Where do we go from here III: Agency and self-determinations, retaking the future without Marx

How can we move forward from the crash of neoliberalism given the exhaustion of socialism?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Gerry Hassan
5 August 2010

This is the third, final, exchange of a wide-ranging three part conversation between Anthony Barnett and Gerry Hassan, touching on the state of British politics and democracy and how the left - weak and disorganised in the face of a resurgent neoliberalism - can propose and build alternatives to the dominant dogmas of the past thirty years. You can read Part I 'The frustrations of British politics' here, and Part 2 'Challenging the Official Future' here.

Gerry, Thanks very much indeed,  

Your response has sent me into shock. I good one, perhaps, but also painful, hence the delay in my reply. One part of me is trying to sort out what to make of the peculiar new situation here in the UK. Has the Coalition given energy to a conservative modernisation, talking about ‘progressive fairness’ while, despite great legislation on liberty, reasserting traditional forms of centralised control behind a programme of indirect rule known as ‘the Big Society’? Or can its communitarian appeal to self-help gather genuine political momentum? 

But you have called for something more far-reaching than a response to the British situation, however sweeping this might be in confronting the entire edifice of British rule. You want to recast the way to think about change in terms of four forms of self-determination: economic, social and cultural and even “futures self-determination” which you see as perhaps the most important. This approach and its terminology to replace socialism. 

I want to agree. Let’s put aside the hubris in any claim to “futures self-determination” which I’d certainly argue over as I think modesty is a central virtue not just a character trait (see Philip Pullman at the Convention).

Replacing socialism has to be a practical and strategic ambition not just a theoretical or moral one. It is all very well calling for a better way of life and a political ideology that could replace socialism or social democracy, but who is going to make it happen? What force or agency could deliver your self-determinations? What interests could be gathered around such an approach and successfully defy the currently existing vested interests of the state and corporate capitalism?   

There is little point to discussing the ideas if there is no possibility of an answer to this question. So I’ll have a go. There have been a range of progressive suggestions for taking forward the progressive project. I have talked about ‘livelihood’ as an organising concept, one that joins production and consumption and is multi-generational. There are Ungar’s arguments for experimental, high-energy politics to match the inventiveness of the market. Green politics has taken over the totalising approach that once marked out left-wing theory, and demand sustainability as essential for a human future on the planet. There are many other examples of well-meaning advocacy of reform. But none of them has become an effective politics, though the Greens are making some headway influencing others. This is not because these ideas are wrong. It is because they don’t an organisable alliance of interests wealthy and board enough to legitimately claim the right to lead a democracy.

The concept of social self-determination is a very powerful and attractive. It appeals to collective rather than individual interests, and while it is cooperative rather than competitive it does not default back to the state or government for solutions, a fatal flaw in traditional socialism and its political culture. But who is going to make it happen? If we are going to replace the call for socialism with a new kind of challenge to the domination of capitalism, you’ll have to bear with a longish reply as you have forced me back to fundamentals and the issue of agency.

It’s useful to begin any discussion of agency with Marx. Not because he got it right but because he made it central to the wrong part of what became Marxism. This has shaped not just the left but all forms of socialism since. Distinguishing oneself from this wide legacy is very helpful in setting out the different kind of ‘agency’ needed for liberty, solidarity and equality to finally succeed.

Famously there were two Marx’s. There was the Marx of historical materialism: a brilliant historian of his own times who also set out to describe the overarching nature of capitalist economic development. He relished the way capitalism’s drive to accumulate transformed the “forces of production”. His emphasis was always on the emancipating potential of industry and technology driven forward by capital and its capacity to relieve us of the inhuman oppression of pre-industrial toil. 

His argument was that at the same time as it ‘socialises’ the forces of production through its technological transformations, market organisation and ever richer expansion of the global economy, it does so thanks to the profit motive which ‘privatizes’ the relations of production – making the outcome of what is shared work something that is owned privately. This is his famous contradiction between “the forces and relations of production” which leads to overproduction and crisis.

