When vital words lose their meaning, then democracy will die
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
Theresa May once told us that “Brexit means Brexit”. We were not made any wiser.
In George’s Orwell’s famous book 1984, the all-powerful Party has the slogans “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, “Ignorance is Strength.” We are much closer to that Orwellian World of doublethink now.
In the local elections on 2 May 2019 there was a surge in the vote for the remain parties – Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru – who do not want Britain to leave the European Union. In a campaign with “Stop Brexit” as their by-line, the Liberal Democrats gained over 700 council seats, their all-time best performance.
Meanwhile, the two main parties who “respect” the illegally-gained referendum result and who are trying to get some kind of Brexit deal, suffered badly. Labour failed to make net gains against the worst government in more than a century, and the Tories themselves lost heavily.
Hence voting for Remain means voting for Brexit. The Orwellian world of doublethink has finally arrived, 35 years after the book predicted. Remarkably few media interviewers or presenters, including from the corrupted BBC and the populist ITV, have challenged this interpretation of the election results. Ignorance is strength. Remain means Brexit.
Brexit means Remain
But in this Orwellian world, Brexit means Remain too. We are now into double doublethink.
The brilliant and indefatigable Femi
Oluwole tried to put Madeley right. Femi is an expert in EU law. But it was to
no avail. The idea that remaining in a customs union means remaining in the EU
prevailed on a popular ITV programme, which boasts about 700,000 viewers daily.
Francois is an opportunist, pandering
to the ultra-Brexiteers who dominate his party. It is possible that, unlike the
poorly-briefed Madeley, he knows the truth. Hence the wily use of the “in
effect” fig-leaf here and there.
I did some polling myself. I did my best to get
Leavers to participate, but any Twitter poll of mine will have a sample bias
toward Remainers. The poll has a relatively small sample of a few hundred
responses, and the results have to be used with caution.
Amazingly, despite the likely Remainer bias, 22 per cent on my poll thought that the statement “If UK is in a customs union with the EU, then it is still a member of the EU” is true. 73 per cent thought it was false. 5 per cent of respondents did not know.
that means that over a quarter of respondents did not know that it is possible to
be in a customs union with the EU and not be in the EU. If it were possible to
compensate for the likely Remainer bias, then this figure would probably be
Turkey – already in the EU?
Turkey has a well-established customs union with the EU. This means that its trade tariffs and duties must match those of the EU. It also means that Turkey is heavily embroiled with EU agreements and EU regulations. But Turkey is not a member of the EU.
An EU member state is subject to the privileges and obligations of membership. The member states of the EU are subjected to binding EU laws in exchange for representation within the common legislative and judicial institutions. Turkey has no representation in the European Parliament, and no seat in the Council of the European Union or the European Council. Other than via op-in agreements, it is not bound by EU laws.
But, according to my poll, something around 20 per cent of the British adult population seem to believe that being in a customs union means being a member of the EU. According to them, Turkey must be a member of the EU.
So why did Boris Johnson and Vote Leave tried to scare people during the 2016 referendum by say that Turkey was “to join” the EU? If a customs union means EU membership then Turkey was already a member. But Vote Leave itself implicitly denied this.
According to the mistaken 20 per cent, if the UK stays in a customs union after declaring it has achieved Brexit, then Brexit has not truly happened. This particular Brexit means Remain. Many people, including some politicians and TV presenters, seem to believe this.
A threat to democracy
Whether these misunderstandings result from deceit
or ignorance, they are fatal for rational discourse in a democracy. If
different groups of people are using the same words to mean very different
things, then meaningful conversation is impossible.
Consequently, it cannot be claimed that the meaning of Brexit is generally clear, and it is “the will of the people”. It is no longer reasonable to say that the 2016 vote in favour of Brexit must be “respected” when there is inadequate agreement on what Brexit means, and at least one-fifth of the population misunderstand the basic facts of what being a member or non-member of the EU means. To many people, some Brexits mean Remain.
If our parliamentary system ever regains a measure
of sanity, then one of its first acts of legislation should be to place
constitutional voting thresholds in the use of referendums, especially those
that could lead to major constitutional changes or the removal of our rights.
Even a 60 per cent threshold may be unsafe as a basis for legislation, especially
when over one-fifth may not understand what the proposition in the referendum
means. A super-majority of over 60 per cent must vote for a proposition for it
to have any advisory or compelling force.
Television channels such as the BBC, ITV and
Channel Four have a public service broadcasting obligation as a condition for
the licence to broadcast. This system has clearly failed us. They have a duty
put out the facts, even if the public or the politicians do not want to hear
Television presenters that put out falsehoods such
as “being in a customs union with the EU means being a member of the EU” should
be reprimanded or sacked. A schoolteacher or lecturer that repeated similar
falsehoods would be deemed incompetent and would face a similar fate. There can
be no short measures here. Our democracy is in severe danger.
Driven to extremes
The level of public misunderstanding over what
Brexit or Remain mean puts the Tory government and its current Labour
opposition in great difficulty. To move toward Brexit, they need to agree to
the “backstop” conditions, involving a customs union with the EU, so as to
avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The alternative is a no-deal
Brexit that would put the UK economy into recession, destroy the Good Friday
Agreement and threaten peace in Ireland and even on the British mainland.
Both the Labour and the Tory leaderships have edged toward a Brexit that avoids a no-deal outcome and keeps a soft border in Ireland. A group of Labour MPs led by Stephen Kinnock want to go even further: they are pushing for Norway-style status after Brexit.
But the current level of misunderstanding over the
meaning of Brexit and Remain puts all these Brexit solutions into great
difficulty. Any Brexit deal involving a customs union or Norway-style membership
of the Single Market, will be seen by around one fifth of the population as not
Brexit but Remain.
Given this confusion, many Labour and Tory voters who
support Brexit will see their parties as betraying the referendum results that
the party leaders themselves have urged everyone to “respect”. Meanwhile,
Labour and Tory voters who support Remain will see the enabling of Brexit as
contrary to the national interest and a removal of individual rights.
Any deal-bound Brexit has now become extremely
difficult and potentially unpopular. Any deal with the EU must involve some
kind of customs union with the EU. But such solutions will alienate large
numbers of Brexiters and even more Remainers. The Brexit discourse has polarised,
with supports of Remain on one side, and advocates of “no deal” on the other.
Nigel Farage understands this. Before the 2016
referendum he advocated a Norway-style Brexit model. He now says that any customs union is a betrayal
and he is pushing for no deal. Thanks to his frequent appearances on the
pro-Brexit BBC and ITV, he is piling up his electoral support and pulling over
large chunks of Tory voters.
“This was the first Electoral test of our policy of ‘constructive’ ambiguity on Tory #brexitshambles. It showed that when you cower in the middle of the road on the biggest existential crisis facing Britain for generations you get squashed.”
As a result, as Bradshaw admitted, lifelong Labour
voters were deserting to the Liberal Democrats.
The battle now is between those that are
campaigning for Remain, including the Liberal Democrats, the Green party and
Change UK, on the one side, and those campaigning for the most extreme and
damaging of all possible Brexits, on the other. The Conservatives and Labour are
piggies in the middle. They will be the losers.
Over two thousand years before Orwell, the great
Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote:
“If names are not right, words are misused. When words
are misused, affairs go wrong. When affairs go wrong, courtesy and music droop,
law and justice fail. And when law and justice fail them, a people can move neither hand nor foot.”
Today, words have been misused. Law and
justice have failed. Politicians are immobilized. A catastrophe is brewing. We must
Double doublethink – where both Remain and
Brexit are given their opposite meanings – is making meaningful dialogue impossible
in a divided country. Unlike we act firmly and quickly, our democracy could be disabled.
Difficult and dangerous times are ahead.
Despite their declared support for free trade, Tory libertarians like David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg are acting as if there were still a British Empire.
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
The Brexiteers in the Tory Party do not understand the mechanics of modern trade and have no viable blueprint for Brexit.
Substantial harmonization of standards and regulations is required when trade crosses international borders. The EU Single Market enables massive gains from trade within a harmonized system of regulation. EU member states have a say in the development of those regulations, within a common system.
Outside the EU, the UK would have to replace a huge apparatus of EU-wide regulation that has grown up since 1973 when it joined. This regulatory legislation would be an even more formidable burden than any increased tariff levels that would be adopted if the UK leaves the EU Customs Union and Single Market.
This problem creates a dilemma for libertarians who distrust all state machines – especially large ones outside their national comfort zone. Hence, alongside nationalists and hard left socialists, libertarians were in the intellectual forefront of the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK, chiming in with overblown complaints about Brussels bureaucracy, made more strident because this bureaucracy spans national boundaries and is staffed by foreigners.
Some of these libertarians are atomistic individualists, unable to accept that markets consist of more than individuals in isolation. These libertarians are seemingly unaware that all trade and markets must involve commonly accepted rules, as well as the wills and assets of individuals. Markets, in short, are social institutions.
Entering or leaving markets requires dealing with systems of rules. In practice, exit from the EU Single Market means either that regulations have to be developed independently, thus reducing trade possibilities, or that EU regulations have to be accepted for future trade, while having little say in their formation.
The libertarian dilemma
Minimal-state libertarians are thus caught in a dilemma. They have either to accept the adjudications of a foreign court, thus dramatically violating their characteristic anti-state position, by accepting not only state legal system but one outside their homeland, or they have to curtail their cherished ideological ambitions for free trade and markets across national boundaries.
More generally, any contract between sellers and buyers across international boundaries requires agreement on the means of adjudication, if a dispute arises over its terms or fulfilment. Typically it is agreed that disputes will be resolved in the courts of one nominated country. The European Court of Justice was set up to deal with contractual disputes within the EU, and between EU traders and contracting businesses located outside the EU.
Regulatory harmonization and trade dispute adjudication create problems for libertarians. Just as big socialists believe in a fantasy world where the state can do everything, some libertarians believe in the obverse fantasy of a minimal state, where trade somehow operates without an extensive state legal infrastructure. As Jamie Peck put it, these “neoliberals” espouse “a self-contradictory form of regulation-in-denial”.
Nevertheless, when faced with the real world of business and contract, these libertarians acquiesce with the state machine and its legal system within their own national boundaries. Their nationalism means that they can live with that outcome.
But when trade crosses international boundaries, the problems of regulatory harmonization and dispute adjudication compel these libertarians to accept – especially when trading with a larger economic bloc – that disputes may have to be resolved in courts outside their national boundaries.
For closet nationalists in libertarian clothing, accepting the judgments of a foreign court is a step too far. The lenience granted to their national courts is not granted to those of foreigners.
Bring back the British Empire – and other fantasies
British nationalists in libertarian clothing may then call up another fantasy from the past. They can imagine that Britain is still a great power, and that it has the capacity to compel that all trade disputes be resolved in British courts. In their imagination these libertarians bring back the British Empire. Imperial power makes everyone else a rule-taker. They may talk of that bygone world in the corridors of Eton, but it is far beyond the reality of global power today.
