By Ben Cobley
“The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down/
Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak/
The place I love best is a sweet memory/
It’s a new path that we trod/
They say low wages are a reality/
If we want to compete abroad.”
These words, from the Bob Dylan song Workingman’s Blues off his Modern Times album of 2006, pretty much encapsulate where all peoples stand now as our governments compete to bring jobs and prosperity to our various nations.
They also tap into the dilemmas, debates and despair of the Left. Our passions and desires for a better world seem almost beaten into submission by these very old but now turbocharged processes in which mobile capital dictates how the world is changed and people must either play along or find themselves outsiders: liberated but alienated.
To their credit, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and other New Labour figures saw these dynamics, developed a narrative to adjust social democratic thinking to the reality, and had some success at harnessing the forces of ‘wealth creation’ for the common good through public service investment and new programmes like Sure Start.
Tony Blair in his memoir A Journey and in other recent pronouncements has shown himself to be steadfast in his fervour for this New Labour project. Yet it is clear now that, despite the undoubted achievements made under his and Gordon Brown’s premierships, New Labour’s limited ambitions have proved no match for the forces it sought to harness for the greater good.
Social justice was a nice catchphrase for New Labour, but its meaning was never expounded to any significant extent; its implementation was mostly restricted to admirable but unambitious distribution of the proceeds of economic growth through tax and welfare systems.
Justice is about right and wrong though, and promoting social justice can surely only have meaning when taking into account forces which act beyond the individual – specifically economic behaviours that gave birth to socialist labour movements in the first place.
By acceding to the dominant narrative of the Trans-Atlantic management consultants and business geeks, New Labour quietly gave away the keys to the Kingdom by opening up Britain to market forces in overdrive. As we know from centuries of boom and bust, market forces when let loose in certain conditions demand obedience and leave casualties strewn along the highway while making some people very, very rich.
The current phase of globalisation has put a rocket under these processes and given a huge advantage with those who have the ability to straddle borders and move capital from one jurisdiction to another.
The casualties are, to a greater or lesser extent, all of us. Paper profits in the likes of Enron, Long Term Capital Management and any number of banks and financial institutions were taken away as cash by individuals and turned into hard assets like property, leaving ordinary people out of pocket, requiring public bailouts and ‘necessary’ cuts in public services as demanded by the stupider ideologues of the old order – despite the crisis of confidence undergone by their erstwhile heroes like Alan Greenspan. This is not wealth creation, it is wealth distribution – burnished by tax evasion and avoidance centred on the City of London and reaching out into tax havens like the Channel Islands and Cayman Islands, where the proceeds of crime exist behind the same veil of secrecy as those of legally-constituted entities.
The global elite and Britain’s weak public life
The global international elite that moves in these circles is now precisely that: it exercises its power globally.
In Evan Davis’s recent BBC series Made in Britain an estate agent from Knight Frank said that around 75-85% of “top bracket” property sales in central London are to foreign buyers. With the increasing wealth of countries like China and India and in the Middle East, this process will surely only accelerate, increasing the handover of limited resources (land/property) to people who do not vote here and often spend only a few weeks in the country every year.
This is at root about democracy, but the state of democracy in Britain now is that the real issues that people care about are studiously avoided by the people who are meant to be representing us.
When power and control and wealth and the assets of the country (football is another example) get handed over without so much of a whimper to billionaires and charlatans from countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia and China where corruption and exploitation are rife shows how weak the institutions of British public life have become.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the rest of the New Labour establishment can and should be forgiven for letting these things happen – just as each one of us should be for our failures in our much more limited, unimportant lives. No one can say that they did not try and did not care and did not achieve good things while in power.
Fighting the false imperatives
Nevertheless Labour must start fighting back against the narrative that market forces are always a force for good by focusing on people and real life rather than false economic imperatives. David Cameron, George Osborne and friends have consciously taken on the softer, socially-conscious language used by Blair and New Labour. However they are, in business-speak, ‘behind the curve’, and should be exposed as such.
Globalised capitalism works to undermine democratic politics; ‘marketisation’ means handover of power from public to private control and in practice often sees the creation of private monopolies as with the railway system and Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts. These are lessons for Labour to have learned and moved on from, but the Conservatives enthusiastically embrace this agenda.
That is not to say that ‘markets’ or the companies running these monopolies are evil; markets will always flourish where people live and work and play, and there is nothing wrong in companies working to make profits: it is what they are there for.
But the neo-liberal ideology has taken these basic truths and turned them into a narrative about goodness and justice: that the ‘free market’ is a moral good in itself and governments are the opposite.
Yet the ‘free’ market is itself an oxymoron because it entails the absence of interference from apparently ‘irrational’ human factors like family and culture; a truly free market cannot exist outside a laboratory populated by robots programmed to act rationally – as a vision of ideal human life it would be laughable if it were not so pervasive in public discourse.
As the only political force with a realistic chance of coming to power with a progressive agenda, the battered old Labour Party has a responsibility to stand up and fight back against these forces. To do so, it needs to go back to basics though, refocusing on values and framing a narrative with the power to attack the neo-liberal agenda – one of democracy, true freedom and real social justice.
At our best, liberals and lefties have always strived towards human improvement, which actually comes down to trying to make human beings into better human beings – the most difficult task imaginable. It is an aim that has been defaced, deformed and discredited by ambitious schemes over the years. But we also know and have seen how government can be a force for good, when it harnesses the goodwill of people and puts money on the line to support them.
As Dylan says in the song Cross the Green Mountain (written for the awful American Civil War film Gods and Generals),
“The world is old, the world is gray/
Lessons of life can’t be learned in a day/
I watch and I wait, and I listen while I stand/
To the music that comes from a far better land.”
That music needs to be listened to now more than ever, for without the dreams of a better land we are nothing.