DEBATE|: “Politics Should Move to the Left”

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Lecture date: Sun, 13th Mar, 2016
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Tom Rubens, in favour of the Motion.

Introductory comment “The Party of the 90%”

This contribution delineates the outlook of a political party which does not yet exist, but which could come into being either as a completely new party or as one that is the radically reformed version of an existing party. Regarding the latter possibility: people who think that there are already too many political parties in this country, but who regard none of those which run in elections as either sufficiently to the Left or as adequately capacious in general outlook, may well be sympathetically disposed to the idea of an existing party transforming its objectives and attitudes into the ones which I ascribe to the Party of the 90%. Finally, although, as said, the Party is not yet a fact, I will speak of it as if it were, and as being at the beginning of its political life.

THE PARTY OF THE 90%

(This text contains a number of important ideas supplied by Mr. John Howarth)

SETS OF OBJECTIVES

ONE:

OPPOSE the economic power of the big industrial corporations and the big banks and finance houses. This power constitutes an area of about 10% of economic activity within the total national economy. [1]

The word ‘activity’ should be stressed: we are not talking about a 10% which is a numerical portion of the population. The actual number of people engaged in the 10% activity is much smaller than 1 in 10 of the whole population. So, the term 10% is being used only to designate a quantity of economic activity—and not the numerical 10% of the population. The actual people pursuing the 10% activity will be referred to as those in the 10% ‘context.’

Likewise, the term 90% will be used to designate the quantity of economic activity engaged in by that section of the population not involved in the 10% activity. That section is clearly the vast majority, given that fewer than one tenth of the population are engaged in the 10% activity. Further, the people pursuing the 90% activity will be described as those in the 90% ‘context.’

In European countries, the 10% activity accounts for about 60% of national wealth; in the U.S., it accounts for about 70%. (For more on these figures, see, inter alia, Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, pub. 2013).

Also, the people in the 10% context exert considerable influence on the body-politic.

AIM TO dismantle that power throughout the U.K. This objective to be pursued partly through a programme of informing the public in extensive detail about the scale and danger of this power. This information-project would itself be an enormous undertaking, and so would have to be conducted mainly through website facilities that were widely publicised. Ideally, it would involve a pooling of data with all other people opposed to the 10% activity–and especially with those active in the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). 2 A further point is that the Party readily accepts that the practical process of dismantling may well be very complex and slow.

AIM TO establish public ownership and control (actual, not nominal) of the major sources of material production and distribution, and of the major banks, and the major utilities. Public ownership and control would be administered on a democratic basis, with as much local-democratic control as was practically possible.

At the same time, the local control would have to be part of a general, co-ordinated form of organisation, one which would inevitably involve some degree of hierarchy. There would, then, have to be a certain number of key positions, occupied by key people.

At all administrative levels, the holding of positions would be based strictly on merit and proven performance. The requisite degree of ability, commitment, self-knowledge and self-command would be essential. This appraisive approach to the individual would clearly transcend all class-based and prejudiced attitudes.

Further, quite apart from administrative capacity, a requisite degree of technical expertise would be needed in those individuals playing a major role in the ground-level operation of a modern manufacturing system. The fact that the system was a mainly collective one would in no way eliminate this necessity.

All the above-stated aims would be pursued through the democratic electoral process, and therefore ultimately by means of parliamentary legislation. The Party completely rejects the view, held by some people on the Left, that fundamental economic and social change can be achieved only or mainly by non-electoral, non-parliamentary methods. At the same time, the Party does appreciate the importance of forms of public protest and activity which are extra-parliamentary e.g. demonstrations, strikes, occupations. But it insists that such protest should, ultimately, translate itself into votes at the ballot box.

This view of the centrality of the political sphere is, it should be emphasised, not simplistic. The Party, in fully recognising the extent of the economic power and political influence of those people in the 10% context, acknowledges that this power and influence have fundamentally weakened the functioning of the democratic political process. The Party is aware that the political sphere can never operate in a totally self-sufficient, self-contained manner: this sphere can never be unaffected by the economic power-structure which co-exists with it. Hence the Party realises that its campaign against the 10% activity must be continually linked with efforts, shared with other like-minded groups, to strengthen democratic political institutions and practices by reinforcing the connections between these and the majority of the population i.e. those in the 90% context.

TWO:

SUPPORT the growth of small businesses, and small-scale co-operatives, as a vital supplement to the public economy. The Party regards any dynamic economy as requiring an element of private initiative, inventiveness and flair. Also, by keeping in close touch with developments in the private sphere, the Party would—as is always necessary– continually expand its understanding of the general economic scene, and never claim a monopoly of economic knowledge. This understanding would be continually nourished by the shared dissemination of information through IT methods.

