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Democratic politics beyond liberal democracy

End the exalted position of politics as something separate from an increasingly connected and savvy populace. Let them – us – take control.

Protesters at the Catalan independence referendum, 2017. Image: Miquel Garcia (CC BY-NC-SA 2.5 ES). In addressing the discussion advanced by Michael J. Sandel and welcomed by Jon Cruddas, we should begin with what is dying and what is vital about liberal democracy and progressive politics. In my view, both arguments are partly on the right track. The crises of progressive politics and liberal democracy cannot be thought through in splendid isolation from the long tail of the crisis in capitalism.

That liberal democracies have so far proven to be the most endurable governance norm for advanced capitalist states doesn't mean this arrangement of politics and economics is without tension, nor that we cannot improve upon it. The rise of authoritarian capitalisms, the threats to democracy in eastern Europe, and the challenge populist politics pose to the so-called mature democracies suggest that there's still some way to go before, as Francis Fukuyama put it, history comes to an end.

More democracy not less

Nevertheless, addressing the crisis demands thinking about its positive resolution. In other words, I'm interested in saving liberal democracy to improve and go beyond it. You answer challenges to democracy by offering more democracy, not less. If empowering people to take charge of their lives is more than a feel-good phrase, or a strap line for corporate social responsibility, we need a politics that is serious about it. This necessarily is a politics aimed at the anarchy of the market and tyranny of the workplace, a politics of mass participation, and a politics that dispenses with managerialism. This also requires an honest reckoning with the establishment politics of the near past, their consequences, and how they have helped usher in the oft bewildering and counter-intuitive politics we see now.

Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair, 1999. Image: LSE Library.

The record of New Labour offers many a lesson in this regard. Consider the third way, a largely after-the-fact justification of the policy orientation pursued by Tony Blair (and Bill Clinton). So-called because of its apparent equidistant positioning between the free market brutalism of Thatcherism, and the alleged inefficiencies of welfare state capitalism with its strong trade unions, price controls and state running of industry, it presented itself as a new politics. For Anthony Giddens, the sociologist whose writing on the third way model was highly influential, the old solidarities were receding and the class politics of the 1970s and 1980s were giving way to, what he termed, the “life politics” of the 1990s and beyond. This was his shorthand, not just for the emergence of a mass identity politics, but also the new concerns for the self, for consumerism and self-actualisation. The fixation on aspiration, famously defined by former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander in a 2008 pamphlet as "second home ownership, two cars in the driveway, a nice garden, two foreign holidays a year, and leisure systems in the home such as sound, cinema, and gym equipment" was less an extrapolation of a social fact, and more the breathless hyping of consumerist individualism. The obvious means of realising this particular kind of aspiration was through the market, which Giddens demanded that the left become comfortable with. Small wonder that the "economic efficiency" accompanying pledges of "social justice" was, in practice, more deregulation, cuts and privatisation, and, crucially, the extension of individual but not collective rights in the workplace; changes always driven by administrative fiat from above.

Disastrous consequences

The consequences of third way economic policy on society at large were far reaching. In the first place, and despite the rebuilding of the public realm (albeit in a market friendly way), subordination to the market helped undermine what Giddens calls “ontological security”, a term he uses to describe people’s sense of belonging and attachment to their surroundings. In practice, more markets meant more insecurity and the atomisation of a section of Labour's base. Ironically, this  weakened the organised labour movement further and with it the old trade union right, a crucial part of Blair's in-party coalition, which contributed to the hollowing out of the party, and eventually led to its rapid take over by the left.

Where New Labour went, many centre-left parties followed and suffered even more disastrous consequences. The problem with progressive politics, defined by Sandel and Cruddas as the parties of liberalism and the old social democratic and labourist left (excluding Corbynism, and continental left populists like Podemos) is not that they were "technocratic" and didn't have a convincing story of nation and place to tell, it was that this is a secondary feature of their collapse.

