Paul on these pages wrote a very long article on new conservatism that, among other things, mentioned and critiqued something that I had written on conservatism and epistemic closure recently. Because I am a writer on this blog, and because his entry spurred me to write a few words myself, I decided to put my reply comment up as a separate blog entry itself.
If I understand Paul in his entry correctly, he is saying that there are a certain portion of the blogospheric commentariat today, myself included but also Richard Seymour and others, who are seeking the creation and implementation of Conservative party policy in the wrong places.
Where those writers are looking at ideology, the shape of Cameron’s Conservatives are coming from elsewhere. Where? Paul very studiously looks to two places primarily; a small clique known as the “sofa cabinet” with its recourse from high Tory politics, and a kind of social policy set out of confused fashionable academic nonsense and “policy on the hoof”.
First of all, if we can substantiate claims that Cameron has beside him a small elite group informing the political vision of the Conservative party today then I’d be the first to congratulate a clique within a governing party that informed policy and not spin politics – though the bar for this has been set quite high – or low depending on taste – by the New Labour project, more of which in a moment.
I suspect the disgust we have with this clique is its political line – and if Paul is right this line is one of delegating off local politics and concerns of the working class, perhaps seen by these guys as a part of low politics, to concentrate on what we might consider “high politics” or specifically foreign and defence policy of the ‘court versus country’ traditions.
I can of course see the reason for reaching this conclusion: today’s politics is about brands, PR and soundbites. To be explicit about the aims of the Cameron “sofa cabinet” – if Paul suspects correctly – would not go down too well with the electorate, and even those within the Conservative party dedicated to market solutions into economic recovery or liberal conservatives keen to match traditional conservativism with social justice.
Perhaps big society is a mask to cover this political recourse, but at this early stage, which Paul has been explicit and realistic about, I think this is mostly conjecture – though I should say that I’m not ruling it out, nor would I be surprised ultimately to find out it is true.
Paul’s second reason is something I think we can hone in upon right now, and can be used to better explore the idea that the Tories are on the pursuit of a different set of ideas rather than being epistemically closed, so to speak. I needn’t repeat Paul’s notable examples, but he is right to talk down the mess of academic, fashionable nonsense that have come out of camps claiming the tag Conservative for themselves.
Additionally, though I think policy on the hoof – also a favourite of the New Labour project – will be a permanent fixture of our 24-hour political culture, Paul stresses that this has not put the brakes on the creation of a political narrative comparable to that written about by Jim Bulpitt.
Unlike how it has been perceived by many, particularly on the left, the Cameron government is not Thatcherism revisited. For the latter, a slim, stripped state was the order of the day, whereas for the former, in Paul’s opinion, a cabinet led by an upper class Oxford graduate, and informed by similar, has created a policy machine that seeks to further those class interests.
Where I’m very interested in Paul’s thought is of how this changes the way in which the left deals with the Conservatives. Class may be a weapon of attack by the so-called new Tories, but the Labour party had their fingers burnt early by displaying a couple of weak attempts to smear the “toff” presence in the Tory party – reducing all talk of class to gutter politics.
Thus Paul’s solution, since class is important a weapon (perhaps the best weapon) of the left, is to marry class politics with an understanding of what the Tories are and what they’re doing to us. That way we don’t just attack for attack sake, we show how class difference will create a government unable to govern responsibly (by which I think Paul means that since high politics delegates working class problems elsewhere, it is unable to function the primary role of government and that is make certain all citizens are considered democratically and its welfare ensured).
I have no problems with this analysis, and I imagine Paul will fill out his conclusion (“Exposing the Tories for where the[y] come from, what they are, and what they’re doing to us”) over the coming weeks and months. But, in my opinion, it is not addressing where conservatism sits with the Conservative party today, and how epistemic closure has somewhat occupied a portion of the party.
I don’t doubt for a second that Cameron, Osborne and the gang are cooking something up; whether that looks like the image described by Paul is a point I shall leave aside for one moment. But the point I tried to make by saying that the Conservative party is experiencing something akin to epistemic closure is to do with the party being unable to rid itself of ideas that are, not conservative, but, there to appease a moonbatty right wing mentality (the EU and immigration curbing Britishness, the pound as the last bastion of national pride, tackling gypsies, NHS tourism, reducing the abortion limit); it is this kind of thinking that makes up a tidy amount of the Tory vote base, and policy will undoubtedly have to be drawn towards that side because the Tories were not able to secure a majority last May, despite being in opposition for 13 years, and being there during an economic recession.
The epistemic closure in the Conservative party does not imply that Cameron himself is lacking in new ideas while keeping an eye on the conservative tradition (at least this was not the primary point I wanted to put across in my blog entry), but that what counts for conservative party thinking today is partly this redundant moonbatty right wing nonsense that one could expect to hear on the Republican shock jock radio shows (where epistemic closure gets its name from).
For this reason I’d want to add a third clause to Paul’s two suggestions for how Conservative party policy is made up today, and that is on what we might, for want of a better term, call the epistemically closed voting base of the Conservative party – whose influence on policy and on what MP stands where, Cameron’s liberal conservatives are unable to shake off by hugging hoodies and talking nice about foreigners and the NHS.
Last week I seized the opportunity for a quick interview with Ed Balls, candidate for the Labour party leadership.
And when I say quick, I mean quick. Around 5 mins 20 secs for the lot, including the pleasantries and finding somewhere where I stood a chance of recording something audible (the resulting quality was not great, but I think I got everything).
The 20-odd questions I’d wanted to put to him on a range of matters, if I’d had the hour originally sought, became a couple of quickies on his political economy. There was also a linked one about working with European socialist parties I threw in at the end, but I’ll leave that out for now.
In a subsequent post I’ll be offering my own commentary on how Ed Balls responded to questions about the deficit from a slightly provocative post-Keynesian/MMT angle – a different angle I suspect than the one he generally gets. MMT adherents will not like a great deal of what he had to say, but what is clear is that he understood the arguments, and responded to them clearly.
I will also be setting out how I think the Left should vote for Ed Balls, with a particular focus on his political economy thinking.
Suffice to say for now, though, that he strengthened his case as the most competent economist of the five contenders, and he remains my first pick for Labour leader. This is not 1994. This is 2010. The Labour party leader needs someone who can lead on the economy.
Here’s the interview.
Me: Do you agree that one of the key problems Labour faces, as it opposes the current coalition’s cuts, is that the coalition’s ‘national debt’ narrative, which aligns itself to the concept of household debt, is actually quite strong?
EB: Well, I agree with you. But I don’t think it’s insurmountable at all, and I think people know it’s simplistic, but if you aren’t putting the alternative argument then, you know, intuitively it can make some sense to people.
Me: Let’s just tease out what that alternative is then, if we can?
I was really interested at the end when you mentioned what Yvette had said about ‘almost full employment’ [in an earlier Q and A session, Ed had referred to Yvette Cooper’s claim that Labour had brought the economy to something near a full employment situation].
Now, I can see that that is fine in an economy which is going well, but what about a struggling economy?
What, for example, do you think of the Modern Monetary Theorists, people Randall Wray and Bill Mitchell, and the guy in the States, Warren Mosler whose running for Senate now, who say that actually what we should be doing is using deficit spending up until the point at which we can guarantee full employment, and that should be the ‘hook’ for our economy, rather than where the deficit sits, in a fiat currency economy.
EB: [After a pause] I think that Keynes would have thought they were wrong.
Me: And why do you think he would have thought they were wrong, in a post gold standard age?
Because public and market confidence, that you can service your debt, is important.
And we know what happened to countries within the single currency area, to countries on a fixed exchange rate, places like Argentina 10 years ago, but also to floating exchange countries like Sweden in the early 90s where there where there’s were a big doubt about whether they could service the debt. The confidence is important and the ability to service the debt on international markets is important
I think the mistake is to think that this confidence comes from being tougher.
I think the markets are more discerning than that. They know that the most important thing is whether people mean what they say and can deliver.
And so if you say I’m going to make more draconian cuts to get the deficit down faster, and ‘I’ll deal with the political consequence, don’t worry about that’, I think that something that’s destabilizing to market confidence rather than stabilizing.
Me: Hence your reference [in the preceding Q&A] to Moody’s statement of last week?
Me: Do you think there are elements of this argument, though – which is that we should be prepared to grow the deficit until we’ve got maximum utilization of resources – that you can exploit in the economic narrative you wish to develop?
EB: I think the deficit is not the right concept. The right concept is debt and debt interest – whether or not you can afford, given your other objectives, to service the level of debt you’ve got.
The deficit is just a flow which measures the rate at which you accumulate your debt.
The question the markets will ask you is not ‘what’s the the level of deficit?’ It’s ‘can you afford to roll over given the term structure and the level of interest rates.
