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.
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 appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage