Atrophy: how the left blew its big chance

7:18 pm - April 28th 2009

by Dave Osler    

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HAYEK, von Mises and Popper presumably never did get around to reading Gramsci. But in retrospect, the political movement these men – together with others – famously launched at Mont Pelerin some 62 years ago represents the most successful counterhegemonic bloc ever yet constructed.

Even though the brand of classical liberalism they advocated seemed a hopeless anachronism in 1947, with Keynesianism so utterly in the ascendant, the free market right was clearly in it for the long haul.

When Keynesianism entered crisis three decades later, it was properly intellectually prepared with both an alternative prospectus and the populist policies necessary to sell it to electorates weaned on social democracy, conscripting the C2s in this country and their hard-hat Democrat equivalents in the US. Within a few years, free market ideas had swept the planet, to become the orthodoxy of our day.

A further three decades up the road, the wheels have finally come off the neoliberal model. If the left had a blueprint ready to enact, we would now have a once in a generation opportunity to modify the dominant ideology in a manner conducive to socialism.

Instead, what we are likely to get is two or more terms of Conservative government. Worse, we are too enfeebled even to put up a fight. How did we reach this astonishing impasse?

New Labour has from the start been gulled into intellectual stupor by its own self-delusional rhetoric. Convinced that it was indeed ‘the political wing of the British people as a whole’, it neglected even to renew the bases of Labourism itself.

Old Labour, by contrast, pulled up the drawbridge and refused to acknowledge that the last three decades were happening. As a combined result, the Labour Party is now so hollowed out that it could collapse at the slightest push.

The Marxist left, which prides itself on being the brains of the operation, for the most part retreated back to fundamentalism. There has been no attempt to come to terms with the need to put Marxist philosophy on a footing devoid of dialectics, for instance, or even to operationalise fully the essential concepts of Marxist economics.

Most socialist groups became sects in the full sociological meaning of the term, and to question a closed belief system was automatically equated to heresy. Tendencies that once – and quite rightly so – derided student vanguardism and guerillaism as ‘substitutionist’ fell foul to analoguous elephant traps, relating primarily to anti-capitalist youth and the bourgeois and clerical layers of religious minorities rather than the organised working class.

In short, all sections of the left failed to come up with a politics relevant for this country in the early twenty-first century rather than early twentieth century Russia or postwar Britain.

Hence an economic climate that should have been so conducive to socialism will see a decade in which British politics will be dominant by revivified Thatcherism and perhaps even the growth of the far right.

The consequences our intellectual failure to regenerate – as Hayek and his pals were able to do during their decades in the wilderness – will certainly prove painful.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Reader comments

I wonder whether Popper belongs with the other two. Although he was a friend of Hayek, he was very much in line with the post-war consensus about Keynesian demand management in the Open Society and Its Enemies.

Maybe he moved further to the right later on, but his work has been as the basis for a critique of neoliberalism (admittedly by one of the world’s most successful capitalists, George Soros).

2. Mike Killingworth

Absolutely right, Dave.

It is worth considering the cause of this trahison des clercs.

I can see two related factors: identity politics and the globalization of the view.

Within Labour, identity politics (Ken Livingstone’s distinctive contribution to Labourism) fatally undermined the ethical foundation of the Party. For no one wants equality – everyone wants power and privilege – as an ex-colleague of mine memorably put it: “I want positive discrimination in favour of women named Liz”. The left has no intellectual anchorage from which to either embrace or oppose separatism, whether in the context of radical feminism, Queer Theory or Islamism. The preference of some ethnic minority groups for a patronage-based rather than an opportunity-based polity could therefore only be met with either revulsion or fawning. And this at a time when globalization has meant that the majority of western workers (whether blue- or white-collar have priced themselves out of the market).

The globalization of class struggle (if that is indeed what left politics are actually about) created further insoluble strains. For example, there is no ethical or intellectual justification whatsoever for any form of immigration control (particularly now that commodity and capital markers are globalised) yet it is not practical politics – which, in turn, means that there is no justification for the existence of welfare in the West if it cannot be delivered globally. The failure of political parties across the Third World based on Western (left) ideology – because that ideology was simply irrelevant to the actual level of social development which their colonial masters had permitted them to attain – meant that those parties either had to turn into pro-capitalist ones (as in South Africa or India) or be swept away (as throughout the Islamic world).

