Let’s get theoretical

Now that McDonnell has been unable to secure enough nominations from his parliamentary colleagues to get on the ballot for Labour leadership, I will waste my time with a post on how this is, in the end, for the best. Instead, I’ll turn my attention to the Conservatives. Cameron’s re-branding of the Tory party has been rather shallow. But don’t worry – they’ll come up with some policies eventually. In the meantime…


Why theory?
Flicking through a recently published book on conservatism I came across a paragraph on the most interesting aspect of the political theory: its lack of theory.

The author pointed out that a Marxist would be expected to have the same positions in one historical period to the next, but not a conservative. That the example chosen was Marxism allows me to point out that political theory should be understood from a class perspective. The class interest served by conservatism is obvious, though unstated.

Marxists have an understanding of historical events based on an a materialist class analysis and work towards the working class conquest of political power and the extension of democracy into economic affairs through public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.

Conservatism is not about building something new, rather it is about justifying and sustaining what already exists. The reason for the absence of an overarching theory, a metanarrative, is because it is unnecessary and unhelpful. Besides which, dabbling in “theoretics” can prove embarrassing.

Tony Blair ridiculed Tory frontbencher Oliver Letwin at Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament last Wednesday for his dabbling in theory. Letwin had given a speech to the Policy Exchange in a woeful attempt to add theoretical weight to the “New” Conservative Party of David Cameron.

Speech! Speech!
Apparently Cameron’s Tories are trying to “shift the locus of debate from an econo-centric paradigm to a socio-centric paradigm”. “It all goes back to Marx.” Or so we’re told.

Unsurprisingly Letwin offers an idealist (that is to say, idea-focused) view of the working class movement. He uses Marx as shorthand for the advent of revolutionary socialism:

“Before Marx, politics was multi-dimensional – constitutional, social, environmental as well as economic. But Marx changed all that. The real triumph of Marxism consisted in the way that it defined the preoccupations not only of its supporters but also of its opponents.

“After Marx, socialists defended socialism and free marketeers defended capitalism. For both sides, the centrepiece of the debate was the system of economic management. Politics became econo-centric.”

Though he acknowledges the resurgence of socialism in Latin America, Letwin correctly asserts that the capitalism is now hegemonic, though his presentation of events suggests the Cold War was merely a battle of economic ideas. The era of “post-Marxist” politics led to triumphal declarations of the inevitability of capitalist exploitation and a decline in the standard of bourgeois theory.

Fuck you, Fukuyama
In the “post-Marxist” era, there is a consensus on not only accepting the “free market” but promoting it as the solution to the problems of economic management. Politics is now about society, says Letwin, and Cameron Conservatism must be about shifting provision from the state to society.

“The framework theory of the modern state sees government as having two fundamental roles: to guarantee the stability and security upon which, by common consent, both the free market and well-being depend; and, much more controversially, to establish a framework of support and incentive which enables and induces individual citizens and organisations to act in ways that fulfil not merely their own self-interested ambitions but also their wider social responsibilities.”

Letwin is wrong in supposing that New Labour differs from his New Tories in aiming for a “framework” state. Blair’s legacy of “reform” will not be abandoned by Brown. The Tories cannot go into the next election arguing that Brown favours bureaucratic central control because it simply isn’t credible.

The increase in funding for public services under New Labour has led many to suppose that this would be sustained or was in some way indicative of a commitment to public services. Rather the boost to the National Health Service was to win public support while ensuring the NHS could be gradually privatised without the effects being too obvious.

Clunking fist vs. helping hand?
The Tories will, in future, try to contrast Brown’s reputation as a centralist with their desire to devolve power to voluntary groups that are able to “internalise externalities”. Brown has acted pre-emptively in launching a “listening” campaign and promising a government “of all the talents”, which is a code for coalition government and bringing in expertise from the private sector.

The bureaucratic pension and tax credit systems pioneered by Gordon Brown were not intended to succeed. Means-testing puts people off claiming benefits to which the government knows they are entitled: billions of pounds are not paid out under means-testing, making it cheaper than universal benefits.

Consider this for a second: the government knows a third of pensioners in the UK do not claim the pension credits that they are entitled to receive. This is £1.6 billion in unclaimed benefits. Meanwhile, the government is to use lie-detectors on benefit claimants to detect those pesky “benefit cheats”. When one considers the level of pensioner poverty in the UK, it is clear that the biggest benefit cheat is Gordon Brown.

