THE 'STATE' THAT WE ARE IN AT THE MOMENT: ON THE POSSIBLITIES OF A POST-NEO-LIBERAL WORLD
"The state that looks after people (its own people) is not quite the same as the state that cares for people, of the sort that was developed in Britain after the Second World War. If May wanted to push care to the centre of her vision, a new politics of welfare would be required, one which used fiscal policy to respond to basic material and social needs, where ‘needs’ are understood as things we all have by virtue of our humanity, not our identity. A care-oriented state would have to pursue a far-reaching cultural reversal of the Osbornite condemnation of welfare recipients. There have already been signs that the more punitive end of recent welfare policies will be abandoned. It will be interesting to see how much more of that there is to come. But for the time being, it sounds as if the May government is going to listen to the fears and demands of its particular people, rather than seek to map and meet the needs of people in general.... There is no contradiction between social conservatism and economic protectionism: both are hostile to the fluidity, cosmopolitanism and perceived snobbery of liberalism. May’s declaration, ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,’ was pitched as much at bankers as it was at left-wing intellectuals. Whether it was also a ‘dog whistle’ regarding refugees probably depends on what breed of dog you are. I was surprised that a speech condemning financial elites, human rights lawyers and nationless people in blanket terms wasn’t interpreted as anti-Semitic. But as Stuart Hall recognised, rampant capitalism has a far greater capacity to undermine traditional community relations than social liberalism: the Thatcherite effort to weld social conservatism to economic liberalism was far more contradictory than the present turn to economic interventionism. This latest reconfiguration of conservatism could ultimately be more sustainable even than Thatcher’s.... Britain is now a more unequal society than it has been since the Second World War. Class is a powerful determinant of the lives people lead. It doesn’t, however, perform quite the same role in sustaining the cultural and political status quo that it did before neoliberalism, and certainly not the same role it did before the 1960s, which helps to explain why May’s ‘protective state’ has become possible and necessary. One thing that Brexit demonstrated, which May is clearly keen to exploit, is that cultural divisions no longer map tidily onto economic ones. Working-class lives are buffeted by change, including the changes represented by immigration, but New Labour only ever invited people to embrace more change. The traditional middle classes and aristocracy have not been in the driving seat of British politics for more than thirty years, as the financial elite exploited the exuberance of fin de siècle Britain, London especially. It’s been said that Thatcher wanted a society of people like her father, but produced a society of people like her son. Clearly May wants to change that. But the new cultural coalition that she aims to represent – of working-class Brexiters, pensioners, Daily Mail readers and traditionalists – scarcely holds together as an identifiable group. Nor are the boundaries around these identities very clear cut. They may well aggregate into a fearful electoral resource, which could yield May a big majority in 2020, but it is quite another thing for the state actively to intervene to look after these people, when historically it was the job of cultural institutions, ties, networks and communities to preserve their way of life. May’s cultural instincts are consistent with Burkean conservative philosophy, but that tradition is historically uncomfortable with state intervention of the sort she espoused in her party conference speech. To wed a Burkean ideal of community to a Hobbesian ideal of the protective state is problematic and potentially dangerous. The difficulty for Burkean conservatives today is that neoliberalism destroyed the resources on which ‘little platoons’ depend and thrive, so that tacitly understood conventions and rituals must now be reintroduced by the very thing that conservatives traditionally wanted to avoid depending on – namely, the modern state. The gaping hole in the Blue Labour and Red Tory agendas was always the question of statecraft: what exactly will the state do to promote the ideal of ‘faith, flag and family’? It seems likely that the state will start performing acts of conservative discrimination which historically have been performed by way of cultural capital and softer forms of power. An example of how deranged the consequences can be is Nick Timothy’s suggestion that work visas be granted only to foreign students at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. Policy-makers may form their ideas on the basis of what goes down well in the pubs of Dorset, the comment pages of the Daily Mail or the working men’s clubs of Scarborough, but snobbery and chippiness are more troubling when they are converted into the printed word of the statute book. It sounds as if the ‘protective state’ is ready to discriminate, and won’t be ashamed to admit it. It will discriminate regarding good and bad economic activity; it will discriminate between good and bad migrants; it will discriminate between good and bad ways of life. May is not afraid of sorting the wheat from the chaff. This may be the reason grammar schools symbolise something important for her, regardless of the evidence against their efficacy. In that respect, there is some continuity with neoliberalism, which sought to divide ‘winners’ from ‘losers’ in a range of different tests and competitive arenas. The key difference is that neoliberalism uses rivalry itself to identify the worthy. The neoliberal state offers no view on what a good company or school or artist looks like. Instead, it uses rankings, contests and markets in order to find out who rises to the top. The question any neoliberal – or liberal for that matter – might now want to ask May is this: on what basis do you distinguish the worthy from the unworthy? Are we now simply to be driven by the contingency of biography, where Timothy is fuelled by the anger he felt as a lower-middle-class boy in Erdington in the early 1990s, or May is guided by the example of her Anglican clergyman father? Is the fact that liberals haven’t experienced being the victim of regular petty crime or a failing school now going to be the principal basis for ignoring them? Politicians have always used cultural tropes in order to build popularity and even hegemony. Thatcher spoke a nationalist, militarist language, while doing considerable harm to many of Britain’s institutions and traditions. Blair had his football, coffee mug and badly-fitting jeans. Conservatives have often struggled to find a coherent post-Blair cultural scheme, alternating between fake displays of liberalism (Cameron’s huskies) and the embarrassing reality of their party base. Right now, however, matters of nationality and cultural tradition do not seem like window-dressing: when the state is offering to look after some of us, but not all of us, the way you look, talk, behave and learn threatens to become the most important political issue of all".William Davies, "Home Office Rules". The London Review of Books. 