It is the contradictory nature of the capitalist system itself that generates its crises, not the challenge of labour. This approach, which sees the technology and market organisation of capitalism as more determining than finance and speculation, influences Schumpeter’s description of the creative destruction of capitalism now brought up to date by Carlota Perez’s analysis of the crashing wave of all this in our time. The implication: the driver of the present crisis is less the financial balloon inflated by neo-liberalism than consequences of the immense disruptions of the microchip, turbo-charged by the financial markets.

Marx’s materialist approach was distorted by his ‘dialectic’, that saw value as created only by labour which meant that the imperative to accumulate obliged capital to always minimise wages and maximise exploitation. Thus the system which was the greatest creator of wealth was bound also to make poverty, immiserating humankind even as it creates the means for our emancipation from want. Marx saw capital as creating the proletariat - the human product of capitalism’s inhumanity. The proletariat’s increasing poverty would oblige it to overthrow its creator as this became increasingly crippled by its own inner contradictions. “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” 

Of course, there is a Marxist literature attempting to show that Marx himself did not believe in the increasing impoverishment of the working classes or that this is not essential to revolutionary theory. But the crudity of the Communist Manifesto’s concept of agency has fed into enduring leftist myths about change, not least in those who would protest they are not Marxist. 

  1. The myth of working people as inherently bearing the seed of a different future, if only we “listen” to “our people” and are true to their cause.
  2. Contempt for law, ideology, religion, nationalism, the family, as chatter; or at best “mere” reflections of underlying economic realities.
  3. Belief that the system’s crisis will unveil its truth and this will lead to its inevitable replacement.
  4. The sense of being morally on the right side of history and therefore having contempt and hate for those opposed to you.

These complexes generate the deep anti-politics of the socialist left: a scorn for institutions, disdain for due process, constitutions, the law, morality and human rights, all of which can be justified tactically but are not to be respected in principle. ‘Reality’ is economic, history is ‘class struggle’, the nationless solidarity of working people is the universal of humanity.

In the 20th century a working class emerged that was far from being nationless or perpetually impoverished… or revolutionary. But was it primarily Keynesianism and the welfare state that ensured relatively full employment?  As a very much non-expert I’m convinced that the primary driver was ‘Sloanism’. The left always bangs on about Fordism, mass-production, the crash of 1929 and the shift to a war economy – i.e. manufacturing as exploitation saved by government. Sloanism (which Emma Rothschild wrote about in Paradise Lost) is named after Albert Sloan who pioneered the use of consumer credit and product differentiation to turn General Motors into the world’s largest company, well overtaking Ford. The problem was not how to make cars, that was the easy bit. It was how to sell them. This meant creating effective demand, through focussed market segmentation, making products fashionable and above all through providing credit. Henry Ford mastered mass production, Sloan organised mass-consumption.  

I am reading Paul Gilroy’s Darker than Blue, whose opening section has a wonderful analysis of the role of the car as the commodity of freedom binding “the black populations of the overdeveloped countries into the most mainstream of dreams”.

The expansion of the market through debt created working population where, for the first time in history, those without servants could enjoy leisure, travel and their own homes.  

This is not to deny capitalism’s responsibility for wars, shock doctrine, the rape of developing countries, a drug policy that feeds criminal flows of cash, and all its financial and corporate dark sides. The question is who can do anything about this? And far from producing its nemesis, consumer capitalism created an educated and property-owning working classes motivated by its quality of life and organised to represent their interests within it.

Today, the next technological and productive wave offers the chance of what might be called an artisan class to develop: hugely productive, not marginal, and very widespread, with an interest in creating a market society that is not dominated by capital. ‘Self-determinations’ would fit well with its interests. One hint of it is in what Carlotta Perez describes as the switch from closed hierarchies to open networks, from employees as resources to “employees as creative capital”.  

