Analysis of Blue Labour: From Individual Morality to Ethical Institutions

Blue Labour is an attempt to revitalize the British Labour Party through a community-orientation, as proposed by Maurice Glasman. Here are excerpts from an analysis by Alan Finlayson:

“Glasman is what political philosophers call a ‘virtue-theorist’. For him, generalised moral rules make little sense. What matters is the quality of all of our actions in the context of the ongoing collective life of which they are a part; the extent to which such actions both contribute to and are rooted in a form of life in which individuals may flourish. There is a fundamental difference between this and Blairism. For Blairism (as for neo-liberalism in general) the only moral agent is the individual, whom government should help to become self-reliant, responsible, law-abiding. For Glasman the community is also a moral entity; only if it is rightly organised can people flourish.

This is not a “right-wing” position. In Glasman’s case it is also not a Liberal one. Glasman thinks that Liberalism treats values and principles in a way that extracts them from the communal and cultural contexts in which they have meaning and force. In so doing, it drains the ethical life from autonomous communities and depoliticises virtue by declaring that ‘the good’ will derive from formal rules and procedures professionally operated and enforced by Liberal lawyers, philosophers and politicians. These are fundamentally concerned with specifying when the state can legitimately intervene into the lives of insufficiently liberal individuals. A consequence of this is that relations other than that between individual and state come to appear as having little or nothing to do with ethical and moral life; the most important of these is the economy.

To the liberal concern for constitutional justice Glasman wants to add economic justice. But he does not mean by this only that there should be a better redistribution of wealth. He means that the working part of our life should be about virtue and ‘flourishing’, just as much as every other part. For that to be so, people should have some measure of control over their lives at work, and that work should have intrinsic value and meaning. That is why Glasman admires the culture of the mediaeval guilds and G.D.H. Cole’s attempt to invent a modern guild socialism. It is also why Glasman opposes to the Blairite project of inculcating ‘transferable’ skills – of the sort that float freely around the knowledge economy – the cultivation of vocational skills rooted in craft cultures and traditions.

For Glasman what matters most is the maintenance of autonomous communal life within which virtue may flourish. He is thus particularly concerned with the forces that threaten such community. For the right, traditionally, these threats are usually immoral individuals (single mothers, atheists, divorcees and so on). But for Glasman, not only individuals but also (and more importantly) institutions can be wholly incompatible with ethical life. And for him the most important of these, is the institution of the market.

Glasman’s inspiration here is the economist Karl Polanyi who sought to describe and explain the development of the capitalist market in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Liberal economics often imagines the market as a wholly natural outcome of the interaction of human wants and interests under conditions of scarcity. In contrast, Polanyi argued that it was the outcome of a political project. Surveying England’s history of enclosure and the forced mobility of labour he concluded that “There was nothing natural about laissez-faire; free markets could never have come into being merely by allowing things to take their course…laissez-faire itself was enforced by the state”.

For Glasman political debate about the market should not be confined to the degree of legitimate intervention within it (as if it were a delicate natural ecosystem). His key concern is not how to ‘manage’ the economy or impose moral restraints upon unruly individual capitalists. The problem is much greater than that. There is a fundamental opposition between ethical community and the market because the market entails the commodification of life, labour and nature; it pulls things out of the communal context within which they have meaning by subordinating them to its one ‘universal’ measure of abstract value: ‘price’.

One part of the Labour tradition has seen its task as the use of the state to increase access to commodities – through organising to improve wages, state benefits and national economic planning. New Labour was in this tradition; accepting that we now live in a free-flowing, global knowledge economy, it saw its task as helping people to acquire transferable skills which would help them to fetch a better price on the market. This, incidentally, is what new Labour meant by social mobility. But Glasman claims that there is an alternative tradition for which commodification itself is the problem and the role of the party is the creation of collective organisations which can resist it, entangling the market in democratic “regional, civic and vocational relationships”. His examples include mutual banking, “real traditions” of craft, co-operatives and so on.

This is a specific form of anti-capitalist politics. It identifies the core problem of capitalism not as inequality or class war but as commodification. The latter is thought wrong primarily because it undermines embedded communities. Glasman’s politics, although shaped by realities of class, are not necessarily class politics: for him every community is threatened by the market and thus any community – national, regional or religious – has the potential to be part of the struggle against it. Indeed, it may be that Glasman is not in favour of community organising because of its role in challenging capitalism, so much as opposed to capitalism because it challenges community organising.

Glasman’s critique of the commodity does not originate with Polanyi, and it predates socialism. The critique of the commodity first appeared in the West as a critique of the idolatry of money; a critique of the belief that money can produce things of itself, and thus in particular a critique of usury (and it is worth noting that one of Glasman’s campaigns with London Citizens was for a cap on interest). That critique can be found in Aristotle (one of Glasman’s common reference points). Aristotle wrote of wealth creation that “The most hated sort and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself and not from the natural object of it”. This criticism overlaps with a religiously inspired critique of the belief that money can create something out of nothing (a power reserved only for divinity). Or, as Glasman puts it, “the pressure of commodification violates a fundamental notion of the sacred common to all the Abrahamic faiths concerning the integrity of the human being, the divine status of nature and the limits of money…”.

This is why Glasman makes very particular reference to the challenge money poses to community life and why he argues that “Democracy, the power of organised people to act together in the Common Good, is the way to resist the power of money”. Often he inveighs specifically against finance capitalism and has been particularly and powerfully critical of the City of London.

It is not that Glasman doesn’t care about capitalism in general. Rather, the problems he finds in it are not sufficiently captured by pointing to its exploitation or greed. For Glasman the problem of capitalism is that it enables the sovereignty of money over common life; that trade in commodities substitutes for real production carried out by real people making things that they care about. In this respect, at its core, Glasman’s critique of capitalism is not in fact moral at all. It is ontological. To believe in money is to hold an erroneous view about the nature of the universe. Money is a false prophet.”

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