Beyond post-liberalism: Red Tory or Blue Labour?

Alexander Pannett 10.45am

2011 saw an explosion of civil unrest with the outbreak of the Occupy movement, the student protests and the London summer riots.

The aggression shook civil society on to the psychoanalysts’ couch as we questioned the values we still retained.  It seemed that a cohesive society had been fatally undermined by the rampant individualism that had been released by global capitalist forces.

Amid this collective anxiety we saw further calls for a new political solution to the perceived failure of the Thatcherite political consensus of market liberalism.

Localism has returned to the political agenda in the form of the communitarian Big Society movement. This is essentially a rejection of a liberal belief that the free movement of capital should define all social values and interaction, with the state left to plug the inevitable holes that emerged in the fabric of society.

The unfettered movement of capital has created monopolistic impulses that have seen capital concentrate in the hands of the few and the poor further disenfranchised from the asset-owning sections of society.  By encouraging community activism, assets could be re-distributed from the State to the working classes, allowing them access to capital but without the overt class warfare of socialism.

Interestingly, this ‘new’ movement of post-liberalism has found advocates on both the left and the right, in the form of Maurice Glasman’s Blue Blue Labour and Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism.

Despite all the rhetoric, there is little difference between the two strands of post-liberalism, both seeking to put more power or capital back in the hands of ordinary citizens and especially the more disadvantaged in society.

Both see volunteerism and community action as the best ways to re-invigorate the fabric of society following the onslaught of liberalist capital forces, which have undermined traditional values and displaced once-united communities.

The post-liberalist development is itself not as ‘new’ as its contemporary advocates suggest. It was first formed in the early 1990s by writers such as John Gray, who were reacting to the concomitant demise of socialism in the 1980s and the rise of post-modernist, market forces, leaning heavily on Isaiah Berlin’s value-pluralism of the post-war period for inspiration.

Gray wrote, in 1994:

Market liberalism… fosters a privileging of choice and a cult of mobility that consort badly with the settled communities cherished by traditional conservatives… the social and cultural effects of market liberalism are, virtually without exception, inimical to the values that traditional conservatives hold dear. Communities are scattered to the winds by the gale of creative destruction.

While the post-liberalist movement has been gathering pace for almost two decades it is still not clear how it will achieve its laudable goals. Communitarianism is a valuable part of the debate over how to re-enfranchise the dispossessed poor in our materialistic society. But it is not clear how it can resist dominant market forces.

Even if there was an increase in productivity via the increased mutualisation of UK companies and use of cooperatives, along the lines of the John Lewis model, such increased productivity would still find it difficult to compete with the state capitalism of countries like China, which enjoys perennially lower labour costs, larger economies of scale and relaxed planning laws.

In a global market, the small-scale cottage industries, such as the ones advocated by communitarianis, would not be able to compete in either quality or cost. It is almost pathological to believe that the iPod could have originated from a hamlet in Devon.

If protectionism is the answer then history shows that in an economic slump such as during the 1930s, increased protectionism greatly exacerbated the economic downturn by stifling demand and the supply of capital. Protectionism would also inhibit technological and scientific innovation as skills and ideas were restricted behind economic walls. It also would deny the poorest nations the chance to trade their way out of destitution and hunger.

This is not to say that communitarianism cannot work, but, paradoxically, it must be made to work in a global world that has become socially, environmentally and economically interdependent.

While the instability of global capitalism has been exposed by the 2008 crisis, we have not yet discovered a convincing political, economic or even environmental model that best encapsulates our values, aspirations and responsibilities in the post-liberalist world.  The party that finds such a vision will dominate the political course of our nation for the foreseeable future.

Well. At least until the next axiomatic dogma comes along.

Share this article on Twitter

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett