Two new books explore “the common good”, an alternative politics for a divided age

Adrian Pabst’s The Demons of Liberal Democracy and David Selbourne’s The Free Society in Crisis occupy a communitarian terrain, neither wholly of the left nor the right.

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Globalisation’s forward march was once assumed to be unstoppable. The world would ceaselessly become more politically, economically and culturally integrated. In his 2005 Labour Party conference speech, Tony Blair declared: “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”

When asked in 2007 which US presidential candidate he was supporting in the forthcoming election, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chair, remarked: “We are fortunate that, thanks to globalisation, policy decisions in the US have been largely replaced by global market forces. National security aside, it hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces.” Politics, it was thought, had been reduced to an exercise in technocratic management.

Yet this proved to be a false dawn (in the title of John Gray’s prescient 1998 book). Globalisation has not been reversed, as some suggest, but it has stalled. Its imperial phase – breathless talk of the end of history and nation states – is unambiguously over.

Political space has opened up for long-dormant ideologies and traditions. Socialism, a word almost excised from the pre-2008 lexicon, is championed anew by baby-boomer politicians and millennial activists. But another group of thinkers, neither wholly of the left nor the right, has promoted an alternative politics of “the common good”.

Adrian Pabst’s The Demons of Liberal Democracy and David Selbourne’s The Free Society in Crisis occupy this communitarian terrain. They revere neither the state nor the market, but the institutions that lie between: family networks, friendly societies, co-operatives, religious organisations and charitable bodies.

Blue Labour and the Red Tories – the movement’s political wings – are sometimes defined by the triptych “faith, flag and family”. But their intellectual roots are richer than this populist slogan suggests: a fusion of Aristotelian virtue ethics, Burkean conservatism and ethical socialism (Karl Polanyi, RH Tawney and GDH Cole).

Pabst, a New Statesman contributing writer and head of the school of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, writes with undisguised contempt of the “moral bankruptcy afflicting Western capitalism”. The demons haunting liberal democracy (“oligarchy, demagogy, anarchy”) are, he suggests, not a quirk or an accident of history but the inevitable result of a doctrinaire ideology which reduces people and nature “to commodities circulating in an unmediated space”.

In France – the country that invented left and right in 1789 – the supposed new political divide is seen in its purest form: the globalist Emmanuel Macron against the nationalist Marine Le Pen. But Pabst writes persuasively of why this binary division is a symptom of liberalism’s woes, not a solution. “Liberals and their opponents erode democracy in ways that are mutually reinforcing,” he notes. Confronted by the rhetorical fusillades between Macron and Le Pen, Remainers and Leavers, Trumpians and liberals, one is reminded of comic-book superheroes and villains tacitly dependent on each other.

Pabst moves fluidly from theory to policy, proposing the break-up of tech monopolies (exemplified by Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram), the imposition of limits on ownership concentration and the creation of a universal basic dividend (UBD) funded through fines on predatory companies and reduced tax avoidance. But potentially transformative alternatives, such as the full reclassification of tech platforms as public utilities and support for mutually owned competitors (as pioneered by Spain’s Mondragon Corporation), are underexplored.

Rather than merely challenging liberalism in the economic sphere, Pabst extends his critique to the cultural and social sphere, warning of “those for whom global free trade, mass immigration and the priority of minority values over declining majorities” have meant “greater economic hardship and unnerving cultural compromises”. But critical questions, such as whether free movement should be ended – and at what cost – are unanswered. As the Brexit debate has demonstrated, it is easier to speak of reducing immigration in the abstract than actively to bar immigrants.

In The Free Society in Crisis, Selbourne, a former politics tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, and a vigorous and courageous heterodox commentator, offers a still more impassioned indictment of liberalism. The sins of the free market are incarnated in the figure of “Madam Bubble” (from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress) “wear[ing] a great purse by her side” and “fingering her money as if that was her heart’s delight”.

In an age in which Thatcherism remains hegemonic on the right, Selbourne’s work is a salutary reminder that conservatism has no inevitable association with the free market. He laments the replacement of citizens by “customers or consumers”, the “self-harm” of income inequality, the mass sell-off of social housing, and the reckless privatisation of the railways and Royal Mail.

But one need not be a Panglossian Pinkerite to question Selbourne’s assertion that “suicidal Western democracies” are facing “disintegration” owing to a “moral free-for-all”. Liberal reforms such as full equality for lesbian and gay couples, which Selbourne writes of with scepticism, have been absorbed with far greater ease than many social conservatives anticipated.

In 2005, Selbourne published The Losing Battle with Islam, a struggle that he now concludes is close to being lost (“democracy’s political and military class is at a loss in the face of Islam’s challenge”). Yet it is not Islam, however malign its worst adherents, but climate change that represents the gravest existential threat to Western societies. And far from narcissistically maximising their individual rights, Generation Z, those aged between 16 and 22, are reviving the original Burkean mission of preserving the Earth for future generations.

What of the future for Blue Labour and Red Tories? Pabst and Selbourne write with realism of their tribes’ political marginalisation. Labour’s left-liberals disdain their social conservatism, the Conservatives’ right-liberals their economic interventionism. Theresa May’s “sub-socialist gestures”, Selbourne sardonically observes, were “no match” for decades of “market-driven thought and policy”. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is just a single-issue corporate entity, rather than the “red Ukip” that some yearn for. The UK’s most politically homeless voters, then, are not liberal centrists – now wooed by a cornucopia of parties – but left conservatives. 

The Demons of Liberal Democracy
Adrian Pabst
Polity Press, 160pp, £14.99

The Free Society in Crisis
David Selbourne
Prometheus Books, 288pp, £19.99

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special