3 November 2016, in www.lrb.co.uk. I have excerpted a considerable portion of William Davies' essay which can be found in the current edition of the London Review of Books, for the simple fact of the matter is that I believe it is an important one. The First World, the West, Christendom is in a moment of flux and transition. The neo-liberal weltanschauung / world-order has lost a considerable amount of its popular (not mind you elite) legitimacy. Commencing with the financial crisis of 2008, the foundations of the formerly hegemonic ideology known (at least among academics in Europe and the USA) as 'neo-liberalism' (AKA Anglo-American, buccaneer capitalism with a soupçon of rudimentary Fordism mixed in), have been thoroughly shaken to its very core. The lethargic growth of the Western countries since 2007, when added to the economic and political disaster that is the Eurozone, when garnished with the military and strategic disaster that was the Iraq War and following from which the partial American withdrawal from active overlordship of the Near and Middle East have brought about to a considerable degree a crisis of legitimation of the neo-liberal regime. Both in Europe and in North America. In the case of Europe, the economic crisis in the southern cone countries of Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal and Italy has mushroomed to in some of these countries a political crisis. As parties of the extreme (left mostly) have either come to power (Greece & Portugual) or appear to be not too far from achieving it (Italy). In other parts of Europe, where the economic consequences of the Euro have not had quite the same harshness, the political landscape has still seen the growth of mostly radical-right (not mind you 'conservative' per se) populist parties in France, Holland, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Austria among other places. With in Central Europe this situation going further with the entrenchment in power of parties of the same ilk in Hungary and Poland. And of course in Britain we have had the Brexit referendum result and the coming to power of Theresa May as prime minister. Someone who to some extent speaks the most conservative language as Prime Minister since Stanley Baldwin in the entre-deux-guerre period 1. And of course in the United States we have the phenomenon of Mr. Donald Trump. Which if nothing else seems to illustrate the fact that Americans appear to enjoy in their politics as in so many other things, a wild sort of exhibitionism which goes beyond mere vulgarity, to something akin to what the 19th century Russian writer Gogol at his most acute rendered as poshlost. When one adds up all these political and economic variables, many quite uniform (low economic growth, growing income inequality, low productivity, a disenchantment with 'globalization', especially third-world immigration), one sees that unless there will be a very sudden change in the economic climate in the next two to four years, then there will be a new, post-neo-liberal order in much if not all of the Western world. In that respect, regardless of whether or not Mr. Trump wins or loses the American Presidential elections next week (and I for one hopes that he loses), the fact is that even the United States, the one-time premier country of neo-liberal consensus, is no longer up to fully espousing this formerly dominant ideology, and thus the situation we are facing in the West is not merely indulging a passing political tempest (viz: Niall Ferguson), but something perhaps much more fundamental 2. Time will tell of course what precisely will replace and where, the neo-liberal order. Whether it will be a Baldwin-like, nostalgic, gemeinschaftlich political regime or something much more anarchic and harsh has yet to be seen. Being someone of a Burkean cast of mind, I await the new regime with much anticipation. 1. For a concrete idea of Baldwin's political worldview, see: Philip Williamson & Edward Baldwin. Baldwin Papers: A Conservative Statesman 1908-1947.(2004), pp. For the resonances that this has with the current British Prime Minister and her coterie, see: Henry Mance, "Clues to Theresa May’s policy lie in chief of staff’s essays". The Financial Times. 2 August 2016, in www.ft.com; Isabel Hardman, "Beware the aides of May! The people who'll really run the new government". The Spectator. 16 July 2016 in www.spectator.co.uk. 2. See: Niall Ferguson, “The Populist Bomb: the Trump phenomenon explained”. The Hoover Institute Digest. Summer 2016, in www.hoover.org. In this argument herein, it seems to me that Ferguson mis-understands the politics of the ‘great depression’ period (roughly 1873 to 1896). Per contra to his argument, in Europe there was very little strictly speaking of a ‘populist’ wave akin to what has occurred in both the USA and in Europe in the past few years. Or what occurred in the United States in the 1890’s. Partly due to the fact that either the polities in question were semi-authoritarian (Kaiserreich Germany) or not yet based upon universal manhood suffrage (Great Britain & Italy) or both (Austria-Hungary). In some of these countries (France, Germany, Italy and Austria) one saw the introduction of a limited regime of protective tariffs, but in other countries one did not (Great Britain). And in no instance was there a change of ‘regime’ in the sense that the pre-1873 socio-economic set-up was significantly changed enough that it prevented a subsequent further push of economic integration that followed from 1896 to 1914. Where however I do see parallels between continental Europe in the late 19th century and the contemporary populist movements is in the matter of style. Specific ally, the late 19th century saw I believe that invention of what was in Kaiserreich Germany called ‘sammlungpolitik’, AKA, the ‘politics of rallying together’. In the case of the Kaiserreich, those adherents of the new German Reich, as opposed to those labeled as ’enemies of the Reich’ (such as Guelfs, Roman Catholics, Poles, Danish speakers, et cetera). Originally, part of a ‘integrationist’, ‘top-down’ strategy by Bismarck and his successors, later on this style of political invective assumed a life of its own by political groups outside of the charmed circle of political elites. For a look at this style of politics in the Kaiserreich, see: Geoff Eley. Reshaping the German Right: radical nationalism and political change after Bismarck. (1980). And in mis-understanding the politics of the great depression, Ferguson accordingly mis-understands I would argue the contemporary populist wave as well.