If you start to lose market confidence, what then happens is you start to borrow shorter and more expensively and at that point it becomes very difficult to actually pay your way.
I’m not sure that a deficit goal is the right goal. I think that maintaining confidence for servicing debt makes much more sense. The right way to do that is to have a strong and growing economy. That’s why I don’t think there’s a problem with deficit financing at this stage in the economic cycle.
After all the hype, ominous predictions and sleepless nights for West Yorkshire Police officers with good memories the English Defence League’s self-proclaimed ‘big one’ in Bradford was a damp squib.
The EDL promised what they couldn’t deliver. They wanted a turnout of several thousand and the opportunity to provoke Bradford’s Asian population into a re-run of 2001. Estimates for numbers on the day range between 700 and 1000. Any figure falling within that range is a disappointment for them.
The turnout at Bradford seems to confirm what I’ve suspected for the last couple of months, that the EDL is losing momentum. The demo received huge publicity in the run up to the event and took place on a Bank Holiday when few people will have had work commitments.
The EDL tacitly acknowledge this, releasing a statement today containing none of the usual boasts about a huge turnout and humiliated opposition. Instead there’s an extended whinge about how neo-Nazis keep turning up to their peaceful demos and causing all the trouble.
Attendance appears to have peaked at the demo in Bolton earlier this year where 2000 turned out. Since then their ‘march and grow’ strategy has run into problems.
Since their first outing in Luton last year the EDL has relied on each demo being bigger than the last. While sister organisations in Wales and Scotland were unable to gain any traction, in a just few months the EDL went from being a serious irritant to residents of Luton to a group capable of calling a demo anywhere in England and expecting to see a thousand people turn up. Where’s it going wrong for them?
More of the same
One of their problems is the same as that encountered by the Stop the War Coalition. Not only are they running out of locations to march in but the demos all follow the same pattern. Endless, similar demonstrations eventually start to demoralise people, no matter how strongly they feel about the issues.
Add to this the fact that most EDL supporters have little previous political involvement and so are more likely to be prone to cynicism and defeatism after setbacks. A dud demo (such as the second outing at Dudley or the failure to show in Whitechapel) can have a big impact. Following the demo at Dudley the EDL leadership in the form of Tommy Robinson (otherwise known as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) released this complaint:
The mood of members seems to have been somewhat low since the Dudley demo. Ok lets look at this yes we had one bad demo we were screwed over and lied to by the Old Bill. But one bad demo is all compared to how many good ones guys?
Tough luck Tommy, you’re only as good as you’re last game remember.
The other factor which will potentially put the brakes on the EDL is the leadership themselves.
It’s best to characterise the EDL as a loose coalition between elements of the far right and football hooligans. This involves little in the way of organisation, people are mainly mobilised through existing personal contacts and Facebook. Apart from a general hostility towards Muslims there’s little ideology involved.
The EDL leadership are keen to change this and have been trying to link up with the wider anti-Islam movement in Europe and the genuinely deranged right-wing fringe in America. For example, one of their main Stateside groupies is blogger Pamela Geller, whose book they are touting on their website, who actually seriously claimed that Obama was the secret love child of Malcom X. I think the wider agenda of some of these fruitloops will go down like a pint of cold sick with most supporters of the EDL.
Where do they go from here?
Back to Luton. The next big EDL demo is scheduled for the town where it all started. I’d be surprised if this went ahead. All marches in Luton were banned for three months last year following their last mobilisation there. A static demo is more likely.
The EDL isn’t going to disappear. If the momentum doesn’t pick up again in Luton (large-scale confrontations with Asian youth in the town isn’t unlikely) they’ll gradually dwindle back to the status of irritating rather than threatening mob, albeit one with the potential to act as an immediate focal point if something major happens, a repeat of 7/7 for instance. Without the excitement of a big demo less politicised supporters will drift away.
The other possibility is that contacts with the wider anti-Islam movement progress beyond the flirting stage and a smaller, more defined organisation which has a wider range of political positions than ‘Muslim bombers off our streets’. Since they are already infatuated with Dutch politician Geert Wilders it wouldn’t be a huge leap for them to graduate into the political arena.
What isn’t going to happen is a swing to the right. Most of the organised far right has been looking on the EDL with barely concealed envy or salivating at the prospect of all those young men joining a demo with them at the helm.
Eddy Morrison (who comments online as ‘Erik Eriksson’) the current leader of the National Front is fantasising about the latter. Thankfully, apart from the BNP whose interests lie elsewhere at present, no fascist group in Britain has the organisation capacity or the competence to organise a piss up in a brewery. I have more chance of becoming England manager than the hapless muppets of the NF taking over the EDL.
I would tentatively guess that in 6 months time EDL demos will be attracting about the half the number they do now. This shouldn’t be any grounds for complacency. The rapid rise of the EDL could easily be repeated in future and, with the added bonus of brand recognition, there’s no reason why their numbers would stop at 2000.
What is and where is the Conservative party now?
Those are the questions that a number of left blogs have been starting to explore, as the reality of Conservative rule sinks in, and the need first to understand what we’re up against.
I started my own exploration, briefly almost by accident, here, and this has been brewing since then.Richard Seymour at Leninology has given the fullest recent account (in a blog), and well worth a read it is too, not least as it includes this little gem:
The Tory front bench, for example, is dominated by members of the capitalist class, especially the financial bourgeoisie, as this New Statesman article shows. David Cameron claims to be ‘middle class’, but by this he only means that he is a normally adjusted member of the capitalist class and not some toffee-nosed aristo who warms his feet in the stomachs of slaughtered peasants.
If we are to oppose austerity, we must understand and oppose this logic.
In this he reflects my own thinking in a three part series that I probably produced too soon for it to be noticed, as questions about what’s really going on and why are only now being explored properly.
And there’s an interesting early contribution from our own Carl Raincoat, who extrapolates to a UK setting commentary on American Conservatism, which suggests that the Right over there has reached a point of ‘epistemic closure’ which for the time being at least means Conservative thought is institutionalized as head-swivelling, froth-mouthed Tea Party lunacy.
As I make clear in a comment on Carl’s piece, while I don’t agree that you can compare American with British Conservatism in this way, because of their very different traditions, I’m glad that the question of what point Conservatism has now reached is being asked, and am keen that TCF should lead the way on exploring that and related questions; it is only, as Patrick intimates, by understanding the enemy that we can combat it effectively.
What the three articles referred to share, and what distinguishes them from other critiques of Conservatism, is a willingness to examine not just the new Conservative ‘project’ as it is stated by the Conservatives, but to start to explore the institutional settings in which the project is now being developed and implemented.
More negatively, there is something of a tendency to reification. Carl’s account in particular seems to see Conservatism as a sum of fairly slow-moving (and now, he’s say, stagnant) movement in ideas, relatively uninformed by the traditions/cultures (national through to personal) within which they are set.
Even in Richard’s lively, dialectically aware, account of the way British Conservatism has developed through the 20th century and into the 21st in response to the rise of mass democracy, and how it is now threatened by a narrowing of support base, there is little analysis of how the Conservative leadership and those that influence it see these changes for themselves. Core beliefs and attitudes are attributed to Cameron without any particular evidence:
Cameron, though basically a Thatcherite in his small black heart, was selected by capital…..
For my own account of where Conservatism may be going, and consequently how the Left might react best, I prefer to start from a somewhat different theoretical position.
This isn’t the place to get too far into that theory (though for those already or newly interested in this kind epistemological stance, I think Rhodes’ & Bevir’s Interpreting British Governance (2003) is still the best account of competing theoretical views). In brief, though, I think the challenge for the Left is to seek explanation of different political and policy actions by the new government both in the pressures of government and in what we know of the traditions and ‘operational’ codes of Conservative decision makers.
Such an approach may lead us, I suspect, to some surprising conclusions about what is really driving Conservative policymaking/implementation, and how different this is from the solely ideology-based explanations being provided by much of the commentariat (that of the return/enhancement of Thatcherism). While a consciously developed ideological frameworks for government undoubtedly plays a part, I am not convinced they are THE key reason for much of what is now going on.
So what do we know about the way the Conservative leadership thinks and acts?
Well, we’re not insiders so we don’t know a huge amount for ourselves so it’s handy to look at what insiders tell us.
First, we know (just as Richard Seymour suggests) that the social make-up of the Conservatives’ inner circle is much narrower and old-school elite than it has been for some time. Eton and Oxbridge dominate in a way it wasn’t able dominate under the premierships of the daughter of a grocer and the son of a circus entertainer.
