Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Blue Horizons, And Beyond

John Milbank opened last Friday's Blue Labour Midlands Seminar in Nottingham by asking whether the success of the market economy was really the same as the success of the capitalist economy. It is not: the market economy stretches back to the twelfth century. It was responsible for the growth of the free cities, and for the First Industrial Revolution. But it was not capitalist, since capitalism pursues the Total Good, not the Common Good, the British GDP being not, in itself, the same thing as the Common Good of the British people.

Rather, it was a civil economy, both pursuing reasonable profit, and offering social benefit in return for social benefit. With no absolute distinction between gift and contract, the case could be, and was, made for just wages and for the restriction of usury. The civil economy was a vocational economy, with the sacredness of labour having been invented by monks, especially Benedictines. But New World trade and American gold had detached wealth from land and labour, and had combined with Protestant pessimism about this life. Outside the Protestant and Anglo-Saxon world, however, aspects of the civil economy survive and thrive to this day, such as in Italy and in Germany.

As part of the Enlightenment, though largely forgotten now, there had been a reaction against contract individualism in favour of sympathy. Adam Smith's Italian contemporaries had tried to revive the civil economy, and even Smith had wanted to embed the economy in civil networks. Victorian England had been characterised by the Quaker manufacturers, the regional banks, the regional Stock Exchanges, the combination of cultural and economic flourishing, and the birth of the Labour Party out of, not in reaction against, economic success.

The practice of virtue is the key to a more sustainable economic prosperity. But that does not mean that the State has no role. Our new notion of the public divides us from the Red Tories. We stand for apprenticeships, for the regulatory function of professional bodies, for a new generation of polytechnics, for business schools with an entirely new approach, and for regional banks. We stand for the ancient English sense of festivity, inextricably bound up with the spirit of economic enterprise. Adrian Pabst went on to explain that we cannot divorce getting rich from doing good, the Good Society from the Good Economy. With Mandeville, we must recognise the need for the politician to ensure the right structure.

Maurice Glasman emphasised regional banks to guarantee local access to, and local control of, capital, together with a vocational economy, worker and local representation in corporate governance, and the pressing need to tell a story in which these came to life with names. He mentioned the Port of Dover (to which he returned, so see below) and the remutualisation of the Halifax. Industrial growth was bound up with that of the friendly societies and must again be bound up with associative action. Universities must be civil institutions, embodied where they are.

Historical examples include the monasteries, with the Church at once preserving knowledge and building trust; and the free cities, the seats of whose civil government are often still called the Guildhall, recalling the importance of the vocations and of the institutions that guarded them. People needed a sense of potency in their own lives, so that there was virtue both in local action and in elite engagement. Whereas revolution is by nature unradical, since it is the elitist destruction of ordinary people and of the institutions that have meaning to ordinary people.

I then attended the panel on The Good Society. Paul Bickley of Theos spoke of fears and hopes, with fears finding their mirror image in, to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, the "aspirational waffle" of the Big Society. "Labour is Tawney in Opposition, but the Webbs in power." Religious liberty is the key to civil society, but Labour's latter-day social liberalism has militated against this. The highly difficult result requires real leadership.

Richard Robinson, a Broxtowe Borough Councillor who ran Ed Miliband's Leadership campaign in the East Midlands, quoted John Maxwell: "maturity is the capacity to endure uncertainty." The Council Tax is hugely unredistributive. There is a need to articulate what an alternative Welfare State would actually look like. We could not even get the Alternative Vote through, and that was a "piecemeal", "moderately moderate" reform in its field. In Bradford West, 60 per cent of the vote went to "non-mainstream" parties. In the words of Vernon Coaker, "To earn the right to be radical, we need the right to be heard." Richard had himself successfully convened Citizens' Focus Groups in his ward, and he believed that policies had to pass the pub test, as he contended that the Robin Hood Tax and a Land Value Tax both did. So there were reasons to be cheerful.

Patrick Macfarlane of Shifting Grounds referred to endurance: ideas from the past were far more reliable than we might have imagined, an very interesting perspective from a man in his early twenties. English civil society was fundamentally indiscrete from both the market and the State, and was unique in being founded on oath or pledge, on frith. Thus came an institution such as frith-borh or frankpledge, a rational association outside both the State and the market, yet required by the State. He bemoaned the shift in regulative function from such an association, the Law Society, to the State itself in the form of the Solicitors' Regulatory Authority.

Ill-apportioned cuts to Legal Aid are greatly increasing bureaucracy, while corporate solicitors' work and fees continue to increase. Might not the Law Society tax corporate solicitors in order to pay for Legal Aid? Might not groups of 10 firms, both corporate and Legal Aid, provide for each other, and account for each other if something went wrong? Marriage is the archetypal civil society institution because it is fundamentally relational, whereas partnerships are "with a view to profit". All that I am saying is that that was what he said. More broadly, it will also be interesting to see how long he lasts as a solicitor, with splendid ideas like these.

John Hughes, Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge pointed out that civil society was not something that we needed to invent, since it already made up most of life. The site of co-operation and responsibility, we need to attend to the Catholic Social Teaching that it is the primary site of free responsible co-operation, since it is neither the individualistic market nor the coercive State. Ethics, traditions and faith make for the Good Society, not just a "Big" or an "Open" one. It is people and virtues that shape institutions, and it is cultural questions that shape the State, but which are not primarily nurtured by it. The State's claim to neutrality is evidently not the case, although that claim's exclusion of cultural and faith perspectives and communities, as such, was more of a problem at national and media level than at local, such as Constituency Labour Party or municipal, level.

We are not Red Tories. Only Labour has significant working-class connections, to the communities where civil society has suffered most, so that effect on those communities is the real test. We believe in equality, opposing unjust, arbitrary or static hierarchies and monopolies. We recognise and celebrate that the State is the guarantor that none shall fall through the net. We recognise and celebrate that only the nation can provide total coverage. And we have an international ethical horizon: since the greatest threat to civil society is the effects of global capitalism, so the response must serve everyone, including the world's poorest.

Lunch followed, and then I attended the panel on the postliberal politics that John credits me with having invented. Sadly, Neil Clark had had to pull out due to pressure of work. He was much missed. But Dan Leighton referred to David Goodhart's identification of the breakdown of social liberalism prior to the breakdown of economic liberalism. Was this a description or a prescription, asked Dan? The unholy alliance between the 1960s and the 1980s had created a silent majority which needed to designate a space in which to challenge the conception of freedom entirely as non-interference, and in which to struggle with how to cope with diverse conceptions of the good.

Dave Landrum (of the Evangelical Alliance, a constituency much in evidence at this event, including in the person of its organiser, Ian Geary) used his wonderfully uncompromising Scouse accent to call for a return to a purer, more classical form of liberalism, since the present liberal hegemony was completely unsustainable, its liberalism having collapsed entirely into relativism. There is no freedom without loyalty, nor any loyalty without freedom. But instead, we have the legacy of the Bloomsbury Group, and of dialectical Marxism throughout the academy. Foucault's followers were ex-Marxists whose own metanarrative had not worked, and who had therefore rejected all metanarratives.

"You'll never meet a poor Postmodernist," because, in the social and economic liberalism-cum-relativism of Postmodern society, we are all consumers, and the poor are singularly unfit for that role, making them unfunctional for the first time ever, thereby placing them outside society. There is a strong deterrent to poor communities to become involved in politics, since they lack the language and the categories, and since they no longer care about themselves, their neighbours or their communities. However, the necessary leadership can come from the churches, with the black-majority churches often best-placed.

Liberalism is becoming authoritarian, because it is ideologically conjoined with progressivism, despite all the lessons of history to the contrary. Elites now need to legislate more and more in order to protect their own freedoms and worldview. Religious freedom is being reduced, since a place can no longer be found for difference. We are moving towards "totalitolerance". Equality is confused with uniformity, and diversity with similitude, producing a less equal and less plural society.

Yet we are living in the midst of a global process of desecularisation, with a clear turn to religion in the coming 20 to 30 years. The liberal hegemony is on a collision course with the beliefs of billions. We must expose the myth of progress. We must move from the micro to the macro. We must be present, even if not vocal, in every conversation of the Left; at the very least, we have to be in the room. "Blue Labour is the only show in town."

Paul Bickley regretted that Sidney Webb had written the Fabian tradition into the Labour Party Constitution, so that everything else had become part of the party culture rather than part of the party programme. Crosland had recast Labour's mission as cultural and social rather than as economic and mutual, since he had felt that the working class no longer existed. Thus had begun the party's turn to social liberalism. And then had come Thatcher. The liberal-conservative split was now more important than the left-right split. "Politicians have ridden an out of control horse which is now running out of energy."

This is the Postliberal moment. We were Blue because we were in sorrow; in mourning for solidarity, respect, proper authority, and strong institutions. Of Jonathan Haidt's six moral taste receptors, the liberal Left speaks to only one, namely care and equality, whereas conservative movements offer a more varied menu. This challenge to the Left is exemplified by the issue of immigration.

The subsequent discussion included Daniel Bell's description of himself as "politically liberal, economically socialist, culturally conservative". Karl Polanyi, via Nancy Fraser, on the market as dependent on social protection, i.e., on the role of the State, of faith groups, and so on, with emancipation as being under the sway of no one group. Christopher Lasch on how the hippies became the yuppies. Chris Mullin on how "the underclass dominates everything, but no one knows what to do about it." And my published views on central and local government action as absolutely necessary for the existence, both of a large and thriving private sector, and of a large and thriving middle class, with the social structures and cultural practices of 1950s Britain and America dependent on the protection afforded by a social democracy which in turn had deep Christian roots, and with the impossibility of a "free" market in general but not in drugs, prostitution or pornography.

The final plenary session heard John Milbank define political economy in terms of vocation, value and virtue; relationship, reciprocity and responsibility; and Abraham, Aristotle and Alinsky. Maurice Glasman then gave the concluding address. We must return to virtue. Immigration has changed the United Kingdom, making faith more important. Liberalism has failed both economically and socially. We are alive and writing in our time, when people are paying attention in the midst of economic and political crisis. We are at the intersection of philosophy, politics, theology and sociology. An everyday, one-to-one conversation with someone we do not know or have not met is a political act, an antidote to "insane blogger hate", an act of trust in relational power.

We are all leaders, and there is a need for working-class and ethnic minority leadership. We are still at war with the progressive suspicion of democracy, but politics is part of the good life, protecting the people, things and places that we love. Brokering the Common Good between religious and secular, working-class and middle-class, North and South, requires the redistribution of power to people where they live and work, and the development of leadership within those communities.

Turning to the economy, "there cannot be a permanent crisis." Rather, what we have is a huge structural problem, which neither neoliberalism nor Keynesianism can solve on its own: "neither cuts nor stimulus, neither vivisection nor Viagra" alone. Value is generated by relationships. We need access to finance, we need local banking, we need vocational education, we need powerful professions regulating themselves, we need leadership development, and we need corporate governance that gives institutional expression to the relationship between capital and labour. That last, especially, will entail huge changes for the trade unions.

Talking about immigration is not racist. Talking about the family is not misogynistic. Talking about the problems with Keynesianism is not supporting the cuts or the "free" market. There has to be a redistribution of power as part and parcel of public sector reform. The Port of Dover provides an opportunity to articulate something between the State and the market. It is not a tradable commodity, but should be endowed to the people of Dover in perpetuity for the nation, with a tripartite governance structure including the workforce, the city and the funders.

Once again, I raised some discussion points, all very well-received: the State as protector of conservative values against capitalism; public provision as essential to the middle class and to the private sector; the possibility of reaching out to historically Liberal areas such as the West Country and the North of Scotland, which will not be voting Lib Dem in 2015 and where our ideas or those very like him are profoundly ingrained and entrenched; and the possibility that Maurice's Judaism might provide resources with which to critique other movements with Jewish roots, such as Marxism, Freudianism, monetarism, and so on. Maurice replied with reference to Jewish traditions of self-organisation, comparable to the co-ops, traditions that were largely supplanted after 1945, so that the skills had been lost by 1979. He also called for solidarity both with trade unions and with churches in China, emphasising that support for either had to be support for both.

John Milbank dealt with foreign policy. In international relations, primacy belongs to informal cultural links. British foreign policy since 1945 has been "staggeringly unimaginative". Yet we have the world city. Why not use it creatively? We need to reinvent the Commonwealth, which is rooted as the United Nations can never be. The Commonwealth is the key both to restoring our own internal Union and to teaching the United States about the true Anglo-Saxon vision, with the "association" in "free association".

In 100 years' time, we might even hope to see the United States in the Commonwealth. Britain must go on helping the world to develop the rule of law and so forth. Might Europe be remodelled on the Commonwealth pattern, reconnecting with its original Catholic Social vision? The United Kingdom and France are both maritime, post-imperial powers, and should therefore welcome greater bilateral military integration. Maurice added that the Armed Forces were civic institutions, repositories both of virtue and of skills.

Ian Geary rounded everything off by pointing to the interpretation of George Lansbury by Jon Cruddas. We need to move beyond the 1935 rupture in Labour. A faith presence is vitally important, although it must not be dominant. Australia and New Zealand had histories of what we were looking for. Was anything going on there, Ian wondered? Take another look at the Introduction to Confessions of an Old Labour High Tory, Ian.

All in all, a start has most definitely been made. In fact, rather more than that: a very great deal is clearly already going on. It is now being brought together. Great days lie ahead. Very, very, very great days, indeed.


  1. Truly excellent commentary of a splendid event!

  2. Very many thanks. You were on fine form.

  3. Was James Purnell in attendance? I only ask because, according to Blue Labour's wikipedia entry, he's an architect of that movement. I wasn't aware that was the case.

    Are you a fan of his?

  4. No, on both counts. But my only knowledge of him is political. Whereas he is a personal friend of Maurice's. Still, I cannot imagine that he would have agreed with much, if any, of what was said on Friday.

  5. As someone who was unfortunately unable to attend, I would like to thank David for his comprehensive account of 'Blue Horizons And Beyond'.
    I look forward to the opportunity of attending further 'Blue Labour' events.