The commons agenda may seem a long way removed from electoral politics and mainstream respectability. But we have already seen how the commons sensibility has propelled the Pirate Party to its surprising breakthroughs in Sweden and Germany. And now we have Blue Labour in the U.K. making a strong bid to re-conceptualize British politics.
A key figure in this transformation is Maurice Glasman, an academic, activist and Labour life peer in the House of Lords. Glasman has earned wide respect for his community work in London, such as working on a living wage campaign for cooks, security guards and cleaners. He also worked with faith communities on immigration issues, including a campaign called “Strangers into Citizens” that sought to integrate immigrants into their neighborhoods by fostering social understanding and cooperation among people.
“The very simple idea of people’s relationships with others is what is at stake here,” Glasman recently wrote in the Guardian. “The centrality of one-to-one conversations, of relationship building, of establishing trust between what were seen as incompatible communities and interests transformed my understanding of what a politics of the common good could be, and of what Labour should be about.”
The "Blue" in Blue Labour refers to its commitment to a “small-c conservatism." By “conservative,” Glasman and his colleagues mean a commitment to cultural tradition, community and social solidarity – those old-fashioned, “soft” things that are usually treated by politicians as sappy rhetorical inspiration. What makes Blue Labour stand out from this tradition, however, is the way it brilliantly blends a deeper humanistic vision with a hard-nosed economic analysis, including a staunch opposition to neoliberalism and globalization.
For example, Blue Labour is inspired by Karl Polanyi, author of The Great Transformation, a landmark book that chronicles the historical shift from a world of commons in the 17th and 18th centuries to one in which all aspects of society are governed by markets. Blue Labour is also inspired by Ivan Illich in its disdain for the objectification of people and managers who speak of “human resources.” In other words, Blue Labour has enough independence and self-awareness to stand outside of market culture, and so is able to critique its serious limitations.
Consider this excerpt from a piece by Blue Labour Party activist Jon Wilson:
The free market and the centralized, statistically obsessed State try to subordinate the local peculiarities of life to universal values, whether those values are established by the price mechanism or [even] a language of universal rights. In reality our lives only make sense within concrete contexts and relationships. If the market or centralized State annihilate those local contexts, life literally loses its meaning. . . . The problem with the liberal idea of the identical, relation-less self-determining individual is not that it is bad (although it is that) but that it is a false description of the way human beings act.
Blue Labour seeks to reinstill a deeper vision of humanity in politics and policy, transcending some of the familiar (but narrow) premises of liberalism. Writes Glasman: “The Labour tradition is far richer than its recent form of economic utilitarianism and political liberalism would suggest. Labour is a unique and paradoxical tradition that strengthens liberty and democracy, that combines faith and citizenship, patriotism and internationalism and is, at its best, radical and conservative.”
In these days, trying to defend the integrity of stable communities and social mutualism is itself a radical proposition – and yet it also is scorned as reactionary. Some critics claim that Blue Labour represents a “politics drenched in nostalgia” – a backward-looking resistance to progress and modernity. Glasman retorts that he has no interest in defending “insularity, fear of change and a rearguard action in defence of the white working class.” But he makes the important point that “only democratic association can resist the power of capital and that the distinctive practices of the Labour movement are built upon reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.”
Glasman also shrewdly notes that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – “New Labour” – were “recklessly naïve about finance capital and the City of London and relentlessly managerial in their methods. Blair developed a political alchemy that Brown failed to recreate, and it was between tradition and modernity. The problem was that his conception of tradition was superficial and his concept of modernisation verging on the demented: a conception of globalization understood entirely on the terms set by finance capital.”
By contrast, Glasman points out, “The German economy with its worker representation on the management board, works councils, pension co-determination, regional banks and vocational regulation, in other words with high levels of democratic interference in the economy, emerged with a more efficient workforce, greater growth and with a genuinely modern industrial sector.”
He continues: “The paradox here is that vocational institutions decried as ‘pre-modern’ and ‘Jurassic’ preserved a knowledge culture that facilitated a more efficient response to globalisation than managerialism. The democratic representation of different economic interests turned out to be more efficient than leaving decision-making to the money managers. So Labour needs to engage with diverse interests in corporate governance and place greater stress on vocational rather than transferrable skills.”
Blue Labour offers a refreshing vision of politics, one that astutely connects the fight against unfettered global capital to the fight to protect elemental human traditions, relationships and community amenties. Although Blue Labour has not yet embraced the language of the commons, it has clearly embraced its sensibility, as expressed by Polanyi and Illich, and it has a keen awareness of the pathologies of market culture.
It also understands the great harm that the financial sector is inflicting on commoners; the perils of globally integrated markets to local and regional well-being; and the ways that Market/State duopoly can eviscerate the basic provisioning, non-market resources and social trust that any community needs. (Blue Labour is currently fighting government efforts to privatize public forests, for example, and to sell off the Dover port to investors.)
As the vice of budget austerity grows tighter in the U.K., it will be interesting to see if Blue Labour can channel public anger and disgust into some new, transformative grooves. Myself? I’d like to see Blue Labour help Brits rediscover the commons that still exist in their midst, even now, and start to develop some new ties of international mutualism, reciprocity and solidarity. The spirit of Blue Labour is too important to stay confined to that fair island.