Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


The Real Problem with Liberalism

The family unit must inspire a new political radicalism, argues the brains behind the Big Society.
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He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The only political question that matters is the one asked by Plato: “What is the good?” That is how we should judge every decision and event in time. The good should be what predominates, and the good changes what exists into what ought to be. It is a revolution in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it is exactly the kind of revolution we need today, to move conclusively beyond the failures of neoliberalism.

There has never been a successful form of neoliberal economics. The legacy of neoliberal economics is the crash, the legacy is the new serfdom that we’re currently witnessing, in which more people become impoverished and reliant on welfare, while less people pay taxes – especially the corporations – for that welfare. What we have at the moment is the rhetoric of free markets and the reality of monopolies.

Look at the leaders of the three main parties – each comes from a highly privileged background. In today’s society you can only really prosper if you’ve gone to the right schools, have the right amount of money and are well-positioned by birth. This is the society that neoliberalism has produced. The real problem is that we’re a liberal society, and liberalism delivers the opposite of what it argues for. It argues for freedom, and it introduces serfdom; it argues for liberty, and it only gives freedom for those at the very top. What I believe in is a liberalism fulfilled, not a liberalism promised. The solution is neither statism nor individualism; it is social conservation.

What is social conservation? First of all, it is not necessarily right-wing. There are clearly left-wing social conservatives. Most of the left, particularly during the 19th century for example, was founded on the idea of preserving what people thought was valuable. Think of the environment. The environment is about preserving what people think of as valuable: beauty, landscape, an atmosphere that needs protecting. That is all conservative and that’s also clearly radical. In fact I’d go even further: there is no genuine left-wing politics without conservatism. Without conservatism, all you do is embrace change for the sake of change, and that is capitalism. If the left knew or understood its own traditions, it would recognise that the best of it is a form of social conservatism. It was Marx, after all, who said, “all that’s solid melts into air”.

Social conservatism – or rather, social conservationism – is the preservation of what is valuable in people’s lives. It entails the distinction between use and exchange value, and it involves a reinstatement of the idea of inherent worth. What we need, therefore, is a new form of mixed economy that prices in externalities i.e. valuing what is really valuable. This means we make polluters pay, we make people who are playing the system pay, and we ensure that radical, free and fair competition actually takes place.

Really there are no radical politics, left or right, without a notion of what ought to be preserved against the mere forces of change. Genocide was a form of change, and if you think people should be preserved, then you’re a conservative in that regard. What we need, therefore, is a simple and clear recognition that conservatism is at the basis of all genuine politics whatsoever. (Unless you think there’s nothing valuable that is current, or there is nothing valuable that is past, and all that is valuable are things we haven’t done yet. But then that’s a peculiar form of nihilism that hardly anybody, perhaps Richard Dawkins is the exception, would endorse.) 

The first step to implement the ideas of social conservationism is the recognition that people are valuable and that they have intrinsic value. Hand in hand with this is the recognition that people are different, that elitism can be a good thing. All forms of human activity are themselves elitist and need to be. Who believes in the average? Other than Maoists, Marxists or, indeed, free-marketeers. Who believes that we’re all the same? In anything from art to literature to architecture to gardening to personalities, there are multiple elites and there need to be, because elites create excellence and aiming for excellence is what creates the good. What social conservation stands against is the idea that there is one excellent. This is untrue; there are many excellents, as William Morris argued. We therefore need policies that recognise all forms of excellence. Excellence is only elitist if you think there’s one form of excellence or alternatively that there’s no form of excellence. It’s only the plurality of excellence that’s compatible with democracy.

We therefore need to recognise that many of the approaches that we’ve adopted to help people actually harm them. Think of state education in our poorest areas – it’s almost unbelievably bad. We’ve destroyed culture when we should preserve culture. We’ve destroyed working class culture – the culture of the miners who played Handel, the workers’ educational association. All of that has been aborted from our lives, in part by the left just following a completely statist approach, and also by the right where there’s been contempt for working class people.

What we have to look at is the whole range of social institutions and remodel them so they can preserve and advance what people value. Let’s take one example: regardless of class, people have an equal aspiration to marry. But for those in the most disadvantaged parts of society, that equal aspiration to marry isn’t mirrored by an equal success in marriage. Increasingly it’s the wealthy and successful who marry. Once we’ve destroyed the cultures of marriage and partnership, what happens is that women are left with the children and with a low paid job moving from welfare into low paid work and back again, whilst men, feckless and indolent, are allowed to evade their responsibilities to women and to children.

What we need to do is recover the progressive nature of the family. The family isn’t some awful fascist imposition, as Engels wrote, where women are essentially enslaved to patriarchy. The family is the most effective tool to fight modern poverty because it creates, at the beginning, a shared approach to all the problems that confront us when we raise our children or try to progress our lives. The destruction of the family is the destruction of the life chances of the poor.

The tragedy of modern feminism is the pursuit of sharp elbowed autonomy, and there has now been significant recognition that modern feminism has essentially become a tool of modern capitalism, i.e. feminism has lost its project of solidarity. The recovery of the project of solidarity for feminism is absolutely vital both for women and for men.

