Labour axioms, Labour commitments, Labour values

In the conclusion to his essay, Labour as a radical tradition (PDF, pp.14ff.), Maurice Glasman (see previous post) sets out a number of “axioms” of Labour’s “radical tradition” (bullet points and bold highlighting added):

  • Capitalism is based on the maximisation of returns on investment, which creates great pressure to commodify land and labour markets. Human beings and nature, however, are not created as commodities and should not be treated as such.
  • Human beings, in contrast, are dependent rational beings capable of trust and responsibility, who need each other to lead a good life. People are meaning-seeking beings who rely on an inheritance to make sense of their world, on liberty to pursue their own truth, and on strong social institutions which promote public goods and virtue.
  • Democracy, the power of organised people to act together in the Common Good, is the way to resist the power of money. In that sense, Labour holds to a theory of relational power as a counterweight to the power of money.
  • The building of relational power is called organising and this is a necessary aspect of the tradition.
  • As a theory of the Common Good, Labour holds to a balance of power within the Constitution, and in all public institutions, including the economy.

Labour recognises “the innovation, energy and prosperity that markets bring”. However, it also retains “an awareness, absent in liberalism, of the concentrations of power, the disruption and the dispossession that are its accompaniment”. Labour’s response to this is

not the abolition of capital nor the elimination of markets, but their democratic entanglement in regional, civic and vocational relationships.

Glasman then suggests a number of forms which this “democratic entanglement” can take:

  1. A commitment to local, relational or mutual banking.
  2. A commitment to skilled labour, with “real traditions of skill and knowledge” in a “vocational economy”.
  3. A commitment to the balance of power within the firm, so that “managers are held accountable” and “strategy is not based on the interests of one group alone”.
  4. A commitment to forms of mutual and co-operative ownership.

For those whose heads hit the table in despair when they hear phrases like “Blue Labour” or (saints preserve us) “Purple Labour”, and who cry out “Why can’t we just be Labour?”, I suggest that what Glasman is describing in these “axioms” and “commitments” is precisely that: Labour values. Indeed, I think Glasman’s entire thesis is that Labour has distinctive values arising from its unique origins, rather than just being a classic, post-Enlightenment “social democratic” (let alone “liberal”) party.

While I don’t think Glasman’s list is exhaustive – in particular, I do think basic Labour values include a commitment to greater equality, and that this has deep roots in the English radical tradition – I do think it forms a basis for thinking about how Labour can once again present a vision of the common good that can inspire people, and maybe even win power again.

“Radical traditionalism” and the common good

I wonder whether Maurice Glasman ever regrets coining the phrase “Blue Labour”? The name has certainly attracted him plenty of attention, but equally it’s probably led a lot of Labour people to reject Glasman’s ideas out of hand (and, in many cases, unread): “What, you mean it’s like New Labour, but even more right wing???” being, I suspect, the reaction of many.

Which is probably why the new eBook edited by Glasman (among others), The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox (PDF), largely steers clear of the term. Glasman, in his own contribution, prefers to talk about “radical traditionalism”. And if we set aside our aversion to the many blossoming forms of “[your colour here] Labour” and consider Glasman’s argument, there is a lot of good material in there.

Glasman begins by considering the paradoxical nature of Labour politics:

Labour is a paradoxical tradition, far richer than its present form of economic utilitarianism and political liberalism. The Labour tradition is not best understood as the living embodiment of the liberal/communitarian debate, or as a variant of the European Marxist/Social Democratic tension. Labour is robustly national and international, conservative and reforming, christian and secular, republican and monarchical, democratic and elitist, radical and traditional, and it is most transformative and effective when it defies the status quo in the name of ancient as well as modern values.

He argues that Labour’s values are not abstractions such as “freedom” or “equality”. Rather, they are “rooted in relationships, in practices that strengthen an ethical life” – reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity – within a philosophical framework that combines an “Aristotelian” emphasis on the Good Life and the Common Good with an English radicalism that goes back before Enlightenment liberalism to the ancient belief in the “rights of freeborn Englishmen”.