Finally, an awareness that the resources of the planet are finite (even if we took all our energy from solar power there is the little problem that we can’t grow enough food to feed the projected peak population in mid-century) means that the left cannot argue for development as an answer to the ills of “the south”. This in turn means that it must either justify the existing skewed global distribution of wealth or call for a serious reduction in living standards in western countries. Neither are politically possible.

3. Conor Foley

‘The Marxist left, which prides itself on being the brains of the operation . . . . .’

Ever realised why that always got on everyone else’s nerves?

I am reading Galbraith’s the Great Crash at the moment and enjoying it a lot. I have just finished books by Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman and am about to start Paul Collier’s new one. None of these are even vaguely on the Marxist left, yet their critiques of the last few years have been absolutely spot-on. I read Gramsci as well, many years ago, and he had interesting things to say about the state and power and political strategy. But I can’t think of any orthodox Marxist thinker who has had anything much to say about economics in the last 50 years.

Maybe that is just my ignorance. But anyone?

The Scheidemanns and Kautsky’s speak about “pure democracy” and “democracy” in general for the purpose of deceiving the people and concealing from them the bourgeois character of present-day democracy. Let the bourgeoisie continue to keep the entire apparatus of state power in their hands, let a handful of exploiters continue to use the former, bourgeois, state machine! Elections held in such circumstances are lauded by the bourgeoisie, for very good reasons, as being “free”, “equal”, “democratic” and “universal”. These words are designed to conceal the truth, to conceal the fact that the means of production and political power remain in the hands of the exploiters, and that therefore real freedom and real equality for the exploited, that is, for the vast majority of the population, are out of the question.

Democracy is not merely a pathway to the Socialist goal. It is an integral part of that goal, which is not only economic welfare but also freedom and equality for all… In sharp contradiction to the belief that democracy is only a way to Socialism is another viewpoint which is also quite popular in Socialist ranks, namely, that true democracy is possible only in a Socialist society and that what we have now as democracy is an illusion and has only a formal character. I maintain quite to the contrary that not only is Socialism impossible without democracy but that there is no other way to Socialism except through democracy, which must be attained, in some degree at least, before Socialism can be attempted.

which includes the production of information – in the hands of society in its entirety. Once this essential step towards socialism has been taken, all currents of opinion which have not taken arms against the dictatorship of the proletariat must be able to express themselves freely. It is the duty of the workers’ state to put in their hands, to all according to their numeric importance, the technical means necessary for this, printing presses, paper, means of transportation.

Guess who?

Before you can have true democracy you need a democratic model that truly allows for a democratic society – and that means election reform so that democracy can mean something to the people.

Through democracy you can have change – certainly not from the top down. With democracy and change you can have political and economic change that will, eventually, benefit all.

Are we ready for that? I would say that now is not the time – another 10 years of right-wing government and exploitation, maybe – but the path must be paved – and that hasn’t been done, as yet.

5. Shatterface

I think the ‘intellectual’ Left took a wrong turn long before the neocons/neoliberals rose to ascendancy. While the Labour movement itself was too busy fighting for the rights and dignity of the working class to play fantasy utopia with the Paris students, the ‘intellectual’ Left retreated into crackpot psychological explanations for the failure of the working class to revolt.

Instead of the ‘dull compulsion’ to work we had subject-positioning theory and a paranoia about omni-present ideology which seemed to be lurking everywhere, from the grammar of film editing to the laws of perspective; from the ‘sexed’ equations of Relativity to the subliminal patriarchal codes of binary notation which privillages the ‘phallic’ 1 over the ‘vulvic’ 0.

Marxist theory rejected humanism: instead of the corruscating wit of EP Thompson we got the corrosive shit of Althusser. University campuses were too busy decentering themselves that they didn’t notice that the faculties which paid there wages were being privatized.

