Building the future politics on our toxic present

Written By: Tribune web editor
Published: June 15, 2009 Last modified: June 12, 2009

As the age of destruction dawns, a blueprint for survival is proposed by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford

The Labour Government faces the abyss. The Conservative Party cannot break from the discredited orthodoxies of its past. It has failed to win people’s trust and can only hope for a general election victory on a minority of the vote. Bereft of a credible economic strategy, it will divide the country. The politics of both parties now belong to the past, not the future. In the words of Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

The MPs’ expenses scandal, the constitutional crisis and the scabrous profiteering of the banking oligarchy are all morbid symptoms of this interregnum. We do not know what the next general election will bring, nor can we predict the fate of the Labour Party. The task now is to build a progressive left movement that, unlike “new” Labour, will break with the legacy of Thatcherism and establish a new hegemony.

Thatcherism was the political response to Britain’s failing industrial economy. It broke the power of organised labour, deregulated and restructured the economy, and opened it up to global market forces. New information and communications technologies began to revolutionise the generation, processing and transmission of information. Radical innovations, backed by financial capital, penetrated the old order and began to modernise the whole productive structure. A liberal market hegemony was established as Britain entered a new phase of capitalist development.

The social order was transformed. In the name of a property-owning democracy, the Conservatives aligned the economic interests of individuals with the profit-seeking nature of financial capitalism. It was a new kind of popular compact between the market and the individual. In a low-wage, low-skill economy, growth was driven by consumerism and sustained by cheap credit. The housing market turned homes into assets for leveraging ever-increasing levels of borrowing. The lives of millions were integrated into the financial markets, as their savings, pensions and personal and mortgage-backed debt were utilised for profit by the financial industries. A similar compact between the business elite and shareholder value created a tiny super-rich elite and became the unquestioned business model of the era – the era of excess.

It was a form of capital accumulation that commodified society and engineered a massive transfer of wealth to the rich. Institutions such as trade unions, churches and political parties, which had once given people access to political ideas and activities, faced steep membership decline. The civic cultures of democracy were increasingly subordinate to a winner-takes-all culture of capitalism. The nation state, which took responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, was transformed into a market state that instead promised them economic opportunity. In this climate, a business oligarchy accrued a dangerous amount of power and captured the political class. Growing inequalities and the erosion of civic culture opened a cultural and economic gulf between the elites and the mainstream working-class population.

This gulf widened as economic modernisation restructured the class system around the new kinds of production and consumption. De-industrialisation has undermined the income base of the working class and left large sections of the population living and working as if they are a reserve army of labour. Millions of people are now economically inactive, or work in casualised and temporary employment, or are threatened with the loss of their jobs. Traditional working-class cultures, which once offered a defence against exploitation and protection from social isolation, have been destroyed. This cultural destruction now threatens the very existence of the Labour Party, as the institutions which once supported it disappear or lose their social vitality.
The collapse of this economic order and its governing ideology has been precipitous. Its toxic culture has brought down the authority of Parliament. The boom of the past decade is revealed as the product of a housing bubble and unsustainable levels of private debt. The market compact that underpinned its social order no longer commands popular confidence. Neo-liberal modernisation created unaccountable monopolies of capital, along with a centralising, micromanaging and increasingly authoritarian state. Its enterprise culture, flexible labour market and marketised welfare reform have all helped to generate insecurity, anxiety and isolation.

In public service, kindness, care and generosity are out of keeping with the dominant market culture. The chronic housing shortage is a national scandal. Unemployment is growing and areas of our country which were devastated in the 1980s are again sinking in the recession. The social welfare contract that once gave some protection in times of adversity is in tatters.
The future is full of threats and challenges. A revolution in human longevity is transforming society and leading to an explosion in the burden of care. The value of pension funds has been destroyed by the market. There is food and water insecurity, while oil production will peak at some point within the next 10 years. Looming over all these is the threat posed by global warming. For the great majority of people, there are no individual market solutions to the problems we face.

This should be the moment of the left, but it, too, is trapped in the same interregnum. It lacks a coherent identity, is organisationally and numerically weak, and unclear about its values. It has no story that defines what it stands for. It is telling that, during the past three decades of resurgent capitalism, social democracy in Britain has failed to produce a significant theoretical work to replace Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism. Crosland’s revisionist answer to Marxism, however flawed, at one time provided an intellectual cornerstone for the centre-left. Crosland was always out there on the horizon, keeping alive the language of class, capitalism and equality. This is no longer the case. The self-inflicted crisis of capitalism is serving only to highlight the weakness of the social democratic and liberal left.

