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The lives of others.

Philip Collins & Richard Reeves, The Liberal Republic, Demos 2009

In the current political turmoil, the political fault-lines of a new era are taking shape. On one side are those who continue to believe that the market and individual choice are the most effective means of maximising individual freedom. On the other side are those who believe that individual freedom is based in social relationships and the democracy of public action. This fault-line cuts across party lines and divides them from within: Thatcherite politics versus Compassionate Conservatism and Red Toryism; market Liberal Democrats versus social Liberal Democrats; neoliberal New Labour versus social democratic Labour.

The fault-line inside the Labour Party has been defined by two groupings: Progress represents the right of centre New Labour establishment, while Compass speaks for an insurgent centre left. But recently a third intervention has been making itself heard. It comes from the think tank Demos, which has been promoting a liberal republican politics. In May it celebrated its sixteenth birthday with the launch of The Liberal Republic, co-authored by its chair, Philip Collins, and Director, Richard Reeves (available on

The authors want to revitalise the liberalism that shaped the New Labour project in its early, idealistic years. Their key themes are the autonomous individual; the radical devolution of power; the value of market choice in distributing freedom; and welfare and public service reform that encourages personal independence. In their brief introduction they outline their conviction that individuals must have the power to determine and create their own version of a good life. 'The good society', they argue, 'is one composed of independent, capable people charting their own course, rather than a perfect shape to be carved by the elite, out of the crooked timber of humanity'. They cite the nineteenth-century liberals Leonard Hobhouse and Thomas Green, and this signals their broader intent: both Hobhouse and Green were involved in the debates between social liberalism and ethical socialism that forged the spirit of the modern left. The pamphlet is an intervention that evokes these earlier debates. It is an overture to the centre left in the form of an invitation to travel back in time to conduct an argument over its conflicting traditions of radical liberalism and socialism.

This invitation comes at a crucial moment for the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party. The Labour Party is teetering on the edge of oblivion and the left is struggling to make a political impact. It lacks a coherent identity, is organisationally and numerically weak, and is unclear about its values. It has no story that defines what it stands for. It has yet to strike a popular chord and transform the centre ground of politics. The self-inflicted crisis of capitalism is serving only to highlight the weakness of the social democratic and liberal left.

If a new progressive politics is to emerge out of this conjuncture of disasters, discussion and new ideas are essential, and this includes re-engaging with earlier traditions and old debates. It is telling that during the last three decades of resurgent capitalism, social democracy in Britain has failed to produce a significant theoretical work to replace Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism. Crosland's revisionist answer to Marxism, however flawed, at one time provided an intellectual cornerstone for the centre left. Crosland was always out there on the horizon, keeping alive the language of class, capitalism and equality, a beacon of hope that social democracy would one day pay off. But Crosland's model of social democracy was dealt a near fatal blow in 1976 when the Labour government abandoned the post-war welfare consensus and was forced cap in hand to the IMF. Any flames of the beacon left flickering after the rise of the Third Way were finally extinguished by the post-crash budget of April 2009. The left needs to forge a new politics and develop theoretical ideas for these changed times. Has liberal republicanism something to offer?

The social individual

The authors of The Liberal Republic are confident that the future lies in the historical legacy of liberalism and its modern kindred spirits. The work of Amartya Sen plays a central role in their social policy ideas. As they acknowledge, the conditions for a self-directed life do not emerge out of thin air: 'independence requires a set of what Amartya Sen labels capabilities - especially financial resources, education and skills and health. Without them the goal of independence is a pipe dream'. They recognise that to ensure these capabilities a correction must be made in the current extremely low level of benefits, and the unequal distribution of wealth and assets. They also acknowledge that the low pay of a large proportion of the working population is insufficient to support an autonomous life. Similarly, there is a need to increase taxes on unearned financial resources and inherited wealth, because this will promote independence. They also support electoral reform and the devolution of power into the hands of the people. Liberalism means individuals becoming the authors of their own lives, 'but republicanism demands that we are also co-authors of our collective lives' (p57).

