How much influence has neo-liberalism had on British politics?

This was the question asked at ‘A Permanent Revolution?’, an event organised by the Centre for British Politics and the Centre for Political Ideologies.

Most of those who have written on this subject have described the ‘capitulation’ of Britain’s political parties, portraying neo-liberalism as the ideological equivalent of a tidal wave which has swept away all of the (intellectual) obstacles in its path. They have paid particular attention to the way in which politicians of all parties have, since the beginning of the 1980s, embraced the market and competition as a means of stimulating economic growth and maximising efficiency in both the public and private sectors.

But the picture is not so clear-cut. More recent studies, including those from Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe and Rachel Turner, argue that neo-liberalism is a far more complicated intellectual beast than previous analysts have acknowledged. Neo-liberal ideology has an extensive conceptual structure that stretches beyond economics into constitutional law and theories of knowledge. It is not just about the market.

The influence of neo-liberalism on all three parties has, therefore, perhaps been rather more subtle (if just as pervasive) than has previously been suggested.

For example, in her paper at our event Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite suggested that the way in which the Thatcher-era Conservative Party sought to achieve the moral rejuvenation of society drew on a variety of sources. The restoration of ‘traditional’ values allegedly eroded by forty years of social democracy – values such as thrift and responsibility – required, to their eyes, appropriate economic and legal (i.e. market) structures. Neo-liberal measures were therefore perceived as an essential prerequisite to the reassertion of traditional, old-fashioned Conservative values.

In his discussion of the Liberal Party, Peter Sloman suggested that while many post-war Liberals regarded the neo-liberals of the Mont Pelerin Society as allies, they did not regard their work as a template for political action. While many neo-liberal ideas reinforced existing Liberal prejudices about free trade and economic management, key figures within the party recognised that many of these ideas were difficult to reconcile with their commitment to social reform. As a consequence, neo-liberal intellectuals and the Liberal Party parted company over the course of the 1960s.

My own paper, meanwhile, assessed the role that neo-liberal ideas played in New Labour’s attitude towards equality. While the party retained a commitment to the pursuit of equality (despite claims to the contrary) it did so within a distinctly neo-liberal framework. The centrepiece of New Labour’s strategy for social justice was an investment in education and training designed to offer wider opportunities to the poorest in society. It sought to do so, however, through the enhancement of labour value and developing human capital – a concept that had been borrowed from the neo-liberal economist Gary Becker.

Of course, not all of the papers at the workshop took this line. Some argued that the influence neo-liberalism has been far more prevalent than hitherto suggested, while others suggested that the influence of neo-liberalism has been overstated – a debate best illustrated by the discussion between Kevin Hickson and Matt Beech on the nature of New Labour.

While Lord Lawson, who participated in the day’s concluding roundtable, claimed not to know what was ‘neo-liberalism‘ – other than a French insult – what all of the contributions illustrated is that the influence of neo-liberalism on British politics remains a live question. Even the likes of ‘Red Ed’ Miliband are today the captives of what in the end turned out to be one of the most successful ideologies of the twentieth century – and possibly of the twenty-first.

Matthew Francis

New MPs kick off

One of the most striking features about the House of Commons after the 2010 election was the number of newly-elected MPs.  A full 36% of the House was newly-elected, including 48% of Conservative MPs.  In the past, newly elected MPs have tended to be relatively acquiescent – at least to begin with – but one of the most striking features about the behaviour of the 2010 cohort, especially on the Conservative side, is how troublesome they have been.

In absolute terms, more Conservative newbies have rebelled (46) compared to Labour ones (21) or the Lib Dems (7). In percentage terms, while 31% of new Tory MPs have now rebelled, 33% of Labour ones have done so, with the highest percentage of newbie rebels located among the Liberal Democrats: although there are only 10 newly elected Lib Dem MPs, a full 70% have defied the party whip.

But these headline figures mask an important difference in terms of dissent by the new MPs of the three main parties. Between them, the newbie Tory rebels have cast a whopping 249 rebellious votes, compared with a modest 23 for Labour, and only a slightly higher number, 27, for the Liberal Democrats.

Tory newcomers have accounted for 31% of rebellious votes cast by all Conservative MPs, compared with a tiny 5% for Labour, and 15% for the Liberal Democrats. The top Labour newbie rebel, Yasmin Qureshi, has accrued only five dissenting votes. Even the top Liberal Democrat newcomer, David Ward, can boast 11 rebellions.  But the top Conservative newbie rebel, David Nuttall, has amassed 54 rebellions.

