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Progressive politics must rediscover its moral purpose: a response to Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel is right: progressive politics has become too technocratic, writes Labour politician Jon Cruddas.

Protest against Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, 2017 Protest against Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, 2017. Image: Erik McGregor/SIPA USA/PA Images.

OpenDemocracy asks who is responsible for the global rise of the far right? In his recent diagnosis of modern capitalism and escalating threats to liberal democracy Michael Sandel has offered an elegant answer.

He observes that for many of our fellow citizens capitalism has failed to deliver, and yet across the planet progressive politics remains in crisis: it lacks an animating purpose or energy. This is expressed politically in electoral defeats and ideologically in the absence of a conception of the good life. For Sandel, progressive politics must rediscover its essential moral purpose. This challenge goes far beyond questions of material justice: it is one of historic proportions, nothing less than the need to build a new public philosophy for progressive politics. How do we in the UK respond to such a challenge? Not least because Jeremy Corbyn and the current Labour Party appear to be exceptions to this overall story of defeat and decline.

In the face of escalating authoritarianism, Sandel suggests that the way we react should be disciplined into an “economy of outrage” so that energy is channelled into the creation of a rigorous political response. Such a response would be one that moves beyond – quite understandable – forms of protest and resistance; this is the outstanding political test of our time. Success therein demands awareness of the forces driving today’s bewildering political changes.

Before we can formulate a response, we must understand the fundamental failure of progressive politics which long ago lost its ethical grip and collapsed into forms of technocratic administration. Today’s populist uprisings reflect a backlash against this soulless managerialism. They offer an ‘angry verdict’ on a long term liberal compact with capital that has entrenched economic and democratic inequalities and rolled back genuine social mobility. The centre-left politicians that succeeded Thatcher and Reagan – like Blair, Clinton and Schröder – left unchallenged the essential market orthodoxies that preceded them. Obama, once in office, succumbed to the same forces at the expense of his moral clarity when running as an insurgent candidate.

Rethinking the very purpose of progressive politics, as we now must do, needs to go way beyond acknowledging economic grievance and enduring inequality. It requires a very different conversation: one that addresses moral and cultural questions regarding the lives we wish to live, and how the current disparity between that ideal and reality can find painful and often angry political expression through resentment and humiliation.

This final point is the real insight offered by Sandel. It speaks to deeper philosophical questions which he draws out when discussing four themes that a renewed progressive politics must address: income inequality, meritocratic hubris, the dignity of work and patriotism, and the notion of national community. Before discussing these arguments, it is worth considering the specific UK context within which this argument plays out.

Today’s populist uprisings reflect a backlash against soulless managerialism

In the UK today it is widely accepted that we are living through a period of crisis, regularly described as a crisis of neoliberalism – a specific approach to the market, economy and society. This doctrine of economic liberalism has been unable to deliver what it promised to the people and the resulting discontent has reconfigured domestic politics and found its fullest expression in Brexit. Yet incumbent politicians are among the least equipped to explain and resolve the crisis as they know of no alternative. This reality has ushered in new forms of political voice and energy on both the radical left and right.

Consequently, the three creeds that dominated the last century – conservatism, liberalism and social democracy – encased within our Tory, Liberal and Labour parties – all now face major challenges owing to the way they have capitulated, to various degrees, to neoliberalism.

For example, in the UK, modern conservatism is reeling. It appears no longer able to achieve what it long promised – widening opportunity secured by a property-owning democracy and inclusive growth protected by sound money. Indeed, its fundamental beliefs – order, freedom, and the preservation of our national institutions – cannot now be guaranteed. In this way, what began as a fringe right-wing economic and social experiment in liberal economics now threatens to derail that which it sought to guarantee. In recent years we have seen a series of attempts to change direction from neoliberalism; for example, with a ‘One Nation’ reset or ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ or a ‘Red Tory’ rebrand, as Theresa May attempted in the early days of her premiership. But in reality, the Conservative party and the wider conservative intellectual movement remain captive to hardline economic purists. Meanwhile Brexit corrodes relations and provides a day-to-day drumbeat to these internal tensions.