These ethical and radical beliefs led Labour to make three basic assumptions concerning capitalism:

  1. That “capitalism was an exploitative and inefficient system of economic organisation, prone to speculative bubbles and recession. A Labour political economy would be different and superior.”
  2. That there was “an ethical problem with unreformed capitalism, in that it exerted pressure to turn human beings and their natural environment into commodities”, and that as a consequence “only organised people could resist the domination of money”. Hence “for Labour, democratic association was a fundamental commitment”.
  3. That “scientific knowledge and managerial expertise” could be used “to exercise a progressive control of capitalism so that its excesses could be tamed and its general direction allied to more progressive human ends”.

From the 1960s on, however, Labour lost faith in the first two assumptions, and retreated into the managerialism of its third assumption. Labour lost its vision of the “Good Life”, and not least in the “extending [of] democracy in the social life of the nation”. As a result:

…social democracy has become neither social nor democratic. This is the land that Labour has vacated and is now being filled by the Conservative’s ‘Big Society’. The Conservative tradition does have a conception of the social, Burke is an important thinker, but it was lost under Thatcherism and has been robustly reclaimed by Cameron.

Personally, I’m not sure that the vacuity of the “Big Society” could “fill” anything, let alone represent a true reclaiming of a Burkean “conception of the social”, but I agree with Glasman that:

Labour needs to develop the idea of a Good Society as its rival, and such a society would be built on relationships built on reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity, all the way up and all the way down, in politics and within the economy.

As part of this, Labour needs to remember some truths that it has forgotten:

What was forgotten politically was that the welfare state was not a right fulfilled, but an achievement won through sustained organisation and political action, and that was the only way it could be sustained. What was forgotten economically was that capitalism is a volatile system, based upon the exploitation of human beings and nature, and left to itself, will eat itself and the world around it. There are ethical reasons for generating democratic association as an alternative source of power that can entangle it within institutions that promote a Common Good.

I think there are some serious weaknesses with Glasman’s essay. Some of these are stylistic (his bizarre “Mum and Dad” analogy, some too-clever-by-half turns of phrase), some are more substantive: David Miliband, in his response, points out that Glasman underestimates the extent to which inequality makes “relationships of reciprocity and mutuality” impossible.

But where I agree entirely with him is that Labour needs to recover a vision of “the Good”, and that to do so means mining seams of “radical conservatism”, invoking “ancient as well as modern values”. To take just one example: the defence of the NHS is surely, at its heart, a defence of the values of community and solidarity on which the NHS was founded, against the radicalising and revolutionary forces of capital that seek to tear it apart. And the NHS can only be successfully defended, in both the short and the long term, on that basis – not by seeking to defend one particular form of centralised state control, or by appeals to technocratic efficiency (which system produces the shortest waiting lists, and so on).

A bit of the “big Other”

I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s short book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (see my Tumblr for a brief summary of what Fisher means by “capitalist realism”). In one chapter, “All that is solid melts into PR”, Fisher looks at the purpose of the PR, branding and marketing activity that pervades contemporary capitalism, and discusses Slavoj Žižek’s concept (originally from Lacan) of “the big Other”:

The big Other is the collective fiction, the symbolic structure, presupposed by any social field. The big Other can never be encountered in itself; instead we only confront its stand-ins. (p.44)

These “stand-ins” include not only political leaders but (perhaps even more so) the media. It is this “big Other” towards which PR is directed:

One important dimension of the big Other is that it does not know everything. It is this constitutive ignorance of the big Other that allows public relations to function. Indeed, the big Other could be defined as the consumer of PR and propaganda, the virtual figure which is required to believe even when no individual can. (p.44)

It is easier to grasp what is meant by the “big Other” when we look at it in the context of a society whose illusions we are now able to see through: the Communist states of eastern Europe that proclaimed themselves to be examples of “Really Existing Socialism”:

Who was it … who didn’t know that Really Existing Socialism (RES) was shabby and corrupt? Not any of the people, who were all too aware of its shortcomings; nor any of the government administrators, who couldn’t but know. No, it was the big Other who was the one deemed not to know – who wasn’t allowed to know – the quotidian reality of RES. (pp.44f.)

