Blue Labour’s relational state, a partner state?

Jon Wilson explains the relational bias of Blue Labour and its conception of the state, which is quite related to our own conception of the Partner State.

Excerpted from a Open Democracy debate:

“The problem is that left-liberal politics imagines abstract values rather than strong relationships bind us to act together for the common good. The purpose of Blue Labour is to remind us how weird that is. Practically and theoretically, it points out what it might be like to live a Labour politics based on reciprocity and solidarity rather than abstract norms that have no real meaning in people’s lives.

For me, Blue Labour combines a challenge to capitalism with a belief that the state doesn’t have all the answers. That’s an attractive political philosophy for an activist and academic who’s never sure whether he’s on the left or right of the Labour party. But it isn’t just about political thought. It’s also about renewing real relationships that stretch across the Labour party and beyond. As a participant in discussion which led to the Soundings e-book ‘The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox’ and since, its been an honour to be part of some of the new connections and conversations that have the greatest chance now of renewing the Labour party. As a historian, my role in the Blue Labour enterprise has been to remind the politicians and political theorists of something which Saul Alinsky and Michel Foucault would have agreed: power has always only ever been relational. It’s relationships, not just values, which change real people’s lives.

Alan Finlayson argues in his wonderful post ‘Making Sense of Maurice Glasman’ that Blue Labour’s emphasis on relationships and reciprocity rather than abstract values makes it disconcerting for many Labour people. For both Finlayson and Stuart White, it is Blue Labour’s hostile relationship to liberal universalism that is at issue. Finlayson suggests that this hostility will ensure Blue Labour’s take up is limited. As he notes, “Blue Labour has inadvertently proven just how hard it is in England to think beyond the assumptions of the Liberal tradition”. White, by contrast, asks for Blue Labour’s celebration of the history of local political struggle to be blended with a left-liberal tradition of universal rights, that has Thomas Paine at its centre. Neither are right, I think, because they over-estimate the power of liberal concepts to explain how people actually live their lives.

To judge when and how it should act, what I’d call the Liberal/Fabian state relies on abstract values that impose universal rules. These days, its sole criteria for success are statistics. As I was told by the Chief Executive of the authority where I was once a councillor a few years ago, if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count.

Maurice Glasman and the group who’ve come together under the banner ‘Blue Labour’ argue that this political philosophy is, literally, worthless. The free market and the centralised, statistically-obsessed state try to subordinate the local peculiarities of life to universal values, whether those values are established by the price mechanism or a language of universal rights. In reality our lives only make sense within concrete contexts and relationships. If the market or centralised state annihilate those local contexts, life literally loses its meaning. Happily – and this is our source of hope – such devastation happens rarely.

Following Karl Polanyi, Glasman goes on to argue that local organisation doesn’t only sustain the skills and virtues which makes life meaningful, but the cash values that allow the market economy to work. Markets are only sustainable when they’re driven by what Finlayson describes as “real production carried out by real people making things that they care about”.

Alan Finlayson’s sharpest point is to note that this is an ‘ontological’ critique of capitalism: to believe money is the source of value or power is to believe something wrong rather than bad. But the point can be extended to encompass the critique that Glasman and others offer of liberal politics more generally. 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.

My point here is that Blue Labour is not offering an alternative vision of how the world should be, nor is it harking back to a by-gone past. What it argues is that politicians should use the resources of a forgotten Labour tradition to describe the way the world is now. Its realistic capacity of describing how people actually are is why I’m far more optimistic than Finlayson about its chance to politically succeed.”

The anti Liberal-Labour Ontology of Blue Labour: choosing relationships and reciprocity over abstract rights and ideals

“So what does this anti-liberal Labour ontology look like? I’d like to emphasise two aspects. First of all, Blue Labour starts with the fact that human existence happens in relationships. Everyday life, from birth to death, is structured by the way we relate to other people, whether our parents, lovers, children, colleagues or friends. The passions and reasons that drive our politics are rooted in the concrete relational connections we have with others. It is only after having a politically relevant relationship that we can talk of abstract moral values to start with, even if that simply means (as is rarely the case) a friend gives us a work of political philosophy which inspires us, or a hostile relationship to a figure in authority. The stories people tell about why they are Labour always begin with an account of the concrete relations with others.

This emphasis on the centrality of relationships does not make Blue Labour a branch of ‘communitarian’ political thought, as both Alan Finlayson and Stuart White think. Finlayson is wrong to suggest Glasman “fall[s] back on the notion of a natural community” for example. Blue Labour’s political philosophers – Jonathan Rutherford and Marc Stears as well as Glasman – use the word ‘relationship’ far more often than ‘community’ in the recent Soundings e-book. ‘Community’ has a nebulous abstraction that contradicts Blue Labour’s concrete sensibility.

Unlike communities, relationships occur all around us, and they provide the basis for challenging the dominance of unrestrained capitalism. Most people most of the time are doing things which are not ruled by the instrumental logic of the market, or its statist surrogate. And both the market and state rely on relationships that contradict the official logic of each. The question is how, in increasingly difficult times, those relationships allow us to do more than barely survive, and create lives in which we flourish and find true meaning and fulfilment.

Blue Labour’s argument is that for that to happen, the kind of relationships which allow the good life to thrive need to be organised in institutions which provide a basis for common action. What matters is not an institution’s formal structure or the abstract principles supposed to rule it, but how far it brings disparate people together in solidarity and friendship to act together for the common good.

Our everyday lives are full of countless moments, in many institutions where there is the potential to do this – where, in other words, relationships of friendship and solidarity exist that might become the basis for common action. Faith groups, which often actively nurture solidarity, are one starting point. It is faith’s distance from the liberal official discourse of politics that makes it such a powerful starting point for political action. But they are many others: the informal networks that young parents create at the school gates; the pub or the coffee shop; the extended family; the alternative family structures of gay and lesbian life; the conviviality which still exists at the margins of the workplace; as Daniel Hodges notes even that most unlikely place, the shopping mall. Faced with the capitalist, bureaucrat and manager’s ever greater demand that we produce abstract, meaningless value, human beings nonetheless possess the remarkable capacity to create meaningful forms of common life.

We aren’t so atomised common action is impossible. There are places where that may be the case – former Labour heartlands where the demise of dominant industries and reliance on nothing but an utterly un-relational state has devastated collective. But in most places, solidarity exists – it’s just the liberal (and neo-liberal) official language of politics make it hard to recognise. The assumption that our polity is made up of nothing but individuals on the one hand and the state on the other allows us to ignore the places where collective action already wields power, for good or ill. It allows us to forget the extraordinary lobbying force of the City of London for example. More importantly, it fails to recognise where people who feel they can’t make a difference are able to develop their existing relationships into power that can challenge the commodification of everything around them.”

The State

“The challenge, I think, is how the state might be organised to nurture common life rather than annihilate it. That needs a democratic central power which strongly leads, but which recognises that its role is to coordinate and balance between institutions that are closer to people’s lives than it is. But ways need to be found to root public institutions within the balance of interests that exist in local society. Maurice Glasman proposes the creation of public bodies owned and controlled by a partnership between the state, workers and local citizens, and the growing number of Cooperative schools have put a similar model into practice. Such a model rejects a simplistic opposition between local and centralised control, and formalises the actual partnership between funders, workers and users which public service delivery in practice relies on. Again, Blue Labour proposes reforms which reflect how we actually are.

What matters is practical relationship-building within public institutions and the real not merely formal incorporation of citizens into decision-making at every scale. What White describes as “a democracy of confident popular self assertion” can only be built by developing strong relationships and common life in the institutions of a particular place – something our short-term political and governmental culture makes almost entirely impossible. As well as constitutional change, local democracy requires stability and the art of good local leadership over the very long term. Instead of political science or management studies, the knowledge which the art of politics relies on is necessarily historical.”

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