Partial transcript: The Left & Liberty

Below is a talk by Mike Rustin from the Left and Liberty session.

Mike Rustin: I agreed with most of the things that were being said on the platform this morning about the advance of surveillance, the intrusive state, ‘terror’ laws and so on, but I also have quite a lot of misgivings about the framing of liberty in these terms as the primary issue that we should be talking about now. I ask myself who ideologically and politically are going to be the beneficiaries of that campaign and why do they favour that agenda? That is where what Neal Lawson was saying earlier about the wider social and economic environment that we are currently living in comes in: there are wild animals out there called market forces, corporations, banks, global capital which are just producing a colossal smash-up for our system. That is going to lose us millions of jobs, pensions, income and possibly lead to quite a loss of social order as well. That regime came about in 1980 with Thatcher and Reagan and has continued more or less unbroken, although with a slightly different inflection in the last few years in Britain. It is the idea that market forces know best and that global market forces know better than anybody else, and that it is the job of governments to try to accommodate and make sense of that kind of system.  That was an idea of freedom. The word ‘neoliberalism’ encapsulates precisely that ideology of the freedom of property, of ownership, as the driver of the system. There is the idea in the neoconservative programme that if those forces are allowed free play and scope in a reaction against the welfare state, trade unions and so on, everyone will be better off in the end. 

And of course it is true to say that in the last twenty years in countries such as ours, quite a lot of benefits have come, both in prosperity in Europe (not so much in America) and, more importantly, with the increased economic growth in China, India and Brazil. The market is fundamentally important. However, the question is : what kind of relationship should the modern, democratic state have to that market?  The growth of the modern state was, historically, an attempt to regulate the power of property and ownership. If you leave markets as they are, people would have no protection (therefore you have to have Factory Acts); they would have no security in old age (therefore you have to have an old age pensions system); you would have enormous levels of inequality and no health care ( which is why we have the National Health System).  State power in most countries in western Europe and in the United States grew as a means of redressing and off-setting the disadvantage of the market. That was its primary function.  

Now you have to ask: is that function obsolete? Should we not be talking about that any more? Well, there is a big argument going on about that at the moment in the United States. Obama has produced a stimulus package to try to deal with the excesses of deregulation in the American market economy which proposes increases in taxation on the very rich; large amounts of public expenditure and a great deal of regulation. And the Conservatives there, the Republicans, basically oppose that legislation on the principle that it is an offence against liberty and free market ideology. That argument is going on. 

Here the argument is much more confused and that is part of the problem. The Labour Party is in no position to say we stand for the regulation of markets just like Obama, because they have been responsible for the deregulation of markets; they have presided over the development of a quasi-feudal system of inequalities in terms of what people feel entitled to have in relation to others, and are in a state of total confusion about whether the job of government is to regulate markets in the interest of the majority of people, or whether the job of government is to favour and support market freedoms. They have been doing both quite vigorously at the same time, which is confusing both for them and for us. Here is a government which claims that it wants to improve equality and pubic services, and to a degree does this: but which also says, “Well, actually, without free markets, without corporations, with globalisation and without the City – we are doomed.” So they have created a monster hybrid state which is neither a democratic state nor simply a servant of the corporations, but something in between the two. So that many state institutions have become rather corporate in their methods of management and control and rather authoritarian. There has been a kind of socialism of losses and a capitalism of profits, whereby private organisations get a guaranteed way of making a living, Private Finance Initiative is one example – the bail-out of the banks is another – the railways another – whereby British capitalism, it seems, can only function, if the government provides massive underpinning and support for it. Now the system is in serious trouble and we have to ask what government should do about it. 

Our Government says it is committed to reflation and stimulus and so on, so they are in that sense, like the Americans, trying to do something about the situation. But they can’t articulate a clear purpose for government, in my opinion, because they have muddled if you like the sphere and function of government as the protection of a democratic public and government as the supporters and enablers of market forces and corporation. That now leaves them very vulnerable. Now, in this predicament, the Conservatives come along of course and say, “Civil rights are really important. Liberties are extremely important.” No doubt men like Dominic Grieve really believe this. But when you look at their economic programme, what do they favour? They seem to favour the state doing less rather than more. They are certainly not espousing a programme like that of Obama in the United States. I would say their programme is: “Let’s have the markets more in control and let the state try to do less.”  We are likely to end up, given that programme with a weak-state version of neoliberalism as contrasted with a strong-state version of neoliberalism. What kind of system will that be? And will it in the end do much for civil liberties? What happens when you have states that don’t look after the majority of people and produce high levels of discontent is that you have disorder. And if you have disorder, as we have had with trade unions in the past, and of course in Northern Ireland, you have security problems and alarms. I am not confident that an initial commitment of the Conservatives to support  individual rights against the state wouldn’t melt away with the first fracas if social conflicts and tensions grow as a consequence of their economic and social policies, as I think they would be likely to do. 

This isn’t a very optimistic picture, and indeed we might be heading for something like the 1930s. But let us hope that the concerted action of governments, and – let it be noted – the intervention of the state in opposition to unfettered financial market forces will produce some kind of stabilisation and a return to quasi-normality. But what do we need in this kin of situation? Well we certainly do need an entrenchment of individual rights. But I think that what we need even more is the regeneration of democratic institutions. The principle problem we have is that the way the state has become so isolated and cut off from representative processes: the hollowing out of the Labour Party is one part of this; the castration of local government because it doesn’t control any of its own money is another; the unrepresentative parliamentary system which basically means that hack majorities are wheeled into action to support whatever deal government has hatched with private companies – think of the third runway as an example of that. You have a system in which democratic representation is very very attenuated and I think it is a great pity that the organisers of this conference – Unlock Democracy, Anthony Barnett and so on – didn’t stay with the agenda of Charter88 itself, which was committed to democratic regeneration and constitutional reform and democratisation, and instead moved into what I think is a more conservative, rightwing territory of individual liberty and freedom. That of course should be part of it, but if it is the only part of it, I think we are in difficulty.  

I myself believe that the left must campaign for a pluralisation of our political system. This may come about one day as a result of a hung parliament. The Lib Dems, the Scots and the Greens might, hopefully, get some leverage on this political system. This is necessary in order to open up a space in which a more honest exposure of the differences of function between a commitment to state and market, the protection of people and the protection of companies, can take place. That seems to me the primary issue. So that I would like to see the debate about modern liberty being extended to embrace what you might think of as collective as well as individualised forms of modern liberty. I don’t think we will make any progress unless that happens.

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