The distinction between what the big Other knows and “what is widely known and experienced by actual individuals” is more than “‘merely’ emptily formal”. If the distinction is lost – if the big Other is suddenly made aware of what it previously did not know – the social system itself can disintegrate.

Fisher argues that this was the real significance of Krushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Stalinism. He wasn’t telling his audience anything they didn’t already know, as individuals, about the brutality and corruption of Stalin’s regime, but:

…Krushchev’s announcement made it impossible to believe any more that the big Other was ignorant of them. (p.45)

So that’s Really Existing Socialism; but what about Really Existing Capitalism? Fisher argues that the prevalence of PR, branding and advertising shows that capitalism can only operate if Capital’s true nature – “rapacious, indifferent, inhuman” – is masked by “various forms of sheathing”:

Really Existing Capitalism is marked by the same division which characterised Really Existing Socialism, between, on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc. (p.46)

Or as we might put it: Capital devours widows’ houses and for a show makes lengthy Corporate Social Responsibility statements.

A small-scale capitalist equivalent to Krushchev’s collapsing of Stalinism’s “big Other” can be seen in the fate of Gerald Ratner:

Ratner precisely tried to circumvent the Symbolic and “tell it how it is”, describing the inexpensive jewellery his shops sold as “crap” in an after-dinner speech. But the consequence of Ratner making this judgment official were immediate, and serious – £500m was wiped off the value of the company and he lost his job. Customers might previously have known that the jewellery Ratners sold was rather poor quality, but the big Other didn’t know; as soon as it did, Ratners collapsed. (pp.46f.)

All this makes me wonder what it is today that the “big Other” in our society does, and doesn’t, know. Further thoughts on this are invited.

One practical political point, though: as Labour seeks to defend its legacy from Tory/Lib Dem attacks, we do need to clear with ourselves about what were genuine achievements that were “widely known and experienced by actual individuals”, and what were things that perhaps only the “big Other” knew about.

The two liberalisms

Interesting post by Stuart White at Next Left on the coming battle for liberalism.

Clark argues that the Conservative/Liberal coalition gives “Orange Book” Liberals like David Laws and Nick Clegg an opportunity to reposition the Liberal Democrats as a party of the centre-right rather than of the centre-left. The Orange Bookers’ aim:

…has always been to reassert the credentials of ‘economic liberalism’ against ‘social liberalism’ – without, they would say, wishing to deny the truths of social liberalism. In essence, this means: a greater willingness to use markets and to tolerate their outcomes.

Clark goes on to suggest that what this highlights is a distinction between two types of liberalism: the “economic” liberalism of the Orange Bookers vs the “egalitarian” liberalism of those who follow in the footsteps of liberal political philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. Clark writes:

Reading someone like David Laws, for example, there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified.

Laws and other Orange Bookers are of course not libertarians, so they are prepared to allow that some departures – some tax-transfers/tax-service arrangements – can be justified. […] But the presumption, for Laws, is clearly for “leaving money in people’s pockets”.

In contrast, for egalitarian liberals:

the ‘free market’ is simply one possible “basic structure” for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which “basic structure” to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure – including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements – to achieve justice so understood.

On this view, taxation and “redistribution” are not invasions into people’s pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally “theirs”. Tax-transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.

To put it another way:

one might say that for these liberal thinkers, it is not the free market that is the appropriate, morally relevant baseline, but equality: it is movement away from equality that has to be justified, not movement away from a free market distribution.

That, incidentally, is the big difficulty I have with classical liberalism (and with its more rough-spoken offspring, libertarianism): the refusal to acknowledge that existing economic structures reflect historical and embedded injustices which only worsen to the extent that they are not actively redressed.

