The Life of the People

by Jonathan Rutherford, Ed Lewis

Jonathan Rutherford discusses the challenges faced by the left in connecting with the people and culture of contemporary British society, focusing in particular on gender, the prevalence of a conservative mood, and the riots.

First published: 12 August, 2011 | Category: Culture, Economy, Gender equality, Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

Jonathan Rutherford is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University and editor of Soundings journal. He is co-editor of The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox as well as author and editor of books on culture, gender and politics.

He spoke to Edward Lewis about the challenges faced by the left in connecting with the people and culture of contemporary British society. Most of the interview was conducted before the recent riots, but a detailed afterword on them has been added.

Prior to the recent economic recession, you were already suggesting we were witnessing a ‘social recession’, marked by intense and rising levels of mental ill-health, loneliness, eating disorders, alcohol and drug addiction and more besides. It is common on the left to argue that the government’s austerity measures have been worsening these kinds of problems. Do you agree with this? And, if so, what do you think are some of the most striking ways in which the current is deepening this social recession?

The government’s deficit strategy will make things very much more difficult for many people; so will its Welfare Reform Bill. But I’d frame the issue in a different way because the social recession is about more than the cuts and levels of public spending. It is about the fundamental nature of our society and people’s social relationships. In this respect it is a crucial political terrain in the ‘war of position’ with the right.  I don’t think the Left has understood this.

The idea of a ‘social recession’ was first used in the UK in Compass’ The Good Society book. I developed it in a paper for the Sustainable Development Commission. I picked up the idea from a US Professor of Psychology called David Myers, who I’d guess is part of the Christian Right.  He argues that America slid into a social recession in the 1960s, caused by a ‘radical individualism’ which had been taken to an extreme.  Materialism and consumer acquisitiveness corroded culture and created a spiritual emptiness.  For Myers the social recession is essentially a moral problem, and he offers no analysis of what might be causing the disintegration of social bonds and institutions. He keeps his eye fixed on what he considers are the symptoms, and ends up being preoccupied with the declining rates of marriage.

Apart from Compass, Labour and the wider left did not pick up on the idea that something was going wrong with society. This allowed the right to seize the issue.  Jesse Norman who is now a Tory MP was instrumental in developing a pro-social Tory politics. His Compassionate Conservatism took up the idea of a ‘social recession’. So did Zac Goldsmith and John Gummer in their policy review Blueprint for a Green Economy. It informed Cameron’s early rhetoric and I would argue it had a role to play in detoxifying the Tory brand. The Tories shifted to the term ‘Broken Britain’ maybe through pressure from the right and Iain Duncan Smith’s influence. It took them away from the more social liberal politics of people like Danny Kruger one of Cameron’s key advisers toward a more moralistic and socially conservative politics.

During this time Labour had nothing to say about this social and ethical politics.  Kruger was well aware of Labour’s failure to employ a language of ethical socialism. It allowed the social to become a powerful political asset for Cameron’s brand of toryism. Labour’s failure was compounded by its social authoritarianism in government. Rather belatedly it tried to shift the debate onto economic and technocratic ground by reeling off policy initiatives - a disastrous mistake. It rightly focused on the Conservative’s lack of policy detail but again it missed the point and the Tories made Brown’s government look harsh, unsympathetic and technocratic – which let’s face it, wasn’t that difficult to do.

Cameron shaped the Conservative revival around the need to renew society. He was winning the war of position but his fatal weakness was his inability to challenge neo-liberal economic orthodoxy and to recognise the fundamental problems of the economy. He shared these failures with Labour but when the 2008 financial crash happened it derailed the Cameroon project. After a period of floundering they went into default neo-liberal mode and began to undermine their own detoxification strategy. I don’t think Cameron has ever recovered, and he has been unable to make a convincing case for his Big Society.

While I think an election tomorrow would give the Tories a majority this is not a Conservative moment. Cameron is too light weight to drive through the ideological changes he began when he became party leader. If he’d succeeded in his brand of social Toryism I think he could have put Labour out of business for a generation. As it is Labour and the left more widely has been given an opportunity to seize back the terrain of social life and relationships and make it its own. To do that Labour has to recognise just what an isolated and precarious position it is in. It will need to stop talking to itself and start reaching out to a majority of the population.

Surely the wider left has had a sense that something has been ‘going wrong with society’ in terms of our relationships with each other and the corrosion of a sense of meaning and purpose. A critique of consumerism and acquisitive materialism has been articulated for decades, from thinkers like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse to contemporary social psychologists such as Tim Kasser. It has animated much of the activism in the ‘anti-globalisation movement’. And one could frame the argument of the The Spirit Level as being precisely about how inequality is the cause of the social recession you identify.