Across the Atlantic, American nationalists in libertarian clothing perform ideological gymnastics by allying themselves with politicians such as Donald Trump. He an economic nationalist rather than an advocate of international free trade. As long as these dubious libertarians can concentrate their gaze on the domestic US market and avoid the world beyond, then with some additional fantasising they might continue to believe in their myth of a minimal state.
Instead of the Empire, a US national fantasy is the Wild West. Historically, this was a short-lived zone, partly out of reach of the state and its system of law. Deals were done, aside the barrel of a gun. It is the US version of a mythological libertarian paradise. Global reality today, however, is very different.
A third fantasy is the idea of Jeremy Corbyn that Britain can leave the EU and build socialism. This is a mythical as the other fantasies. Corbyn does not understand markets and has no viable blueprint either – but that is the subject of other blogs. In the meantime, we note that all these efforts to leave the EU are based on fantasies that have little connection to the world in which we live today.
9 July 2018
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
The world is full of injustice and poverty, while the rich protect their wealth by manipulating the system of power. Consequently, many of the informed and intelligent are lured like moths to the lights of socialist revolution, promising social justice for the many not the few.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a blazing light in Russia a century ago. Many intellectuals were attracted to his Soviet regime. Lenin is said to have coined the term “useful idiot” to describe the naïve among them (but no evidence has been found to support that attribution).
But in 1913 Lenin definitely did quote the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This was unwittingly self-referential and rather prophetic. Lenin’s post-1917 Bolshevik regime became a hell, in part of his own making. The good-intentioned (with sufficient means or influence) were invited from abroad to visit the young Soviet Republic.
Venezuela – “another world is possible”
But first let us consider the current case of Venezuela. Its experiment in radical socialism began in 1998 when Marxist Hugo Chávez was elected as President. Using the plentiful oil revenues during 1999-2007, his government expanded access to food, housing, healthcare, and education, especially for the poor and the indigenous minorities.
Chávez nationalized key industries and created participatory Communal Councils. He whipped up popular support against the rich elite and their perceived allies in the United States. But constitutional checks and balances slowed down his radical reforms. Criticism from the private press and political opposition countered the populist movement.
So in 1999, the new Constitutional Assembly, filled with elected supporters of Chávez, drafted a new constitution that made censorship easier and granted the executive branch of government more power.
The Constitutional Assembly extended the presidential term. It abolished the two houses of Congress. It also granted Chávez the power to legislate on citizen rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters.
In 2002 Chávez was briefly deposed in a coup, which probably had support from the CIA. But Chávez was restored to power by the army and popular mobilisations.
Chávez then seized control of the courts and the electoral authority, and suppressed much of the opposition media. He removed political checks and balances, seeing them as obstacles to his socialist revolution.
Accordingly, the device of populist democracy was used to push the country in the direction of dictatorship. His supporters were persuaded to approve increases in presidential powers, to protect the “socialist revolution” against its enemies. Since 2004, “defamation” of the government, including “disrespect for the authorities”, has been a criminal offence.
Chávez failed to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. He antagonised private investors. The state-centred economy was not robust enough to withstand the post-2008 oil price collapse.
Venezuela’s descent into hell
In a state-run economy, business corruption is encouraged by bureaucratic failure. Political corruption is facilitated by the gathering of powers in the hands of the ruling party and the state machine. The Venezuelan government became one of the most corrupt in the world. Serious shortages of food and medicine emerged.
“There’s no food”
Chávez died of cancer in 2013 and was replaced as President by Nicolás Maduro.
In 2015 and 2016, blaming internal “fascists” and US intervention for the severe shortages, President Maduro declared two states of emergency. These gave him powers to intervene in the economy. Arbitrary detentions of dissidents became more common.
The regimes of Chávez and Maduro wasted and misspent much of the money made in the oil boom, while over-extending the powers of their corrupt governments. The private sector was hobbled. The ultimate outcome of Venezuela’s experiment with populist socialism has been authoritarianism, destitution and starvation.
Because of a populist mistrust of liberal, pluralist institutions, Venezuela is lurching toward dictatorship. Press freedom is limited and critical journalists and opposition leaders are jailed.
Supporters of Chávez and Maduro blame the hostility of the US for Venezuela’s distress, just as it was blamed for economic problems in Cuba after its 1959 revolution. US belligerence made things worse, and will probably continue to do so.
But the major cause of economic stagnation in Cuba and Venezuela is the unchecked concentration of excessive political, legal and economic power in the hands of the overbearing state.
“we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world … we recognise what they have achieved.”
Corbyn has since been challenged to come out against the hellish Maduro regime. Maduro’s government has been accused of arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killings and torture.
Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez
Having managed to dupe many people with the mantra that he was a “peacemaker” in Northern Ireland (rather than a supporter of the IRA), Corbyn tried the same trick with Venezuela.
First he removed all mention of “Venezuela” from his website. Then, in an August 2017 interview, he condemned the “violence done by all sides”.
The Venezuelan opposition includes both rightist agitators and defenders of human rights. By simply condemning violence, Corbyn appeared as morally neutral between the regime and its diverse opponents. He ignored the politico-economic conditions that had given rise to the violence, and the previous actions of the Chavistas in creating them.
I wonder if Corbyn could be taken back in a time machine to the 1793-94 Terror of the French Revolution, or the Soviet Great Terror of the 1930s, or the occasion of Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, and be asked to condemn with detached neutrality the “violence done by all sides”.
In the same interview Corbyn called for respect for “the independence of the judiciary and … the human rights of all”. He failed to note that Chávez and Maduro were primarily responsible for undermining both.
Questioned about his support for Maduro, Corbyn fudged:
“I gave the support of many people around the world for the principle of a government that was dedicated towards reducing inequality and improving the life chances of the poorest people.”
He omitted to mention that that same socialist Venezuelan government was now responsible for widespread starvation, rampant corruption and mass emigration.
But Jeremy of Islington is in search of socialist sainthood. He does not want the blood of any regime on his hands. He wants to go down as a peacemaker. He left it to his Corbynista Praetorian Guard to make a more forceful case for the Chávez-Maduro regime.
Over to the Corbynistas
Labour MP Chris Williamson tweeted on 11 August 2017 that the violence in Venezuela is “for the purpose of overthrowing democracy, not saving it”. Unlike Corbyn, this blamed all the violence on the opposition. It also overlooked the fact that Chávez and Maduro had been more effective in undermining democracy in Venezuela than anyone else.
Chris Williamson MP & Jeremy Corbyn MP
On the following day, Williamson Tweeted: “The US and global corporations are indulging in economic sabotage in Venezuela to bring down the government”. To a degree this may be true. But the statement ignores the greater part played by Chavista populism and its power-grabbing statist socialism in bringing about the economic and political catastrophe.
Other pro-Chavista idiotas útiles include Alexis Tsipras the Greek Prime Minister, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon the leftist French presidential candidate, Pope Francis and the Five-Star Movement in Italy.
The erosion of civil liberties and human rights has its roots in the concentration of economic and political powers in the hands of the state, whatever the “good intentions” that originally motivated the leaders and their supporters.
Stalin the Fabian and the Stalinist Fabians
Sadly, this is an old pattern. The Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw visited the Soviet Union in 1931 and met Joseph Stalin. Shaw declared that Russia was becoming “a Fabian society”. This was at a time of mass famine and forced collectivisation.
George Bernard Shaw
In the preface to his 1933 play On the Rocks, Shaw defended the Russian secret police’s “liquidation” of detainees who could not give satisfactory answers to queries about “pulling your weight in the social boat” or “giving more trouble than you are worth” or had not “earned the privilege of living in a civilized community”.
In a letter published in the Manchester Guardian in 1933, Shaw and others dismissed reports of famine in the Soviet Union as “slander” resulting from a “lie campaign” against the “Workers Republic of Russia”. In fact, from 1932 to 1933, about six to eight million people died there from hunger.
Shaw subsequently attempted to justify the extermination of the Russian peasantry: “For a Communist Utopia we need a population of Utopians. Peasants will not do.” In 1936 Shaw defended Stalin’s purges and mass executions. In 1948 he declared that Stalin was “a first rate Fabian”.
Beatrice & Sidney Webb
Leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were highly influential intellectuals in the British Labour Party. In 1932 they made a three-week visit to the Soviet Union. Their generally favourable impressions were reported in 1935 in their massive two-volume study, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? In the 1937 edition the question mark was removed from the title.
Their assessments of the Soviet Union were more cautious than those of Shaw, but they also denied the existence of a famine in the Ukraine in 1932-1933 and they opined that the liquidation of rich peasants (kulaks) may have been necessary to collectivize agriculture and increase its productivity. Their book received favourable reviews from left writers and it played a role in nurturing sympathy in the Labour Party for the Soviet Union, at least until the onset of the Cold War in 1948.
“Humane” Mao and the “Korean miracle”
Communism achieved another victory when Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949. Professor Joan Robinson was a leading Cambridge economist, influenced by both Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. An enthusiastic supporter of Mao, she visited China several times.
Despite this first-hand experience, she failed to acknowledge that Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958-1961 had been an economic disaster: it had led to catastrophic famine and about 40 million deaths. In defiance she wrote: “the Great Leap [Forward] was not a failure after all, but the Rightists were reluctant to admit it.”
In the 1960s Robinson lauded the Cultural Revolution, approving of attempts by Mao and the Red Guards to root out “capitalist roaders” within Chinese society. She praised Mao’s “moderate and humane” intentions. In fact, the Cultural Revolution led to at least half a million and perhaps as many as two million deaths.
Violent struggles ensued across the country and paralyzed the economy for years. Many more millions of people were persecuted at whim by the Red Guards: they suffered public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture or execution. Countless more died when the army tried to re-establish order. In China’s totalitarian system they had no refuge or legal protection.
As late as 1973 Robinson opposed “market socialism” and advocated a centrally-planned economy. She wrote of the “success of the Chinese economy in reducing the appeal of the money motive”. After extolling the virtues of Mao’s system, she reported that “Chinese patriotism and socialist ideology are pulling together”.
But a few years later, shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country overturned the anti-market policies that Robinson had celebrated in her writings. After accepting markets, Chinese growth took off.
In 1964 Robinson visited Communist North Korea and extolled the “Korean miracle” in its economy. She attributed its claimed success to public ownership and central planning.
But, within fifteen years, capitalist South Korea was surging ahead of its Northern neighbour. By the 1990s North Korea was experiencing mass famines. By 2010, GDP per capita in the South was about 17 times greater than in the North.
The “human face” of Soviet Communism
E P Thompson
The historian Edward P. Thompson left the British Communist Party after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and subsequently played a major part in the formation of the New Left Review. But as late as 1973 he had sufficient residual sentimentalism for the Soviet Union to write of the
“times when [Soviet] communism has shown a most human face, between 1917 and the early 1920s, and again from the battle of Stalingrad to 1946.”
Leszek Kolakowski’s response to these rose-tinted words was devastating. He asked what Thompson might have meant by the “human face” of the Soviet Union during these years. Did it mean the “attempt to rule the entire economy by police and army, resulting in mass hunger with uncountable victims, in several hundred peasants” revolts, all drowned in blood”?
“Or do you mean the armed invasion of seven non-Russian countries which had formed their independent governments …? Or do you mean the dispersion by soldiers of the only democratically elected Parliament in Russian history …? The suppression by violence of all political parties, including socialist ones, the abolition of the non-Bolshevik press and, above all, the replacement of law with the absolute power of the party and its police in killing, torturing and imprisoning anybody they wanted? … And what is the most human face in 1942-46? Do you mean the deportation of eight entire nationalities of the Soviet Union with hundreds of thousands of victims … ? Do you mean sending to concentration camps hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war handed over by the Allies?”
Kolakowski searched for an explanation of Thompson’s incredible description of these events as “a most human face” of Communism. Perhaps this phrase is being used “in a very Thompsonian sense which I do not grasp”? A commentator on Kolakowski’s response wrote: “no one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again.”
Another “distortion”: the killing fields of Cambodia
Robinson and Thompson were not the only top-rank academics to be deluded by ideology. Consider the most important linguist of the twentieth century. Noam Chomsky loathed the American war in Vietnam. For him, to hide its own acts of oppression and mass murder, the West had duped the masses with its slick corporate propaganda. The West was fascism, with a fake mask of democracy.
But when reports emerged that the Communists were also capable of mass atrocities, he suspected an American conspiracy to exaggerate and to draw attention away from their own crimes. Then the evidence emerged of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979. Chomsky accused the publishers of the evidence of “extreme anti-Khmer Rouge distortions”.
Khmer Rouge Killing Fields
We now know that the Khmer Rouge obliterated about two million people – a quarter of the Cambodian population – in the pursuit of their Communist utopia. Chomsky’s reputation as a political thinker has never recovered.
Conclusion: what can we learn?
The first lesson is that thousands of highly intelligent people can be political idiots. We know that unintelligent people can be idiots (and even become presidents) but the task at hand is to explain intelligent idiocy. All it takes is a good dose of utopian idealism, combined with the view that the existing system is beyond reform.
Then when the likes of Lenin, or Mao, or Kim Il-sung, or Castro, or Pol Pot, or Chávez raise the red flag, the utopian intellectual flies to the light. A dose of reality may burn the wings. But the light of intellectual hope is so important that it must remained undimmed. Consequently, events as big as famines are based on the dark capitalist forces outside, or their devious agents within.
Many intellectuals are not practical people. They have lingered in their ivory towers. They know little of running organizations or state bureaucracies. Because of their well-motivated discontent and their search for hope, they can be attracted to Corbynism and other versions of leftist populism. But those lights are dangerous. They are ignited by opposition: without practical experience or feasible solutions.
Given such centralized powers, even well-motivated leaders will be tempted to curtail dissent and bully minority interests, in the name of the many against the few. Once on this slippery slope, human rights are eroded and the politico-economic system slides toward totalitarianism.
Instead we need to look to ways to making capitalism more egalitarian and inclusive, rather than chasing the dangerous dream of its abolition. Intelligent dreamers need to use their intelligence more wisely.
14 August 2017
Minor edits – 16, 20 August 2017, 27 September, 13 December 2017
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Barsky, Robert F. (1997) Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Hollander, Paul (1998) Bernard Shaw: A Brief Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
Jones, Bill (1977) The Russia Complex: The British Labour Party and the Soviet Union (Manchester: University of Manchester Press).
Judt, Tony (2006) ‘Goodbye to All That?’ New York Review of Books, 21 September 2006.
Kolakowski, Leszek (1974) ‘My Correct Views on Everything: A Rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski”’, Socialist Register 11. See pp. 4-5. Available at http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5323/2224#.VXBUKrFwYy8.
Minney, Rubeigh J. (1969) The Bogus Image of Bernard Shaw (London: Frewin).
Robinson, Joan (1969) The Cultural Revolution in China (Harmondsworth: Penguin). See pp. 19, 35-36.
Robinson, Joan (1973) Economic Management in China 1972 (London: Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute). See pp. 4, 13, 37.
Shaw, George Bernard (1934) Prefaces by Bernard Shaw (London: Odhams Press). See p. 341.
Thompson, Edward P. (1973) ‘An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’, Socialist Register 10. See p. 77, emphasis added. Accessible on http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5351#.VXBrZLFwYy8.
Turner, Marjorie S. (1989) Joan Robinson and the Americans (Armonk NY: M. E. Sharpe). See p. 90.
Webb, Sidney J. and Webb, Beatrice (1935) Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (London: Longmans Green).
Although the two biggest UK political parties are very different in important respects, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives under Theresa May have each converged on different forms of pro-Brexit, economic nationalism.
Economic nationalism prioritises national and statist solutions to economic problems. Although it does not shun them completely, it places less stress on global markets, international cooperation and the international mobility of capital or labour. It believes that the solutions to major economic, political and social problems lie within the competence of the national state.
Other countries have turned in the same direction, including the United States under Donald Trump and Russia under Vladimir Putin. Previously, both Soviet-style and fascist economies have embraced economic nationalism. China has continued along this road, even after its acceptance of private enterprise and a market economy.
Economic nationalism has been used successfully as a tool of economic development, by creating a state apparatus to build an institutional infrastructure and mobilise resources. But it brings severe dangers as well as some advantages. Its reliance on nationalist rhetoric can feed intolerance, racism and extremism.
Furthermore, as it concentrates economic and political power in the hands of the state, economic nationalism undermines vital checks and balances in the politico-economic architecture.
As numerous social scientists (from Barrington Moore to Douglass North) have shown, democracy and human rights cannot be safeguarded without a separation of powers, backed by powerful countervailing politico-economic forces that keep the state in check.
From Thatcherism to Mayhem: Tory economic nationalism
In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher changed the Tory party from a paternalist party of the elite to a more radical, free-market and individualist force, embracing the ideologies of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
A logical consequence of this market fundamentalism was to embrace the European Single Market, which her successor John Major did in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. But this was too much for the Tory nationalists, who were already turning against the European Union and all its works.
The tension grew within the Tories between those that pursued international markets in the name of market fundamentalism, and those who worried that global trade and the free movement of labour were undermining the powers of the British nation state.
A compromise option – widely touted during the June 2016 EU referendum – was to exit the EU but remain in the single market. But a major implication of this was that the free movement of labour to and from the EU would have to be retained. May became prime minister and declared that Britain would leave the single market as well as the EU.
This marks a major ideological shift within the Conservative Party. The pursuit of free markets, promoted so zealously by Thatcher, has moved down the Tory agenda, in favour of nationalism, increased state control, reduced parliamentary scrutiny, and lower immigration, whatever the economic costs.
Forward together: the new-old Toryism
This shift is signalled by a remarkable passage in the 2017 Conservative general election manifesto:
“We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism.”
Crucially, the Tory Party was traditionally opposed to “untrammelled free markets” and it worried about the destructive and corrosive effects of individualism and greed.
As Karl Polanyi pointed out in his classic book on The Great Transformation, the first fighters for factory and employment legislation, to protect workers from the results of reckless industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s, were from the ranks of the church and the Tory Party:
“The Ten Hours Bill of 1847, which Karl Marx hailed as the first victory of socialism, was the work of enlightened reactionaries.”1
Tories like Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, were great nineteenth-century social reformers. The Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli railed against selfish individualism, particularly in his novels. For Disraeli, British imperialism was more important than unalloyed individualism.
May has brought the Tory party back to its pre-Thatcher roots. But, less enlightened than Shaftesbury or Disraeli, she has little appetite for protective legislation or constitutional reform. Instead, she celebrates her own powers of leadership and seeks a mandate to concentrate power in her hands.
She has little enthusiasm for democracy either. If it were not for the heroic efforts of Gina Miller and the decision of the Supreme Court, the triggering of Article 50 – to start the process of leaving the European Union – would have been taken by the executive without a parliamentary vote.
Bringing the state back in: Labour’s new-old economic nationalism
At least on the surface, there are dramatic differences with Labour’s manifesto, which, for example, contains more measures targeted at the poor and elderly. Labour also gives much more verbal emphasis to human rights and democracy.
But at the core of Labour’s 2017 manifesto is a strong dose of economic nationalism, with Labour’s greatest commitment to public ownership since the “suicide note” manifesto of 1983. There are plans to bring the railways, energy, water and the Royal Mail all back into public ownership.
The 2017 manifesto declares: “Many basic goods and services have been taken out of democratic control through privatization.” But there is little explanation of what “democratic control” would mean under public ownership.
How would it work? Would parliament take decisions on everything? In reality these proposals – whatever their other merits – would enlarge state bureaucracy: there is no explanation how they would extend democracy.
The words “control” or “controls” appear 32 times in the 2017 manifesto. There is insignificant explanation of how “controls” work. The Labour manifesto envisions a concentration of economic power in the hands of the state, notwithstanding its verbal commitment to regional and local, as well as national, public management.
While there are commendable measures to enhance and enlarge an autonomous sector of worker-owned enterprises, there is little recognition of the importance of having a viable and dynamic private sector as well.
Corbyn’s Labour: forward to the past
As May has brought the Tories back to the pre-Thatcher years, Corbyn has brought Labour back to its traditional roots, before the leadership of Tony Blair.
With his 1995 changes to Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution, Blair brought in an explicit commitment to a dynamic private sector. Labour stood for an economy where “the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation”. Corbyn has returned to the spirit of Labour pre-1995 constitution, even if he has not yet changed the wording.
Corbyn has proposed that Britain can be “better off” outside the EU. He argued that EU rules block the kind of state-heavy industrial policy that he favours. But EU countries such as France and Germany already have strong interventionist policies for industrial and infrastructural development. In truth, Corbyn favours repeated doses of statist socialism in one country.
With some Stalinist exceptions in his coterie, Corbyn and his followers are mostly sincere in their commitment to democracy and human rights. But what they do not understand is that their proposed statist concentration of economic power will undermine countervailing politico-economic forces that can help to keep the state leviathan in check.
Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez
These countervailing and separated powers are vital. Especially in times of hardship or crisis, there will be a temptation by some in power (at the local or national level) to abuse rights and undermine democracy. Every single historical case shows this result.
Attempts “to take control of the economy”, even with measures of decentralization and local power, have led to restrictions on press freedom, arbitrary detentions, abuses of human rights, and even famine.
Forward together: economic nationalists take the helm
Further doses of economic nationalism may be possible in a country as large as the United States. In 2015, exports from the USA amount to about 13 per cent of GDP. Hence economic nationalists in the USA can reduce trade without too much contraction of the economy. It may turn further inwards, cut imports and still survive a loss of exports.
But the UK has become a globally-orientated, open economy, exporting 28 per cent of its GDP in 2015. About 45 per cent of these exports go to the European Union.
By exiting the EU Single Market, and by walking away from EU trade deals with non-EU countries that benefit EU member states, Labour and the Tories would threaten the UK economy with a massive downturn. The British economy would fall off a cliff.