The Sloanist period of capitalism, still expanding of course in the developing world, gave wealth (and debts) to its employees. From cars to labour saving devices such as washing machines (incredibly important for women), this transformed their lives. But they remained objects of consumption and the fruits of equal citizenship were primarily experienced in consumer ownership.

The question now is whether the micro-chip and computers are bringing about the public's ownership and control of the instruments of production. For sure digital technology is dissolving the massed industrial labour force of the Sloanist period. While we are seeing the huge growth of ‘knowledge workers’ of all kinds (Research from the Work Foundation claims that such workers now comprise 42 per cent of the total and are rising). 

Are we witnessing the transformation of the workforce into the shared owners and controllers of capital? If so, can we through the organisation of our productive power create a networked market society, which is capable of displacing the privatised rule of capital on the basis of the self-determinations you set out? 

There are two sets of evidence pointing in this direction. The increasing rise of what can be seen as an artisan class of producers, of all kinds, enabled by digital technology. Often running small, interconnected businesses with high skills and a vested interest in openness rather than oligopoly. The current fashion for and interest in 18th century enlightenment issues and republicanism is associated with this shift, I feel. Second, there is the increasing interest in mutualism, cooperatives and other forms of self-governing businesses. There is a rapidly growing body of research and advocacy about this too (see, for example, Robin Murray of NESTA and the Young Foundation on “the new social economy” or the work of the New Economics Foundation). 

Linked to this is what could prove to be an extraordinarily important shift in language that is also fundamental challenge to the measurement of a return on investment:  from profit “maximisation” to revenue “optimisation”.  See Will Davies here in OurKingdom.

Tony Judt has written powerfully about the need for a new language for the left if we are to see a renew challenge to existing power structures. The notion of optimisation as against maximisation, with its inclusion of the whole environment of human planetary needs into its calculus underpins an argument for self-determinations. It gives it a different kind of political economy. 

I’m going to stop now but feel we are just beginning, 

Many thanks, Anthony


Thank you for your fascinating comments. I think you are right that we need to take a long view drawing together resources to understand where we are – a historical view of the rise of the first capitalist economy, its character, nature and limitations, and how these shape its form and crises today. Nowhere in the current debate in the mainstream debate – with the exception of Will Hutton – does anyone put this in this wider context. Who talks of the 1878 City of Glasgow Bank crash which brought down the regional bank system of the UK thanks to its endemic short-termism?

Any new mapping out of thinking, action and change requires a number of ingredients for it to be more than wishful thinking. First, there has to be an analysis of the economy. Here I would sound a little note of caution with your talk of ‘knowledge workers’ because that strays into the waffle of the ‘knowledge economy’ propagated by New Labour, Charlie Leadbeater and the Work Foundation, and it was just plain wrong.

Second, there needs to be an understanding of society, social trends and how the country has changed. Third, we have to begin to flesh out a new model of social change – which breaks with the traditional, conventional notions of parliamentary politics and political parties. All of this has to relate to the multiple crises the UK finds itself in: economic, social and political.

This brings us to the ‘vessels’ point. Where are the institutions and agencies which stand against the neo-liberal orthodoxies? They are few in number. It is possible if one is generous minded to talk of a ‘conservative movement’ in the UK supported by the Conservative Party, business bodies, think tanks, the Taxpayer’s Alliance, ‘Daily Mail’, ‘Spectator’ and ‘Daily Telegraph’. These forces have seized the ground of the current multiple crises, and made it an opportunity for making the state and public spending the problem.

Would it be possible to talk in any way of a ‘progressive movement’, even allowing for the vacuousness of the term ‘progressive’? The Labour Party after its record in office could not claim unconditional membership, while the Lib Dems once the unsullied progressives are now under close scrutiny. Part of the trade union movement, the ‘New Statesman’ and ‘Compass’ might be all you are left with.

It is that unequal a fight. If we look at mission, purpose and story it is even more alarming. The conservative forces have a moral mission and a simple story to tell: let business free and get the state out of large parts of our lives. What mission or story do the so-called progressives have in reply?

This seems to suggest that we need to go back to the drawing board and look at how we create vessels, organisations and institution building. The forces of neo-liberalism have done this in the realm of ideas; the American Conservative movement from its vanquishing forty odd years ago with Goldwater’s candidature built an ecology of institutions which have sustained it through its highs – Reagan – and its lows – Clinton and the implosion of Bush2 – and influenced our politics and that of the wider world.

All of this requires a philosophy which starts from an understanding of the economy, society, social change and modern capitalism. Market fundamentalism or neo-liberalism only offers a partial understanding of all of these, so it can’t be the final answer. We can also state that diluted, compromised social democracy – in the UK and across the Western world – has hardly had a great track record in standing up to the challenges of the market.

Such a philosophy has to not be a war of resistance, of defensive positions, of retreat, surrender, constant qualification and attrition of basic positions. That has been the left story in the UK from 1979, and some would argue since the end of the Attlee Government in 1951. Instead, it has to invoke going forward, going with the grain of economic and social forces and changes, and offering a politics of advance, hope and optimism.

This is where self-determination can offer a philosophy which after socialism and after neo-liberalism combines individual empowerment with the need for collective and societal solutions.

There are a number of crucial milestones here. First, gender matters massively in the world of inequality, instability and impermanence we live in. More women are in low paid jobs, while the old male notion of ‘the breadwinner’ is dead. Women have generally coped better than men with the changing patterns of work, status and society, including how to balance paid work responsibilities with bringing up children. This requires a different politics and public language which is more feminised and less masculine.

Second, there is the related issue of inter-generationalness. How do boys become men? And girls become women? What rites of passage do we have in our mostly secular society that allows young boys and girls to pass into adulthood? How do we in an aging society listen to and learn from our elders? Fundamental to this is what do we do about young boys; as a society we are still living with the consequences of the lost generation of Thatcher’s early years, abandoned on estates to crime, drugs and violence, and a life of low attainment, aspiration and horizons. This has affected proportionately many more men than women, and we could be away to do it all over again to the detriment of the young people in question and society.

Third, as I said previously humour and satire matters in this because the world of ‘the official future’, of the remorseless advance and appetite of neo-liberalism is a completely humourless entity. We need to poke fun, ridicule and anger at the most preposterous ideas and advocates of this worldview.

Fourth, none of this is going to be decided on facts and a calm, carefully argued case against neo-liberalism. This is in its worldview a kind of calling, a determinist dogma which can only be defeated by ideas. Neo-liberalism has created a world of instability, insecurity and unsustainability, but done so while preaching the language of liberation and the Enlightenment. It has to be stopped at a UK and global level; Goldman Sachs Global Economic Reports predict an India in 2050 which is 40 times the economic size of its 2007 economy. How can the planet sustain such an economic model?

In the last century we have passed through two distinct phases of British politics:  Fabianism and modernisation. The Fabian phase gave us the culture of Whitehall knows best, the power and respect of the expert and technocrat, and ended up satirised in ‘Yes Minister’, savaged by Thatcherism and abandoned by Labour. It is easy now to pore scorn on its elitism, patrician qualities and its comfy clubland nature, but it did also have positive achievements to its name: rebuilding Britain after the war, the NHS and welfare state.

Then came modernisation first fully under Thatcher, then under Blair (after failed attempts by Wilson and Heath). It promised a more open, inclusive Britain not high bound to the old ways of the establishment where talent and get-up and go would be rewarded. Thatcher wasn’t just as the left portrayed her for inequality, cuts and selling off the family silver. Powerfully she also saw herself as the champion of the people versus the old Tory establishment and Labour vested interests; in the process she transformed Britain and offered a sense of release and liberation from old ways.

