Did the fall of the Berlin Wall kill ideology?


1:00 pm - November 11th 2009

by Paul Sagar    


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Most of the comment on the fall of the Berlin Wall has come from people who experienced life in the eras both before and after it came down, and for obvious reasons. So here’s something different: a reflection from somebody who doesn’t remember the wall, because they were 3 years old in 1989.

My generation lives, for all intense and purposes, without ideology. There’s plenty of ideology knocking about in the world, as we all know from the daily death count in Afghanistan. But there’s not much of it here in Britain amongst the under 25s. It’s a platitude that political parties have seen declining membership for years, and that apathy and disillusionment with politics has been steadily on the rise.

Yet it doesn’t follow that people of my generation are completely uninterested in politics per se. Most – I imagine – would tell you that Gordon Brown is a bad prime minister and needs to go. Most would say the recession is a bad thing that needs to be sorted out. Many – possibly most – will have other concerns: opposition to university tuition fees, the spectre of global warming, and so on.

Yet whilst there remain political beliefs and issues that the young are interested in, it’s rare to find a young person who holds all these issues and beliefs (should they be interested in more than a couple) to be unified by any under-lying and coherent worldview.

Rather, they are presented and held as broadly freestanding political preferences, which may connect with other preferences in some respects, but are essentially self-sufficient. In short: politics without ideology.

And I include myself in this, for what is my ideology? I don’t want to call myself a socialist, or even a social democrat, because I’m unsure of what those terms even mean in 21st Century Britain.

I tend to stick with “liberal egalitarian”, but that rests on an extremely technical understanding derived from esoteric political theory, much of which I’m actually pretty unsure about in detail. I spend half my life talking and thinking about politics, and yet struggle to identify where I take myself to stand.

I see this pattern reflected amongst the young of the political left especially. The right may have fewer problems. Dispositional conservatives have always been “a-ideological”.

In large measure, conservatism is precisely a disposition (against change) and explicitly not an ideology. But conservatism is broadly informed by defining itself in opposition to the most virile ideologies of the day. If the left is out of ideas, then the right tends to reflect this as everyone crowds into the centre.

This decline of ideology may be the inevitable consequence of the last 20 years. Part of the reason the left finds it so hard to self-identify is precisely because of the collapse of the systems of government that fell after the Berlin Wall. Communism and state socialism are utterly discredited. And a damn good thing too, given how many graves lay east of Checkpoint Charlie.

Yet in the vacuum of the collapse of organised socialism – and following the triangulated third ways of Blair and Clinton – a consensus has formed around primarily market-orientated right-wing conceptions of how the world should be. Those who feel that there must be a better way to do things find themselves disoriented and directionless.

Mine is the generation which has witnessed only the centre-ground squabbling of post-Thatcher managerialism, finding the grand ideas of the past discredited and implausible. We are left with nothing but vague fluff about “progress”, a gut-feeling that there are no big ideas, there is no direction, and even if there were we’re all going to be underwater soon anyway.

The fall of the wall? To a child of that fall, it means this: the historical demarcation point (arbitrary and inaccurate, as any fixed dividing point must be) between an age of grand ideas and worldviews which I have never known, and the world of free-standing political preferences, directionless political programmes, and a suspicion that everything is pretty much in vain anyhow.

So the lack of grand ideas is not only appropriate, but probably justified.

Certainly the general hegemony of market capitalism is a price worth paying for the end of communist dictatorship and the threat of assured mutual destruction. But I can’t shake the feeling that it is certainly a price, and not simply a victory.

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About the author
Paul Sagar is a post-graduate student at the University of London and blogs at Bad Conscience.
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Reader comments


It’s only been twenty years. That’s a remarkably short period of time for a society of 6bn people to completely reinvent itself after the old ideological roadmaps were torn up at the end of the short 20th Century (1917-1989).

New poles, new directions, new pragmatisms, new ideologies are beginning to emerge, but they are nascent. What’s needed, more than anything else, is time.

Brilliant post, Paul. I was 2 in 1989 and I think you’re spot on. You, me and everyone else our age represent the dividing line between old and new ways of doing politics. And we’re about to vote for the Tories in our droves, because guess what? None of us really remember Thatcher. We were 9 in 1997, we came to political awareness under Blair, and as far as we’re concerned, the current mess is all Labour’s fault.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, such an article seems preposterously inappropriate. At the time, the death of ‘meta-narrative’ was vaunted by the postmodernists, the death of socialism was vaunted by the end of history brigade, the death of politics by some who took the idea further still.

And yet twenty years later, we’ve undergone a world shaking economic crash that has essentially resulted in most of the asssumptions of previous monetarist theory being ignored in favour of pouring a vast amount of money into the financial system and serious chunks of it being nationalised.

Far from the death of socialism, we have seen a massive resurgence in popular activism since the post-poll tax dearth. We have the anti-capitalist movement, which has swept the cobwebs from European socialism and, despite it having not ‘conquered’ or ‘reconquered’ anything just yet, it would take staggering political illiteracy to see this as a free standing preference on the part of the millions of workers involved in struggle, looking for a new solution in the face of social democratic bankruptcy.

It is readily intelligible as part of grand theory and universalist ideas, the proper heirs of the Enlightenment dream.

