Greens and power: the importance of theory

There has recently been a small media storm over a question in the Eton scholarship exam, in which 13-year-old boys were asked to imagine they were prime minister and to write a speech justifying the shooting of protesters.  The best response I’ve seen to this was by Chris Dillow on his Stumbling and Mumbling blog, in which he points out that it shows that Eton had a far better grip on the realities of power than those on the left criticising the question.  Power, he argued, is a problem for the Left.  And I think he’s absolutely right.

It reminds me of what my father always used to say about why Communists routinely got elected to office in his union, the NGA. Not because the nation’s printers were Marxist-Leninists, but because everybody knew that the Communists were the best negotiators. Confidence in their theory and a belief that capitalism was inevitably failing, added to disdain for the Public School arrogance and intellectual laziness of British management of the era, gave them a confidence that meant they negotiated without fear.

Management has of course changed.  It’s become more subtle and more pervasive and has a body of theory of its own. Dillow quotes The Jam – “what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” – but it’s more subtle and sinister; a matter of firsts in PPE, sharp suits, MBAs, management theory and a whole host of ideologically-loaded guidance on human resource management (the term itself, Human Resources, being a perhaps unconscious throwback to the age when factory workers were dehumanised as “the hands”).  There is now a substantial, thriving body of theory  to be deployed by HR departments, couched in a language that conceals the essential purpose – how to get more out of people while paying them as little – and ignoring their rights as far – as they can get away with.  Much of that theory uses psychological narratives that seek to give the appearance of scientific respectability, but which are themselves deeply ideological. Describing HR departments as the advance guard of market capitalism sounds ludicrous and bathetic, until you consider what they actually say and do (when I was a civil servant, it was a standard joke that HR departments were largely staffed by people who couldn’t hack policy jobs – largely because a sharp nose for the sort of unevidenced bullshit that was the stock-in-trade of Government HR departments was one of the basic requirements for doing policy work – although with a qualification I discuss below).

And that’s just a microcosm of the whole range of assumptions deployed by those in power.  You see it in the way economists and foreign policy “experts” use technocratic language to dress up political consensus often based on the flimsiest of ideological assumptions; economics is a prime example, being ultimately based on a series of axioms about behaviour which in the real world are frequently contradicted.  But they are resonant, and have power; and establishments – financial, political, bureaucratic, media – unite around them.  We are told that Greece and Italy have “technocratic” governments; this is a euphemism for governments pushing extreme neoliberal programmes outside the jurisdiction of democratic control.

It is therefore obvious that if you are an elected politician seeking to effect real change, you have to challenge those assumptions.  If you are in office, the work of the officials who advise you and implement your policy will be shot through with those assumptions – they are the basis on which permanent bureaucracies select their senior membership.  Evidence-based policy-making in state bureaucracies can often be about moulding evidence in the service of ideology, rather than challenging it; a sort of collective intellectual heading-off-at-the-pass.  And you must not be seduced by the accoutrements of power – whether you are Ramsay Macdonald speculating that every Duchess in London will want to kiss him, or New Labour with its culture of self-abasement in the presence of corporate power and wealth, or One Nation Labour seeking to avoid asking any of the awkward economic questions.  Your whole philosophy of Government will be based on challenge – which quite obviously is not the same thing as bullying or ignoring officials, because (writing as someone who worked in both Whitehall for two decades, some of that time on European Commission projects) officials respond to challenge and strong political leadership (while reflecting that conventional notions of “leadership” are themselves deeply ideological).

All of this is a problem for a Party like the Green Party, which opposes existing power structures but finds itself engaged in electoral politics which, if successful to any degree, means that it will find itself managing those structures and seeking to implement its vision through them.  I’ve recently been re-reading Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, so the thought of how Labour was seduced by a Parliamentary system whose essential purpose was to maintain the power and authority of the ruling classes is fresh in my mind (not just on the Right – there’s a fabulous irony in the way in which Tony Benn – the nearest thing the left has to a national treasure – used to base so much of his politics on the grounds of Parliamentary sovereignty) .  One of the interesting points was that of a party focussed almost exclusively on parliamentary action – and condemnatory of extra-parliamentary action – was undone in part by the way in which the establishment managed to organise its own extra-parliamentary networks like the media in opposition to elected Governments.  It’s a sad but telling fact that the real spade-work of neoliberalism has often been done by parties of the Centre Left – New Labour in Britain, Roger Douglas’ Labour Party in New Zealand – who, partly influenced by what have been presented as crises, have found themselves backed into positions where they do not have the political resources to challenge existing structures and being forced into compromises with “realism”  – usually defined with reference to the ideological positions of the Right.  It’s part of the genius of neoliberalism, and bolsters its claim that issues of economics and distribution are in principle above democratic scrutiny. With Labour having relinquished any pretension to socialism or radical change, its successors on the Left need to draw on those lessons and to understand the need to take on the value-systems of neoliberalism on the broadest possible front.

It implies that a rising political party of the left has to develop a strategy for dealing with power – a task that’s more urgent now when the ideology of reaction is more explicit and more pervasive than it has been in the past.  It needs a narrative that can challenge “realism” with evidence and build democratic consensus around that narrative, which means understanding the nature of the beast it is opposing and exposing the values of the beast, rather than accommodating them.  It also needs a special kind of discipline – not the discipline of the party whip and the witch-hunt but a rigorous understanding of how any lack of unity will be exploited by your opponents, and to develop truly democratic structures that represent that.

