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Decoupling 'fairness' from class and power in the UK

Fairness is all the rage, it was Gordon Brown's mantra, is claimed by the Lib Dems and advocated by the UK's new one-nation Tory premier David Cameron. What chance does the concept have with friends like these? As Labour prepares for opposition it might be advised to try and different approach.

There's an argument, stemming from Hegel, that a political idea is only fully realised by its opponent. Hegel explored this via the master-slave dialectic: the master is implicitly dependent on the slave for his mastery, whereas the slave's freedom - when it arrives - is actually real. Overthrowing something enables one to realise its inner possibility. Marx reinvented this in class terms, which is why the proletariat has the potential for a higher form of liberal freedom than the liberal bourgeoisie themselves. 

Similarly, I think Zizek points out somewhere that, here in Britain, Blairism was a more consistent realisation of Thatcherism than Thatcher could ever achieve. Precisely because Thatcherism was the forceful imposition of a new political programme, its identity (like that of Hegel's master) was partly dependent on the resistance of those it was aiming to disempower. By contrast, Blairism - stemming from Thatcher's opponents, internalising its policies - represented neo-liberalism as a sociological reality, rather than as a political goal. Thatcherism was defined in opposition to the power of unions, whereas Blairite policies were considered responses to the 'competitive challenges' of a de-regulated, flexible economy that simply was.

If, for the sake of a thought experiment, we follow this through, it's interesting to ask which of the hard-fought, political goals of New Labour will reappear as unquestionable facts under the new Conservative, Lib Dem Coalition government of Cameron and Clegg. I suspect it will have something to do with inequality and fairness.

It must be said, in appreciation of New Labour, that raising the incomes of those at the bottom of society in real terms, and relative to median incomes, was something they expended a tremendous amount of energy on. Overall levels of inequality fell during the second term, for the first time since the 1970s. All manner of fiscal tricks were pulled to establish this, and high levels of sustained growth facilitated it. So much political effort, so many tricks and so much growth went into it, in fact, that it could be achieved without having to disrupt the distribution of power, ownership or cultural capital in British society. The political struggle of New Labour was to separate egalitarianism and 'fairness' from class politics.

It is a measure of New Labour's success in doing this that George Osborne's policies are presented in the language of fairness, and defended on the basis that they will not exacerbate inequality. These values are now part of the furniture, just as flexible labour markets were for Blair. But equally, we now see the truth of what 'fairness' means, partly thanks to the fiscal retrenchment.

Since taking power, the Conservatives have made various announcements to the effect that the 'pain' of austerity will be felt equally. Ministers are now having to use the tubeand been given pay cuts. Transparency now means knowing what public servants earn, as a basis for perhaps even more 'fairness'. Elites are beating themselves up on a daily basis. The outrage at senior salaries is being harnessed by David Cameron in an interesting way.

Aside from any sense that these might be media gimmicks, what do they say about the emerging political economy? The implication is that the Coalition stands for an even greater level of fairness than New Labour, yet still within the existing structure of power relations, ownership and cultural capital. New Labour's push for fairness was undermined by the sense that they were not only comfortable with the filthy rich getting filthier and richer, but they were quite tempted to join them (Tony Blair now charges up to £400,000 an hour). David Cameron is outflanking Brownite ascetism by wearing the hair shirt on his own back.

To apply pain and gain equally, proportionately and fairly across every rank in society is the ultimate legitimation of the ranks as they presently stand. The status quo receives an endorsement, not in economic terms (it is efficient) nor in conservative terms (it has worked in the past) but in liberal ones (it will be managed fairly). It is the final abandonment of the possibility that the rankings might be rearranged, that power might be challenged or society reorganised. The disavowel of inequality getting significantly greater is at the same time a morally confident statement that it needn't get any less either. The next step would be to throw the odd sacrificial CEO into jail, as occurs periodically in the US.

This is Rawls's 'justice as fairness', but instead of being designed from behind a veil of ignorance, it is being designed and upheld within a set of contingently unequal social, economic and political relations. "What", the Rawlsian Tory asks "would it mean for this political-economic arrangement to be made fair?" To which the answer is "5% pay-cuts for everyone."

All of which makes me wonder if greater equality is another of those political goals that is best pursued obliquely. It is taken as read that the Labour movement has always been about greater equality. Has it really? Were statistics of this sort available in the 1870s? Is social justice really just a matter of earnings, be they of labour or capital? Was the welfare state about reducing some quantifiable gap, or was it about tackling degradation? Today there is a case for reforming corporate governance structures, quite aside from the inequality that they produce; inequality may be reduced obliquely as a result.

Building on these thoughts of a couple of days ago, I think it would be mistaken were the Labour Party now to try to wrest back the 'fairness' and 'equality' agenda from the Coalition government. How much fairer can you get than sending Ministers on the tube, they'll say. What was so fair about the celebrity-obsessed era of New Labour? We are the new egalitarians, Osborne will reply, as the cuts are affecting top and bottom equally (never mind that that would be termed 'regressive' if the same logic were applied to taxation). Best to let them have fairness, and see how far they can run with it, just as the Tories had to let Labour do the same with open and competitive markets.

Cross-posted from Potlatch.

About the author

William Davies is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. His weblog is at www.potlatch.org.uk and his new book is The Happiness Industry: How the government & big business sold us wellbeing (published by Verso).


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