They say that in Russian the words for “light blue” and “dark blue” are different, and that people do not recognise them as the same colour. Whether that’s true, or simply fake exoticism, I have no idea. But we sure could use some new colours for politics as we are fast running out.
In the UK, with red and blue gone, the Liberal Democrats took yellow and the Scottish Nationalists took a sort of gold. The UK Independence Party took a weird purple and yellow combo like a discount store, which they kinda are. Then it gets complicated. The free marketeers within the Lib-Dems came to be known as the “orange bookers”, although the more accurate title after 2010 would have been “the Lib-Dems”. Labour, having ceased to sing the blood-curdling Red Flag at conferences, stopped wearing red ties and dresses, as they had once done, adopting a sort of mulberry purple. Then theologian-sociologist Philip Blond came along with the idea of “Red Tory” — that conservatives should reject both the statism of the post-1945 Labour tradition and the free-market policies of the Thatcher conservatives. “Red Tory” gave us the idea of “big society” — that the state should facilitate the re-occupation of social life by society itself, through assisted volunteer networks, local autonomy, etc. Nice idea, but Cameron’s Tories took it as window-dressing, to simply withdraw basic services, and then encourage volunteers to step in.
The latest addition to this spectrum has been Blue Labour, whose founder Maurice Glasman — sorry, Baron Glasman of Not Sure Where, probably Stokers or something — is in Australia to speak at a labour history conference, which suggests he should get a new travel agent. Glasman is a former London
Polytechni…. Metropolitan University lecturer who was elevated to the peerage in 2009. Glasman, who had been in and out of Labour circles for a while, had an audience among some of those in the “Brownite” camp, who had never been enthralled by Brown’s idea that supercharged “endogenous growth” could tame the business cycle, from which money could be creamed off endlessly to attack inequality. That genuine effort to make the country a better place yielded economic disaster, stalled reform and deep public hatred, and some Labour people wanted to work out why.
Glasman’s answer has been that Labour went wrong not with New Labour in the mid-’90s, but with the Attlee government of 1945, when Labour’s pre-existing mutualist and social collectivist traditions were replaced by a form of state socialism that had been developed to fight World War II. That process tended to evacuate community social autonomy, and it was in that vacuum that Thatcherism developed. The market became the representative of people’s desires, even as it took away the lifeworlds that had sustained meaning for millions.
Glasman draws chiefly on the writer Karl Polyani and his masterwork The Great Transformation, which examines how nations, states and markets arose in 19th-century Europe. In that spirit, Glasman argues for a Labour party that draws on notions of solidarity, community and collective tradition (as opposed to oppressive tradition), recognising the priority of life over markets with a living wage — and also reviving local associations, mutual aid groups, local control and the like. This would not only create the program for a better society, but it would also get Labour out of the corner it had painted itself into: its ghastly combination of marketophilia, state behaviouralism (a la nudge theory), and rights-based social policies in variance with the values of a mass of the population — and thus revive moribund Labour parties.
There’s much to like in Glasman’s account — especially the determination to put an idea of individual flourishing within collective life at the heart of its politics — but there is also much about it that is unexamined. In an article for The Australian — The Oz will always publish an article from the Left if it’s part of intra-left debate, rarely if it is attacking the Right; that’s Nick Cater busy not being a cultural “gatekeeper” — Glasman argues that in such a re-orientation:
“The parties must renew their local relationships and work within local concerns. In doing so, they will rediscover long-forgotten values, of courage, family, sacrifice, faithfulness and friendship. Most important, they will rediscover the importance of relationships for politics. They may even rediscover the joy of politics.”
“Without such a distinction between form and content, the politics of community can take you down some wrong turns.”
Glasman’s argument for refashioning Labour parties is more structural and social than many other suggestions, but it is also one based on a limited analysis of the depths of social transformation that underlies the problems political parties — and politics in general — are experiencing. To put it bluntly, though the social forms Glasman and others talk about — family, faith groups, etc — are still there, their very nature has been much transformed, as has the character of the people who compose them. The problem is not merely the form of association that you offer to people, but the very idea of association at all. People still join things, come together, connect — but this process is now much more fluid over time and space, more fleeting, contractual and capable of being dissolved and then re-established.
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Many people recognise this as a problem, but that does not mean they want the old world of more bounded associations back — or that they could even imagine old forms of commitments back. Political parties were formed in the tight worlds of class, defined by neighbourhood, life path, print and broadcast media, physical production and a certain fixity of social roles. That base has disappeared for everyone now. Everyone moves around, connects on the net, has no access to lifetime work or an unchanging trade, lives in a world of blended families, single parents, vanished religion, etc. Large political parties won’t any time soon be repositories of mass membership and mass will — and any situation, a la Greece, where they become such, means that old established parties often suffer sudden and catastrophic collapse and new or small parties take their place.
Glasman — and other “new communalists” such as David Goodhart and Tim Soutphomasamme — fail to sufficiently distinguish between social form and social content. The general desire for connection and association remains; the appetite for specific styles of it has changed. Without that distinction, calls for “community” will always be appeals to concrete nostalgia, and be about as attractive as a dog turd on a barbie.
Progressive parties in prosperous societies either have to have minimal programs which cut with the grain of social life — in which case one may as well leave it to the wonks and technocrats and do politics in some other form — or they must present an expansive idea of the good life in the form that people in an atomised world not only accept, but will actively want. My instinct is that this involves far more tangible provision of “positive” freedom: more affordable housing, more workplace flexibility combined with security of conditions, more flexible higher education access, etc. That is a politics that does not demand that people commit to forms of association they now find onerous or simply ludicrous, but creates a society in which new forms of association and self-realisation can take place. This would not only make human connection and richer social life more possible, it would also lay a base for the cultural transition we will need to make it in a world demanding fairer shares, and a transformed way of life, as wider changes take place.
Without such a distinction between form and content, the politics of community can take you down some wrong turns. It has done so for Glasman, whose frustration with Labour’s commitment to the open-slather immigration mandated by European Union membership, and the deep frustration and hostility it was causing in Labour heartlands, prompted him to call for a one-year halt to all immigration. That an area like the UK should have more control over its own immigration flows is one thing; the idea that halting it altogether would somehow preserve communities is a fall into nostalgia. Old worlds are not coming back; nor is the old politics.
One sign of that is the way the old political blocs — masses of red and blue — have diffused into all the colours of the rainbow.