The key thing is to value the private economy while at the same time setting strict limits within which it may flourish. These limits must be established by parliamentary legislation.

Now, returning to the public economy and its management: the Party places major emphasis on ecology, esp. in relation to agriculture: for the obvious reason that the state of the natural environment determines all possibilities of economic activity and, of course, of social living.

An additional point to make here is that the Party is attuned to regional cultures and outlooks, given the wide variety of these throughout the U.K. This attunement shapes its approach to cultural as well as economic issues.

THREE:

Until such time as big business and big finance can be dismantled, TAX the super-rich people engaged in the 10% activity–and in ways designed to help clear the National Deficit and National Debt, and to ensure that taxes on the very wealthy are progressive, in strict ratio to taxes on those at lower income levels. This goal calls for an extensive tightening-up of the existing tax system, esp. in connection with tax havens, plus the introduction of new taxes on the super-rich. The latter should include a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on transactions in money markets , a Land Value tax and a Mansion Tax.

Specifically as regards the National Deficit, the need to clear it is linked with the need to reduce reliance on banks and financial institutions by reducing government borrowing.

FOUR:

ENDORSE social mobility and the varieties of personal aspiration—educational, occupational, cultural– provided these ambitions are not aimed at the acquisition of super-wealth. As a related point, SEE social mobility as something which should take forms which are not mainly economic. In the kind of society which the Party wishes to see—one without huge differences in income—upward movement in occupational status and cultural experience would not result in large discrepancies in economic level. The outcomes of that movement would certainly be very complex and worthy of close study, but their most important features would not be economic ones.

In its cultural dimension, this mobility should lead to an increased appreciation of the centuries of achievement in the humanities, the sciences, and the fields of social and political development. At the same time, these achievements should always be understood in relation to the socio-economic conditions in which they arose. The importance of the past should be valued no less than that of the present. This importance, the Party believes, can best be conveyed through a system of liberal education rather than one which is mainly job-oriented. Overall, the Party is against any argument for imposing cultural closure on people’s outlooks; it perhaps goes without saying that open access to enlightening culture, whatever that culture’s source, brings genuine enlargement of understanding and mutuality. The emphatic concern with culture indicates that the Party is as much interested in addressing the sphere of cultural liberties as it is in addressing that of economic necessities.

FIVE:

In close connection with Point Four, DEMONSTRATE appreciation of the variety and complexity of modern society, esp. its range of personal expertise, accomplishment, and cultural orientation. AVOID the kind of thinking based on rigid ‘class’ concepts. The Party sees the population chiefly in terms of the divide which exists between the people in the 90% context, and who are on lower and middle incomes, and those in the 10% context. As regards those in the 90% context, the Party is not concerned to dwell on the social, occupational and cultural differences obtaining within this numerical majority. Hence it has no wish to view any one social / economic group as more ‘significant’ and worthy of attention than others, or as possessing an historical ‘destiny’ of any kind. Provided those in the 90% context are neither part of, nor acquiescent in, the power-structure of the super-rich, the Party regards them all as potential allies in the task of dismantling that structure—contributing, in their various ways, to that goal. It knows that, in prosecution of this task, it will need all the intelligence and talent it can muster, from whatever social quarter they may emanate.

 SIX:

SEEK to co-ordinate with other parties and movements in other countries which have the same or similar objectives. The campaign against those in the 10% context should be international. The concerted aim must be to attempt to establish a global economy which is, in the main, co-operative rather than competitive, and where material productivity is, by and large, collectivist in organisation and purpose. This co-operative system would be based on a network of regional economies, with each region involving various countries. Also, the system would be upheld by democratically-elected governments. Hence both the economic and political dispensations would be majority-endorsed.

A co-operative arrangement of the above kind would manifestly be a ‘first’ in world history. However, though described in such grand terms, it should not be regarded as unattainable. History has, after all, seen many firsts which had previously been thought impossible.

As a further historical consideration, we should attend to the arguments of thinkers such as Marx and Pareto: namely, that the massive extent of armed conflict between states which history displays has been due largely to rivalries between self-interested elites—the elites which dominated those states. These elites were, roughly speaking, in the 10% context of past societies; and they prosecuted their wars by persuading or conscripting those in the 90% context to back them. The same point applies chiefly to the imperialist ventures of states, in cases where those ventures did not involve war with rival states. Overall, if the Marx-Pareto perspective is in the main correct, then we see clearly that the project of endeavouring to establish a co-operative global economy between states is also an endeavour to end war and imperialism: clearly, an objective of no small value.

