Why we should say no to Red Toryism


9:33 pm - July 28th 2009

by Jonathan Rutherford    


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Sunny recently wrote of the danger posed by Red Toryism to the left, following a Compass debate on Left and Right Communitarianism.

He argued that the left was unable to produce an effective counter-argument to Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism. He’s not alone in thinking that the left is in a state of intellectual disarray. It’s a symptom of the collapse of the New Labour project and the vacuum it has left behind it.

This intellectual predicament is nothing new. The Labour Party originally emerged out of Liberalism and developed its own socially conservative brand of communitarian politics – Labourism. It was never distinct enough nor intellectually confident enough to break ideologically with Liberalism. At the heart of Labour remains an unresolved conflictual relationship between Liberalism and communitarianism. This dilemma has tended to dominate the left more widely and kept various forms of socialism on the periphery.

Richard Tawney’s essay ‘The Choice before the Labour Party’ written in 1934, at the time of another major political crisis, highlights Labour’s ambivalent political identity. This ambivalence was exposed in the period of National Government 1929-31 and now again today in the wake of New Labour. Tawney describes the gravest weakness of British Labour as its lack of creed: “The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants.”

There is, he says, a “void in the mind of the Labour Party’ which leads us into ‘intellectual timidity, conservatism, conventionality, which keeps policy trailing tardily in the rear of realities.”

A few developments need bearing in mind. First, the politics of Labourism has been undermined by the radical changes in the working class and its culture and institutions over the last four decades. The destruction of traditional working class ways of life threatens the existence of the Labour Party itself as the cultures and institutions which once sustained it disappear or lose their social vitality [more on Socialist Unity]

Second, Anthony Crosland’s model of social democracy has been dealt a mortal blow. Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956) was Labour’s revisionist answer to Marxism. However flawed, it provided an intellectual cornerstone for a social democracy that was built on tax receipts from capitalist growth, an interventionist nation state and a cautious approach to confronting class power. It was dealt a near fatal blow when the Labour Government was forced to go cap in hand to the IMF in 1976. Gordon Brown re-invented a watered down version for New Labour, privileging the City and the financial markets and skimming their profits for the Exchequer. This too has ended in economic disaster. Crosland was always out there on the horizon, keeping alive the idea of a compromise between capital and labour. The post-crash budget of April 2009 has perhaps finally extinguished his beacon.

Thus, the centre left now faces an epochal task of constructing a political economy and philosophy that has broad electoral appeal and which is able to contest the Liberalism of the Labour right and the right wing communitarianism of the Conservatives.

Like all innovation it will develop out of its traditions and not in a clean break from them. Its fundamental, historical purpose has to be equality and distributive justice through a radical transfer of political power, social influence, income and wealth from capital to labour. Alongside this will be the imperative of achieving ecological sustainability. The Labour Party alone will not achieve this task. It will need to begin with a new set of popular alliances, not only across civil society but also across political parties. Mark Perryman has recently made this argument in a new Compass thinkpiece.

But forging this plural politics will not be best served by communitarianism. Communitarianism tends toward social conservativism and concedes too much ground to a right wing hankering after the patriarchal family and an ethnically homogenous national culture.

The liberal intelligentsia, black people, single mothers, the legacy of the sixties, perceived national moral decline, the ‘feckless poor’ and cosmopolitan modernity generally have all been the targets of communitarian blame. Phillip Blond has accused ‘a self hating cultural elite’ and ‘ a newly decadent middle class addicted to its own pleasure’ of having a contempt for tradition and virtue.

He follows Enoch Powell’s accusation in 1970 that the liberal intelligentsia was an ‘enemy within’, destroying the moral fabric of the English nation with its promotion of cultural difference and ‘race’. Margaret Thatcher blamed moral decline on the counter cultures and permissive values of the 1960s and Tony Blair mimicked her in an opportunist attack on the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and its ‘freedom without responsibility’.

A more nuanced politics needs to find a way of embracing virtues, valuing cultural familiarity and conserving ways of life that secure the continuity of social and family relationships, while also being open to cultural difference and alive to an inventive and cosmopolitan modernity of new experiences and self invention.

The two sensibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They can divide along differences in age, class and region, but they also constitute the contradictory desires for security and freedom, the familiar and the unpredictable, need and desire, which exist within each of us. Creating alliances around these contradictory, sometimes antagonistic, elements of modern society is the task of a new centre left politics. It will be best achieved by a plural politics of alliances held together by an ethical form of socialism or social liberalism.

Unlike communitarianism which tends to impose on individuals normative moral values and an ahistorical tradition that fixes meaning, ethical socialism locates historical agency and moral practice in the relational life of individuals. Ethical socialism originates in the sphere of interpersonal relationships and extends upward into the wider social realm and into the political community. It offers a materialist politics of the individual rooted in the social goods that give meaning to people’s lives: home, family, friendships, good work, locality, and imaginary communities of belonging.

Ethical socialism needs an ethical economics that will tackle the structural inequalities of class and wealth. It needs to be a political economy that understands the destructive dynamics of capital accumulation and the social damage of unregulated markets. It needs to set out a strategy for equitable and ecologically sustainable economic development and wealth creation.

Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation published in the same year as Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom provides a possible foundation for an alternative to neo-liberal orthodoxy.

Neo-liberalism might lie in intellectual ruins but it remains the as yet unchallenged dominant narrative of economic life. Who will be the collective agents of change who bring the neo-liberal era to an end?

Where will be the sites of political struggle and what kinds of political organisation will help transform the centre ground of British politics? These are some of the questions we are faced with.

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About the author
This is a guest article. Jonathan Rutherford is editor of Soundings and Professor of Cultural Studies at Middlesex University.
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Reader comments


The problem with the Great Transformation is that the history of markets it relies on is verging on the imagined: http://www.seangabb.co.uk/market.htm

My own advice (to the Left) would be to look a little closer for useable economic models. Scandinavian countries have shown that you can do a surprisingly large amount of redistribution, just so long as you don’t break the cardinal classical economic rules by offering a predictable legal system, which is easy to comply with, and a relatively flexible labour market. Oh and by keeping corporation taxes reasonable. Ok, so small states seem to achieve this better than big ones, but there is a solution to that too: localise.

I find it hard for people to well written pieces like this up – and yet the ‘answer’ if there is to be one is within the text itself.

There isn’t a vacuum of the left, there is a vacuum of the perceived left/centre-left.

What so I mean by that? Well – in really, really simple terms there is no left to speak of – what you have, and this is why NuLab its a total fuck-up, you have parties of the centre-right, centre-centre-right ad a little over to the centre. And they are all fighting for the voters who also occupy that area.

The ideas are all based on the centre and the ever vanishing centre right. NuLab has lost the left – that is why it is dying the very public death it is. And that is no bad thing. There does need to be a left of centre party, a “New Democratic Party” perhaps. That party has to be a party that bases its policies on the people and what is right and just for them.

How selling that to the electorate isn’t my job – it is those who run that party. But one thing you do need is a leader who will say it as it is and put the ocean that is needed between the centre-right parties and the new one.

Centre-right policies have failed! The Centre party, if there was one, would adopt polices too wishy-washy for anyone to understand.

Brown is under attack because he is perceived as weak – and he comes across as weak, so therefore he is weak. Dave is, well an Etonian who will say what he needs to say to get elected. Just like NuLab.

The ideas are there – the notion that the left is defunct of ideas is an insult. There isn’t, on the other hand, a party that will accept those ideas willingly and if good enough put them forward to the people.

As a little proof – take the Tom Harris piece the other day – “The way out of welfare dependence is work” – again all well and good, but this comes from a man who ‘works’ in a debating chamber and writes a piss poor blog about how other people should live their lives. He offered nothing as to what work people should do, only that to stop it all we must get people back to work – that is an ideas vacuum. And he is a part of NuLab – and that is what Red-Toryism is.

To fight Conservatism you need a left-wing party. And there just isn’t one for people to look to to actually break the status quo that is UK politics.

