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Common-sense socialism – the way forward?

Kilburn1As the Party Conference season draws to a close, the disconnect between the politics of the Westminster bubble and the rest of us couldn’t be more obvious. Besuited figures, mostly men, addressing other besuited figures, mostly men, given huge chunks of airtime. All while party membership figures plummet and the great unsayable for the political class, that fewer and fewer can be bothered to vote at all scarcely gets a mention.

Stuart Hall was one of the founders of the 1950s British New Left. Decades later, he looked back in an autobiographical essay to explain why the New Left took popular culture seriously:

” First, because it was in the cultural and ideological domain that social change appeared to be making itself most dramatically visible. Second, because the cultural dimension seemed to us not a secondary, but a constitutive dimension of society. Third, because the discourse of culture seemed to us fundamentally necessary to any language in which socialism could be redescribed.”

This position represented a fundamental challenge to how politics was traditionally defined, by Left and Right alike:

” In these different ways the New Left launched an assault on the narrow definition of ‘politics’ and tried to project in its place an ‘expanded definition of the political.” The logic implied by our position was that these ‘hidden dimensions’ had to be represented within the discourses of ‘the political’ and that ordinary people could and should organise where they were, around issues of immediate experience; and build an agitation from that point.”

Thirty years ago in the mid 1980s, following Labour’s 1983 defeat, Hall came to prominence as one of the left’s most influential political analysts. Among the left, there was a acceptance that popular culture would play a part in any kind of progressive renewal.

We could read about it in the pages of Marxism Today and the Labour Party’s New Socialist. As for in practice, there was Ken Livingstone’s GLC, which launched a programme of free festivals and numerous other cultural initiatives. We could dance to it with the launch of the Red Wedge pop and politics coalition.

None of this established anything like the beginning of a progressive common sense, but there was at least a loosely defined left culture that related to the popular.

Fast forward to 2013, and much of this has disappeared. 14 years of neoliberal Labour did its best to dismantle much of the hope and belief that the alternative to Thatcherism would be something fundamentally different. In the closing remarks to his brilliant book on Martin Luther King, The Speech, author Gary Younge crucially points out:

“While it is true that we cannot live on dreams alone, the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral centre and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible in any given moment.”

Younge is describing precisely the predicament with which neoliberal Labour has lumbered us. The Blairite and Brownite versions combine to achieve the ultimate privatisation – that of idealism. This is what Stuart Hall, and his co-writer Alan O’Shea, set out to unpick in their chapter ‘Common-Sense Neoliberalism’, the latest addition to the After Neoliberalism Manifesto. The authors place an understanding of the meaning of the ‘commonsensical’ at the centre of the remaking of a progressive politics. Describing common-sense as:

“It is a form of ‘everyday-thinking which offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world. It is a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting only the realities of daily life and answering the needs of the ‘common people’ for practical guidance and advice.”

This suggests a very different kind of politics to one the Left is used to. We might imagine Nigel Farage and UKIP as the past and present masters of the ‘commonsensical’ in politics, and not want anything to do with any such project. But this is incredibly defeatist, not to say dangerous.

Take a fondly remembered victory, the poll tax, or the beginnings perhaps of a new win, the bedroom tax. Here we have seen common-sense arguments against the unworkable injustice of both taxes. This, combined with hugely-effective renamings for what they are – by their opponents.

Or tax avoidance. ‘Pay your taxes, just like the rest of us, we don’t have the choice of offshore accounts or cosy deals with HMRC so why should you?’ Again, the beginnings of a progressive common-sense.

Hall and O’Shea, drawing on the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, call this ‘good sense’. And they make the case that “Good sense provides a basis on which the Left could develop a popular strategy for radical change – if it takes on board that common sense is a site of political struggle.”

Mike Marqusee, in a typically excellent article ‘A Party To Dream Of’ describes the prospects for an Outside Left as a ‘long haul’. For all those on the left – in or out of Labour, in one part or another – there is perhaps no better place to begin that journey of hope with the ambition of a new common sense.

‘Common-Sense Neoliberalism’ is available as a free download from here


  1. Robert says:

    Sadly we are Miles away, and when Miliband walked out of the conference when the Unions Len McCluskey spoke.

    I think Miliband will do and say anything to get power if he loses he’s gone, we are miles away from socialism and a socialist Labour party.

  2. swatantra says:

    If EdM is a ‘socialist’ … then I’m a banana.
    Labour will have to change to a progressive pragmatic one nation democratic Party, otherwise we’re doomed.

  3. John says:

    Hopefully David M, won’t eat you then, he loves bananas, his two favourite sings, we’re all going down the strand have a banana, and the banana splits song

  4. Robert says:

    Well Bananas are constipating, which says a lot for the Browns who ate nine a day and of course David.

  5. Mark P says:

    Its been an awful long tome since the Labour Party was in any meanigful sense a ‘socialist party’.

    But that is less of the issue here. The argument is for the need to take a popular, progressive politics seruously and that the two elements, the popular and the progressive are indivisible.

    To that end taking ‘common-sense’ seriously, including in the language and images we use is vital.

    Does that mean diluting our Leftism? Not at all. Owen Jones is right now easily the best communicator of a progressive politucs the Labour Left has, does that dilute his leftness/ Not at all.

    Mark P

  6. Robert says:

    It’s about as socialists as the Liberals and close to the Tories.
    I will vote in the Welsh Assembly and leave the people who care if the Tories or the other Tories need to rule.

  7. David Melvin says:

    Despite the conference decision Chuka Umunna announced Labour will not promise to renationalise Royal Mail. A commitment to renationalisation would have been a massive disincentive to the sale. This announcement just before Royal Mail shares are to be sold is a big boost to the privateers.

  8. Robert says:

    Well after all it was New labour that stated it should be sold, Post offices next but who will want that, in my area the main post office was bought by an Asian now it’s up for sale again as he failed to turn it to a corner shop, it’s two hundred yards from Asda.

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