Blue Labour and the limits of social democracy.

Author:Rooksby, Ed
Position::Commentary
 
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According to at least one of the major figures behind it, 'Blue Labour' is no more. Jonathan Rutherford announced in late July that 'the small group of people associated with Blue Labour [had] disbanded itself' (Rutherford, 2011b). Nevertheless, despite Rutherford's declaration, it is not at all clear that Blue Labour really is finished.

It is surely significant that in the same article Rutherford also argues that the current political conjuncture 'requires Labour's politics in England to be both conservative and radical' - the core idea animating the Blue Labour project - and goes on to set out what is effectively a restatement in all but name of the Blue Labour approach as the necessary political response to this conjuncture on the part of Labour.

Elsewhere it has been reported that Rutherford and Jon Cruddas (another key figure behind Blue Labour) 'hope that it will be possible to salvage some of the ideas and themes' (Hodges, 2011) that Blue Labour has been developing. It is clear, then, that there is still some sort of future for Blue Labour ideas even if, as seems likely, any reformulated project discards the Blue Labour label.

It certainly strikes me as unlikely that Blue Labour ideas will disappear without trace. The Labour Party requires, pretty urgently, a new political-ideological narrative of purpose and identity to fill the post-New Labour void and also to reposition itself in the context of the unfolding economic crisis which is slowly but very fundamentally reshaping the political terrain. It is hard to see Labour returning to New Labour territory. Blair's discourse of individualist 'aspiration', 'choice' and wide-eyed veneration of 'globalisation' is wholly inappropriate for a new era of austerity. The set of ideas advanced by Blue Labour provides, to date, by far the most coherent alternative organising ideological narrative for the Party and, in the absence of any other developed approach, it is difficult to believe that they will simply vanish.

Given, then, that Blue Labour is probably not quite as dead as it might at first appear but is, rather, in a state of flux and recomposition, it seems an appropriate time to reconsider the terms of the debate surrounding this set of ideas. Critical discussion of Blue Labour has, in the main, tended towards sweeping denunciation rather than considered and nuanced analysis. This is, in many ways, a shame. Away from the controversy-courting media sound-bites, Blue Labour has some deeply sophisticated and interesting things to say which tend to get lost in the polemic. It is time for a fairer and more thoughtful appraisal of Blue Labour's key ideas which is attentive to nuances and complexities. I hope that this article might, in some small way, contribute to this.

I shall not focus here on the main areas of controversy that have surrounded Blue Labour thus far. The major lines of criticism are well known and tend to cluster around Blue Labour's ideas in relation to immigration, 'multiculturalism' and its attitude towards women (1). I intend, in this article, to focus on three more valuable elements of Blue Labour thinking (which are closely intertwined). These are, firstly, the idea that the political conjuncture today is characterised by two coinciding crises of political legitimacy. The second area I wish to examine is Blue Labour's thought in relation to the socialist tradition and its relationship with the other two core political traditions of modernity - conservatism and liberalism. My final area of focus will be Blue Labour's approach to capitalism.

The overlapping crises of social democracy and neo-liberalism

According to Blue Labour figures such as Rutherford and Cruddas, social democracy is in crisis internationally (see Cruddas and Rutherford, 2011). It is, in effect, a crisis of identity - social democracy is no longer quite sure of its historical purpose or what it stands for. The problem is, however, much more acute in England than elsewhere (why England, specifically, and not Britain as a whole, is never made quite clear). According to Rutherford, social democracy has lost something fundamental in England 'and that is a Labour language and culture which belonged to the society it grew out of and which enabled its immersion in the lives of the people'. Thus 'it has lost the ability to renew its political hegemony within the class which gave it life' (Rutherford, 2011a, 88).

For Blue Labourites the Labour tradition (and social democracy generally) is rooted in community. It is about the political articulation of a sense of the common good arising out of settled social relationships and community bonds and about the militant defence of those established practices and institutions. Drawing on Karl Polanyi's description of the 'double movement' inherent in the political, economic and social logic of capitalism, Rutherford argues that the Labour Party - and socialism more widely - is the product of a counter-movement that grew up to defend and conserve settled communities, practices and social solidarities from the destructive depredations of market forces. Labour's history is 'rooted in the response of people to their dispossession and exclusion' (Rutherford, 2011a, 96) - a history that stretches back as far as the enclosures of common land centuries ago in which the primitive accumulation of capital in England was largely founded. This counter-movement against dispossession and against market-driven dissolution of the traditional bonds of communal life has sustained the labour movement ever since - but recently the rootedness of Labour in struggles to conserve social solidarities, shared meanings and communal practices has weakened drastically.

This weakening stems, largely, from the rapid acceleration and extension of market logic under neo-liberal capitalism - a form of 'capitalism unleashed', as Rutherford puts it (Rutherford, 2011a, 97), which came to the fore in the 1970s as the post-war consensus disintegrated and as the institutions of this consensus were dismantled by successive governments in Britain and abroad. The internationalisation ('globalisation') and financialisation of capital under neo-liberalism set in motion new waves of dispossession and far-reaching 'transformations in modes of production and consumption' (Rutherford, 2011a, 92) which have radically undermined and eroded social solidarities and bonds. Drawing on David Harvey's account of 'accumulation by dispossession' (Harvey, 2005), Rutherford argues that the deregulation of finance has largely driven this process of erosion.

The unhappy social effects of all of this are most evident, for Rutherford, in industrial towns (i.e. Labour's heartlands) where 'ways of life associated with redundant industries and forms of work ... [have been] destroyed' (Rutherford, 2011a, 92) - but its insidious effects are apparent across society. As a direct result of the accelerated extension of market logic and the breakdown of community bonds the 'common capacity for kindness, reciprocity and generosity is undermined' (Rutherford, 2011a, 92). More than anything else this process leads to a profound sense of loss - an absence of any strong sense of identity or belonging on the part of isolated neo-liberal market-citizens.

The key point that Blue Labour thinkers wish to make in this respect, however, is not merely that the neo-liberal transformation of society has undermined the forms of community identity in which the politics of social democracy is rooted. It is that Labour has actively collaborated in this process of erosion and dissolution. The Party's embrace of neo-liberalism under Blair and Brown especially, that is, helped to radically undermine its own social and political foundations. Labour's current state of directionless confusion in relation to its own values and reasons for being is a direct consequence of all of this for Blue Labour.

How did Labour get to the point at which it actively colluded in the erosion of the social, cultural and ideological relationships and forms of identity in which, historically, social democratic politics was anchored?

The rot set in at least as far back as 1945 for the Blue Labourites, when the post-war Labour administration undertook a centralised, top-down restructuring of British capitalism which privileged a technocratic and managerial form of state intervention and welfare provision, leaving little room for more bottom-up processes of autonomous popular selforganisation. It was at this point that the popular-democratic and community focused elements of the labour tradition were eclipsed by statist, social engineering strands of thought in the party which had their origins in Fabianism.

For Glasman, however, it was Anthony Crosland's brand of revisionism in the 1950s which was decisive in this transformation - Crosland's ideas cemented these changes in the Party's outlook. This, at least, is what Glasman suggests in his major contribution to The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox (henceforth LTTP) - 'Labour as a radical tradition'. Glasman argues that Crosland's ideas involved the questioning and rejection of two key assumptions of the Labour tradition as it had existed thus far and an exaggerated prioritisation of the surviving third historical assumption as a sort of measure of overcompensation for the jettisoning of the other two.

The first assumption Crosland's revisionism rejected was the idea that 'capitalism was an exploitative and inefficient system of economic organisation, prone to speculative bubbles and recession' (Glasman, 2011, 25). The second fundamental idea it rejected was that 'there was an ethical problem with unreformed capitalism, in that it exerted pressure to turn human beings and their natural environment into commodities' and that this logic of capitalism 'threatened the very possibility of living a life proper for a human being, and people associated democratically to protect each other...

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