This fees like part 1 of a two part post, with the question set up nicely at the end of part 1.

‘Who will be the collective agents of change who bring the neo-liberal era to an end?

Where will be the sites of political struggle and what kinds of political organisation will help transform the centre ground of British politics?’

You tell me, I an tempted to scream at the computer.

But the kind of ‘political organisation will help transform the centre ground of British politics’ will not, I suggest, be one formed by ‘creating alliances around these contradictory, sometimes antagonistic, elements of modern society is the task of a new centre left politics’.

This is the language of the left of the early 1980s, a left so committed to self-congratulatory post-Marxist plurarilism that it collapsed in on itself and became the very wishy-washy neoliberal comminitarianism that it as supposed to be reacting to.

I’m all for a new poltical economy narrative – indeed I said so in a LibCon article a couple of weeks ago at http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2009/07/04/developing-a-new-economic-common-sense/ – but I suspect we get to it through a combination of workers’ action and a straightforward argument, put by a Labour Party newly aware of its dependency on the working class for its exisitence, that redistribution is economically necessary rather than ethically desirable.

In this respect I disagree that ‘working class ways of life’ have been so altered that no such avenue for action is feasible – the way of life may be different, but it still involves work (or unemployment). To move away from that core is to do precisely what the left did in the 1980s, an not to learn from tour mistakes then – mistakes that allowed neoliberalism the hegemony you rightly identify it as having right now.

4. Shatterface

I thought this might be a post about ‘Why we should say no to Red Toryism’ but actually it’s just an attack on the Labour Party.

Not that I have a problem with attacking Labour, I just think the article should relate to the title (or vise versa).

“The problem with the Great Transformation is that the history of markets it relies on is verging on the imagined: http://www.seangabb.co.uk/market.htm

It is a very subtle and important work. The problem with the Great Transformation is that it is very easy for people to misrepresent the arguments in it and make them look foolish. There are a couple of errors in the piece you link to that aren’t really relevant to this discussion, but which I might go into on my blog at some point.

What is important is Polanyi’s idea of a Double Movement. This sees a market economy being embedded into redistributive and reciprocal institutions, rather than allowing market mechanisms to dictate wages, interest rates and exchange rates. The late 19th Century saw the beginning of a double movement against the liberalism which proceeded it, this culminated in the creation of the modern welfare state.

Another phase has since occurred where these victories have been rolled back. This phase began in the late 1970s and saw the destruction of these institutions and the reintroduction of market mechanisms.

Hopefully we’ll see another movement against this. However when it comes to the zombie of neoliberalism, it appears evident that ideologies do not exist on their own merit. Their precepts are carried and propagated by the class for which the ideology is useful. Neoliberalism is so successful still because it is still so useful to a lot of those in power. A double movement doesn’t occur on it’s own, in quickly, and the argument against the neoliberal ideology has to be fought both intellectually and physically.

@5

Where I think we disagree is that I don’t see any necessary zero-sum relationship between markets and reciprocity, where the strength of one must correspond to a weakness of another. And I think that view can be defended too by the huge growth in institutions like friendly societies before the 20th century when government breaks started to be put on the free market.

In order to propose this zero-sum relationship, Polanyi invented a past where markets didn’t exist on some threshold of significance, and then suggest that norms of reciprocity and redistribution were somehow stronger back then, on the back of some, now considered, fairly dodgy anthropological research. Ironically, considering the direction of the piece above as a whole, Polanyi could quite easily fit into a communitarian paradigm and at times quite a conservative one.

7. Richard (the original)

Some interesting ideas here on reviving the anti-state left (albeit from an American perspective): http://attackthesystem.com/2009/07/forty-years-in-the-wilderness/

8. Richard (the original)

“Neoliberalism is so successful still because it is still so useful to a lot of those in power.”

Indeed. Neoliberalism is in fact a form of state-backed corporatism combined with mercantilism hiding under the name of “free trade” and “globalisation”. What we have is Western nations forcing third world countries to rip down their trade barriers while themselves maintaining tariffs or subsidies (think US and EU agriculture). It is also a system in which the state grants various direct or indirect privileges to big business such as patents, taxpayer-funded transport, limited liability in tort, R&D subsidies etc. The World Bank, IMF and government central banks are not genuine free market institutions, they are government bodies that give free enterprise a bad name. Free enterprise does not mean government regulations forcing Unions to conduct ballots or banning them from secondary picketing. Neoliberalism is selectively liberal and in a way that benefits those with power. Those of us who support genuine free markets and want to see all corporate privileges stripped away (yes, we do exist) are just as cheesed off with neoliberalism as socialists are.

“Thus, the centre left now faces an epochal task of constructing a political economy and philosophy that has broad electoral appeal”

The problem is that Blair sort of managed this, only for it to fall apart in spectacular fashion. New Labour had huge electoral appeal (which was helped by the lame opposition) yet in the end it was exposed as a facade that was ultimately about nothing other than winning elections with no underlying philosophy or priniciples.

Broad electoral appeal by definitions means centre-ground these days, so the task is essentially to make the centre-left centre-ground – which is why the centre-left is screwed because it will only win a future general election by becoming Blair The Sequel and ignoring the Left.

I understand the individual words, but have no idea what this post is *proposing* other than that *someone* (else) should come up with a better proposal than neo-liberalism or red toryism.

It needs to set out a strategy for equitable and ecologically sustainable economic development and wealth creation.

So, what might such a strategy actually look like?
Exactly how would our existing institutions have to change to accommodate it?

11. Mike Killingworth

Well, a few days ago I wrote a post suggesting the first few faltering steps towards achieving the creation of a new Left party. It attracted hardly any interest at all.

I suspect that Blair was right after all, and that a new political spectrum stretching from liberalism to fascism does in fact meet the consumer demand of the electorate as we have it, bar a few dozen thousand “old lefties” – I am beginning to think that we may be as few as that. Tawney’s critique remains relevant – not that I think that there was ever a time when it wasn’t. The English, at least, even at their Morrissonian or Wilsonian least-worst, are profoundly counter-revolutionary.

Still, an excellent post – I agree both with those who hope it might be the first of two (or even a longer series) and with Shatterface about the title.

“I suspect that Blair was right after all, and that a new political spectrum stretching from liberalism to fascism does in fact meet the consumer demand of the electorate as we have it, bar a few dozen thousand “old lefties” – I am beginning to think that we may be as few as that.”

I think it’s a bit more than that. The Fabians found in their research on attitudes to equality that just over 20% of people were ‘traditional egalitarians’ (which is pretty similar to what you mean by ‘old lefties’). That’s not a bad base to start from, though politically those people are divided between supporting Labour, Lib Dems and Greens (and not voting), and, of course, not enough on their own for a majority.

“Where will be the sites of political struggle and what kinds of political organisation will help transform the centre ground of British politics?”

I think the place to start with this is to find out about the actual examples of where people are doing this sort of thing, and learn from them about how they’ve done it.

For example, the Gelligeg Foundation was started by six local mums on an estate on the edge of Merthyr Tydfil about a decade ago. They now employ about 35 people, plus about 100 volunteers and run a range of projects including environmental, healthy living, youth services, credit union, community cafe etc etc. They wouldn’t call it ‘ethical socialism’, but it seems to me to be a real life example of what Jonathan is talking about.

One of the reasons for its success is that it rejects the Red Tory / communitarian social conservatism and involves and empowers people whether they are single mums, ex-offenders or whoever. As the founder says, “for us, they aren’t “ex-offenders” or “hard to reach”, they are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and we help them because they are part of our community”.

That attitude offers an alternative to both right-wing social conservatism and the target and jargon-driven approach of too much of the public sector.

http://gellideg.net/

14. Jonathan Rutherford

A few points. Shatterface, its not supposed to be ‘an attack’ on the Labour Party. Personally I can’t see any value in doing that, just as I don’t think that the future lies in a new left party. The point about New Labour is that they got something right in the mid 1990s and Blair found a language based in MacMurray and ethical socialism/liberal socialism that resonated with a lot of people. He blew it and so did New Labour. There was always a populist authoritarianism lurking in the project which quickly surfaced. And also a reliance on Liberalism which fundamentally failed to get the measure of capitalism, and which became a compliance with the neo-liberal orthodoxy (and sometimes its cheerleader) – with disastrous consequences.