This nonsense has been on the retreat for the last decade or so, of course, but the ties which bound those who labour in thought to those who labour by hand have been broken. The Left must reconnect to humanism before it can reconnect to humanity.

Not a lot to say: very true. One of the most accurate posts about the left I’ve seen for a while.

Having said that, some left wing ideas are gaining currency almost by default at the moment (e.g. nationalising banks, redistributive taxation) – but that’s because they happen to align with populist ‘common sense’ in an economic crash situation, not because of any organised campaign for those ideas by left wing organisations.

One of the most accurate posts about the left I’ve seen for a while.

Dave has that effect. :o)

8. Conor Foley

OK. But to all the above; if you think the left is shit, which seems to be the conclusion of both Dave and every poster so far, then why are you part of it? This all comes across as a bit Nick Cohen-ish (not that I would ever want to compare nice Dave to nasty Nick).

We can argue about the ‘crisis of Keynesianism’ 30 years ago (and Krugman is very good on this) but does anyone seriously think that the orthodox Marxist left had a credible alternative economic programme back then – and if so please describe it?

The right won a political battle back then for a number of reasons. One was that their policies did increase the short-term profitability of western capitalism. Another, as Krugman shows, was that in the US they made a successful pitch to the racism of the Southern white working class. I am sure that we could identify a similar set of factors behind the rise of Thatcher in Britain. But that did not discredit Keynesian economics or social democratic politics. It just meant that the good team loses sometimes. I think that the current crisis has proved that we were more right than wrong and vindicated the writings of those that I have just mentioned.

Neither New Labour nor the hard-left seem equipped to deal with the current crisis, but I have heard lots of sensible suggestions from a variety of liberal-left pressure groups and think tanks (as well as the front-bench spokesman of the Liberal Democrats).

Maybe the Trot left do think that they are the only ones who know how to analyse things and New Labour think that they are the only ones who know how to win elections. Personally I have always felt that both were a bit delusional.

“on a footing devoid of dialectics”….
“or even to operationalise fully the essential concepts of Marxist economics”….

“in the full sociological meaning of the term”…
“automatically equated to heresy”…
“derided student vanguardism and guerillaism as ‘substitutionist’ fell foul to analoguous elephant traps”….

“conducive to socialism will see a decade in which British politics will be dominant by revivified Thatcherism”….


A point that I’ve already made before and that will predictably grant me a dollop of insults on LC, but here:

Who -aside from a handful of politics/sociology students or media buffs- is ever gonna be able to digest this type of jargon????

Seriously. I appreciate Dave Osler’s best intentions, I really do, but this type of mega-elitist ivory tower lingo is more alienating than a dozen crap policies from your local Labour council.

The biggest failure from the Left in recent years has been exactly this: one of communication.

Unfortunately Claude the real world is complicated. If something looks too good to be true it probably is.

“automatically equated to heresy”…
“the same as heresy”
Easier to understand now? I literally couldn’t think of a word that I could replace heresy with. If you don’t know what that is imagine a Rangers fan saying he actually like Celtic now. That would be heresy to other Rangers fans.

You also seem to manage to avoid the fact that Dave somewhat agrees with you above, it appears he agrees that Marxism and other movements of the left have got too ossified and travelled down intellectual cul-de-sacs (dead ends).

I won’t talk down to you, it would be disingenuous to say the least. I agree that when campaigning, when teaching and reaching out “ivory tower” language would be inadequate and wrong. But why muzzle us on a Left Liberal blog?

11. Shatterface

Conor, I don’t think the ‘Left’ as such is shit, it’s just that the self-appointed leadership of the Left disengaged with the practical matters of day-to-day existance and into the very forms of ‘idealism’ Marx criticized. Workers rights or basic matters of economics aren’t particularly glamourous when you see yourself as part of a project to restricture the very subjectivity of everyone on the planet.

Once you see people as simply the bearers of ideology (‘trager’) who do not know what is good for them -rather as being compelled to work within a system they are consciously aware of as exploitative – it’s natural to look for authoritarian ‘solutions’ – and sliding from the authoritarian Left to the authoritarian Right is a natural progression.

