Friday, 11 February 2011

Compass New Year Lecture: David Marquand

Last night I attended the Compass New Year Annual Lecture delivered by David Marquand with responses from Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas, Evan Harris and Francesca Klug. The title was "A realignment of the mind - what way forward for progressive politics?" While I’m not a member of Compass, I have some sympathy with the influence they are trying to exert on the Labour Party. I also recently saw Neal Lawson speak in favour of the Alternative Vote where his arguments, frankly, destroyed those of his opponent in the debate John Cryer.

Marquand’s main theme was the pernicious effect of capitalism on the public realm in the UK and the need to challenge the moral vision proffered by its advocates. He began by expressing his incredulity that, despite the recent crisis, the prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxies remain relatively unchallenged and the desire among most politicians seems to be for a return to business-as-usual. He contrasted this with very different responses to a previous crisis – the Great Depression – and Roosevelt’s proclamation that the “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. ... The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”

Marquand dismissed the key assumptions made by many market fundamentalists – including, among others, the ideas of self-regulation and “trickle down”. He compared the aggressive expansionism of the market at the expense of the public domain with the way the latter was gradually annexed by the state in the early years of the former USSR. Indeed, using the justifications of “choice” and “freedom”, the cash nexus now pervades virtually all aspects of society, having recently made its way into higher education thanks to the flawed and misjudged Browne Report instituted by the previous Labour government.

Turning to discussion of the relationship between “democracy” and capitalism, Marquand made short work of the idea that there is a causal link – or at least a correlation – between the two by invoking several examples including, among others, contemporary China and Pinochet’s Chile. He suggested that, on the contrary, the relationship between democracy and capitalism is one of tension whereby the two ideas actually serve to undermine each other. Indeed, democracy has been defiled to the extent that there is no longer such a thing as the public good: citizens are merely consumers and the act of voting akin to shopping.

So the key task for the democratic left is to challenge the false and debased “morality” of capitalism that is destroying the public realm, something that can only be achieved by reintroducing the language of the public good as being clearly distinct from the logic of the market; this is the “realignment of the mind” referred to in the lecture title. While a great deal of Marquand’s talk seemed infused with pessimism, he ended on a more positive note, highlighting several areas where neo-liberal orthodoxies are being challenged, including the London Citizens campaign and the burgeoning movement against the cuts that appears to be gaining traction in the public consciousness.

The responses of the speakers that followed were largely predictable. Miliband concurred with large parts of Marquand’s lecture, though offered some defence of the achievements of the previous Labour government (Marquand had savaged New Labour’s fetishism of the market). Lucas also largely concurred but rued the fact that he hadn’t said more about the specific relevance of green issues. Harris had some harsh words to say about his current party leadership (though I imagine his position would be somewhat different had he retained his seat at the last election). Francesca Klug’s contribution was perhaps the most interesting; she echoed Marquand, arguing that we should challenge the current discourse surrounding the “big society” with an alternative vision of the “good society” that is based on something more than price competition and productivity. And while praising the effect that social networking and new media are having on political activism, she also warned against the “tyranny of structurelessness” that can often be problematic within movements that appear, sometimes superficially, relatively horizontal and leaderless.

No comments:

Post a Comment