Perhaps, then, the problem you identify is more one that has affected Labour rather than the thinkers and movements beyond it.

I’ve made an unfair generalisation.  Richard Wilkinson’s work over the years and the book he co-wrote with Kate Pickett has achieved a common sense on the health problems associated with inequality. Sir Michael Marmot has done the same in his work on status. Sue Gerhardt’s book ‘Why Love Matters’ makes a powerful case for re-organising society around the emotional needs of babies. She draws on the discipline of neuroscience which is providing a growing body of evidence that supports the left’s belief in the interdependency of human beings.  John T. Cacioppo’s and William Patrick’s book on loneliness is a good example.

But I think the Marxist left does not see the social as a substantive political issue and Labour was very slow on the uptake. Hazel Blears did write an interesting pamphlet when she was Minister of State at the Home Office called ‘The Politics of Decency’ . She gets a bad press on the left but her Sustainable Communities Bill provided a Labour version of the Big Society far more detailed and politically sophisticated than anything the Tories have so far come up with. It was a start, but it was neutered during its passage through Parliament and the ideas were marginalised.

I’m less convinced by the role of the anti-globalisation movement in the ‘war of position’ I described above. Like Reclaim the Streets, the anti-roads movement, and UKUncut. In Britain, its politics tended to appeal to a quite narrow section of society. I don’t say this to dismiss these social movements or their influence in generating ideas and some political exuberance and hope -  but they are not able to provide the basis for a renewed popular democratic politics.  They tend to be transient and easily captured by far left groups. They operate more as counter-cultures into which people dip in and out and so they come and go with limited popular appeal. On a more critical note they can tend to be quite moralistic about those who don’t match their levels of political commitment and awareness. 

Marcuse was certainly a kind of guru to this politics and his anti-consumerism falls into the trap of thinking people are dupes. He begins One Dimensional Man with the sentence: ‘The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.’ I think this is plain wrong and turns Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism into an elitist judgmentalism on people’s lack of super-ego - as Horkheimer would have it. The problem with the anti-consumerism and anti-materialism of both the far left and the conservative right is that neither can escape passing judgment on people. They are either suffering false consciousness or they lack moral fibre. It has also been one of the problems of the politics of the green movement - and which people like Mark Lynas are facing up to.

Presumably you think that a ‘renewed popular democratic politics’, and a politics which will advance the priorities of the left, will thus have to come from the Labour Party as opposed to social movements. However, from the perspective of many outside of Labour, it is hard to conceive of the party governing in such a way that genuinely reverses the tide of neo-liberal project that all governments since Thatcher have been engaged in, with variations. Irrespective of the progressive and sometimes radical ideas aired by some Labour thinkers and politicians, the party seems dominated by a debilitating electoralism and cut off from the social forces that could pull it to the left. What’s your response to this kind of critique?

What are the social forces and who exactly do the social movements represent? The Trade Unions are the largest civic organisation in the country but in electoral terms they represent very few workers in the private sector and are seen by significant numbers of voters as looking after their tax payer funded public sector interests. It wasn’t difficult for the Tories to exploit this on the issue of public sector pensions. And I think the left over-estimates the political reach of its anti-cuts rhetoric.  The Trade Unions are central to any renewal of a popular democratic politics but to date they have been slow in building broad alliances across the country that reach beyond their existing constituencies of support.

The social movements are counter cultures and laboratories for prefigurative forms of politics and a vital source of political education, energy and new thinking. But they are also transient, often limited to single or narrowly defined issues and they are oppositional. They do not think about the responsibility of government or the exercising of power. Their actions might win wider approval but their politics speak only for a tiny percentage of the population. They can change the political temperature but not the country as a whole. We need dialogue and two- way relationships between Labour ,  the trade unions, the social movements and also the universities, but this is still not enough to build a new popular democratic politics. This has to be achieved in people’s localities.

The Labour Party came out of the extraordinary ferment of the fin de siecle of the 19th century - the New Lifers, the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, the New Liberalism, the emergence of a feminist movement and the militant suffragettes, the struggle in Ireland for Home Rule, the New Unionism, the ILP - and the left has been disappointed with it ever since. Whatever the Webbs wrote in Clause 4, Labour was never a socialist party nor do I think it’s been a Social Democratic Party as recognised on the continent. It broke with Liberalism but never entirely shed its allegiance to it. It’s power has been concentrated in the industrial areas of the North of England, Wales and in Scotland rather than across the working class as a whole. It has struggled to be a national party and it has always had to contend with an enduring working class support for Conservatism.

