The populist insurgency sweeping the West reveals a lack of moral purpose among the main political forces, and the absence of a majority politics that can overcome deepening divisions. At a time of economic and cultural insecurity, liberal elites continue to look remote and out of touch. More than a decade after the financial crash and in a global context of mass migration, the establishment has no convincing story to tell about who peoples and nations are, what unites them, and where they are going.
Insurgents have torn up the political rule book and even ejected former ruling parties from power, as has happened in Italy. Yet in office, populists are not so much transforming the dominant model as polarising politics and pitting “the people” against the establishment and immigrants – “us” against “them”.
Neither the establishment nor its challengers seem capable of building broad support by addressing popular grievances about economic injustice and social fragmentation. A key reason why they struggle to define a strategy for national renewal is their embrace of identity politics.
Identity politics focuses on the values of individuals or separate groups rather than on what people share as citizens, and what binds them together as members of national communities. By privileging difference over common bonds, it supplants a sense of belonging and shifts the character of politics in four ways: first, from contribution and sacrifice to a culture of victimhood; second, from building a common life to a politics of protest; third, from the struggles of representative democracy to direct action; and finally, from collective agency to narcissistic groupthink that is amplified by the echo chambers of social media.
The rise of identity politics marks the triumph of the 1960s motto that “the personal is the political”. Since then, both left and right have embraced variants of this approach. From the mid-1960s onwards the New Left took socialism in a doctrinaire direction that was abstract and soulless. It equated the purpose of the left not so much with the struggle for greater economic justice but primarily with cultural liberation. The socialists of the New Left preferred progress to tradition, identity to class and free choice to common endeavour.
During their time in office, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair both attempted to articulate an ethical vision, but their governments were much more committed to modernisation and liberalisation than to patriotism and the common good. Left politics became increasingly technocratic and transactional, focused on fiscal transfers and the extension of individual entitlements rather than national renewal around mutual obligations. The loss of an animating purpose explains in part why the left in Britain bequeathed economic crises in 1976 and 2008 that the right exploited to establish new political settlements.
Starting in the early 1980s, the New Right combined libertarian economics with a corporate capture of the state. This had the effect of aligning conservatism with borderless capitalism, and with individual freedom largely devoid of reciprocal duties. An unholy alliance of fundamentalist faith with an aggressive consumer culture trumped the historic commitment to citizenship. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher spoke the language of morality and hope, but their politics promoted a rampant individualism. More recently, George W Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and David Cameron’s vision of the “big society” failed to tame market fundamentalism or rebuild civic ties.
Since then, the political contest across the West has descended into culture wars, fuelling the tribalism on which the liberal elites and the insurgents are now thriving. Each side legitimates itself by purporting to protect the public from the threat posed by the other.
As a consequence, our politics have become more partisan. Liberal elites dismiss populists as bigots and racists. Hillary Clinton’s jibe about Donald Trump voters, many of whom were former Democrat supporters, as a “basket of deplorables” was emblematic of this contempt. Similarly, insurgents label liberals as “enemies of the people”. A once noble newspaper like the Daily Telegraph characterises politicians who dissent over hard Brexit as being guilty of treason. As disagreement gives way to demonisation, democracy becomes debased and demagogic. Identity politics is devoid of any sense of public service and the pursuit of noble causes.
The obsession with individualised identity has fuelled a moral panic about race, gender and sex that turns difference into absolute division. An example is the accusation of transphobia levelled at the feminist writer Germaine Greer for saying that transgender women are “not women”. What is hate speech to some is free speech to others, with no agreement about the ethical norms of public debate.
A society devoid of any shared moral horizon would by this logic be condemned to see crimes everywhere. If there are no common moral values to shape the law, will not the fight against all forms of discrimination slide into a Hobbesian “war of all against all”? Instead of nurturing adults and citizens, politics increasingly treats people as eternal adolescents and consumers in the marketplace of identity.
The feminist writer Germaine Greer has faced accusations of transphobia
Since our biology and socialisation are assumed to be pure constructs, they can be undone at will. Nothing has moral meaning except our personal volition. The individual, released from all constraints, can be whatever he or she wants. In this context, both liberal elites and insurgents polarise public debate just when democracy needs a transcendent conversation about the meaning of nation, culture, ways of living together and our shared human nature.