These views belong to a centre left politics - Hobhouse and Green would not dissent from them. But the problems begin when the nature of this co-authorship is probed: their ideas on how to achieve a good society are not convincing. Their liberalism dominates their republicanism and they have little to say about a collective politics of change. Their call for power to the people is limited, and mirrors David Cameron's vague idea of a post-bureaucratic society: 'The best way of describing what we are suggesting is that it is a revolutionary transfer of power from one class, the bureaucracy, to another, the people' (p47). There is no mention of making the power of employers accountable, or of dispersing power in economic institutions. They are not concerned by the 'gap between the affluent and the "super-rich"'. They do not think that wealth inequality threatens political equality and do not see why the 'mega-incomes of a handful of people' should 'prevent the rest of us leading a good life' (p35). Unlike the social liberals, they offer no conception of the common good (or of society, or of community) that recognises the interdependency of individuals. They have nothing to say about the role of culture in binding people together and creating identity out of shared meanings. What holds their liberal social order together? Friedrich von Hayek would argue that it is the economic relations of the market. Philip and Richard insist that their liberal economics is not the same as neoliberal economics - but they do not explain why. At the heart of their political philosophy is the absence of the social realm. And this is the fundamental weakness in their argument.

'The beginning of a liberal politics is the individual', they write. But what is their definition of an individual? Richard and Philip take this question for granted, and treat the individual as a discrete, historically unchanging unit, governed by rational thinking. But as Marx pointed out many years ago, liberal political economists are mistaken in seeing the individual as history's point of departure rather than its historic result. As he argued, the modern epoch that produces the isolated individual is also the epoch of the most developed social relations. The individual is a sociological category, made in a complexity of emotional, cultural and economic relations. But Richard and Philip's liberal philosophy ignores this complexity. They comment that not everyone will be successful in life: 'Our lives may be wracked with tragedy and failure - but they are our own tragedies and failures' (p9). But they do not recognise that, though as individuals we may often be the architects of our own downfall, we do not control the broader conditions that give rise to our tragedies and failures.

We have no choice about the class, family, race and gender we are born into - and which will define our life chances. We do not decide the inequalities which determine the prospects of our longevity, the statistical likelihood of our succumbing to poverty, poor housing, unemployment, murder, prison, disease, mental illness, obesity, educational failure. Very few of us can influence the hierarchies of status which trigger the social emotions of shame and humiliation that impact on our well-being from the beginning of our lives. These are socially produced problems of class and economic power and they require collective action to change. Challenging them cannot be the responsibility of individuals alone - as has been the pernicious message of market fundamentalists. But the authors mobilise Sen's concept of capability as a means of disconnecting the social from their argument, and in their zealous advocacy of individual 'independence' they end up perpetuating the anti-politics of neoliberalism.

This is particularly evident in their uncritical promotion of the government's welfare reforms, and its personalisation agenda in social care. They make unsubstantiated claims such as: 'individual budgets give control to the citizen'; and 'recipients are happier, results are better and costs lower' (p49). For them welfare reform is defined by the problem of recipients who are 'unable to do without state handouts'. They consider this inability an immoral condition, that demands correction through conditionality in the benefits system: after one year recipients should work full time for their benefits. John Stuart Mill is called on to endorse this 'liberation welfare'. They quote his comment that welfare assistance 'should be a tonic, not a sedative' (p17). But they get the quote wrong. Mill said 'assistance is a tonic, not a sedative' - for people who are discouraged.