History has given us Labour and it is at present the only feasible electoral vehicle capable of defending the interests of Labour against Capital. However while I can’t see it disappearing, it is not inevitable that Labour will remain a national political force in the future.  Labour is in danger of becoming a sectional party of the liberal middle class and public sector workers. The percentage of private sector workers who voted for Labour in May 2010 was tiny. In the South of England it has been all but wiped out, and its heartland of Scotland can now no longer be taken for granted.  What is more, Labour members and supporters, whether working class or middle class, tend to have cultural interests and sensibilities which are different to the majority of people in the country. Crudely put, they tend to favour the modern and the pioneering over the conservative and the settled.  Labour today is divorced from the people of England in particular and it is not getting a hearing.

Despite thirteen years of a Labour Government it can feel as if here we are back again in the dark times of the 1980s. New Labour accommodated itself to the neo-liberal hegemony and while it reined in some of its worst excesses, it’s electoral coalition was shallow and it failed to build the kind of political formation that could have resisted a further round of neo-liberal modernisation. In fact its legislation around for example welfare, the NHS, Academies and Higher Education has prepared the ground for further privatisation and marketisation.

Despite its extraordinary electoral success, did New Labour simply slow the historical decline of Labour and social democratic politics? What now does Labour or social democracy stand for apart from a series of abstract ideas? It is no longer part of the life of people. Across Europe in the wake of Third Way politics, social democracy is in a crisis, squeezed between a nationalistic left like Germany’s Die Linke, xenophobic and racist parties and social movements, and Green Parties. Many of its former supporters have found themselves struggling to survive in the precariat and have simply stopped voting.

Where are the collective social agents of change? I’m not sure. If Labour is to renew itself it will have to open up its culture to a much broader array of people, movements and organisations. It needs fundamental reform if it is to attract active support and interest. It needs to build the relationships and dialogues I mentioned above. Unfortunately the Refounding Labour project looks like a wasted opportunity. I think we have to face the possibility that Labour will have to wait a generation for a new collective leadership to carry forward the process of political revisionism and cultural and organisational transformation. However, Ed Miliband understands the scale of the task and that’s a big start - to know the size of the hole you’re in. The question I’d ask the wider left - and that’s a broad term I know - is does it know the size of the hole it’s in?

It seems that you believe that both Labour and the wider left are out of touch with a population that is a variety of respects conservative. Some would challenge this picture of the British population, but it nevertheless raises the question of how to pursue a radical political agenda - such as the ethical socialism that you endorse - in a conservative social context.

A lot of people have got upset about this argument . They imagine that this destroys the prospects of socialism, but I think of socialism as a conservative political philosophy. What is threatened is the utilitarian liberalism that has underpinned the neo-liberal economic order. I am not arguing that people are hidebound by reaction or stuck in unchanging traditions.  However there is a schism between the university educated liberal elites and the rest of the population and that schism has become more evident in recent years. It might be over-simplifyng it but I’d suggest that the left has always failed to see the significance of this while the right has been quick to exploit it for its own gain. Enoch Powell used it to powerful effect in the late 1960s and helped to pave the way for Thatcherism.

I’ve argued elsewhere that I think our historical period has created a mood or ‘structure of feeling’ which is about a desire to conserve, protect and improve the fundamental elements of social life. I would argue these are people’s relationships and family, their sense of belonging and identity, the continuity of home and place, and the human need for social security.  As I said, this is not a Conservative moment like 1979. The Tories are trapped in the failed economic policies of the past. The problem is that Labour is also bereft of an alternative political economy.

I think an alternative model of the economy can be built around a radical conservative or conservative socialist agenda. Keynes understood that a shared set of national cultural values is a strong defense against the ideology of laissez faire. That remains true today, three years after Lehman Brothers filed for chapter 11. Labour can reform and strengthen the nation state and our economic institutions which are still best equipped for managing globalisation. The first priority from which all else must proceed is jobs. Properly paid jobs that enable people to live decent lives. The private sector alone cannot deliver this. It has signally failed to do so over the last three decades.

Jobs that provide a living wage need investment and when the private sector is sitting on its money and paying down debt or too nervous to invest the government must take on the role. The economist Richard Koo has put forward an interesting analysis of the recession and ideas for how to tackle it. Lord Skidelsky argues for a British Investment Bank to build our economy and to create a diverse portfolio of national assets. Instead of creating another institution we should use the existing Green Investment Bank and reform the banking system and cap interest rates in order to distribute capital more fairly across the whole of society and the economy. 

