Faith, flag, family, socialism?
‘Blue Labour’ is the latest fad to enrapture the leadership of the Labour Party. James Turley probes into its appeal for ‘Red’ Ed (first published in the Weekly Worker)
Edited by Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White, the e-book The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox (2011) is introduced by Ed Miliband no less and contains contributions by “intellectuals and politicians” ranging across Labour’s “spectrum”.
Apart from its editors, they include soft-left doyen John Cruddas, Blairite lickspittle James Purnell, Lawrence and Wishart’s director, Sally Davison, MPs David Lammy, Hazel Blears and David Miliband, and the writers and academics Stefan Baskerville, Graeme Cooke, Ben Jackson, Duncan O’Leary and Jon Wilson. Not insignificantly, the book is published in association with the Christian Socialist Movement, Compass, Fabian Society, Progress and the journal Soundings. Together this motley crew have been called ‘Blue Labour’.
This new Big Idea (read: branding strategy) for the Labour Party will probably have gone more or less unnoticed outside the Westminster village and, more broadly, the politically conscious section of society. Indeed, I will argue that this is not strictly unjustified – while it appears as a particularly dangerous foe for proletarian socialism, it fits too neatly into the pattern of previous Big Ideas (remember Will Hutton’s ‘stakeholder society’, anyone?) to suggest that it will, in practice, pan out any differently from any of the post-Kinnock Labour right’s reactionary gimmicks.
Nonetheless, Blue Labour is not without interest for the far left – for two main reasons. Firstly, while Hutton’s thesis (and the ‘third way’ strategy of Anthony Giddens et al) were fundamentally based on the idea that the class struggle was exhausted and, therefore, socialism was dead, Maurice Glasman and his colleagues base their arguments on a certain reading of labour movement history, which fundamentally accepts its continuity to the present. Blue Labour has attracted most attention for being blue, but it is very keen to stress, in an anti-Blairite manner, that it is Labour (socialism is not a dirty word to Blue Labourites).
Secondly, there is the matter of a ‘warning from history’ – the manner in which Margaret Thatcher decimated support for the National Front (cutting it off, as they say, at the ankles) simply by adopting its chauvinist-populist rhetoric on immigration. The NF had tacked more closely than any previous fascist organisation to the policies of the Tory right wing, which left it vulnerable to just such a manoeuvre.
The far left, as it stands today, is similarly vulnerable to Blue Labour, because in tacking ever closer to banal left Labourism on the basis that the Labour Party has abrogated its position on that ground, it is apt to be swept away if Ed Miliband finds a way to re-occupy the territory his predecessors abandoned, which he no doubt will. Of course, at this time not much remains to sweep away; but another decade in the wilderness will do the left no favours.
So what is Blue Labour? The recently elevated Maurice Glasman, a reader in political theory at London Met University and the moving spirit behind the phenomenon, poses it this way: “The Labour tradition is far richer than its recent form of economic utilitarianism and political liberalism would suggest. Labour is a unique and paradoxical tradition that strengthens liberty and democracy, that combines faith and citizenship, patriotism and internationalism and is, at its best, radical and conservative” (The Observer April 24).
How does the canny political strategy overcome this paradox? Fundamentally, by recasting the phenomenon of working class organisation as a “small ‘c’ conservative” reaction by historically constituted communities against the abstract cosmopolitanism of capital: “Blue Labour reminds the party that only democratic association can resist the power of capital and that the distinctive practices of the Labour movement are built upon reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.”
I say the ‘abstract cosmopolitanism of capital’, but for Glasman the enemy is finance capital specifically. Finance capital is the object of a mangled Marxist critique, for turning “human beings and nature into commodities”. The distorted Marxism even extends to the implicit association of financialisation with ‘progress’ – thus, working class resistance to (finance) capital is cast as a perverse variant of what Marx called ‘feudal socialism’, or a resistance against bourgeois society in the name of a more authentic pre-modern form of sociality.
The more sinister consequence of this dual identification (capitalism = progress; anti-capitalism = reaction) is that other forms of reaction can sneak in through the back door. Religious faith becomes, equally, a site of resistance to universal commodification. Of course, Glasman is pretty vague when it comes to the political consequences of his theory.
Where he does veer onto the territory of substantial politics, it really may as well be a Blairite talking, with a characteristic recommendation for “a strong agenda for both regulating finance and generating regional private sector growth”. To Blair himself, Glasman attributes a “political alchemy … between tradition and modernity. The problem was that his conception of tradition was superficial and his concept of modernisation verging on the demented: a conception of globalisation understood entirely on the terms set by finance capital.”
And the problem with this critique is that it equally applies to Blue Labour. Glasman and co may not advocate finance capital’s vision of globalisation, but by posing against it the small-c conservatism of the working class, they no less wholly identify it with modernisation and modernity.
They do not seek to eradicate entirely the history of the workers’ movement, as did Blair and Mandelson; yet their understanding of its history remains superficial. Blue Labour is unable to conceive of the working class as anything other than reactive; association to win democratic rights is instrumental in resisting capitalist progress, rather than in building a politics which will challenge it from the point of view of a putative future, where it has been overcome. Such elements, certainly, abound in the history of the British workers’ movement; yet so do authentic radicals, from the left Chartists to the Communist Party. Even the Fabians were intoxicated with ‘modern society’ and its increasingly rational organisation.
