The English Liberal politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay writing in the 1840s about the two great parties of state said-
“Everywhere there is a class of men who cling with fondness to whatever is ancient, and who, even when convinced by overpowering reasons that innovation would be beneficial, consent to it with many misgivings and forebodings. We find also everywhere another class of men, sanguine in hope, bold in speculation, always pressing forward, quick to discern the imperfections of whatever exists, disposed to think lightly of the risks and inconveniences which attend improvements and disposed to give every change credit for being an improvement” (History of England Vol I)
Suggesting that the most sensible place to be was near the “common frontier” of the two he went on “The extreme section of one class consists of bigoted dotards: the extreme section of the other consists of shallow and reckless empirics.” For about the next century-and-a-half it was clearly the case that the Left was on the side of change and risk-taking and the Right stood with the dotards. And then at some point (actually 11 February 1975) the two switched positions and the Left adopted a defensive posture while the Right went hell for leather for change. This switch has been masked to some extent by the phenomenon of ‘culture wars‘ but the key philosophical concept to keep firmly in mind while considering this is ‘it’s the economy, stupid‘
Another historian, the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, coined the phrase ‘the forward march of Labour halted’ in 1978. Whatever his intentions it neatly sums up the fact that organised Labour, together with the political Left, had forged a formidable alliance which in the 20th century had effected huge transformations in society and the economy but that it no longer had the power to do so. Since the 1970’s all economic transformations have come from the Right and the Left has simply tried more or less unsuccessfully to resist them.
The pivotal moment here was the election, in February 1975, of Margaret Thatcher as leader of the British Conservative Party. This represented an irrevocable victory for that wing of Conservatism which did not seek to conserve but to innovate. The traditional patrician vision of the Right had been to resist and/or try to roll back the changes brought about by the political and economic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries on the grounds that stable, organic communities rooted on the land and in private property rights were the most secure basis for human societies. Thatcherism, insofar as it was an abstract philosophy rather than a practical election-winning set of slogans, favoured the classic liberal idea of laissez faire in economy and society.
Although the Left cast this as a return to Victorian economics they were missing a key point. The neo-liberal project was not aiming to restore a status quo ante but to allow a qualitatively new development in capitalism free rein. Previously the changes in the economy which had led to the concentration of Capital had necessarily led also to the concentration of Labour and thus the rising power of organised Labour. The new feature of Capital was (and is) extreme mobility. This allows it to disdain both Labour and Nation State neatly cutting away the ground from under both traditional socialists and traditional conservatives.
To attract and retain the maximum possible amount of economic activity, then, a country has to make itself as attractive as possible to a resource, Capital, which has no vested interest in that country. Hence neo-liberals promote maximum flexibility by removing, so far as they can get away with it, restrictions imposed by the needs of workers or the perceived needs of the environment. Faced with this the Left has no alternative but to adopt a defensive posture. It cannot propose any realistic alternative economic strategy other than creating international institutions to impose restrictions on a global scale which can no longer be enforced at a national one.
The Left has also got on the “wrong side of history” when it comes to science. It tends to oppose nuclear power, fracking, genetically modified crops and new innovations generally. Partly this is from the perfectly respectable conservative standpoint that new developments threaten existing jobs and organic communities. Mostly though it is because of its alliance with the environmental movement. Because it is now such a well established link it is easy to overlook just how unnatural it is. At the heart of Marxist economic theory is the idea of unlimited growth. It is this which will enable an abundance of supply over demand such that the proletarian masses will have ready access to the goods and services currently restricted to the privileged classes and they will have the leisure to enjoy them. Green philosophy in direct contradiction favours limits to growth and sharp reductions in demand for manufactured goods. Only extreme intellectual laziness or dishonesty enables the Left to simultaneously argue for ever rising living standards for the masses and a sustainable economy. Nonetheless the alliance makes perfect sense as a way of maximising the conservative opposition to capitalist globalisation which is the means by which Capital is enabled to become ever more mobile.
The Left can only maintain the fiction that it is a ‘progressive’ force by pointing to its continued success on the equality agenda against racism and sexism and in favour of enhanced rights for sexual minorities and industrial scale abortion. What it fails to notice is the extent to which it is pushing against an open door so far as the neo-liberal and libertarian Right is concerned. Although right-wingers do not buy into the language of collective struggle against oppressive institutions leading to an equality of outcome they do believe in individual freedoms as a necessary basis for equality of opportunity. From that perspective anything which restricts the ability of a person to be economically active at their full potential is bad for capitalism whether that restriction comes from racial prejudice or trade union power. It is only the pre-Thatcherite Right which still clings to the values which both the socialists and neo-liberals are happy to dispense with.
To some extent the Left has been hoist by its own petard in that the general perception which it has itself created, that progress is always good and inevitable, now operates against it when it argues that other things can be more important. To paraphrase Macaulay, every change is not necessarily an improvement. Moreover ‘progress’ is not inevitable, the economy was made for man not man for the economy. The Left has an important function as being that political force most directly concerned with the welfare of the poorest in society, the many not the few. In order to fulfil that function it needs to grasp that it is now a conservative force and that the restructuring of society and the economy it needs is dependent not on internationalism and growth but subsidiarity and localism. It also needs to end its war on the family. The Left has rightly seen strong, stable families based on traditional marriage as an obstacle to progress. Families always put love not economic growth at the heart of their priorities. If the Left wants to recruit enough strength to defeat the neo-liberal project then it must speak to the needs of families and see them, and their strongest champion the Christian Church, as the allies of today’s battles not the enemies of yesterday’s.
My other blog is Catholic Scot
The painting is Thomas Babington Macaulay by John Partridge