Nuttall is only the most rebellious of a rebellious cohort. The top ten Conservative new MPs are:

David Nuttall: 54

Andrew Percy: 23

Mark Reckless: 21

Zac Goldsmith: 17

Richard Drax: 12

Jacob Rees-Mogg: 11

Gordon Henderson: 10

Jason McCartney: 10

Martin Vickers: 10

Steve Baker: 9

Together, these top ten Tories account for more than seven in ten (71%) of the dissenting votes cast by Conservative newcomers; and they account for more than one in five (22%) of Conservative rebellious votes cast thus far this Parliament.

As well as trouble from the old guard – many of whom have serious doubts about the Conservative leadership – David Cameron’s whips therefore are also confronted by a hardcore of highly rebellious newcomers.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The politics of being human

Most of our science and philosophy is ‘humanist’ and anthropocentric. It carves up the world into neat little distinctions between man and nature, human and animal, and human or non-human. It places man at the centre of its politics and legitimates his dominion over other beings and things.

However, the Human Genome Project revealed that 98% of human DNA is the same as that of a chimpanzee.  What’s more, human DNA is made up of the same atoms and molecules as inorganic matter. These findings present fundamental existential and political questions about what it means to be human. Our individual and collective response to this question has vast ramifications for our everyday personal relations and our conditions of existence on planet earth.

For, just like our planet, the human body is a finely tuned balance of different chemical and biological systems – and the politics and practices that follow from an anthropocentric humanism are destructive to this precarious balance.

Can we really define our humanity in isolation from the non-human elements that constitute our existence? Can we live without inorganic elements that make up part of us? Do we want to live without the friendly bacteria that colonizes our guts? Where do we draw the boundary between humans and non-humans?

The way that we respond to these questions has real political consequences. If we accept that humans are different in kind to all other beings and entities, then we create a rigid distinction between the human and the non-human and give legitimacy to our current patterns of consumption and production. If, however, we acknowledge that there is only a difference of degree between humans and non-humans and that non-humans also have a capacity for agency then we acknowledge the basic inter-connectedness between different entities. This is more likely to make us radically rethink our everyday relations with the different parts of ourselves some of which are non-human.

Indeed, the ecosystems of the earth and our bodies are under threat from the way we live today. Low sperm counts, the growth in fat cells, and the alarming increase in cancer rates are just a few of the effects of living this bifurcated existence, where we are willing to go on developing chemical products on a mass scale with little regard for the negative impact of these practices on the microorganisms and species that sustain our conditions of existence. The use of pesticides and other chemicals used in agricultural processes and in the production of consumer products, not only adversely impact the earth and wildlife, but some are starting to affect our very genetic makeup and disturbing our neurological functions. These are some of the consequences of our anthropocentric domination of our planet, and we need to rethink our practices and relations to each other and the world.

Bonnie Honig is developing a new ‘agonistic humanism’ which is attentive to man’s mortality and suffering, but also celebrates the human capacity for pleasure, mutuality, care, action and innovation. My paper for the recent CONCEPT conference on Honig’s work echoed many of her sentiments about ‘agonistic humanism’. However, I argued that Honig’s approach does not go far enough because the capacity for action and innovation is limited to human actors. Using the work of Jane Bennett I showed that to be human is to be caught in a web of relations and processes, and that the human and non-human ‘other’ is always already part of us.

There is no separate object, entity, or being called ‘man’, but just our conditions of existence, which are comprised of relations, connections, assemblages and networks between different human and non-human entities. Human life without these non-human aspects is impossible. The artist Kate Macdowell gestures towards this in her piece Casualty which illustrates this post. Thus, humanism needs to be redefined to include the nonhuman or intra-human. Any knowledge or experience that fails to acknowledge its non-human, in-human, post-humanism and inorganic constituents isn’t placing the human high enough. It is self-defeating because it undermines its own conditions of possibility and is ecologically dangerous for life.

We need an ecology of everyday life. It is not enough to think local and act global because we live in an inter-connected world where an innocent act in one context has ramifications for the political and ecosystems of individual bodies, our communities, and the earth. When we act we need to think what are the potential chemical, biological, physical, political and social impacts on an individual, local, and global level. We need to think – how does what we do and how we do it impact upon the living conditions of other humans in a different part of the globe, as well as the non-human entities that are part of our bodies and our conditions of existence?

Gulshan Khan

In the rebellion game, everyone’s a winner

Conservative MPs are the most rebellious in the House of Commons, as the right kicks against Cameron’s leadership.  Actually, that’s not true.  Liberal Democrats MPs are in fact the most rebellious, with widespread rebellions against the policies of the coalition.  Actually, that’s not true either.  The party which has been the most rebellious since 2010 has been Labour, revealing the extent to which Ed Miliband is not in control of his parliamentary party.

