Where do we go from here? Part II: Challenging the "official future"

The second of a wide-ranging three part conversation, 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.

Anthony Barnett Gerry Hassan
4 August 2010

This is the second 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. Part I 'The frustrations of British politics'; Part III  Agency and Self-deterimantions without Marx

Thanks for the message Gerry!

How am I supposed to get to sleep without an answer to the next onslaught of neo-liberalism!

I agree and disagree, so lets start with the latter which is more interesting. When I hear the word “values” I reach for the off-switch. What we need is democracy, meaning a fight to get power into the hands of citizens. To achieve this calls for a constitutional settlement that permits and protects democracy and the law-based human and minority rights, liberty and privacy that are the essential framework for any majority decision taking. So we do need to debate and change processes, structures and in our case the UK constitution which is a dangerously broken beast.

I strongly agree that this needs to be combined with a far-reaching political economics that we don’t have as yet

You can see the essential combination of democracy, structures and the economy at play in the ham-fisted debate that is taking place in the Euro-zone about fiscal policy.

Why am I not as alarmed as you? Meaning I am in a state of alarm but not yet despair. First, there is economic growth taking place around the world from which many are benefiting. Second, the digital revolution is transforming productivity and will eventually open the way to green, sustainable energy too. The application of IT is part of the problem, of course, as it is disrupting so much so profoundly. As well as creating a monstrous potential threat to liberty. Yet also, it’s leading to new forms of politics that could provide the means for democrats to organise democracy (instead of having this done for us by parties).

I called my initial reaction to the Coalition, written the day after it was announced, ‘The End of Thatcherism’. I should have called it ‘The End of the Politics of Thatcherism’. This is what it was about: Cameron’s initiative to embrace one-nation Toryism and bury Tebbit style polarising and xenophobic attacks on the working classes and crass celebration of wealth. (Bury alive, it may still rise from its shallow grave!) This is not at all the same as ending the rule of finance capital, as Mike Rustin has set out.

Nonetheless, if we have a problem because the financial interests still predominate, they have a problem as well. Attacking the welfare state, privatising the NHS, cutting public services, lowering the incomes of those who are already earning barely enough to live on, what good will this do anyone? They too need economic growth. Without it they can’t sustain their sovereignty except by naked force – and even then what good would that do them?

Where I very much agree with you is that we need a politics of equality and democracy that embraces “body and soul” but does not seek to “recast” them.



Thanks for that Anthony,

I feel we are in a deeper morass domestically and globally than you paint. First, I think there is a problem in constitutional chattering and obsessing which I can describe in the following way. Charter 88 had successes and limits; it succeeded in raising the salience of constitutional reform and transforming it from being a marginal issue; yet at the same time the British state continued its atrophying and neo-liberalism accelerated.

It is fine to make the point about ‘values’, but at the same time ‘process’ and ‘structure’ are pointless and esoteric on their own. We have already had experience of this north of the border; pre-devolution the air was filled with talk of ‘new politics’ and how new processes would lead to an era of consensus. What we have had instead is a policy-lite environment mixing social democracy and conservatism with a small ‘c’ which has had positives, but is hardly uplifting. ‘Process’ and ‘structure’ never on their own are enough and the Scotland post-devolution is proof of it if it were needed.

Neo-liberalism is a story which works on numerous levels. It can be told at the level of Irwin Seltzer intellectually, or Digby Jones in his simplistic, populist style, or that of Andrew Neil, casually reflecting it as the commonsense of our age. And there is the taxi driver account which passes into everyday usage: get the state off our backs, why should people get welfare for doing nothing. Socialism many decades ago used to have that currency, élan and connection; no longer could you say that of most centre-left politics.

Facts are often secondary to neo-liberalism’s narrative. Digby Jones recently with all his self-important pomposity on TV wrote an open letter to George Osborne, Chancellor, calling on him to ‘lay off the banks’. His reasoning was the banks were 8% of UK GDP but 24% of taxes; Radio Four looked into these figures and it turned out Jones was hugely inaccurate: the banks provided 12% of taxes.

This is central to understanding the neo-lib experiment. Facts have never been crucial. It is a dogma; the last modernist utopia left standing. When it began building its critique in the 1950s and 1960s facts were secondary to ideology and they always have been from ‘too few producers’ to ‘crowding out’ and the Laffer Curve and the one dimensional concept of human behaviour it peddles. At the same time in the core of neo-liberalism’s appeal are a whole host of attitudes which it is not hard to understand the reach of: suspicion of the state, the stress on freedom, a belief in entrepreneurship, and the capacity of individuals to do what’s best for themselves

The seeds of neo-liberalism’s success point the way out of the mess we find ourselves in. First, facts will not be enough to defeat it, and second, the importance of story. Lets look at facts first. We may think it self-evident that neo-liberalism has failed. It has been tried for thirty years and has resulted in Britain being the fourth most unequal country in the developed capitalist world, and London the most unequal city. In the UK, US and elsewhere those on average and median earnings have seen no real increase in their incomes these last three decades, as the super-rich have paraded their lifestyles and become the measure many of us judge ourselves by.

Yet, what is our critique here beyond that neo-liberalism produces inequality, insecurity, anxiety and stress, the kind of standard Oliver James argument which never goes very far. Where is our equivalent to the neo-liberal critique against ‘welfare capitalism’? Where are the ideals about our vision of liberation and freedom, and the savaging of a society which seems to turn a blind eye to huge concentrations of power and wealth in the market?

Secondly, the answer has to be in the idea of story. Socialism was a story, neo-liberalism was a story. There were once rich, popular Labour and Tory stories of Britain killed off by Thatcher and New Labour. The search for story involves going back to basics: aiming high, being bold and embracing philosophy, by which I mean the principles and values which shape our lives and society. As a final observation, this story has to be about more than democratic renewal - it has to connect a story of Britain about its shape and form, to the kind of economy, society and democracy we want to live in.

Best, Gerry

Dear Gerry,

It’s a huge mistake to start talking about “constitutional chattering”. You have a term in Scotland, “blether” and you have accused people of being bloviators. But the generalised linkage of constitutional argument with chat is more than reactionary, its a surrender. The term “chattering classes” was dreamt up by London columnists. Apparently Alan Watkins claimed it was him. I suspected it was Peter Kellner. Both were capable of genuine research and original insight. But their role was chubby reassurance that political life would go on as we knew it. The idea that other people might have something more original to say… like all true monopolists, like politicians denouncing the idea we might need more elected politicians, they used a cheap populist device to diminish the competition.

First of all, it is not just good to talk, without it there is mental death and indeed atrophy. Of course, there can be pointless gossip, there can indeed be “chat” whose anthropological function is stasis. Most political expert opinion in the UK has this character. All the more reason not to drape attempts to measure, analyse, expose and change things as being nothing but pointless hot air. The whole of mainstream, official post-war British public life was a successful attempt to reduce constitutional conversation to “chat” - to the droning in clubs about “the best system in the word”.

Why you suddenly bring up Charter 88 I don’t know. It’s a bit like a political inquisition: “Comrade, Charter 88 was not 100 per cent successful, explain yourself!” I have written about its history and limits. We made the constitution a political issue when we told this was impossible. Because of the way Labour introduced disintegrating changes and went in for what I called, in 1999, “constitutional interruptus” what followed was not “atrophying” which sounds like an organic kind of withering, but disintegration and partial breakdown.

I don’t agree that “‘process’ and ‘structure’ are pointless and esoteric on their own”. That’s like saying it is esoteric to make sure someone is breathing unless you can confirm their purpose in life. Democracy and political equality are procedurally good, unconditionally so whatever outcomes they may or may not lead to. Perhaps, to strike a neologism, we should say they are a ‘preconditional’ good. Just as there is more to life than breathing.

I don’t see what has happened in Scotland in quite the way that you do. Although I accept that you got yourself a representative parliament just when these were running out of steam as vehicles for democracy (thanks to the media, internet, education, and for Europe the EU). I think that your Holyrood Parliament is a great achievement, spiritually and architecturally, as a beginning. But it is important to remember that it was conceived as termination.

You may say it filled the air with talk of a “new politics” but that’s superficial. It would never have come about as a revolutionary initiative. It’s raison d’être was to prevent independence, dish the nationalists and ensure Labour rule.

If I can tell my Donald Dewar story. I’d never met him but was invited onto a Newsnight panel in Edinburgh in the run up to its creation. Dewar was the main star of the package which was going out to the whole of the UK. My little bit was to say that Labour’s intent was to diminish the whole exercise, it wasn’t radical enough and needed to be part of much more sweeping set of reforms. After the programme a visibly hurt Dewar told me I shouldn’t have said that. But wasn’t what I said true? You don’t understand, he replied, it was going out to the whole country, a chance to back reform and he added, “I’m your strongest supporter in the Cabinet”.

I had a strange experience of two sharply opposite sensations. One was delight and pride that I should be talked about like that, as having any kind of presence however ethereal in the Cabinet! The other was a deep, sinking feeling that all my worst fears were confirmed and if this was the balance of forces there was no hope whatsoever for any energy behind democratic reform from the Labour government.

This was indeed the case and it rolled on into the Scottish Parliament after Dewar’s death and has not really been changed by the SNP minority government. I think they have been very skilful in a traditional way. But I looked at their national conversation and use of the internet, and it is disappointing as you say. There is no sense of independent deliberation being encouraged, or of different kinds of influence being exercised, just predictable, passive aggregation.

But this is an argument for much more focus on process and a more profound reforms of government structures, to encourage what you call ‘self-determination’, not less. And indeed without the process driven reform of creating Holyrood in the first place this exchange couldn’t be happening at all.

An important lesson, though, for us south of the border is to beware of conventional forms of reform. I am very much for a referendum on AV while being fully aware that as a majoritiarian system is barely any reform at all of the way the UK votes for Westminster. With the House of Lords, I dread the prospect of an ‘elected’ House that will simply put a party-political veneer on a second chamber that will then lend legitimacy to what is in fact the heart of the problem, namely the first chamber.

As for neo-liberalism, Irwin Seltzer, Digby Jones, and Andrew Neil have just been its media faces, some would say clowns. Its mistaken to treat it as a bogy. There was a profound assault on regulated, welfare capitalism despite its remarkable growth record which originated in the US. The UK suffered an acutely damaging variant. But it is very important to try and understand its real strengths over the last forty years. It was a function of a long wave of ‘globalisation’ that has brought hundreds of millions out of destitution. The baleful influence of finance capital grew out of the vast sums made available by global growth and especially the imbalances of oil revenues themselves a function of a reckless environmental indifference. The whole process has been turbo-charged by immense and hugely progressive increase in productivity that to digital technology. This has also helped to lower prices and make new products available which along with house inflation has meant many of those on “average and media incomes” as you put it have experienced an increase in their standard of living even while those incomes have remained static in monetary terms. These are, if you like, the successes of the neoliberal era, even while it has failed in its own eyes in terms of its ideology of deregulation and the ‘market knows best’.

Certainly we need an integrated politics of wealth creation, human equality, openness and self-determination and we don’t have it. We agree about that.

Knowing this we can either tear our hair out or say, what a privilege to be living at the time of such a need if only we can supply it.

Very best, Anthony

Many thanks Anthony,

I brought up Charter 88 – as I could have the Scottish Constitutional Convention – because they are the most successful examples of constitutional politics in recent memory.

They are both proof I would argue of the limits of just addressing constitutional politics and leaving assumed or unexplored – the wider political agenda. Charter 88 brought constitutional reform in from the margins, and yet my point – which I am sure you would concur with – is how the state and British government operates has degenerated and become worse while neo-liberalism has entrenched and become even more far reaching. What I am saying is that despite our successes we are going backwards not forwards.

