself; he had to assemble his own seating; and, he was forced to leave his coat lying on the floor as he took to the stage. Not an impressive start by any means. However, this was but a dent in the exhilarating experience that followed. My ears pricked up the second he began to speak, and enveloped by the simple, powerful message that he called for: a politics based on fairness.

Will Hutton, who has recently published “Them And Us”, begins by explaining the rise of fairness, starting with comparisons between 1989 and 2008. The first was the fall of communism, and the second seemed to represent the fall of the market. Whilst this may be somewhat questionable, it must be acknowledged that 2008 caused a marked shift in the way we conceptualise politics. The ‘big moment’ of 2008, as Will Hutton explains, is a ‘momentous time’ because it has sparked the possible re-invention of traditionally buried ideas. Re-surfaced have important philosophical questions: are we the authors of our own lives? What will it take to live well? We took fairness to be the central tenet for the good life and it is to fairness that we must look to at present and in the future.

Hutton goes on to pit the libertarian concept of fairness with that of the left concept of fairness. Both are equally problematic. The former, because it is zero-sum; the “I kill what I eat” philosophy doesn’t work both because it is based on greed and it is inhumane. The latter, because it overcompensates “luck” in life and redistributes it to everyone regardless of fairness. Both, essentially, take fairness out of the equation. From this, Hutton wishes to construct a more open debate about the centrality of fairness in our lives. He believes that both the public and politicians need to have an open conversation about fairness.

However, what Hutton actually says on the idea of fairness is unusually pessimistic. He argues that in the next twenty to thirty years, we can only hope for a “good capitalism” and a democratised private sector. The merits of co-operative ownership are yet to be established, but this is not what was the most striking. Indeed, the fact that in our life time, nothing more than a good capitalism can be hoped for, but does this not severely limit the scope of human imagination, creativity and ambition?

What Hutton has managed to do much better, however, is in the critique of where capitalism is heading at present. The mantra of libertarians that the private sector and markets rule is flawed; the public sector is the most compelling of all markets for the private sector to grow. Taxation, too, ought not to be criticised by the libertarians. Taxation is a good thing, for our councils ‘deserve’ taxes for investing in infrastructure on our behalf; the purpose of taxation is to offer services to us in a ‘fair’ and ‘deserving’ manner. If we do not oppose this drive for unregulated market capitalism, then we will not reach the much feared Orwellian Big Brother; we will instead reach the Orwellian “private” Big Brother of corporate business. This resonated well with an applauding audience. Indeed, Will Hutton goes on to lament the risk of a second banking crisis and the lack of investment in “knowledge creation”.

More than anything, Hutton wishes to change the course of liberal, western capitalism – unfair capitalism, epitomised by the banking sector – to a new politics based on fairness. Not a politics of equality; a politics in which we work hard to earn our citizenship, to earn our benefits, and to earn our good life. This was not the cumbersome talk on old left politics that I had feared: it was an inspirationally delivered speech on a commendable ideal.

mg

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