For more than a century, conservatism, socialism/social democracy and liberalism engaged in a democratic contest over these fundamental questions. Each offered a different set of responses in an attempt to provide reasonable hope for a better future. Today all three political traditions are in disarray, at odds with popular beliefs and values. The Conservatives’ reputation as a competent, reliable force in power lies in tatters. Their model of market fundamentalism has led to a concentration of wealth for the few that violates a sense of universal justice. Social democrats and socialists are abandoning their traditional working-class supporters in favour of a largely urban, progressive electorate. Their model of state-administered equality and multiculturalism divides society.
In recent years, conservatism seemed to be in the ascendant and possibly on course for domination. Before the snap general election in 2017, Theresa May occupied an enlarged centre ground beyond the socio-economic liberalism shared by Tony Blair and David Cameron. Influenced by her former joint chief-of-staff Nick Timothy’s Burkean ideal of fusing economic justice with social cohesion, May sought to move the Tories right on society and culture while simultaneously moving them left on the economy, with her promise of an ambitious industrial strategy and workers’ representation on company boards. Yet her failure to lead and enact domestic reforms has discredited the post-liberal ideas that had the potential to define a new One Nation Conservatism.
The deep disagreement over Brexit is symptomatic of just how directionless and divided the Tories are. Since losing her parliamentary majority, May is caught between Tory Remainers who want more of the failed socio-economic liberalism underpinning “Project Fear”, and arch-Brexiteers who pursue a libertarian utopia of small government backing big business and unfettered global free trade – in a regulatory race to the bottom that would hurt the same working-class people who voted Leave.
Neither is a conservative vision that seeks to balance rights with obligations and freedom with fraternity. “Fraternity is the sphere of belonging, of membership, the sphere of identity and particularity,” wrote the conservative commentator Danny Kruger, who was briefly an adviser to Cameron. “It concerns neighbourhood, voluntary association, faith, and all the other elements of identity that relate us to some and distinguish us from others.”
Donald Trump has taken the attack on the conservative tradition to a new level, erecting protectionist borders in order to have more “neoliberalism in one country” that serves the interests of the financial oligarchy on Wall Street and the billionaires in Silicon Valley.
Like Tory arch-Brexiteers, Trump deploys revolutionary means to pursue libertarian ends. His insurgency has smashed the party establishment in the US but also strengthened the big government that he promised to rein in. That is because big business requires backing from the government in the form of tax cuts and deregulation.
Meanwhile, some Republicans cling to the ideas of the New Right, whose embrace of the unfettered global free market as the principal mode of social organisation undermined the sense of community cohesion and the family that it professed to uphold.
Neither Trump’s libertarian populism nor the New Right’s economic liberalism are conservative, because both have entrenched the power of corporate money in politics and consolidated the oligarchic hold over US democracy.
Like the Tories, the US Republican Party has long abandoned the philosophy of Edmund Burke, who in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) defined conservatism as the ability to “reform in order to conserve”. Its aim is to renew those institutions of society in which markets and states have little or no part to play: culture, religion, the family and all the civic associations – what Burke called “the little platoons” – that help people to help one another.
The left has been in intellectual retreat since the collapse of state socialism in the East and social democracy in the West. In different ways, both models were abstract and became disconnected from the everyday lives of the workers they purported to represent. A soulless technocracy based on economistic thinking marked the triumph of rationalism over the romantic vision of ethical socialists such as William Morris or GDH Cole, who had been concerned with questions of power, democracy, creativity and human self-realisation. Communist central planning or social democrat fiscal transfers trumped any attempt to transform the fundamental relations between capital and labour and defend a sense of self-worth within working-class communities.
In the 1990s, the “third way” of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder gained and retained office by accepting the neoliberal settlement of Thatcher and Reagan while trying to moderate its impact. It fused the New Left’s sociocultural liberalism with the New Right’s economic liberalism without ever offering a distinct moral and civic vision.
The promise of “global capitalism with a human face” reflected shallow optimism but not real hope for a meaningful future. “This failure accounts for the inability of the centre left to rebuild a vision of the just society following the 2008 crash,” said the Labour MP and political thinker Jon Cruddas. “By then it had conceded too much ground and presented itself as remote, technocratic and managerial.”
Since then the left has embraced either the social democratic status quo, or the insurgency of the far left. The former amounts to an association with neoliberal austerity that leaves the left in a permanent minority position, as has happened to the German Social Democrats, or condemns it to collapse as with the Greek, French, Dutch or Czech centre-left parties whose support has fallen to single digits. Social democracy’s bureaucratic centralism has alienated former core voters.
For their part, the far-left insurgencies of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Bernie Sanders in America embody a new movement in politics that is mobilising many voters, young and old. It is full of energy and has tapped into a popular mood of rejecting market fundamentalism, austerity and stagnant wages.
However, it lacks a moral vision that appeals to a broad electoral coalition. Its anti-imperialist foreign policy and cosmopolitan multiculturalism alienate the small “C” conservative part of the population, especially the old working class and sections of the lower middle class.
Both social democracy and the far left have little to say about a sense of national identity and settled ways of life that are under threat. They fail to recognise that many ordinary people value work, family, inherited culture and a measure of social stability.
Of the three political traditions, liberalism is in the paradoxical position of being dominant among elites even as it haemorrhages popular appeal. Since 1989, liberals such as Blair have fused free-market economics with social egalitarianism, combining state with market power in order to promote freedom and emancipation. Underpinning this liberal settlement was a moral vision of maximising liberty in the sense of minimal constraints on free choice.
In Britain, the main parties gradually converged around this progressive brand of liberalism. First the Labour Party increasingly ignored its traditions of mutualism and self-help, and embraced instead individualism underwritten by the state. Then the Conservatives abandoned their Burkean heritage of community in favour of market individualism. Finally, the Liberal Democrats largely forgot their own legacy of self-organising citizens within civil society and advanced an agenda of both economic and sociocultural liberalisation, best exemplified by Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws.
The liberal alternative to rampant individualism is a philosophy of social bonds and free association, which was inaugurated by “conservative” liberals such as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, and developed by the likes of TH Green, LT Hobhouse and JA Hobson in the late 19th century. Their so-called new liberalism opposed John Locke’s and JS Mill’s preference for the individual over society by emphasising the social conditions of personal flourishing.
The last leader of the Liberals who upheld this legacy was Jo Grimond, the party’s most distinguished postwar parliamentary intellectual, who argued for a balance between the individual and the civic groups constituting society. “Society is as essential to the individual as water to a fish,” Grimond said. Based on relationships of mutual assistance, people can find proper self-expression and stability in a polity that values social virtues of courage, loyalty, generosity and honour.
Instead of drawing on these older liberal traditions, contemporary liberals have doubled down and embraced a kind of ultra-liberalism that fuses market fundamentalism with identity politics. The New Statesman’s John Gray calls it “alt-liberalism”. Far from defending toleration and a richer conception of freedom, ultra-liberal politics seeks to overcome any attachment to national and communal identity in favour of a borderless world without restrictions on personal choice. Herein lies the root of liberal identity politics.
Gone is a commitment to critical debate about rival values and beliefs, combined with a concern for truth. On the contrary, ultra-liberals are at best indifferent to inconvenient facts and at worst engage in sophistry with virtue-signalling self-righteousness. They condemn patriotism as reactionary and national identity as a repressive construction, while promoting an elite cosmopolitan vision that ignores the majority and more communitarian values. This destroys the possibility of the shared moral horizon on which living together depends.
At present, none of the three main traditions offers a politics of ethical purpose, hope and meaning. Without a commitment to the collective “we”, politics cannot foster solidarity, inculcate a sense of duty or bring about collective action, all of which are vital for the endurance of democracy and our fundamental freedoms. A politics of purpose combines pride and dignity anchored in a historic identity, with an acknowledgement that all advancement is contingent and reversible. What is gained can be lost. Hope does not rest on blind faith in progress and liberation from the bonds of belonging. It rests on accepting human frailty and nurturing resilience. A politics of hope rejects both shallow optimism about progress and deep pessimism about human nature. It connects questions about what it is to be human with questions about what constitutes the good life. We are bound together not by the pursuit of domination and abstract wealth, but rather through practices of mutual recognition – being recognised for our talents and roles in society.
This is reflected in the dignity of work, because work not only generates an income to support ourselves and our loved ones, but provides self-esteem and meaning. Through work we employ our talents, such as they are, to meaningful ends. By making a contribution to society we become more fulfilled persons who create value and appreciate the importance of citizenship.
A new majority politics starts with what people value: family, friendship, locality, community and country. Reasonable hope for a better future has to be anchored in ways of life that involve a sense of sacrifice and contribution to the common good.
The socialist and “Tory anarchist” George Orwell called this disposition “common decency”, which is about cherishing freedom, fairness and people inhabiting particular places. All these values rest on lived fraternity – relationships of “give-and-receive” that offer dignity and meaning to our lives.
Adrian Pabst is head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, and co-author with John Milbank of “The Politics of Virtue” (Rowman & Littlefield)
This article appears in the 22 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?