07 April 2011

I got the socialist blues

Left to right: Dr Michael Sandel, the Rt Hon Maurice Glasman, Dr Wang Hui

I have recently been reading the Guild Socialist blog featuring two debating points of view on the phenomenon of ‘blue Labour’ – a school of thought led by the Rt Hon Maurice Glasman, Baron Glasman that borrows heavily from the guild-socialist tradition (GDH Cole via John Ruskin and William Morris) and the heterodox economic school of Karl Polanyi. A supportive if cautiously sceptical article by Matt Smith makes the point that Blue Labour offers at least in concept an alternative to the neoliberal, globalising and statist policies of Tony Blair’s New Labour. A couple of more critical articles by Andrew Coates are highly critical both of Blue Labour’s political positioning and of its localism.

I must admit to being, at least in concept, more supportive of blue Labour than either of these two perspectives. Perhaps it is, in part, a result of my having been in China. The centralist directives of the reform era have indeed eliminated a broad swath of poverty from rural China, but at the cost of destroying rural power in the interests of large developers. Central governments – democratic or authoritarian – are too often too deep in bed with moneyed interests which simply do not care about the welfare of ordinary people; unless they are regulated by tradition, they will run roughshod over everything common people value which the market does not.

I have remarked before on my historical position that the Cultural Revolution directly paved the way for the reform period; once all of the Buddhist monasteries, Daoist temples, churches and universities had been looted and their worshippers, professors and students driven out, they could all the more readily be renovated into museums or commercial office parks. The left having thus discredited itself, nothing would be able to stop the right from transferring greater and greater proportions of wealth upwards in the name of progress – and anyone wishing to retain older forms of land tenure for security (whether Mao-era collective or traditional commons) could be easily and conveniently dismissed as ‘backwards’ or ‘lazy’, while all the while an ever-increasing proportion of the rural population found itself all but forced off the land they had farmed, to try their luck as migrant labour with zero security. So while I can admire the work that China has done in reducing poverty, I can also note with a critical eye that they have yet a long way to go, and that they should listen once again to voices more concerned with distributive justice and actually building the 小康社会 (sustainable society) rather than those reaping the lion’s share of benefits from 经济发展 and 现代化 (‘economic development’ and ‘modernisation’); moreover, they should listen to those who do not necessarily believe that all countries must necessarily follow the development path of the West.

I must admit, too, to being influenced by the downright bizarre way that Chinese politics has begun to shape itself. On the one hand, the Chinese neoliberal right finds itself in the position of wanting to criticise the state on an ideological basis but supporting much of its reform mandate; on the other, the Chinese New Left is more favourable to the state in principle, but warns against all of the globalising, culturally-alienating and destabilising aspects of state-driven reform. I personally feel that the way the New Left is framing the debate is pretty much a political non-starter, even though several New Left thinkers (such as Wang Hui 汪晖) have a number of intriguing and even persuasive analyses. In one sense, Wang’s thought is brutally antediluvian (even Daoist!) in a way which appeals intrinsically to me – he critiques both post-Deng socialism and the newer forms of neoliberalism for misappropriating Chinese cultural categories for their own ideological ends, and ends up questioning even ‘modernisation’ as an appropriate category. In another sense, Wang is highly radical, attempting to articulate a distinctly Chinese alternative to the dualisms of Western modernity. (The careful reader should note that already I have done a disservice to the man’s brilliant writing by myself succumbing to this very sort of dualism!)

In the same way, I have come to believe that both Western thought and praxis are in crisis. Andrew’s essay on localism is a good place to start. Firstly, though I think there are good critiques to be made of Amitai Etzioni and Michael Sandel, I am not sure that his really hold water at all. Mr Coates is more than welcome to correct me if I am misreading his argument, but it seems to me that he is trying to recruit them into support of a project which fragments society into different ethnic-national and religious-cultural interest groups in perpetual conflict. On the contrary, Amitai Etzioni’s Communitarian Network has argued both that ethical and legal pluralism have limits, and that there is a legitimate place for national government; and Michael Sandel was busy punching holes (holes which thoughtful socialists and critical theorists ought to have been punching) in a liberal project of John Rawls which was at its root a justification for market capitalism and inequality!

Though I can certainly sympathise with Mr Coates’ desire to get away from a fragmenting pluralism and to embrace ‘democratic universal values’, he does not specify precisely what these values are, nor how they are to be imparted. As students of public policy have known for a long time since the collapse of the Lasswell school, democracy and universality are in a perpetual dialectic tension; this is the entire argumentative point of the very communitarians he dismisses! This stance also betrays a strong Eurocentrism, since in the Third World (at least in China, in Central Asia and in Latin America), the discourse on ‘democratic univeral values’ has already been coopted by neoliberal and neoconservative agents of a modernisation programme parallel to the capitalist West (running roughshod – often literally – over the interests of the working class, who are often embedded in and self-constructed out of traditional communities)!

There is also the existential irony inherent in this position, that the normative emptiness of ‘democratic universal values’ (as commonly interpreted) is often used as justification, or at least excuse, for the very pluralism Mr Coates rightly sees as destructive. Once one adopts the stance that both the formal and informal instruments of social action must be bent toward the radical empowerment of the working class, you have already made a normative, teleological social orientation, or ethos, indispensable! This ethos must encourage people to envision more than simply the fulfilment of a conspicuous-consumer lifestyle; it must encourage creativity and aggressive generosity. And this orientation is very, very difficult to build in an atomised and commitment-free capitalist modernity, except – well, from the ground up, through solidary associations, which brings us right back to the project of ‘blue socialism’. If one truly wants to get away from the ‘unreasoning prejudice’ of the bourgeois, this is where one begins.


  1. Thanks for continuing the debate, I think in principle Blue Labour may represents a potential ideological movement toward guild socialism and democratic workplaces.
    However, as the BBC Radio 6 programme explains the Labour Party is accustomed to rolling out fridge ideology to rally the parts of the working class and left, only to drop it once in power. The best intentions and promises are soon lost in neo-liberal state like the UK.
    I do agree that that we need to the learn to re-access values and find meaning in our live beyond consumerism. Naturally I also think worker democracy or 'solidary associations' is the route to bring people together and economic/systematic change.
    Yet without studying the routes of Blue Socialism it does seems to be tainted with Nationalism.

  2. Matt, thanks for dropping by my blog! Glad to hear from you.

    I agree that nationalism is highly problematic; one also sees this in the contradictory nature of current Chinese political discourse. Nationalism can all too easily be made to serve ethnic and class divisions and to defend an unequal status quo. One symptom of this is that anti-Japanese sentiment is much stronger among younger generations of Chinese than amongst the elder generation which actually experienced WWII; it is arguable that this is a wilful misdirection of the cultural angst many young Chinese feel growing up in a country where the space given to civic and solidary traditions is evaporating under encroachments by both market and state.

    So the 'faith, family, flag' slogan of blue Labour also worries me; I can understand them wanting to rekindle a civic spirit in the spirit of the Young Englanders, but I agree with you that it's all too easy to see how that could be co-opted into a powerless form of nationalism.

    I don't think Lord Glasman is likely to willingly serve as a Trojan horse for neoliberal policies; I'm not so certain of the Labour Party if it should choose to officially support the blue Labour project, however.