Monday, May 02, 2011

A Note on New Labour and trasformismo

A while ago I wrote of Labour's "aim to represent and convoke the working class as an agency for reform" while also governing in the interests of capital. I received a missive shortly after this, urging me to go further. "This is the sort of thing that could have been written forty years ago," my correspondent suggested (I paraphrase), but "I'm not sure it does exactly this any longer." Indeed, it was written forty years ago - I was quoting more or less directly from Stuart Hall's Policing the Crisis.

Recently, proceeding through a catalogue of Gramscian writing on New Labour, I found a few pieces which might help update the picture. One was by Hall ('New Labour’s Double-shuffle', The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 27:319–335, 2005), another by Will Leggett ('Prince of Modernisers: Gramsci, New Labour and the meaning of modernity', in Mark McNally & John Schwarzmantel, eds, Gramsci and Global Politics: Hegemony and resistance, Routledge, 2009). Both read New Labour as a particular hegemonic project operating within neoliberalism, but with a specific accent that distinguishes it from simple re-heated Thatcherism. This accent derives from the specific social basis of New Labour as "a social democratic government trying to govern in a neo-liberal direction, while maintaining its traditional working-class and public sector middle-class support". New Labour is a "hybrid regime" comprising a dominant neoliberal strand and a subordinate social democratic strand, and the latter is constantly being "transformed" into the former (Hall).

The New Labour vanguard had been forged in conjuncturally specific circumstances, but its import was epochal. So, while New Labour represented an adaptation to a profound, organic, long-term shift in the global patterns of capital accumulation, the agency within Labourism that forced this adaptation through was cultivated in the 'party modernization' process of the 1980s which was ideologically signposted by the sociological arguments progenerated by Marxism Today - ironically, as Leggett points out, the very current of analysis with which Hall was closely associated. This analysis held that the processes at work in contemporary capitalism were rendering traditional forms of social democratic collectivism obsolete. Labourism had to respond to this fact if it was to win another election. Hall was not one of those who uncritically celebrated this situation - far from it, in fact - but the 'New Times' orthodoxy played a key role in justifying Kinnock's purges of the Left, and his rightist lurches. From this tendency emerged some of New Labour's organic intellectuals, such as Geoff Mulgan. 'Third Way' politics is unthinkable without this prior ideological ground-work.

So, what did the Third Way seek to do? A key term in Hall's critique of Third Way politics is 'transformism' (trasformismo), a concept which operates at a certain level of abstraction while retaining a certain concreteness. That is to say, it is a highly descriptive term, referring to a technique of governance employed by the centre during and after the Italian Risorgimento, in which radical-popular social goals are incorporated and 'transformed' by the political centre, enabling a bourgeois hegemonic bloc to carry through a 'passive revolution' without empowering subaltern classes. Yet, it can be abstracted to a limited extent, deployed - with due care - to other situations. In the case of New Labour, transformism takes the form of "a long-term strategy" to transform "social democracy into a particular variant of free-market neo-liberalism". (Hall) This entails efforts to "co-opt, fragment, and dilute oppositional
actors and demands" (Leggett) This can be seen discursively in the energetic New Labour attempts to cast their agenda in terms of the legacy of the Attlee government, the 'socialism' of Richard Crossman, etc. NHS privatization reforms are, pace Blair, "firmly within Labour’s historic battle for social justice", fully consistent with Bevan's original agenda. If this looks like evasive double-talk, it's because it is: spin is not incidental to the New Labour project, but actually central to its hegemonic operations.

The antagonism within New Labour, between its neoliberal leadership and the basis in organised labour, is what explains the tendency to resort to vacillating jargon, queen among whose cynosures is 'pragmatism':

"The key thing to say about New Labour is that its so-called ‘pragmatism’ is the English face it is obliged to wear in order to ‘govern’ in one set of interests while maintaining electoral support in another. It isn’t fundamentally pragmatic, any more than Thatcherism was—which doesn’t mean that it isn’t constantly making things up on the run. In relation to the NHS, Mrs. Thatcher too was pragmatic in the short run (‘‘The NHS is safe in our hands!’’), yet strategically an anti-pragmatist (the internal market). As with the miners, she knew when to withdraw in order to fight again, more effectively, another day. Pragmatism is the crafty, incremental implementation of a strategic programme—being flexible about the way you push it through, giving ground when the opposition is hot, tactically revising your formulations when necessary (having given us ‘the enabling state’ and the celebration of ‘risk,’ the distinguished Third Way guru, Anthony Giddens (2002), now effortlessly slips us on to the forgotten problem of equality (!!) and ‘the ensuring state’—as more businesses absolve themselves of their pensions obligations). Pragmatism requires modestly shifting the emphases to catch the current political wind, saying what will keep traditional ‘heartland’ supporters happy (‘‘It can come across a bit technocratic, a bit managerial’’—the P.M.), whilst always returning to an inflexible ideological baseline (‘‘. . . the fundamental direction in which we are leading the country is correct’’—the P.M.)." (Hall)