As Andrew Rawnsley says, Cameron and Osborne have a small number of trusted advisors and people they really bounce stuff around with, and I suspect that even people like Andrew Coulson, inculcated in the promotion of the party as they are, are not the ones that really drive the way in which policy is made – they are simply there to ensure that it is sold properly to the great unwashed.
The real inner circle are those, from a very similar background to Cameron and Osborne, who made up what Rawnsley calls ‘sofa cabinet’ that Cameron had before coming into government; he may have expanded his range of decision-making activity because of the necessities of government, but that doesn’t mean that his core attitudes have changed, and it is an ‘Oxford set’ from 25 years ago that defines the way the leadership see its world. As the Sunday Times said in January 2010:
[T]he shared history of this “brazenly elite” group will shape more than just their own future.
This inner circle of decision makers may even be further immuring themselves from the outside world from a desire to exclude the elements of the Coalition they have had to subscribe to in public in order to take power in the first place, and Political Scrapbook’s scoop on Nick Clegg’s seemingly desperate efforts to develop some kind of coherent and audible voice for himself in the coalition may well reflect that immuring process as much as it reflect the LibDems’ weakness of position in itself.
Second, we also know that in what I’ll term social policy – and especially that policy being developed subsequent to the election – is marked both by what often appears to be rank ignorance of what’s happening ‘in the real world’, and inconsistency with the supposedly innovative (though contradictory) ‘Red Tory’, ‘nudge’ and ‘ black swan’ and thinking undertaken before the election.
The examples of these ill-considered ‘policy-on-the-hoof’ decisions are growing weekly, but include:
- Proposals to scrap Primary Care Trusts and require GP consortia to purchase care through their own (no doubt, privatized) management arrangements, despite clear evidence from the last PCT reorgsanisation and the development of GP commissioning that this approach simply will not work;
- The diversion of public funds for the Swedish Free School experiment, rushed through without proper thought and at the direct expense of existing education and planned improvements;
- Contradicting the apparently carefully thought-through and much vaunted Big Society policy by suggesting that people getting a well-paid enough job should move out of council accommodation. The inference seems to be a) that houses are not really homes, but assets; b) only those on benefits should live in council housing;
- Being apparently unaware of existing provision for refererenda on local matters of concern before setting out proposals to allow communities to vote on local housing plans, in a move highly likely to exacerbate local tensions and in a manner wholly out of keeping with the Big Society plans;
- Easy acquiescence to the car lobby over the removal of speed cameras, despite the jury being out, to say the least, on whether they save lives;
- Support for local authorities to introduce minimum alcohol pricing, despite such an approach being totally out of keeping with the ‘nudge’ theories advocated and apparently accepted by the government’s own advisors;
- An announcement presaging the end of Asbos, desirable in itself (I would argue) but taken with no consulation whatsoever with Tory (or any) local authorities who to date have made much of their use;
- Unimplementable plans for 5,000 community organizers now replaced by high-cost, civil-service backed ‘pilot schemes’ which will lead to nothing because the expense involved means that the promised ‘no cost’ approach (ridiculous in itself) is not actually being piloted;
- Broader, vacuous talk of the voluntary sector and volunteering (and the two sometimes confused) being the way forward for mainstream public service delivery, with no apparent grasp of the funding needs of the sector or the reality of volunteering.
Now, its fairly early days, but what I suggest is happening in this set of examples is start of a longer term trend for the Conservatives simply to abrogate responsibility for detailed political administration of the country, and the development of a laissez-faire attitude to what actually happens in the country beyond the Westminster village purview.
While much of the new Tory social policy agenda is being cast for public consumption in terms appropriated from New Labour – responsibility, mutuality, localism – and as a rebalancing from the years of New Labour’s invasive micro-management in the interests of renewed civil liberty, what I suspect will become more apparent as time moves on is that central government is actually abandoning its erstwhile role as mainstay support for (and controller of) the periphery in respect of many functions.
This trend, I suggest, will be driven principally not by a Thatcherite desire to slash the state – though this ideological stance will play its part.
Rather, I contend that it will be driven by a return to an older Tory tradition which has never been erased from its High Tory/high society wing that Cameron and Osborne have emerged from to lead the country.
This is the tradition, set out most fully in the 1960-1980s by the recently ‘rediscovered’ political scientist and early ‘interpretative’ historian Jim Bulpitt (1937- 1999), of the ‘dual polity’, rooted in even earlier ‘court vs. country’ traditions, but still very much alive as an operational code of government well into the 1960s (and I would argue even beyond that).
