Liberty, equality, fraternity, ecology…compass points for the left in the 21st Century. (draft – comments welcome)
We live in confused and confusing times. Following defeats for the left by populist nationalists in the US, Brazil, Hungary and elsewhere, the British left is dumbstruck as it ponders on how voters could have voted for a similar figure here. There has been much discussion of why this happened – Corbyn’s prevarication on Brexit, his psycho-rigid advisers, lingering mistrust of voters of Labour on the economy…many reasons for this catastrophic and historical defeat have been put forward. One factor which has received little attention is Labour’s political philosophy. Could it be that the lack of a coherent and convincing set of political values is part of what is holding the left back in the UK, and elsewhere? I believe it could.
Since Thatcher and Reagan, and following the work of neoliberal economists and philosophers raised to semi-divine status, the right for its part has produced a well-defined political philosophy. Through the efforts of well-funded think-tanks and a corporate media, it has known how to communicate it effectively to the public. Labour and the other parties of the British left have made some popular policy proposals, but discussion of fundamental values is rarer, with Labour often seeming divided between the old socialist formulas and Blair-style compromises with neoliberal capitalism. The years ahead are critical – we are engaged in a fight against creeping fascism and war, and for a planet which can sustain any kind of human civilization. We need to rethink the values of the left, and launch an intellectual offensive with the same power and reach as the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s, one that will unite activists, bring voters over to our side, and push politics back towards the left i.e. towards a genuine sharing of power and wealth. But how? This is obviously a huge collective project, and one that is already underway in some quarters, but I would like to contribute a few thoughts to the debate.
As readers of this publication will know, “the left” is a term that goes back to the organisation of the French Parliament following the revolution of 1789, when members of the Assemblée Nationale divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left. On 14th July of that year the people of Paris stormed the Bastille prison in Paris, that great symbol of abusive royal power. Their motto: “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite…ou la mort!”. As readers will also know, while it was supported by the “lower orders”, the sans-culottes,the French Revolution was a revolution by and for the middle-classes. It did bring all French citizens some important basic rights, and its influence spread them around the world, but whether it brought liberty, equality or fraternity to the majority is questionable. Marxists have always regarded such concepts as vague liberal ideals – formal rights – but liberty, equality, and fraternity should be the ABC of the left, ideals for anyone who seeks a fair and democratic society. Others will object that such general ideals are not for the British, with their empiricist temperament. But precisely defined, and radicalised i.e. extended to all, these values are not just for the middle-classes, and as we know, British pragmatism has not prevented the British right from making politically effective use of the idea of liberty. Although “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” sounds like a simple motto, the meanings of these concepts are manifold and were not fixed once and for all in the Enlightenment. They need to be rethought anew by each generation, and with “Ecology” added for our times. Another objection against a focus on these values will be that a purely intellectual approach is insufficient – the left needs to appeal to people’s emotions, to what they care about, concrete issues like the NHS or secure jobs or education. Of course it does, but these things are the concrete applicatations of deeper ideals, and these are what we are trying to get at in redefining liberty, equality and fraternity. Parties of the left and activists, at least, need to have a very clear idea of what these might be. It is true that reflection on such concepts are usually the preserve of academic philosophers – we need to show how they can be updated and translated into the language of ordinary people’s lives.
Take liberty. As Yannis Varoufakis recently put it “the left lost the plot when it stopped talking about liberty”[i]. He was right – of all political values, liberty inspires most, winning over hearts and minds. Most of the historical struggles of the left have been struggles of liberation, and yet, in recent decades liberty has become the cornerstone of rightist ideology. Along with massive funding from corporations and hedge-fund owners, the Conservative Party’s emphasis on liberty is one of the keys to its political success. The right has hijacked all discourse on liberty, successfully portraying the left as “the enemies of freedom and democracy” as Margaret Thatcher put it in 1984 in remarks directed at the striking miners but originally intended for the Labour Party itself[ii]. Whereas past liberation struggles were about ending slavery, poverty, patriarchy, or foreign domination, essentially fights for basic human dignity, liberation has been redefined by the right as the “liberation” of corporations and wealthy individuals from taxes and regulations, thus freeing up their “creative energies” – supposedly to work for the common good, in reality to entrench their own power and wealth. To the consternation of traditional conservatives like the late Roger Scruton, this kind of “liberation” was gradually combined with socially liberal values on things like multiculturalism, gay marriage and (theoretically) women’s rights. This marriage between economic and social liberalism turned out to be a winning combination! Underlying both these ways of thinking about liberty is the notion that someone is free when they are left alone to do what they desire, when nobody stands in their way. The 20th Century British philosopher Isaiah Berlin called this kind of liberty “negative liberty”. For liberals like Berlin not only right-wing fascist regimes but also the “really existing socialism” of the former Soviet Union and its satellites denied people this kind of liberty. This is the shadow that still frightens many of our citizens when they think of socialism, and the left needs to work hard to bring light to this dark corner of the collective imagination.
Berlin’s negative liberty is undoubtedly one important part of what it means to be free. It has brought us vital basic rights like free speech, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and freedom of worship – rights that are increasingly under threat and must be defended. The problem, of course, and the point politicians on the left should be hammering home, is that it’s not enough to remove obstacles to free action to make people free. Freedom means being able to act, to transform your desires into reality, and for this it is not enough that no-one is standing in your way. Action usually requires the kind of material and social resources that people lower down the present social hierarchy often lack. Without all the different kinds of “capital” that the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu taught us about– not only economic, but also social, cultural, and educational – many are left nursing their hopes and desires, whilst those that possess those resources in abundance take control of society’s agenda. Not necessarily through any conscious desire for domination – though that also exists. As they and all those who surround them are raised with such advantages, they come to see them as “normal”, and their social privilege becomes invisible to them. It looks to them as if their social and economic success can only be down to their talent and hard work, whereas the failure of others must result from their laziness and lack of talent: they are spontaneous neoliberals. But of course, the reality is that they already possess what many others do not: the resources that enable what Berlin called positive liberty, though he himself focused on virtue and rationality, and neglected to consider the social distribution of these resources. In the grassroots activist circles in which I move, privilege workshops are set up to help middle-class activists understand their own privilege and not to rush in and organise everyone else! Positive liberty is a capacity to act grounded in the possession of personal or social resources like education and social confidence which make agency possible. Without the wider sharing of such resources in society we will only have liberty for the few, never for the many. You cannot be free if you are a single mother with no help, no education, and no cultural opportunities, still less stitching trainers for Nike in a prison-factory with no hope of escape. Positive liberty liberates individuals, not only for their own good but for the good of society, as the positive example of the Scandinavian countries demonstrates in practice. The right should be called out on its conception of liberty, not just with anger and indignation, but coolly, and with its own, much richer idea of positive liberty to replace it.
Regarding equality, the left might seem to be on more solid ground, especially as inequality has become a glaring and obscene reality in recent decades. It’s not enough to simply assume that everyone agrees that inequality is a bad thing however, because many of our fellow citizens consider it as the price that must be paid for innovation and economic progress, and swallow the right’s promise of “equality of opportunity”. We need to spell out just what is wrong with inequality, why it is so destructive of society and of individuals, and why equality of opportunity never delivers what it seems to be promising. Faced with massive inequality, the left has been more combative on this issue in recent times. It has had some good arguments to support its fight against inequality, following recent academic work like Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level. This important work demonstrated that more unequal societies do worse on a whole range of indicators of social well-being, from crime to educational failure, and crucially that even the wealthy are less happy in unequal societies. Politicians of the left need to press home these arguments, and add a few more. Since many have (supposedly) benefited from the great council house sell-off, consumer goods and the entertainment industry, the argument is not won, and the left remains vulnerable to Margaret Thatcher’s taunt that the left only cared about the gap between rich and poor, not raising the level of the poorest[iii]. We need to be clear that inequality is bad for two important reasons: firstly it fractures society, creating a divided society where different groups live in different social and cultural worlds, have different interests, and therefore will necessarily have a conflictual relationship. Secondly, inequality, especially of the extreme kind we have seen in recent times, allows those with greater wealth to take control of the political agenda, by funding parties and think-tanks and owning large parts of the media, which duly represent their world-view, and hence their interests. Inequality undermines democracy: the act of voting counts for nothing if business interests dominate public debate. This is why we should never feel “intensely relaxed”, as Peter Mandelson famously put it, about some individuals being extremely wealthy.
What about fraternity? This is perhaps the most neglected of the three terms of the French revolutionaries’ motto in current political discourse, partly no doubt because it was rightly criticised by feminist thinkers for the way it promises the sharing of all good things among the “brothers”, all the male members of the community. But also, because we’ve all become individualists in this age of consumerism and the breakdown of civil and workplace associations of all kinds, from Trade Unions to the churches. Nevertheless, the core idea of fraternity, that “we are all in this together”, that “I am my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper” remains as relevant as ever. Whilst C/conservatives get het up about cultural or ethnic divisions, they are less worried about economic inequality, which always and everywhere creates separate and antagonistic groups in society. There is no fraternity in an unequal society. Nor can there be any feeling of responsibility for each other in a society in which people are constantly being encouraged to look out for number one, whether in their career, or in their consumption habits. Isolated acts of selflessness – for example when a terrorist attack occurs – move us precisely because they highlight how selfish society has become. Self-reliance is no doubt an important virtue to cultivate, but as my remarks on liberty show we cannot do it alone. The “self-made man” that icon of the left, does not and has never existed. A strong, independent individual is always the product of a strong and supportive family and/or wider community, and politicians on the left should be trumpeting this message loud and clear.
The ideologists of the French revolution could not have foreseen the importance of another important ideal – the value of ecology, or sustainability in the original sense of the term – notwithstanding Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s pre-romantic “reveries” in the forests of Ermenonville. At that period in history nature was an inexhaustible resource to be exploited for the benefit and pleasure of humankind. No longer. We all know that. And yet our economic system still operates as if it were, mindlessly sucking resources from nature and pumping pollution back into the air, water and soil, accelerating climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution-related illnesses. Increasing numbers of concerned citizens are taking a stand against this absurdity, but collectively, even on parts of the radical left, we are whistling with our fingers in our ears and chanting “I can’t hear you” as the tone of the scientists’ warnings get ever more strident. Or increasingly, our political representatives whether of right or left say “I hear you”, and then change precisely nothing in their policy proposals. Is the threat of civilisational collapse not enough to galvanise action? Radical popular movements based on the scientific consensus, like Extinction Rebellion, have arisen in response to such inaction. The left in its entirety needs to follow their lead – and make their demands part of its programme. The Green New Deal – in a robust version which fully incorporates these demands – is a way of popularising this message and making sure that all benefit from the transition to a low-carbon economy. Alas, it was painfully neglected in Labour’s election campaign. It should be a rallying call at the front and centre of any future campaigns. Any less would amount to a dereliction of the awesome historical duty which has fallen to our generations.
Rather than self-indulgently bandying around labels like “democratic socialism” and “anti-capitalism” which only serve to alienate a majority of voters, we should be appealing to these fundamental values of liberty, equality, fraternity and ecology. We mustn’t forget that for many of our fellow citizens, “socialism” equates with planning, central control, and grim apartment blocks, whereas they associate “capitalism” not with austerity or inequality as we may do, but with freedom (low taxes, minimal bureaucracy) and all those delicious electronic and consumer goodies that flooded our homes in the credit-fuelled 90s and which many people continue to crave. We can have a radical agenda that empowers ordinary people – what we might call socialism – without having to use the label at every turn. What matters most is whatever shifts wealth and power from the few to the many. And in reality, not even the most radical amongst us is planning state ownership of companies that make electronic gadgets or clothes, even though they clearly need tighter regulations. There will still be competitive markets in most consumer goods and services – what many people think of as capitalism. We’re not about to take away people’s iPhones or fashionable sneakers and dress them all in blue workers’ overalls.
