[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: The tasks ahead . . .

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John Gray: The tasks ahead . . .
The Times Literary Supplement, 97.5.9

    A new social and political settlement, the historic successor of
    post-war social democracy, is under construction in Britain. On May 1,
    the British electorate dismissed the Conservatives as a party unfit to
    govern the United Kingdom.

    By inflicting on the Tories their worst humiliation since the Great
    Reform Act of 1832, the electorate has made Tony Blair's modernization
    of the Labour Party an unalterable fact of British political life.
    After such a vindication there can be no question of Blair's
    modernizing strategy being derailed in government by any reversion to
    old Labour thinking. Instead the question is what modernization means
    for the country that Blair's government has inherited. Which modernity
    is Britain now embarked upon?

    One vision of British modernity has been rejected irrevocably. The
    project of refashioning Britain on the model of the American free
    market has suffered a final political defeat. In its earlier phases,
    Thatcherite policy was indispensable in building an internationally
    competitive market economy in Britain. The triangular collusion of
    government, trade unions and employers worked not as a pace-maker for
    wealth creation but as an engine of industrial conflict. Mrs Thatcher
    succeeded, where Labour could not, in dismantling the jerry-built
    structures of British corporatism. The later administrations of
    Thatcher and John Major sought to inject market mechanisms into
    virtually every British institution. They became vehicles of a
    modernizing project guided by the primitive ideology of market

    Thatcher's project was programmed to fail. It was imposed on a country
    whose attitudes to the market and to the social responsibilities of
    government are, at bottom, not transatlantic but European. It was
    bound to be repudiated when the social fracturing it produced appeared
    to threaten the security of the middle classes. On May 1, Europhobic
    nationalism suffered an electoral rout from which it will not recover.
    As a result the Conservatives have been left rudderless. It no longer
    matters much what Tories think or say. Conservatism has been undone by
    its embrace of an ideology alien to the British political tradition.
    Unless the Conservatives opt for a generation in the political
    wilderness by electing a radically Eurosceptic leader to replace John
    Major, we will hear no more of the Thatcherite project of making over
    British society into a replica of American individualism.

    Yet no error could be more radical than that which is made by those
    who imagine that Thatcherism's demise will enable the social
    democratic ancien regime of pre-Thatcher times to be re-established in
    Britain. The world has changed too fundamentally for any such
    restoration to be a possibility. Europe's social democratic regimes
    were established during an era of closed economies. They rested on the
    capacity of sovereign states to limit the free movement of capital and
    production through exchange controls and tariffs. They cannot survive
    in an en-vironment in which capital and production exercise unfettered
    global mobility. The banalization of new technologies, which spread
    swiftly and are turned to profitable uses throughout the world; the
    intensification of global competition by the industrialization of the
    highly literate and numerate societies of East Asia; the enormous
    expansion of world markets consequent on the Soviet collapse and
    economic reform in China; the power of the world bond markets over
    national governments - this irresistible movement of economic
    globalization has effectively destroyed the environment that enabled
    social democracy to be established and maintained in Britain and other
    European countries.

    With the partial exception of Holland, the social democracies of
    continental Europe today do not represent a modernity that is
    applicable in Britain. They are mired in policies that belong to an
    irrecoverable past. A labour market in which job security is
    institutionalized is not sustainable when technological innovation is
    wiping out entire occupations; pension schemes that tie benefits to a
    single employer make little sense when no one can be sure of having
    the same vocation across a working lifetime; welfare institutions that
    are geared primarily to compensating people for failure are supremely
    unfitted for an age of globalization. Unless Europe's social
    democratic regimes reform themselves deeply and speedily they will be
    blown away by the gale of global competition. There is no prospect of
    a Blair government reshaping Britain's institutions on a semi-defunct
    European model. The logic of his repeated endorsements of flexible
    labour markets points in the opposite direction. In this, Blair is
    unquestionably right. The historic role of Britain's new government
    must be to take the lead in modernizing European social democracy. In
    so doing, it will unavoidably confront the chief dilemma of the age,
    which is how to reconcile the necessities of global markets with the
    needs of social cohesion.