In this crisis, rightist economic nationalists will blame foreigners and immigrants, and leftist economic nationalists will blame the rich.
It will be “the few” – designated by their ethnicity or by their assets – who will get the blame. Their rights will be under threat, as so will the liberties of all of us. Whatever variety is chosen, economic nationalism could severely undermine the viability of democracy in the UK.
21 May 2017
Minor edits – 23, 28 May, 29 June
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Moore, Barrington, Jr (1966) Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (London: Allen Lane).
North, Douglass C., Wallis, John Joseph and Weingast, Barry R. (2009) Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press).
Polanyi, Karl (1944) The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York: Rinehart). See esp. pp. 165-66.
The political earthquakes of 2016 are probably the beginning of a series of major ruptures in world politics. Donald Trump was elected in the USA, Britons voted for Brexit, Turkey lurched toward dictatorship, Brazil ejected a democratically-elected president, Russia extended its global influence, and China tightened internal security while building military bases in the South China Sea.
From America to Asia, authoritarian nationalism is on the march. The future of old alliances is cast in doubt, raising a renewed spectre of global war.
These seismic changes should prompt us to reconsider our priorities. Is ‘neoliberalism’ – whatever that means – our main enemy? Or is it rising authoritarianism and nationalism instead?
We have been here before, albeit with much less dangerous military weapons. The rival imperialisms of the nineteenth century led to the First World War. Collapsing imperial dynasties triggered revolution in Central and Eastern Europe. Communists successfully seized power in Russia in 1917. Post-war political and economic turbulence led to the triumph of fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain. Imperial Japan invaded nationalist China.
I am not suggesting that history will repeat itself in the same way. But it is important to understand how the tectonic plates of political change affected the way we understand and map political positions, and the way in which we prioritise political issues.
The thirty-year squeeze (1918-1948)
Europe suffered economic depression for much of the interwar period. The financial crash of 1929 exacerbated the crisis and led to a collapse of world trade. Liberal defenders of the market economy were put on the defensive: capitalism seemed at the end of its tether.
Beatrice & Sidney Webb
Meanwhile, some intellectuals from the USA and Britain – including Labour stalwarts George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb – visited the Soviet Union brought back glowing accounts of an expanding economy and a joyful population. (The Soviet propagandists explained away disasters such as the Ukranian Famine as resulting from sabotage by rich peasants or foreign agents.)
With the crisis of capitalism, the rise of fascism and the apparent success of Soviet Russia, many British and American radicals became Communists or fellow travellers. For them, liberalism and the defence of the market economy seemed a weak or unviable option.
The choice seemed to be between two forms of authoritarian government: much better the one that proclaimed equality and opposed racism. (But in reality, the Stalin regime promoted antisemitism, genocide against several other ethnic minorities, and dramatic internal inequalities of power.)
Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941
The alliance between Russia and the West in the Second World War smothered criticism of what was really going on within Stalin’s regime. But, with the beginning of the Cold War in 1948, socialists were forced to make a choice between either supporting an antagonistic and undemocratic foreign power, or aligning with the USA and its allied democracies.
Labour under Clement Attlee aligned with the West. But rose-tinted visions of Soviet Russia or (from 1949) Mao’s China lived on among he Left.
In major European democracies, the thirty years between the end of the First World War and the start of the Cold War had seen liberalism squeezed, between socialism on the one hand, and reactionary authoritarianism on the other.
‘American imperialism’ and the rise of neoliberalism
Things were different in the USA, which polarised between forms of Republican conservatism and Democratic liberalism. But rising tensions in the Cold War, and the eruption of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, made American-style liberalism less attractive for the global Left.
Marxist-led national liberation movements in Cuba, Indochina and elsewhere kept the collectivist vision alive for the Left around the world. Liberalism was see as the fake ideology of American imperialism and the global bourgeoisie.
Some have argued that neoliberalism was reborn in the 1970s, when conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher adopted a vision of expanding markets and a contracting state. Although the Left could never agree on what ‘neoliberalism’ meant, they mostly agreed that it was the main enemy.
Much of the Left, throughout the world, had never got rid of its agoraphobia – its fear of markets. Private enterprise and market forces were always and everywhere seen as the problem. Liberals, who defended private property and markets as well as human rights, were mocked as the bourgeois enemy.
Our brave new world
But the global tectonic plates are now shifting abruptly, in an erupting national and international crisis, as big as anything since 1948.
Nationalist leaders strut around the world stage. They stock up their nuclear and conventional arsenals and jostle for geopolitical advantage.
Torture is endorsed. Journalists are threatened or imprisoned. Scientific findings on climate change are denied. Intellectuals and experts are ridiculed. Ignorance and dogma are celebrated. Truth is swamped by lies. Legislation protecting workers and the poor is undone. Minorities are attacked and made scapegoats. Racism is given licence. People suffer discrimination on the basis of their religious or other beliefs. Democratic systems are damaged. Judges and lawyers are treated as traitors. The rule of law is undermined.
In this dangerous new world, it matters less whether that railway is nationalised or whether water distribution is in public ownership. Forms of ownership are always secondary to the actual provision and distribution of vital goods and services. But when our rights and liberties can no longer be taken for granted, questions over forms of ownership move even further down the ranking of priorities.
The ubiquitous, trivialising idea that the Left is defined in terms of public provision, and Right as private provision, is historically recent and a gross reversal of their original meanings. It is also a polarisation of lesser relevance in this world of rising authoritarian nationalism.
Our fundamental rights, our liberty, and the rule of law are now increasingly threatened. Their defence becomes the great struggle of our time.
This lesson is hardest for Americans and Britons, who were spared domestically from the jackboots of twentieth-century despotism. Struggles for British and American national liberty are beyond living memory. We have grown fat and lazy on the fruits of the liberal order. We have taken for granted its institutions and underestimated their fragility. We must repair our vigilance.
The liberal opportunity
For 100 years, for the reasons given above, liberalism has been marginalised. Now is its opportunity – indeed its urgent necessity.
Unlike our grandparents in the crisis-ridden 1930s, we have seen the socialist experiments of the twentieth century and counted their cost at 90 million lives. History and social science have more to teach us. If we wish to learn, we can know more about how markets work. We can understand the informational, organisational and other impediments to comprehensive national planning. We can appreciate why countervailing politico-economic power, based on a strong private sector, are necessary to buttress democracy and resist authoritarianism. The twentieth century has taught us these lessons.
The old Marxist mantra of bourgeoisie versus proletariat is also ungrounded in reality. Instead we have a highly fragmented working class, much of it enduringly aligned with authoritarianism and nationalism. Marxism relies on a quasi-religious and nonsensical belief that the working class – whatever it actually believes or strives for – carries our human destiny.
Class struggle has mattered, but it has never been the main motor of history. What have mattered more have been struggles for power, by individuals, dynasties, nations, religions or ideological movements.
The Storming of the Bastille in 1789
Liberalism was one of those movements. Based on the imperatives of equality and liberty, it matured in the Enlightenment.
Liberalism rose up in the English Civil War of the 1640s, in the American Revolution of the 1770s, and in the French Revolution of 1789, in titanic struggles against despotism and oppression.
Now, once again, liberalism is centre stage, as the enemy of authoritarian nationalism.
The liberal rainbow
Its allies are not those who pander to authoritarianism by eroding civil liberties, or do the spadework of the nationalist Right by making immigration (rather than assimilation) a foremost problem. The prime allies of liberalism are all those who defend liberty and human rights. But therein lies a concern, which must be discussed.
From the beginning, liberalism has harboured different views on the role of the state and of the degree of state intervention required in the economy and society. On the one hand there are liberals – sometimes called libertarians – who wish to minimise the role of the state.
John Maynard Keynes – another great liberal – argued that state regulation of financial markets and counter-cyclical expenditures are necessary to stabilise the capitalist system. Keynes showed that economic austerity is a flawed doctrine. Government deficits are best reduced by growth: budget cuts can contract the entire economy and make the problem worse.
There is a spectrum of views between individualist and social-democratic liberalism, but all liberals are united in their defence of individual liberty, human rights and political democracy. The diverse colouring of this rainbow does not diminish its united opposition to the dark intolerance and division that is exacerbated by authoritarian nationalism.
The struggle for liberty and equality has always been vital. But many twentieth-century radicals were diverted by the delusions of socialism. The renewed rise of authoritarianism has shown us again that liberalism is the vital political movement of the modern age.
28 January 2017
Minor edits: 29 January, 1, 16 May 2017
This book by G. M. Hodgson elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Allett, John (1981) New Liberalism: The Political Economy of J. A. Hobson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).
Beveridge, William (1944) Full Employment in a Free Society (London: Constable).
Clarke, Peter (1978) Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Claeys, Gregory (1989) Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (London and New York: Routledge).
Courtois, Stéphane, Werth, Nicolas, Panné, Jean-Louis, Packowski, Andrzej, Bartošek, and Margolin, Jean-Louis (1999) The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).
Racist nationalism has returned from the fringes to mainstream politics. In 2016 it played a major role in the Brexit vote in the UK, in the election of Donald Trump in the US, in the presidential election in Austria, and in developments in many other countries.
Racism and other forms of discrimination, including by gender or belief, must be defeated. The Left has played a major role in countering racism, and it should be give due credit for that. But in some other respects the Left on this issue is weak and misguided.
Some things we cannot talk about – but we must
Some things have become difficult to discuss. I once tweeted the (obviously true) statement that “Islam is religion, not a race”. A fellow tweeter immediately assumed that I was some kind of bigot and responded “ugh!”
In this reactive climate it has become difficult to raise concerns about (say) Sharia law without being branded racist or right-wing. Discussion ends. But the fact that rightist bigots – such as Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders – go on about Sharia law does not mean that we cannot discuss it.
Of course, Muslims and others suffer significant discrimination, in Britain and elsewhere. In recent months, Trump has been responsible for major anti-Muslim outbursts and has whipped up violent anti-Muslim sentiment in the US.
We must defend the full human rights of everyone, including members of all faiths. But this does not mean that we must refrain from criticising religious doctrines.
On the contrary, our failure to discuss these issues has favoured conservatives over reformers within these religions, has allowed religious extremism to ferment, and has repeatedly played into the hands of the reactionary and extremist Right.
I explain here where and how the Left has got things wrong in this area. I concentrate mostly on the moderate Left. The sins of many on the Far Left are much worse, including their support for fanatical, religious, “anti-Imperialist”, extremists in Palestine, Iran and elsewhere.
The election of Trump is a wake-up call. We need to find more effective ways to counter racism and other forms of discrimination. We need to find ways to make multi-religious and multi-ethnic communities more inclusive and cohesive.
But much of the political debate is about immigrant numbers. The Tories ignore the economic evidence and start a Dutch auction of targets, to stem numbers. A large part of the Labour Party, facing a seepage of its working class support to UKIP, moves in a similar direction.
Of course, mass immigration becomes a problem when there are not enough school places, health services are severely stretched, housing is limited and inadequate, and the transport infrastructure groans from decades of under-investment.
