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Labour’s Blues #3 – a coherent ‘anti-theory’ theory that must be challenged

jon cruddas with question markIn Labour’s Blues #1, I attempted an overview of the recent book Blue Labour – Forging a New Politics . This was followed by Labour’s Blues #2 in which I questioned the values of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) which  receives high praise in Blue Labour. In this last piece I return to the arguments of Blue Labour as a whole.

Blue Labour politics is presented as “grounded” i.e. starting out from where people are. There is a strong insistence on developing relationships with others through joint activity and on “subsidiarity” (making decisions at the lowest appropriate level). From this basic standpoint a critique is developed of both neo-liberalism, seen as sacrificing our humanity to the logic of a narrowly conceived market-place, and statism, seen as excluding our humanity through a web of technocratic management.

This analysis might be misconceived (I think it is) but if read carefully, without just hunting for what can be legitimately dismissed as wrong or unworkable, there are points with which even an opponent of Blue Labour can agree. Grounds for rejection can be quickly accumulated since there is much in the book that is wrong, nonsensical, poorly argued or even an expression of simple prejudice. But a ‘victory’ based purely on such grounds is unlikely to have much traction with people who find some of their concerns expressed in this material. An effective critique must engage with the arguments put forward.

At the level of practical politics we find proposals with which many on the left will agree. In the final  chapter by Adrian Pabst, a series of policy ideas is advanced. For example, in order to overcome welfare dependency while retaining proper concern for individuals in difficulty, Blue Labour proposes the mutualisation of social security. This would mean, Pabst says, (1) moving from means testing to an expanded insurance-based system, (2) those in need should get a “living wage” which should be linked to growth in productivity, (3) welfare schemes should be locally based so that they can be personal and participatory, (4) promoting fair prices by giving councils, communities and housing associations the right to negotiate energy and water prices as well as rents, (5) create an alternative social market in housing and (6) incentivising the expansion of wages in the direction of profit-sharing to reduce welfare dependency and to break the vicious cycle of debt and demoralisation. Arguments like these are made in some detail and could often have a direct appeal to the ‘common sense’ views that are encouraged by our media.

Another example is David Goodhart’s chapter on globalisation and immigration. He argues (1) that immigration on the present scale is unsustainable and (2) that it is most disruptive to the poorest in society. He questions

… a mass immigration policy that allowed the economy to grow rapidly for 10 years without tackling the welfare ghettoes – about 1.8 million new jobs were created when Labour was in power but the number of people on out-of-work benefits of various kinds never fell below 4.5 million.”

I have checked many of Goodhart’s figures and references and for the most part they are accurate but not always. He claims incorrectly, for example, that Finland has kept its immigration door tightly closed. There also is some confusion between immigrants and ethnic minorities in the claim that London is now “majority minority”. But despite such problems he makes a substantial case which needs to be considered carefully without being deflected by fear of a right-wing ‘told you so‘. This applies also to Goodhart’s questioning of the EU free movement policy. He says that it is probably untouchable as a part of the “EU religion” but that ways should be found to circumvent it, and Frank Field in his chapter calls for it to be dumped. Whatever the appropriate response, the whole area is crying out for reasoned argument (there has been some in the Guardian recently).

A more difficult case is that of economic analysis. Blue Labour rejects both Keynesian and free-market/neo-liberal approaches as different sides of the problem of an economy run without reference to basic human concerns. We are all affected by both the functioning of the economy and its outcomes and yet in both approaches the impact on how people live, work and relate to each other is absent. The mainstream left has, in recent decades, collapsed its economics to demands for various forms of Keynesian stimulus. This no doubt has some force, but not to see beyond this towards a longer term socialist transformation of the economy is to fall into a trap of circular reasoning. Some of the Blue Labour criticisms of Keynesian policies should be seen in this light. Blue Labour‘s essentially conservative stance does preclude some insight.

