Will Hutton had a piece in the Observer a week ago about immigration policy in the course of which he made the following remark:
the European left has to find a more certain voice. It must argue passionately for a good capitalism that will drive growth, employment and living standards by a redoubled commitment to innovation and investment.
I’m not sure who this “European left” is, but, given the piece is by Hutton, I’m thinking party apparatchiks in soi-disant social democratic and “socialist” parties, often educated at ENA or having read PPE at Oxford. I’m not sure how many battalions that “left” has, or even whether we ought to call it left at all. Anyway, what struck me on reading Hutton’s remarks was that calls for the “left” to do anything of the kind are likely to founder on the fact that the only thing that unites the various lefts is hostility to a neoliberal right, and that many of us don’t want the kind of “good capitalism” that he’s offering. Moreover in policy terms, in power, the current constituted by Hutton’s “European left” don’t act all that differently from the neoliberal right anyway. In short, calls like Hutton’s are hopeless because the differences of policy and principle at the heart of the so-called left are now so deep that an alliance is all but unsustainable. That might look like a bad thing, but I’m not so sure. Assuming that what we care about is to change the way the world is, the elite, quasi-neoliberal “left” has a spectacular record of failure since the mid 1970s. This goes for the US as well, where Democratic adminstrations (featuring people such as Larry Summers in key roles) have done little or nothing for ordinary people. Given the failures of that current, there is less reason than ever for the rest of us to line up loyally behind them for fear of getting something worse. Some speculative musings, below the fold:
Haven’t things always been a bit like this, though? Well not really. Once it was possible for people on the left to pretend that differences among us were primarily about means. We all shared the same sort of egalitarian, science-fictiony, abundancy, holding hands, economic democracy vision of the far-off future, but some people were more committed to electoral persuasion than others. (I realise there was a great deal of dishonesty, self-deception, wishful thinking and delusion about that pretence, but it had some kind of reality.) Now the overt differences of aim and value between various currents calling themselves “left” are deep and irreconcilable. So what are those currents:
1. The technocratic quasi-neoliberal left as incarnated by the likes of Peter Mandelson. Pro-globalisation, pro-market, pro-growth: keep the masses happy by improving their living standards. It’s the economy, stupid. Prone to witter self-regardingly about “grown-up” politics. Fixated on electoral competition with the right, with winning elections the essential prerequisite to changing anything. Who is in this box? Well I guess New Labour in the UK, plus (in practice) the leaders of the main European social-democratic parties. In power, this group (or those who think like them) have achieved very little. They certainly haven’t done much to stem the rise of inequality, to protect working-class communities from the winds of globalisation, to end poverty, or, for that matter, to protect the environment. Their attitude to those to their left has been to call for discipline and silence, for fear of frightening the median voter, coupled with hostility, ridicule, character assassination. Their appeal to the left has always and only been that they are slightly less bad than the full-on right wing. (If they have a feature one can admire, it is their comparative lack of xenophobia and racism, however much moved by a desire for “free” labour markets.)
2. The “left” version of populist nationalism. Culturally conservative, worried by immigration (and willing to indulge popular anxieties), anxious about the effects of markets on working-class community. Maybe “blue Labour” in the UK is an example of this, though, of course, plenty of Labour politicians are willing to swing both “new” and “blue”, whistling a communitarian tune whilst relaxing planning laws for the supermarkets, which would be anathema to the core blue Labourites. British Labour leader Ed Miliband was plainly flirting with this current in his most recent speech. Like the first group, power is important for this current. But power isn’t everything, for two reasons: (a) being in government and not achieving improvement in social justice would be pointless for those members of this group who are not career politicians and (b) unlike the left-neoliberals there are things they can do outside of parliamentary politics: they can organize, resist, use the power of the trade unions (such as it is). The trouble for this group is that their core group of supporters, on whom they can rely at election time, has been getting smaller for decades and the solidaristic norms that used to be the conventional wisdom of their supporters are fraying, and will fray more as the material and institutional supports of the labour movement erode further (cf André Gorz, I suppose). The current UK government may be upsetting a lot of voters with its cuts policy, but, long-term, they are also chipping away at an important social support for this kind of politics: public sector employment.
3. The eco-left. Highly egalitarian. Deeply sceptical about the capacity of capitalism to provide real improvements in people’s lives through “growth”. Anxious about the way in which both the natural and the social environments that make life tolerable are being undermined by neoliberalism. Tending to communitarianism and anarchism. Not very coherently both localist/communitarian and cosmopolitan in outlook. Highly connected to the social movements that have in fact given us most of the left’s real policy gains in the past 40 years. Again, this group doesn’t need to win parliamentary elections to make a difference, since it can, to some extent, both organise resistance to government policy and implement alternative ways of living in the here and now. Obviously there are worries about thinking of this group coherent at all, since it takes in all kinds from the Zapatistas to Colin Ward-inspired anarchists, to UKUncut, the the Spanish street protesters, to Greens and maybe even some of the people who had washed up in the Lib Dems in the mistaken belief that it was to the left of Labour in the UK.
4. The old Leninist hard left. Naturally they fancy themselves as the people strand 3 need to give them organization and direction. I don’t think so. Washed up, marginal, authoritarian and unappealing.
I have a lot of sympathy with the eco-left strand. The trouble is, whilst having, in many ways the most attractive long-term vision, it is probably electoral suicide (for now) for any left-of-centre party to run on a platform that eschews wealth-creation and rising living standards. And in the anglo-american world at least, associated ideas for shorter hours and job sharing are seen as marginal, impractical and extreme. Still, I see this group growing ever larger over time, as the environmental crisis becomes deeper, and as promises based on growth become both harder to keep and harder to translate into real improvements in quality of life. As this group grows in strength, the 1+2 alliance will become less stable since the compromises with global capitalism required by the quasi-neoliberal left will not be met be any compensating benefits for the constituency of left populist nationalism. Their voters, the swing voters of the left I suppose, will either move towards the eco-left or will drift towards xenophobic right-wing nationalism. How all this plays out, though, is surely going to vary a lot from country to country, depending on whether it is possible to build a coalition that could win elections or, as the next best thing, one with whom deals would need to made in order to govern. But I can’t think that the old 1+2 social democratic formula can be a winner for the left any more.