Friday, 8 May 2009

Demos, postmodernism and deja vu all over again

I have always been rather a fan of the think-tank Demos, who are celebrating their 16th birthday this week with a shiny new website.

Stuart White is offering a sympathetic interrogation of the new liberal republic pamphlet by Richard Reeves and Phillip Collins, while I have reviewed it over at Liberal Conspiracy, suggesting that it opens several much more fruitful areas for a liberal and egalitarian left than the same authors' previous sallies at the poisoned well of the Fabian tradition.

Demos have always had their critics too: their post-modernity always offered an easy target. Demos were not, perhaps, entirely innocent as charged. Nick Cohen put the case against Demos' tendency to "End-ism" rather well in an Observer profile published ahead of the 1997 election (though they may plead in mitigation that we were at the end of the millennium):

Demos pronounces death sentences like Judge Jeffreys with a migraine. In just four years, it has declared "the end of politics", "the end of unemployment", "the end of social democracy", "the end of 200 years of industrial society", the end of "traditional definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman" and the end of "class-based left-right politics". As Angela Carter once drily put it: "the fin is coming a little early this siecle."

The tendency to millennial windiness is tempered by Geoff Mulgan, Demos's director, and one of the the few figures around New Labour who has not reduced the battle of ideas to the scramble for office.

But it should be recognised that Demos shook up the think-tank world very effectively - probably leading to a rather too many attempts elsewhere to apply Demos-deriviative methodologies of "blue sky thinking" with too little content and unsurprisingly diminishing returns.

For example, Geoff Mulgan's emphasis on "narrative" and story-telling in politics was important and once innovative (though politicians like Margaret Thatcher, like Moliere's character who had been speaking prose all of his life without knowing it, always had a strong sense of "narrative"). Now, thanks in part to Demos, everybody in politics goes around saying "what we need here is a narrative" even (often especially) when they have no idea what they would like said narrative to be. But the blame for that hardly lies with Demos alone.

One thing Demos were never short of was media attention. And perhaps one of the great things about being a post-modern think-tank dealing with a post-modern media is that memories can often be rather goldfish-like.

So one can only be impressed at how much attention both Demos and George Osborne have managed to attract by making a couple of Tory appointments to their advisory group.

But this does not seem to me to be particularly new, when the politics of post-ideology and beyond left and right were such dominant Demos narratives from the start.

Nick Cohen's 1997 profile quotes Martin Jacques, who was developing the Marxism Today argument for "a thinktank which would ignore the old boundaries" and Charlie Leadbeater saying "We have left behind the old argument. The tired old ideological conflicts have been replaced by a new common sense."

In all of the excitement at Tory involvement, nobody seems to recall that Demos was publishing John Gray on the death of social democracy in 1996, and Roger Scruton back in 1998.

And Demos have been running research projects and pamphlets in search of progressive Conservatism since at least 1998. (Where Phillip Blond may have an advantage over former Research Director Perri 6, who wrote many of the earlier Demos pieces on the prospects for a 'Tory third way' is that it was probably always going to be more difficult to influence conservatives if the research was led by a man who refused to have a surname).

A think-tank like Demos which has always been post-ideological and sceptical about party boundaries is bound to want to engage with all sides wherever it can.

No doubt there will be a certain instrumentalism on the side of the politicians. Some of that has a strong mid-1990s flavour. But that is par for the course, though I would not be surprised if David Willetts might well be rather more substantively engaged than George Osborne.

As with any think-tank, new or old, the new Demos at sixteen will be judged on the ideas it produces.

So a very happy birthday to them.

And, even if there is an element of deja vu, let the battle of ideas re-commence!


Stuart White said...

Sunder: great post. I totally agree about how the 'new' Demos has a lot in common with the 'old'.

One possible shift in emphasis within the continuity, though, is a possible shift from 'social theory' to 'political philosophy'. The gripe I've always had about Demos, while also likng a lot of their output and their spirit, is that its intellectual mind-set was drawn from a social theory tradition - to be unkind, a sort of mutation of late Marxism Today's 'post-Fordism' stuff with Giddensian 'beyond left and right'. Its a feature of this brand of social theory that it is always, always going on and on and on about how the social world is changing, there's a need for completely fresh approaches, etc. This produces the culture of 'endism' which Nick Cohen remarked on.

As someone trained in political philosophy, I've always found this tradition normatively lightweight. Proper discussion of basic principles is demoted, or avoided, in the rush to establish how the world is supposedly changed, and the urge to be on the the 'right' side of the alleged change.

With Richard Reeves, however, Demos has a director who is grounded in political philosophy. If Demos can combine the insights which come from this intellectual approach with some of their traditional strengths, then they should be on to a winner.

Joe said...