Despite these real issues and occasional worthwhile proposals, Blue Labour is stuck in a rut which is characteristic of Labour discourse. Its desire for a traditional, grounded and even conservative standpoint results in an extreme anti-intellectualism. In that sense, the British labour movement reflects our wider empiricist traditions. But society is an exceedingly complicated set of relationships and there is no chance of understanding such a complex system without a careful critique of the ideas, terms and concepts which we pick from the ‘social air’ around us in order to think about it. Such a critique is explicitly rejected in Blue Labour and this is a clear confirmation of its deep ideological conservativism.

In the chapter by Luke Bretherton (Vision, Virtue and Vocation: Notes on Blue Labour as a Practice of Politics) it is argued that “Blue Labour is not a political philosophy. It is born out of reflection on the practice of politics …”. Every rejection of theory in favour of ‘common sense’ begins like this. The claim is that, instead of starting with theory, Blue Labour deals with the real situation and then moves on to the theory it needs in the light of experience. This is of the same ilk as those who objected to the heliocentric theory of the solar system on the basis that everyday observation indicated something different. It is an argument that has not even got to the first step of understanding the complexities of society. There is not and cannot be a direct perception of reality before we begin to think about it. We start with the categories given by the language of the society around us and the assumptions built in to that language. To suggest otherwise, as Luke Bretherton repeatedly does, is to point to a path to understanding that simply doesn’t exist.

This ‘common sense’ approach is, however, not the province of Blue Labour alone. It predominates throughout British politics and is certainly widespread on the left where ‘gut socialism’ born of ‘experience’ is often held to give greater understanding than any ‘high falutin’ intellectual investigation. If only it were so. And if it comes to a clash between the common sense of the left and that of the right then we can be sure that the one that has the most connections with the dominant ideology of political discourse is the one that will prevail.

Further, the vaunting of common sense is accompanied, as always, by a denigration of intellectuals (described as ‘metropolitan elites’). This anti-intellectualism (with a strong anti-left flavour) is spelled out in detail by Ed West (The Gentle Society: What Blue Labour Can Offer Conservatives). What is disturbing about this is not only the anti-intellectual line (not uncommon in the Labour Party) but the claims that the intellectual left, having lost the battle over the economy, transferred its focus to cultural analysis and won, producing, it is claimed, a left-wing dominance of our cultural institutions. West claims that with the exception of the army “virtually every other institution … had become … institutionally left-wing. In the universities, the BBC, the churches and even the police …”. This sort of claim, which is the daily fare of the Daily Mail, is startlingly inappropriate from a group vying for influence over Labour policy thinking

There is much, much more to be said about this book but these remarks must be drawn to a close. Having read it carefully, I suggest that its underlying philosophy (even if it pretends not to have one) is fundamentally not only conservative but also reactionary. It harks back to a world of small scale production which is largely passed. It touches only fleetingly on the international corporate forces that shape our world.  The outlook is empiricist and anti-theory. The pronounced pro-religious and anti-secular dimension of the book pines for the past. This is not to deny the benefits of working with, for example, religious groups in local campaigns but rather just to say “Wake up. This is a highly secular country and even the majority who are nominally religious don’t give their religion a second thought in the affairs of either day to day or political life. Get real”.

Blue Labour is right-wing, anti-theory, anti-intellectual, anti-socialist and anti-secular. Its claims to be based on experience rather than theory are de-rigeur in the empiricist world of British politics but nonetheless false for all that. Nevertheless, it is a well organised and relatively coherent (in its own terms) group and their ideas chime with what many Labour members believe – for want of something better. The empiricist approach can be of value on some matters depending on close attention to the data (Goodhart’s chapter may be an example) but when it comes to broader questions about the nature of society, and even about human nature, it is worse than useless being only capable of producing thoroughly reactionary conclusions.

While rejecting the overall standpoint and most of the analyses and solutions in this book, I nevertheless think that it should be read. Or rather, some of it should be read (the quality of the different chapters is very uneven). The UK Left is hardly in a position of clear intellectual dominance. It cannot afford to dismiss such work without proper examination. The ideas of Blue Labour are an emanation of the ‘common sense’ (anti-theoretical) outlook that, in various guises, informs the thinking of Labour policy makers. Only by subjecting it to a careful critique can the left hope to challenge it effectively.