Neoliberal capitalism is a busted flush – economically, socially, ecologically, and intellectually. This house of cards really shouldn’t need much of a push. But moral indignation is not enough. Nor are the old socialist ideas – though obviously they remain an inspiration and the source of many good ideas and arguments. The left needs to develop a coherent, robust and popular political philosophy for our times, and then start arguing for it. “People love arguing…working class life is about an argument” said Paul Mason recently when asked if the Labour areas that had gone over to Conservative were now unreachable or could be persuaded back[iv]. But before taking on the sceptics in pubs and on the doorstep we’d better have an idea of exactly what we stand for, beyond vague appeals to the working class or “the many and the few”. Rethinking liberty, equality and fraternity for our times – with ecology added – might not be a bad place to start.
[ii] Revealed: the Speech Margaret Thatcher dared not to give… https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-the-speech-thatcher-dared-not-give-after-brighton-ira-bombing-9771124.html
CLIMATE BREAKDOWN: NO VICTORY WITHOUT UNITY (but not at any price)
There has been a lot of criticism of Extinction Rebellion recently, that it is too white, too male, culturally unaware, cultish, monolithic in its perspectives, closed in on itself, naively “apolitical” and indeed too forgiving of fascists, undemocratic, disrespectful of previous activism, and so on and so forth. Some of this criticism is justified, and I have offered my own criticisms. My personal gripe is that, with XR proposing citizens’ assemblies, it should itself be more democratic in its own procedures, and should start modelling the citizens’ assemblies it proposes. Extinction Rebellion needs to open up and engage with all of these criticisms, and indeed they have started this process – not enough, but a start. But some of the criticism has felt bitter and divisive, rather than engaged and constructive. This is equally unwelcome, and harmful for the movement, in my opinion. For sure, it is deeply demotivating for many – including some highly dedicated and experienced activists – to see some of the ways XR has acted, and continue to want to engage and work with them. But I hope they will not disengage with XR, because like it or not, XR has become central to bringing about change – they have shifted the debate in the UK by getting thousands of ordinary people ready to commit civil disobedience to bring about radical change – as net zero by 2025 (though carbon neutral would be better) and citizens assemblies that Govt has to follow are fairly radical proposals if you follow through their consequences. With present levels of social and political awareness in the UK – and no doubt elsewhere – we will not get widespread support for anything more radical and wide-ranging in terms of social change. I really believe that the problems in XR are due more to a lack of awareness, particularly in some of its white and middle-class leaders and participants, than any deeply ingrained undemocratic or fascistic tendencies as some seem to be claiming. Engaging with XR, trying to raise its awareness of certain cultural and social realities they sometimes seem to be oblivious of, and to change some of its discourse and practices in line with that, is in my view the best approach. Everyone is on a journey and we all need help with this at times. We can’t afford in-fighting. This doesn’t mean we must have unity at any price – obviously we don’t want to unite with fascists or neoliberals – but if we don’t build enough unity around a message of climate and social justice, then we will not succeed, and will be condemning inhabitants of the global south – who are already being hit, and will be hit hardest, and our kids and their kids, to a climate hell of crop failure and food shortages, forced migration and war. Division is a luxury we cannot afford – but the unity we are seeking cannot (unlike that of the fascists) be a unity imposed from above: it must be one that we construct from below, by each of us going beyond our comfort zones and engaging with those we disagree with (within certain limits that only we can define) and being willing to modify our own ways of thinking and acting. It’s the responsibility of each one of us. Meanwhile here, from Ben Smoke of the Stansted 15, is an excellent article and an example of just how we can criticise in an engaged and constructive way, in a way that builds rather than threatens unity: https://www.huckmag.com/perspectives/opinion-perspectives/room-for-change-the-problem-with-extinction-rebellion/