Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Neoliberalism and the Battle of Ideas


















If you want to see the problems of the Tory party encapsulated, watch Boris Johnson's conference speech. For the first and perhaps the only time, the faithful turned out in large numbers to listen to the man who would be king expend a great deal of words saying nothing in particular. But there is one thing our fatuous foreign secretary did touch on, which marked "Call me" Philip Hammond's speech yesterday, has cast a shadow over the depleted fringes and will haunt Theresa May's tomorrow, and that is the idea of loss. It's not just the election, it's the yawning realisation that insurgent Corbynism has not only brought left Labourism back to the fore, but there lurking in the background is the spectre of communism. What is worse, its rude return in the Russian Revolution's centennial year eschews tankie patina for the promise of a better future. It's a communism entirely in tune with the zeitgeist. Fully automated luxury communism is more than a semi-jokey meme, it's where the cutting edge of leftist thought is at and its elaboration is drawing in many thousands of radicalised brains.

Small wonder the Tories are nervous. As Hammond observed, debates they thought were settled in the 1980s are coming back. At an opening address away from the conference hall, the PM said it was necessary to make the case for free market capitalism all over again. Johnson went there too, and sundry commentators, including our intellectually-challenged friends at CapX, are panicking and turning out (what they think are) hit pieces demonstrating the superiority of neoliberal capitalism to its statist/social democratic variants and, naturally, North Korea. I'm certainly all for a clash of ideas, and if the thin gruel doled out by Tory politicians and ideologues seen thus far is the best they can do then they stand no hope of stymieing the intellectual advance of leftist ideas.

There is another thing hampering them as well. The Tories didn't win the battle of ideas in the 1980s by the force of argument, they secured their temporary victory on the basis of, well, force. Social democratic and socialist ideas weren't debated into a deep sleep, they were bludgeoned into a coma by mounted police at Orgreave and batons at Wapping. The defeat of the two pivotal labour movement struggles of that decade sapped the militancy and belief of hundreds of thousands of workers, some of which carried the pall of defeat with them as they ascended the trade union ranks. This helps explain the "new unionism" of the 1990s and after with its emphasis on service provision and partnership with the bosses. The trauma of loss demobilised masses of people and, unsurprisingly, the Labour Party reflected this with a collapse in confidence of the left and the rise of New Labour. Internationally, the demise of the Soviet Union and its client regimes cemented the triumph of bourgeois ideas. When Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history in, well, The End of History, as the contest between neoliberal capitalism and its adversaries went it didn't present as an entirely ludicrous argument.

The battle of ideas wasn't just about force. Thatcher, Reagan and co. exorcised the bourgeois imagination of its phantoms because, at least, enough people were doing well. While the miners suffered and were starved back to the pit heads, plenty of folks got along quite nicely. With the NUM broken, Thatcher could get on with privatising the utilities and letting council tenants buy their homes on the cheap. The result was the creation of a layer of working class people with a modest property holding and perhaps a few British Gas shares which, the Tories hoped, would be enough to nudge them towards voting Conservative. At the same time, credit exploded as real wages modestly rose and modestly fell, which lowered the bar of entry into the rapidly diversifying consumer markets. Meanwhile, the introduction of markets into public services and the fiddling with education policy started positioning service users as self-activating consumers and pupils and students as young Thatcherites who would, and could only get on by their own individual efforts. This was the marrying up of individualism with the entrepreneurial self, of the inculcation of neoliberal subjectivity against the backdrop of rising affluence powered by privatisation and debt.

As many people have observed of late, the problem with Thatcherism is you eventually run out of things to privatise. Free market ideas became the ruling orthodoxy because it appeared to work. If your argument is that capitalism minus regulation, a decent sized public sector and powerful trade unions leads to generalised prosperity, then it had better deliver otherwise people are going to get sceptical of such claims. And this is where we are now. Corbynism is popular and opening the gate to a certain pair of German gentlemen because capitalism isn't delivering for enough. As Chris has recently noted, the right are going out of their way to prove the Marxist contention that capitalism cannot be fundamentally reformed. Even tweaking capitalism so young people can look forward, as David Willets puts it, "to own a place of their own, to have a decent funded pension and to have a reasonably secure job that's well paid" is entirely off the agenda. Instead all the government can offer is a £10bn boost to help to buy, which does nothing to address housing supply and does everything to force prices upwards, and freeze tuition fees after whacking them up to £9,250.

The problem the Tories now have is they are having to fight the ideas wars again without cops, without baubles and bribes, and against the backdrop of an obviously broken system seemingly incapable of offering a better future. It's a fight taking place on a more or less equal footing, and that is why they're terrified.

11 comments:

Dialectician1 said...

