BARRY WINTER introduces the ILP’s new perspective document, The ILP: Our Politics, arguing that our political morality forms the basis of our critique of capitalism.
When you look back at the history of the left in politics, whether in the UK or internationally, you could be forgiven thinking that with its often terrible record, why bother? With its flawed perspectives and its political rigidities, with its manifest failures and painful defeats, why carry on? For, as a movement for humanity, the left has often shown itself to be all too human.
Perhaps we should take up new interests, find something better to do with our relatively short lives. Many have, of course, and I can hardly blame them (although what they end up doing is another matter). But others, like us for example, stubbornly and patiently persist. Why is that, I wonder? Are we simply misguided romantics, blindly resistant to what is so obvious to so many others.
So we should ask ourselves, what is it that really guides us?
Of course, I exaggerate the left’s failings. There are many moving examples of courage, integrity, great achievements, insight, humanity, creative struggles and solidarity. Sometimes, at least, the left manages to bring out the best in people, including each of us.
Even the late Sir Keith Joseph MP, architect of the New Right in Britain, admitted that there was something rather noble about the socialist idea. But is any of that really enough to keep us going?
I will return to these three questions later: namely, why bother, why do we obstinately refuse to give up, and what keeps us going? However, the more I think about them the more they seem to become the same question.
A musical interlude
Next, I want to explore what it is I think the NAC has in mind in its statement – The ILP: Our Politics – but by what may seem like a bit of a diversion, so please bear with me.
If I have to nominate someone today who I find politically inspiring in these tough times, then the person who springs to mind is the 70-year-old musician and conductor, Daniel Barenboim.
Among the reasons for my admiration for him is that while he’s of Russian-Jewish descent and an Israeli citizen, he is deeply and consistently critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people; with the late Edward Said, a Christian Palestinian, Barenboim set up an amazing orchestra comprised of young Israelis and Arabs from several countries.
In fact, he has undertaken a variety of musical projects to build bridges of this kind. He has played Bach in the West Bank to Palestinian audiences which he says was a wonderful experience. He has played Wagner in Germany. He has established musical schools for young children in both Ramallah and Berlin. And only this week, he was conducting an orchestra in Gaza.
He also wants to break the elite stranglehold that artists and traditional audiences have over classical music. That’s why he recently played a free recital to a wildly enthusiastic audience at the Tate Modern. Meanwhile, much of the classical music establishment closed ranks, dismissing it as rather unseemly and undignified.
In other words, Daniel Barenboim is a politically-committed human being who engages with the world around him. But if you are wondering what has any of this to do with revising our politics and perspectives, that’s a fair question. Let me try and explain.
Interviewed recently and reflecting on the Egyptian revolution, he stated: “What the world is saying to us human beings is, ‘Don’t stick to the old ways, learn to think anew.’ And that’s what musicians do every day. You don’t go out and play Beethoven’s Opus 111 without having rethought about it every time you play.”
I would suggest that, taken as a metaphor, this tells us something about how to conduct our politics, that there is a lesson here for us. At first, his words may sound a bit like the call of the political modernisers: dump the old, go for the new – so epitomised by new Labour’s leaders.
But it is not: there is also the score to attend to; there is something to retain and it demands rethinking and refreshing. You don’t simply go on repeating the same old message ad nauseam, playing the same old tunes in the same old ways.
And that, I suggest, is what we are trying to do today: to make our music both consistent and contemporary, but also to take it to wider audiences, so as to make it more accessible. Of course, it’s not that easy. It means trying to understand the multiplicity of peoples and movements with whom we hope to connect. That way, some might at least begin to whistle bits of our tunes.
The challenge in rethinking our politics – in remaking our music – is to decide what to keep and what to discard. As mentioned, new Labour showed a fascination with the new. Remember that excruciating speech by Tony Blair about making Britain young again?
Of course, new Labour was right to identify some important changes and not least the emergence of neoliberalism and the global economy. The party certainly had to understand these developments and decide how to respond to them. The issue is not whether to respond but how best to do it; what to retain and what to discard. The world has changed and is changing but that does not mean ‘all change’.
On the other hand, sections of the left can be accused to sticking to their eternal verities as if nothing is really new. To them, any attempt at revision smacks of betrayal; a criticism quickly made as they cover up their ears. I can think of too many examples of this tone-deaf left than I care to mention. Recently, I attended the student occupation at Leeds University and heard the same speech from a comrade that she gave 45 years ago at another student occupation!
We have to chart a course between the modernisers’ adulation and capitulation to change – much of it driven by a highly promiscuous capitalism – and the denial of substantive change, a comfort for those who live in never-never land.
The point here is to identify what we hold firm and what must scrutinise.
Morality and politics
My suggestion is that our political morality is what stays firm while our political perspectives and strategies need to be revised. The latter have to relate to the past, present and future and to our ethical basis.
Hopefully, some clear indications of our ethical approach are to be found in the ILP’s statement. Sure these can and should be refined and developed; but they include equality (not just materially but in terms of treatment and access to power); democracy (not just in terms voting but in the rights to participate); and social justice, valuing collective action, fellowship and fraternity.
Interestingly, there is a growing sensitivity to these issues emerging in and around the Labour Party and this is to be welcomed. Indeed, we should become part of that conversation.
In answering the earlier ‘why-bother’ questions, I suggest that it is commitment to these principles that explains our stubbornness; why we still wish to make a better future in spite of the odds. It probably explains why Daniel Barenboim takes the courageous stands that he does (when he could make life so much easier for himself by not bothering): it is both a moral and political stance. It certainly explains something of what is taking place across the Middle East today.
The ILP draws from a tradition of ethical socialism of which we should be proud and which we should remind ourselves and others about. Let’s not become too complacent, however. Sometimes it over-relied on this foundation to the detriment of rethinking its politics. It stood aside from political engagement and questions of effective, political strategy in a kind of comforting isolation. But, just as strategy without ethics amounts to amoral instrumentalism, so ethics without practical politics becomes self-comforting utopianism.
As the NAC document indicates, it is our political morality – our sense of what’s right and wrong in society – that forms the basis of our critique of the culture of capitalism.
For whatever else it is, and whatever else it delivers, capitalism fosters a very, very different morality to ours. It may change over time but, when left unchallenged, personal gain, greed and selfishness prevail. Indeed, it can become a lot more brutal than that. And we know these are all socially, culturally and environmentally destructive with the result that it isolates people, cutting them adrift, and it fragments society. It elevates the trivial and the superficial leaving in its wake a moral vacuum.
Of course, we are not immune from these values and emotions ourselves. We are all contradictory and corruptible. But the collective espousal of our ethics and values can strengthen our individual, faltering efforts. Together we can become stronger and firmer of purpose. Hopefully, awareness of our own lapses will prevent us from becoming too sanctimonious.
We have to talk the language of what’s right and wrong in the wider society both to counter the media’s and others’ distorted versions. A moral critique is the cement which holds together our efforts to build countervailing forces to the free market. We have to challenge captains of finance, banking and industry for whom personal accumulation and corporate gain are all that really counts.
However, as much as it guides our outlook, I don’t think we are simply about just publicly denouncing capitalism to the wider society. Our message often needs to become more tangible and accessible than that. It has to address people’s daily concerns; to address what is bothering them.
Let me take one example that perhaps needs talking about a lot more. We need to speak to and with those people who wish to do a decent job at work. This is probably most obvious in the public sector, in the social services and education – but not exclusively.
However, the very notion of public service is in decline. People are often blocked from doing good, from doing the best for people, by bureaucracy, management, the pressure of colleagues, financial restraints and, increasingly, by cuts. It’s the aspect of work that can’t be measured by the criteria so often uselessly used by managers; it’s the human, the moral and it is usually worth more than words can say.
Recently I met a former Youth and Community student who I taught a decade or so ago. He is not happy in his work. He said that he never came into the youth service to decide what services and whose jobs to cut. By coincidence, the day before I had met another former student from that course who had retired on grounds of ill health: he could not take it any more. These two represent a much broader swathe of people dealing with the marketising and privatising public sector.