Politics and sympathy

Why are the authors concerned with the lives of others? What compels them to worry about the independence of strangers? Their take on liberal philosophy offers us no clues - but their politics is not driven by sympathy, or any sense of ethical obligation. Though they cite Hobhouse, they do not share his social liberalism. For Hobhouse, progress is 'the development of that rational organization of life in which men freely recognise their interdependence, and the best life for each is understood to be that which is best for those around him' (The Ethical Basis of Collectivism, p150). But the notion of freedom espoused in this pamphlet carries with it an element of moral coercion. Its liberalism slips its social moorings as the authors assert a series of absolutes: 'people should not be dependent on anyone else for their income'; 'there can never be agreement about the values and purposes of life' (p21). There is an underlying moral imperative that individuals must maximise their independence from the state, must free themselves from conditions of dependency and must follow that 'most human attribute', the ability to choose.

Despite its claim to a social liberalism, The Liberal Republic is about creating market actors capable of functioning in a market society governed by individual rational choice. Its frame of reference can best be understood as consonant with the kind of liberal form of governance analysed by Michel Foucault - one that uses indirect techniques for controlling individuals without at the same time being responsible for them. In this form of governance a coercive and interventionist state creates the institutions the market needs, and attempts to shape the character of individuals.

In their advocacy of welfare reform, Richard and Philip echo the utilitarian liberalism of Jeremy Bentham, who, in respect of welfare, was a believer in firm government: for him the influence of legislation was 'as nothing' in comparison with the 'minister of police'. Mill described Bentham as a man who had no sympathy. There is a callousness in Benthamite and economic liberalism, and it is present in The Liberal Republic. (Mill himself struggled with the absence of empathy in his own life: he discovered it in the romantic poetry of Coleridge, and in the person of his wife, Harriet Taylor. But he could not make it a part of his own self, and was unable to synthesise the emotional and rational in his liberal philosophy.) Phillip and Richard allow their liberal rationalism to dominate over any kind of emotional identification that embraces others in a mutual recognition. Nothing holds their social order together except the moral imperative to maximise personal autonomy.

Ethical socialism also begins with the individual, but it is with the social individual relating to others and producing in society. The central value of socialism, alongside liberty, is equality, because, as Hobhouse writes, 'it stands for the truth that there is a common humanity deeper than all our superficial distinctions' (p141). Socialism is about the structure of relations between individuals, which shape both our psyche and our place in the world. It does not pitch the individual against society, but sees individuals as constituted in society. Society has its own kind of regularity, but it is nothing more than the relationships of individuals. There is no 'I' without first a 'we' that is historical and forged out of culture and society.

Unlike liberalism, ethical socialism is based on a mutual recognition between individuals: 'your freedom is equal to my own'. It asserts an 'ethical intention' in the sphere of politics. Paul Ricoeur describes this as 'the desire to live well with and for others in just institutions'. The scandal of MPs' expenses and the public fury it has unleashed suggests a society that has forgotten this concept of politics. Ethical values have given way to a culture of individual self-interest in which those who have feel entitled to take more. Power is unaccountable, and the political elites are divorced from the people. The enterprise culture, the flexible labour market and welfare reform have all generated anxiety and isolation rather than 'independence'. The state of dependency that is the precondition for self-reliance has been held in contempt by tabloids and politicians alike. Those on benefits have been demonised. In public service, kindness, care, generosity and reciprocity are out of keeping with the dominant market culture and are micro-managed out of existence. A public culture of distrust and resentment is the legacy of decades of neoliberalism and the inequalities and erosion of social bonds that it has caused.

The liberal individualism of The Liberal Republic is unlikely to remedy this condition. Two institutions have dominated the life of this country for the last thirty years: the state and the market. How shall we reform them, in order to confront the massive systemic problems we face? The progressive future belongs to those who find a credible answer to this question, and who are able to achieve a popular balance between individual self-realisation and social solidarity. The politics of the future needs to revisit the old arguments between liberalism and socialism, and incorporate into them the issues of gender inequality, cultural difference and ecological sustainability. This will involve alliances between old and new political actors. What shape it takes, and what it might be called, are not yet clear - but The Liberal Republic seems to have placed itself outside this epoch-defining debate.
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Title Annotation:The Liberal Republic
Author:Cruddas, Jon; Rutherford, Jonathan
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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