Clark cites the Child Trust Fund as an example of how the two liberalisms differ: for an egalitarian liberal, the CTF is a means of redressing the perceived injustice of some children starting life with inherited capital and some without; for a classical liberal it is “just another government spending program that has been arbitrarily tacked on to the market economy”.

Clark concludes that liberalism of “the egalitarian, Rawlsian kind” has been “driven to the margins of British politics”. With the Liberal Democrats now firmly under the control of the Orange Bookers, and Labour’s liberal credentials badly damaged by its record on civil liberties and state encroachment over the past decade, “no mainstream party now speaks for liberalism in this sense”.

I hope that, in opposition, Labour’s egalitarian liberals – of which I’d tentatively identify myself as one, despite not really getting on with Rawls – will indeed “take on their party’s authoritarians and anti-pluralists”. The omens for the short term are not good, with leadership front-runner David Miliband keen to justify the Labour government’s policies on many civil liberty issues. (See this recent tweet from Miliband, and my exasperated response.)

However, as I’ve observed before, opposition does tend to make parties more liberal, just as government tends to make them more authoritarian. So there are reasons to hope that Labour may once again become a comfortable place for “egalitarian liberals” to stand, and to work with others of similar instincts but differing (or no) political affiliation.

Liberty, property and redistribution

That’s probably enough G.A. Cohen for one week, but to conclude this series of posts here’s an interesting section from the Guardian’s obituary of Cohen (the whole of which is worth reading to get a good impression of both the man and his thought). This articulates my own intuitions regarding the relationship between liberty and equality:

Always open-minded, Cohen found himself “shaken from his dogmatic socialist slumber” by reading Nozick’s argument for the incompatibility of liberty and equality. But, whereas egalitarians tend to attack Nozick’s premises and claim that equality is more important than liberty, Cohen, in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995), brilliantly turned the argument on its head. To the libertarian insistence that John Locke’s laudable principle of self-ownership rules out redistributive taxation and thus the welfare state, Cohen responded that it is precisely devotion to self-ownership principles that underlies the key Marxist theory of alienation*, as well as the left’s historical opposition to slavery and oppression. The right, however, are guilty of conceptual confusion. What they presuppose is that the existing distribution of property is somehow part of the natural order of things, like weather or death, and that freedom is distributed on top of that.

[* For a striking illustration of this, compare this comment from an American libertarian about people’s “fundamental right to the fruit of their own labor” with the old Clause IV’s call “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry”.]

But surely, urged Cohen, private property is itself already a distribution of liberty, which it necessarily restricts. The owner of something is free to use it – others are not. The left had allowed themselves to be wrong-footed in conceding that only under a socialist system would liberty have to be sacrificed, when in fact any distribution of property, being simultaneously a distribution of liberty, requires a trade-off between these different types of “access to advantage”.

What still needs to be decided, though, is which the best distribution is – socialist, capitalist, whatever. And a good case can be made for saying that unequal distribution destroys, rather than enhances, freedom, and that liberty actually requires equality, and therefore redistribution.

Which is probably a good place to leave Cohen as I start reading the second of my post-election politics book acquisitions, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, which seeks to put empirical flesh on the bones of that last sentence.

Socialism as moral challenge

Interesting review of G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, which clarifies some of the points raised in the discussions about his book on recent posts here, in particular as regards (a) the feasibility of socialism and (b) the question of coercion.

For Cohen, the “two core principles of socialism” are “radical equality of opportunity and community”. Given that (as his camping trip example shows) these ideals “are not inherently unattractive”, at least on a small-group level, why is it that “they are currently undesirable on a societal level”?

Cohen sees this as a “technological” problem, stemming from the lack of appropriate mechanisms (equivalent to capitalism’s market mechanisms) to implement socialist principles within society. As the reviewer puts it:

Capitalism, a social technology which harnesses selfish desires to public benefits, is at present unrivalled as the organising spirit of our society. Socialism in Cohen’s sense, where citizens’ interactions are guided by their preference for community over inequality, remains technologically infeasible, for we do not understand how to orchestrate mass interaction and mutual dependence through the more elegant engine of altruism.