And that is very different from taking on the establishment at its own game.  This is a dangerous delusion above all for Greens, who want to argue for a new form of politics.  It’s not about behaving like the establishment, but about understanding it and developing the intellectual and organisational confidence to take it on.  The challenge, once you achieve elected office, is to keep a firm grip on whatever power you have, and to be able to challenge the bureaucracy and its ready made assumptions.  You never, ever relinquish that power to officers or officials.  Margaret Thatcher was dead right when she said that advisers advise and Ministers decide; but then Thatcher was someone who used power with deftness and skill. You do not need to share her values or approve of her methods to understand how much of her political ascendancy lay in her grasp of this fact.

Technocrats do not change the world.  Greens believe that changing the world – and building sustainable systems – is not just desirable, but an absolute imperative if our planet is to survive.  If we are going to do that, we need to have a strategy and a language for speaking to power with authority and confidence, which means understanding that.  And none of this is easy – which is why it’s desperately important for radicals to do the theoretical spadework. The rest, as they say, is managerialism.

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9 thoughts on “Greens and power: the importance of theory

  1. Good insights. There’s a reason politics has drifted into shallow managerialism – reforming institutions and key frameworks in a way that’s challenging to the status quo is very difficult. Which would probably explain whay it took the nightmares of WW2 to give the left the moral strength to achieve what they did, and why no-one has managed to retain it.

    As an aside, re: HR – I do enjoy reading HRmagazine.co.uk, especially the comments, which never ever stray from the accepted theoretical framework, whatever the policy under discussion. It’s a bit frightening really – even accounting websites discuss the theory behind the policy and the likely impacts.

  2. I am beginning to detect what I think is a “cop out” on the left which I find also reflected here whereby people use the term “neoliberalism” (never a particularly enlightening term in my view) to mean little more than market capitalism. When the Greens do it I suspect it also conceals some of the things they believe in that they know will not be popular (i.e. falling or stagnant material living standards for most – in the developed world at least).

    If you believe in challenging market capitalism that is fine – but if one takes cover behind a bogey word like “neoliberalism” when the time comes to tell people of the consequences of for example, a siege economy, you will find it harder to take them with you if they thought all they were facing was a philisophical abstraction.

    • it’s true that the term “neoliberalism” can be used as a lazy synonym for “capitalism”. But neoliberalism is something different from market capitalism (I agree it can too easily be used as a synonym) because it has a political as well as an economic agenda – about where power lies and who should wield it; in particular about the role of the state. The original liberal idea was that free markets would challenge oligarchies and create a more open and freer society; neoliberalism is about using structural change, often driven by crisis, to undermine democracy by placing economic decisions outside democratic control. So for example the EU-US trade agreement – currently under negotiation – will hugely constrain the ability of national governments in economic policy; the demands of trade will come first. This is a classic piece of neoliberalism.

      David Harvey – whose book on Neoliberalism is a must-read – defines neoliberalism as a system of “accumulation by dispossession” with four principal characteristics: the privatisation and commodification of public goods; financialisation, in which any item can be monetised and turned into an item of exchange and speculation; the management and manipulation of crises; and state redistribution in which the state becomes an agent of distribution from poor to wealthy. Now these points are all up for debate and Harvey is arguing from an explicitly Marxist point of view, but the point is that these are all political rather than purely economic conditions. (On the last and most controversial point Harvey argues that this effect has been so pervasive that it seems impossible to argue that it’s a by-product – it’s certainly consistent with the fact that nearly all the benefit of the growth of the boom years was accumulated by capital, not labour, and that real wages remained largely stagnant – before of course falling sharply after the 2008 crisis. I’d perhaps modify Harvey’s formulation to talk about the balance between wages and capital rents, which Harvey does at length in other books).

      The coalition is a good example of how neoliberalism is more than an economic doctrine – nobody voted for what it has done, and a crisis has been used to justify an economic policy that has no mandate and has led to a huge transfer of wealth from poor to rich. In Spain, Italy and Greece that transfer has been all the greater.

      As far as falling living standards are concerned, I’d say that austerity economics is doing a pretty good job of reducing living standards. The argument that growth increases wealth is an interesting one because while there are undoubtedly times when that has happened (like the 1950s and 1960s) the longer-term history is much less clear. (Supermarket development, for example, is often promoted because it “creates” jobs, and quite obviously supermarkets employ a lot of people, but the overall effect of this kind of development – especially in sucking wealth out of local economies – is often detrimental both to employment levels and local diversity; supermarkets have actually led to a long-term decline in the number of people working in retailing, with real pay having fallen drastically too – and are now being effectively subsidised by workfare). It seems to me that austerity capitalism is delivering the worst of both worlds – unsustainability and for many people plummeting living standards too.

      • There is much here I’d agree with but I wonder whether it makes sense to continue using a label that so obviously fails to express what it actually means. Most people (outside the US!) regard “liberalism” as a “good thing” and essentially concerned with freedom. What you have described clearly is not about that but the very opposite.

  3. Officers and officials control through length of tenure, constancy and wrought iron links between themselves which mere politicians, flibbertigibets a lot of them, passing through on a vote and a whim, have no chance of standing up to and efficiently interrogating.

    Officers and officials deploy feint and obfuscation in highly trained ways and a simple question will be drawn out into a 100 emails if you have the stamina to stay with it to get a straight answer. And before they are even remotely close to being cornered, the politician is gone – taken out at an election or has quit to get a proper job.

    And of course they have a lot of PC weapons they can deploy to fend off a politician (or member of the public) with which they can destroy the irritant at the stroke of a claim against them.

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