We need a politics of social life. We must return to first principles and address the big questions of how we live, as well as how we create wealth. What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of economy will sustain it? None of the mainstream political parties ask these questions. Nor do they have the political culture or language to address them with any meaning. Our future cannot be bound by political institutions that remain unchanged from previous eras.

Roberto Unger, the Brazilian social theorist, argues that the political systems we build make us who we are. “They, however, are finite and we are not. There is always more in us, more capability of insight, of production, of emotion, of association, than there is in them.” According to Unger: “We are context-transcending spirits.” Now is the time for context transformation.
We need a philosophy of the individual in society and a political culture that values the social goods that give security, meaning and value to people: home, family, friendships, good work, locality and communities of belonging. These were the concerns of the 19th century debates between social liberals and ethical socialists which created the modern spirit of the left. We need to re-invent a plural and ethical socialism rooted in the ordinary life of the individual producing and relating in society. The central value of this socialism, alongside liberty, is equality. As the social liberalism theorist Leonard Hobhouse wrote: “It stands for the truth that there is a common humanity deeper than all our superficial distinctions.” The philosopher Charles Taylor echoes this belief in his argument that the democratic search for self-realisation lies deep in our culture. It involves the right of everyone to achieve their own unique way of being human. It is about mutualism, not selfish individualism. To dispute this right in others is to fail to live within its own terms. “Your freedom is equal to my freedom.”

The progressive future belongs to a politics which can achieve a balance between individual self-realisation and social solidarity. It will be a politics of alliances between old and new political actors and one that makes common ground out of our cultural differences.

Despite the disillusionment with political parties, there is an extraordinary level of political, cultural and community activism in our society. Politics has become more individualised, ethical and rooted in a diversity of beliefs and lifestyles. This is stimulating a search for new kinds of democratic political structures and cultures that can re-connect institutions of political power with social movements and political constituencies. Networks and databases, facilitated by the internet, are of growing importance in campaigning, bringing political power to account and mobilising popular opinion.

But political parties remain an essential part of our democracy. They provide institutional continuity, while networks are often transient. There is much to be gained by synergies between the two. For this to happen, parties will need to allow their own cultures and organisations to be opened up and democratised in the process.

The new forms of politics are being shaped by the production aesthetic of the information and telecommunications economy. In the decade ahead, the new technologies will continue to transform the economy – creating a diversity of economic structures, business models and forms of ownership.

The effervescent quality of wealth creation will require diversity, flexibility and complexity. A new politics must re-embed markets in society and create strong social foundations for ecologically-sustainable wealth creation. Generous welfare support, employment rights, decent pay and social insurance will improve productivity and give workers the confidence to change, learn and develop. The decades-long transfer of wealth and power from labour to capital has to be reversed and capitalism made accountable to workers and citizens through regulation and economic democracy.

Climate change, peak oil and the need for energy and food security demand large-scale economic transformations that require an active, interventionist style of government. We will need to build a civic state that is democratised, decentralised and networked. It must be able to assert the national interest in new structures of global economic governance and be accountable and responsive to individual citizens and small businesses.

In the current political turmoil, the political fault-lines of a new era are taking shape. On one side are those who continue to believe that the market and individual choice are the most effective means of maximising individual freedom. On the other are those who believe that individual freedom is based in social relationships and the democracy of public action.
This particular fault-line cuts across party lines and divides parties from within: Thatcherite politics versus compassionate Conservatism and red Toryism, market Liberal Democrats versus social Liberal Democrats, neo-liberal “new” Labour versus social democratic Labour. The contest between these politics will shape the paradigm of the post-crash era.

In the period before the next general election, the Labour Party and the wider left need to secure the social gains of the past decade and start the groundwork for a new politics. “Place-shielding” can protect vulnerable local communities and services from future Conservative attack. The national minimum wage and benefits must be increased and index-linked. Constitutional and electoral reform requires an alliance with the Lib Dems, so let’s make one. Socialists and social liberals hold much in common.

We need to know which banks are insolvent, then bring them into public ownership and use them for economic recovery and development. There is still time to shut down tax havens.
Let’s start making the case for a social Europe and call for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. It’s time to confront the issue. A national debate will threaten to tear apart the Conservative Party and expose the reactionary xenophobia of the right. Let’s build relationships with European progressive parties and social movements. Let’s create a new internationalism. The future is about alliances, values and a return to society. Let’s start putting down the foundations.