So Glasman’s inability to provide a coherent sense of the progressive outside of the depredations of finance capital ultimately leads him to forget that working class politics has always been a site of intense struggle and thus posit a prelapsarian moment, where the labour movement was an organically constituted community, united against a basically exterior opponent in the bourgeoisie – or rather finance capital.
By retreading this view of history, Glasman – despite his no doubt impeccable liberal credentials – aligns himself with some pretty dubious individuals. The separation of finance capital – cosmopolitan, indifferent to the realities of human existence – from productive capital is ultimately an inheritance from anti-Semitic literature. It should be noted that for the anti-Semites it was consistent with the dismissal of more radical traditions in the workers’ movement and the plebs more generally. It could then be renounced as the machinations of the Jew, whose cosmopolitan modernism could appear as a perversion of the basic organic unity of the nation. As a progressive-minded individual – and moreover a Jew himself – Glasman can only be silent on the matter.
Glasman talks a lot about immigration without saying very much, although he touts his experience working on the London living wage campaign, which taught him the necessity of integrating illegal immigrants into society at large. Then again, he is writing in The Observer. It is not difficult to follow his logic about organically constituted communities to an ethnic purism, even if he himself refuses to do so; the same goes for his cryptic comments about re-engaging with the English Defence League’s support base.
It may seem a little unfair to put words in Glasman’s mouth, but in the end he is engaged in a balancing act worthy of a Giddens or Blair, and his text is, again, extremely slender when it comes to substantial politics. If we want to know how his work is likely to pan out when applied to concrete politics, we have to read between the lines, and also have a clearer sense of the present state of the Labour right – and, indeed, the functioning of contemporary bourgeois politics – than Glasman has himself.
So Glasman makes great play out of the issue of immigration, and argues that it is a matter of considerable importance that migrants are integrated into the wider community. With this no socialist or communist would wish to disagree. By the time it gets out the other end of the Labour electoral machine, however, we know how it will look: immigrants are undermining the nation, so there should be less of them and they should know their place; ‘multiculturalism’ has failed and so immigrants must be cajoled into adopting British chauvinist ideology before they can truly be considered integrated.
Likewise, the curvets towards localism, as opposed to state paternalism, do hit on a real defect of post-war capitalism, whereby the welfare state appeared as a great, bureaucratic monster, unresponsive to the conditions in the communities it is supposed to serve. At a time of mass cuts in state expenditure, however, this critique will merely serve as a cover for attacks on living standards, broadly cognate to Cameron’s ‘big society’. In other words, Blue Labour – whatever the intentions of its advocates – is most likely to end up as yet another alibi for yet another permutation of rightwing Labourism.
In this sense, the dark murmurings on the left – piqued by Glasman’s overtures to EDL supporters – about the fascistic undercurrent to Blue Labour are partially misguided. Those things that Blue Labour has in common with fascism – fake-left criticisms of capital, especially finance capital; organicist and chauvinist ideology; advocacy of corporatist class-collaboration – are all things that are perfectly typical of Labourism as well; they are the common heritage of the epoch which gave birth to both. (Gimmicks such as this, and the tendency for great gulfs to open up between their existence on paper and in social reality, are another common feature.)
The left in Britain has disarmed itself in front of this kind of rhetoric, alas. Miliband’s much trumpeted interest in Glasman’s ramblings might be utterly self-serving, but it responds to something real – the disjunction between the more transparent sociality of people’s daily lives and the impersonal, mechanical forces of the state and the market that operate in apparent indifference to them.
Glasman and Miliband draw reactionary political conclusions from this. The left, however, barely acknowledges it at all. There are those who all but openly advocate welfare-state Keynesianism as a stepping stone to socialism – the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, for example. There are those who advocate it as a compromise with their favoured union tops – the Socialist Party in England and Wales. There are those who advocate it out of what amounts to a variant of Glasman’s idea that the working class is conservative: ie, that workers care about what affects them right here and right now, and our job is to get them fighting rather than to persuade them of a grander vision – the Socialist Workers Party.
In the first place, these strategies all implicitly defend the status quo ante 1979, with all its problems. In the second, the necessary corollary of statist reformism – nationalism and its attendant maladies – is simply denied. What stops the SWP from making concessions to racist workers, or more broadly workers opposed to immigration? Ultimately, it is a moral reflex, coupled with a denial that racist or chauvinist ideology has any real grip over any section of the class. The truth is that, as far as its public face goes, the SWP does not advance a critique of the state; without that, its defence of the welfare state and of multiculturalism (however qualified) is trapped in the same problematic as Glasman’s attacks on the same.
Blue Labour is a pernicious ideology which needs to be combated – in the Labour Party and outside it. Yet we cannot do this simply by unmasking it as yet another variant of Blairism, true though that is. We need to distinguish ourselves as Marxists from Labourites, and present a clear vision of an alternative society. This is no short cut to mass popularity; but then no such short cut exists. The increasingly farcical phenomenon of Marxists pretending to be Labourites, in ever decreasing circles, is adequate testament to this basic fact.
It is time for the revolutionary left to give Maurice Glasman a lesson in that part of workers’ movement history he chooses to ignore – the part which looked not to a mythical past, but to a better, communist, future.