To paraphrase Gramsci, the Tories are failing to win hearts and minds. Like war and imperialism, the 'financialisation' of capitalism did work in the short term in alleviating the crisis of capitalism. We took on debt, markets expanded and profits rose. The financial crash of 2008 ought to have changed minds but it didn't. Instead, we chose austerity and the hollowing-out of public services, whose shelf-life is now coming to an end. There is now a real legitimation crisis for free market capitalism and the Tories know it. Brexit (economic nationalism) has been a successful diversion tactic but it has within it too many contradictions. Labour's simple message is for the regulation of the markets and social justice and it is winning over hearts and minds.

P.S. The use of force on picket lines wasn't confined to the Tories, as anyone on the picket line during the Grunwick Strike will tell you. This was a Labour government and the SPG charged at trade unionists with truncheons and broke heads.

David Timoney said...

"The Tories didn't win the battle of ideas in the 1980s by the force of argument, they secured their temporary victory on the basis of, well, force. Social democratic and socialist ideas weren't debated into a deep sleep, they were bludgeoned into a coma by mounted police at Orgreave and batons at Wapping".

Social democracy and Labourism were intellectually exhausted by the mid-70s, and we shouldn't forget the precedent for much of what came later that was established by the Callaghan administration's proto-neoliberalism (as Dialectician1 notes, remember Grunwick). Labour's internal struggles of the early-80s were a result of this: a contest between revivalists, centrist grandads and neoliberal fanatics.

The Tories took advantage of this conjunction by instrumentally adopting neoliberal policies (the contradictions of which with echt conservatism would eventually give us Brexit). Orgreave and Wapping were essentially mopping-up operations after the battle had long been lost.

It is always important to remember that conservatives don't like free markets and are suspicious of capitalism, precisely because of the risks they present to privilege and the established order (Hammond's preaching to the converted on the merits of capitalism makes more sense when you appreciate that his audience is actually sceptical).

What we're seeing in the Conservative Party today is the triumph of reaction over revolution, and therefore potentially the expulsion of its neoliberal entryists. This inescapably means the extermination of "ideas" within the Tory context. It does not mean that neoliberalism is dead but that its adherents think it requires a rebrand (ask the majority of the CLP).

Mathias Alexander said...

Yes. I agree. One thing that puzzeled me over all these long years was
the lack of discussion from the left, the right and the centre, about
what a "free market" was supposed to be, what Adam Smith meant by it and, most importantly to what extent the things we got resembled what it was meant to be. We still don't.

Blissex said...

«Social democratic and socialist ideas weren't debated into a deep sleep, they were bludgeoned into a coma by mounted police at Orgreave and batons at Wapping.»


Oh man, not only somebody is wrong on the internet, somebody is ridiculously wrong. This is delusional leftie thinking of the most exceptional quality:

* There is absolutely no relationship between those strikes and "Social democratic and socialist ideas".
* In particular because both events were about largely corporatist fights: a lot of miners themselves though that scargillism was adventurist and wrongheaded, and many workers reckoned that typesetter "chapels" had very much to do with guilds and not much to do with "Social democratic and socialist ideas" either.
* Militancy of a syndicalist type might have been affected by the risk of being beaten up, but certainly not that for "Social democratic and socialist ideas", or for peace as in the CND.

«Social democracy and Labourism were intellectually exhausted by the mid-70s, and we shouldn't forget the precedent for much of what came later that was established by the Callaghan administration's proto-neoliberalism»

That's also quite ridiculously wrong: there was no such intellectual exhaustion, except perhaps instead for the fugue into delusionism of the left; even Callaghan's rightism was not neoliberal.

«Orgreave and Wapping were essentially mopping-up operations after the battle had long been lost.»

Indeed this. The sadly more realistic take is that "Social democratic and socialist ideas" were not defeated, but waned in salience because of Thatcher's popularity.

Thatcher's popularity was not accidental even if without the Falklands victory most likely she would have lost or nearly lost those elections, it was due to two problems created by the lack of reflection of the "red flag" singing left:

* How to make sure that strikes, especially in public services, are not perceived as being anti-customer and anti-public.
* How to deal with the success of the "Social democratic and socialist ideas" that had turned many poor working class people into moderately affluent middle class people with property, pensions, sending the kids to university even.

Neither problem has been really debated successfully by the "red flag" singing left, and the mandelsonian entrysts conversely simply adopted the tory motto "blow you! I am allright jack" in their base pandering to the “aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose”.

The turning point was not in the battle of ideas; it was in a very practical psephological study by a right-wing think-tank in the late 1970s that showed that regardless of class people who rented their house, used public transport, had defined benefit pensions tended to vote left, and again regardless of class people who owned a tiny house, had a crappy car, owned a minuscule share based retirement account tended to vote right.
Thatcher than proceeded to smash council housing, wreck public transport, and discourage defined benefit pensions, and won the battle not of ideas but of people's wallet-based instincts.

