The New Moralism and the Formation of a “New” Liberalism

Here’s a response I wrote to the latest UfSO article (available here). If you get bored, skip straight to points 2 and 3.

Well, it’s great to see UfSO has started to churn out articles more actively. But, this article is a bit watery. For a start, how does the Stuart Hall quotation relate to any of rest of the article?

But, there’s no point pedantically trolling your efforts. So, just a few points that I hope will be constructive.

1) I’m not at all sure about your “class” analysis. The artistocracy, i.e. the Royal Family, &c, certainly still exists and continues to own profitable land and other assets. But, they are not an important and active class in contemporary British society – and certainly not the dominant class. They are a mere residual feature of a class structure that has been surpassed. Really, the only function they continue to serve is a “spectacular” or mythic one, as a locus for rallying nationalist sentiment.

The bourgeoisie is certainly the dominant class, and we can pick out key sectors – e.g. finance – as particularly hegemonic. Indeed, finance currently has a very strong and direct relation to the political elites who are, in fact, the deputies of the bourgeoisie.

This class has elaborated a mass of “organic intellectuals”: salaried ‘professionals’ – public and private sector workers who organise and direct a range of bureaucratic, administrative, managerial, legal, and cultural functions. These intellectual workers are internally stratified, from those who are deeply invested in capitalism, occupying positions of prestige and fully able to take their cut of surplus value, to those whose labour is thoroughly exploited and whose jobs are increasingly precarious, e.g. the strata of low-paid office workers, teachers, nurses, etc., and even those pursuing certain prestigious professions such as journalism and academia (where we’re seeing an increasing and deliberate use of ‘redundancies’ and ‘casualisation’ as a means of lowering wages). This middle-class is thus becoming increasingly divided between a narrow, well-paid elite and the “squeezed middle” who, I would argue, currently dominate left-wing protest. For, left-wing protest between 2009-2011 has chiefly organised around the public sector. And students are chiefly the children of this “middle-class” of professionals, and the future employees who will take on these professional roles. With austerity – and even before austerity – I think we can honestly say that the increasing concentration of wealth is leading to an increasingly proletarianisation of these workers: i.e. a more naked exploitation; increased workloads; increased precarity; and attacks on benefits, e.g. pensions, and the means by which this social group previously progressed itself (and its offspring), e.g. education, savings, home-ownership (mortgages).

Then there is the working class proper, which is non-professional labour: in construction, manufacturing, transport, cleaning, etc. In the longview, large sections of this class have been made unemployed by the demolition and privatisation of (unionised) industry in this country by Thatcher and neoliberalism. Globalisation was a means for driving down labour costs on a massive scale. Others have been made redundant more recently by the recession, e.g. construction workers. The young have been particularly badly hit in a situation where society refuses to either educate or employ them. I would also argue an ‘underclass of the dispossessed’ exists, partly the result of structural unemployment, which is used to keep wages low. Whilst this group may be a structural part of the proletariat, it exerts a real and ideological presence, given that unemployment and other social and economic disadvantages have become hereditary for certain social groups.

2) The important thing is that I really object to your cyclical notion of “the reappearance of reactionary conservativism [which] has produced a corresponding avant-garde of middle class intellectuals,” similar to those of the (19th century, btw) Chartist and utopian-socialist movements. Firstly, because the situation is completely different, including the function of nationalistic and moralistic conservatism. But, mostly I object to this because what the riots demonstrated was the class tensions within the leftist movement, dominated as it is currently by (middle-class) public sector workers and students. Far from proving the existence of a middle-class avant-garde, the riots proved the complete irrelevance of the left to certain exploited sectors of society. It also exposed the class prejudices of these middle-class leftists who, being (albeit precariously) invested in this capitalist society (via employment and education), acted on the whole with revulsion to the riots, claiming for itself wholly false and ridiculous political sophistication. We have only to think of the way in which so many ‘leftists’ distanced themselves from the ‘directionless, apolitical thuggery’ of the riots to see a schism between the left and the most exploited sectors of society which is rooted in class distinctions. This ‘political sophistication’ is in fact revealled as a real apoliticism and lack of seriousness on behalf of the unionist/student left.

3) Finally, I object to your fetishisic notion of progression and reaction. Particularly of note is the attempt to understand Cameron’s conservative ideology, which you distinguish sharply from the New Labour project (which you describe as a failed and contradictory push for meritocracy). I’m not quite sure what to make of this latest wave of Tory moralism, but I would note that it’s more widespread than you seem to think (certainly Eddy boy has had a go at it, too). Apart from being a damage limitation excercise, a means of papering over the social antagonisms caused by the cuts, I think it may also have much to do with forming a new ‘ethical’ liberalism in the face of the collapse of what David Harvey recently called ‘feral capitalism’. In short, this moralism goes hand-in-hand with Gideon’s recent call for banking legislation that will apparently *overcome* the contradictions of capitalism by reducing financial risk. Measures include legislating higher bank reserves, separating speculative investment banking from other banking activities and tittering about excessive bonuses. The new “ethical liberalism” is what we’re beginning to see pushed across the board (Cons, Libs, Labs and internationally), combining a nice dose of populism into the usual neoliberal mix. That, and not “reaction”, is what I would hypothesise this bullshit is all about.

Best wishes Dr G. Riddle, and all at UfSO!


~ by Wit on August 17, 2011.

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