Sure, ‘the market’ hasn’t been displaced – but the last twenty years have shattered illusions in American hegemony, in the rhetoric of liberal interventionism and the ‘third way’ of Clinton and Blair. Whose to say the next twenty won’t surpass the shake-up of the last?

An important point to note about the Thatcher government, is that it was extremely ideologically-driven, in a way that was alient to the Conservative Party before, and by the looks of things, will be going forward.

David Cameron has only been able to make the Tories electable again by abandoning all outward signs of ideology, and returning the party to its pragmatic roots.

Pragmatic centralism is the only way to get elected. Quite rightly, ideologues are distrusted by the British electorate, tolerated only when it seems they’re *absolutely* necessary.

As someone whose world view was defined by the second half of the twentieth century, born in 1951, and whose parents had memories of both major wars, I take a stronger view. The carnage of the first half of the last century and the continued slaughters of the second half were the result of people with grand ideas whether of left or right. European societies that espouse free-markets with sensible limits and social safety nets may not be exciting or inspiring but at least they manage to avoid too much blood in the gutters. Remember the old Chinese curse:

“May you live in interesting times.”

Grand ideas make interesting history, that is the best place for them.

‘Mine is the generation which has witnessed only the centre-ground squabbling of post-Thatcher managerialism, finding the grand ideas of the past discredited and implausible.’

The fact that you think the squabbling is taking place in the ‘centre ground’ shows how far Thatcher shifted the goal posts.

There’s as much ideological struggle as there ever was, it’s just the political parties only represent one side: authoritarian populism.

7. the a&e charge nurse

Shatterface won’t like this but there are two theme’s that dominate John Gray’s political ideas;
[1] politics is the art of devising temporary remedies for recurring evils.
[2] secular thinkers imagine they have left religion behind when in fact they have merely exchanged religion for a humanist faith in ‘progress’ – an illusion of the first order, typified by the notion of exporting western liberalism (by force if necessary) to less enlightened parts of the world.

The only people who do not lose faith in ideology are those (in the main) who die prematurely.

“We have the anti-capitalist movement, which has swept the cobwebs from European socialism and, despite it having not ‘conquered’ or ‘reconquered’ anything just yet”

It won’t conquer anything because there is no workable alternativee to capitalism. All the Left can do is suggest reforms and regulations.

Personally I think the Left should take a step away from big-state solutions and re-rembrace ideologies like syndicalism and mutualism.

Did you see the poll commissioned by the BBC on the end of the Berlin Wall & ideology? http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/8347409.stm

Surprised it hasn’t been trumpeted more by left-wing blogs. It’s huge – 29,000 people and a decent sample size in every country. Most people think the fall of the Berlin Wall is a good thing (thank goodness) with some predictable exceptions like Russia, Ukraine, and more oddly Egypt. But 20% of people in the UK wanted to scrap capitalism and replace it with something else, rising to 40% in France.

I think (as someone who had reached the lofty age of ten when the Wall fell) that the real damage the Wall did to socialist ideology was to reveal the moral bankruptcy of Soviet style communism, rather than merely the economic bankruptcy of the countries of Eastern Europe. Before the real picture was known in detail, the examples of full-employment, of high rates of literacy, of ‘class equality’ in the Eastern bloc could be held up as correctives to Western capitalism. ‘There is a better way’.

But the knowledge not only that these accomplishments were essentially fake, but also that the Eastern bloc societies as a whole were only possible through a massive industry of state repression removed the validity of the eastern model as any sort of alternative.

And yet twenty years later, we’ve undergone a world shaking economic crash that has essentially resulted in most of the asssumptions of previous monetarist theory being ignored in favour of pouring a vast amount of money into the financial system and serious chunks of it being nationalised.

It hasn’t you know. That’s why the primary British response to the financial crisis has been to slash interest rates and print money – reducing the price of money in an attempt to stimulate demand, or, in other words, monetarism. The monetary policies of the Fed and the BoE have been classically Friedmanite.

@TimJ – you mean apart from the fifty billion bailout that kicked things off, and the subsequent billions pumped in, not from newly printed money but from general revenue? Hardly seems very Friedmanite. Wasn’t his argument about the depression that the banks should have been allowed to collapse?

11 – Monetarism is an economic theory that the value of money (ie: inflation/deflation) is best influenced through control of the money supply. Hence the reduction of interest rates to as near zero as practical, and the printing of £175bn of extra money. In raw number terms, the UK’s monetary policy (which remains monetarist in nature) has been the primary response. I’m not an economist, but I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a monetarist fiscal policy.

Incidentally, since March 98.8% of the money printed under the QE strategy has been used to buy gilts. To a very significant degree, the current spending of the Government is being financed by printing money.

‘Shatterface won’t like this but there are two theme’s that dominate John Gray’s political ideas;’

John Gray thinks we took the wrong turning when we opted for the Enlightenment.

He’s opposed *in principle* to *any* notion of progress.

He’s well suited to the modern New Statesman.

In Germany clearly the golden age of ideology was in the 1930s with the conclusive clash between Communism, liberty and Fascism was fought out.

In America it may have been the civil war, or maybe the 1950s purges against communists, or even perhaps the 60s in which leaders were murdered alongside blacks for their commitment to equality.

Do you see where I’m heading with this?

The UK has always been weak on ideology. Labour was never a communist party – it was a solidarity movement born from working people wanting representation. It had some socialist aspects but was not formed on that basis. Likewise the Tories saw off the Liberals not by defeating theri ideology, but because they shared so completely the same ideological commitment to liberal democracy.