Labour is internally divided between those that want to restrict immigration, and the leadership around Jeremy Corbyn who propose no restrictions at all. With some notable exceptions, what is missing is a discussion prioritising assimilation.
“In some council wards, as many as 85% of the population come from a single minority background, and most of these high minority concentrations are deprived Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage communities.”
These concentrated enclaves are more difficult to assimilate and create particular problems for women:
“this sense of retreat and retrenchment can sometimes go hand in hand with deeply regressive religious and cultural practices, especially when it comes to women. These practices are preventing women from playing a full part in society, contrary to our common British values, institutions and indeed, in some cases, our laws. … I’ve met far too many women suffering the effects of misogyny and domestic abuse, women being subjugated by their husbands and extended families. Often, the victims are foreign-born brides brought to Britain via arranged marriages. They have poor English, little education, low confidence, and are reliant on their husbands for their income and immigration status. They don’t know about their rights, or how to access support, and struggle to prepare their children effectively for school.”
Casey argued that fears of being labelled “racist” have prevented society from challenging sexist, misogynistic and patriarchal behaviour in some minority communities. Her report cites claims that some Sharia councils had supported the values of extremists, condoned wife-beating, ignored marital rape and allowed forced marriages.
Her report concluded with a rallying cry:
“The problem has not been a lack of knowledge but a failure of collective, consistent and persistent will to do something about it or give it the priority it deserves at both a national and local level.”
But to “do something about it” requires a clearer understanding of the problems involved and what kind of policies are needed to deal with them. Some people have criticised Casey’s empirical claims and more research is clearly required.
As several authors have pointed out, multiculturalism is an ambiguous concept. In one sense, at least, it is unobjectionable. All civilisations have drawn and benefitted from cultural variety. Western countries today benefit enormously from the influx of ideas, skills, fashions, cuisines and experiences that successive waves of immigration have brought. This has been true for millennia. It is no less true today.
Institutions are the stuff of society: institutions are systems of social rules. Some rules – concerning dress and fashion for example – can change profoundly without social collapse.
Other institutions – particularly in law and politics – are the outcomes of centuries of experience, deliberation and experimentation. We cannot put these in a culture-mixing food blender without tearing apart the fabric of society and wrecking social cohesion and solidarity.
Much discourse about multiculturalism ignores these differences in types of rules and institutions. Everything is placed under the vague and overly-capacious category of “culture”, assuming everything can be mixed at will. This soup-making, food-blender approach is dangerous and misconceived.
Some parts of the Left have embraced normative cultural relativism. This is the view that one person’s morality is as good as any other. It is said that there is no “objective” or “correct” morality. No overriding importance is given to democracy or to the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Other cultures have different codes and priorities: let them be.
According to this view, asking people from other cultures to adopt our over-arching laws and values is seen as a manifestation of “oppression” or “Western imperialism”. We have to be very careful not to jump to the conclusion that Western moral values are superior. But that does not mean that we should reach no judgmental conclusion at all.
For example, in her 1999 book The Whole Woman, the self-declared “Marxist” and iconic feminist Germaine Greer asked us to refrain from criticising female genital mutilation, on the grounds that it would impose our cultural values on others.
In his excellent book What’s Left? Nick Cohen gives some further examples of highly misguided cultural relativism, including attempts by feminists and leftists to defend the Indian practice of burning widows alive after the deaths of their husbands.
Analytically, this kind of cultural relativism has major flaws. First, it falls down in dealing with changing attitudes through time in one country. A cultural relativist, time travelling back to 1800, could raise no objection to slavery, or to the lack of women’s rights. If one morality is as good as any other, then there can be no moral force for change.
Second, it is internally inconsistent. Cultural relativism denies that our values are valid or suitable for other cultures. Why should this normative claim (that we should not impose our normative values on other cultures) be adopted by others in different cultures? By the logic of cultural relativism, thinkers in other cultures are not obliged to be cultural relativists. The whole argument is self-defeating.
Third, cultural relativism degrades the role of morality, by treating it as a matter of individual preference. The whole point about morality is that it transcends individual preferences. Moral claims (be they right or wrong) are universal. Humans have developed systems of morality to provide us with rules that help social cohesion while simultaneously protecting individual rights and liberties.
Reticence to act – condemnation of action
As well as the benefits of cultural enrichment, mass immigration has also brought problems of assimilation. In the UK there are large communities where many people do not speak English, or remain ignorant of prevailing laws and values that have evolved over centuries to keep our society together and to protect our interests.
Many of these immigrants had limited experience of any Western-style democracy and had an inadequate appreciation of universal human rights. Many came from rural areas in undeveloped countries, where the state was weak and social and business interactions were governed by custom and religion, based on ties of loyalty to family and clan.
Faced with this issue, many progressive politicians have adopted a stance of ultra-tolerance and inaction. Consider the question of language. Should immigrants be obliged to learn the language of their new country, so that they can understand its culture and its laws? Some other countries take this on board.
But such an assimilationist policy in the UK was highly controversial as late as 2001. In that year, the Labour MP Ann Cryer bravely argued that many Muslims were held back economically and educationally by language difficulties. The problem was especially severe among Muslim women.
But she was faced with criticism and scorn from the Left. Shahid Malik, then a senior member of the Commission for Racial Equality and of the Labour Party National Executive Committee, and subsequently a Labour MP and government minister, responded to Cryer: “Her arguments are sinister and they have no basis in fact … she is doing the work of the extreme right wing.”
Promoting faith schools
Schooling must be central to any viable integration programme. Young people need to learn about the struggles for democracy, independence, rights and human emancipation, throughout the world. They should be free to discuss and evaluate all these things.
Such a broad education is less likely in a school that is linked to one particular religion. Instead it would be more viable in secular schools with pupils from multiple religions, classes and cultures. Broad-based secular education is even more vital in multi-cultural and multi-faith societies.
After coming to power in 1997, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair promoted a programme of expansion of faith schools. But a 2001 report commissioned by Bradford City Council concluded that its communities were becoming increasingly isolated along racial, cultural and religious lines, and that faith-segregated schools were fuelling the divisions.
In 2001 there were riots in Bradford, which spread to other northern cities. Yet in the same year the Labour Government proposed a large increase in the number of state schools run by religious organizations.
By 2002 there was a major public row, with accusations that some pupils were being taught creationism in and that homosexual acts are against God’s law. Campaigners for women’s rights expressed concern that conservative religious teachers were instructing young girls that women should take a secondary role in society.
Despite his previous opposition to Blair, in 2016 the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn expressed his support for faith schools. No major UK political party has dared to come out against them. They are being vigorously promoted by the current Conservative government.
Faith schools have hindered assimilation
David Bell warned in a January 2005 speech to the Hansard Society – when he was Chief Inspector of Schools – that a traditional Islamic education did not equip Muslim children for living in modern Britain. He said: “I worry that many young people are being educated in faith-based schools, with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society.” He continued:
“We must not allow our recognition of diversity to become apathy in the face of any challenge to our coherence as a nation … I would go further and say that an awareness of our common heritage as British citizens, equal under the law, should enable us to assert with confidence that we are intolerant of intolerance, illiberalism and attitudes and values that demean the place of certain sections of our community, be they women or people living in non-traditional relationships.”
His comments were condemned as “irresponsible” and “derogatory” by some senior Muslims, but supported by Trevor Phillips, then chair of the Commission for Racial Equality.
In another lecture Bell said: “We can choose … whether we want to bring our diversity together in a single rainbow or whether we allow our differences to fester into separate cultures and separate communities.”
Phillips came to the conclusion that increasing self-segregation of British communities along ethnic and religious lines was a major threat to national integration and to Enlightenment values. Young people were being brought up with insufficient awareness of these values, in closed communities where extremism could fester.
Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, attacked Phillips for “pandering to the right”. During a televised discussion, the prominent Labour Minister David Miliband shook his head and described Phillips’s remarks about community segregation as “fatuous”.
On faith schools, the Casey report noted their role in institutionalising segregation:
“The Government had attempted to alter the segregation of pupils in faith schools by introducing admissions criteria for new faith-based Free Schools. But these did not seem to be having an impact on the diversity of minority faith schools … [their] admission policies do seem to play a role in reinforcing ethnic concentrations.”
But Casey did not take the final step. She wrote: “ending state support for all faith schools would be disproportionate”. But how serious do the problems have to become before it becomes proportionate?
Rather than relying on failed palliatives, state-funded faith schools should be phased out. Taxpayers should not subsidise religion: religion and the state should part company.
A recent poll found that an overwhelming majority of the British public opposed religious discrimination in faith school admissions. Making all faith schools non-discriminatory in terms of religion would be a big positive step.
Ed Husain was born and educated in Britain, where he obtained a Master’s Degree. He was drawn toward extreme versions of Islam and was persuaded that Western democracies are irredeemably corrupt and must be replaced by a theocracies based on Islamic law.
After several years he renounced his former extremism, but retained his Islamic faith. In an interview he revealed the segregated life of his upbringing:
“The result of 25 years of multiculturalism has not been multicultural communities. It has been mono-cultural communities. Islamic communities are segregated. Many Muslims want to live apart from mainstream British society; official government policy has helped them do so. I grew up without any white friends. My school was almost entirely Muslim. I had almost no direct experience of ‘British life’ or ‘British institutions’.” (Quoted in Cohen 2007, p. 378.)
British policy-makers have welcomed diversity. But they have defined needs and rights via the ethnic categories into which people were placed, using those divisions to shape public policy. The result has been a more fragmented society, which has nurtured extremism.
In the name of multi-culturalism, Britain has become a more divided society, where inclusive, universal, Enlightenment values are often side-lined or unknown. These communal enclaves, found in France and Belgium as well as Britain, have become hothouses for violent extremism.
Hassan Butt was born in Luton in England in 1980. In 2000 he travelled to Pakistan and worked for the Taliban and other jihadists against the West. Subsequently he renounced his anti-Western views.
Butt explained that “Islamic theology, unlike Christian theology, does not allow for the separation of the state and religion … [they] are considered to be one and the same.” Consequently, since there no righteous Islamic state is deemed to exist, the extremists have “declared war on the whole world”.
Some on the Far Left disowned Butt for betraying the struggle against “Western imperialism”. He was also criticized by one member of the “Stop the War” movement, who is a leading supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, for his “call to change the face of Islam” (Cohen 2007, pp. 371-2).
Butt’s response was clear: “I believe that the issue of terrorism can be easily demystified if Muslims and non-Muslims start openly to discuss the ideas that fuel terrorism.” However, many on the Left, as well as the Right, are not helping this process.
Successive British Prime Ministers have reacted to the threat of Islamist extremism by calling for “British values”. After claims that some schools in Birmingham were promoting Islamist extremism, in 2014 the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron outlined plans to put the promotion of “British values” at the heart of the national curriculum for schools. This is now official policy:
“Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”
But the official government document outlining this policy mentions respect and tolerance for other races but fails to mention discrimination against women or gays. It rightly mentions the freedom to “choose and hold” any faith, but not the freedom to exit a religion without sanction. It mentions “individual liberty” only once, and fails to uphold freedom of non-violent expression, including when it may cause offence.