Blissex said...

Noted sociologist Tony Blair, when he still belonged to the Labour party, in 1987, wrote appositely as to the tories winning not the battle of ideas but that of interests, and not by beating up adventurist or corporatist strikers:

www.lrb.co.uk/v09/n19/tony-blair/diary
«Post-war Britain has seen two big changes. First, and partly as a result of reforming Labour governments, there are many more healthy, wealthy and well-educated people than before. In addition, employment has switched from traditional manufacturing industries to a more white-collar, service-based economy. The inevitable result has been that class identity has fragmented. Only about a third of the population now regard themselves as ‘working-class’. Of course it is possible still to analyse Britain in terms of a strict Marxist definition of class: but it is not very helpful to our understanding of how the country thinks and votes. In fact, of that third, many are likely not to be ‘working’ at all: these are the unemployed, pensioners, single parents – in other words, the poor. A party that restricts its appeal to the traditional working class will not win an election. That doesn’t entail a rejection of socialism’s traditional values: but it does mean that its appeal, and hence its policies, must address a much wider range of interests.»
«Mrs Thatcher didn’t create these circumstances: she was a product of them and her policies are a response to them. But the measures most closely associated with her – council-house sales, trade-union ballots, wider share ownership – reflect, at least rhetorically, the notion of devolving power. Her slogan in 1987 was ‘power to the people’; her Conference speech borrowed a phrase – ‘an irreversible shift in power in favour of working people’ – from Labour’s 1974 Manifesto. In other words, even Mrs Thatcher has had to pretend that she is extending opportunity and power. The weakness of Thatcherism is that, whatever the rhetoric, the policies don’t work. They end up concentrating power in the hands of √©lites, in restricting freedom and in centralising control. The ‘free’ market does not distribute fairly or efficiently: it produces inequality and monopoly.»
«The fundamental error of Dr Owen (and, oddly, of David Steel since the election, though not before it) has been to surrender to Mrs Thatcher’s philosophy and say that power can only be devolved through the market. The 1990s will not see the continuing triumph of the market, but its failure. If in 1974 a soothsayer had predicted that by 1984 Birmingham North-field, with its 10,000 Labour majority, or Sherwood, with perhaps more pits than any other constituency, would be Tory, he would have been considered deranged. It has come to pass, but for reasons that can be analysed and understood and thus overcome. Labour can start its journey on the road to recovery with confidence in its beliefs and values. But it must keep an open mind and face difficult thoughts. The alternatives are not to embrace Thatcherism or escape from reality in some comforting romantic atavism. There is another way: to go back to our founding principles of a hundred years ago and apply them afresh to the world as it is today.»

Blissex said...

«in the Conservative Party today is the triumph of reaction over revolution, and therefore potentially the expulsion of its neoliberal entryists.»

Yes, the tory wing of the Conservatives have been mad for a while at the whig wing, especially the "moderate" pro-EU, "socially liberal" wing of Cameron and Osborne; and they expressed that imperial-nostalgia infused brexiteering.
But the whig wing is clever and ruthlessly opportunistic, and obvious whigs like Johnson, Gove, Fox, Redwood are now riding the tory wing into brexiteering, I guess with a view to tame it to whig purposes (the Dubai option).

BP said...

@ Blissex

"That's also quite ridiculously wrong: there was no such intellectual exhaustion, except perhaps instead for the fugue into delusionism of the left; even Callaghan's rightism was not neoliberal."

It certainly marked a step along the road to 'neoliberalism', even compared to Heath. The government embraced, even if it didn't welcome, the idea that the state was 'overloaded' and the country becoming harder to govern, and as a result collective consumption was scaled back and private interests appeased in order to quell popular demands on the system. The reason why it is hard to describe this as neoliberalism is not just the fact that unions and the left still had some power in the party, but that it was hardly backed up by ideas or new thinking at all.

Blissex said...

«The government embraced, even if it didn't welcome, the idea that the state was 'overloaded' and the country becoming harder to govern, and as a result collective consumption was scaled back and private interests appeased in order to quell popular demands on the system.»

On one hand this is a more agreeable proposition than the intellectual exhaustion one, on the other it still smells like fugue into leftie delusionism.

Socialdemocratic/socialist politics is not an unstoppable glorious march, singing the "red flag", into an ever more advanced workers paradise; it has its down moments, where consolidation and even retrenchment are both opportune and right.
As V Ulianovich said in a very different context, rightist opportunism is a mistake, but so is leftist adventurism. "Chto Delat?" is still a good question.

Moments of retrenchment and consolidation are all the more opportune in the context of medium/small countries that have limited sovereignty in a suzerain anti-socialist empire, where Callaghan/Healey themselves were perceived as dangerous far-left extremists. Hey I read recently an article where a "true conservative" described the policies of Cameron/Osborne as profligate socialism...