Hence socialism is like “one of Da Vinci’s inventions: a vision for a splendid contraption which cannot be constructed for lack of tools”.

Since no such tools currently exist, and no effective mechanisms have been found to “orchestrate mass interaction and mutual dependence” through altruism rather than self-interest, what are we to do in the meantime? Key to Cohen’s position is the moral challenge for individuals to behave in a way that promotes equality, community and care for others. For him, equality is not “an ideal to be achieved in the abstract” but rather “a practical principle to preside over everyday actions as a matter of conscience”. In particular, socialism is not something that can be achieved by force, coercion or central control:

Cohen’s vision is of justice as a mode of interaction between citizens rather than a state-fashioned framework against which we can act as we please – socialism cannot be delegated to the state, in the way that liberal democracy involves delegating politics to politicians. Even with the appropriate social technology, Cohen’s socialism can exist only if enough of us believe in it, and act on this belief.

In conclusion, Cohen’s socialism can be seen as a humanist version of “love your neighbour as yourself”, and of humility regarding one’s own privileges:

Though certainty of state socialism’s advent has all but melted into air, capitalist society still presents myriad opportunities for incremental progress. Cohen’s achievement is to convince us that we should not take the impracticality of state-wide socialism as an excuse for a sense of entitlement to our talent. Instead, integrity invites us to turn to the socialist value of serving the needs of others, not through expectation of reward, but out of care.

Speaking personally, that’s the key for me. As someone who has had significant blessings by birth and upbringing (a good education, ability to pursue a professional career), am I to feel “a sense of entitlement to my talent”, or a sense of indebtedness: not only to my family, but to the wider society? Not “liberal guilt”, but a rational awareness that most of what I have is not by my own choice or efforts, but by a combination of genetic inheritance, upbringing, education and the gift of living in a particular society – and a consequent belief that our political, social and economic settlement should reflect that mutual indebtedness of one to another better than it does now, even if I am extremely hazy as to how exactly that is to be done, or even the extent to which it is possible.

Three types of equality

As we saw in my previous post, G.A. Cohen’s aim in his book Why Not Socialism? is to consider two questions: is socialism desirable? And: is it feasible?

Before those questions can be addressed, however, it is necessary to define what one means by “socialism”. For Cohen it is not a question of government ownership or central planning: rather, he starts from a consideration of equality of opportunity, of which he identifies three levels.

First, bourgeois equality of opportunity. This involves the removal of “status restrictions, both formal and informal, on life chances”. Serfdom and slavery are examples of “formal” restrictions; racial prejudice is an example of an “informal” restriction. Bourgeois equality of opportunity removes these restrictions (to a greater or lesser degree).

Second, left-liberal equality of opportunity. This seeks to remove social restrictions on opportunity: “those circumstances of birth and upbringing that constrain not by assigning an inferior status to their victims, but by nevertheless causing them to labour and live under substantial disadvantages”. The aim is to ensure that people’s life chances are “determined by their native talent and their choices” rather than by their social backgrounds, through initiatives such as “head-start” education programmes for those from deprived backgrounds.

The third level of equality of opportunity is what Cohen calls socialist equality of opportunity. This “treats the inequality that arises out of native differences as a further injustice”, since differences in native abilities is as unchosen as differences in social background. “When socialist equality of opportunity prevails, differences of outcome reflect nothing but differences of taste and choice, not differences in natural and social capacities and powers”. What this means in practice is, for example, in everyone being paid the same hourly rate for their work, so that differences in income reflect nothing more than different tastes for the time spent working.

To be honest, I feel pretty uncomfortable with this concept. I’m not sure that absolute equality of this nature – as opposed to avoiding extremes of inequality – is what we should be heading towards. I found these sections of Cohen’s book the most difficult and least convincing. Perhaps that just means I’m a “left-liberal” rather than a “socialist”, in Cohen’s terms.