Which of these is true? The answer is all of them, and it all depends what you decide to use as your measurement.

So far this Parliament, Labour MPs have rebelled in nearly 20% of all Commons divisions, almost identical to the Liberal Democrat rate of 19%, but far outstripped by the Conservative rate of 33%.  So, on that measure Conservative MPs are the most rebellious.

But while Conservative MPs rebel more often, they do so in smaller numbers than Labour.  The average Conservative rebellion consists of just seven MPs; the average Labour one comprises eight MPs. The average Lib Dem rebellion is just three MPs.  So, on that measure Labour MPs are the most rebellious.

Labour’s got fewer MPs to begin with, so the figure for Labour is not only higher in absolute terms but also higher as a percentage of the two respective parliamentary parties (3% as opposed to 2%).  But if we’re talking about percentage rebellions, then the highest average rebellion occurs among the Liberal Democrats. Their mean of three MPs constitutes five percent of the parliamentary party.  So, on that measure Lib Dem MPs are the most rebellious.

So, depending what you focus on – and depending what you are trying to prove – you can make a case for any of the three main parties as the ‘most divided’.

And you can do something similar if we look at how far the habit of rebellions has spread amongst the parties.  A total of 86 Conservative MPs have rebelled so far, along with 30 Lib Dems.  But 119 Labour MPs have defied their party’s whip, more than the Conservatives and Lib Dems put together.  On that measure, then, Labour are the most rebellious.  Those Labour MPs make up 46% of the PLP, outstripping the 28% of the Conservative Parliamentary Party who have rebelled.  But the highest percentage of rebels is to be found within the Liberal Democrats: 53% of MPs have rebelled at least once.

For what it’s worth, we’ve long been skeptical about comparisons between rates of rebellion in government and in opposition.  The whipping arrangements are very different; rebellion matters much less in opposition.  So rather than get into these comparisons, it’s best just to say that they are not comparable.  But for those who want to, you can make the numbers tell almost any story.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Riots Special Edition

The recent riots – which began in Tottenham on August 6th, but rapidly spread first across London and then across the country – have prompted innumerable instant responses from politicians, journalists, and academics alike. Some have been more considered than others.

Among the politicians, the Prime Minister has promised a ‘social fightback’ against the groups involved in the riots. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has argued that Britain is in the ‘last-chance saloon’ and must learn the lessons of the riots or a full-scale social crisis will follow. For the opposition, Ed Miliband has warned the coalition that it must respond to the riots with ‘lasting solutions’ rather than ‘knee-jerk gimmicks’. Other commentators have pointed to a wide variety of possibly causes, ranging from the government’s austerity measures to rap music.

Here, we collect together the recent Ballots and Bullets posts that have contributed to the ongoing debate about the causes and consequences of the riots.

Deirdre Duffy argues that the way to prevent future riots is to focus on youth clubs rather than policing.

Mat Humphrey asks whether the riots had a political motive, or merely represent the ‘triumph of triviality’.

Matthew Bailey finds evidence to suggest that we might have been here before.

David Bell considers the possibility of using popular education to ‘empower the wastrels’.

And Mat Humphrey offers a reminder that we have long been warned about the tensions inherent in contemporary capitalism.

Daniel Bell: he predicts a riot

One way of understanding the recent spree of looting and rioting seen on the streets of England is in terms of a clash of two ‘cultures’ first identified by the American sociologist Daniel Bell in his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

Published in 1976, Bell’s study mapped out two antagonistic cultures. One consisted of consumption, of instant gratification, of wanting as much and as good by way of possessions as those around you have  (or, if you can, more and better). A culture in which capitalist society is ‘the institutionalisation of envy’. The other culture comprised hard work and delayed gratification, of building up a business through reinvestment, of selling or producing the things that others want to buy. For profit, of course, but profits that normally go to developing the business further.

Sound familiar? In light of recent events Bell’s book deserves a revival for there he suggests why we may have come to this impasse, and sketches the wider cultural malaise that it may signify.

Bell was an interesting character. Born Belotsky (the family name was changed when he was 13), his Eastern European parents worked in the New York garment industry, and Bell’s father died when he was just eight months old. Like many from that background, Bell initially embraced socialism, and although he migrated to a version of cultural conservatism, he maintained the view that capitalism was prone to contradictions, although unlike Marxists he placed the key contradiction as that between the ‘techno-economic’ sphere and the ‘cultural’ sphere. In his view the work ethic on which capitalism depends would ultimately be undermined by the desire for consumption and instant gratification, and this is entirely due to the nature of capitalism itself.

In brief, the argument runs something like this – early capitalism developed within the framework of a puritan ethos (here Bell follows the German sociologist Max Weber). Within such a framework notions of hard work and delayed gratification come to individuals quite naturally – they fit entirely within the everyday religious framework to which nearly all individuals relate. Furthermore, although luxury goods are produced for a small, wealthy elite, for most people consumption revolves around the sphere of need – and needs are limited and their satisfaction relatively envy-free (as long as I can satisfy my basic needs I don’t envy you being able to satisfy yours).

However, as capitalism becomes more productive, it moves beyond the satisfaction of need towards the meeting of wants. As Bell says, ‘Wants are psychological, not biological, and are by their nature unlimited’. They are also highly comparative, meaning that we see the ‘institutionalisation of envy’ in the sphere of consumption. Capitalism now has to increasingly turn its attention to the stimulation of demand – to promoting consumption, to developing lines of credit to allow individuals to buy what capitalism creates. Forget delayed gratification, as an advert for bank loans recently had it ‘why wait?’. In promoting consumption capitalism itself destroys the protestant ethic that had limited ‘sumptuary’. And with that gone only hedonism remains.

With this change Bell expected to see the rise of nihilism, the erosion of the traditional values that have held capitalist societies together. As he wrote: ‘Today what is there left in the past to destroy, and who has the hope for a future to come?’

Bell’s cultural pessimism provides a framework for making sense of recent events. Looting represents the apogee of nihilistic consumption. This is no campaign for positive political change, but an opportunity for some to temporarily assuage that institutionalised envy of those who have more in a world where people’s identities are largely framed by what they possess. Those coming together to defend their businesses are operating in a different, disjunct sphere, where nihilism is a threat to the value they have developed over a working lifetime. We will hear much more of the fatuous notion of ‘community’ in response to the riots, but these people merely share the same geographical space, whilst inhabiting separate subcultures which clashed, with tragic consequences, last week.

There is of course much one can take issue with in Bell’s analysis. His call to return to something like religious values seems quixotic in the face of his own analysis, and it is not clear that the productive power of capitalism has been undermined by these changes in the way he thought it might be. Furthermore the particular focus of his analysis was the ‘counter-cultural’ movements of the late 1960s and early 70s.

Bell nonetheless points us toward a source of tension in contemporary capitalist societies that comes directly out of the competing imperatives to be both producer and consumer. We still need to find better ways of living with the cultural contradictions of capitalism.

Mathew Humphrey

The Prime Minister: a man you’d shoot tigers with?

In  1953 the Labour MP Maurice Edelman wrote the political novel Who Goes Home in which a revered Parliamentary commentator states:

On the whole, British Prime Ministers have to be the sort of man you can trust with your eldest daughter or your sister or your wife or mother – a sort of father-figure. A man you’d shoot tigers with. … A Prime Minister’s rather like a Lord Mayor. He’s made by the job. He’s moulded into its chains. That’s why we get small business-men, big business-men, little solicitors and great aristocrats all following each other like ball-bearings. Of course the British public like to know their Prime Minister. But what they know is myth. It’s the same with every politician.

Edelman meant this to be taken as a truism – I wonder how far it remains true?

Steven Fielding

Cowley’s Syndrome

One of my lifetime ambitions is to have a law named after me, like Godwin’s Law, or Parkinson’s Law.

An attempt during the 2010 election to establish Cowley’s Law of Election Campaigning (that there is an inverse relationship between the importance of any election campaign technique and the amount of media coverage devoted to it) never really took off, although I’m happy to argue that its validity was borne out by much of the election coverage.

But recently Matthew Parris of the Times kindly allocated me a Syndrome, which is a sort of Poor Man’s Law, and so frankly that’ll have to do.  Parris’s article – sadly, behind the Times firewall (but helpfully copied here) – was triggered by a tweet of mine, in which I asked whether there was a phrase for shock and disgust triggered by confirmation of a long-held belief.

I first wondered about this during the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, when there was such horror about what MPs had been getting up to.  What confused me wasn’t that people thought what some MPs had been doing was wrong, but why they were seemed so shocked by it.  It was hardly as if they had previously thought MPs were wonderful people who could do no wrong.  The public have long had a view of most MPs as dirty rotten scoundrels, yet when they then discovered that some of them were indeed behaving as dirty rotten scoundrels, they seemed to be outraged.

Phone hacking generates the same confusion.  Again, it’s not that I don’t understand why people think it’s wrong.  But the public have long had a very low opinion of tabloid journalists – indeed, tabloid journalists used to be one of the few professions that came below MPs in league tables of honesty.  Surely everyone knew some tabloid hacks did terrible things; yet having discovered they did, everyone’s outraged.

One possibility is that the things that have been revealed are much worse than that which people expected.  In some cases this might be true (especially the revelations about Milly Dowler) but in general this would be a pretty damning indictment of the British imagination. Can it really have been a shock to discover that tabloid journalists broke the law in pursuit of a story?

Discussing expenses, my colleague Justin Fisher, of Brunel University told me that the correct comparison is with infidelity.  You may believe your partner is cheating on you – indeed, you may have really strong suspicions – but it would still be a shock to discover proof of them in flagrante delicto.

Philip Cowley

The riots: empowering the wastrels?

In 1899 the National Union of Teachers argued that ‘the danger to the British Empire lies within the homeland. The wastrel, the ne’er-do-well, the rickety and the criminal, these and not the Krupp gun or continental jealousy are the real danger’. This, the union argued, demonstrated the importance of the authoritative teacher in maintaining civic order, and they’re claims we’re hearing repeated in the aftermath of last week’s riots. We need, some argue, to clamp down on ‘chaotic classrooms’.

I believe that education is indeed the key to overcoming many of the problems that created the riots last week, but it’s a very different kind of ‘education’ to the one the NUT defended over a century ago – and still advanced by many politicians and commentators today.

In my PhD, I look at how education can be used in a number of ways. To simplify enormously, I argue that it can either be used as a tool prising open the future – enabling people to have a collective say in what kind of world they want to live in; or it can be used to close off political change and reinforce dominant ideologies. Given that I believe these riots were – in part – caused by people who do not believe they have a future, I think it is vital that we choose the former variety of education: what I will here call ‘popular education’ (drawing on the tradition developed in Latin America in the latter half of the previous century). Its task must be to empower ‘the wastrel, the ne’er-do-well, the rickety and the criminal’ so that they can shake off these labels and help shape their communities and their futures.

I must be clear that I am not offering popular education as a pragmatic suggestion to help integrate people into capitalist society. Popular education’s role is not to create a ‘level-playing field’ for ‘equality of opportunity’, but to make visible the structures which perpetuate inequality, and to collectively empower people so they can do something about this. It is thus a far cry from much of the emphasis on ‘authority’ in education we are currently seeing, which is designed to keep people in their place. Ethics aside, this is a ludicrous premise given that so many have no ‘place’ in which to be kept: capitalist society has already made it quite clear it does not want them – there are, let us recall, 54 unemployed people for every job in Tottenham.

With a number of successes around the world, popular education rejects the traditional, top-down mode of teaching in favour of an educational space which is negotiated between teacher and learner and is shaped by learners’ desires. It might, for example, give students a space to talk about their experiences of the police (both positive and negative), and proceed from this to ask why different students might have different experiences. It might expand to consider why some people commit crime, why certain crimes have sentences that seem disproportionately high and so on. In such discussions, the knowledges of the students – together with those of the educator (who will be learning with the class) – combine to arrive at a more concrete understanding of issues which affect students’ everyday lives, providing a springboard for action and organising. It thus offers one way for the energies unleashed in the riots in such a nihilistic, destructive manner to be given a more positive, utopian character.

The key problem is finding spaces for this kind of education. It is almost impossibile in mainstream schools, and youth clubs are being shut down at an alarming rate. There are perhaps gaps that can be exploited – the citizenship curriculum, education in prisons and young offenders institutions. There is also the possibility of utilising popular education in existing struggles (against police brutality, for example, or the closing of local services) – but these are few and far between, and not enough to bring around a systemic challenge.

The task of those who seek radical change must be to identify more of these gaps and widen them: not by imposing a predetermined vision of a world yet to come, but by allowing people to communally construct the world they want to live in and so restoring a sense of the future to them.

David Bell

Tony Benn and the 1981 riots: plus ca change?

While doing some reading for my thesis, I came across this intriguing entry in Tony Benn’s diaries, from 8th July 1981:

… there have been riots in Southall, Toxteth, Manchester, Wood Green and they are dominating the news stories…Robin Day and so on asking if the police should have riot shields, tear gas and rubber bullets, and whether the army should be brought in. Mrs Thatcher says it is just a fall in moral standards. Whitelaw maintains that parents should control children, that some eleven-year-olds are involved and they have never been unemployed, quite forgetting that most of their families are probably unemployed.

What did Karl Marx – or was it Shirley Bassey? – say about History repeating itself?

Matthew Bailey