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Labour’s betrayal of society

The dominant legacy of the left is state authoritarianism and private libertarianism

Some electoral defeats are merely episodic; others are epochal. The defeat of New Labour in the spring of next year will be both. The coming rout is a function of natural intellectual exhaustion and unprecedented external revulsion. The diagnoses of the party's condition are manifold. The most sanguine speak of a nervous breakdown, with dysfunction and incompetence stemming from inertia, and paranoia at the very top. More extreme theorists locate the present disaster in longer-term betrayals - they speak of a historic and fatal pact with capitalism, of an acceptance of Thatcherism and a consequent and persistent failure to address the core issues and needs of the labour movement.

Neither position truly grasps the crisis: the former suggests that a change in prime minister will be enough to deliver renewal; the latter that a back-to-basics strategy will secure the core vote and also, inexplicably, deliver mass support. If these views constitute the opposite poles, and therefore range, of contemporary left analysis, then many of the opinions in between offer little comfort or succour, either. In short, the Labour Party does not know why it is failing, and so has no idea what to do to arrest the decline or where to turn to avoid the disaster.

In truth, the source of Labour's difficulties goes back much further, and is far deeper and more problematic than is commonly supposed. Put simply, the Labour Party is being rejected by society because it has repudiated and vilified the very structure and basis of society itself. At first sight, this sounds a ridiculous claim; after all, isn't socialism about society? Isn't the essence of the left all about creating collective structures so that individuals, regardless of their circumstances, can succeed and prosper?

Well, no - because the post-1945 British left can think of nothing but collectivism, and the post-1968 "new left" only of individualism. Neither left position seems able to think coherently about society. The statist left thinks of society as a collective uniformity underpinned by universal provision, while the '68-ers think that society is the realm where each unconstrained individual or group pursues subjective interests of its own, untroubled by any objective concern, value or need. So, for the different strands of the left, we are either all the same or we are all alone. By contrast, a proper society is relational; individuality and community emerge together in a group identity that creates both communal and individual identity. A proper society is the kind that reaches beyond itself to recognise the claims and needs of others. Crucially, a society is itself a group identity of all the diversity it includes. A society moves beyond sectional and self-interest when a common good binds all difference into a shared identity.

But the dominant legacy of the left is not this commonwealth of shared interests and hierarchical association: it is what is most destructive of society, state authoritarianism and private libertarianism. It is a condition and a philosophy most elegantly and perfectly attained by New Labour and all its acolytes and advocates.

How can this be? Why and how is the political philosophy that is most evidently social, and claims all righteousness and power as a result in fact so asocial and unilateral? The answer is that, for the most part, socialism is founded on liberalism and liberalism is founded on a hatred of society. Modern liberalism begins with Rousseau and Rousseau begins with the idea that our emergence into society constitutes our original imprisonment: "Man is born free but he is everywhere in chains." Society so conceived is fundamentally sinister because it compels man to inauthenticity. As such, the task of an individual in a society is to construe a settlement that protects individual will and insulates its subjective desires from the corrupting influence of others. Society for a liberal is valid only if it is composed of others exactly like himself. Rousseau invents the "general will" through which the individual, in obeying others, is obeying only himself because all have become the same.

But this autonomy can be protected only if others do not violate its bounds; and this is a role that can be played by the state only. The state then becomes the great policer and equaliser of humanity, and through the general will it must reconcile each individual with every other. As such, the state must strip society and people of all differential ties, beliefs and values in order to ensure equality and fairness; naked and denuded we now stand equal and alone before the state as the ultimate guarantor of our freedom.

Thus does modern liberalism underwrite all the great totalitarianisms of our age, from the terror of revolutionary France to the Cultural Revolution of Mao in China.

A rampant individualism demands a community exactly like itself. This repressive lineage passes directly into the left through Marx, and after Marx the left became both statist and individualist - a disastrous dialectic that has progressively and aggressively erased culture, custom, difference and ultimately society itself. "Socialism" so conceived is indeed the enemy of society; it despises the world as it is and seeks instead to eradicate differential values and tradition, in the mistaken belief that we must all be the same if we are to be free.

The Labour Party, if it is to recover from inevitable defeat, must restore its earlier traditions and once more become communal and civic, relational and intermediate. It is only when we embrace the common good that we can escape the leftist oscillation between collective oppression and autonomous self-interest that has robbed Britain of so much of its binding culture and moral framework.

Phillip Blond is a philosopher and director of the think tank ResPublica

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter