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Goodbye to the liberal era

How identity politics replaced class and the personal became political.

In October 1988 Marxism Today published its special issue on what it called “the New Times”. The Labour Party had been defeated and marginalised by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives and the monthly magazine’s editorial described the world after the first decade of the global liberal economic revolution. A new era was taking shape, driven by “flexibility, diversity, differentiation, mobility, communication, decentralisation and internationalisation”. The transition was transforming people’s identities and even their sense of self.

In a brilliant opening essay, Robin Murray argued that the British economy was entering a period of post-Fordism: the national capitalism of mechanised, standardised forms of mass production subject to scientific management was being transformed into a global, flexible, market-based system of services and niche production. John Urry, in “Disorganised Capitalism”, described globalisation as undermining the “coherence, wholeness and unity of individual ­societies”. At the heart of any transformatory project, wrote Rosalind Brunt, must be a politics of identity. Class was no longer the organising category of political, cultural and social life. New social movements around gender, sexuality, race and the environment were asserting their differences. Charles Leadbeater in his piece called for a “socialist individualism”.

New Times was a radical intervention that challenged conventional left thinking. It offered intellectual resources for the renewal of the Labour Party. But, in particular, New Times defined the world of the baby-boomer generation, which had come of age in the 1960s under conditions of growing and sustained affluence.

This generation constituted a “service class fraction” in the emerging information-oriented, post-Fordist economy. It was the first generation to break away from the confines of the industrial class system, but it did not inherit the traditional cultural authority of intellectuals. The proliferation and fragmentation of knowledge was such that roles were confined to narrow and specialised fields as interpreters and translators of information. Those who belonged to this class fraction were economically secure but politically subordinate to capital. They were workers but did not belong to the old labour interest. In the cities, they gravitated to the left and brought with them a new kind of politics.

Theirs was a revolt against the disciplines of industrial society. Imperatives of economic security gave way to post-materialist values and a liberation ethic of individual self-expression and anti-establishment sentiment. Normative values of gender, sexuality and family life were rejected as oppressive. Uprooted from the decaying patterns of industrial life, a generation embarked on an intellectual renascence of utopian and egalitarian countercultures. Identity politics replaced class and the personal became political. The boundaries between private and public life, the objective and the subjective, politics and morality, were blurred. These internationalised, liberationist cultures provided resources for new forms of capital accumulation and commodification. They have shaped the past four decades of Western culture and the liberal political class that is now passing out of power.

In 1988, New Times defined a politics for this generation and class fraction. A reliance on a revisionist Marxism influenced by critical theory and structuralism reduced individuals to concepts, structured by forces beyond their knowledge and control. Work, relationships, the life of family and friends were either deconstructed to expose their relations of power or were reduced to abstractions. Idealism replaced the slow and incremental business of politics. In these “New Times”, there were no “specific people living in specific places”.

The class fraction of “the New Times” grew considerably with the expansion of the professions and the public sector. Despite its considerable cultural influence, its socially liberal politics have not translated beyond its own specificity into the broader population. In 1964 Perry Anderson, the editor of New Left Review, had dismissed English intellectual life as “comprehensive, coagulated conservatism”. Together with Tom Nairn he established an influential view among the intellectual left that English modernity was no more than a combination of cultural philistinism and Benthamite utilitarianism. “The New Times” inherited this disdain for England, and so disconnected radical politics from its common culture. The left lost the capacity to contest the mainstream politics of national identity. With the decline of industrial collectivism, the influence of this class fraction grew in the Labour Party.

 

New Labour

In an essay in the October 1991 issue of Marxism Today, Tony Blair, then a member of the shadow front bench, set out a new agenda for Labour. He called for a socialism that redefined the relationship between society and the individual. New Times had provided important groundwork for New Labour’s revisionism, but it was forged out of the party’s humiliating defeat in 1983. Philip Gould, in his definitive account of the New Labour years, The Unfinished Revolution, wrote that the party “had declared political war on the values, instincts and ethics of the great majority of decent hard-working voters”. Gould wanted change. The country needed modernisation. He found inspiration in Bill Clinton’s New Democrats and the 1992 US presidential election campaign. “The Clinton experience,” he wrote, “was seminal for the Labour Party.”

New Labour’s progressive politics was learned from the Clinton government and its construction of a US-led, liberal market globalisation. Robert Reich, Clinton’s labour secretary, described progressive globalisation in his 1991 book, The Work of Nations. “There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will no longer be national economies. At least as we have come to understand that concept.”

The Clinton presidency prioritised an opening up of foreign markets spearheaded by the financial sector. Business took advantage of the deregulation of capital controls to become global organisations, shifting money, goods and production across borders in search of customers, low-waged workers and low-tax regimes. The capacity of sovereign democratic governments to govern their national territories and represent the interests of their citizens was undermined. Globalisation, privatisation and market-based reforms began to deinstitutionalise national economies. Public-service reform turned the organisational cultures of education, health care and welfare into quasi or proxy markets. Intangible outputs such as relationships of care, the processes of learning and provision of social security were incentivised and measured by proxies such as cost indicators and league tables, in order to judge their “value for money”.