The first principle of solidarity that all human beings experience, if they’re lucky, is the solidarity of their parents with their own well-being. That’s what is meant by social conservation. Far from being the pursuit of some hideous campaign against different sorts of people, it’s a preservation of what people value, and what the overwhelming majority of people value is other people, and their most intimate and important relationships. Yet everything in how we run our society and economy today privatises those relationships. It doesn’t capture the public worth of our public concern with one another. All of my work, from the Big Society to Devo-Max, is about trying to recreate social solidarity, trying to recreate the conditions whereby people can interact with one another, on the most intimate level – the family – up to the more abstract level – a community around a city, place or locale, or indeed the nation. That’s the only real radical project we have.

If you look at this issue historically, women have always created a domestic economy that was actually also a non-domestic economy. What I argue for is full and equal participation by women in all the goods of society: academically, intellectually and creatively. One of the greatest factors holding women back today is that when successful women have children, they leave full-time work and go into part-time work, or they never return to work. If you track male-female incomes, women are doing far better than men; women are far more competent in so many ways than men. By their 30s, by many indices, women perform far better than men. After their 30s, when they have children, they drop out. That’s the standing indictment of the forms of modern feminism that we’ve had, which in my view are patriarchal. That’s the form of modern feminism that says men and women are no different, and they’re just essentially different bodies. That means that the difference of women – one of which is of course that they have children – isn’t catered for. I believe in a completely enhanced offer around maternity and maternity care that ensures equality. In many ways we have to treat people differently in order to achieve equality. In many ways one of the greatest agents of inequality is egalitarianism.

Let’s take another example: the welfare state. What if the welfare state doesn’t preserve welfare? Let’s think big. The aim of the welfare state was to secure people against poverty, to ensure that capitalism didn’t just pay people the very minimum in order for them to survive. But now there is a situation, particularly in the developed world, where welfare has enabled people to get something for nothing; where you make no contribution and you get rewarded anyway. This has produced a society where disadvantage has almost become an inheritable condition. Levels of social mobility are back to the Edwardian times, and the postcode where you’re born is a better predictor of your outcome than any other social indicator.

Besides, does anybody in the developed world seriously believe that welfare actually relieves poverty? The evidence is clear: welfare can have the complete opposite effect; it can create a whole group of people who live on welfare and nothing else. Of course, income welfare is necessary for some people at certain stages of their life, but I actually believe in a more radical form of welfare, a form that is true to welfarism’s original intentions, which is transforming people’s outcomes. I believe in asset welfare.

If the left was more critical it would realise that welfare in many cases actually harms the poor. Welfare is a substitute for ownership, and ownership is the only thing that can genuinely create mass social justice. Without mass ownership, we will always have a class that relies on wages, which is exactly what we have now. Where is the greatest amount of wealth? It goes hand in hand with ownership. Where do radical policies create mass ownership? Nowhere on the left. We’ve got to rethink what welfare is. If we take it seriously, welfare is the flourishing of human beings, and it’s hard to think of our social system as contributing to that. Just tour the great cities of the north, and see whole council wards where essentially their future is impoverished and that of their children and their children’s children.

In this regard, my vision for the Big Society is as pertinent as it ever was. Indeed the government adopted Devo Max – Devo Manc, which by the way is a Big Society vision – within months of me publishing a report at ResPublica. What happened is that conservatism reverted tragically to type. It once again became the utilitarian, free market fundamentalist approach that will never ever gain majority support. Conservatism is at its best when it’s broad and One Nation, and encompasses more than just the interests of the economically autonomous south-eastern folk, and actually cares for the whole nation.

What was really lost with the abandonment of the Big Society is a conservatism that would have majority appeal. But I have no doubt, and I know this from my work in Europe, that those ideas will come back. Indeed in his superb policy review John Cruddas said very publicly that many of his ideas are about trying to make the Big Society work, and actually the future of policy will look like the Big Society.

No cultural shift is unstoppable. History isn’t governed by necessity; history is governed by contingency. Many of the things that have happened have been good, such as medical research, but many things that have happened throughout history have been appalling, from mass war to climate change and so on. I doubt very much anyone thinks that climate change is a historical necessity, it’s only happening because we don’t have the economics and politics to reverse it, but they’re theoretically achievable. It’s the same with anything from obesity to poor education. These look like long-term trends, but they’re the results of social and cultural decisions. It’s time we made some good decisions.

Social conservation is not a defence that’s merely fixed. To quote Augustine, it’s the “moving image of eternity”. Let us not forget that the first form of politics we ever had was Judaism, where God wasn’t conceived as validated status quo, but was conceived of as imagining an entirely different human community. Most people today view religion as social conservatism, but religion is essentially the most radical form of politics in its Jewish and Christian forms. It argues for a fundamentally different view of the world, where the good should be what predominates and the good changes what exists into what ought to be. In that sense, the most progressive politics for a better future is that of social conservatism.


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