Pragmatism, alongside 'modernisation', served to give the impression that New Labour policy nostrums were natural, uncontestable, and inevitable, though they were none of these things. These were hegemonic strategies, designed to give moral and intellectual leadership, and fundamentally alter the 'common sense' of political discourse, rationalising production and producing a new 'collective man' (cf, 'Americanism and Fordism'). This new 'collective man' is "not to expect handouts from the state, but is to be flexible, hard-working, entrepreneurial and a good consumer: a citizen-consumer". (Leggett) Labour could have won an election and governed as a moderately left-of-centre reformist party, but the Blairites were intent on fighting within public opinion, particularly within Labour's base, for their social agenda, which centrally involved turning social justice, poverty-reduction and public service delivery - traditional social democratic concerns - into aspects of neoliberal governance. For that reason, the 'activist state' - involving not Keynesian corporatism, but rather a plethora of marketised institutions that deliberately blurred the boundaries between the state and civil society - was crucial to the New Labour lexicon.

But New Labour's transformism would not have been effective at a discursive level of it weren't for occasional concessions to progressive, democratising values at the level of policy. These included the minimum wage, the devolution of powers, the working families' tax credit, some limited trade union rights, the human rights act, increased maternity leave, and - importantly - the expansion of public services through the very neoliberal means that it sought to normalise in the terrain of social democracy. Without these sorts of measures, the efforts at transforming social democracy into neoliberalism - which, recall, depended on coopting, fragmenting and diluting oppositional actors and demands - would not have been as effective as they were. Such measures disoriented and disorganised opposition, allowing the "fundamental direction" to remain untouched.

The remaining question is exactly how much success New Labour enjoyed in this hegemonic mission. It has been noted by pollsters that the experience of New Labour government moved the electorate to the right on a whole series of social questions, on egalitarianism, wealth redistribution, welfare, and - not the least of these - nationality, immigration and citizenship. The limits of this shift, however, are clear when it comes to popular attitudes regarding the core institutions of social democracy which New Labour sought to fundamentally restructure. Privatization did not become more popular with the electorate, and the Left organised some decent, effective public campaigns on this issue, around the railways, the tube, housing and hospitals. New Labour worked most effectively here where it divided and coopted the opposition. Pro-imperialist ideology, and support for the thermonuclear-tipped Anglo-American alliance that was central to New Labour's mission, sharply declined. Any Labour leader who advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s would have been crucified; today, he might be feted by a decent majority of the electorate. Dirigiste sentiments seem to have remained relatively stable among Labour voters, probably increasing as a result of the crisis. Most importantly, New Labour's electoral viability, and thus its ability to make its programme effective, is at rock bottom. Labour might be able to win another election as New Labour, but this would only be effective for as long as no strong opposition emerged. It certainly couldn't work in Scotland or Wales, where alternative reformists forces are already able to run rings around any Labour leadership that disappoints its base.

An emerging trend in New Labour thinking that is not quite Blairism, and doesn't entirely pivot on the moral and political individualism typical of the latter at its apex, is this 'Blue Labour' trend. Its key spokesperson, Lord Maurice Glasman, is a student of Karl Polanyi, and among its supporters are communitarians like Jon Cruddas. It remains, for that, a trend within New Labour, supported by pro-market ultras like James Purnell, which aims at upholding the basic New Labour assault on traditional social democratic collectivism: the language of mutualism, for example, provides a way of doing so without departing from neoliberal nostrums, and indeed any trend that comes from within New Labour will uphold a variant of neoliberalism. (Here I can't assent to Leggett's suggestion that New Labour possesses the intellectual resources to provide an alternative to neoliberalism). In an era when the majority are expected to accept severe reductions in their living standards, the figure of the acquisitive, self-interested individual that motivated Blairite transformism is no longer adequate or even minimally realistic. Instead, we are required to do more with less, to be self-sacrificing for what is ostensibly the greater good, to hold society together even while the mechanisms of social solidarity are de-funded and eviscerated. Hence, any potentially hegemonic formation within New Labour would have to proffer some 'Third Way' between atomised individualism and social democratic collectivism. It would have to go further, however, as it could not secure consent for a modified austerity project without offering some targeted concessions and relief, and without some modest encroachments on the wealth of the richest. Yet, to even state this is to underline just how weak and unstable such a project would be, how much more obvious its antagonisms would be, and how much less efficient its hegemonic operations would be as a result.