Modernisation under Thatcher and Blair brought with it the creation, encouragement and celebration of new establishments, elites and insider groups. It eroded the old checks and balances of Britain’s constitutional codes, without being clear what it put in its place. Both presided over massive centralisations and concentrations of power politically, economically and socially.

Even the current onslaught on public spending is aptly being described as ‘modernisation’; it has become a euphemism for shifting power and wealth further to those who already have it in ample amounts.

After modernisation what then? What kind of change can we begin to imagine and support which learns from the limits of Fabianism and modernisation? I would posit that within the notion of self-determination – and the concepts of autonomy, competence and connectedness – are the beginnings of a new approach and notion of change.

Where we sit in the UK and globally is both a time for radicalism and a little anxiety. The firestorm which engulfed Greece could spread across the entire Eurozone. The undue haste of the UK Government to savage public spending and slash the deficit is driven by the unstated fear of a second bankers’ crash. All of this has brought about the conditions for what looks rather like a second British neo-lib revolution. A very British coup: a Con-Lib Dem administration versed in ‘the new politics’ at its head. At the same time, on public services and the public realm, the government talks the language of Tony Blair, openly call their agenda, ‘better Blairism’, while he has commented that he sees the Con-Lib Dems as his ‘true’ inheritors

Those of us who wish to see a post-neo-liberal world order find ourselves in a Clint moment. He was the man with no name. And we find ourselves with a cause without a name: after socialism, social democracy and progressivism have gone by the wayside. That seems a significant historical moment.

The offerings put forward so far are humbling in their inadequacies. There is the ‘happiness’ agenda of Lord Layard which suggests that individual palliatives and therapy is the main solution to the crisis of health and well-being, rather than collective economic and social solutions.

Then there is the ‘Affluenza’ agenda of Oliver James who argues that Western societies are making people more unhappy, insecure and consumerist. James’ call to arms is merely for a slightly more caring, rational, planned capitalism, and he comes over as completely oblivious to the powerful political and ideological forces pushing for entrenching inequality and privilege.

Finally, there is ‘The Spirit Level’ of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett which emphasises the damage of inequality – whether economic or social. There is a lot in this book, but where it fails down – which I explore in greater length in a recent ‘OpenDemocracy’ essay - is in trying to promise to explain too much, offering no political explanation of inequality and dismissing neo-liberalism as the cause of inequality in less than one page, or understanding of the economy.

All of these books draw from a deep liberal guilt about modern times and a search for moralism. They have a guilt about affluence, poverty and inequality, and about an age of mass consumption and individualism, alongside a profound loss in the idea of  progress. And underneath the surface of all this, which bubbles up in some accounts is a puritan yearning for a simpler, less complex age of egalitarianism. A ‘Back to the Future’ account, whether it be a nostalgia for the immediate post-war era, or a belief the green crisis will see a return to rationing and mass allotments, isn’t going to win mass support across the UK.

It is back to fundamental principles from this. Looking at the nature of the economy, society and politics. Going beyond the fads of the ‘health and well-being’ agenda, and wish-fulfilment of  ‘Affluenza’ and ‘The Spirit Level’. The emergence of these accounts tells us something is missing, but they aren’t the answer. What is entails working out ideas of social change, power and voice. Identifying vessels, constituencies and communities for the politics of self-determination.

Embracing in an age of anxiety and worry, an approach which embodies hope, optimism and a belief in our fellow human beings. Challenging the noxious idea in ‘the official future’ that the future has already been decided by forces wiser and more powerful than us. Central to all of this is the idea of futures self-determination, of retaking and reimagining the idea of the future, while acknowledging the limits of our fragile earth, the capacity of humans to destroy as much as create, and the need for a ‘long now’ approach. But fundamentally we need to recognise that the future is a very human, disputatious, never-ending concept, and retake it from those who would try to close it off and say it has already been decided!

Warmest wishes, Gerry

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