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.

mg

[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.

You party if you want to; this lad’s not for partying

I’ve had mixed comments for the title alone, so I doubt that the following comments will yield much more consensus. But, in many ways, that’s what politics is for. It has never been for or about consensus, as Margaret Thatcher understood very well.

Margaret Thatcher died on 08 April 2013. Her death was marked as controversially as her policies in government. It has since sparked all sorts of debates and questions about her legacy, her ‘haunting’ influence today, the way she should be buried, and how she has affected the Labour Party. But her death itself has been marked in no less controversial terms: from tributes and mourning, on the one hand, to opening bottles of champagne and death parties, on the other hand. Death parties occurred in Glasgow and London, and even locally in Sheffield. It has sparked outrage from the Daily Mail. It has also seen a curious defence on a Guardian blog.

These parties are sickening. There are numerous reasons for why we should not celebrate the fact that someone has died, and it is not about ‘death etiquette’. It is far more about human dignity and a separation between a person’s moral worth and that individual’s politics. We are, of course, defined by our politics; but that does not mean that we cannot separate an individual from the politics in which he or she believes. Politics may well be personal, but senseless tribalism does much to harm social cohesion and constrains meaningful debate. With regards to Margaret Thatcher, there is a rightful argument to be made that her politics negatively affected Britain (to put it very mildly). Yet, some people have argued that this gives them a right to celebrate her death. Some say it is only natural – even moral – to have an emotion when someone dies.

This position is inexplicable. The policies of Thatcher (which incidentally predated her reign as prime minister) had already occurred. Her power to affect politics was non-existent on 08 April 2013. Her death, then, changed little (if anything). So to express a desire to see a woman dead (a woman who had dementia and suffered from minor strokes at that) seems illogical. So what does a ‘death party’ achieve? What did a sign saying ‘THE BITCH IS DEAD’ do, other than reinforce misogyny in political culture? How does buying the song ‘Ding Dong: The Witch Is Dead’ affect our political classes into acting any differently against the austerity agenda? Most of those people celebrating her death argue that this is rightful justice; we are showing our anger at Thatcherism and the way she destroyed our country. Do you not think, however, that if you spent your energy on campaigning, protesting, or generally getting involved with politics that this will affect more change than buying a song for 79 pence from iTunes?

There is only one way to justify happiness in the face of death: that, in your opinion, someone deserves to die; and that, without her death, justice is not achieved. It is a justification that makes logical sense, but one that is abhorrent and illegitimate. Because to say that you believe Margaret Thatcher deserved to die, you are saying that some people, in this case someone who made decisions after winning democratic elections, deserves death. [1]

This is repugnant and shows that some people have little moral integrity. I find that repugnant because there is a difference between someone’s politics and someone as a person. Every individual, in my mind, is of equal, intrinsic moral worth; I wish to live in a tolerant society where we can disagree about politics without hating the worth of a person, without a senseless tribalism. This is the foundation upon which democracy rests and to reject this is to reject democratic principles.

People have responded to the above by arguing that the Daily Mail and other papers have celebrated the death of left-wing leaders. That the Daily Mail gloats at death. That the Daily Mail is morally repugnant. But we already knew this, did we not? Since when can we justify our moral acts simply by the virtue of others’ actions. Once again, the argument does not make sense to me. It is, in fact, disheartening to learn that members on the left of politics – who, by and large, believe in dignity, equality and social justice – are making the case against dignity in death and against equal moral self-worth. It is disheartening to learn that people celebrating the death of an elderly woman are basing their justifications on actions from the Daily Mail.

None of this is to say that you cannot debate the legacy of Thatcher and Thatcherism. It is not to say that her actions as prime minister were destructive, wrong and divisive. Because they were. It is right that we discredit the needless privatisation of certain industries, it is right that we denounce her actions that exacerbated a divide between north and south, and, something personal to me, it is right that we resoundingly condemn Section 28. The legacy of Thatcher on British politics from 1979 onwards – to this very day – deserves to be debated and discussed. Some of her acts deserve to be shunned; others deserve to be praised. None of this is to argue against Margaret Thatcher as a person. It is to condemn Thatcherism as a political philosophy.

Thatcher defined her age. But it is questionable that she gets such a high profile funeral. It is questionable, in particular, that the royal family will attend. A bastion of so-called neutrality, the British monarch has only attended the funeral of one other prime minister: Winston Churchill. It is also questionable that parliament was recalled. It surprised the Speaker of the Commons, and arguably caused unnecessary expenses. But to have a party at the death of an elderly woman – that is beyond question abhorrent.

mg

[1] Inadvertently, you are also arguing for the death penalty.