CONCLUSION:

All in all, the Party of the 90% would seek to do radically more than achieve limited improvements in the living conditions of the majority of people, while omitting to tackle the problems of the economic supremacy and disproportionate political influence exerted by the people in the 10% context. It would see these people as the chief problem facing society: a massive log-jam whose clearance would be a necessary condition for opening the way to address the other major economic problems.

In differentiating sharply between the 10% and the 90% contexts, the Party would, to repeat, display maximal appreciation of the people in the latter, in all their variegation and many-sidedness. Such an appreciation is vital for any modern political movement aspiring to end the economic dominance of a particular class or group—and, at the same time, seeking to preserve or create a cultural outlook and intellectual climate which are liberal, in the strictly philosophical sense of that term. Linkage between these objectives would be quintessential to the Party’s outlook and policy; its economic goals would always be inter-twined with its cultural perspective.

The history of the 20th century is multiply scarred with examples of political movements which sincerely sought to end the dominance of self-interested economic elites, but which had little or no interest in maintaining or establishing a liberal intellectual climate. This lack of interest was due chiefly to fixed adherence to rigid ideology; and the rigidity of ideology resulted from a grossly oversimplified picture of social and cultural realities. Such distorted outlooks led, as we know, to policies which, though carried out genuinely in the name of ideology, were nevertheless horrendous—the product of disastrously inflexible, over-certain and self-righteous attitudes. Such a scenario would, for reasons already given, never be the creation of the Party of the 90%.

The Party is just what is needed to revive the centre-left, liberal and social- democratic spheres of U.K. politics: spheres which, for a considerable period, have been in decline. (This decline is also evident in other Western European countries. Hence, the emergence in these countries of equivalents to the Party would have a similarly beneficial effect there 3). The balance the Party would strike between public and private economy; the equal interest it would take in all social, occupational and cultural groups across the 90% context; plus its concern to maintain and enhance a liberal intellectual culture and therefore a genuinely open society: this combination of approaches constitutes the deeply synthetic, eclectic, flexible, non-doctrinaire, knowledge-grounded and experience-based character of its outlook. It is true that the constituent qualities of this outlook are found, in varying measure, in the perspectives of some other Parties as well, but definitely not to the same extent.

Some final points. Firstly, the Party’s aims and objectives do not mean that it is utopianist in outlook. It seeks to help create a better society—ultimately a better world society– but does not aim at producing a perfect one, since it regards the latter as unattainable. Even in the event of achieving most or all of its economic and cultural goals at a specific point in time, it would not make the mistake of assuming that all possibility of criminality and corruption had been eliminated. It does not envisage any future society which would not require a judicial system, a police force, and even a military force, to protect the law-abiding from the (inevitable) law-breakers. Again in the event of achieving most or all of its goals, it would never rule out the possibility of social groups emerging which sought to become new dominant elites.

Next, the Party is fully aware of the problems existing now and in the past with regard to differences—sometimes immense—between individual people in point of calibre of intellectual, cultural and moral achievement. It sees no reason to think that these discrepancies, and the problems they entail, will simply disappear with the adoption of a new economic system. The possibility of their continuance after economic reform—even if, perhaps, on a smaller scale than now—is one the Party never discounts.

Further, given the above points, the following must be added:–The Party, despite its general support for people in the 90% context, does not commit the error—one frequently found among progressive radical groups—of assuming that those sections of the population who lack economic and political power are, simply by virtue of their powerlessness, uniformly of high moral calibre. Clearly, there is no logical necessity whatsoever in this assumption. Nor is there any empirical justification for it. The Party is the first to acknowledge that, among the enormous number of people who constitute the 90%, there are those who are neither highly motivated nor highly aware, and who show no signs of ever becoming so. This observation is accepted, without embarrassment, on straightforward empirical grounds. The Party knows that, to be politically effective, it must be socially realistic; and to be realistic means constantly attuning outlooks and objectives to the facts of experience. It is strictly on the basis of this realism, and of the qualifications and modifications which this realism entails, that the Party campaigns for those in the 90% context.


 

POLITICS SHOULD MOVE TO THE LEFT

Reply by Tim Bale, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London

I don’t doubt that Tom puts his finger on some serious problems with the way we live now.  And some of the solutions he suggests may, albeit in some amended form, have something going for them – even if they aren’t the ones I myself would be keenest to see implemented. But I don’t doubt, either, that any new party advocating them would be utterly crushed at any UK general election – at least in the world we now live in.

Put bluntly, the shape of public opinion and the characteristics of our first past the post electoral system mean that opposition is not the time to pitch bold and visionary left-wing ideas to British voters.  Once in office, there is – as politicians such as Attlee, Thatcher and, more recently, George Osborne, have proved – rather more room for manoeuvre and for changing the parameters of the politically permissable.  But even then profound change is best pursued incrementally.

The Market is Best, Except for …

But first a confession.  I believe that, all other things being equal (and I acknowledge they rarely are), a society’s ultimately finite resources are best distributed by the market. We have seen what inevitably occurs when states are governed by parties who disagree with that axiom.  Those parties soon end up denying citizens’ fundamental human rights and eventually resort to imprisoning and murdering them. Supposedly enlightened bureaucrats and technocrats turn into the nomenklatura necessary for dictatorship.  The party becomes the state and vice versa. Outside of the pages of Plato, the supposedly morally superior ruling class becomes an immoral law unto itself. War and conquest do not end; they carry on regardless.

That said, there are clearly several areas of life in which the market is almost bound to fail, in the sense of not providing sufficient quantities of what are generally agreed as the requirements for a decent standard of living and quality of life.  Moreover, those failures end up damaging the ability of the market to provide the goods we like to have as well as those we literally need.  The list may be familiar but it is worth restating: health; education; security and defence; income support for those who cannot seriously be expected to work or who can’t find work; and, as we well know in this country, housing.

There is also a good argument for a degree of redistribution through both forced saving and state (or state-backed insurance) benefits – be it over the life-cycle (from working adults to children and pensioners), between rich and poor, between capable and incapacitated, and between places which are struggling and places which are not (both within the country and beyond its borders).

Correction, not Confiscation

But there is a big difference between correction and confiscation – not only substantively but in terms of voter perception.  What may seem fair to those on the left can all too often seem far-fetched to the vast majority who place themselves, intuitively (but not necessarily inaccurately) in the centre of the ideological spectrum. Any measures taken, however well-intentioned and however pressing they may seem to those advocating them, require broad consent in a democracy.  Much of what Tom suggests would be seen as simply going too far by most citizens of this country – at the moment at least.

Voters may be sceptical as to whether material success always originates in hard work; but they believe that hard work can and should be rewarded by material success and don’t want to see that possibility removed.  They also believe in the right of the individual to pass on the fruits of his or her labour, be it a pot of cash or other assets – most obviously a house or flat.  In addition, they want to prevent the nation’s patrimony from being consumed via benefit claims and the use of already overstretched public services by people who haven’t grown up here and with whom they feel no affinity.  Finally, they’re not keen on any offer from a political party that looks like it’s trying to turn the clock back to a time when life had fewer conveniences and home comforts.  Given all this, there would, I suspect, be precious few takers for what Tom is suggesting.

The Left has to Show Competence as Well as Compassion

I recognise, of course, that what people want or don’t want is – to some extent anyway – socially constructed and that it is open to a party to try and shape people’s preferences.  But this is much more easily done – inasmuch as it is ever ‘easily’ done – in office than in opposition.  Sticking the true story of what ‘the ten per cent’ are allegedly up to (or getting away with) on the web simply won’t cut it with most of the ‘ninety per cent’ – unless, perhaps, the ten per cent we’re talking about includes the Kardashians and the others who appear day-in-day-out in the Mail Online’s ‘sidebar of shame’.

I recognise, too, that the aim of a left-turn may not be to win office.  It may instead be about an attempt to somehow anchor the centre of gravity in British politics so that the country doesn’t shift too far to the right and thereby simply dismiss the solutions Tom suggests out of hand.  Sadly, however, the evidence suggests that this strategy simply doesn’t work.  All it does is to ensure the opposition to the centre-right is unelectable, allowing a Conservative government, as it did in the eighties and is doing again now, to do pretty much what it calculates it can get away with.

To prevent this, the left has to win office from opposition, which means building a cross-class alliance, which means winning over those fabled ‘C2’ voters, which means locating oneself, at least rhetorically, in the centre, and which means stressing delivery or incremental but important reforms over ‘the vision thing’.

The left wins in Britain – as it won in the sixties and the late nineties – when it can convincingly argue that there’s no contradiction between competence and compassion. This, and not an overly radical platform by a new party that, ultimately, no-one could (or indeed should) trust to be as nice as Tom himself, seems to me to be the path it should try to tread.

 

 

 

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Tim Bale graduated from Cambridge and did a Masters Degree at Northwestern University, USA.  He then worked for the NHS, he  PhD in Politics at Sheffield University. He went on to teach politics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, Sussex University and joined Queen Mary University of London in 2012. Tim’s media work includes writing for…

Tom Rubens is a semi-retired teacher of English and Philosophy and has worked as a university and college lecturer. He has produced eight books on philosophy and has also published poetry and recently, a novel. He has been a member of CHES since the 1980s, and has been active at Conway…