Letters from a Tory – the centre ground is an ideological and historical construction not fixed in stone. The failure of New Labour was that it sat for too long in it and missed the chance to reconfigure it and shift it leftward. That historical option is still there. The Conservatives might win the next election, but they still cannot free themselves from the discredited politics of their past and they won’t last. Unless that is they adopt a real compassionate conservatism and radical toryism. But I can’t see them turning on their paymasters, nor their historical role as the defenders of inherited property and wealth. Cameron is I think a good politician but I don’t think he has the kind of intellectual depth or political support it would need to force through such a significant transformation of the party.

Taking a medium term view over the next decade as the recession ends and we begin to rebuild the economy there still exists the opportunity for a centre left to take power and enact some radical reforms to the economy and constitution and also for a left beyond it – green and red – too provide a valuable bolster that pushes the centre left. It would mean dropping the sectarian politics and holier than thou moralism that has always kept it inward looking and with a tendency to split and call betrayal.

I’m aware of the problems with Polanyi’s history of markets but I wanted to push him forward as he still offers a fairly comprehensive critique of market capitalism.

On the subject of part 2 – that has to be an argument about why we must sustain levels of public spending to offset deflationary pressure, develop a strategic and joined up approach to reducing the public deficit and setting out an economic programme that takes us from casino capitalism into a more equitable and ecologically sustainable forms of wealth creation, employment and of economic development. Like others we’ve made a contribution to beginning this process with ‘The Crash a view from the left’ (www.soundings.org.uk) but it’s going to be a major collective task.

15. Mike Killingworth

[12] Cheers, Don. I’m sure 20% is much nearer the mark than a “a few dozen thousand”.

Nevertheless, the whole point of NuLab was the argument that their votes are too costly – a programme which attracts us repels most of the others. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole point of scrapping the 10p tax rate and introducing workfare was to signal to non-egalitarian voters that NuLab despised egalitarians as much as they did.

As an old leftie I always have to remember my poor dear mother (now enduring Alzheimer’s). She didn’t care what her material standard of living was just as long as it was higher than other people’s. People who think like that have a deep-seated contempt for egalitarianism (which is fully returned) – the thing is, that there are enough of them to prevent anyone winning an election without the support of at least some of them. That is the number we have to turn around – unless we make a lot more people ashamed to think as she did, any electoral success will be Blairism repeated and contain within it the seeds of disillusionment and self-destruction.

“Communitarianism tends toward social conservativism and concedes too much ground to a right wing hankering after the patriarchal family and an ethnically homogenous national culture.”

Don’t agree with this. Communitarianism can tend towards social conservativism but only if it views traditions & practices as static. If it views them as fluid it can be radical. In fact I’d argue that to be at all philsophically compelling communitarianism has to view them as fluid, because it’s the only way it can cope with and embrace concepts of self-definition, and accommodate differences in the way we use language. However when it does all that I find it enormously compelling.

It takes a special kind of moron to think that liberalism is on Labour’s right.

There’s barely any liberals on Labour’s left, let alone right.

How on earth people can talk about the current pitiful state that the Labour party finds itself in as some sort of crisis for the left or for liberalism, is beyond me. That party has not been left wing or liberal for at least 15 years, maybe more.

The Tories are likely to be awful, but I celebrate the death of New Labour nonetheless.

#16

No, it takes a special kind of moron not to understand that liberalism has different meanings in different contexts and they don’t all relate directly to civil liberties. It would, for example, be difficult to argue that New Labour have issued a significant challenge to neo-liberal economics.

whoops, I’m obviously an extra-special kind of moron as I managed to direct that at myself instead of at #17 as I meant.