Social democracy fares no better. It remains a stale project that offers diminishing political returns. It has long since lost its post-war ethical character – expressed in a concern to regulate capital and build the welfare state – beaten back by the New Right of Reagan and Thatcher. The Third Way project to manage the proceeds of growth won three elections but came at a cost. It became a remote managerial project and, without any growth to manage, was swept out of office following the 2008 crash. Since 2015, there has been a break away from Third Way triangulation by the current Labour party leadership, driven by moral outrage at the state of capitalism. The Corbyn project is internally secure and delivered a 10-point jump in Labour support at the last election. Corbyn and Corbynism have energy precisely because they stand outside the neoliberal appropriation of UK politics.

The political direction of Liberal Democrats also underwent a significant shift following the publication of The Orange Book in 2004, a collection of essays that sought to steer the party away from the centre-left and towards economic liberalism. The adherents of the Orange Book secured a Liberal Party move into coalition government with the Tories – but they paid a significant price. The Lib Dems become the political fall guys in the 2017 election, which saw the highest two-party poll since 1970. The politics of Brexit has surprisingly not helped them rebuild their tainted brand.

Corbyn and Corbynism have energy precisely because they stand outside the neoliberal appropriation of UK politics.

For all three traditions and parties there is a sense that they are now situated on the wrong side of history and offer little help to navigate the complexities and demands of the modern world. The three dominant UK political parties and their respective frameworks – we could hardly call them competing ideologies – are all in serious trouble, victims of a deeper crisis. Corbynism has vitality precisely because it resists this recent historical convergence.

To put it another way, just a few years ago mainstream politics assumed it had advanced to the final stage of human evolution because of the dominance of the market. Liberal democracy in the neoliberal era announced that it had secured the end of history. Mainstream conservative, liberal and social democratic thinking bought into this myth.

Today, however, there is more talk of building walls rather than pulling them down. The political philosophy which told us that competition was the guiding principle of human activity and the only guarantor of true liberty has led to sinister forms of authoritarian populism. Rationality is being replaced by fake news; we now live in a post-truth world. History has not ended. It has been upended.

History has not ended. It has been upended.

Can liberal democracies withstand this neoliberal crisis? What has to change?

Most obviously, levels of income inequality have to be addressed. Flat growth, austerity and an enduring wage crash has produced indentured insecurity and anxiety for future generations. Growth is not inclusive, social mobility is in reverse and patterns of inequality are intensifying.

At the same time, the social contract has to be rebuilt. It is currently under immense pressure due to the fast pace of demographic change which has heightened tensions over inclusivity in modern societies where contributory social insurance schemes form the basis for national solidarities.

The nature of the public conversation is also undergoing a dramatic transformation. Social media has exacerbated the acrimony generated by these discussions, while also allowing us to hunker down inside echo chambers where we hear only what we want to. This technology has amplified more radical – and not necessarily benign – ideas to enter into the mainstream of our democracies.

Rebuilding the character of our democracies will be tough. Sandel suggests four themes for progressive politics to grapple with in order to begin to respond to these profound challenges.

Income inequality

Progressive politics has grown accustomed to a language of supply-side reform and equality of opportunity to combat inequality. This rings hollow when seen alongside modern inequalities of power and wealth, which cannot be overcome with the mantra of mobility. On a more positive note, here in the UK, the Corbyn team are quietly assembling a ‘new economics’ capable of meeting this challenge. This builds on the popular 2017 manifesto For the Many Not the Few as well as subsequent work on economic democracy and alternative ownership models, the decentralisation of economic power, and the revival of local government. Seen alongside the forthcoming IPPR Report from the Commission on Economic Justice and their suggestions for changing forms of corporate governance and building innovative forms of citizens wealth, we are witnessing a revival in progressive economic thinking not seen in the UK for nearly 30 years.  

Meritocratic Hubris

The second theme flows from the language of opportunity and removing barriers to success. Meritocracy, a term initially coined in the UK as an ironic description to justify inaction over inequality, has further entrenched elite privilege. Sandel urges us to challenge the harsh judgements that liberals and progressives impose on those who are viewed as “unsuccessful” in a meritocracy – not least due to the resentment this builds, in turn fuelling the populist backlash. It adds to a sense of cultural detachment in politics and a disrespect for the work performed by many of our fellow citizens and their achievements.