    Old-style social democratic thinking is of little help here. It is
    disabled by its preoccupation with issues of distribution. It focuses
    more on redistributing income to people trapped in lives without hope
    than on improving the primary distribution of skills and opportunities
    in society. In this it has been deformed by the influence of
    egalitarian theories such as that of John Rawls. Recent political
    philosophy mirrors the thinking of the social democrats of a
    generation ago in conceiving of social justice as securing a pattern
    of outcomes across the whole of society. It has in common with
    ideologies of the New Right (such as Hayek's) an insensitivity to the
    diverse judgments of fairness we make in different areas of social
    life. The Conservative regime was not toppled on May 1 because it
    failed to conform to Rawls's difference principle. It was overturned
    because it appeared indifferent to vital human needs and seemed
    oblivious to the link that ought to exist between large rewards in
    public utilities and some claim to meritorious performance.

    It is already evident that the new social and economic settlement that
    is emerging in Britain will not be embodied in redistributional
    policies that pursue equality of outcome. Gordon Brown had made clear
    that it will embody a conception of equal opportunity that is maximal,
    com-prehensive and lifelong. It will promote merito-cracy and
    inclusion rather than equal outcomes. The new realities of economic
    globalization preclude traditional social democratic strategies of
    redistribution through taxation. If the spread of opportunities and
    skills is to be made fairer it will have to be achieved through
    changes in priorities in public spending and by reforms of the welfare
    state. This involves a marked shift from the liberal egalitarianism
    that informed the work of a social democrat such as Anthony Crosland.

    Rawlsian social democracy and the Hayekian free market are different
    versions of the same liberal individualist philosophy, and they have
    the same limitations. For both egalitarian and libertarian liberals,
    the basic unit of society is an abstraction - the individual chooser.
    Liberal individualists understand human beings as bundles of
    preferences, ciphers without histories or enduring attachments. They
    neglect the deep ways in which we are all embedded in common forms of
    life. They pass over the truth, which has been well articulated in
    communitarian theory, that personal well-being cannot be realized
    fully in a fragmented society.

    Yet communitarian thought can easily fail to track the complex
    conflicts of modern plural societies. Contemporary Britain harbours a
    variety of ways of life. Many Britons belong not to one but several
    cultural traditions. If Britain's welfare state is to be radically
    reformed, as man-ifestly it must, it cannot be by policies which aim
    to return to an imaginary past of organic communities and seamless
    families. Labour's social policies will work well in so far as they
    respect diversity - sexual, familial, ethnic and cultural. There is no
    one way in which the good life has to be lived now. A communitarian
    vision of late modern Britain cannot be other than pluralist.

    Labour's commitment to constitutional reform is an index of its
    commitment to pluralism. Its proposals for devolution have their final
    justification in the manifest fact that Britain is no longer unified
    by a single, homogeneous national culture. Its commitment to
    incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law
    is the first stage in a long and delicate search for a stable balance
    between the sovereign statehood of the United Kingdom and the
    institutions of the European Union.

    It is in education, more perhaps than in any other area of policy,
    that Britain will benefit from a closer relationship with Europe. Can
    a programme of educational reform succeed so long as Britain, unlike
    any other European country, discourages selection in state schools?
    Can economic renewal be sustained when Britain's schools are vehicles
    for the transmission of an atavistic class culture? How can Britain
    become one nation so long as it has a two-nation schooling system? How
    can we pretend to any kind of modernity so long as we are schooled
    into belonging to tribes and castes?

    The peculiar deformations of Britain's class culture are only one of
    many reasons why it cannot import its understanding of modernity from
    any other country. Blair's government is right to look eclectically to
    countries as diverse as Holland, Singapore and New Zealand for lessons
    in modernization. Yet a successor to social democracy in Britain will
    be enduring only if - unlike Thatcherism - it is home-grown. There is
    in the end no model for Britain's passage to modernity. None of the
    old ideologies of Right or Left can be of much guidance. No country
    has yet reconciled the demands of global markets with the maintenance
    of social stability. No British government has ever achieved a
    sustainable balance between the disciplines of wealth-creation and the
    claims of social justice. How Blair's government negotiates these
    conflicting imperatives will determine the shape and fate of the new
    British settlement.

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