• Who Are the Ideologues Now? (UK)

    It is a truism of today’s political analysis that, over the three or four decades since the so-called “free-market” revolution swept across the western world, the centre of political gravity has moved substantially rightwards. Most of those of middle age or younger will have grown up, after all, in a world where it has been widely accepted that markets are infallible, that government spending is wasteful and a drag on economic development, that running a country is just like running a business, that we all benefit if the rich get richer, and that private profit justifiably overrides all other considerations.

    So insidious and comprehensive has been the advance of this orthodoxy that even those who choose to question or oppose it are hard put to understand how complete has been its victory. As we see from the current plight of the Labour Party, political leaders who seek to offer alternatives are disarmed and enfeebled, without realising it, by their experience of growing up within its confines. They are, in any case, urged – on electoral grounds and even by their friends – to accept the new reality; and that reality, of course, keeps on moving inexorably rightwards.

    This re-definition of the political landscape has meant that what would once have been regarded as the extreme outer edge of what is politically possible is now the new centre ground. Any divergence from this central position is, by definition therefore, literally eccentric; and any move away from “free-market” orthodoxy is condemned as either a return to the past or an irrational lurch leftwards.

    These definitions of centrality and divergence have the further advantage, for their proponents, of confirming a long-held public perception. In the days when the political left was prepared to challenge existing power structures, they were undoubtedly helped by their development of an ideology of sorts that allowed them to ground their objections to orthodox policies in some loosely defined analytical framework. The consequent identification of the left as the doctrinaire element in the political spectrum seems, however, to have inhibited today’s leaders of the left, if the current contest for the Labour Party leadership is any guide, from straying too far from orthodoxy for fear of appearing too ideologically driven.

    The right, by contrast, was usually seen as pragmatic and concerned solely with what would work. Politicians of the right still seek to prolong that advantage by clothing their steady move rightwards in the language of experiment and exploration of what is possible, rather than of ideology. They have also learned to proceed stealthily, one small step at a time, with the intention of concealing from the public that each new step is in reality a further development of a highly ideological agenda.

    That may, however, be about to change. As the tide of ‘free-market” orthodoxy has reached its high-water mark and appears to be receding (at least in most parts of the western world other than the euro zone), it is more and more likely to leave exposed to public view those new policy initiatives that seem to have little to do with common sense and practicality and to reflect much more clearly what are doctrinaire preoccupations.

    Those preoccupations are becoming increasingly apparent. The priority accorded to the drive for private profit, for example, has led to well-publicised failings in delivering what were once public services, epitomised by the misfortunes of Serco – an international firm operating, among other things, as a private manager of prisons and under pressure for its failures in a range of countries.

    Privately owned academy schools, an idea that has now been shown even in Sweden, its country of origin, to produce disastrous results in terms of educational standards, will nevertheless no doubt continue to be supported by enthusiasts on the ground that business people are best placed to decide educational priorities for our children.

    And what about the wacky idea, now being contemplated by New Zealand’s right-wing government, of financing the delivery of social services to some of the most vulnerable, including the mentally ill, by selling bonds to private investors who will then look to make a profit from their “investment”?

    What links all of these and many other similar ideas is that they have little to do with what will work and best serve the interests of society and its citizens. They are instead all statements of ideologically driven preference – in each case, a preference for private provision, not because it works better, but because it is a faithful rendition of “free-market” theory.

    It seems, in other words, that the usual view of the left as doctrinaire and the right as pragmatic is in course of changing. It is now the right that espouses the ideological approach and that will go on doing so for as long as it is not held to account and its bluff is not called. It is the left (when it can make up its mind and, like the lion in the Wizard of Oz, reclaim its courage) that has the opportunity to offer new alternatives to free-market orthodoxy – alternatives that are not the product of doctrine, but that are simply sensible and practical and likely to produce better outcomes. Isn’t it time that Labour’s leaders caught up with this new reality?

    Bryan Gould

    3 August 2015



1 Comment

  1. Kevin Moore says: August 3, 2015 at 9:12 amReply

    I’m not sure that the segment of the right wing that is currently in power in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand is any the less pragmatic than it has always been.

    It’s just not the kind of pragmatism you’re thinking of, Bryan.

    I think the ideology that these governing parties make use of (e.g., that private enterprise provides goods and services more efficiently than does the public sector) is simply the ‘curtain’ (to use the Wizard of Oz analogy further) that hides a highly pragmatic reality.

    That reality is simply yet another generation of the elite ensuring that its interests remain entrenched and that its efforts to accumulate profit and wealth to itself through exploiting the general populace continue unabated.

    In other words, it’s a very pragmatic move to make use of the dominant ideology du jour to achieve age-old aims.

    That pragmatism, however, is clearly not intended to discover “what will work and best serve the interests of society and its citizens“.

    Instead, the pragmatism is all about “what will work and best serve the interests of the elite“.

    That’s a very pragmatic goal that can be notionally ‘sold’ to the masses through the discourse of an ideology reduced to simplistic homilies about individualism, self-reliance, hard work, governmental and bureaucratic incompetence, etc..

    But it could just as easily be sold – as it has been in the past – through the ideological rhetoric of devolving power to local communities, ensuring fairness (one of Roger Douglas’ favourite memes), or whatever.

    Who knows, some individuals on the political right may genuinely think they are personally motivated by a perfect, crystalline free market ideology that they never question. But they will only succeed in implementing their policies to the extent that those policies advance the interests that back them and upon which they depend.

    Notice, for example, how such ‘free market’ ideology is very quickly tossed aside when a more direct route between elite snouts and a rather large trough is identified – take what has happened in Christchurch; heavy-handed state control and doling out great dollops of favours to the chosen few like the aristocrats of old.

    Ideology always conceals the essence of what’s really going on – it does not motivate what is really going on.

    Same old (pragmatic) wine; new bottling.

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