When Parti Socialiste in France, PASOK in Greece, the German Social Democrats, Partito Democratico in Italy, Labour in Scotland, and the Labour Party in the Netherlands have administered or been seen to associate themselves with the kinds of policies and parties that crash the living standards of their core constituencies, the problem of and responsibility for the catastophic loss of electoral support rests with the authors of these positions. Attacking workers' rights and making it easier to fire people, cutting public sector jobs, privatising state assets, enforcing new conditionalities on social security, these policies elicit resistance and, if they are written into law,  disillusionment and demoralisation. The result is the dispersal of core parts of the electoral coalition centre-left parties need to win elections and survive.

Bewildered centre-left

It is a measure of the bewilderment of the centre-left that few convincing explanations have been advanced from this quarter to explain why Labour did well at the 2017 general election not just among the young, but according to polling in its immediate aftermath, in all occupational groups under the age of 54. Youthquake explanations can't explain the rise in support among those of us who'd struggle to be described as young people. Equally unconvincing is the remain vote explanation because, a year on from the election, Labour are still polling around the 40% mark while the avidly pro-EU parties, except for the SNP, are virtually nowhere. As I have argued in my contribution to The Corbyn Effect, a collection of essays edited by Mark Perryman, we have to think about the long-term changes to capitalism in the West that predate the 2008 crash but that the crisis, with the agency of governments of left and right, have helped accelerate; chief among them, the growing predominance of immaterial labour.

In Cruddas's openDemocracy piece, and more obviously in his New Statesman and Fabian essays, he takes aim at the new, "post-capitalist" left and assimilates immaterial labour to knowledge work, suggesting that an emphasis on this more or less abandons working class people. This completely misunderstands the character and scope of immaterial labour. Commenting on the relationship between state and economy in post-war Italy, the activist and author Antonio Negri argued that more and more workers were drawn into employment outside of the "classical" wage labour contract between private employer and worker, and into the circuits of social reproduction or what, to borrow a phrase, you might call the foundational economies of capitalism. The business of production and profit would be a lean, episodic affair were it not for dependable education systems, the health and welfare systems, physical and legal infrastructures, and so on. These do not produce materials, but intangibles. Reducing immaterial labour to knowledge completely overlooks how capitalism has encroached on all aspects of our everyday lives from data to care and relationships.

An Amazon Fulfillment Center in Broening Hwy, Baltimore, US An Amazon Fulfillment Center in Broening Hwy, Baltimore, US. Image: Maryland GovPics (CC BY 2.0).

As we moved into the 1980s, immaterial labour became an important source of value production too. Research and the creative industries are the "sexy" end of immaterial labour, but they are a minority. Office work, call centre work, shop assistants, couriers, care work, hospitality, the bulk of the jobs in what we classify the service sector are organised around immaterial labour, the production of intangibles. Employment here depends on our capacities to perform socially. When I worked in a supermarket, for example, my ability to scan shopping in a speedy manner was secondary to the sociable, ever-smiling, ever-pleasant manner shopworkers were expected to put on. Job adverts list the skills and experience they seek, but most crucial is whether the candidate meets the person specification.

Exploiting the commons

In Negri’s more recent collaborations with Michael Hardt, they argue that the social world, or commons, is what capital increasingly exploits. Instead of extracting value by not paying the worker the full value of what is produced as per the classical Marxist approach, accumulation proceeds through capturing value. Unlike exploitation hidden behind the wage relation as per Marx in Capital, this is more easily visible: zero-hours contracts, flexi-working, bogus self-employment, even well remunerated consultants can see the revenue generated by their labour and how much goes to the app or employer. Capitalism here finds itself in a new bind. Immaterial labour is socially cooperative, drawing on the competencies, knowledges and innovation of the social commons, but too often the capital dependent on it undermines this cooperation by individuating and atomising its employees, denying them rights and expecting them to get by on episodic and insecure work.