20. Stuart White

I’m not sure the problem with Labour is, or has been, its failure to break with ‘Liberalism’.

For one thing, the specific kind of New Liberalism which was one formative influence on the Labour party was pretty much intellectually indistinguishable from the ethical socialism which Jonathan advocates as the philosophical basis for a revived left. The philosophical gap between R.H. Tawney on the one hand (‘ethical socialist’) and, say, Leonard Hobhouse or J.A. Hobson (‘New Liberal’) on the other is very slight.

Second, I would argue that one of the major philosophical weaknesses of New Labour has been its studied ignorance of, or indifference towards, contemporary liberal political philosophy. This is reflected in New Labour’s appalling position on civil liberties questions. But it is also reflected in its thinking about distributive justice. Liberals like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin have done very important work to develop the ideal of egalitarian justice. But these ideas have always been too left, too egalitarian for New Labour to engage with. A key starting-point for a new left is to engage with them.

At the policy level, one issue which contemporary egalitarian liberalism has concerned itself with is ownership. Rawls is clear that ‘welfare-state capitalism’ cannot deliver social justice. Social justice requires also a much more egalitarian background distribution of wealth (i.e., not just income).

Interestingly, this was a point which the Labour revisionists did pick up on. As Ben Jackson has argued, Crosland and his allies did not think, in fact, that we can achieve social justice simply through economic growth and higher spending on public services and income transfers. They thought Labour also needed to address wealth inequality directly. They were, for example, receptive to the idea of public ownership in the form of social or community funds: the state owning a portfolio of shares across the economy, and enjoying the dividends and capital gains on these assets, but without trying to manage specific firms or industries.

These ideas didn’t go anywhere in the 1960s, and they were then crushed in the confrontation between a crisis-management version of social democracy and a naive state socialism (Bennism) in the 1970s/early 1980s. But they were good ideas. One of the attractive features of Red Toryism, at least at first sight, is its commitment to do something about the distribution of wealth (‘recapitalise the poor’). But the left, drawing on liberal theories of social justice, and on updated Croslandite ideas about ownership, actually has a much more credible response to the problem – if it is willing to make it.

Social justice requires also a much more egalitarian background distribution of wealth (i.e., not just income).

This is a crucial point, and one which was much in my mind when I wrote this series. I’m not done thinking on the argument yet, but I suspect that when I am, no matter how relevant and researched and clever I can be with regard to the modern world, I will still have been anticipated by a G. Winstanley in 1649.

The sin of property we do disdain,
No man has any right to buy and sell the earth for private gain,
By theft and murder they took the land,
Now everywhere the walls spring up at their command.

Wealth == security. If a bank can turf you out of your house, it isn’t your house. If the bailiff can break the door down (a recent and unwelcome addition to our law codes) it isn’t your door. Wealth redistribution involves modifying the underlying prejudice of post-feudal, Puritan Europe; that those who are rich on inherited wealth in some way deserve it.

The problem with Labour is simple it sold out to Torism, you cannot look at Labour and say yes I’m working class and labour has made my life better. it has not. The NHS is not safe under labour, PFI has been bloody rubbish, and Labour has looked hard at becoming the New Tory party.

I mean it I did not know I’d think Brown was a old style Tory. his idea was to rid labour of the left and he and Blair worked hard at it.

20 years of relatively strong economic growth, combined with a huge migration of the workforce from secondary to tertiary industry and a whole lot of propaganda, shifted the values of much of Britain to the right (not as far to the right as where the center line is drawn in the US, but further than where it was drawn over here in, say, ’79). New Labour as a political construct was designed to occupy the ground that John Major was trying (and, notably, failing) to position the Tories on; sane, responsible, authoritarian, dedicated to the needs of capital inheritors, socially regressive and invested in maintaining the class structure. That’s where the votes were.

We’re now in a recession, which regardless of what happens at the top level (GDP stats, etc) is going to be shitting up real people’s lives for at least five years. This time, we’re entering it just as the Tories get in. Poverty causes swings to the left among the public; be interesting to see what the map looks like in three years. Hopefully, a lot more orange.


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