A major debate about political ideas has been bubbling up on the left. But Jon Wilson wonders if we're all missing the point if we expect this 'fantasy politics' of abstract philosophy to inspire a politics that can create a different kind of society in the real world.
The debate on the renewal of the left in Britain has taken a philosophical turn. On blogs such as Next Left, politicians and policy professionals debate the merits of 'big ideas' like liberalism and republicanism. With Gordon Brown's recent celebration of John Lewis, mutualism is the most recent example. Each of these 'isms' offers a different picture of the kind of society we want to live in which we can argue between. They bring a rich cast of historical heroes who we can appeal to. So, left-leaning liberals like Richard Reeves line up John Stuart Mill or John Rawls as their protagonists in the battle of ideas. Republicans call upon Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Mutualists, most recently Anthony Painter, appeal to GDH Cole.
What can possibly be wrong with the recovery of a forgotten history of radical ideas? Surely, if the centre-left in Britain is to get out of its present mess (despite the biggest crisis of capitalism since 1929 the Tories having a two digit opinion poll lead), we need ideas, and where else to get them but from our past? But if, I want to suggest, our only hope lies in a turn to the political philosophies of the eighteenth, nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, we are going seriously wrong.
Most of the great 'isms' of the past few centuries were philosophies constructed to justify political changes that had already occurred. Liberalism already ruled Britain by the time John Stuart Mill became Britain's dominant political philosopher. It's hard to argue that Mill had much influence on the things that hadn't already happened which he proposed, such as women getting the vote. Similarly, the socialist movement already existed by the time serious socialist political philosophy emerged. Famously, for very good reasons, Karl Marx didn't explain how a communist society would be created or how it would work - and serious Marxist political philosophy only came into existence after so-called 'really existing socialism' emerged in the Eastern bloc.
Firstly then, the political philosophies of the past were used to debate and defend aspects of past societies that are very different from our own. Perhaps the greatest change is simply the much greater power of both government and large corporations in our lives today, compared with the much smaller, much more localised world of Mill or GDH Cole. The kinds of debates we have now, about benefits or healthcare for example, are premised on the state having an unimaginable scope compared to the power it had in their own day. In an environment where the range of social and governmental faces the individual encounters have changed so dramatically, abstract nouns like equality, independence or cooperation mean something incomparably different as a consequence. It is misleading to translate what are now archaic concepts into the very different world of today.
But at least nineteenth-century thinkers, John Stuart Mill, GDH Cole and Karl Marx engaged with the real world of their own day. As the Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss points out, modern-day political theorists - John Rawls is the best example - start with abstract ethical descriptions of what the world should look like, without thinking about whether and how one can get there, or what the ideal society would look like in practice. Their theories would only make sense in a fantasy-world of spirits and phantoms, where the messy grit of everyday governance or politics doesn't exist.
But abstract political thought is a fantasy that is dangerous, because it allows us to act as if we live in a universe in which the grit of everyday government and politics has vanished - whilst in fact it is that grit which dominates the political world. Abstract political philosophy allows us to dream that it is possible to change society for the better merely by the power of thought; or, once we have constructed our vision of a better society, to imagine we can hand over the messy job of 'delivery' to someone else, usually the state. But of course, ideas on their own have no power - they become real precisely as they are taken up by politicians, bureaucrats, or NGOs, and become part of a messy process of implementation. In the process of being made real, ideas change, and have unintended consequences. It turns out that one form of 'equality' increases inequality in another field for example; or that the devolution of power over one set of functions creates increased regulation in another sphere. Relying too much on abstract concepts in governance allows the left to hand power to managers who rarely share our values; and who transform abstract but well-meaning projects into government initiatives that have consequences directly contrary to those we intend.
At its most succesful, the Labour movement in Britain has been driven by a passionate rather than intellectual commitment to social change. It has been rooted in instincts about the good society felt in the gut by thousands of activists, not discussed in the cold sterility of the academic or think tank's seminar room.
During the first three quarters of the twentieth century, the course the Labour party took was directed by debate about the practical means it needed to implement what has always been its rather vague but passionately-held vision of a different society. But by the early 1980s, this debate had become sterile. With its critique of the centrality of the industrial working class, Trade Unionism and nationalised industry to the practice of British social democracy, new Labour made the left a moral and political force in a changed Britain once again. But it did so by abandoning the idea that the means were as important as the message. Instead, it adopted the technocratic philosophy of 'what works best'. What's missing now for the post new Labour left are not ideas. But a practical vision of how we are going to 'deliver' greater social justice in practice, in particular what kinds of organisation we are committed to. Old labour lived its politics in the Trade Union movement or public sector, both of which provided ways for the public, local activists and politicians to stay connected.
The Fabian Society is perhaps the only institution that still performs this connecting role, as the link between the world of think-tanks where ideas are produced, and the local branch where campaigning happens becomes wider and wider. It isn't political philosophy that will provide the left with a new and steadier course but a narrative that links ideas about the kind of society we want to live in to the practical institutions we can use to create it.
Perhaps - I'm not sure about this - Gordon Brown's recent lauding of John Lewis provides part of the answer. But that's not because mutualism is a good idea in theory, or a good way to 'deliver' abstract goals. It is because John Lewis is an institution that represents our values and works well in the consumerist society we live in today - it's an employee-owned firm that's survived in the recession. But if that's true, the government to be serious about the mutualist institution. Politicians would need to show their commitment to mutualism in everything they do, not use the theories and models of the political philosopher or economist to measure and calculate how effectively it is at 'delivering' a set of abstract principles. The mutualist organisation would be something we think is good in itself. The means of achieving social justice is a central part of the vision of the society we want to create.
Political philosophy is perhaps best seen as offering a language of critique, a way of showing the particular shortcomings of the society we live in by contrasting them with utopian alternatives. But political philosophy doesn't help us to imagine the different type of society we want to create, or how we might get there. As a great thinker who himself abandoned abstract philosophy for the study of the real world once said, 'philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it'.
Guest post from Jon Wilson, who is a lecturer at King's College London.