Opposing Neo-Liberalism

The problematisation of the neo-liberal settlement has begun to slide us towards a paradigmatic shift in politics. This shift has been slow, and is still ongoing. Indeed, it is resisted by many, not least by European-driven austerity abroad and the Coalition’s squeeze on spending at home. Neo-liberalism, although arguably in decline, remains a beacon of light for British politics as much as it does in some quarters of Europe. [1] This is both surprising and concerning. It is surprising because it is the biggest crisis in confidence of the capitalist system for at least 80 years. It is concerning because it entrenches further economic inequalities and social injustices. Furthermore, the proponents of neo-liberalism have been able to reduce questions of (sustainable) economic prosperity and social justice to a simple cuts agenda. British politics is still guided by a specific ontological foundation of individualism and unfettered materialism. Both principles have pushed moral concerns and ethical dilemmas into the private sphere. It has hollowed-out the principles that underpin politics – debate, discussion and conflict – and replaced it with a logic of depoliticisation.

More urgently than ever before, we need an alternative to this agenda. The neo-liberal settlement emerged out of a number of dilemmas in public policy during the 1970s, ostensibly precipitated by the 1974 oil crisis. It took five years to turn academic theories (that existed as early as the 1940s) into policy ideas, and a further four years (at least) to cement neo-liberalism into a policy agenda under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. [2]  1997 was a watershed moment because it recast the neo-liberal project and challenged many aspects of it. However, it was not able to challenge the fundamentals of the economic model based on individualism and insatiable consumerism. The centre-left was not anywhere near confident enough to challenge this agenda following the collapse of the left throughout the globe during the early 1990s. Furthermore, neo-liberalism was not problematised by a series of exogenous (and inevitable) dilemmas as it is today. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown therefore accommodated aspects of their communitarian governing project with neo-liberal concessions. [3] Having said that, New Labour did challenge the social settlement. It introduced a minimum wage, ensured nursery education for all three and four year olds, implemented a tax credits regime, invested in the NHS at record levels, brought peace to Northern Ireland and recognised civil partnerships. It corrected the excesses of neo-liberalism after-the-fact. It was patently not enough, but members and supporters of the Labour Party should be proud of what it got right in government.

The contemporary challenge for Labour is to offer an alternative that reaches beyond merely amelioration or accommodation with a discredited economic and societal model. Debates that had been buried under neo-liberal rhetoric have resurfaced, which means that the centre-left is able to expose some of its myths. The Policy Review under Labour’s Jon Cruddas has begun – although tentatively – to explore options that go beyond limiting the negative side-effects of neo-liberal capitalism. Ed Miliband himself has repeatedly called for a comprehensive re-think away from ‘irresponsible capitalism’ towards a more ethical capitalist system. Miliband has called himself a ‘responsible capitalist’. In his interview in Shifting Grounds he argues that ‘the way economies succeed is not by a few people at the top, but by supporting the many’ and that ‘unless you have the infrastructure that supports the many, government willing to reform the banking system to support the many, the skills system to support the many, the industrial policy, you’re never going to succeed’. A recent speech by Miliband highlighted that responsible capitalism has an agenda where companies pursue profit in tandem with an equal society, where power is in the hands of the many, and where citizens recognise responsibilities to each other. At a recent One Nation conference in London, Steward Wood, an advisor to Ed Miliband, built on this by calling for: ‘a different kind of economy, a determination to tackle inequality, an emphasis on responsibility (of the people at the top and the bottom), protecting the elements of our common life, and challenging the ethics of neo-liberalism’. [4]

Commentators, of the left and right, within Labour and beyond, have questioned much of the Policy Review to date. The Policy Review has come under hefty criticism for being slow, bulky and far from radical. This is, perhaps, because the review confronts the two most dominant traditions within the Labour Party – New (or Purple) Labour and Old (or Red) Labour. The two perspectives have dominated Party debates. Blue Labour, the new player of the game, does not have quite such prestige. And yet, this tradition opposes both the statism of the Old and the neo-liberalism of the New. Of course, the skirmishes between the three traditions are a sideshow, leaving the Policy Review to get on with its work rather calmly. Clearly, the problem is not that Labour is empty of ideas. Rather, the problem is that Labour has been too cautious to articulate its alternative vision for politics, society and economics – in part, no doubt, given the divisions within the Party about its future. However, it is time that Labour spells out its vision in unambiguous terms.  Taking the three headings of the Policy Review, Labour must go into a new direction and call for:

  • An ethical politics. Labour must reject the simplistic rational-choice individualism that has been a crucial foundation for neo-liberalism. The greed-based model has destroyed faith in politics. Power must be radically decentralised to local councils and regional assemblies. The liberal commitment to depoliticisation must come to an end immediately.
  • A fairer society. Passions over welfare reform run high, but Labour must be bold and challenge the divisive language espoused by many on the right. Labour must reduce inequalities by tackling our inefficient tax system and ensure that living standards lie at the heart of a Labour programme for reform.
  • Sustainable economic growth. The challenge for a sustainable recovery dominates public discourse.  Labour must re-balance the economy in a radical way – something that New Labour never dared to do. The real test, however, is the extent to which this is sustainable. Not simply in material terms, but environmental ones, too.

Some of these are in strong opposition to the Red Labour (statism versus localism) and Purple Labour visions (Keynesian versus Polanyian economics). [5] Crucially, many of the aims chime together. Challenging unfairness and inequality are things that have united all three shades of contemporary Labour traditions, which is why it must be at the heart of Labour’s governing vision in 2015. The Party leadership has failed to be bold in its critique of the status quo. This is somewhat perplexing, given the resounding support Miliband has received in the past for taking on vested interests. 2015 could be a watershed moment, if Labour wants it to be.

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[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Thatcher was guided, for instance, by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, originally published in 1944. The book itself led to numerous libertarian critiques of the welfare consensus.

[3] M. Bevir (2010) Democratic Governance, Princeton: PUP, p.130.

[4] For a summary of Wood’s speech, click here.

[5] See, for example, A. Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational change and left political economy after New Labour’, British Journal of Politics and IR 15:1, pp.70-88.

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