Saturday, February 5, 2011

Rethinking Labour - A Reply to Anthony Barnett

I agree with your analysis, Anthony, although I wouldn’t characterize the Cruddas et al. exposition as childish, merely suggest that it suffers - in common, I’m afraid, with most of this debate - from a failure to confront the obstacles that stand in the way of what Jonathan rightly calls the destructive effects of capitalist globalization.

It seems to me that there is a double confusion here.

The political/philosophical confusion is symbolized for me by the left’s obsession with Burke. We find it again in the Cruddas et al piece: England's radical traditions are rooted in the political struggle for the liberty that Edmund Burke describes as ‘social freedom'.” Really? The most casual reader of - say - Reflections on the Revolution in France - will not fail to note that Burke’s radicalism stopped at Magna Carta. He believed in inherited power and entrenched inequality, opposed any idea of political progress ...A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views...!!!, opposed democratic elections election (of a head of state) would be utterly destructive of the unity, peace, and tranquillity of this nation..., and did not deign to exclude anti-semitism from his personal Weltanschauung Jew brokers contending with each other who could best remedy with fraudulent circulation....the wretchedness and ruin brought on their country by their degenerate councils.... (All quotations from Reflections.....).

Burke was not a democrat in any sense that Keir Hardie would have recognized, and the attempt by certain Labour party intellectuals to co-opt him strikes me as evidence of how threadbare are the philosophical underpinnings of modern (New Labour) thinking.

This is not a minor issue. It suggests that the Party lacks ideological grounding, and that its leading thinkers do not really know what it should stand for. Hence why the so-called “centre ground” that Labour likes to claim for itself (in common with the other two Parties), has shrunk to a tiny patch of earth about the size of a dinner plate, on which the main issues of dispute are confined to marginal differences in the speed but not the direction of shuffle: should we cut a bit faster or a bit slower...? The debate takes place at a numbingly trivial level and is voiced largely by politicians who have already bought wholesale the neo-liberal agenda that has so damaged the fabric of our society as well as that of more impoverished communities world wide.

There has been much hand-wringing since the onset of the financial crisis. Many have been the calls for radical change. Except at the margins, however the UK political landscape offers no alternative to what Saint-Simon called the “withering away of the state...”; the idea that where ends are agreed, the only issues that remain are of means and these can best be addressed not by politicians and philosophers, but by commercial entrepreneurs and technocrats. The process is exemplified in this country by the single-minded commitment of governments since Thatcher to dispose of every piece of public property and enterprise that can be sold, and to hand to the private sector responsibility for delivering social and economic welfare, and administering ancillary areas of national life.

One hopes that Anthony is correct and that Labour’s fresh young leader is, indeed, ahead of his party in rethinking its future trajectory. The task will not be easy - less because of the resistance Ed Miliband may meet within his own Party than because he will need to break out of the neo-liberal straight-jacket.

This is much easier said than done. Free market advocacy remains part of Labour’s contemporary discourse. Cruddas et al. certainly rail against neo-liberalism, but they offer nothing in its place beyond a vague call for transforming the political terrain... and a statement - more a pious hope - that the neo-liberal era is coming to an end... Anthony Painter’s comment in his post that the global free market is high risk with too many losers... is spot on, but it begs the question of what - in a “globalized world” - we can do about it.

We could do worse than begin by asking what is meant by “free and open markets” or “Free Trade”. In theory, the concept assumes that the playing field is level and that signed-up countries play the game by the same rules. Neither is true. Playing fields are never level and much tilting takes place below the visible horizon or in a form that is difficult to monitor: local subsidies, manipulation of exchange rates, differential tax regimes and regulatory environments, national economic development policies, the nods and winks of political leverage, and so on. Measuring these differences is nigh on impossible; and counteracting them, therefore, infeasible.

Even if the playing fields were level, however, the underlying absurdity of “free trade” would remain. Use of the word “free” in this context is, in itself, misleading. Once a government enters into a free trade accord, the transactions to which the arrangement refers cease to be free. Circumstances may change - as they do frequently - and what may once have seemed a beneficial agreement may come to seem onerous. Too bad. An agreement is an agreement; and in this case it is supported by theory. Ever since David Ricardo we have known that Free Trade medicine is good for us. In the UK, as Cruddas et al. point out, we no longer own our productive sector - a consequence of “free and open markets”. People are thrown out of work on the nod of a Chief Executive who lives thousands of miles away. That, too, is apparently good for us even if, as has been the case for some time, inequality has been rising along, with levels of personal indebtedness among the worst off.

Lest we suspect that the medicine in the bottle may be snake oil, political pundits of all three parties constantly remind us that “free” markets are essential to our prosperity. People thrown out of work by competitive closures are supposed to adopt a Panglossian view of matters, reassured that everything is as it should be in the best of all possible economic paradigms. Yet the most successful developing economies - those of Brazil, China and India, and the Asian Tigers, all operate managed trade regimes. The United States has always protected her own markets, and continues to do so in sectors such as agriculture and agro-industry, even while trumpeting the advantages of free trade in sectors where the country is clearly competitive.

What this means, among many other things, is that while free trade seems highly convincing on paper, in practice the world fails to conform to its cosy promise of rising general prosperity. Trade is undoubtedly fruitful and healthy; but if it is to be truly free, then it should be subject to the wishes of the people not bound to a piece of paper signed and sealed for all time and unchangeable regardless of circumstance. At present, no matter how deep the popular misgivings about open markets, and the agonizing of those who lament its effects, voters have nowhere else to go. No one is offering to tear up those pieces of paper and replace them with something that may in time help us to take back control of our economy.

That, in essence, is the political challenge. Is any Party both prepared to confront the current orthodoxy and able to offer a convincing alternative vision of how we should conduct our economic affairs? Unless, Labour rises to this challenge, the calls for a new, invigorated Party - one truly representative of the people and capable of addressing their fears and aspirations - will fall on barren soil.

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