Fingers on buzzwords

The election campaign hasn’t been all surface effects. There’s been a bit of philosophy at times, to

Modern politicians often sound as if they are speaking the same desiccated, drearily technocratic language. That has been true for much of this campaign, but, for all that, there have been some conceptual and rhetorical innovations, and even phrases that appear to be the freshly minted coinage of spin doctors and campaign managers turn out to be made of older metal than we might have expected.

The big society

David Cameron's big idea of the campaign is the "big society". This was launched with some fanfare at the end of March at an event in London, and made it into the Conservative manifesto. Three weeks later, it was being buried by Cameron's colleagues, one of whom said, "We need to turn Oliver Letwin's Hegelian dialectic into voter-friendly stuff." (Letwin, chairman of the Conservative Research Department, has a PhD in philosophy.)
That shadow minister meant to dismiss the idea, but in doing so he revealed a finer appre­ciation of the philosophical antecedents of the "big society" than he might have wanted to admit to. For what Hegel called, in his Philosophy of Right, "civil society" - the stage "which intervenes between the family and the state" - looks very much like the network of voluntary organisations to which the Tories propose to "redistribute power" as they seek to weaken the power of Labour's big state.

Little platoons

There's no reference to Hegel in the Tory manifesto, but there is an allusion to one of the founding fathers of conservative thought, Edmund Burke. The "institutional building blocks of the Big Society", the document reads, "[are] the 'little platoons' of civil society".

“Little platoons" is a phrase that occurs in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the classic expression of conservative scepticism about large-scale attempts to transform society in the image of abstract ideals. The Tories today use it to refer to the local associations that would go to form a "broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation".

The problem is that, for Burke, little platoons weren't groups that you volunteer to join; they were the "social subdivisions" into which you are born - the kind of traditionalism you would have thought Cameron's rebranded "progressive" Conservatives would want to avoid.


The Conservatives have promised to create an army of "community organisers", an idea with a somewhat less predictable ancestry: it derives from Saul Alinsky, denounced by the ultra-conservative commentator Melanie Phillips as an "extreme" leftist. Alinsky was a formative influence on Barack Obama.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are as enthusiastic as the Conservatives about "communities". In a pamphlet published by the Fabian Society on 26 April, entitled Why the Right Is Wrong, Gordon Brown wrote that "liberty entails . . . engagement in the community, not shutting oneself off in a totally private sphere", a formulation whose debt to the Edwardian "New Liberalism" of L T Hobhouse and J A Hobson Nick Clegg would have recognised.

The communitarian inflection to much of Labour's rhetoric is a reminder, too, of the influence that the German-American social theorist Amitai Etzioni briefly enjoyed in the mid-1990s over Tony Blair.


Etzioni's influence is also evident in the new version of Clause Four of Labour's constitution that Tony Blair imposed on the party in 1995, asserting that "the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe". Echoes of Etzioni's idea that "for the ship of state to progress everyone must pull the oars" can be detected in the emphasis that all three party leaders place on "fairness".

Clegg has described fairness as an "essential British value", while Cameron has frequently appealed to notions of "fair play" when invoking ordinary voters who "abide by the rules" and "do the right thing". Brown, in his Fabian pamphlet, also mentions the notion of justice-as-fairness propounded by the great American political philosopher John Rawls.

Rawls thought that the best way to work out what a just society would look like was to imagine a situation he called the "original position", in which people are ignorant of their circumstances and natural or biological endowments. If people don't know how gifted they are or what their social position is, then the distributive arrangements they settle upon won't be distorted in favour of those blessed with advantages that they didn't earn.


For Rawls, justice entails equality. Each of the three main parties' manifestos mentions the need to promote equality (for Labour, it is a "public duty") or the desirability of reducing inequality (the Lib Dems say that a fair tax system should "redistribute wealth and power to alleviate [its] worst excesses").

Most politicians talk about the need for greater "equality of opportunity", but only Brown has come close to acknowledging that Rawlsian justice requires a conception of equality rather more demanding than pallidly meritocratic bromides about "progressive ends" would suggest. "Equality of opportunity is desirable," he writes, "but it is only fully possible if we embrace fairness of outcome, too."