  1. Billericaydickie says:

    In other words, nothing to see or hear, move on.

    1. David Pavett says:

      No, there’s plenty there: read, listen, digest and evaluate. It won’t disappear by pretending it doesn’t exist.

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        Not really, (and I’ve read all 3 articles closely,) it a load of characteristically pseudo intellectual, “middle class,”dinner party crap.

        But to expand on that I’ll re-post this comment that I wrote elsewhere which cover most of whats wrong with it and the post socialist Labor party set.

        The idea of the, “Working Class,” like Labor’s socialist traditions and antecedents have now become complete red herrings.

        Reeves, Cameron, (son of a banker,) Miller, Laws, (ex banker,) Ed Balls, (brother of an investment banker, recently awarded a huge City bonus of about £4.5 million on top of a salary of about £1 million,) Miliband, (whose brother is also heavily involved in banking and who is himself yet another multi millionaire spiv living the life in a £ 2 million plus, London Mansion,) May, (ex banker,) and co represent only the interests, (personal and financial,) of their own class, (to whom the kind of hard work and poverty which they all so glibly advocate for the rest of us would be complete anathema,) a class which consists exclusively of the property owning 20%, (or 30%,) of the population who own 80% of property and command 80% of the income.

        The sooner more people wake up and finally realize that the post Blair; post socialist; “fake,” Labor party, have been completely captured by a bunch right wing Tory spivs, no different in practice to Cameron’s bunch of equally odious low life, the sooner we can finally get back to having an effective political opposition and to real alternatives that aren’t, simply just the Tories under a false flag as it were.

        Unfortunately and frighteningly so, (particularly for those of us coping with unemployment and caring for someone with a sever disability,) for that to happen Blair-Labor, (now the laughably self styled Progress Party,) probably need to lose the next election big time.

        Long term for the UK that might, (although fraught with peril,) yet be the best possible result for the 80% majority of UK voters.

        ELECTOR, n. One who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man’s choice.

        Ambrose Bierce

        1. David Pavett says:

          @J. P. Craig-Westion

          You say ” I’ve read all 3 articles closely” and your response is ” it a load of characteristically pseudo intellectual, “middle class,”dinner party crap”.

          What can I say to such an in-depth evaluation of my arguments? Not much except to note that you clearly didn’t like what I wrote.

          Just one other thing. The anti-theoretical left joins with the right in believing that its own direct perceptions of reality (aka “common sense”) can substitute for analysis. And as I said in my analysis of Blue Labour, when it comes to a clash of different common senses the one which is aligned with societies power structures will always win. The left needs something more than that.

          1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

            “What can I say to such an in-depth evaluation of my arguments/waffle ?”

            You can compliment me on my discernment.

            But to reinforce my original point, (the one about pseudo intellectual clap trap,) your last paragraph, (worthy of any gibberish generator,) completely makes my point for me.

            Labor don’t really want win the next election do you?

  2. Barry Ewart says:

    We shouldn’t start where people are – many people have fallen for capitalist hegemony and believe the garbage in the Mail and Sun et al.
    We don’t pander to this we try tp politicise working people to win them to the Left.
    I am not a politician I am a democratic socialist.
    The real dependency culture is that of the rich and powerful, they are totally dependent on billions of working people turning up for work tomorrow to create the wealth and make societies work.
    But there is a dependency culture perhaps amongst the tiny lumpen but decentralised welfare and radical adult education (Paulo Freire) should empower this group as citizens.
    We need grassroots bottom up socialism to beat Neo-Liberalism for example with the utilities the staff could elect the boards in publicly owned industries with communities having a say and we could pay a community dividend like the old Coop Divi which could be taken as money or used to offset against bills to address fuel poverty.
    People would feel they are theirs and the would be nailed down against right wing carper baggers!
    We could take Mail, Rail into democratic public ownership with staff electing boards etc but they could break even. Perhaps we need flexible public democratic models.
    Some publicly owned airlines with less passengers, more comfort and crèches in the sky!
    Public ownership of Pharmaceuticals so free drugs or cheap and the market does not rob those with serous conditions of a few extra years of life etc.
    A global living wage, free public transport, global better health and safety at work, global decent health services, clean water and sanitation(no more Ebolas!) windfall taxes on big business, taxes on the rich, a global financial transaction tax – the solution to global economic crisis is to meet global need and for example we could make toilets for the 2.5b human beings that don’t have access to them and state led, long term public investment.
    I have always said Neo-Liberalism’s greatest achievement was to stop the Left from dreaming and we need the democratic left in every country in the World to be pursuing such policies with working people globally.
    Time for Progressive Labour!
    Yours in solidarity!