Which sort of forces a Kautkian/Kerenskian approach (I have read recently that the Militant guys nicknamed T Benn himself "kerensky").

In practice worker-friendly politics need to be realistic, sometimes disappointingly so, and full of compromises. A good model is Norway, that has managed cleverly to make the most of the actual realistic degrees of freedom available. That is something that differentiates left parties in opposition and in government: when in governments the tradeoffs and compromises suddenly become inescapable.

Callaghan was not a class traitor or enemy, was not determined to grind the faces of the poor into the dust, he was just fed-up with what he regarded as adventurism (and there was much syndicalist adventurism around in the 1970s) in the face of the constraints of real-politik. One of the constraints was the left hand side of this graph:

mazamascience.com/OilExport/output_en/Exports_BP_2016_oil_bbl_GB_MZM_NONE_auto_M.png

As to whether Callaghan/Healey were neoliberals, my practical definition of "actually existing neoliberalism" is that it is the idea that every economic problem can be solved with lower wages (euphemized as "labour market reform") and certainly neither of them held that as a principle.

Blissex said...

«there was much syndicalist adventurism around in the 1970s»

Not just in the 1970s, I have just remembered a dismissive diary entry by B Webb:

«Monday, 7 February 1927
Passfield Corner

Ellen Wilkinson reached here on Friday for lunch, in a state of collapse from over—speaking at great mass meetings mainly about China. The daughter of a Lancashire cotton—spinner of rebellious temper and religious outlook she passed from the elementary school to the pupil—teacher centre from thence on a scholarship into Manchester University where she took a good degree and finally landed herself in the House of Commons in 1924 as MP for Middlesbrough. She believes the present trend of trade unionism is towards one big Union! She believes it because it is the catchword of today — just as "workers control" was the catchword of yesterday. Certainly one big union is inconsistent with workers’ control; but that does not trouble her. If the Labour Movement fails to provide the right environment for the development of statesmanship, the government of the country will remain during long periods in the hands of the present governing class who have both brains and leisure; with short futile intervals of Labour Cabinets, tossed in and out of power by conflicting waves of rebellious doctrine, each successive term ending in apathy or disillusionment and party disintegration.»


The more things change, the more they stay the same. :-)
Another one:

«May 1926

For the British Trade Union Movement I see a day of terrible disillusionment. The failure of the General Strike of 1926 will be one of the most significant landmarks in the history of the British working class. Future historians will I think regard it as the death gasp of that pernicious doctrine of "Workers' control" of public affairs through the trade unions, and by the method of direct action. This absurd doctrine was introduced into British working class life by Tom Mann and the Guild Socialists and preached insistently before the War, by the Daily Herald and George Lansbury. In Russia it was quickly repudiated by Lenin and the Soviets. On the whole I think it was a proletarian distemper which had to run its course and like other distempers it is well to have it over and done with at the cost of a lengthy convalescence.»

BP said...

@ Blissex

"As to whether Callaghan/Healey were neoliberals, my practical definition of "actually existing neoliberalism" is that it is the idea that every economic problem can be solved with lower wages (euphemized as "labour market reform") and certainly neither of them held that as a principle."

Hmmm.

You like quotes, so here's one from Callaghan at the 1976 Labour Conference:

"When we reject unemployment as an economic instrument — as we do — and when we reject also superficial remedies, as socialists must, then we must ask ourselves unflinchingly what is the cause of high unemployment. Quite simply and unequivocally, it is caused by paying ourselves more than the value of what we produce."

'Paying ourselves more than the value of what we produce' is rather subjective, and when it came to implementing the Social Contract both Callaghan and Healey were inclined to share the views of capitalists and financiers. This was partly because they were intellectually spent and could see no other way of running the economy.

I wouldn't describe Callaghan or Healey as a 'neoliberal' myself, merely as people who paved the way for it. Actually they were small-c conservatives, trying to preserve a status quo that was rapidly disintegrating.

Speedy said...

If you look at the history of the 1970s, the problem with the unions was not their unity but disunity - the TUC couldn't get them to work together, they were too fragmented. The unions were made up of members, and their members wanted what everyone else wanted - more. Unions were in competition with each other to deliver more for their members, hence the ever-inflating demands.

This is why, speaking broadly, we have the phenomenon of unions bringing down a Labour government and ushering in Thatcherism - many of their members may have indeed voted Labour, but the unions were acting with the voracious logic of Thatcherism on their behalf. This paradox was, and is, lost on them.

Ironically, if there was any time that "socialism" might have succeeded it was then - with Western Europe propped up and bankrolled by the US behemoth to ward off communism. The UK existed with an artificial capitalism that propped up the welfare state. Now your talk of "neoliberalism" is simply capitalism raw in tooth and claw.