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19 June 2006

Where idealism and pragmatism meet

Time was when Tony Blair espoused radical causes. Neal Lawson says utopianism is alive and well

By Neal Lawson

“There is no alternative” – Thatcher’s bastard daughter Tina has kept the left on its knees for a quarter-century by enshrining the principle that you can’t buck the market. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair said as much when they agreed, “It’s the economy stupid.” In truth the forward march of labour, halted in the 1970s, had been slowing for a while, sustained only by the myth that if you elected enough Labour governments they would usher in socialism.

Knowing that markets aren’t natural but have to be created, the neoliberals have made their world. They started in the late 1960s with such “wild” ideas as privatisation, and in a decade moved from the margins to capture power in the US and Britain. For Thatcher, “economics was the means; the goal was to change the soul”. She knew people had to be made to embrace the market, so she built institutions that put competition before co-operation.

New Labour could have been an opportunity to start to affirm the rule of democracy over the economy. It wasn’t to be. With new Labour what you see around you is as good as it gets; a public sector more like the high street, being tougher on crime, an even more flexible economy, and more money to buy things we don’t need. It’s better than Thatcherism but not enough to sustain a party, let alone a movement.

New Labour turned out to be neither new enough nor Labour enough to allow us to change our world. We still live in a world beyond our control, seeking individual solutions to the problems society creates.

Utopia today is about escapism – to downsize, go abroad, do drugs or shop till we drop. And yet, amid the frustration with new Labour, a new democratic left is taking shape. It combines the hard-headed realism of many ex-new Labour modernisers with the more idealistic politics of intellectuals rightly suspicious of Labourism. On 17 June more than a thousand people will gather to debate a manifesto for the left that embodies the notion of a utopian realism.

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Utopianism has been given a bad name: fanciful and irrational, or loaded with the threat of authoritarianism. Both charges are valid, yet the starting place for a thriving left politics is the belief not just in a better world but a different world. The Brazilian theorist Roberto Unger tells us that “to be a realist you must first be a visionary”.

To be pragmatists, we must know what we’re being pragmatic about. The essence of a new utopian realism is the belief that society comes before economy. A better world cannot take root in the thin soil of neoliberalism. Markets must be bossed. It is a lesson learned in Sweden, a country that combines global competitiveness with greater equality. We must have the confidence to settle not for a minimum wage but to win a living wage.

This new-left utopianism is rooted in autonomous citizens – free to create their world together because they are more equal. It is not a grand design, but the activity of democratic collective decision-making, which is the left’s utopia. This demands a strong public realm protected from the market and a thriving civil society alongside a state that is accountable to the people.

We are healthier and live longer than ever; we have access to incredible technology; we understand the human mind, nature and science as never before. And yet we have never felt less able to manage our world.

We live in a utopia – just not ours. It is the utopia of the neoliberals and the free markets. We live in the utopia of others’ dreams because we have none ourselves. Hayek said: “The main lesson the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and thereby an influence on public opinion.”

Neal Lawson

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass. The NS is sponsoring the Compass conference The Shape of Things to Come on Saturday 17 June. Bookings can still be made on 020 7463 0633

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