Are these omissions an accident, or are they designed not to offend a particular religious minority?
Another problem here is not the values as such, but their nationalistic description as “British”. Democracy was not invented in Britain: Ancient Athens and Viking Iceland have much earlier precursors. The US and France have much earlier claims to the values of liberty and religious tolerance. Britain legally discriminated against Protestant nonconformists and Catholics until the nineteenth century, and it still bars any Catholic from becoming its sovereign.
Apart from being misleading and inaccurate, the label of “British values” would hardly be effective in preventing a young Muslim from being radicalised. On the contrary, the label can help bolster the misperception that Britain and the rest of the West are at war against Islam. This nationalistic labelling readily allows the distortion that “British values” are being promoted by the UK authorities in a global effort to counter Islam.
It would be more accurate and effective to label values such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and freedom of worship as “universal values” or “Enlightenment values”. They are not simply values that British residents and citizens should adopt. Other countries should promote these values too.
Polly Toynbee is a leading progressive, and vigilantly anti-racist, British journalist. Yet in 2004 she was proclaimed by the Islamic Human Rights Commission as the winner of their “Most Islamophobic Media Personality” award.
In her words, she received this ridiculous appellation because she “had challenged the legitimacy of the idea of Islamophobia and warned of the danger to free speech of trying to make criticism of a religion a crime akin to racism.” She rightly noted that the “occasional note of reason from moderate Islamic groups is so weak it hardly makes itself heard”. She highlighted the difficulties involved in starting a serious dialogue on this issue.
The failure to distinguish racism from criticism of religion sadly remains widespread. Many on the Left have done excellent work since the 1970s in campaigning against racism, fascism and discrimination. But the frequent confusion of criticism of religion with racism has diverted their efforts.
It must be repeated that concerns about Islam as a belief system are not equivalent to bigotry toward Muslims. Racism and persecution of Muslims are serious problems and should be vigilantly opposed. But the option to criticise Islam, or any other belief system, is an important right, and it should be protected.
Does it literally mean fear of Islam? Or criticism of Islam? Or hatred of Islam? Or persecution of Muslims? Its intended meaning can range from scholarly criticism of Islamic doctrines to racist acts against ethnic groups who are Muslim. These are obviously very different. Yet they are all lumped together under the same label.
“Anti-Muslim prejudice” or “anti-Muslim discrimination” would be much better terms. They accurately describe this very real and sadly widespread problem.
Criticism of religion can be enlightening – indeed a part of Enlightenment (and British) values, from Voltaire to Bertrand Russell. We should also be free to criticise Sharia law, as we are free to criticise other laws.
As Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby pointed out recently, there also needs to be a discussion about the doctrinal links between religion and extremism:
“This requires a move away from the argument that has become increasingly popular, which is to say that ISIS is nothing to do with Islam, or that Christian militia in the Central African Republic are nothing to do with Christianity, or Hindu nationalist persecution of Christians in South India is nothing to do with Hinduism.”
Extreme and draconian statements can be found in the Old Testament of the Bible as well as in the Qur’an. Believing that they are obeying the word of God, these texts have spurred violent religious extremists, as we are all sadly aware.
Nevertheless, many modern Christians, Jews and Muslims have accepted the power of state law over religious law. They obey the laws of their country. They do not kill homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), or slay apostates (Deuteronomy 13:6-10), or stone to death a bride who is not a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), or rape non-Muslim women (Qur’an 23:1-6, 70:22-30), or make war on unbelievers (Qur’an 8:12, 9:5, 9:73, 9:123).
We must help this vital transition from regressive religious law, toward a recognition of modern secular law and democracy. But we do not do so by pretending it is not needed, or refusing to discuss it, or branding those that discuss it as “Islamophobic”.
Signs of hope
On a more positive note, the authors of the 2007 Policy Exchange Report argued for a change of approach. The government and others “should stop emphasising difference and engage with Muslims as citizens”.
Policies of “group rights or representation” for specific Islamic communities are likely to alienate other sections of the Muslim population further. These well-informed remarks went against much of the then-current local and national government policy.
The authors continued: “The exaggeration of Islamophobia does not make Muslims feel protected but instead reinforces feelings of victimisation and alienation.” They also called for “a broader intellectual debate in order to challenge the crude anti-Western, anti-British ideas that dominate cultural and intellectual life. This means allowing free speech and debate, even when it causes offence to some minority groups.”
We need to be honest. Extremist religions of all kinds can threaten liberal, democratic and Enlightenment values. Christianity in particular has been violently repressive and brutal. Some religious sects today are fanatical and intolerant.
These issues need to be openly discussed, in a civilised manner. They should not be swept under the carpet by those on the Regressive Left who act as if they do not understand the difference between race and religion, or would shut down critical discussion of a religion because it might be wrongly construed by others as an attack on a minority, or by other politicians of any stripe who are simply too scared to take the issue on.
In an immensely positive development, the “Muslim Reform Movement” was launched in 2015. In their inaugural statement they defended freedom of speech, gender equality, a secular state and the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights. They noted explicitly that freedom of speech included the right to criticize Islam: “Ideas do not have rights. Human beings have rights.”
By contrast, the blanket and ill-defined leftist rhetoric of “Islamophobia” does not help those Muslims who are struggling to reform and modernise their religion. Instead, the more conservative leaders of Muslim communities protect their regressive and reactionary views behind its smokescreen. Modernising Muslims are thus impaired by an unwitting coalition of leftists and Muslim conservatives.
Responsibility lies on both sides. In a climate of open discussion, we all need to be vigilant against acts of hatred or violence against Muslims and other minorities.
Initiatives to preserve liberal values in a multi-faith and multi-ethnic world should be welcomed. In addition, the Left needs to re-establish its links with the Enlightenment and its project to separate church from state. Within any society, freedom of worship should be protected, as well as the freedom to criticise religion.
Inward-looking, unreforming, dogmatic religion is a major barrier to assimilation. The Left needs to learn that lesson, and to encourage open discussion of the issues involved.
6 December 2016
Edited 7th and 10th December 2016, with thanks to Andrew Ross. Further edit, 23 January 2017.
My forthcoming book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost
To be published by University of Chicago Press in November 2017
“One of the most important essays you will read in 2016” @Rokewood
What caused the election of Donald Trump? I am deeply dissatisfied by some of the quick answers to this question.
The leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition had an instant answer. Jeremy Corbyn blamed the left’s association “with the forces of globalisation during the Obama administration”. Instead, he insisted, we need to reject “that free market, economic thinking, which processed deindustrialisation in Britain”.
Others used different words on the same “free market” theme. Naomi Klein put it bluntly: “the force most responsible” for Trump’s success was “neoliberalism”. This worldview, “fully embodied by Hillary Clinton and her machine”, was “no match for Trump-style extremism.”
Trump won over US voters because: “Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously.”
The Guardian columnist George Monbiot followed with a historical piece, claiming that “the events that led to Donald Trump’s election started in England in 1975”, when Margaret Thatcher embraced the free-market “neoliberal” philosophy of Friedrich Hayek. This was a harbinger of the global rise of free-market thinking that allegedly wrought havoc in recent years.
Both Klein and Monbiot argue that Trump capitalised on the failure of other politicians to deal with the adverse effects of neoliberalism.
There is no doubt that the global expansion of capitalism in recent decades has been hugely disruptive, shifting millions of manufacturing jobs to East Asia. In the absence of adequate retraining and investment, it has led to declining opportunities for large swathes of the working population in North America and Europe.
Trump tapped into working class discontent. In important respects his policies are not neoliberal, by any reasonable definition of that term. In his campaign, Trump used anti-neoliberal, protectionist slogans such as high import tariffs and closed borders.
But why did it take so long for people to react to “neoliberalism” and vote in this way? As Monbiot argued, the current so-called “neoliberalism” got under way in the 1970s. It accelerated after the beginning of economic reform in China in 1978 and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in1989. The whole world was then opened up for trade.
But while right-populist movements had emerged, they were then far from power. Tony Blair won a landslide election in 1997 and increased public spending on welfare, education and health. Three years after Blair had won a third election, the United States elected its first black President.
If neoliberalism and stagnant living standards had been around since the 1970s, then why did it take 40 years for a Trump-like demagogue to be elected? The political wind swung decisively to the right more recently, after the Great Crash of 2008.
But it is also difficult to explain Trump’s populist success as a targeted reaction to the financial crash. The removal of some banking regulations, by Bill Clinton in the US and Gordon Brown in the UK, did exacerbate the lending boom that led to the crash of 2008.
Yet, despite his protectionism, Trump offers still more deregulation. He is not targeting the bankers as part of the “elite”. On the contrary, he has pledged to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act, which was designed to curb some of the excesses of the financial sector. As Larry Elliott put it: “This looks curious for someone trying to surf a tidal wave of populist anger against the bankers.”
“Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. … Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone.”
I shall pass over the many flaws in the essay from which the above passage is quoted. Monbiot conflates the different views of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and he is inaccurate on several details. Note also that Monbiot does not highlight deregulation of the financial sector in this passage.
After taking on board Monbiot’s definition of neoliberalism, let us consider the extent to which it has been achieved in the real world.
Has neoliberalism been achieved in practice?
Monbiot described how in the 1970s “elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the US and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain.” He is unclear on the details, but presumably in part he refers to Callaghan’s embrace of monetarist ideas from 1976 to 1979.
Monetarism, incidentally, is not obviously the same as neoliberalism. While monetarists such as Friedman were free-marketeers, monetarism’s central claim is that the main cause of inflation is the rise in the money supply – a thesis that (as Friedman himself recognised) could also apply to a planned economy. Indeed, this central monetarist tenet was adopted by some Marxist economists.
“After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the [neoliberal] package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services.”
He is right. Albeit to different degrees in different countries, these things happened.
But go back to Monbiot’s checklist definition of neoliberalism, as quoted above. He saw neoliberalism as minimising “tax” not simply “tax cuts for the rich”. Has this happened?
Ronald Reagan & Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher reduced taxation for the rich. But the overall tax burden (all taxes as a percentage of GDP) rose during her period of office. This figure fell in the 1990s and has fluctuated from 1997 in a range between 35 per cent and 38 per cent of GDP. The UK austerity governments since 2010 have not reduced the overall tax take significantly.
The “neoliberal” mission of massive overall tax cuts was not achieved under Thatcher or Reagan, or under subsequent administrations. Put in a longer historical perspective, taxation and public spending in the UK and USA today are much higher than they were before the Second World War.
The above figure shows the tax revenues, from national, state and local government combined, for the UK and the USA from 1900 to 2016. The alleged era of “neoliberalism” from the 1970s has not been associated with declining tax revenues. If anything, the “neoliberal” era of a minimal state was pre 1914, not post-1975.