Keynes’ essay on ‘National Self-Sufficiency’ is a starting point and we should look to the kind of economics outlined in Karl Polanyi’s work to develop a less state directed and more social market and democratic approach to economic development. The work of Dani Rodrik and Robin Murray are examples of some of the new economic thinking that might help give shape to a new political economy. It is, I think, a politically feasible radicalism that is based on bringing capital back under greater democratic control.

Your comments about how Labour should respond to the changing nature of masculinity have drawn serious criticism and accusations of sexism. On the one hand, some interpret you as regretting the loss of a patriarchal ‘ideal of manliness’ which you claim the labour movement drew on and which, in your words, ‘required the practice of emotional restraint, and the fulfillment of the role of head of household and family provider’. Furthermore, others will regard your idea that we need to develop a new masculine ideal as encouraging a form of sex-role stereotyping that progressive politics aims to overcome.

I would like to know if you regard yourself as a feminist and, if so, what kind of feminism can be compatible with the positions you have taken on this subject.

They have been criticised, and unfortunately all the heat has not thrown any new light on the subject. Accusations and name calling were to the fore rather than any serious interrogation of what I’d said. The subject of men and women, power and domination touches on a lot of raw feelings because it is often about human pain inflicted emotionally and sometimes physically in very personal and intimate ways. Which is why I suspect people steer clear of the issue. Or rather why men steer clear of it. But a debate about men’s relationship to feminism and more generally men’s relationship with women would be very helpful.

My own politics were influenced by my involvement in the movement of men who supported women’s liberation and who had begun to think about its impact on their personal lives and politics.  There were books and conferences, small group meetings, networks. Like feminism but to a lesser extent this pro-feminist politics of masculinity filtered out into popular culture, particularly around the issue of fatherhood.  I spent a couple of years writing about men’s sexuality and relationships for Cosmopolitan and other magazines and newspapers.  There also existed an anti-feminist men’s movement around Families need Fathers and later Fathers4Justice. Plus the Institute of Economic Affairs under Digby Anderson conducted an anti-feminist polemic, particularly around the idea that there was a crisis in fatherhood. In a way there was; the divorce rate and the rise of single parent families had shot up and there had developed a rigorous critique of male authority and heterosexuality.

But I think the world of party politics, particularly at Westminster has been relatively immune to these cultural shifts. The right has been more willing to intervene. David Lammy is one of the very few Labour politicians who has written and spoken about fatherhood and issues of masculinity. Despite the rise in the number of women MPs, party politics is still a masculine world which tends to operate on both a high level of narcissism and a desire to be part of an in group. It is and has been a very tough world for women to break into, so when I start talking about men’s loss of authority and status I can see why for example Helen Goodman and Diane Abbott might think this is some kind of male backlash, but the tone of their criticisms and their willingness to extrapolate their misreading of short passages into a series of public, defamatory remarks was cheap politics (I’ve commented elsewhere on Helen’s Goodman’s criticisms).
I’m interested in what the decline of patriarchy leaves in its wake. In what ways have middle class men recouped forms of male power and authority through adopting more ‘feminine’, domesticated and emotionally literate sensibilities and techniques?  What impact does the loss of cultures of male solidarity have on men who have to struggle to maintain their integrity in the face of exploitation and humiliation? The class system is about the systematic humiliation of people of lesser status and men occupy a very particular, gendered place in this dynamic as both its agents and its victims. Women can find themselves becoming the victims of the victims and I don’t mean this in class terms but in the way male hierarchies from playground to boardroom create winners and allocate shame to the losers.

Manliness was a Victorian cultural ideal associated with the revival of Christianity in the first part of the 19th century. It was about a spiritual practice of compassion and physical courage. It was an ideal because it was the pursuit of the exceptional rather than an everyday behaviour. One of its earliest popular expressions was Tom Brown’s Schooldays written by Thomas Hughes who was one of the three founders of the Christian Socialist Movement.  By the end of the century the burgeoning public schools had created an imperial ruling class and the dominant ideal of manliness became much more associated with a racialised social darwinism and the moral practice of ‘character’. So began the era of boy’s comics and imperial adventure stories all promoting an heroic English manliness of physical courage and fortitude.  The ideal came to an end in the trenches of the first world war.

My argument is that the labour movement was sustained by its own ideals of manliness which drew on the chapel, the temperance societies, the legacy of Christian socialism and also the dominant ideas of the time. What does it mean for Labour? The Labour movement was built on a culture that is now passing into history. I think the influences of the Victorian age only really came to an end in the 1960s. It was during this decade and into the 1970s that manliness gave way to the use of the word masculinity. And this word carried with it an element of interrogation -  men were no longer the unquestioned norm but one gender of two which was to some degree socially constructed. As the old ideals of manliness fell into disrepute there began a period of uncertainty about what it means to be a man.

