Thursday, October 14, 2010

Kapitalist Esprit

The success of the New Right in the 1980s partially depended on its programme being hitched to a bourgeois modernization project to overcome the suffocating stagnation in the core capitalist countries. It was characterised by an appeal to radical individualism, and the entrepreneurial spirit - no wonder its social base was disproportionately located in the petit-bourgeoisie. Third Way social theory embraced this modernization doctrine, so that those forms of social democracy that gravitated to the Third Way, principally in the Anglophone countries, began to conflate 'progress' with global capitalism and its celerity.

The "forces of conservatism", in Blair's infamous coinage, were just those who resisted this force of racing and relentless change. In this, he was probably borrowing from Giddens, who in turn was borrowing directly from John Gray on the apparent incompatibility between conservatism and neoliberalism. Giddens argues: "Conservatism always meant a cautious, pragmatic approach to social and economic change—an attitude adopted by Burke in the face of the messianic claims of the French Revolution. The continuity of tradition is central to the idea of conservatism. Tradition contains the accumulated wisdom of the past and therefore supplies a guide to the future. Free market philosophy takes quite a different attitude, pinning its hopes for the future on unending economic growth produced by the liberation of market forces".

This misrepresents Burke, who was a devotee of market forces, and an individualist of the sort that inspired Hayek's approbation. Burke was indeed 'pragmatic' about social change* but one is, after all, pragmatic to an end; one conserves some state of affairs. It happens that the tradition which Burke wished to conserve, to which end he was pragmatic, was not in the first instance a way of doing things, but property rights and the incentive structure that was produced by a particular property relation. Take his appeal to William Pitt not to supply food to the poor during famine, for example. It was not the traditional way of living of agrarian proletarians that vexed him, but the risk posed by government intervention to enterprise, and to the further development of productive forces. I've written more about Burke's market fundamentalism and the cosmic order into which it is integrated elsewhere, so won't elaborate here. The point is that what defines modern conservatism is precisely its commitment to the capitalist property system, which is itself held to be rooted in certain enduring principles of human nature.

Still, capital itself had appropriated the language and icons of radicalism as part of its raid on the counterculture. Conservatism has always imitated the left, and the New Right's references consistently mined the representational strategies of the radical left. Neoliberal capital represented itself, in its cultural product, as a great, levelling, liberatory force. Think, or example, of Mike Nichols' Working Girl. Nichols, a liberal, produced something stunningly Reaganite. The heroine is a smart New York woman who has a degree but is stuck in a relationship with a deadbeat, in a friendship with an unaspiring secretary, and in a job working as an assistant for a cold, snobbish woman who doesn't respect her. This female boss is her glass ceiling - she frustrates her ambitions and steals her ideas. Her liberation is accomplished by usurping her boss' identity while he's on holiday. In this way, she establishes a sexual relationship with an established executive, with whom she contrives a business plan and woos a comely old chief executive who, she gushes, made his fortune by imitating Japanese management practises and not kowtowing to the unions. She proves her mettle, and also demonstrates that her female boss was pinching her ideas. So, the female boss is given the boot, and she is given her own office. She treats her own assistant in a respectful, open, meritocratic way. She calls her old friend, the unaspiring secretary, and tells her of the promotion. Her friend squeals with delight, apparently satisfied with the vicarious pleasure in someone else's promotion. The final shots of the gleaming silver towers of New York fade out with Carly Simons' academy award winning song 'Let the River Run', which promises a "New Jerusalem". You get the gist. As a story about female liberation, the message appears to be that emancipation is found through an alliance with patriarchs and union-busting Reaganite capitalists, in enmity with envious self-serving women, and consists of rising above your inferiors. Neoliberal capitalism thus positions itself as the revolutionary force driving women's liberation, in the form of a vibrant, dynamic meritocracy.

Given this successful cultural appropriation, it was logical for a timid and conformist social democracy, embracing neoliberalism, to try to assume a radical deportment by mimicking the conservatives. The austerity project can't even pretend to offer something like this. An 'age of austerity' is by definition an age of stagnation and adversity. The cultural cues of the emerging capitalism are rather different. Instead of luxuriating in the libidinal intensities of the market place, thrilling to the adventure of risk, and fantasising about endless protean self-invention, we are instead guided toward the unpromising waters of austerity nostalgia. No bourgeois modernism for now. Think rationing. Think neglect and decay. Think ricketts, TB, and polio.

*In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke makes a distinction between reform and change. Whereas change "alters the substance of the objects themselves, and gets rid of all their essential good as well as the accidental evil annexed to them", reform "is not a change in the substance or in the primary modification of the objects, but a direct application of a remedy to the grievance complained of". As imprecise as his terms are, a permanent problem in Burke's polemics, it is fair to say that he favoured any reform of the political economic system of late 18th Century England which would help to preserve it, and opposed any change that he regarded as fundamental. This distinction is important for modern conservatism. It can embrace wrenching social transformations if these serve to conserve the kernel of existing social relations.