What is characteristic of fiscal policy in the UK and USA is not the alleged “neoliberal” overall reduction of taxation but a lightening of taxation on the rich, and a failure to redistribute sufficiently, in the face of widening inequality.
By contrast, Monbiot’s other point, about growing privatisation since the 1970s, has been borne out by the evidence. In the UK, USA and much of the world there has been massive privatisation and outsourcing of public services.
Unlike any false claim that “neoliberalism” has reduced overall taxes, the increase of privatisation is manifest. In addition, it has sometimes led to deleterious consequences including lower pay for workers and a reduced quality of services.
But Corbyn and Monbiot speak and write as if privatisation is necessarily bad – always and everywhere it is seen as a negative policy. This doctrinaire stance simply inverts the claim of the crudest free marketeers, who claim that state provision is always bad and that private provision is always good. The Corbyn-Monbiot stance simply turns this upside-down. It is equally dogmatic. It is based on ideology, not evidence.
Regarding markets as always bad, amounts to agoraphobia or fear of markets (from the Greek words agora for market, and phobia for fear). This is an inversion of the kratophobia of the free-marketeers – a fear of government or of the state.
Instead of these ideologically-driven, simplistic positions, it is necessary to be more pragmatic. Some privatisations work. Others do not. Some state provision is effective. Some is wasteful and inefficient. We need to look at individual cases to understand why.
“the issue is not simply whether ownership is private or public. Rather, the key question is under what conditions will managers be more likely to act in the public’s interest … managerial accountability to the public’s interest is what counts most, not the form of ownership.”
Goodman and Loveman argued that profits and the public interest overlap best when the privatised organisation is in a competitive market. Competition from other companies can discipline managerial behaviour. Consequently, there is little point in privatisation if competition is lacking.
Subsequent research has shown that other factors are involved as well. Instead of being driven by dogma, we need to be pragmatic and experimental, taking account of research.
You may respond that Corbyn is pragmatic, because he has declared that he is in favour of a mixed economy: he accepts a private as well as a public sector. But notice the imbalance in his presentations. He treats public provision as ideal, and the private sector as an expedient to be tolerated, at least for a while.
Corbyn says he accepts a mixed economy, but he has offered has no defence of private sector. His “mixed economy” could be a stopping point on the road to a fully-socialist planned economy, where private enterprise is pushed to the side-lines.
Declining public provision?
Ken Loach’s moving film, I, Daniel Blake, portrays the heart-breaking human consequences of the UK Conservative government’s shredding of the welfare safety net for the poor. Attempts to reduce public spending in many countries have led to millions of human tragedies like this.
Doctrinaire austerity policies – which fail in their own terms because they depress economic demand for goods and services and create more unemployment – have been adopted by many governments and imposed by the European Union.
All this is real, and tragic. Millions have suffered because of such misguided policies. But we should not jump to the conclusion that “neoliberalism” has been successful in moving toward a minimal economic role for the state.
In my book Conceptualizing Capitalism I examined differences and changes in public social spending in different developed countries from 1980 to 2005, using OECD data. The principal components of public social spending include health services, old age benefits, unemployment benefits, incapacity-related benefits, family support, active labour market public programs, and housing benefits.
Amounts of public spending as percentages of GDP (in 1980 and 2005) are shown below.
Public Social Spending as Percentage of GDP in Selected Countries
Most countries increased their public social spending, during a period when the ideology of privatization was resurgent. The Netherlands is an exception. Note that the increases in public social spending are not explained by rises in unemployment benefit, because generally this comprises a small proportion of public social spending.
Of course, it needs to be emphasised that there is an ideologically-driven agenda that has led to deep cuts in some welfare and has been gravely damaging for the poor. But we are far from re-entering the era of the minimal state.
Much of the hysteria against “neoliberalism” draws from the Left’s deep rooted antipathy to markets. Let’s briefly address this.
First, they may be alternatives to markets in modern, large-scale economic systems but they would greatly out-do the miseries inflicted on the fictional Daniel Blake and his millions of real-world counterparts.
Every attempt to get rid of markets, since Robert Owen and Karl Marx proclaimed their redundancy in the nineteenth century, has led to famine, repression and the termination of democracy. Look to Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Cambodia, Cuba and Venezuela. Twentieth-century Communism resulted in over 90 million deaths.
In the light of twentieth-century experience it would be worse than foolhardy to make yet another attempt to minimise markets, or as Klein oddly put it, “corporate trade”.
A better way is possible, but it involves taming and supplementing markets, not repressing them. It means regulating corporations, not casting them as sorcerers of evil. But sadly, agoraphobia still afflicts many on the left.
“It seems to me that the questions we urgently need to ask ourselves are these: is totalitarianism the only means of eliminating capitalism? If so, and if … we abhor totalitarianism, can we continue to call ourselves anti-capitalists? If there is no humane and democratic answer to the question of what a world without capitalism would look like, then should we not abandon the pursuit of unicorns, and concentrate on capturing and taming the beast whose den we already inhabit?”
Excellent. But since then he has gone down the rocky road of blaming “neoliberalism” for “all our problems”. Without defending some role for private property or markets, he thereby allies himself with the many leftists who now describe anyone defending private property or markets as “neoliberal”.
Has Monbiot now abandoned the idea of taming the capitalist beast? Does he wish to kill it instead?
In April 2016 he wrote: “Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure.” So he junked the best macroeconomic theory we have for limiting some of the excesses of capitalism. His grounds for doing so were these:
“Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.”
John Maynard Keynes
Wrong. “Consumer demand and economic growth” can destroy the planet, but only if that demand and growth relate to non-renewable material resources. Much demand and growth in modern economies is for services. Intangible assets now make up much of corporate wealth. For example, there are demands for information and education, and such services are added to GDP. There is no necessary reason why economic growth in a modern information-rich economy should ruin the planet. Keynes is still relevant.
Those that have pursued unicorns have imagined that it is possible to design a better system than capitalism. Monbiot says the same, declaring that for the Left
“the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.”
This puts him in full, unicorn-chasing mode. One of the biggest mistakes by early socialists was to ignore the massive complexity of modern economic systems and attempt to “design a new system” at the behest of some utopian dreamer.
Instead, what is required is careful, incremental, experimental change, retaining the flexibility and devolved autonomy afforded by widespread private property. This autonomy allows for multiple experiments and deeper learning from mistakes.
While state intervention is necessary, no complete or adequate overall “design” is possible, because of the way much knowledge is irretrievably dispersed throughout the economy. The economies of the twenty-first century are more knowledge-intensive than those before. Hence the possibilities of comprehensive central planning or “design” are even more limited.
“as modern psychology and neuroscience make abundantly clear – human beings, by comparison with any other animals, are both remarkably social and remarkably unselfish. The atomisation and self-interested behaviour neoliberalism promotes run counter to much of what comprises human nature.”
The first sentence is valid and important. The second is simplistic. As I elaborate in my book From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities, strong evidence from psychology, evolutionary biology and primatology shows that the picture of self-seeking “economic man”, which dominated mainstream economics until recently, is deeply flawed.
But that does not mean that we can or should get rid of markets. Our capacities for cooperation evolved culturally and genetically because our ancestors hunted and foraged in groups, rarely numbering more than 200 individuals, for millions of years. Relying on emotions and facial expressions, we developed sophisticated social mechanisms to engender trust and cooperation, and to enforce social rules.
As larger-scale cities emerged about 14,000 years ago, these face-to-face mechanisms could no longer be relied upon exclusively to regulate social interactions. Institutions such as law, property and contract were developed to deal with these more impersonal, non-familial, transactions.
Even the Soviet-style economies of the twentieth century relied on some private property and trade. They failed because state bureaucracy stifled autonomy and innovation. China grew rapidly when it expanded the private sector after 1978.
Of course, the spread of the market would be detrimental if it invaded all our social relations, attempting to put prices on love and friendship and reducing everything else to money transactions. But a system of private property provides a degree of autonomy that is required to maintain non-market interactions at home and at work. Successful corporations create islands of cooperation and teamwork within their organisational boundaries.
Impersonal relations occur in bureaucracies as well as in markets. Large-scale systems of national planning also make much interaction impersonal. People become atomised; they become numbers, to be processed by bureaucrats and computers.
The experience of centrally-planned economies in Russia, China and Eastern Europe shows that systems of state planning can be cesspits of human alienation and corruption, governed impersonally by disillusioned bureaucrats and corrupt state officials. I recommend the film The Lives of Others for a glimpse into that dark world.
I have written at further length elsewhere on the limits to markets. I accept Hayek’s explanation that comprehensive overall planning is dysfunctional. But I do not accept that everything should or can become a monetary transaction in its place.
Indeed, the growing use of information in a capitalist economy puts limits on the role of information as property. Furthermore, the very freedom of waged employees means that there are constraints on entering into contracts for future work. There are limited futures markets for labour. For such reasons, capitalism can never be a 100 per cent market system.
Hayek failed to acknowledge fully the limits to markets. Such free marketeers are the mirror-image of socialists who fail to acknowledge adequately that there are limits to common ownership. We have to transcend both agoraphobia and kratophobia.
Agoraphobics react adversely to any tolerance of markets. Hence economic interventionists such as Tony Blair, and supporters of public healthcare such as Hillary Clinton, have recently and frequently been accused of being neoliberals. This is misleading and absurd.
As Colin Talbot has pointed out, “neoliberalism” has become “a term of abuse” to be used against “any type of pro-market reform or political position that recognizes markets may – in the right circumstances – be a good thing”. Consequently, everyone “from moderate social democrats to the most lurid free-marketeers gets lumped together under a convenient ‘neoliberal’ label.”
In a brilliant survey of its usage since the 1980s, Rajesh Venugopal concluded that “neoliberalism has become a deeply problematic and incoherent term that has multiple and contradictory meanings, and thus has diminished analytical value.”
Some may wish to retain the “neoliberal” label, to apply it to those free marketeers who attempt to shrink radically the size of the state, and to privatise anything that walks. The definition could be further sharpened by adding advocacy of economic austerity. It could also could be sharpened by including deregulation of the financial sector.
But such nuances have been lost in a global storm of “neoliberal” accusations. Klein and Monbiot have added some force and authority to this widening tempest.
They do not confine their accusations to the likes of Hayek. Most seriously, they pointed the “neoliberal” finger at Hillary and Bill Clinton, as Corbyn made the “forces of globalisation” jibe at Barack Obama.
If it means anything, neoliberalism is an ideology and only partly a reality. Austerity and welfare cuts have wreaked havoc, but markets and private enterprise have lifted millions out of poverty. Agoraphobic accusations of “neoliberalism” miss the latter point.
We may ask: what part did the accusers of “neoliberalism” have to play in Trump’s victory? The constant tainting of Hillary Clinton as a “neoliberal” may have helped to persuade many Democratic supporters to stay at home. We know from the data that the below-par turnout by Democrats – especially by the young – was decisive in losing those swing states.
Tainting Hillary Clinton as a “neoliberal” could have played a part in clinching Trump’s success. If so, “neoliberalism” gave us Trump, but not in the way that Klein and Monbiot suggest.