All major parties share that ideology in the UK. It inspires them to some different policies that are one way or another less or more liberal. But none of those moves ever go so far as challenging the ideological status quo. That of liberal democracy.

And that’s surely a good thing?

Sorry guys too busy to reply in detail but Dave S, I struggle to see how the bailout was anything but a ringing endorsement of rightist market hegemony. The addage of soialism for THE BANKS and capitalism for the rest rings very true. As for the mighty antiglobalisation movement, you see workers of the world uniting with impact, I see middle class malcontents complaining to no effect.

The person above whi points out that maybe we should be grateful because this directionless mangerialism leads to less blood in the gutters of course has an excellent point. My article wanted to make the point that for many of my age, the price is nihilism and disenchantment. It may well be a price very much worth paying. But from my post-wall perspective, it looks like a price however romanticised and privileged my vantage point.

“But 20% of people in the UK wanted to scrap capitalism and replace it with something else, rising to 40% in France.”

Replace it with what though? And when they say “replace” do they really mean abolish private property and the free market or do they really mean reform it e.g. reintroduce Old Labour socialism?

‘The person above whi points out that maybe we should be grateful because this directionless mangerialism leads to less blood in the gutters of course has an excellent point. ‘

You may be overestimating the extent that ideology played in the pre-Fall age. From a working-class perspective the industrial disputes of the 70’s and 80’s were a desperate but *pragmatic* struggle for individual or community survival, not part of some conscious ‘grand narrative’.

The working-class has never been part of such a ‘grand narrative’.

You can certainly claim Thatcherism and Reaganism were part of a grand ideological project which is drawing to an end right now but the post-Wall era was one of right-wing ideology vs working class pragmatism not a clash of two different ideologies.

18. Mike Killingworth

One thing that surprises me is that our younger contributors don’t mention that the baby-boomers (including Forlornehope and I) have managed to leech off both our parents and our children in terms of social capital.

[12] QE hasn’t worked and it isn’t going to work. Our living standards are going to fall off a cliff. A British minister may (although probably not out loud) echo Irish Free State Finance Minister Patrick McGilligan’s infamous comment “people may have to die in this country and die of starvation”. As in Chile, Parliamentary democracy may have to be suspended for a generation whilst the process plays out (how the hell is anyone going to get elected on a platform of increasing infant mortality?). Education will be handed back to arch-conservatives who will ensure that future generations have low expectations and low self-esteem.

@4: “An important point to note about the Thatcher government, is that it was extremely ideologically-driven, in a way that was alien to the Conservative Party before”

That is both true and important to recognise. To recap:

Harold Macmillan (PM 1957-63) effectively disowned “Thatcherism”, famously describing the privatization of the nationalized industries as like “selling the family silver”.

Mrs Thatcher did not pioneer the breach with “keynesianism”, Callaghan had already done that in 1976:

As he put it, “We used to think that you could just spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you, in all candour, that that option no longer exists; and that insofar as it ever did exist, it only worked by injecting bigger doses of inflation into the economy followed by higher levels of unemployment as the next step. That is the history of the past twenty years.”
http://www.geocities.com/ecocorner/intelarea/mf1.html

Monetarism was an innovation – at least in Britain although controlling the “money supply” to curb inflation had been a regular objective of the Bundesbank in west Germany throughout the post-war period.

The IMF wrote an illuminating obituary on “monetarism” in 1996:

” …instability of monetary demand, especially in the context of supply shocks and declines in potential output growth, complicated the task of monetary authorities. As a result, during the 1980s most central banks – with some notable exceptions – either abandoned or downplayed the role of monetary targets.”
IMF World Economic Outlook, October 1996, p.106.

In fact, during the early 1980s, the Thatcher government was conspicuously unsuccessful in meeting its own money supply targets, which is why “monetarism” was formally abandoned as a policy in the autumn of 1985. What supplanted it was a policy to maintain a “competitive exchange rate” for the Pound on the way to putting the Pound into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Exchange_Rate_Mechanism

The trouble with that was the BoE’s Bank Rate – effectively set by the Treasury in those times – was expected to do two things at once: (a) maintain a competitive exchange rate – which usually meant lowish interest rates (good for exports and popular with home buyers), and (b) curbing inflation, which could mean hiking up interest rates whenever inflation seemed likely to rise to unacceptable rates.

What happened in fact in striving for these (often) incompatible aims was that interest rates were kept too low for too long so inflation took off again around 1990 just when the Pound had been put into the ERM in October 1990. And we had a house-price bubble. Another big policy blunder.

For a highly readable and well-documented book on Thatcherism from a critical perspective, try: Simon Jenkins: Thatcher & Sons – A Revolution in Three Acts (Penguin 2006). For one review:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/sep/09/features.review1

Btw ideology is alive and well and kicking – hence Cameron’s lecture on Tuesday about “The Big Society”.

Shatterface, that could very well be the case. And I may be exhibiting nothing more than middle class whining and imaginary nostalgia. Perhaps that’s instructive tho, regarding the fall of the walls effects etc.

Then again, Weber wrote of ‘disenchantment’ 100 years ago, and part of me feels like I’m operating with chimerical premises. Another part of me, though, feels like I’m on to something…

21. margin4error

Paul

My point was in part as shatterface suggests – that actually the UK especially was never a nation in which ideology was the basis of most political action.

We were always somewhat managerial because we have long since (certainly since at least the 1800s) arrived at a largely ‘live and let live’ liberal consensus.

And of course there is a price to pay with that. Bordem.

Our nation and society are stable. There is little life and death to be decided, and little debated in Parliament worth dying for. So we benefit from sound governance and thus take little interest in it.

“I think (as someone who had reached the lofty age of ten when the Wall fell) that the real damage the Wall did to socialist ideology was to reveal the moral bankruptcy of Soviet style communism, rather than merely the economic bankruptcy of the countries of Eastern Europe.”

As some old fart who used the fall of the Wall as a way to do the travelling in E Europe that had been denied me before (from a military family and I was gently advised that Pop’s job on Trident made such travel not a very good idea) and got to Hungary by Christmas 89, through Poland and the Czechoslovakia in 90 and was living in Moscow by spring 91 the real damage that I saw was the poverty of these places.

Serious, peasant style, near non cash economy poverty.

@21

I’ve often suspected that one of the reasons why people in the UK are so bloody pissed off with politicians all the time is largely because the electorate are on the whole content, well-governed and free, and politicians are relatively uncorrupt and competent.

I tend to stick with “liberal egalitarian”

Paul, as I said to you the other day, you just need to lose the “alegali” bit.

“And yet twenty years later, we’ve undergone a world shaking economic crash that has essentially resulted in most of the asssumptions of previous monetarist theory being ignored in favour of pouring a vast amount of money into the financial system and serious chunks of it being nationalised.”

We really haven’t seen a world shaking crisis. And monetarist theory prescribes pouring vast amounts of money into the economy at times like this. Not that it is necessarily a very good theory.

@21: “that actually the UK especially was never a nation in which ideology was the basis of most political action.”

C’mon. Just to take a modest selection of counter-examples from British political history where ideology clearly was the basis of political action:

How come the Attlee governments of 1945-51 nationalised the Bank of England, the coal and steel industries as well as the public utilities and establish the NHS in the face of consistent opposition by the Conservatives?

How come it took Wilberforce some 25 years to persuade the House of Commons to abolish the slave trade in 1807?

Try the debates and riots over the Reform Act 1832:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reform_Act_1832

Opposition to the factory acts of the 19th century?

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 split the Conservative Party and kept it out of government for a generation.

Why did the state intervene to provide for universal primary education through Forster’s Education Act of 1870 instead of continuing to leave schooling to the churches and to charities?

Why all the ructions leading up to the Parliament Act of 1911, which effectively removed the blocking power over legislation by the House of Lords?

Try Winston Churchill’s entanglements over free trade and pushing the 1908 Trade Boards Bill through Parliament or his later opposition to Stanley Baldwin’s India Act, which provided for limited internal self-government in India.

Why did Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour government (1929-31) fall apart in 1931?

Why did the Conservatives win the rearmament election of November 1935 with a landslide?

Frankly, IMO it’s complete nonsense to claim that there were few or no ideological splits in British parliamentary politics. Recall that according to Engels, Marx really believed that in England we could reach a state of Communism by “peaceful and legal means”.

“Surely, at such a moment, the voice ought to be heard of a man whose whole theory is the result of a lifelong study of the economic history and condition of England, and whom that study led to the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means. He certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a ‘pro-slavery rebellion,’ to this peaceful and legal revolution.”
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p6.htm

And btw Karl Marx and family came and settled in London in 1848 after being hounded out of a succession of mainland European countries – try the Blue Plaque on the Quo Vadis restaurant in Dean Street, Soho. Engels ran a commercially successful family textile business in Manchester.

About the same time as Marx settled here, Metternich, previously Chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, established an asylum residence in Hove, East Sussex. That little bit of history does tell us something about the unique quality of the British.

@25: “We really haven’t seen a world shaking crisis”

True.

Could this be one of the reasons?

“Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, called on nations to pump in 2 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) in an attempt to stave off a severe global recession. . ”
http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/economics/article5168725.ece

See this IMF review in July 2009 of fiscal expansions by member countries:
http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/spn/2009/spn0921.pdf

This is the outcome so far:
http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/the-story-so-far-in-one-picture/

Three cheers for Keynes !

Try: Robert Skidelsky: Keynes – The Return of the Master (Allen Lane 2009)

The ideologies of the early 20th century all died – quickly or slowly – after 1945. The funeral stretched from the fall of the Wall to the fall of Gorbachov. North Korea and Cuba prove that zombiehood is not exclusively an attribute of banks.

I am an economist; and I still see ideological divisions amongst my colleagues – Keynesians, Monetarists, Austrians, etc. On the one hand it is enchantingly old-fashioned. On the other, the current crisis has reminded everyone how devastating the chosen blindness of ideology can be.

#16

If you click through the link, you’ll see it doesn’t specify with what. It’s not merely reform & regulation of capitalism though, as there is a third option for that (which was the option most people went with, unsurprisingly).

@28: “I am an economist; and I still see ideological divisions amongst my colleagues – Keynesians, Monetarists, Austrians, etc.”

Same here – and I challenge anyone who has read Cameron’s lecture on Tuesday about The Big Society to claim that ideological clashes have withered away:
http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2009/11/David_Cameron_The_Big_Society.aspx

In response to recent events, both the IMF and the OECD have produced papers assessing the case for a fiscal stimulus to stabilize national economies. In the nature of the pressures on international organizations, both will have played down explicit ideological clashes to avoid giving offence to member state governments. I post the links here for any readers who want some return value for those fractions of their taxes which go in subscriptions to the IMF and the OECD:

OECD: Effectiveness and scope of fiscal stimulus
http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/3/62/42421337.pdf

IMF Case for global fiscal stimulus
http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/spn/2009/spn0903.pdf

Btw on above references in the thread to British history, readers may be interested in what Ben Elton’s uncle said in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge on: The Future of the Past (1968):

“Now one of the most curious things about the English, I think . . . is that they suppose themselves to conscious of history and to be enveloped in History. They are not. They are both indifferent and ignorant as far as history is concerned. If you want a really historically conscious country you have to go either to Central Europe, where they have too much history . . . or to the United States, where they have so little of it. I think that England could do with knowing more about its past, but that’s always been so.”

Quoted in Norman Davies: The Isles (1999). Geoffrey Elton was born in Tübingen, under the name of Gottfried Ehrenberg. Fortunately, he and his brother managed to reach Britain in 1939.

“Three cheers for Keynes !

Try: Robert Skidelsky: Keynes – The Return of the Master (Allen Lane 2009)”

Try: Hunter Lewis: Where Keynes Went Wrong

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Where-Keynes-Wrong-Hunter-Lewis/dp/1604190175/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1257978706&sr=8-1

Haven’t read Skidelsky’s book but have read Paul Davidson’s “The Keynes Solution”.

@31: Try: Hunter Lewis: Where Keynes Went Wrong

I trust Mr Lewis has written as a matter of urgency to the IMF and to the OECD about their assessments of policy options to deal with recessions to put them right, as well as to all those (many) governments which pushed through fiscal expansions in response to recessions.

Readers here may be interested in this article by Professor Feldstein on: The Case for Fiscal Stimulus
http://www.nber.org/feldstein/projectsyndicate_fiscalstimulus.pdf

Professor Feldstein, of Harvard, is probably the most senior and widely respected academic economist associated with the Republican Party. He was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors during the Reagan administration and was president and ceo of the National Bureau of Economic Research 1977-82, 1984-2008.

Also of special interest is this paper by Prof Greg Mankiw (Harvard): The Macroeconomist as Scientist and Engineer:
http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/mankiw/files/Macroeconomist_as_Scientist.pdf

It is of special interest as Prof Mankiw was for a while chairman of the council of economic advisors in the GW Bush administration 2003-5.

Keynes has never been short of critics and I can think of more than a few with rather stronger academic credentials than Mr Lewis – such as Professor David Laidler: Fabricating the Keynesian Revolution (Cambridge UP, 1999):
http://eh.net/bookreviews/library/0256

‘Same here – and I challenge anyone who has read Cameron’s lecture on Tuesday about The Big Society to claim that ideological clashes have withered away:
http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2009/11/David_Cameron_The_Big_Society.aspx

Those ideologies wouldn’t even be recognised by most people. That’s a clash between ruling elites. Ideologies usually are. For the bulk of us life is lived within economic and legal restraints, not according to ideologies whether they are dominant or (more rarely) oppositional.

The reason that Thatcherism/Reaganism succeeded wasn’t just that they won ideological hegemony (to return to Gramsci’s theories mentioned in an earlier thread) but that they changed those material constraints through, for instance, anti-union legislation, restructuring the police into a professional strike-breaking paramilitary force and the sale of council houses and large scale privatisation which gave many people a material stake in collaborating with the new economic relations.

Marx himself gave little attention to ideology and far more to materialism.

@33: “The reason that Thatcherism/Reaganism succeeded wasn’t just that they won ideological hegemony (to return to Gramsci’s theories mentioned in an earlier thread) but that they changed those material constraints through, for instance, anti-union legislation, restructuring the police into a professional strike-breaking . . ”

If so, I’m not clear on how the Conservatives led by Mrs Thatcher so easily won general elections in 1979, 1983 and 1987.

As best I can tell, no one was being forced to vote Conservative in the various ballot stations I went to for those elections and there were no subsequent media reports of massive election fraud that I recall.

The biggest threat to the government was from the miners’ strike of 1984/5 but that was mainly lost because of massive coal stocks above ground built up prior to the strike, the continued working of miners in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, the prior conversion of power stations to burn either coal or oil, and because the Labour Party and other trade unions backed off supporting the NUM. Apart from the strike bound NUM members, practically everyone else regarded the strike as doomed to fail. All the Police did was to constrain the violent picketing that went on.

It’s curious that the New Labour governments have not repealed the industrial relations legislation of the Thatcher and Major governments.

‘If so, I’m not clear on how the Conservatives led by Mrs Thatcher so easily won general elections in 1979, 1983 and 1987.’

Because of the privatisation and sale of council housing that I mentioned but which you cropped. They altered peoples lives materially, not (primarily) ideologically.

‘The biggest threat to the government was from the miners’ strike of 1984/5 but that was mainly lost because of massive coal stocks above ground built up prior to the strike, the continued working of miners in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, the prior conversion of power stations to burn either coal or oil, and because the Labour Party and other trade unions backed off supporting the NUM. Apart from the strike bound NUM members, practically everyone else regarded the strike as doomed to fail. All the Police did was to constrain the violent picketing that went on.’

Again, those are primarily material factors not ideological ones.

‘It’s curious that the New Labour governments have not repealed the industrial relations legislation of the Thatcher and Major governments’

Not surprising as they represent the same interests as the Tories did. The population in general don’t buy into ideology. Sometimes the ruling classes have opposing ideologies, sometimes (like now) they share the same one. Ideologies are a luxury reserved for those whose material needs are already taken care of.

There’s certainly opposition to ruling ideology among the working class but it’s practical, not theoretical. The proletarian intellectuals Gramsci theorised become absorbed – if they stride at all – within the ideological battles of the ruling classes and generally insulated from the practical necessities of life.

‘- if they arrise at all – ‘

Crappy autocorrective text!

Anyway, to clarify: those clashes of ideology I mentioned in 6. are best understood as *practical opposition* to ruling ideologies rather than clashes between competing ideologies.

@35: “Not surprising as they represent the same interests as the Tories did. The population in general don’t buy into ideology. Sometimes the ruling classes have opposing ideologies, sometimes (like now) they share the same one.”

How come then that there was no agreement between the New Labour government and the Conservative opposition over whether a fiscal stimulus was the appropriate response to the financial crisis and the recession the crisis induced? Why the split in America between the Democrats and the Republicans over the fiscal stimulus of the Obama administration? Why did Peer Steinbrück, the SPD finance minister in the previous German government, condemn the cut in VAT for a year, announced by Alistair Darling a year ago, as “crass Keynesianism”?
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/11/germany-gordon-brown

In recent years, public spending on healthcare services as a percentage of national GDP in Britain has risen closer to the average for west European countries. How come if Labour and the Tories took the same view on the political priority accorded to funding the public services?

Why the disagreement over Cameron’s Big Society vision if Labour and the Conservatives share the same ideology and represent the same interests?

“Because of the privatisation and sale of council housing that I mentioned but which you cropped.”

Nuts. The majority of households were already in owner-occupied homes even before Thatcher was elected to government in May 1979 – council tenants were a steadily diminishing minority.

One consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall was that western intelligence agencies were able to access the files of the Stasi, the secret police in East Germany. The result of that was the exposure of a cluster of Stasi agents operating in Britain who featured in BBCTV documentaries on: The Spying Game in 1999:

“A left-wing academic, unmasked as a spy in the unfolding Cold War scandal, has denied acting illegally or betraying his country.

“Vic Allen, 77, a former leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), said he had ‘no regrets’ over providing information to the East German Stasi secret police.

“The retired Leeds University professor, from Keighley, North Yorkshire, said he did pass on information about CND’s activities. But he said he considered that perfectly legitimate because he belonged to a pro-Soviet, pro-East German faction of the group.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1999/09/99/britain_betrayed/451366.stm

“Also named is Vic Allen, a retired professor of economics at Leeds university, who was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and went on the first Aldermaston march. A firm Stalinist, it is alleged he passed on information about CND to his East German handlers.

“After the revelation this weekend that he had been ‘an agent of influence’, he said he had no regrets. . .

“Prof Allen was an ally of Arthur Scargill during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. In 1987 he published a book, The Russians Are Coming. His pro-Soviet views were well known. . .”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,271697,00.html

I wonder how Professor Allen and his colleagues are commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall?

39. Mike Killingworth

[35] Those coal stocks were built up by miners working overtime. There was a row in the NUM at the time IIRC over the wisdom of agreeing to overtime to allow management to build up reserves of coal at pitheads which could late be used to bust a strike. Aah, the leadership style of King Arthur!

A strategy for a Conservative government to deal with a potential mining strike was set out in a paper by Nicholas Ridley while the Conservatives were still in opposition in the late 1970s. When it came to it, the Thatcher government adhered fairly closely to the strategy as reported in The Economist of May 27, 1978 but the NUM apparently failed to notice:
http://www.co-opnet.coop/viewtopic.php?t=367&highlight=ridley+report

Apart from Professor Allen (mentioned above), the Yorkshire NUM was getting advice from at least one other professor of economics to my knowledge.

One interpretation is that Scargill was bright enough – or sufficiently advised – to realise that the strike was doomed but wanted a demonstration of revolutionary action by the workers even if that failed. At the time there was certainly popular gossip about whether the strike would succeed in bringing down the Thatcher government re-elected in September 1983 with a majority of 140. IMO it was hugely significant that other trade unions and the Labour Party backed away from supporting the strike. One reason was the failure of the Yorkshire NUM – the lead region in the strike – to hold a strike ballot. The Nottinghamshire NUM did hold a ballot as a result of which the pits there kept working, as did the Leicestershire pits.

Mick McGahey, NUM VP, eventually distanced himself from the course of the strike with delphic comments such as: “We are a movement not a monument”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mick_McGahey

And this about “flexibility”:
http://www.amielandmelburn.org.uk/collections/mt/pdf/87_07_24.pdf

Btw an interesting incidental is that from January 1985 through to 1990, Putin was based in East Germany as a KGB liaison officer with the Stasi. The KGB and Stasi cooperated fairly closely so, presumably, Putin was placed to read the reports of Stasi agents operating in Britain and put suggestions to the Stasi about the control of the agents.

Bob B

I don’t see how the acts you list as counter-points are ideological.

Nationalisation of the Bank of England (and of coal and steel) reflected the economic crisis faced and the drive to exert Keynesian control. Now I suppose you could argue Keynesian economic modelling is a philosophy – but that would be foolish. It is more accurately understood as one of many political undertakings within a philosophically and so economically liberal society.

Creation of the NHS likewise – born out of solidarity rather than ideology. Its founders honestly believed it would be a short lived entity that would deal with the backlog of longstanding demand for healthcare – and then would scale down as demand would have been met. (read the memoirs of its main protagonists – they are fascinating)

On Wilberforce and the riots acts – you seem to have ignored my “since the 1800s” comment. The 1800s were, after all, when we fully established liberal democracy as the near-universally accepted order for Britain. Indeed the constitutional crisis of 1910-11 was the final desperate act by a minority to keep the UK from being a liberal democracy. And they failed.

In fact you seem to attribute any lack of consensus to ideological dispute.

So tell me what ideology lay behind the debates on trade tariffs in the first third of the 1900s? I would argue none, since it was a pragmatic debate about strengthening ties in the empire and the cost of food for the poor.

Likewise What philosophical grand idea lay behind the debate over rearmament? I would argue none as it was a debate about how to best secure the nation’s interests abroad, and safety at home.

Bob B

I don’t see how the acts you list as counter-points are ideological.

Nationalisation of the Bank of England (and of coal and steel) reflected the economic crisis faced and the drive to exert Keynesian control. Now I suppose you could argue Keynesian economic modelling is a philosophy – but that would be foolish. It is more accurately understood as one of many political undertakings within a philosophically and so economically liberal society.

Creation of the NHS likewise – born out of solidarity rather than ideology. Its founders honestly believed it would be a short lived entity that would deal with the backlog of longstanding demand for healthcare – and then would scale down as demand would have been met. (read the memoirs of its main protagonists – they are fascinating)

On Wilberforce and the riots acts – you seem to have ignored my “since the 1800s” comment. The 1800s were, after all, when we fully established liberal democracy as the near-universally accepted order for Britain. Indeed the constitutional crisis of 1910-11 was the final desperate act by a minority to keep the UK from being a liberal democracy. And they failed.

In fact you seem to attribute any lack of consensus to ideological dispute.

So tell me what ideology lay behind the debates on trade tariffs in the first third of the 1900s? I would argue none, since it was a pragmatic debate about strengthening ties in the empire and the cost of food for the poor.

Likewise What philosophical grand idea lay behind the debate over rearmament? I would argue none as it was a debate about how to best secure the nation’s interests abroad, and safety at home.

So tell me what ideology lay behind the debates on trade tariffs in the first third of the 1900s? I would argue none, since it was a pragmatic debate about strengthening ties in the empire and the cost of food for the poor.

I’d disagree on that – Imperial Preference was one of three times when the Conservatives split on an an explicitly ideological policy – IP being the conflict between free trade and the attempt to construct a protected trading area. The first was the repeal of the Corn Laws, the third was over Europe in the 1990s. It is, or should be, instructive that when the Tories have focused so heavily on an ideological debate the immediate result has been an electoral thumping.

Tim

Again – I’m not sure that’s ideological. I agree it is a fundemental disagreement. But that’s not the same thing.

Taking an entirely seperate example so as not to confuse matters – the ANC split in South Africa at one point about whether their very singular ideological aim (liberal democracy – and thus equality) would be best achieved by violence or non-violent civil disobedience.

Of course some people had a principled pascifist view, but the debat was largely one about achieving an aim.

Likewise with trade tarrifs and the EU (I know less about the Corn Law debates within the tory Party I’m afraid, though again, that’s pre-liberal democracy as the universal status quo).

On the EU the debate in the Try party was one about the best option for prosperity in the UK economy. With tariffs it was to some extent about the right move to strengthen the empire, but also to some extent a debate about whether the empire should be strengthened if that meant hunger for Britons.

Neither view questioned the ideological status quo that we werea liberal democracy with a right to property and so forth.

Remember – debate even now is often vehment and irreconsilable. That doesn’t make it idealistic.

44 – well, if the argument is that since the establishment of the UK as a liberal democracy political debate has only existed within the constrains of that democracy, then yes, I agree. I think, however, that might be a slightly restrictive view of ideology.

Free trade was, on most definitions, an ideological position – like free markets or the freedom of the press. The arguments within the Tory Party (and it is instructive that the prime instigator of Tarriff Reform was not a Tory at all) were less about the practical and immediate effects of tarriffs and more an ideological question of how they saw the future of Britain and her Empire.

Similarly, for the Liberals, Ireland. Home Rule was surely an ideological question. Parties don’t tend to split on practicalities, but on ideologies. That’s why (for example) Bevan resigned over NHS charges for spectacles.

Tim J

I’d be inclined to agree with you – But I then fail to see how lacks ideology today.

We’ve seen the Tories split over signing the European social chapter. We’ve seen Labour split over an interventionist foreign policy. But neither debate was particularly ideological. Everyone (almost) wanted what was best for Iraqis, and for Britain to be safe. And people debated whether invading would further or worsen those aims. Likewise the Social Chapter was a debate about hurting the economy or hurting our influence in Europe. It was not primarily one of sovereignty despite that being tact on.

So a strong pragmatic aspect remains in politics even where there are severe splits.

To illustrate that just look at the railways and the tube.