12. Shatterface

Sorry, should read ‘rather than…’

I agree with Conor – the problem is not a shortage of sensible analysis, ideas or policies on the soft left. By and large, the criticisms which the soft left had of domestic and foreign policies over the past few years have stood the test of time. To add to Conor’s list, ‘Fantasy Island’ by Larry Elliott, published in 2006, predicted the current crisis and explained the future challenges which just about everyone agrees Britain now faces.

The problem is not lack of good ideas, it is much more about having the political organisation to put them into practice.

The left never produced better quality goods at affordable prices. One of the leading private builders after WW2 realised that newly married couples did not want to share bathrooms and therefore ensured each of the properties built had one. Compare the British state owned car industry( British Leyland ) with Fords or the Japanese companies. The Japanese invariably pprovided the extra features( radios, electric windows etc , etc) at no extra cost. Ford produced the “Capri”, the car of choice of the aspirational working class young man. An ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory. Ever since the late 60s middle class left wingers having been telling aspirational members of the working class what to think, what to feel, what to say and what to buy. Perhaps if the left followed the examples of Ernie Bevin and Joe Gormley ( only the best is good enough for the working class ) they would attract the votes of the aspirational working and lower middle class.

Cameron and Osborne’s support is probably quite weak amongst the aspirational working and lower middle class. If Labour elected Alan Johnston as leader they could win the next election as he would make Cameron and Osborne look shallow. After all MacMillan was successful because his attitude was ” If the middle class tell me what they want , I will give it to them”. The fact that present Tory leader is an Etonian and the next one , is likely to be one as well ( B Johnston ) just shows how useless are the Labour Party. Dave Ossler how can you expect to attract support when you use the words “counter hegemonic block”. At least with Hannan you can understand him.

Hey guys, I understand it is much more difficult to see the nuances in your opponents’ positions than your own, but if you tried, we might be able to get somewhere near the truth of the matter rather than endless debates over left-right positioning.

Hayek, and von Mises, are of the Austrian school of economics. And the Austrian school hasn’t been very happy about whats been going on either, and has been predicting this particular crash for a number of years as well:

16. councilhousetory

What an amusing article. Takes me back to Uni, when my lecturer spent more time trying to indoctrinate us students in marxism, than he did teaching us politics.

Anyways, see you mentioned Popper and thought I’d pass along one of my favourite quotes:

”The claim that if you want security you must give up liberty has become a mainstay of the revolt against freedom…There is of course no absolute security. But what security can be attained depends upon our own watchfulness, enforced by institutions to help us watch – ie by democratic institutions which are devised to enable the herd to watch, and to judge, their watchdogs.”

Popper (1945)

Yes, 1945 and yet he could be describing the words of any minister or state official today. We have an attack on liberty that our antiquated institutions are barely able to resist. If the left on here want to protect their civil liberties, then they might want to stop teaching students, like my marxist lecturer, that these can be separated from all other liberties.

Is it any wonder that the Student Union activists that make up the current shower of a Cabinet are so blase about liberty?

The problem is not lack of good ideas, it is much more about having the political organisation to put them into practice.

donpaskini – really? I’m not entirely convinced. What would would be the big ideas for the left now, you think? I’m still struggling with that one

18. Shatterface

The irony is that as progressives we’ve been forced to adopt language which sounds ‘reactionary’ or at least ‘conservative’, such as ‘win back’ our civil liberties; we also call on tradition and history, such as common law or Magna Carta.

The speed with which we are being driven into authoritarianism is so great we are too busy trying to apply the breaks to grab the stearing wheel.

Big idea for the left? Nationalize the banks for a start.


This is one of my theoretical posts. I also do faux Littlejohn when the mood takes me. But sometimes it is necessary to talk about, y’know, ideas.


If the left had a blueprint ready to enact, we would now have a once in a generation opportunity to modify the dominant ideology in a manner conducive to socialism.