This coincided with and was partially caused by the second wave of feminism following on from the first wave that had built up during the fin de siecle of the 19th century. I wouldn’t call myself a feminist. Men have done so in history but I’m a product of the debates in the 1980s which were often dominated by Radical Feminism which saw feminism as a cultural, political, intellectual and emotional space for women only. That period has passed and I think that there is value in men and women engaging with each other on the political terrain created by feminism and sexual politics more broadly.

One of the first books I read which looked at both men and women’s lives together from this perspective was The Normal Chaos of Love by Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck Gernsheim. So while I think a women’s movement remains a necessity, I think there is the space for a politics of relationships that is radical in its critique of oppression and inequality and action for emancipation, but conservative in its valuing and protection of the ongoing love, care, friendship and human need that exists between men and women, between men and men, between women and women, and between adults and children. In the end this is all we have and it makes us human.

Afterword on the riots

What is happening? Not why, but what? Both left and right are trying to impose their answers to why, without first asking what. The events of the last week have not been riots in the sense that they have had an identifiable target, nor have they been simply looting. England has a long history of rioting during periods of economic distress. The events over the last week have some elements in common with this history and others unique to modern consumer society. These elements would include: adolescent, exhilarating excitement; rage against the police; the summer holidays; the historical social predicament of unoccupied young men; an over-inflated sense of entitlement to have what one wants; parts of a younger generation detached from the moral norms and obligations of adult society; the experience of poverty, despair and hopelessness; and a deep sense of ‘I don’t care’.

The events have combined the nihilism of the dispossessed and the narcissism of the consumer, captured in the Youtube clip of the young Malaysian student being robbed. This has become a defining image of the last week. Why have you done this? ‘Because we can’. The banality of nihilism is a feature of a market society in which monetised transactions leak into people’s relationships. Markets disentangle people from their social bonds and obligations. Commodities get to matter as much as people. Morality takes second place to price. Look at the destruction, feel the fear; this is what we have made of our country.

Society in the big cities often lacks neighbourly solidarity and adults are frightened of the young. Fear of crime is often fear of youth. Watch Jo Frost on TV,  a lot of parents are anxious about saying ‘no’ to their own children. Market choice targeted at children is a direct challenge to the kinds of parental intuition and authority that creates the emotional boundaries in which children flourish. Adult society has abandoned young people in areas of our cities to a street culture of casual mugging, knives and at the extreme, guns. It has abandoned a small minority to an anomic existence of hopeless parenting, no jobs or rubbish jobs. A small number are disconnected from family, social norms and adult authority. They are the dangerous ones. They have their own gang culture for mutual aid and their chief value is money.  They will use violence to avoid the mortification of shame. The dangers of this nihilistic gang culture have been repeatedly voiced by particularly black community workers, but they have been ignored by wider society. The influence of this small core ripples out to terrorise and draw in a wider circle of young people in deprived areas who themselves hover between the social abyss and some sort of decent life. And the ripples extend further outward to other young people who are attracted to the glamour and excitement of the gangsta life. During the last week, these concentric circles of fear and seduction, uninterrupted by adult and governmental authority, found a common activity and were a core around which swirled larger numbers of voyeurs and thrill seekers. 

And this brings us to the failure of our political class which is disconnected from the life of the people. The Tories were out of their depth. Cameron and Johnson were both revealed in all their mediocrity. They know nothing about the society they live in. What has Labour got to say? David Lammy sounded as if the destruction of Tottenham was the destruction of his own home. But his authenticity has been an exception. In England there is an absence of a strata of strong, local civic leaders and there is an absence of local democracy. The people who have talked the most sense are the community workers who work the street and their message is not one the left has wanted to hear – it is about the breakdown of family life, the loss of social structures of authority, the absence of boundaries and discipline. It is the kind of conservative message delivered by Shaun Bailey. Bailey is a Tory and he has only half the issue in hand. The other half is the way the social and economic relations of capitalism produce consumer narcissism and nihilistic cultures of violence if they are left unchecked by collective social and democratic action. It is the crushing effect of poverty and about parents having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet with no time for the children and no childcare.  The risk for the left is that it backs away from the conservative part of the story and allows the right to frame the events as simply about individual responsibility and family discipline, while it concentrates on the structural issues. If it does this it will lose the argument.  The left has to be conservative in its defence of relational life and its belief in reciprocity – do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.  It has to be willing to make judgements about people’s behaviour. And it has to be radical in deepening and expanding democracy and so enabling people to find their voice and take power and responsibility, including the disaffected young. They too must sit at the common table.

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