18 November 2016
Minor edits – 19, 25, 30 November, 15, 28 December 2016
My forthcoming book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost
To be published by University of Chicago Press in November 2017
There are several different kinds of populism, emanating from both the left and right. But they have in common a view that some powerful minority group are clearly to blame for the ills suffered by a majority. As Julian Baggini put it, in his excellent article on Corbyn’s populism:
‘Populism is … a way of doing politics that has three key features. First, it has a disdain for elites and experts of all kinds, especially political ones. Second, it supposes that the purpose of politics is simply to put into action the will of the people, who are seen as homogenous and united in their goals. Third, it proposes straightforward, simple solutions to what are in fact complex problems.’
Rather than enter into a discussion over political problems and details, populists accuse those who fail to support them as collaborators of the exploiting elite. They believe that the elite is the main obstacle to progress, and solutions will appear once the elite is removed. They are suspicious of experts and dissenters. They are typically vague about their own objectives: their primary aim is to unite the bulk of the population behind a leader, against the elite.
The Great Crash of 2008 undermined confidence in existing elites. For this and other reasons, populism is now on the rise, in both Europe and the USA.
Populism on the Right
The campaign by UKIP to quit the European Union was populism incarnate. Its leader, Nigel Farage, complained frequently that the elites have gained too much power over hard-working ordinary people. Furthermore, elites at the national level had allegedly handed over power to unaccountable rulers in Europe, who have allowed mass immigration and robbed the UK of its sovereignty.
Because of his focus on a nationalist solution, and his identification of foreigners as a primary problem, Farage is an example of a right populist. By championing ‘ordinary British people’ against the establishment, and relying more on sentiment than on reasoned argument or expert advice, he is populist to the core.
After his success in the Brexit referendum, Farage flew across the Atlantic to show his support for Donald Trump. At his August 2016 speech at a Donald Trump rally in Mississippi, Farage celebrated that Britain ‘chose not to be ruled by unelected old men in Brussels’. He drew parallels between the US and Britain, saying ordinary people everywhere had been ‘let down by government’. He was greeted by rapturous applause.
Trump’s rhetoric has much in common with that of Farage. Both blame immigrants for the problems in the country. Trump adds his rabid hostility to Muslims.
Corbynism as Left Populism
There are important differences between populists on the left and right. Left populists place less emphasis on the role of immigrants or foreigners: they are more inclusionary. Left populists also tend to favour greater state involvement in the economy. But elements of right populism can find their way into left movements, and vice versa.
Labour has always been more pragmatic than ideological. Although Corbyn has some Marxist theoreticians close to him, including within his Momentum Praetorian Guard, he has relied much more on populist sentiment rather than Marxist theory.
The recent growth of left populism has been triggered by the crisis within social democracy, the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, increasing economic inequality within leading economies, unaffordable housing, cuts in the welfare state and high rates of unemployment, especially among the young.
Corbynism vaguely promotes ‘socialism’, but there is no apparent agreement on what this means. There is a general suspicion of private enterprise, as well as a justified concern about the excessive power of some large corporations. When difficulties appear, public ownership is typically seen as the simple and obvious cure.
Like all populists, Corbyn rails against the elite. For him it is the rich minority and the large corporations. Like Farage, he identifies an elite that is bolstered by powerful friends abroad. But for Corbyn the most important foreign allies of the despised British elite are in Washington DC. With its anti-West foreign policy, Corbynism is Marxism-Leninism in populist clothing.
Corbynism Undermines Parliamentary Democracy
To public ownership is added the populist Corbynista slogans of ‘democratic control’ or ‘democratic management’ of enterprises. Without any detailed explanation of how this would work, it nevertheless reassures the left-populist followers that they, and not the elite, will somehow be in control. This left-populist slogan of ‘democratic control’ is seen as the obvious and straightforward way to ‘put into action the will of the people’.
Some extension of worker and community participation is desirable. But it cannot be a substitute for managerial discretion and leadership. Corbyn’s ultra-democracy is infeasible. When it threatens parliamentary democracy it is dangerous.
The Corbynistas want to shift power away from Parliament. They want MPs to follow ‘the will of the people’, which means, in practice, the implementation in Parliament of the resolutions of their local constituency parties. Inadequate heed is taken of the diverse views and interests of the electorate, and the need for expert deliberation and debate to make policy feasible and effective.
Instead of careful, empirically-grounded debate among diverse viewpoints, aimed at developing viable policies to deal with complex economic and political problems, Corbynistas are suspicious of dissent from their official line.
Instead of pluralism and extended debate, Corbynism treats the party resolution as the correct line, which all are instructed to follow. There is little appreciation of the complexity of modern politico-economic systems, and the consequent fallibility of all decision making.
Parliamentary institutions have evolved to deal with real-world complexities. They provide some mechanisms to challenge and scrutinise legislation. By moving from representative to delegate democracy, Corbynism would corrode the basic institutions of parliamentary democracy.
Any leader of any political party committed to working through parliament would resign when 80 per cent of his or her parliamentary representatives passed a vote of no confidence in his or her leadership. When this happened, Corbyn did not resign: his primary focus is not on parliament but on the populist ‘mass movement’ outside.
Totalitarian Dangers of Populism – The Example of Venezuela
The record of both left and right populism in power is abysmal. There is an important example of left populism in power, and it is close to Corbyn’s heart.
He has always had a romantic soft spot for Latin American revolutionaries. He wrote in 2011: ‘What the Cubans and … Che Guevara were preaching in the 1960s has an even greater resonance today’. This suggests that armed insurrection is appropriate, even in those Latin American countries that have become democracies.
Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez
In 1998, the Marxist politician Hugo Chávez was elected as President of Venezuela. Using the high oil revenues during 1999-2007, his government expanded access to food, housing, healthcare, and education, especially for the poor and the indigenous minorities.
Chávez nationalized key industries and created participatory Communal Councils. His ‘Chavista’ populism emphasised the ‘will of the people’, against the rich elite and their perceived allies in the United States.
Chávez created new ‘democratic’ institutions at the base to bolster his power. In 1999, the new Constitutional Assembly, filled with elected supporters of Chávez, drafted a new constitution that made censorship easier and granted the executive branch of government more power. The Constitutional Assembly extended the presidential term. It abolished the two houses of Congress. It also granted Chávez the power to legislate on citizen rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters.
Chávez seized control of the courts and the electoral authority, and suppressed much of the opposition media. He removed political checks and balances, seeing them as obstacles to his socialist revolution.
Accordingly, the device of populist democracy was used to push the country in the direction of dictatorship. The high pre-Crash oil revenues were used to address some basic needs and to buy the support of the people. These supporters were then persuaded to approve increases in presidential powers, to protect the ‘socialist revolution’ against its enemies.
Chávez failed to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. He antagonised private investors. The economy was not robust enough to withstand the post-2008 oil price collapse. His government had become one of the most corrupt in the world. Serious shortages of food and medicine emerged. Chávez died of cancer in 2013 and was replaced as President by Nicolás Maduro.
But Corbyn’s enthusiasm for the regime was undiminished. As late as 2015, when Venezuela was in ever-deepening crisis, he remarked:
‘we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world … we recognise what they have achieved.’
Populism in general, and the left populisms of Chávez, Maduro and Corbyn in particular, are profound threats to any enduring and viable democracy. Using Chávez as a prime example. Kurt Weyland wrote:
‘Determined and politically compelled to boost their personal predominance, populist leaders strive to weaken constitutional checks and balances and to subordinate independent agencies to their will. They undermine institutional protections against the abuse of power and seek political hegemony. Correspondingly, populist leaders treat opponents not as adversaries in a fair and equal competition, but as profound threats. Branding rivals “enemies of the people,” they seek all means to defeat and marginalize them. Turning politics into a struggle of “us against them,” populists undermine pluralism and bend or trample institutional safeguards.’
“There’s no food”
The tragic example of Venezuela is a warning to us all. Like Corbyn, Chávez started with a fairly modest economic programme, closer to social democracy than Marxist orthodoxy. But to bolster his power, Chávez extended state control. Maduro further undermined freedom of speech and put opponents in jail.
Because of a populist mistrust of liberal, pluralist institutions, Venezuela is lurching toward despotism. Currently it retains some semblance of democracy, but press freedom is limited and critical journalists are jailed. Since 2004, ‘defamation’ of the government, including ‘disrespect for the authorities’, has been a criminal offence.
Supporters of Chávez and Maduro blame the hostility of the US for Venezuela’s distress, just as it was blamed for economic problems in Cuba after its 1959 revolution. US belligerence made things worse. But the major cause of economic stagnation in both places is the hobbling of the private sector, and the unchecked concentration of excessive political, legal and economic power in the hands of the overbearing state.
Populism must be Defeated
Although it is unlikely that either UKIP or Corbyn’s Labour will ever win power, they can do serious damage to public debate and the functioning of a parliamentary democracy. In particular, by neutering Labour as a parliamentary force, the UK is deprived of an effective opposition to the Tory government.
Consider the example of the EU referendum in June 2016. After the result, Corbyn took it for granted that Britain should leave the EU and immediately trigger Brexit, irrespective of the outcome of Britain’s negotiations on the terms of leaving. Like his fellow-populist Farage, Corbyn accepted that ‘the people had spoken’. For him, the expression of popular will was the end of the matter.
After the June 2016 vote to leave the EU, Britain is probably in its worse political crisis since the Second World War. It faces years of political and economic uncertainty, with no obvious resolution. In these circumstances, popular frustration and deprivation can feed populism. Left populism has its own dangers, and we know from history that left populists can shift to the right. In turn, right populism can feed fascism.
All populisms, including Corbynism, pose a serious threat to representative democracy. As Baggini put it:
‘Our tradition of representative democracy rests on a rejection of all three pillars of populism. It accepts that a well-run society needs specialists and full-time politicians whose judgments often carry more weight than those of voters who put them into power. It accepts that the “will of the people” is diverse and contradictory, and that the job of politics is to balance competing demands, not simply to obey them. It follows that there are few, if any, easy solutions and that anyone who promises them is a charlatan. Making the case for representative democracy therefore means telling the electorate it doesn’t always know best, a truism that populism has turned into an elitist heresy.’
Populists do not understand that political checks and balances, safeguarded by countervailing politico-economic power, are necessary to help protect democracy and liberty. With confidence in their ‘obvious’ solutions to complex problems, they treat criticism with disdain and close down reasonable discussion. All must ‘unite behind the leader’ who is revered for saving the masses from the enemy elite.
For these reasons Corbynism must be treated as a dangerous ideological threat to a liberal democracy, and not as an infantile, reversible outburst of ultra-leftism.
No-one has a feasible strategy to turn Labour back to its previous form. History offers no clear example of the internal undoing of populist fanaticism. It has always been defeated from outside. Labour is now irretrievable: there is no way of reversing the populist entrenchment within.
Corbyn’s Labour is a danger for the British political system as the Tories are for its economy and for its social fabric. Corbynism is a threat to liberal, pluralist democracy.