In my neighbourhood, there are few people left who have spent their lives here. The small factories, builders’ yards and independent shops that were once dotted around have all gone. It is a socially liberal, deeply unequal community of middle-class money, an immigrant service class, and the remnants of an old working class now marginalised.
Poverty and wealth exist side by side, with people living radically different lives in parallel to one another. New shops and refurbished pubs cater for the influx of a thirty-something middle class that has utterly changed the tenor of the area.
The transformation of this area is a story about the transformation of England in the last 40 years of globalisation. It is also a story about the gentrification of the Labour Party. For this is the kind of area which is now a Labour heartland. In the last election 40,000 people, almost three quarters of the electorate, voted for their local MP, Jeremy Corbyn. As Labour loses its working class vote it is becoming a more metropolitan liberal party of the professional class.
The truth about 'liberal' London
Think back two decades, to 1996 – the Clinton democrats were booming, New Labour was about to enter office and Third Way politics was winning over one European social democratic party after the other. Liberal market globalisation was taking off. It was at this point that Christopher Lasch, the social theorist, issued a prescient warning about what we would now call Davos Man. In his essay, ‘The Revolt of the Elites’, he wrote:
“Once it was the ‘revolt of the masses’ that was held to threaten social order and the civilising traditions of Western culture. In our time however the chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses.”
In England a generation of journalists, school teachers, university lecturers, public relations experts, opinion formers, lawyers, media communicators, and public-sector professionals formed a new and expanded cultural elite. It became the carrier of liberal cosmopolitan values. These values distinguished it from much of the rest of the country and as it became an influential force within Labour, the party began to lose touch with the more conservative concerns of its traditional constituencies.
In the years up to the 2008 financial crash, politics, then, was dominated by a trans-partisan elite of technocratic Right and cultural Left. Anthony Barnet captures this well when he describes a new sphere of government being “regulation, reinforced by human rights”. Liberalism in its market, utilitarian, and identity forms was the dominant ideology. It tended to subordinate democracy to the economic, technical and legal realms. Political problems were reduced to organisational, technical or economic tasks. Politics became consensual and managerial. The EU altered the balance of power within our constitution toward the judiciary at the expense of Parliament and government. The main political parties squeezed onto a centre ground. There was, we were told, no alternative.
The rise of post-truth liberalism
But with every consensus comes an exclusion, and the trans-partisan consensus of liberal market capitalism excluded the labour interest. Capitalism was allowed to treat society as a domain of the economy. A system of regulatory practices enforced market-based reforms in the public sector. The financial system grew in unfettered power. Political class conflict was neutralised by administrative fiat, managerialism and economic-technical thinking. By 2005 wages were stagnating and the share of national income going to labour was falling. As large scale immigration became a national controversy it was hived off from politics and made an issue about rights and economics.
In society, diversity became the progressive ideal of the age: a plurality of identities and cultures could be brought together to live in a harmonious society without conflict. Modernisation would do away with old traditional loyalties. Attachment to local place and a desire to belong obstructed progress and those who clung to them were backward looking and nostalgic. Immigration was a progressive good and those who doubted it were prejudiced against a multi-ethnic society.
If technical regulation ordered economic activity, then rules about language and behaviour could manage social conflict. A liberal system of diversity evolved seeking to administer a consensus in public life by policing the boundaries of what it means to be white, black, Muslim, male, female, gay, straight, old, young. As Ben Cobley argues in his book The Tribe, the system is presided over by the cultural elite which on behalf of others allocates victimhood and blame between different identities. The absence of politics allows diversity to become a competition for cultural distinction amongst the elites. The system of diversity, he explains, employs words “not to explain the world but to maximise itself and deprive its opponents of language”.
Marx in the Communist Manifesto describes this kind of practice as a bourgeois socialism which wishes “for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat”. It creates what Patrick Deneen calls a “liberal anti-culture” which transcends a particular time and place. It leads to “a condition in which we are able to live the same everywhere: a homogenised, standardised, monoculture”.
Its rejection of the particular and the historical in favour of the abstract and universal, has undermined the collective and cultural defences of society against commodification. People have their own culture, language and history which provides them with meaning and forms the basis of their connection to wider humanity. Liberal anti-culture trashes this inheritance. What it then praises as an ‘open society’ is simply a defenceless one, unable to resist either the administrative state and global market forces.
Liberalism in its negation of politics can become a dominant force and a threat to liberty and democracy. It has led to a growing popular distrust of politics, the state and government. In its tendency to use the market, rules and regulations to enforce change it has silenced and disenfranchised those who have borne the brunt of economic change.
Brexit was a political revolt against this anti-culture, against the elites who have benefitted from it, and from the rules and codes enforcing it. The revolt came from the English shires and the ex-industrial working class. A nationalist populism which spoke for the local and the particular turned this anti-culture against liberalism.
The result is a culture war in England. The class that succeeds in consolidating its culture will define the identities and motives of the defeated. It will define what is normal and what is not; what is virtuous and what is not; and what is questioned and what is not. Who wins defines not just the country but social reality.
Victimhood culture will tear us apart
Culture war has ended the liberal depoliticalisation of conflict and brought political conflict back into society. The English need to become a political people again. A political people comes into existence when it articulates itself and produces a representative. As the political philosopher Eric Voegelin argues, for a political party to be representative, it is not enough for it to be representative in the constitutional sense. It must also be representative in the existential sense.1
Labour has lost an existential relationship with England. Nor in the constitutional sense does it recognise an English polity. At each political crossroads it has walked away from being the party of the labour interest. The populist revolt has undermined the existential nature of both the Conservatives’ and Labour’s political representation without creating new forms. The political life of England is polarised and dominated by its extremes. The margins where political division is generated are the new centre.
The fascist jurist Carl Schmitt describes the political as the distinction between friend and enemy.2 It is within this friend-enemy conflict that political decisions are made and where sovereignty resides. Sovereignty is essential for democratic politics. It is the highest, legally independent, underived power.3
It is the source in time and place of the agency that constitutes a political system and underlying this agency is a ‘we’, a community of people. For Schmitt this ‘we’ is homogenous. For us it is not. It must be constructed by democratic politics out of different ethical, political and religious traditions.
The centre-left will never defeat European populism if it fails to first understand it
People have lost trust in our democratic process. Liberalism in its current form as an individualistic ideology is not capable of restoring its existential dimension. Nor is it able to defeat illiberal extremism. The biggest risk to social order is a market society of acquisitive individualism. A major risk to minority ethnic groups is an elite-serving system of diversity.
There can be no return to a pre-EU British constitution. We are living through a constitutional upheaval. Is it a result of a series of contingent decisions and mistakes? Or does it mark the beginning of a new historical settlement? We do not know the answer. But we do know that an antagonistic politics as defined by friend and enemy, ‘us’ and ‘them’, has crashed back into society. The democracy of conflict, estranged interests, irreconcilable difference is back in play. What will matter is the strength of our civic institutions and the vitality of our national political community to democratically negotiate the common good. The successful representatives of the future will be those skilled in the art of politics.