A dominant political ideology ‘conducive to socialism’ is what we already have – it’s called Social Democracy and it’s available from all three political parties – it just turns out the Dave’s Left, despite their best intentions, haven’t been able to avoid the authoritarianism, inertia and stagnation inherent in socialist thought – Social Democracy doesn’t escape it, and that’s the most concealed and acceptable sort of Socialism we have.

The problem is that people are rather more interested in disowning the Labour Government as not really “Left” rather than facing up to the shortcomings of this particular creed, what the “Left” looks like when in power. How can you possibly come up with a new ‘big idea’ if you’re unwilling or unable to see the downsides of even this most mild version of Socialism?

You’re only looking for ideas that involve tweaking, fiddling or ramping up the scale and scope of the existing projects, in the hope that ‘one last push’ will turn things around.

There’s no really new ideas because all ideas start from the same basic one: Government should raise money from X and spent it on Y, and they should lay down ‘frameworks’ for everyone to live, work and operate under.

You can change the variables – who X might be, who Y might be – but that’s not a new idea – that’s just doing the same thing over and over again in the hope that the flaws inherent to such thinking can be magically circumvented through sheer political ingenuity.

I argue that you’re already stuck in a cul-de-sac, and that the titular Left *are* the Status Quo, they *are* the Establishment.

“After all MacMillan was successful because his attitude was ” If the middle class tell me what they want , I will give it to them”.”

MacMillan was taking the mick, he didn’t actually like the middle classes very much (he considered them too selfish). He was commenting dismissively on how he kept hearing about the middle classes complaining that they weren’t getting what they wanted.

Leaving aside the fact that the Mises Institute have been banging on about the credit bubble for 10 years, much as you want to think that “only the left got it right”, it is just possible that the majority see this as a failure of government (fiscal recklessness, incompetent regulation) as of “capitalism” – hence no real appetite for a big lurch leftwards.


It is not necessary to actually agree with everything they wrote in order to acknowledge and honour the economic writings of Marxists such as the late Andrew Glyn or, most pertinently, Paul Sweezy and the Monthly Review group of economists he gave intellectual birth too. You might want to check the latest Monthly Review collection of essays – It’s interesting precisely because they, unlike most British or European Marxist intellectuals, have made a conscious effort to engage with the left Keynesian tradition of Robinson, Minsky and so on. i did an amateur review of it here –

A further three decades up the road, the wheels have finally come off the neoliberal model.

The US and UK are weathering the recession better than Japan and Germany. And the Chinese are unlikely to reembrase communism in the near future. So I think this kind of talk is a bit OTT.

This will be an unusually rough recession, but such things have happened before, and sooner or later will happen again.

As long as freer-market countries are seen to be richer than less-free market countries, people are going to tend to prefer the former option.

The US and UK are weathering the recession better than Japan and Germany. And the Chinese are unlikely to reembrase communism in the near future. So I think this kind of talk is a bit OTT.

I think you are mistaking neoliberal countries doing well and countries doing well because of neoliberalism.

The US and the UK are both weathering slightly better than the Germans and Japanese at the moment but this isn’t because of neoliberalism. Their growth has been propped up because of a massive intervention and redistribution of funds from the less welloff to commercial institutions, like A.I.G, R.B.S, G.M, C.U and N.T.

Germany and Japan have both had to go through huge inventory adjustments as things are sold off from storage rather than made, this has reduced production for now. Things will get far better for them as they equilibriate thier stocks at a lower level and begin making things again. The UK and the US haven’t had that nearly as severly as they have and I believe we are going to experience a much lower bottom out and far worse unemployment than either of those two.

China is not a neoliberal country. It’s transistioning to Capitalism but it cannot be described as neoliberal. Neoliberalism is not the only form of Capitalism, China has more a Fascist economy and state than neoliberal, although that description is woefully inadequate to discuss 1/5th of the Earth’s population in any case.

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Atrophy: how the left blew its big chance

  2. Costigan Quist

    If studying political thought taught me anything, it was to avoid articles containing words like counterhegemonic.

  3. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Atrophy: how the left blew its big chance

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