The Tories privatised the railways – Labour nationalised them (Network Rail debts are classified as public debt now I believe)

Meanwhile Labour privatised the maintenance of the Tube (Gordon Brown as Chancellor forced the PPP on London) and the Conservatives (Boris Johnson) oversaw the renationalisation of it (by deciding not to re-issue PPP when the firm went bust.)

This demonstrably pragmatic outlook is a strong theme in British politics. And while marginal matters like Nationalism (various independece movements) and socialism (notably during WW2) play their parts – their influence over wider society is always very limited because of the concensus around libeal democracy.

I went over the wall twice in the 1970’s! True, I was on a train to Moscow each time, but I got a very good view of no-man’s land, and the east German border guards flanking the tracks with dogs, mirrors and machine guns.
Allow me a little anecdote: I used the opportunities to smuggle subversive books into the USSR – Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Kafka. I had some books loose in my luggage, and as we approached the Soviet border at Brest, my anxieties grew. There was a solution. In those days, trains which went between the west and east had special racks of informative literature in each carriage, you know, selected speeches of Brezhnev, why capitalism was bound to fail, how people in the east lived carefree lives and so on. Naturally, no-one ever bothered to look at these pamphlets, so I had a brainwave. I took my subversive books and put them in the racks, behind the various unread pamphlets. Half an hour later, in the customs hall at Brest, I came the nearest ever to losing control of my bowels as a Soviet customs man picked a packet of soap powder out of my suitcase and shook it in front of me. Inside it, in addition to Persil, was a Russian translation of Animal Farm. Half an hour later, I was back on the train, where I collected my books from behind the pamphlets ready for distribution in Moscow and elsewhere.

Anyway, your assertion “In large measure, conservatism is precisely a disposition (against change)”, is entirely simplistic.

It is a disposition which recognises the limited susceptibility to change and tolerance for change in human beings. It recognises that human beings are motivated by complex forces far more deeply ingrained, often innate, than that of the simplistic model of the world which underlies the convictions of the left. It is a disposition which sees it as wasteful of time and energy, and often detrimental, to strive to change the unchangeable, eradicate the innate, attempt to make real unrealisable ideals. Far better to recognise the existence of human imperfections and ameliorate their excesses and effect progress by piecemeal social engineering, which can be reversed if necessary, rather than massive revolutionary gestures. Then change proceeds at a tolerable pace. How have I come to this conclusion? Not from textbooks or lectures or symposia, but simply from 62 years of observing human beings and being subject to the inexorable influence of reality. I was a lefty in the 1960’s. I voiced the same sort of things I see on this forum. I railed when my elders said “You’ll think differently when you’re older. You’ll be reading the Daily Telegraph in ten years time.”I cringe to think that I believed what I did then.

I’m a different person from the one I was 40 years ago. Paul Sagar will be too. No offence, Paul. I think you’ll find that most old reactionaries like me were fiery radicals in our youth. Time and experience work wonders. Look at Tony Benn.

‘How come then that there was no agreement between the New Labour government and the Conservative opposition over whether a fiscal stimulus was the appropriate response to the financial crisis and the recession the crisis induced? Why the split in America between the Democrats and the Republicans over the fiscal stimulus of the Obama administration? Why did Peer Steinbrück, the SPD finance minister in the previous German government, condemn the cut in VAT for a year, announced by Alistair Darling a year ago, as “crass Keynesianism”?’

Those are still just disputes in managerial style among ruling elites, they are hardly signs of major ideological conflict. It may get people within that elite hot under the colar but that’s the narcissism of small differences; most people outside those elites aren’t even aware of the debate.

“Those are still just disputes in managerial style among ruling elites, they are hardly signs of major ideological conflict.”

What’s in a handle? The disagreements over the cited policy issues are wide and have divergent fundamental roots. The decisions, one way or another, will produce real differences in the lives of millions. To put all that down to mere differences in managerial style seems to me to be demonstrably absurd.

Did the fall of the Berlin Wall kill ideology?

Of course it didn’t. It may have ended one particular ideological struggle — or at the very least called a temporary ceasefire — but to suggest that the Road Protests that took place in Britain during the decade that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall weren’t ideological is rather strange. Similarly the protests at the London Arms Fair, the G20 summit, Faslane… all are, to a greater or lesser extent, based upon ideology (“The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture”).

I was 18 when the Wall fell and had become involved in left wing political activism a couple of years earlier. The discussions I had around the campfire at the Newbury Protest eight years later were no less ideological than those I’d had as an idealistic 16 year old Marxist (though — I’d hope — just a tad more sensible).

To declare the death of ideology when you actually mean “the ending of one particular ideological battle” might make a better headline but doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. The lines have simply shifted. Whether it’s feminism, religious belief or ecological sustainability, ideology will have just as great a bearing on the future as it’s had on the past.

Bob B

Why is it demonstrably absurd?

The article was about the death of ideology and the notion that this is killing off interest in politics among the young.

It isn’t about the notion that there are no debates that make a difference to people’ lives. NHS spending and efficiency makes a difference to millions of lives. It just isn’t a matter of ideology. Its managerial.

I write this as a champion of managerial politics – since I think it comes from liberal democracy triumphiing as an ideology – and because fewer people die from clashes over detail and direction within an ideology than between ideologies.

But that doesn’t make those managerial debates ideological.


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