This may be an acknowledgement of Rawls's point that inequalities of income and wealth reflecting differences of talent or ability cannot be justified. In other words, just because you are more talented than I am, that doesn't mean you deserve greater rewards.


Cameron has said many times that reducing inequality is one of the aims of "progressive Conservatism". He and his party remain committed, at least if their manifesto is anything to go by, to meeting the "progressive challenges of our age: making opportunity more equal [and] fighting poverty and inequality". Yet it is not immediately obvious how the Cameroons propose to square their idea of "progressivism" with their professed Burkean conservatism - at least if they are using the language of progress in any but the most banally general sense. (Naturally, it is possible that this is exactly the sense in which they are using it. However, let's apply what philosophers call the "principle of charity" and take what they say as seriously as we can.)

The problem is that since the Enlightenment genuine progressives - Marx, for instance; or social democrats such as Anthony Crosland, who assumed that Keynes had solved the problem of mass unemployment once and for all - have regarded progress as an effect of historical necessity and the clunking fist of the central state as its enabler. But today's Tories profess to believe that the role of the state is not to be the embodiment of history with a capital H, but rather to act as a stimulus to "social action" in neighbourhoods and "communities".

Redistribution of power

So talk of "progress" sits rather uneasily with the anti-statist rhetoric of the "big society" and Tory calls for the devolution of power to the "little platoons" - or, at least, to "individuals, families and neighbourhoods".

The Lib Dems have spoken a similar language; their manifesto says that a "failure to distribute power fairly between people" is at the root of
the problems Britain faces today. This is an impeccably Liberal thought, because it derives from the greatest liberal philosopher of them all, John Stuart Mill.

In his masterpiece, On Liberty, Mill wrote that one of the besetting "evils" of politics is "adding unnecessarily" to the power of government. For that reason, he recommended that the state function primarily as the "central depository" and enabler of "municipal corporations and local boards", "individuals and voluntary associations".


There is something of Mill in the enthusiasm displayed by all three parties for mutuals - organisations, whether public-service providers or private firms, which are owned by their employees. Labour's commitment to reorganising public services using mutuals is a reminder
of an underappreciated strand in the party's tradition: the "guild socialism" of G D H Cole, which took the depredations of unaccountable power as seriously as it did the injustices of capitalism.

The "contract with the voters" that Cameron launched in the last week of the campaign attempts to speak a similar language of "accountability", while the Tory manifesto says that the employee-led co-operatives that public-sector workers will be encouraged to form will result in the "most significant shift in power from the state to working people since the sale of council houses in the 1980s".

The echo in that phrase of Labour's avowedly "socialist" manifesto for the 1974 general election, which promised to bring about a "fun­damental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families", was, one assumes, unintentional.

Broken society

If Cameron's contract requires greater "accountability" on the part of the state, it also demands much of the electorate - that it work with the government to repair the "broken society". Poverty, family breakdown and welfare dependency are all symptoms of brokenness in the Tories' diagnosis of our predicament.

The principal influence on this strand of Conservative rhetoric has been the work of the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith and his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, which has sought to restore the kind of One-Nation Toryism that was suffocated by Thatcherism (minus a recognition, it ought to be said, that the original One-Nation Tory, Benjamin Disraeli, understood that the state had a significant role to play in repairing the fractures and fissures of industrial society).

There are echoes here, too, of Jacques Chirac's successful 1995 campaign for the French presidency, in which he promised to heal "la fracture sociale". No doubt the unreconstructedly Euro­sceptic Tories would want to keep that particular affinity quiet.

The great ignored

On the first day of the campaign, Cameron addressed a portion of the population he called the "great ignored" - "the people who grow our food, police our streets, pay their taxes and obey the law". We didn't hear much about the "great ignored" later in the campaign, possibly because the allusion that most commentators, if not voters, picked up was not to John F Ken­nedy (Cameron had shamelessly channelled Kennedy when he said, "Ask not what your government can do for you. Ask what we can do to make our country better"), but to the man JFK defeated in 1960, Richard Nixon.

In 1969, once he had finally made it into the White House, and at the height of the campus rebellion against the Vietnam war, Nixon appealed to the "silent majority of [his] fellow Americans" who weren't protesting, and who remained unembarrassed by their patriotism and conviction of "national destiny".

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror