Excuse the dust…

It’s somewhat more than four years since I last posted here, but I’ve decided to bring this blog out of hibernation as a venue for any political posts that I don’t think really “fit” my main blog, Curlew River. I’d say “watch this space”, but that would imply I’m definitely going to do anything more than choose a new blog theme…

“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).