As someone who actually lectures at Oxford on the subject, don't you find Richard Reeves' political philosophy a little pedestrian? I mean, he's obviously a big Mill fan, but what liberal isn't? What i mean to say is, he ignores some of the most important contemporary contributions to liberal thought, as the bit on progressive taxation shows in the pamphlet.

Stuart White said...

Joe: well I certainly don't agree with (all of) Richard Reeve's political philosophy. But what I mean is that Reeves sees that there is such a thing as political philosophy, and that it matters. He doesn't treat it - as some 'narrativists' do - as something you sketchily improvise and tack-on as a rhetorical device once you've decided what your political program is going to be (as, say, I think Tony Giddens did in his 'Third Way' work).

Zio Bastone said...


As the rubric for a description of how ICT captures creativity (ie imagining the future) rather as the production line captured skill (ie memory) as well as of how the devolved and dispersed workplace has less immediate potential for communitas and thus for political solidarity than the production line, amongst other things, why is ‘post fordism’ self evidently fatuous and absurd? You seem to imply that it is. Some things do actually change and develop after all.

And surely a political philosophy will be immanent in any adequate critique of those things whilst a political philosophy without the capacity to generate such a critique will be itself inadequate?

As to ‘narrative’, best to take that back to Lyotard and his roots in Socialisme ou Barberie rather than stick with Mr Mulgan’s unhelpful misuse.

There’s actually a paradox in how the two major English parties changed their spots. As the Conservatives drew increasingly on those who ‘bought their own furniture’, in essence a class based shift, so Thatcherism’s narrative(s) offered a purchase over the future. As Labour’s class and union basis weakened and dissolved, so New Labour’s narrative(s) offered a purchase over the past, allowing a rhetorical conformity with its former ideals (and members) whilst continuing the very Thatcherite agenda from which it purported to be some kind of change. Then as both Thatcherism and New Labour I lost direction narrative for each became a more rear-view mirror affair, offering a gilded description of the journey so far made as though that were the only way: ‘you turn if you want to’, ‘no reverse gear’ and all that sort of rubbish.

Stuart White said...

Zio: I didn't say all talk of 'post-Fordism' was tosh - though I do think that the original Maxrism Today discussion was flawed in the way it high-lighted some social trends and ignored others.

My point is not that we should deny change. It is that in order to know how to respond to change you have to have a clear philosophy. The risk if you don't is that you overly 'normativise' change itself and identify the good or the just with adjustment to it.

So far as the basic principles to use in social and political critique are concerned, I don't think these do change. It has always been desirable in human societies to create circumstances of non-domination and it always will be. It has always been desirable to have less undeserved inequality, and it always will be. It has always been desirable for people to have control over the government, and it always will be. Change affects how feasible some of these goals become at a given time, and a sensible politics has to take note of those constraints. But the change doesn't dictate or determine, in any way, what is fundamentally desirable.

The idea that we should deduce our norms from the development of society itself - the rational is in the real, as Hegel put it - is, in my view, quite mistaken. Its a mistake that carries over into Marxism and some modern strains of critical theory. Political philosophy is not subordinate to social theory in the way this implies, but has its own autonomy. If you don't give it that autonomy, then, as said, you risk normativising change for its own sake instead of standing back and asking: 'To what extent is this good or bad?'

Zio Bastone said...


I didn’t think you denied change. I thought and still think three things.

Firstly, as you confirm, you believe in a (presumably) finite and objective set of verities unaffected by change. I don’t. Narratives aren’t Grand Narrative for me. They’re based in culture, in a limited point of view. They differ. They compete. Hence my reference to Lyotard. I’m also unpersuaded by the examples you choose to illustrate your point. ‘Undeserved inequality’, for instance, seems to me not some deontic primitive but a concept so wide and so vapid as to provide an apologia for almost anything from Utopia to Gaza through to the withdrawal of benefits from uncooperative alcoholics.

Secondly you overemphasise the extent to which political philosophy and social theory are autonomous: different vehicles, different places. I think the difference is aspectual: ‘driving’ made up of cars and drivers and how they interact. We use a sort of Scheffer stroke for convenience in dividing these things up. But we must be aware, in my view, that the ‘real’ is probably more like paradox and conjunction.

Thirdly you come quite close to saying (albeit less close than I’d thought) that to draw on social theory or to emphasise social critique is inevitably to end up being led by the nose by a series of local events. My ‘rear-view mirror’ characterisation of how late Blair glossed accident and whim as though it were thought out policy was my own example of how change can indeed be ‘normativised’, as you suggest. However the shift from the ‘mass worker’ of Fordism to the ‘social worker’ of post Fordism through to the ‘immaterial labour’ of cognitive capitalism, whether or not the analysis is right or wrong or somewhere in between, seems to me a narrative of an entirely different order altogether.