While our broader politics may not always mean much to them, many people really want to do a good job at work, whether it’s to do their best for the elderly for whom they care, for those who are sick or have a disability, for the children they teach, or for people with alcohol or drug addictions trying to put their lives in order. The list is much longer than what is indicated here. (Interestingly, when I typed wished to ‘do good at work’, my computer’s spell check suggested the phrase should be corrected to ‘do well at work’!)
I know that in higher education, for example, the big divide is really between those who genuinely support students in their lives and studies, and those who genuinely look after ‘number one’. Needless to say, it is usually the latter who receive the accolades and the rewards.
What impresses me in those TV programmes where millionaires show their human sides by writing cheques to community groups are the local people struggling to do good in a society starved of resources.
These are but two examples of morality in action that we should be addressing. Not that the people concerned will instantly rally to some high-sounding and radical demands. But they should be natural allies in what we are trying to build.
The point I am making is that capitalism, when it works successfully, destabilises and dislocates people’s lives, and when it’s in crisis, it expects the wider society to bail it out. It’s a win-win situation for those who run the show.
Our statement therefore is about the need to build countervailing movements to respond to, restrict and, where possible, regulate the workings of the free market. This has many dimensions, from the local through to the international. It also requires that we review how we see the role of the state, something that our document needs to consider more fully.
The statement recognises that today’s gains, however hard won, can become tomorrow’s losses; that postwar social democracy did make great advances for many people but it lasted only until the system required a major overhaul. For capitalism to regenerate, profits had to be restored. That overhaul, neo-liberalism, is itself in crisis and we are all paying for it today through the politics of austerity; the few are being sustained in their wealth and privilege by the many.
We are being subjected to what amounts to a monumental, political assault. How we fight back will be important because we have to learn how win people’s sympathies and not drive them away with wild slogans and wilder actions.
The radical academic, John Holloway, describes the present period as the ‘Rule of Money’: “Money is a great bulldozer tearing up the world,” he says. “It is an insidious force penetrating every aspect of our lives. Money holds society together, but it does so in ways that tear it apart.”
He continued: “At one stage it seemed we had pushed the rule of money back, at least in areas of health and education. It was never really so, and for a long time we have seen the progressive re-imposition of the rule of money as the prime criterion for every decision. Now money has emerged in all its arrogance.”
I think he rather belittles the gains made here but he does provide a potent reminder that for the past 30 years, we have seen the growing dominance of the forces of capital. Aided and abetted as it was, of course, by new Labour. If Labour in the 1970s inadvertently acted as the political midwife of Thatcherism, doing pragmatically what the Tories later did ideologically, then new Labour’s policies likewise laid the basis for the present coalition.
Labour and beyond
The simple answer is to damn the Labour Party and have done with it. But that would too easy and rather unwise. The question is what we can realistically expect of Labour in opposition, and in government, and how we try to engage in those processes.
But we need more than the Labour Party, we need movements that challenge and interact with it.
New opportunities are now presenting themselves with the recently-elected leadership and the bid to re-found the Labour party – or perhaps I should say new opportunities and dangers. We should be an integral part of that process as the NAC document acknowledges. We don’t do so with illusions about how much Labour can change and how much it can deliver; but it remains an important part of a process for change – not least for the opportunities to build a movement to the challenge the rule of money.
Our perspectives shape our strategy. We should seek to persuade diverse communities of people that we can do better with society than this, but only if more people participate and more people at least sympathise with our endeavours.
Based upon a political morality that means valuing and respecting each other, that means enjoying solidarity, it could be we can start something useful. The road ahead may be a long one but it could bring purpose and meaning back to people whose lives are being robbed of it by the rule of money.
This was an introduction to a discussion on The ILP: Our Politics at the ILP’s 2011 Weekend School.
Other talks from the weekend on the Conservative-led government and the Refounding Labour process are also available.