In the UK, this discussion is finally underway, as evident in Jo Littler’s recent work Against Meritocracy which explores these links between neoliberalism and a detached meritocratic social democracy. This can be seen as a companion piece to the economic reorientations underway within the Labour party.

The Dignity of Work

The third theme relates to the meaning and dignity of work. What role will work play in the future and the lives we wish to lead? For Tony Blair and New Labour, knowledge work signalled the end of the post-war economy and traditional Labour values. The working class was on the wrong side of history. Knowledge work was the future, and the famous slogan ‘education, education, education’ captured an economic policy which was focused on human capital. This false nirvana is resurrected today by utopian progressive ‘post-work’ theorists whose embrace of Universal Basic Income (UBI) can suggest disdain for jobs not considered worthwhile. At a minimum, the data in support of the end of work through AI, automation and distributed production can be disputed. At worst, this agenda can reinforce the detachment of progressive thinking and help build the forces driving authoritarian populism. UBI is embraced in the UK by many who believe we are transitioning towards a post-capitalist technological utopia. Labour appear attracted to UBI and have established a working group to consider its merits. Recently, an alternative emphasis on Universal Basic Services (UBS) rather than UBI has appeared to gain ground with an agenda of foundational economic and social rights for all citizens – an agenda that would appear to cohere more effectively with the overall direction of economic thinking within the party. We are in the foothills of this discussion.

Patriotism and National Community

The biggest challenge provided by Sandel, and the one we are making the least progress on in the UK, concerns the moral significance of national boundaries. Progressive thinking has tended to embrace a cosmopolitanism that asserts a privileged global citizenship over other forms of society, attachment or fidelity. Yet politicians seek a mandate from a specific piece of territory – a constituency or a nation. Does the progressive politician have a set of moral obligations to that particular electorate over and above an imagined global responsibility? Much modern progressive thinking suggest that they do not.

The rise of the populist right is inseparable from the politics of English identity.

This is not a question of political expediency or of pandering to the populist right. Politicians in difficult times have a duty to explain how they hope to build resilient, stable communities – ones that share the sacrifices, risks and rewards in a difficult world. These are complicated spaces for modern progressive thinking. Does a detached cosmopolitanism fail to counter the arguments of the populist right and simply avoid questions of belonging, community and nation, all of which are significant in the eyes of the people? So far, the most difficult task for progressive thinking has been to challenge the story of dispossession and abandonment offered by the populist right and to offer a positive, optimist re-imagination of nationhood. To do so, however, we have to believe they do not have to retain reactionary exclusive associations. This challenge is far from resolved.

The rise of the populist right is inseparable from the politics of English identity. Yet Labour remains reluctant to confront the position of England and its relationship to the nations of the union. The 2017 general election manifesto called for a constitutional convention but since then the policy has fallen by the wayside; a recent speech by the Labour MP Jon Trickett hopefully marks renewed interest in the idea.

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When compared to the global challenges facing progressive politics and social democracy, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party have made progress on the four themes provided by Michael Sandel – especially on the economic policy front. Yet this progress has to be weighed alongside the deeper challenge that these four themes press us to confront, namely how we re-establish the moral character of our political conversation.

Sandel’s argument is subtle and contains within it profound philosophical questions which we cannot avoid indefinitely. On the one hand, he suggests that progressive thinking has been concerned with allocating resources and material justice, too technocratic and blinkered in terms of its understanding of the lives people wish to live. On the other, he suggests we recoil from moral questions because of our insistence on liberal neutrality. In doing so, we disengage from the fundamental issues that feed the populist right: questions of worth, esteem, resentment and humiliation. In contrast, we inhabit a world detached from the everyday concerns of the people we purport to represent, using a language of rights, opportunity and fairness that “flattens questions of meaning, identity and purpose”.

In this way, Sandel offers a devastating critique of progressive thinking. First, it does indeed bear responsibility for the rise of the populist right given how social democracy succumbed to the neoliberal transformation. Second, it is not just the way we handed over ethical questions to the market: it is the way that, even today, our continued belief in liberal procedural justice has removed moral questions from public discussion and allowed authoritarian voices to monopolise this terrain. In the UK, we are making progress on one front but not on the other. The difficult conversations that Sandel implores we have are of fundamental importance; by hosting these exchanges, openDemocracy is answering that call.


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