'The prince as wolf, the beast as king'

The left may need to tap into rooted feelings and communal, human traditions but it needs to tread carefully or become an animal itself.
Nick Pearce
16 March 2011

The latest edition of the London Review of Books has a nice essay by Hal Foster on the last seminar Derrida gave before he died in 2004, on 'the Beast and the Sovereign'. At least in part – and with Derrida one can never be reductionist – this seminar dwelt on the question of the foundational moment of the law: the point at which sovereign power is established. This is not an original moment in time so much as a coupling: the mutual complicity of sovereign power and bestial violence, the yoking of violence and the law as a new political order is founded. As Foster nicely renders this complicity, in its fairytale expression, 'the prince as wolf, the beast as king'.

Private property relations also have their origins in such violence: the dark history of slavery, imperial conquest and forcible expropriation or enclosure. Most human societies are built on the sedimented remains of these acts of violence. In turn, they generate resistance and then nostalgia, the narrated memory of dispossession, of Paradise Lost.

Some Labour theorists – I am thinking of Jonathan Rutherford and Jon Cruddas - would have the left return to the moments of dispossession of the English working class in order to found a new political language and an imaginary horizon for socialist politics, reclaiming the heroic words and deeds of a class that, as one sympathetic writer has put it, was 'once the salt of the earth, but has now become the scum of the earth'. It is a claim for a politics of recognition that values nostalgia and excavates history in order to marshal new forces of contemporary resistance to change.

As I’ve written before, I am sympathetic to the attempt by people like Jonathan and Jon to reach into conservative values and the politics of identity in this way, but I’m sceptical about how far back this can be taken. For most people, the radical struggles of the early modern period, and the class struggles of the industrial age, are now too ancient a history to animate contemporary politics. Jon and Jonathan are on more fruitful ground when citing the recent public opposition to the sell-off of ancient woodlands. (A broader canvass still is painted by Mike Kenny, who has a brilliant essay [download PDF] in the latest edition of our house journal, PPR, surveying this terrain and suggesting lines of enquiry for a future left politics of identity.)

Another fruitful area is the role of institutions in forming what you might call 'progressive traditions'. In the UK, institutions like the BBC and the NHS not only embody the progressive values of a universal public realm, but they now carry with them a history that has made them national traditions, in a very real sense. They express something profound about national identity and core values of fairness, but also embody a history which gives them real depth in popular attachments.  In that sense, they can play the same sort of role for the left as institutions such as the Church of England have historically done for the right.

Interestingly, in his speech to the Liberal Democrats’ Spring Conference, Nick Clegg declared that liberals care about individuals, not institutions. He argued that left and right traditions of political thought 'forget about people and place their faith in institutions'. In one respect, he is right to draw attention to this symmetry: both the social democratic left and the Burkean right care about our common life and the institutions that embody and sustain it:

Social democrats believe that collective institutions endow us with the frameworks in which we can be free, and flourish as equal citizens, and that they provide us with bulwarks against the arbitrary and coercive power that market economies can generate.

Burkean conservatives believe that institutions embody the obligations and duties we owe to one another, the hierarchies that secure our place in a settled social order, and the inheritance of wisdom we draw from history.

In an attempt to Decode Nick Clegg Anthony Barnett expressed his shock at Clegg's nihilism towards all institutions, expressed in his Hugo Young lecture last year. In fact Orange Book Liberal Democrats share with neo-liberals an antipathy to institutions and the communal practices they nurture and agree on the promotion of free markets into ever-more spheres of human existence. And indeed there is something in the current public service reform debate that consciously echoes the mutual complicity of bestiality and sovereign power to which Derrida referred: the unreasonable, almost animalist sentiment that celebrates chaos in the founding of 'the new', or a kind of Maoist destruction and reconstruction, as Vince Cable put it.

The danger for social democrats, like myself, and conservatives alike is that a defence of institutions can become the defence of vested interests; of professional power and all the rest of it. This is why a re-founding of progressive politics must practise its own coupling of restless reform with conservation of democratic institutions as well as the founding of new traditions.

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