Shane Hopkinson on the struggle between commodification and collaboration.
Ethics' has been (re)entering the Left's political vocabulary as it tries to grapple with the historic crisis in which it finds itself. In that sense, Andy Blunden's book is timely and, in my view, a great deal more valuable than other recent offerings in this area. His work eschews presenting a new program or straightforward answers but it succeeds in raising questions that shed light on the possibilities of a new political practice. It accepts the reality of the crisis of the Left and the hegemony of the Right and seeks to spell out the conditions of possibility for the resurgence of the former. There is a huge constituency for social justice brought about by the relentless commodification of all aspects of life. The Left needs to re-win the moral and intellectual leadership, but the present landscape does not allow the formation of a popular emancipatory discourse--the point of For Ethical Politics is to change that.
The first aim of the book is to ground the emergence of a new popular moral 'common sense' with which to combat the Right's populist racism. It is part of constructing a political ground on which the right way to live is subject to contest. It aims to articulate an emergent discursive practice that is based on the need to contest the neo-liberal agenda and draws on the ideals of the New Social Movements. These movements articulated universalisable principles of the type institutionalised in multicultural or Equal Opportunity policies: one in which the moral worth of all individuals is recognised. Blunden argues that we need to clearly identify the values implicit in current political discourse. When any politician says they represent 'the whole country' or 'security' we need to recognise that these terms constitute values and these values should be contested. For Ethical Politics seeks to make talk of the 'nation' sound to most people like advocating Balkanisation or talk of 'security' sound like scare-mongering. Conservatives have mastered this popular imagery. The challenge for this book is to find responses which connect with popular consciousness while isolating a social elite.
Another strength of For Ethical Politics is that it is not a heavy theoretical text. It relies on a materialist reading of Hegel, which Blunden has a knack for elaborating. The strength of this approach lies in seeing ethical ideals as immanent in the way we live. It is not about ideas in people's heads, or their subjective feelings about what is valuable. It is about the way human beings organise their lives. There is no need to bring ethics to politics because ideals are always already there. There is no point in creating a code of ethics for a business as a set of abstract ideals to guide behaviour when the profit motive is really the central ideal.
In Blunden's view, markets are not amoral--they have a morality of their own. As Samir Amin put it, a world ruled by markets is a 'reactionary utopia'. It is the role of Blunden's book to make this explicit. As Marx put it: 'All that happens is that political economy expresses moral laws in its own way'. In response to those who say that ethics should take a back seat to founding a new political economy, For Ethical Politics demands a critique of mainstream economics and sends a reminder that the idea that we can derive a political economy that is simply a better technical solution is a fallacy and inversion. Marxists do not seek a transcendental or ahistorical basis for the ideals of justice and equality. This is because they can only be grounded in the societies from which they spring; ideals emerge from actual practice. If they appear otherwise then they are often a state or party ideology. The reason that the CPA did not distance itself from Stalinist crimes sooner is not about the Central Committee being unethical--it is about believing that science, political economy and so on are the technical disciplines that the Soviet leaders (and the capitalists) claim that they are. For Ethical Politics aims to recreate an arena of struggle in which a new self-consciously ethical political economy may emerge.
Another useful theme of Blunden's approach is the notion of commodification and its contradictions. The rise of a world market partially embodies the idea of universality. For the first time, a structure existed that created the possibility of a world in which all people could interact together, at least as commodity-exchangers. Commodification also served as an acid. This was progressive to the extent that it broke down traditional social bonds like 'a woman's place is in the home'. As Blunden says: 'The world market has drawn everyone into a single, universal life, but at the very same time has destroyed almost every ideal through which a shared life could be given meaning and stability'. The problem is that the acid can continue to eat away at social bonds preserving only those that are useful for promoting the profitability of the few, and leaving fragmentation and alienation in its wake for the vast bulk of humanity.
Commodification is the cause of global poverty and the cause of significant cultural gains--the treatment of ethnic minorities and women as having equal value rests on the gradual erosion of traditional hierarchies. Commodification was, as Marx pointed out, egalitarian in an ironic sense since it is an equal valuation of people based on the mutual use of each other, a process of mutual manipulation. Blunden's work seeks to find ways to transcend this type of mutuality. The aim is to develop processes of 'collaboration' that seek to transcend a merely 'fair' exchange of commodities and their owners, and replace this with genuine co-operative human relations.
The contradictions of commodification can be traced in many spheres. The commodification of health moves from the doctor having a personal relation and interest in the health of patients to a commodified system that has an interest in ill-health. It focuses on cure rather than prevention, wasteful cosmetic surgery and expensive drugs. It results in increased expenditure and a decline in well-being. Likewise the commodification of Higher Education, the replacement of 'teacher/student' with 'service providers/client' has the effect of breaking down the traditional model, which was bureaucratic and elitist, but also undermines standards. The recent scandals over plagiarism are one result. No-one should be surprised that if you turn knowledge into a commodity that people want to get the degree they have 'paid for' at the lowest cost with minimum effort. Again the solution lies not in reviving the old model but in the development of new collaborative ones. Getting the history right is important and the second part of For Ethical Politics provides a provides a much-needed historical outline of forms of organisation and the corresponding forms of radical subjectivity that have served as the basis for progressive politics since the 1830s. For those new to politics, this chapter alone is worth the price of admission.
The third part of the book examines the challenge of the 'Third Phase', which is to reconcile the claims of redistribution and recognition. This has begun in the rise of Alliance politics, which is the current arena of radical struggle. At present, competing identities cannot agree on a new ideal but they know they need to collaborate. This has seen huge anti-war and anti-globalisation protests in which temporary collectivities form around one objective. For Ethical Politics sees the temporary forgetting of differences in the interest of common action as the basis for a new politics if the experience of Alliance politics can be generalised. The practical challenges lay ahead, but Blunden's book provides some key lessons that will need to be absorbed by the Left if we are to move forward. We need to mount a critique of political discourses that expose the hidden values that animate them--especially when things are made to appear as 'rute' facts or 'merely' technical necessities. We need to get more comfortable talking about our own ethics and ideals, and develop an understanding of them as both immanent and emergent. For this, understanding the notion of commodification and its contradictions, as well as developing a sense of the history that has got us to this impasse, is essential.
Shane Hopkinson is a Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Sociology, Central Queensland University.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2004|
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