The character of the nation state itself began to change. In his book The Shield of Achilles (2002), Philip Bobbitt identified a new trend towards a “market state”. The nation state had been responsible for groups and embodied the values of a national culture. Its economic arena was the workplace or factory. Men and women were producers. In contrast, the market state enhanced the opportunities of individuals, and promoted economic efficiency and choice. Its economic arena is the marketplace. Men and women are consumers.

Britain’s liberal-market revolution and the deinstitutionalisation of national forms of organisation provided fresh impetus for the integration of the European Union. The Single European Act 1986 created a European Union with a single market, “in which the free movement of goods, peoples, services, and capital is assured”. Barriers to trade, including public contracts, state aid, financial regulation and “discriminating standards” were then steadily dismantled to create a single free market. In February 1992 the Maastricht Treaty formally tied the single market to economic and monetary union, with a future single currency – the euro – and a social chapter. Britain opted out of both and so set itself on a divergent path from its European partners.

In 2004 ten more countries, eight of them from the old Eastern Bloc, joined the EU. By then, popular anger at high levels of immigration, from both outside and within the EU, was adding to anxieties about rising levels of personal debt, stagnating wages and economic insecurity. The Labour government, unlike that of most other EU countries, decided against transitional controls preventing people from the new states working in Britain. It calculated that levels of immigration from these countries would be negligible. They weren’t. Between 1997 and 2010 net immigration quadrupled, boosting the UK’s population by more than two million. Immigration grew and it came to define British politics for a decade and more. New Labour’s pro-EU politics of deregulated employment markets and free movement of labour was, I think, the undoing of progressive politics and set the political conditions for the Brexit vote in 2016.

Change as both a virtue and an unstoppable force lay at the heart of New Labour’s progressive politics. The socialist individual of New Times had become the restless entrepreneur of New Labour. Philip Gould had echoed Robert Reich in defining the 21st century as an age of “permanent revolution”. By 2005, Tony Blair was celebrating the dynamism of rapid globalisation: “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”

For New Labour, it seemed, things could only get better.

 

The vote for Brexit

In 1988 New Times was prescient in describing a new global capitalism that was transforming the institutions and industries of national economies. New Labour embraced this. Yet for millions of the working and middle classes the combination of economic and social liberalism ultimately created stagnant wages, moral uncertainty and a threat to their social identity. Progressive politics was partial in recognising these new grievances. To favour one’s own kind over foreign nationals was seen as racist and xenophobic. To want borders that control the free flow of goods and labour to safeguard one’s job and way of life was both morally wrong and economically inefficient. A love of one’s own home town and country, and a desire to give priority to their wealth and security, was misguided. The sovereignty of a nation was a misnomer.

The politics and attitudes espoused by liberal globalists have provoked the very things they most dislike. Conflicts around inequality and the labour interest are now being played out through nationalism and identity rather than class. People need secure and confident social identities in order to stand up for themselves and challenge powerful interests. It is the populist right not the progressive left that speaks for those who feel dispossessed. In the conflicts between global capitalism and national democracy, it is the populist right, not the progressive left, that is winning the arguments between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, national sovereignty and global governance, and particularism and universalism.

Progressive politics, with its ­ahistorical moral relativism and its lack of cultural rootedness, embraced a borderless globalisation, and so helped to disarm society’s defences against commodification. Its left-wing variant continues to thrive in the globally focused cultures of the metropolitan cities and among the class fraction that created the original optimism of “the New Times”. However, younger generations of this class have not escaped a second wave of globalisation that is shifting high-skilled, high-value work to low-cost countries. Immigration and the huge global increase in numbers of graduates have created a global competition for talent.

The younger middle class no longer has economic and housing security. It lacks ­opportunities for job satisfaction in the interpersonal services, knowledge and cultural industries. The search for higher productivity has led management to impose greater standardisation and control, with the subsequent loss of professional auton­omy and discretion. This power struggle within the middle classes has created a new political radicalism expressed in support for Jeremy Corbyn, but Corbynism has ­minority appeal.

Yet the conditions exist for a broad electoral coalition organised around the labour interest in the cause of family, work and the places people belong. What is absent is a ­political leadership capable of bringing together its diverse range of occupations, classes and age groups. The future of British politics is Brexit. In 1940 Winston Churchill won against the appeasers because Clement Attlee supported his war ministry. Attlee understood that the labour interest and the national interest were indivisible. This insight and Labour’s contribution to the war effort ensured the party’s historic victory in 1945.

Labour has to accept that the country is leaving the European Union and stand for the labour interest in the restoration of a self-governing, trading nation. It has three objectives: to restore British sovereignty and control of our borders and law-making; to spread political and economic power to people wherever they live through the constitutional and political reform of the Union and its governance; and to reform the economy in the interests of the middling majority. By defining a new democratic sovereignty and putting the labour interest at its heart, Labour can build its new electoral coalition. That is its patriotic duty. The alternative is perpetual defeat.

Jonathan Rutherford is a writer and former academic

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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