This the High Tory tradition, reflected in Lord Hailsham’s words (1954):
To the great majority of Conservatives, religion, art, study, family, country, friends, music, fun, duty, all the joys and riches of existence of which the poor no less than the rich are the indefeasible free-holders, all these are higher in the scale than their handmaiden, political struggle.’(The Conservative Case, 1959, pp 12-13; quoted in Henry Drucker, Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, 1979, p24.)
It is the tradition still reflected in government in the 1960s in The Crossman Diaries, when Crossman talks of his own Permanent Secretary , Eveyln Sharp:
[A] tremendous patrician and utterly contemptuous and arrongant, regarding local authorities as children which she has to examine and rebuke for their failures (p.28)
Suggesting an emerging distinction between the ‘high’ politics of defence, foreign policy and other choice matters coming under a generic heading of ‘statecraft’, and the ‘low’ politics of administration in the regions, may well seem a little extreme at this early of the new government.
Against the argument, there will of course be many countervailing factors, and indeed traditions, working against any such ‘laissez faire’ trend from central government, and there is evidence of these already e.g. the debate over whether Eric Pickles’s (not from the Oxford set) announcement on street clutter on English streets constitutes an instruction to local authorities or simply a view on the matter.
Such tensions are likely to emerge even more clearly as the Coalition progresses on its manifesto commitment to the Powers of General Competence legislation (on which I have blogged a good deal).
The strongest countervailing tradition, indeed, is likely to be Thatherite/New Labour propensity to micro-management and ‘initiative-itis’ which has already developed a strong element of path dependency within the departments, given the local power interests that are associated with target setting and monitoring. We need only look to the changing of ‘targets’ to ‘goals’ within the NHS for some evidence of that.
These may be traditions of the lower reaches of government rather than the leadership, but as Lipsky demonstrated 30 years ago, (and New Labour ignored at its peril) the fact the leadership sets policy doesn’t mean it is implemented as leadership wants (and this is a weakness in Bulpitt’s focus on elite/centre traditions to the exclusion of the traditions held at the periphery of government).
Nevertheless, when the background of these key leadership actors is taken into account – these are people whose first conception of estate is not council estate – alongside some of the early, more reactive social policy decisions, I think there is enough to suggest that the new Conservatism is not simply a return to Thatcherism, but also to a more ‘primeval’ Tory tradition, in which the concerns of the working classes (in the plural, EP Thompson sense) are not there to be understood, but to be delegated.
Perhaps, indeed, the Left’s quite visceral hatred of Cameronism is in part a realization that Cameron is the worst of both Tory worlds.
What, finally, does all this mean for the Left? Does it change the way we need to deal with the new Conservatism?
Yes, I think it does.
The key attack line to date has been that Cameronism is a return to hard-headed, and economically illiterate, Thatcherism. While there is certainly mileage in that approach, I think there may be more oppositional mileage in the development of a narrative of the Tories top tier as precisely what they are, totally out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, and increasingly dismissive of the need to be.
While there is an undercurrent of this approach in the way the Left has approached opposition, it does often seem that it’s an approach that is adopted half-heartedly, with people almost embarrassed to use it, under the impression that to talk about Tory backgrounds is in some way not ‘decent’ politics.
Thus, the attempts to attack Edward Timpson for being a ‘toff’ in the Crewe & Nantwich byelection in 2008 turned were humorous (though not very funny) and simply looked stupid rather than hitting the target, and the Tories were able to turn the tables on Labour by claiming out ‘class war’ tactics were out of date and made us look like ‘dinosaurs’. (I’m grateful to Tim Flatman for this insight.)
Now, with our fingers burned, it seems that no-one senior within the Labour party (or even the wider Left) feels able to take on Cameron about his claim to be ‘middle class’, for fear of a backlash against Labour as class warriors (or perhaps for fear of offending the Queen and her own middle class aspirations).
What we need to do, I suggest, is to get serious in our attack on the backgrounds of the top Tories, not on the basis of personal criticisms, but on the basis that it doesn’t allow the government to govern responsibly.
Responsibility in modern government, and the fact that the Tories cannot offer it as a result of their core beliefs and traditions, is a theme we should be keen to develop (and in fact at a local level I have been developing it quite effectively already), and this theme needs to be backed by a constant flow of stories about irresponsibility, as well as an ongoing flow of evidence (of the type Laurie Penny has been working on) about the core attitudes and behaviour behind closed doors of the Tory establishment as a whole. In the next two years, as the rich stay rich and the poor get poorer, these stories and revelations will gain ever more traction.