So Brown does not favour the “providing” state. His own term is the “servant” state. This conjures up the state as a butler, the Jeeves to our Wooster. Unlike the archetypal butler, the “servant” state will not directly provide for us. Already patients in the NHS are officially referred to as “customers”.

Cameron has had to pledge he would keep the NHS as it is rather than introduce a form of health insurance, as proposed by the Tories at the last election. But the trend is unmistakably towards further contracting out.

The degree to which the Brown wants to eliminate the public sector was illustrated with the leaking of proposals to sack thousands of civil servants and outsourcing their jobs to India and China. Though, of course, the mandarins would not be replaced by people speaking mandarin. Sir Humphrey would be safe in Whitehall.

The story was denied when it appeared two years ago, and may have been nothing more than a fantasy, but it sounded credible. Few but the most ignorant would regard Brown as being a defender of public services. The very word “reform” now has entirely negative connotations for it is only used to describe forms of privatisation, from slight to outright.

There has never been a political debate about privatisation. Though it was an aim from the start, the Tories were not open about their plans for steel, coal, telecommunications, gas, electricity, water, rail and the rest. There has never been close to majority support for privatisation, which is precisely why it is not a political issue.

A possible challenge to the hegemony of neo-liberal ideas in the Labour Party came in the form of John McDonnell’s leadership campaign. But the spineless nature of his parliamentary colleagues, the ruthlessness of the Brownites, and the undemocratic nature of the party, prevented an open debate.

Uncontrollable urges
The argument for a “framework” rather than provision is, in the end, an argument for some people getting no provision; bourgeois theorists are not honest about this and politicians can’t call for greater inequality. The “framework theory” is about further reducing social rights and moving political discourse beyond collective action.

A recent article in The Economist belittled socioeconomic rights by asking who could provide food and shelter if they were rights. This was a disingenuous way of framing the debate; they should have made the grounds of their opposition clear, but again, honesty is not possible.

The end of the post-war consensus in the UK has coincided with a drastic reduction in the numbers of people who vote in elections. Millions of people who are eligible to vote are not even registered, making the level of abstention higher than the official count.

The problem for politicians in the “post-Marx” era is their inability to offer anything to voters. If the state is being hollowed out and so cannot be used as a vehicle for social change or economic intervention, what use is their in voting?

Career opportunities
Who knows what the “radically pragmatic” New Conservatives will come up with next? I think it unlikely they will pursue the framework theory openly, since it is clearly a justification for privatisation, which has never had the support of the “overwhelming majority” of people in the UK.

The leadership has pledged support for public services, jumping on the protest bandwagon in opposing hospital closures and the system of employing junior doctors. They have just dumped the party’s traditional support for grammar schools, a signal they are opposed to academic selection, in an attempt to trigger a Clause Four moment within the party.

The eye-catching greening of the Tories by Cameron failed to produce a strong backlash from the base, perhaps because they, like everyone else, felt he was pretending. He was, of course, but the leadership requires a fight with the old guard that will cement Cameron’s changes and suggest to the voting public that the Tories have made a break with the past.

No more Nasty Party? I doubt it.

The Tories might win the next general election to Westminster by default, but they have lost Scotland and Wales, and are unlikely to have a huge majority – not that they’d need it now that Labour’s policies are more Thatcherite than Thatcher. A Tory government could inadvertently accelerate the break-up of Britain through independence in Scotland and Wales; the memory and legacy of previous Tory governments would boost support for both the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru.

But in the event that the Tories suffer a fourth consecutive election defeat, Letwin needn’t retire to pen books on political theory; Brown’s promise of a government of all the talents might have a place for a minister of bullshit.


2 Responses to “Let’s get theoretical”

  1. V Says:

    Just like to say this is a brilliant blog. Excellent analysis, a good balance between theory and commentary. Great! Keep up the good work.

  2. charliemarks Says:

    Thanks comrade, I appreciate your kind support. It means a lot. I assume you, like me, are relatively new to blogging. I’m finding it quite therapeutic, actually — it’s nice to let rip in cyberspace. Love your c*** of the week blog, btw. Man, you’ve got a *lot* of anger. Thankfully, it’s directed at the right people…

    You may notice that I write a little too much. It’s either typing frantically or smoking, I’m afraid. Glad there’s a balance between the theory and commentary — I have to be wary of tipping too far into commentary, though. Either way’s a bad way to go. i hope quality doesn’t suffer at the expense of volume… Must cut down.

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