The spirit of the left has been extinguished. But there is still a case for radical ideologyby Michael Jacobs / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Over the last quarter of a century something very large, and not entirely understood, has happened to politics in western Europe. It is a commonplace that labour and social democratic parties-not least New Labour-have become more moderate, and more accommodating to capitalism. But a change much deeper than merely one of policy has occurred. It’s a cultural, indeed a psychological, shift. A kind of spirit has been extinguished.
When Max Weber analysed the way in which the post-Enlightenment processes of rational thought gradually permeated European consciousness in the 18th and 19th centuries, he described the world as becoming “disenchanted.” The religious world view which the Enlightenment largely destroyed had made the world an enchanted place, filled with the magic and mystery of gods and God. But cold, hard rationality killed them off. Even for those who remained religious, Weber observed, the world ceased to be magical. It was subject to physical laws which were knowable through science. God did not die, but he no longer inhabited the everyday world.
In the last 20 years, something similar has happened to left-of-centre politics in European societies. Up to the 1980s, politics on the left was enchanted-not by spirits, but by radical idealism; the belief that the world could be fundamentally different. But cold, hard political realism has now done for radical idealism what rationality did for pre-Enlightenment spirituality. Politics has been disenchanted.
There are many who welcome this process. But it is equally possible to argue that it has been profoundly damaging, not just for the causes of progressive politics but for a wider sense of public engagement with the political process.
It is true that the British Labour party was always pragmatic in office. But there is something that Labour has lost, which it used to have-an ideology of social transformation. Until at least the mid-1980s most members of the Labour party, in common with its sister parties throughout Europe, believed in a different kind of social and economic order, with institutions and social relationships founded on morally superior values. This was socialism, and belief in it infused the whole of left-of-centre politics.
Socialism was not merely the end-point towards which those on the left believed themselves to be working. For large numbers of activists and politicians, it was an animating force in their lives. People were socialists in the way that others (sometimes the same people) were Catholics or Jews: it was part of their identity. “Socialist” did not just describe a set of views you had. It was something you were.
This was true of the moderates as much as the revolutionaries. It is easy to forget this now, so accustomed are we to politicians who aim for nothing more than their pragmatic policy positions. Prior to the mid-1980s, the most mainstream Labour politicians talked often and without embarrassment about socialism. Here is Tony Crosland, Labour’s principal revisionist of the 1950s and 1960s, writing about the central socialist value of equality in a 1975 Fabian pamphlet: “By equality we mean more than a meritocratic society of equal opportunities… we also mean more than a simple redistribution of income. We want a wider social equality embracing the distribution of property, the educational system, social class relationships, power and privilege in industry.”
The Fabian tradition is often thought of as the moderate end of socialism, but Fabian pamphlets from the Webbs through to the 1980s were full of statements such as this. This was how all Labour people thought. There were deep divisions between those believing in rapid change and those favouring a more gradual approach. But the transformative ideals of this ideology ran right through the party.
Today all this has gone. No one speaks about socialism: the word sounds quaint. But it is more than semantic. New Labour no longer seeks to transform society, even as an ideal. Of course Labour wants change; it sees many things wrong in society and wants to improve them. Two of its goals, if achieved, would be genuinely far-reaching: the eradication of child poverty and the target of 50 per cent of young people entering higher education. But Labour politicians no longer claim that it is possible to change the structures which perpetuate inequality. We hear no visions of moral improvement, personal liberation, or the ability of humans to live more fulfilling lives than those offered by consumer capitalism. Even in its rhetoric-where most of this used to lie-New Labour’s aims have become managerial, about the better administration of society, rather than about its transformation.
Tony Blair emphasises the continuity of his values with Labour’s past. But the values are vague: “equal worth, opportunity for all, responsibility, community.” They are not translated into concrete ends, a vision of different kinds of institutions and relationships in society. Indeed, as Robert Skidelsky has pointed out in Prospect, Blair’s mantra of “eternal values, modern means” is not true. Labour values-equality and the favouring of the public/collective over the private/individual-have been abandoned. The idea that one might have principles about means, or that different kinds of social institutions might be ends in themselves, is rejected as dogma. The third way is not an ideology. It provides neither a guide to policy-making, nor a vision of the society towards which social democrats aim. New Labour is left with no more than piecemeal social reform.
Electorally, of course, this has been very successful. But within the Labour party it has had a devastating effect. This has gone largely unnoticed by those outside. But inside the party it is visible and widespread. It is not that the government’s policies are too moderate-party members are used to this. Some of the policies in fact command widespread support, particularly now that they come with higher spending and taxation. It is the loss of ideology which creates the sense of alienation. It is the abandonment of the party’s historic commitments to equality and to radical social change. Talk with any group of longstanding party members, especially those over 40, and this sense of alienation will come up, and not only among leftists. If anything it is the old moderates of the party, the people who would once have been called right-wingers, who feel most confused. It was they who won the fight to reclaim the party after the aberrations of the 1980s. Now they find that the party’s rhetoric has carried on marching right past them.