With the Scottish Parliament there was a concentration pre-devolution in the Convention and elsewhere on processes. There was an assumption that a Parliament would be a vehicle for a radical, progressive community. It has as you say been a beginning and partial success, but it has not filled our public life with much uplift and vision. This I think is due to this pre-devolution focus on process, the state of social democracy and power of conservatism, and general anti-political mood.

This takes me to the search for post-neo-liberal politics. The Scottish experience is salutary. We established a Parliament to further the idea of self-government as a political institution and set of processes. This is by its nature a minority activity. Instead, what we should look at is the journey from self-government to self-determination – as a society, communities and individuals. And this self-determination – shifting power, looking at less institutionally dominated ideas of change, encouraging autonomy and capacity – could feed into a more generous sense of self-government. This would go beyond market fundamentalism and ‘welfare capitalism’, while also drawing from Labour and SNP earlier traditions of radicalism, along with ILP ethical socialism, G.D.H. Cole’s guild socialism, and the ideals of the co-operative and mutual society movements.

Conversations are good, chat is good, deliberative processes can be revealing, as are new ways of coming together. At the same time the hurricane that is neo-liberalism needs to be resisted. After socialism and social democracy, what do we use not just as protection, but also to take on its ideals and point in a different way?

We do need more than conversation, processes and even stories. All of these need content, intent and intelligence. A political project. There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stories. George W. Bush and Tony Blair had stories. Serco who are one of the rising outsourcers and privatisers of the New Labour era (running for example the Atomic Weapons Establishment) use innovative techniques to aid what they do: embracing story, drumming and ‘African village’ discussions for their deregulating, cost-cutting, doctrinaire ways. Doesn’t that tell us that we need more than chat, process or story? We need to have a greater sense of what it is for.

I also have more of a sense of anxiety than you do about where we are and what is coming, and part of this may be a little in the different political generations we come from you; with you having memory of some of the left campaigns and victories in the 1960s, whereas I grew up under Thatcherism.

The last few years have exposed the fallacies and falsehoods of neo-liberalism, yet it still continues its inexorable extension into every aspect of our lives. This is obvious across numerous areas from culture and how we think of ‘knowledge’. If we look at culture, we see a world of arts and culture heavily instrumentalised and used as an add-on of economic competitiveness. Look at the world of the English Premiership League, an articulation of the ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ bubble with fourteen of the twenty clubs based offshore, huge debt levels and massive rewards for the super-rich. All of which leads to less competition and greater concentration of power, and eventually, for all the triumphalism, something more banal and predictable.

More fundamentally there is how we think of ‘knowledge’, ‘success’ and ‘intelligence’ which has grown increasingly narrow under neo-liberalism. Some of this was framed in Michael Young’s wonderful ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ all those years ago, where he saw a future world where rich and poor alike saw their experience as due to their personal qualities, and any sense of common language and values breaking down. Young saw one of the main drivers of this the narrow interpretation of ‘intelligence’ in education slowly producing a more stratified, divided, almost caste system.

Today the new academies of ‘knowledge’ can be seen as the outsourcers and vultures of the new capitalism – Serco, PWC, KPMG etc. I write this on the morning after David Cameron’s comments on public spending cuts, and all morning Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme has been running an item from KPMG about ways of making efficiencies and change in the public sector. There is beyond a small ‘left’ political community little currency about critiquing this partial world, of challenging its assumptions and saying, ‘hang on we know this doesn’t work’. In this sense we are still deep within the beast of neo-liberalism.

Neo-liberalism had a number of drivers: changes in the world of business, finance and capitalism, while at the same time, tapping into the language of individualism and liberation. We can see this up and down the towns and cities of the UK and elsewhere, the mini-me brands feeling that the ultimate embodiment of self-expression is to have your designer clothes and lifestyle.  For all the talk of change and innovation and technological utopianism, this is an age of deep conservatism and conformity, of not questioning the prevailing assumptions of our time which can be seen across politics, society and culture to things such as modern fiction, theatre and music.

