Ideology is back in politics. It’s time our terminology caught up.
The acid test of any political statement is whether or not it’s possible for any sane person to disagree with it. “I want a stronger, fairer Britain,” opined Nick Clegg at his party conference. Really? I’m actually rooting for a weaker, nastier one. “Britain forward, not back,” was a winning Labour slogan in 2005, which happened to hit Michael Howard where it hurt – his slimily authoritarian stint at the Home Office in the mid-nineties. Quite what it meant is another matter. “Britain sideways, not downwards.” “Britain diagonal, not zig-zagged.” “Britain hip, not square.” (And so forth). The modern Conservative party, for its part, has perfected the language of aggressive vacuity: “Now for change,” (No! More of the same?) or, perhaps best of all, the horribly telling “Change to win!” (Stay the same, and lose?).
More dangerous, perhaps, is the language the left has come to use when defining itself. ‘Progressive’ is an armour-plated weasel word, impervious to accusations of, well, anything, except meaninglessness. When George Osborne and Phillip Blond appropriate it for Tory purposes, it’s hard to fault them. It’s cuddly, it’s vague, and you can use it to mean whatever you want. Progress for who? Towards what? And how? The answers are all in the brain of the beholder, and that suits Cameron just fine. After all, what kind of a madman could argue against ‘progress?’
This isn’t to say the word isn’t without its uses. In terms of attitudes to race, disability, and gender it neatly encapsulates a socially liberal approach that includes positive action on behalf of minorities in a way few others can. As such, its frantic repetition by the left is no accident: agreement on the improved and improving conditions of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled is suffocating to the point of dangerous complacency, so its use allows us to paint the right as having a fundamental problem with the liberation of minorities – a notionally unacceptable position in modern political debate. This is fair enough: many of them do. As a catch-all ideological signpost for the entire left, however, it has dangerous flaws: lacking clearly defined economic implications, it understates the complexity of the relationships between economic and social injustice, and draws attention from our political leadership’s dangerous accceptance of New Right economic orthodoxies.
‘Progress’ happens whether we like it or not: economies grow, labour divides, cultures change. What defines a political movement is its response to progress. It is now clear that, since the end of the 1970s, a great deal of social and economic ‘progress’ – strictly defined by the ideologically charged criteria of global capitalism – has been problematic for the individuals caught within it. Meagre rises in real incomes have been accompanied by a vast expansion of working hours and an explosion of public and household debt across the West. Dislocation and disruption in families and communities produces both winnners and losers. The blessings of globalisation have been distinctly mixed for the global South. Meaningful action on climate change has yet to be taken. The left’s response must be to strictly interrogate the autonomy and supremacy of the demands of capitalist accumulation in the policymaking of governments, corporations, and international institutions, to ensure that people and the links between them are always considered as more than the constituent parts of a global economic machine, working to augment and maintain the wealth and power of the wealthy and powerful. We want everyone to live well, not a few to live better and better at the expense of everyone else. This is our vision of ‘progress,’ and ‘progressive’ just doesn’t cover it.
There used to be a word for the idea of a social order composed of human beings, not profit-maximizers: it was called ‘socialism.’ Always denoting ends rather than means, it was used by thinkers as diverse as Owen, Marx, William James, Tony Crosland and, yes, Brown and Blair to describe a different way of viewing the world. Even ‘Red Tories’ like Blond have their predecessors – they self-defined as ‘Tory Socialists,’ and included Orwell, Wilde, and Robert Blatchford.
‘Socialism’ is a term with a rich and varied history, but at the bottom it is the humane antithesis of ‘capitalism.’ It need not be statist. It is certainly not an exclusively Soviet, or even an exclusively Marxist, label. By abandoning it as an irrelevance we unwittingly accepted the terminological frameworks of our bitterest opponents, and left ourselves with the cold comfort of uncontentious weasel-words like ‘progressive.’
If the left is to regain its soul, purpose and relevance we would do well to start with the words we use to define ourselves. Never mind Murdoch. “I’m a socialist.” Say it loud and proud.