Membership figures tell a tale: down by 130,000, nearly one third, in five years. For some, there’s a moment which tips them over the edge-vouchers for asylum seekers, the promotion of selective schools, the prospect of war with Iraq. For others, it is a dull sense that there is no longer much point. When Labour wanted to change society, it was, at heart, a campaign: it needed members. But if it just wants to manage things better, why bother?
And for every member who leaves, there are many more who cannot bring themselves to do so, but whose commitment to the party barely rises above the payment of a membership fee. Look at the rates of activism: the attendance at meetings, the numbers of canvassers. The party is not quite in crisis, because for many the bonds of loyalty remain strong, and there are newer members who are not disillusioned because they never had illusions in the first place. But there can be little doubt that something profoundly corrosive has been happening to it.
In fact, the trauma runs deeper than this. It is not just about the party leadership. The truth is that most people on the left no longer know what they believe. They still think that gross inequality is immoral, they dislike competitive individualism and argue that capitalism generates social evils. What they don’t know is what to replace it with. Once it was socialism. The trauma of left-wing politics is that the third way is not enough-but it is not clear what else there could be.
What happened to radical idealism? What was the political equivalent of Weber’s Enlightenment rationality? The answer, in part, is the fall of the Berlin wall. There had been signs of ideological collapse from the early 1980s. But it was after 1989 that socialism as an animating spirit began properly to disintegrate. In many ways this was paradoxical, because the vast majority of people on the left welcomed the end of communism. They had always felt that the Soviet system was a burden, an actually-existing version of socialism used to discredit them. What they hadn’t realised was its powerful symbolic effect. Communism was hateful, but it did prove that capitalism was not inevitable.
Then into this new world stepped Francis Fukuyama. His 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man was rubbished by left-wing critics at the time (more rubbished than read). Socialists above all were at pains to deny that liberal capitalism was the end-point of history. Yet it was among the left that Fukuyama’s thesis planted itself most deeply. Almost imperceptibly, they felt their self-confidence draining away. People who were once convinced of their prescription for change suddenly found their idealism disappearing.
It wasn’t only the resurgence of global capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s which had this effect. Socialists had lived through previous eras of capitalist triumph before, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t last. What happened in the 1990s was at an intellectual level. As the last dregs of actual alternatives-from building societies to Vietnam’s resistance to American multinationals; from worker co-ops to the control of international finance capital-were sluiced out of sight by the onrushing tide of liberal capitalism, the idea that all this could be turned back came to feel more and more unrealistic. The insidious thought developed: maybe this is it. Maybe there is nothing more now than piecemeal social reform.
For the strategists of New Labour, this new political realism was a liberation. No longer did they have to pretend to believe in something which they were patently not aiming to achieve. For most of the rest of the party, it was a traumatic shift.
The debate over Clause IV in 1994-95 revealed this starkly. For the leadership and their younger followers, Labour’s old commitment to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” was self-evidently absurd. For their opponents on the left, it was just as obviously fundamental. But for the huge majority of party members it was neither. The words of Clause IV were old, but they symbolised the party’s commitment to a different kind of society. Everyone knew that the party was not trying to achieve such a society in practice. But the words kept the spirit alive. They affirmed the party’s radical idealism. This was why there was such reluctance among the members to give them up. The New Labourites won, of course, because exposed to the cold light of day the mystery of socialist ideology could no longer be supported. But the effect on the party-and on the whole of progressive politics-was more profound than was realised at the time.
People outside progressive politics might shrug and say “so what?” What does it matter if some people have grown up and realised that they cannot change the world, something everyone else accepted long ago? Socialism had not been a realistic political alternative in the west since the 1930s; its final intellectual demise was belated and is not to be mourned. Many others from within progressive politics will also say “good riddance.” There is a strong case to be made that socialist ideology was a profoundly damaging force for the decent politics of reform.
There are many things wrong with today’s capitalism, this argument runs, but the alternatives are worse. Fukuyama was right. Market democracy is the best system of ordering social and economic institutions, not only producing the most happiness, but also the most liberty, and possibly the most equality, for the greatest number. Naturally it is not perfect; but that is why modern social democracy exists. Capitalist societies need ameliorating, but they do not need replacing by some other system which social democrats can no longer identify.