Exposing the Tories for where the come from, what they are, and what they’re doing to us, is perfectly decent politics because of who they are and where they come from, and a decent opposition should be working all three of these factors, not just one.
Slavoj Zizek has this to say on the subject of a modern saturated form of left wing politics:
Lenin’s politics is the true counterpoint not only to the Third Way pragmatic opportunism, but also to the marginalist Leftist attitude of what Lacan called le narcissisme de la chose perdue. What a true Leninist and a political conservative have in common is the fact that they reject what one could call liberal Leftist “irresponsibility” (advocating grand projects of solidarity, freedom, etc., yet ducking out when one has to pay the price for it in the guise of concrete and often “cruel” political measures): like an authentic conservative, a true Leninist is now afraid to pass to the act, to assume all the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realizing his political project. Rudyard Kipling (whom Brecht admired) despised British liberals who advocated freedom and justice, while silently counting on the Conservatives to do the necessary dirty work for them; the same can be said for the liberal Leftist’s (or “democratic Socialist’s”) relationship towards Leninist Communists: liberal Leftists reject the Social Democratic “compromise,” they want a true revolution, yet they shirk the actual price to be paid for it and thus prefer to adopt the attitude of a Beautiful Soul and to keep their hands clean. In contrast to this false radical Leftist’s position (which wants true democracy for the people, but without the secret police to fight counterrevolution, without their academic privileges being threatened), a Leninist, like a Conservative, is authentic in the sense of fully assuming the consequences of his choice, i.e. of being fully aware of what it actually means to take power and to exert it.
This distinction between a true leftist and his liberal counterparts, and the parity between a leftist and his conservative brothers, is made all the more interesting when we consider Ed Burke’s reasoning for opposing the demands of enlightenment thinkers and French revolutionaries in particular.
Jeremy Stangroom had this to say on the politics of Burke:
Society is complex, and human nature unpredictable; therefore it is not prudent to mess around with political and social arrangements that have stood the test of time.
The common view of traditional conservatism from the point of view of the left is that it favoured a strong aristocracy or ruling class on the grounds that this structure had been divinely justified.
Burke, in fact was a deeply religious thinker, and yet his grounds for favouring this system is based more upon the weak basis of theories to the contrary of it.
He did not necessarily feel that political conceptions of natural right, which had emerged from enlightenment values, were wrong, ipso facto, but that the basis for reforming society on liberty, equality and other such predicates, were theoretically weak.
Thus Burke, and many others in the conservative tradition, appealed to a political realism rather than a political idealism – the politics of the day for enlightenment thinking.
Indeed the politics of the left that Zizek is thinking of above – that is to say Leninism – has its own issues with enlightenment thinking in its purest form (if we consider the disparity between scientific socialism and its utopian variant).
Enlightenment thinking had in fact supposed that in the absence of a corrupting modern society, men would become systematically – by their very nature – capable of rationality.
This supposes a rational human nature – of which Marxist-Leninism has no truck.
The parity between the left and conservatives – both in their traditional forms, before the purge of postmodern mush in modern politics – is in the role of government being the mediator of rationality, based loosely on a view of humanity that denies its monolithic nature (for Burke humans were the “fallen” in the religious sense of the word; for Marxists humans are mediated subjects through which ideology is transmitted).
From the outset, and in opposition to a modern political perversity, conservativism is the natural political ally of leftism, where liberalism is its political adversary.
John Harris said something in the Guardian today which resonated with me. His article is about how, when we question the Liberal Democrats’ free market, orange book clique taking over the party and being further to the right than some Tories, we forget that the party will not collapse “under the weight of its own contradictions” but will continue to fight on – the Labour party is one case in point.
Firstly, we at TCF certainly do not forget that the Labour party organised around the central contradictions of free market, laissez-faire capitalism, and I suspect not many others have forgotten this either.
Secondly, to use the Liberal Democrats being in power, as Harris does, as a sign that they are a working force, and not collapsing “under the weight…” does not add to his argument at all – the Liberal Democrats were mere kingmakers in the coalition, and their downfall has yet to be seen (I’m thinking the snubs they’ve been getting from the electorate locally, and the scheming eye of Simon Hughes).
By comparing them with the Labour, Harris is not matching like for like.
But nevertheless, the thing he said which resonated with me:
Marx and Engels may not be quite the influential titans they once were, but even among some of the most modernised minds on the left, one of their followers’ behavioural tics is alive and well: surveying something you either don’t like or can’t understand, and then loftily pronouncing that it will fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions. So far, it hasn’t applied to capitalism. Neither, I would wager, will it be true of either the coalition or the Liberal Democrats, though that doesn’t seem to have quietened August’s loudest political noise.
Having been to university myself, I too have been a Marxist (a phase that sadly wore off soon after I left), but I always saw this point – made by many – a little stupid. And Marx was not naive to this point. Because an economic model does not fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions, that does not mean it is not a spent force and that the end of history is in capitalism (which is why Francis Fukuyama wrote that book Our Posthuman Future – to show that he was wrong in 1989); it means either that we are playing with rusty goods so to speak (by which I obviously mean its existence is continued only because people are desperately trying to keep afloat a broken system for as long as possible after its sell by date, because it makes them better off) or that it has had to supplement itself with other models so as to sustain itself.
I think it is a cross between the two – a system that is past its sell by date that has saturated itself with liberal or social democratic systems of government welfare to hide that fact that its cracks are enormous (and they quite often fail to hide those gaps).
It was a flippant remark, but it’s not an unusual critique of Marx. The real case is he was right about capitalism, he just underestimated the power of bullshit by capitalists.
Iain valiantly tries to deflect this morning’s attack on the Coalition for the now obvious regressive qualities of the June budget, not just by claiming that the report is old (it’s not), but by saying that the IFS doesn’t think VAT is regressive, and that this means everything is just fine.
To be fair to Iain, that’s probably a better line of defence than the Treasury saying the budget doesn’t hurt the poorest most because of reduced Corporation Tax, which is one of the stranger arguments I’ve seen.
Even so, it’s a pretty weak defence, because it’s not correct.
Iain relies on a James Browne, a ‘Research Economist’ at the IFS, for his claim that, because VAT is not payable on essential items, then it actually hits the richer hardest. He refers to what appears to be a telephone conversation on 28th June between Mr Browne and a Total Politics magazine person, although there is no direct quotation:
According to Brown, the Budget is regressive overall, in that it will hit the poorest the hardest, yet its VAT increase is actually progressive. As poorer people tend to spend more money on 0-rated necessities [products without VAT], they will be largely unaffected by the VAT increase: It is the richest, with the higher expenditure, who will actually be feeding the government’s coffers with a VAT increase.
Let’s move on from the statement that the ‘budget is regressive overall’, and even from the fact that Browne’s logic is at fault – the fact there will be higher VAT contributions from richer people (because they’ve got more money overall) is NOT the same as saying VAT is progressive, because such a fact doesn’t mean the poor won’t be hit hardest.
Let’s go straight instead to what Robert Chote, Director of the IFS and James Browne’s boss, said to the government’s own Treasury Select Committee three weeks later:
We asked our expert witnesses whether the VAT increase was a ‘progressive’ or a ‘regressive’ measure. Robert Chote told us that the key issue when assessing this question was whether you looked at the impact of a VAT rise on people “according to their living standards in a particular snapshot as measured by income or over a lifetime period”.
He explained that VAT looked particularly regressive when compared against income because “the poorest decile spend a relatively high amount relative to their income, you hit high spenders hardest and, therefore, not surprisingly that shows it to be regressive”.
Perhaps, then, the Tories have a problem with what ‘regression’ actually means.
Rather than taking it mean what people generally take it to mean – whether or not the taxation in question impact more on the living standards/income of the poorer members of society – perhaps they think it has nothing to do with this relational quality, and simply refers to where most money will come from.
Or perhaps Iain’s defence is simply desperate.
ps. I also noted this little gem in Iain’s preceding post about language teaching in schools:
Perhaps, however, we are also guilty of being too conservative in our teaching of languages. Maybe instead of sticking to trusty old French and German we should be encouraging schools to offer more courses in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and Russian.
Iain sometimes doesn’t seem very in touch with the 21st century. Just as he was at least 10 years out of date on his understanding of nursing, so he’s out of date on what languages are actually being taught nowadays.
As the CILT (The National Centre for Languages) reports in its 2009 Language trends report:
This year for the first time more maintained schools reported offering Spanish than German at Key Stage 4……..Lesser taught languages are continuing to grow…..The offer of Mandarin has grown in both sectors and particularly in independent schools, where 40% now offer it in one form or another……