Why is this relevant to our current discussion? Firstly, immaterial labour is obviously vital to capitalism. Arguably, it always has been. However, now the social commons is a strategic vector of capital accumulation. This will have direct consequences on our politics. It's in this context that we should see Jeremy Corbyn's championing of a lifelong education system, and the recognition of the import of critical thinking, soft skills, and collaborative working by Conservative MP Lee Rowley in the recent Centre for Policy Studies collection, New Blue.

Emphasising how class has changed is not a flight from it but a forceful restatement of class politics

Secondly, younger people are more likely to be employed as socialised or networked workers, and those who are not stand a greater chance of being older. Thirdly, the growth of immaterial labour does not mean any section of the working class is obsolete. Manual work and the people it employs are transformed by immaterial labour. Not just in terms of the integration of computer-assisted design and automation, but by the socialised and networked life outside of work. The world sits in most people's handbags and pockets. It resides in the laptops, televisions, games consoles at home. The new communication technologies have facilitated new ways of forging relationships, new identities, new thinking and, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal reminds us, new ways of influencing and being influenced.

Fourthly, increased opportunities for sociality, networking and cooperation have fostered, despite the persistent media panics about identity politics, more tolerance. The advance of social liberalism accompanies the rise of the socialised worker. The clash of values often talked up as something separate to and cutting against class by sundry political science academics actually underlines the salience of class politics. The so-called age divide is a class cohort effect. It also implies social conservatism is in long-term decline, and the rise of right populism, hipster fascism, new misogynies are symptoms of its gradual and steady displacement.

You answer challenges to democracy by offering more democracy, not less.

Finally, the importance of the immaterial – ironically – reinstates the necessity of a material politics. Contrary to Cruddas’s critique of the post-capitalist left, emphasising how class has changed is not a flight from it but a forceful restatement of class politics. Capitalism has changed, work has changed, but class remains central. With precarious working the norm, the increased likelihood of having several careers over one’s life, the disadvantaged position young people have in the benefits system, the huge debts hanging around the necks of graduates, the lack of job opportunities generally, and the housing shortage, in the case of Britain – these not only raise significant policy questions, but they throw into sharp relief the apparent inability of capitalism to deliver. A Trotskyist might be left thinking who would have thought home ownership would become a transitional demand?

Democratising Labour

The challenge of democratic politics is about making itself relevant to this long-term shift. We need a new coalition, but ultimately it has to be driven from below. Never before in history are so many people educated, skilled, competent, tolerant, and connected. They are fast learners and can break the mould of establishment politics when motivated to do so – in Britain the incredible surge the SNP saw, followed by Labour in England and Wales, is still redefining politics. Knowledge of the rules, of how politics and institutions work, are not the preserve of elites (whether they themselves properly understand it is another matter), but can be grasped and used by the masses. Political skills, organising skills, these are competencies millions of people have, and millions more are capable of acquiring.

Treating people as voters, as passive consumers of politics, is a recipe for turning them off, deactivating them.

The pressure for democratisation in Labour, along with the irreverence towards sitting MPs is not because of the manipulation of members by committee-room lefties, but speaks of a growing awareness and confidence about what must be done to make Labour an agent of political and social transformation. Treating people as voters, as passive consumers of politics, is a recipe for turning them off, deactivating them. There are plenty of parliamentary elites who would not mind this, because they're the big shots again. But it also means nice manifestos, launches and relaunches of policies, wrapping one's party in the flag – all this would be ignored, seen as inauthentic, and feed back into political indifference. Democratic politics are more than occasional elections.

I'm not someone who often quotes Tony Blair, and even less sees him as a useful source of political wisdom. Yet he did capture something in the old New Labour slogan of forward, not back, and in his 2015 musings about the future as the only "comfort zone" for progressive politics. We must indeed press onwards. The rejuvenation of democratic politics can only pass through more democracy, of loosening politics up so it becomes less about manoeuvring and position, of ending its exalted position as something separate to and apart from an increasingly connected and savvy populace, and letting them – us – take control. Only then can politics proper begin.


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