This makes politics dull, but that is how it is. New Labour looks technocratic and uninspiring because that is what politics is now like-incremental, managerial amelioration. We should be grateful to live in such uneventful times, not resentful. In any case real politics is increasingly about negotiating dilemmas between competing values which are no longer expressed as simple conflicts between good and bad or elites and masses.
One of the reasons that socialist ideology flourished in the past was that it fitted the tribalism of a class society. Ideologies which came as whole packages of belief attached themselves easily to fixed, collective identities. But people’s identities today are more fragmented, looser, more malleable; and by and large this is a welcome form of personal liberation. It is unsurprising then if belief systems are also not taken on as a whole, if people pick and choose their political views as they try to create their sense of self.
This is why New Labour abandoned socialist ideology. The voters didn’t believe in it. Moreover, it created a gap between the party’s rhetoric and the realities of its policies which led to constant conflict between leadership and activists. The ideology also put off many voters who might otherwise have supported it. By abandoning the ideological pretence, New Labour has at last buried the lie at the heart of the old Labour party and has been able to achieve some historic goals: a minimum wage, devolution, huge investment in the NHS, among others.
The arguments against ideology are powerful. In these circumstances, can there be a defence of radical idealism? I think there can. Indeed, without a renewal of radical conviction the Labour party, and possibly modern politics as a whole, is in serious danger of atrophy.
Such conviction cannot be a return to socialism. There is now no alternative “system” which is imaginable as a replacement for liberal capitalism. But there does not need to be. Radical idealism does not require a belief that modern economies and societies could be run under fundamentally different principles, merely that the present system could be made to generate fundamentally different outcomes. For its root is a very simple impulse. It is the feeling that many people must surely have when looking at the world: that too much in the present order is morally wrong. A billion people living in absolute poverty, species and habitats being wiped out, many groups subject to systematic violence and discrimination, some people consuming vast amounts while others starve. The impulse is not complex, nor does it carry self-evident prescriptions. It simply says: the world does not need to be like this.
As such, today’s transformative ideal stands between two opposite but equally debilitating claims. On the one hand, it escapes the comforting complacency of belief in wholesale system change, where real-world problems did not need addressing because all would be different “under socialism.” On the other, it rejects the paralysing (and almost always self-serving) assertion that significant change is impossible because the present order of things is the only one available. It is not an argument against liberal capitalism per se, but is an argument against the fatalism of political action that now generally accompanies it.
This is why it is inevitably ideological in form. Idealism envisages a better kind of world and makes this its political goal. It does not seek a simple leap from here to there: it must engage with the present order and seek a feasible path of change. But it does allow political vision to extend beyond present constraints. It permits the politician to say, “this is all we can do now, but here is what we are aiming for in the future.”
And this is just the objection that many have to it. For New Labour strategists, it was the gap between rhetoric and policy which damaged the party in the past, frightening voters with radical aims which were not even on the agenda. Why go back to that?
There are three different answers. The first, perhaps surprisingly, is pragmatic. It is that without a clear ideology, political parties are electorally vulnerable. Their support may grow wide but remains shallow, and may be swept away. Ideology gives a government roots. In providing voters with a strong sense of a government’s purpose, it gives them something to grip on. Policies are often weak instruments for attracting public support. They are complex; they must be designed to satisfy different, even conflicting, interests; they can take a long time to have visible effect; they sometimes fail. A clearly articulated philosophy can not only explain the aim of policy to the public, it reassures them that the government has a purpose and direction when its policies are not making this evident. This was why Margaret Thatcher placed so much emphasis on ideology in her speeches. As the slow pace of Labour’s improvements in the public services becomes plainer, a clearer sense of vision-of what it is trying to do, even if it is not yet doing it-may help this government similarly.
Paradoxically, this role for public philosophy in underpinning electoral support may become more necessary as society becomes more fragmented and less tribal. When people are no longer voting according to class tradition, they need more reasons to choose one party over another. Most people’s understanding of specific policies is small, and often people don’t know exactly what they think. In these circumstances, as opinion polling shows, leadership becomes highly prized. Voters want leaders with a clear sense of purpose and direction. Values alone do not provide this: they sound too vacuous. What does is a vision of a better society: a description of how things will work-how people will be-in the world the politician is striving to create. Ideological clarity inevitably reduces the breadth of public support. But it makes that support deeper and more reliable. New Labour has not yet been tested by this thesis, since it has faced no serious Tory challenge since 1997. But the way in which the opinion polls swung so rapidly against it during the only period when it faced concerted opposition-the fuel protests-suggests that it does apply. The great lack of enthusiasm for the government revealed in qualitative surveys reinforces the sense that its support is weaker than poll numbers indicate.
But this argument goes beyond New Labour. The second case for political ideology is that it can help to fire interest in politics more generally. The bigger problem of the managerial form of politics is its failure to capture the public’s attention. There are many reasons for the decline in election turnouts over the last decade. But one of them may well be that politics isn’t interesting enough. If all that the parties are offering are alternative management prospectuses, it is perhaps not surprising that public engagement with politics has fallen.
Does this matter? On one account of modern politics, no. If contemporary capitalism is genuinely the best sort of society there can be, then as long as it is not managed too badly, we should neither expect nor want politics to be that important to the public.
But here we arrive at the real issue. The third argument for political ideology stems from deeper questions about the role of politics in human nature. The “managerial” view of politics sees it as instrumental. Politics is not an end in itself but a means to the good administration of society. The less politics required to achieve that administration, the better. But there is another view. It stems from Aristotle’s claim that “man is a political animal.” Today that claim is often interpreted negatively: that human nature is argumentative and power-seeking. But for Aristotle it was a claim of virtue. Humans are political because they are sociable. Politics is an expression of our inescapable involvement with the strangers amongst whom we live.
From this perspective, an interest and involvement in politics is part of what it means to live a good life, to be a fully developed human being. This cannot be just any involvement in politics. Political activism designed only to benefit oneself and one’s narrow social group carries no particular ethical value. What gives politics its claim to virtue is its orientation towards others. It is when we care enough about the wellbeing of other people to want to make the world a better place-for them and ourselves-that politics finds its proper moral expression.
We have particular reason to value that expression today. As western societies have become more individualistic, people’s sense of social connectedness has declined. This is difficult to measure, but reductions in rates of voluntary activity and charitable giving appear to indicate a reduction in people’s orientation towards others. Sociologists note the decline in “social capital”: the bonds of trust and collective activity that bind communities together. A kind of hedonism pervades popular culture. Most young people don’t seem interested in political causes; most of them seem barely interested in the world. It is hard to escape the sense, however inchoate, that we are more selfish, more self-oriented, than we were.
This is why radical idealism is still important. Belief in the possibility that the world could be different, and the desire to act politically to make it so, is a vital expression of an outward orientation. We should want more people to feel their identity and purpose in life bound up with the wellbeing of others. Of course this can be overdone. A rounded person also needs self-awareness, self-deprecation, a sense of fun. But it is good to feel inspired to act, to want to change the world. We need that sense of magic, the enchantment of belief.
This is why so many people have felt sympathy for anti-globalisation protestors, even without necessarily agreeing with their aims. In the summer of 2001, when thousands of protestors surrounded the G8 summit in Genoa, Tony Blair dismissed them as a rabble circus. But to the astonishment of the mainstream media, public opinion was on the side of the protest. The public saw young people who cared enough about the world to want to do something.
Throughout history it has been the pressure of a critical mass of people expressing radical idealism of this kind which has pushed mainstream politics, including that of the Labour party, towards reform. Without it the lobby for the status quo is too strong.
It is difficult to look at the world today and not feel that such idealism is needed. It may be harder to find the great causes in domestic politics than it once was: the result of the successful idealism of an earlier generation of welfare state socialists. Enlarging the consumption of the already comfortable is not a goal to make the political heart beat faster. Yet it does not take much understanding of British society to feel motivated by the cause of eradicating poverty or of giving deprived young people the chance to realise themselves-or even by the desire to improve the quality of life of those caught on the treadmill of overwork, stress and meaningless consumption.
And once one’s gaze extends to the world as a whole the causes are plain. It is not surprising that the real energy in British politics today comes from the environmental and global justice movements. Here is genuine inspiration to be found: the hope of profound change to large wrongs. Reading about the present and likely future suffering highlighted at the sustainable development summit in Johannesburg, who can say we do not need radical idealism today?
Labour’s ministers came back from the summit claiming to be pleased with the final agreement. In doing so, they illustrated what is wrong with the present state of social democracy. It presents a fatalistic resignation about what is achievable which robs politics of its moral ambition. The idea that “there is no alternative” has long been a powerful weapon of conservatives. It is the infection of left-of-centre thought by this idea that has been the most damaging consequence of the post-1989 order. And it is why politics needs re-enchanting now. Of course politics is the art of the possible. But only by pushing at them will we discover where the boundaries of the possible lie.
In this sense, the re-enchantment of politics today will be the reverse of the Enlightenment. Then humanism-the belief in the capacity of human societies to determine their own destiny-was the agent of disenchantment. Now political humanism is on the side of the spirits. In the face of both the terrible material conditions still affecting so much of the world, and of those voices arguing that they cannot be fundamentally changed, the spirit of moral idealism is no less than a reassertion of human will. Without it, it is difficult to see how politics today will inspire a new generation to make a difference.