How do we begin to change all this, challenge the conformity and orthodoxies which define mainstream politics? Despite my worries, there are some signs for a little optimism. Even before the crash, it was self-evident that neo-liberalism and its ‘official future’ for all that it seemed all-pervasive and all-powerful, hadn’t really won over the ‘hearts and minds’ of most people. Instead, lots of people have gone along with it because they had to in work settings, or for want of an alternative, while many people are aware of the trade-offs and costs of the last few decades. If we look at trying to take a balanced view of the New Labour era, some of the work of Rowntree shows that people know that the economic gains have been at a whole host of social costs.

I think the beginnings of the answer can be found in the ideals of self-determination, looking at how we deal with concentrations of power whether it be of the market and state, and how we develop a contemporary language of justice and fairness, which a wide constituency in the UK and across the world know is missing from our public deliberations. This is a time underneath the neo-lib platitudes of enormous uncertainty and nervousness, from our supposed rulers embarking on cuts to the rest of us, but in that nervousness there lies an opening …. Where and how are the new forces to gather, and under what banner? And are our mainstream parties beyond the pale? And if this is the case where do we find our ‘assemblies of hope’

Best wishes, Gerry

Hi Gerry:

Thank you, much appreciated, you are making me think. Two quotes from you. This is well put:

"The Scottish experience is salutary. We established a Parliament to further the idea of self-government as a political institution and set of processes. This is by its nature a minority activity. Instead, what we should look at is the journey from self-government to self-determination – as a society, communities and individuals. And this self-determination – shifting power, looking at less institutionally dominated ideas of change, encouraging autonomy and capacity – could feed into a more generous sense of self-government."

But self-determination in the sense of growing people’s capabilities, needs to be stiffened with power or it risks becoming ‘Big Society’ communitarianism.

From this point of agreement, however it may be put (the need to join liberalism and democracy, republicanism with communitarianism, liberty with socialism, the market with human values), there are disagreements. You attack “just addressing constitutional politics and leaving assumed or unexplored – the wider political agenda.” But whoever said that constitutional reform was anything other than partial? You say, “Charter 88 brought constitutional reform in from the margins, and yet my point – which I am sure you would concur with – is how the state and British government operates has degenerated and become worse while neo-liberalism has entrenched and become even more far reaching”. But there are important ways that the British state has improved (not difficult, I’d agree). There is a Freedom of Information Act. There is a Human Rights Act. The second chamber is not packed with hereditary peers. I think the expansion of the influence of human rights and the re-articulation of rights and liberty is a big plus. That’s why thinking in terms of going backwards and forwards is too, well, linear.

I don’t see ours as an age of deep conservatism and conformity. On the contrary, change is the order of the day, and witnessing it, with very little confidence that anyone has the answers. Mental traps are lifting, routine reactions becoming less plausible - and the lumps are falling off the self-confident power structures of the epoch of neo-liberalism.

Cheers, Anthony

Thanks for this Anthony,

I have enjoyed this conversation and found it both interesting, challenging and at times frustrating. First, lets take the culture of deep conservatism and conformity. I think this is absolutely true across mainstream politics, media and culture. There has been a decline in alternative thinking and spaces, and the appropriation of the language, codes and signs of the alternative by the mainstream in a kind of faux, packaged rebellion which fills our public culture and media.

The conservatism of our age is as profound and powerful as that of previous generations such as the 1950s. Maybe more so because the culture of ‘Mad Men’ was then being slowly eroded by feminism, youth culture, the decline of deference in the US, UK and the West.

Second, I can’t help feel that one of the main vehicles of resistance, imagination and hope has to be found in satire and humour. One of the biggest changes in the UK in the early 1960s was how satire weakened the old stuffy codes and made fun out of the establishment; in the 1980s there was the alternative comedy circuit that poked fun at Thatcherism and degenerated into becoming a new ‘right on’ elite. We have seen how much mileage the stereotype of the ‘Dave Spart’ earnest leftist revolutionary and Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ have had.

For that reason, one small step against the conservative order and neo-liberalism would be for people such as ‘Private Eye’ which although part of the establishment also debunks it, and writers like Jonathan Coe who satirises characters which embody our age, to create the equivalent Dave Sparts of our time. There are a host of recognisable characters: the shameless, profiteering consultant, the Londonstani oligarchs and the valueless, young policy wonk MP straight from the think tank. We need to name and shame the defining personas of today: the Dave Sparts of neo-liberalism: humourless, earnest, lacking in self-reflection and utterly convinced of the rightness of their mission.

Third, there is in the suffocating commercialised culture we live in numerous moves to create different spaces, experiences and discussion. This can be seen in the interest in psychogeography which explores very different notions of place from branding and ‘place making’, the possibilities of cultural planning, and the rise of story and such ideas as ‘assemblies of hope’ in the Glasgow 2020 project.

This comes together in the notion of self-determination – which has the potential at a societal and individual level to offer a new prospectus which aids autonomy, competence and connectness. This idea seems I think to have four crucial dimensions which if they came together offer the beginnings of something different in British politics and beyond from what has gone before.

First, there is the issue of economic self-determination. How do we deal with the economic concentrations of power which contemporary capitalism throws up in corporations and the market? Related to this how do we develop a different idea of the state which is not equally oppressive and suffocating?

Second is social self-determination. In what ways can we bridge the chasms of inequality which have reached record levels? How can we breakdown the separate development which has seen whole communities trapped for thirty years on ‘welfare dependency’ since the 1980s recession, often literally sitting side-by-side the new global winners?

Third is cultural self-determination. How can we nurture a public culture which isn’t totally at the mercy of commercial and corporate powers and acknowledges the need for public goods? How can we aid dissent, imagination and pluralism in a way in which a self-regulating market or all-powerful state cannot?

Finally, perhaps most importantly as it ties together all of the above is the area of futures self-determination. The notion of self-determination is fundamentally about the concept of the future: identifying the future, democratising the future (as opposed to futurology which has been how corporates and governments conceive the future), and then taking steps to imagine and create that future – the notion of futures literacy – and aiding people to believe they have the capacity to bring that future into being. Futures self-determination has within it a sense of the future, of the impermanence of human existence, and ecological sensibility.

This is a direct challenge to ‘the official future’ of globalisation which presents itself as an elemental force of nature which we have no opportunity to debate, change or depart from. The explicit message to people is – ‘don’t bother worrying or thinking about the future it has already been decided’. Therefore, it strengthens a sense of powerlessness about the present and the future, that the world can’t be changed and is on an economically predetermined path; not surprisingly there is significant research looking at how young people interpret this, which shows that it leads to lower self-esteem and confidence. Globalisation literally hurts people both literally and metaphysically.

The hope of socialism was always about creating a different tomorrow, and it is to this promise that any radical politics must return. Challenging the concept of ‘the official future’ with its conceit that the future has been decided. Thinking and imagining the future is fundamental to human consciousness – so the forces of self-determination would importantly be going with the grain of mankind, while ‘the official future’ resists it.

All of this poses numerous challenges: standing up to the ‘old’ and ‘new’ conservatives of left and right, inviting radicalism and idealism at a time of uncertainty, retreat and cuts, and posing an alternative to an economic and social set of orthodoxies which seem all powerful in the UK and globally. Yet the promise of ‘the official future’, neo-libs and ‘near-left’ have failed, and singularly failed to win hearts and minds. This is a generational and epochal moment for us here in the UK and elsewhere to begin mapping and taking a different course.

Very best, Gerry

This is the second of a three part conversation. Part III will be published tomorrow.

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