A reflection on the good society debate so far.
The good society debate will restart on 11 January, with ten final articles. More than eighty people from across Europe have taken part so far. Thank you to everyone for this successful experiment in collective thinking and discussion. I think it is the first of its kind. As we reach the holiday period it seems a good moment to reflect on our present conjuncture.
We are now in the end game of a thirty-year period of neoliberal hegemony, during which the left suffered an historic defeat. As a result there has been a massive transfer of wealth and power to capital. We do not know what will come next, or when. Financial capital and its ideology of neoliberalism have not been defeated; it has been the architect of its own downfall. There are no victorious agents of political change ready with an ideological alternative. As Attila Agh has written, New Labour and the Third Way are a transitory politics; they were an accommodation with the ruling ideas of the time, not a challenge to them. Liberal market capitalism might have lost its credibility, but it remains the only story of economic life on offer. Social democracy is unable to seize this historical moment because, as Phillipe Marliere and Jenny Andersson, amongst others, have pointed out, it has played an active role in helping to consolidate neoliberal hegemony. It has been part of the problem, and now it is floundering in an ideological vacuum.
In Britain, the recession has taken us to the brink. Look down into the abyss and see reflected the country we have become: dynastic wealth for the few alongside some of the highest levels of poverty and inequality in the EU. More home ownership, but no investment in housing for the next generation, and now a scandalous national housing crisis. We live in a consumer wonderland, but stagnant wages have led to unprecedented levels of personal debt. And amidst the glittering baubles is a society in which trust has declined, and our democracy and liberties have been diminished. We are at risk of becoming a society stricken by loneliness and increasing levels of mental illness. Our dysfunctional economy grew on bubbles and speculation. Whole regions of the country are dependent upon public spending because business will not invest in the future economy. The boom produced a false prosperity that lined the pockets of the rich. The British political elite is trapped in the discredited orthodoxies of the past, and wedded to an atlanticist and imperialist mentality that dragged the country into war, and shuns Europe for a-dog-to-master relationship with the US.
Contributors such as Stefan Berger and Arjun Singh-Muchelle have argued that the birth of a real political alternative in the next decade must begin with radical, open thinking. We need to reclaim our philosophical foundations. People want to know what we stand for. Reclaiming our beliefs will restore historical, conceptual and moral depth to our politics. They are the lodestar that will guide us into the future. The question of which principles we hold passionately need to be distinguished from the strategic questions of how we build popular support and win elections. But, as the late Jerry Cohen argued, we need a political pragmatism not of ‘what works’, but one based around the question of what justice fundamentally requires.
We need a vision of the society we want to live in. What are the ethics, cultures and relationships with others that we value? In our cultural differences we must rebuild the idea of a common good because it provides the foundation for extending and deepening democracy, and creating social solidarity and equality. Instead of private self-interest governing public life we need to restore trust, kindness and reciprocity. This kind of society will require an ethical and ecologically sustainable economy built for social justice and equality.
Nowhere is the crisis of the centre left more acute than in the realm of political economy, where the discrediting of neoclassical economics has left an intellectual void in policy-making. Jeremy Gilbert issues a challenge when he argues that capitalism cannot be reformed, only opposed. A first response must be, as Jenny Andersson writes, an incisive analysis of contemporary capitalism and its forms of capital accumulation. We need a new political economy whose principles are ecologically sustainable wealth creation, durability, recycling, cultural inventiveness, equality and human flourishing. Our first priority, argues Duncan Weldon, is to bring finance capital under control. The lesson for Britain is that government must take on a strategic authority to build the economy of the future. We need a democratised, redistributive, social activist intra-nation state capable of regulating markets and asserting the public interest in the economy.
Last, we need to prefigure this society and economy with new and inventive forms of politics and organisation. Our societies are vibrant with cosmopolitan cultural and political activity, but our parties are culturally homogenous, top-down, hierarchical and ossified. We struggle with issues of race, sexuality and gender, and we have poor relations with our youth, the builders of the future, who shun the centre left as parties of insecurity, the establishment and war. With these difficulties in mind, Geoff Andrews calls for new kinds of alliances across civil society that will be socially and culturally transforming. Henning Meyer criticises the rationalist discourse of our politics that touches the hearts of no-one. We have lost our passion for social justice. We have no counter-cultures to capitalism that offer different ways of living. As Marco Ricceri argues, our politics must take into account all the elements in a conjuncture. Colin Crouch has asked who will be the social carriers of this new politics. We need to help prepare the ground for them, and fire the imagination of new generations.
Will Copenhagen prove to be a civilizational failure? We can see plainly what the future holds if there is a failure to recognise our interdependency: the weak go to the wall first. Our future lies in building a social Europe together, and extending our support and solidarity to one another. Carl Rowlands has identified how we are divided into core economies and peripheral subordinate economies. From the Baltic and central European states, contributors such as Mart Valjataga and Leszek Lachowiecki testify to this reality, and to the destruction of the independent left by Stalinism. Many have no social-democratic tradition to renew. If then we are for one another, we must make social justice our common cause.