Economics must grapple with culture—but not prosecute culture wars

Make serious suggestions to tackle the grievances of left-behind Britain, and you soon run into backlash from commentators who would glorify its rage

July 30, 2020
Blyth Valley on the morning after the 2019 election
Blyth Valley on the morning after the 2019 election

One of the most consequential policy questions of our age is whether it is possible to address economic and social polarisation in the western world without engaging in a culture war on liberal cosmopolitanism. In my recent book,The Economics of Belonging, I argue that it is possible, and outline a policy programme of “centrist radicalism” for how. I hope I am right: the alternative is that the deep divisions of western politics can only be overcome through a culture war where one side must win and the other lose decisively.

That alternative view reflects what in the political philosophy debates of the 1980s and 1990s was called communitarianism, which stood in opposition to political liberalism. While philosophy itself has moved on, the controversy animates today’s political and policy debates more than ever. It has been most successfully popularised by David Goodhart’s pithy distinction between the cosmopolitan liberal “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres” who are supposedly uniquely rooted in a geographically-bounded communities.

That distinction was always facile. It ignores that we belong to many communities, not all geographically defined, and essentialises what is or should be a matter of agency, namely how we manage our communities over time and vis-à-vis others. Above all, it rules out by definitional fiat the possibility that one can at the same time identify as a citizen of the world and care for specific, even place-bound, communities. In so doing, it helps the labels serve their main purpose, which is to define and divide opposing cultural camps, separated by an unbridgeable gap.

In the political realm, the British standard-bearers of this communitarian perspective have included Nick Timothy, whose ideological reorientation of the Tory party under Theresa May (remember the opposition of the “just about managing” against “citizens of nowhere”) has outlasted him, and, it seems, Oxford professor Paul Collier, who has reviewed my book for Prospect.

Collier certainly embraces the somewhere/anywhere dichotomy, as he finds it useful to pigeonhole me as “a fully paid-up Anywhere.” He does not mention whether a lifetime career at elite universities and multilateral policy institutions qualifies him for the same epithet, nor explain the necessary route to redemption from it. What is clear is that he rejects my premise that cosmopolitanism is compatible with building—or rebuilding—community in western countries where it has been eroded.

Collier bristles at my title on the rather proprietorial basis that he thinks it is better suited for his own next book with John Kay than for mine.

Another objection is that my book should have been much been longer, citing the example of Thomas Piketty’s recent Capital and Ideology, which racks up 1,200 pages to allow for an exhaustive (and perhaps exhausting) “discussion of economic policies… set in a historical and social context.” If there is a sin of concision, I plead guilty: I have written a book that even a busy politician may find time to read. (I wish a lot of stamina for the readers of Collier’s own forthcoming oeuvre.)

Yet another is that my argument is not UK-centric enough. Collier thinks I neglect the specific problems of Whitehall’s inability to make good policy for the whole country, and that I do not explain “why Britain’s gross spatial inequality… was allowed to widen relentlessly for 40 years by governments of both right and left.”

But rising regional disparity (and the other dimensions of economic divergence that mark what I call the end of economic belonging) has affected many if not all western countries. Mine is a book about these common forces of economic polarisation. When the pattern of polarisation is similar everywhere, it surely makes sense to understand what countries have in common before focusing on idiosyncratic explanations. (Besides, an early chapter entitled “Half a century of policy mistakes” is devoted to precisely that—how governments across the west allowed rising disparities.)

Apart from wishing that I had written a different book, what does Collier criticise? Not the policy programme I recommend to address polarisation, as he does not identify a single substantive proposal to disagree with. In this he echoes Timothy’s reaction to my book, which was similarly offended by its cosmopolitanism. Despite his instinctive distaste, the man who wrote prime ministerial speeches about “burning injustices” but left few prime ministerial policy initiatives to address them, judged that that “oddly enough” my “flawed analysis… provides many policy recommendations that politicians would do well to heed.”

Those are strangely grudging reactions to a book whose stated purpose is to offer a policy programme. They betray how from this communitarian vantage point, actually addressing polarisation is secondary to telling a particular story which underpins a particular kind of cultural politics. And sure enough, one of the things Collier is most exercised by is how “plum positions” in a thriving London have been filled by foreigners rather than “British people drawn from the provinces.”

Culture matters, of course. While Collier attributes to me the view “that the income distribution is all we need to understand the backlash against globalisation,” I am at pains to survey the many dimensions of polarisation, including the “gross spatial inequality” which Collier rightly denounces, but also a divergence in lifestyles, in workplace security and empowerment, in health and in values. In a nutshell, my claim is that the object of people’s anger may be cultural, but the cause of their (cultural) anger is economic. That implies that rewriting a better economic social contract carries the promise of diminishing cultural tensions.

There may be the rub of a visceral reaction against a liberal taking on belonging. The fear may not be that when cosmopolitans take community seriously, they should fail to address its problems, but rather that they should succeed, preserving economic openness by making it work for everyone. For a certain kind of communitarian, that may not be revolutionary—or, perhaps, reactionary?—enough.