    1. gerry says:

      Barry – most socialists would agree with virtually everything you list. As Blue Labourites might say: just common sense!

  3. Andy Newman says:

    more obsessional nonsense from David

    1. David Pavett says:

      I take it that “obsessional nonsense” is the more detailed response that you said you would provide.

      I confess that I find it less than informative. My idea of debate is giving of reasons for ones conclusions.

    2. gerry says:

      Heavens above Andy – have a bit of socialist civility!

      David – I must admit I hadn’t been taking Blue Labour seriously as a movement, and so it is funny that you confirm that its advocates don’t see themselves as a political philosophy or ideology but rather as a semi- religious common sense current. Unlike some of the other commenters here, I have always accepted that Labour has been a broad church, and should be, so do actually welcome their contributions, even though you have shown how “anti-rational” they are.

      John Reid – I don’t think Blue Labour is about out UKIPping UKIP either, and agree that they are not simp!y a back to the 50s colonial dream. But I think they don’t have as much appeal or reach – in 2015- as they imagine they might have, if the amazing happened and Labour was actually converted to their “non-philosophy”!

  4. David Ellis says:

    Blue Labour harks back to empire and jumpers for goalposts. It’s trying to out UKIP UKIP when what is needed is a radical socialist programme that will put the working class in power.

    1. John.P reid says:

      Whn have Ukip called on additional funding for housing, the NHS, as well as large so es to be spent by two on them, by having charities Co-ops, faith groups and local charity organizations supply additional funding, we still use jumpers for goalposts, whn did that go away,

      The 1950’s big society wasn’t anything to do with the empire,and I don’t think Ukips, retuning power from Brussels, controlling UK borders is t do with the empire either

  5. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    David Pavett-

    One further and considerably more serious note; the weight and direction of paragraph 3. (“At the level of practical politics we find proposals with which many on the left will agree……”) but too many of these proposals contained therein and expressed elsewhere as well, seem at least to me, to owe rather too much to the kind of thinking behind German National Socialism in the 1930’s, which it has been argued, “never really, expressed a consistent structure nor possessed a coherent structure,,” but, “involved the collapse of the traditional ideas of state, of ideology, of law, and even of any underlying rationality.”

    This book and Blair-Labor dogma more widely, seem to me to be retreading much the same political ground, for one example, it would be difficult indeed not see the obvious parallels with channel 4’s recent program Benefit Street and German state propaganda against minorities such as the Jews, (as prelude to and as a spurious justification for, seizing their assets, property and revenues.)

    1. David Pavett says:

      When I said “many on the left will agree” I meant just that. I did not say that I agree and I would hope that it was clear from what I wrote that I do not. Those who would be inclined to agree operate at the same “common sense” level as most of the arguments in the Blue Labour book. To get to the reality behind the common sense arguments some theory is needed.

      I tried to avoid making the lowest possible estimate of blue Labour arguments in the form of “faith, flag and family” but there is some truth in such a reduction and that resonates, as you suggest, with some very right-wing ideology.

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        Point taken.

  6. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    “Never really expressed a consistent structure nor possessed a coherent structure,” should have read, “…….or possessed a coherent ideology.”

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