Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A Postliberal Public?

Despite it dating from 22nd April, as far as I can see, today has seen the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) publicising – and the media picking up on – a report they commissioned from NatCen based on the British Social Attitudes survey.

As you’ll see if you look at the Guardian and Telegraph links, the story the media have tended to run with is that Labour supporters especially – but the population generally – have shifted from societal explanations for poverty to those emphasising laziness in particular. That is, we’re much more likely to see poverty as an individual’s fault now, as opposed to in 1986 (with the highpoint of societal explanations over that period in the first half of the 1990s).

The survey offered for options for people to answer the question “Why do you think there are people who live in need?”

  • ‘Inevitable in modern life’ (the most popular throughout);

  • ‘Laziness’;

  • ‘Injustice in society’; or simply

  • ‘Unlucky’

I noted in a previous post that recently there’s been a lot of discussion of how postliberalism might be an appropriate way of characterising current political trends in the aftermath of the financial crisis.  Individual decision-making and market mechanisms are viewed with more suspicion than they used to be, according to Will Davies for example.

The findings of this JRF/NatCen report got me thinking again about these ideas.  Although I didn’t state it in the end in the blog post, one initial response I had to these suggestions of postliberalism was that the political elite remained neoliberal, but I could perhaps allow that the British public might be postliberal.*

This is the argument of David Goodhart with respect to immigration: his ‘political tribe of north London liberals’ has been divorced for some time from broader ‘public opinion’.  You’ll also find it in the work of Blue Labour, with Maurice Glasman arguing that ‘The lessons of New Labour are not to have a contemptuous attitude to the lived experiences of people but work within them to craft a common story of what went wrong and how things can be better’.  Or in Philip Blond’s Red Toryism, which argues that we have become a ‘bi-polar’ nation, divided between government and populus.

This idea has particularly come to the fore with the ‘UKIP surge’ in the 2013 local elections.  Max Wind-Cowie, amongst others, has argued that UKIP is picking up votes from those who feel abandoned by the ‘excesses of both social and economic liberalism’ from both Labour and the Tories.  He advises that both parties could ‘grasp the post-liberal nettle’ and win these voters back, and still avoid some of the simply ‘illiberal’ policies that UKIP promotes.

In this sense, these arguments are consistent with what I’ve said before: neoliberalism is still alive and well in the corridors of power.

However, the other side of these arguments about a disconnect between voters and parties is that the public at large is ‘post-liberal’ – and this claim is certainly questionable.

As I’ve mentioned before, Thatcher sought to change the heart and soul of the nation, and in the discussion of her legacy – just weeks before her death – the consensus seemed to be that she had succeeded (‘she changed everything’, The Independent told us); the only question was whether this was a good or a bad thing.  Britain was now a Thatcherite nation.

To some extent, this tension is about the way we see UKIP and Thatcherism.  Max Wind-Cowie obviously sees UKIP as postliberal, but at the same time parallels are drawn between the ability of both Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Farage to win working-class votes with right-wing policies, and there’s certainly a strong case to be made that Thatcherism has more than a little neoliberalism in it.

I’d understand the recent evidence – UKIP voting and British Social Attitudes surveying – as pointing to the possibility that in fact the British public remain in some sense Thatcher’s children, and as such neoliberal.

On UKIP, Farage smokes, drinks and has an idea of a Little England centred around the pub (“every pub is a parliament”) – but his opposition to the smoking ban or minimum unit pricing (MUP) is an opposition not to neoliberalism, but paternalism.  His rationale for opposing the smoking ban, for example, is that it is ‘illiberal’.  This is exactly one of the words quoted from ‘Senior Conservatives and Liberal Democrats’ to explain the Cabinet wobble over MUP.

Immediately, this raises the suspicion that, despite its opposition to the free movement of labour, UKIP is more neoliberal than postliberal.

This impression is only strengthened when I think about how much of UKIP’s brand of euroscepticism rests on opposition to the Social Chapter and all those features that conversely led many within Labour to become pro-European, seeing the EU no longer as a ‘capitalist club’, but more as a brake on 1980s neoliberalism.  This is certainly how I grew up seeing the EU, and was shocked to find such euroscepticism amongst older Labour Party members.

Going back to the British Social Attitudes survey data, a key feature of neoliberalism understood in the way outlined in that previous post is the maintenance and expansion of marketised structures alongside a tendency to place responsibility for any undesirable outcomes on individual citizen-consumers.  That approach would imply seeing poverty as a result of individual failings rather than structural causes, in line with many respondents to the survey.

The prevalence of this worldview, represented by a falling number of people have seen poverty as caused by ‘injustice in society’, is at odds with an understanding that the public are somehow postliberal.  An awareness of how people are interdependent and the importance of solidarity (which are key themes of the work of all three) would surely mean that more people than currently would see poverty and general life chances as significantly determined by a lottery of birth and the structures of the world we live in, rather than reflecting underlying personal value or effort.**

And when I’ve read the work of people like Blond, Glasman and Goodhart I’ve got the impression that they do feel the public is fundamentally postliberal, as I’ve said.

But perhaps this is to look at things the wrong way.  What Blue Labour, Red Toryism, David Goodhart etc are saying is that the flaws of UK† society today are partly the result of politicians’ failures to see the importance of community and local relationships.  Certainly, living in a small town set in the Dorset countryside where I’ve found these elements more accessible has made me happier and more comfortable than living in E15 or E17, where I’d lived the two years prior to moving here.‡

Taking these approaches as recommendations for improving British political life, then, rather than descriptions of the wider polity, maybe there’s something in them.  And perhaps, if Jonathan Rutherford is to be believed and Blue Labour is seen as drawing on some kind of ‘English modernity’ like the New Left of people like EP Thompson and Raymond Williams, then such a political philosophy might tap into that ‘Little England’ theme of UKIP’s – and in a more positive way.  This is certainly what Blond and Glasman would like to see their parties doing.  They understand people as voting UKIP because there isn’t a mainstream party that seems to understand their concerns (even if they wouldn’t articulate them now in quite the postliberal language of the commentariat).

However, it’s one thing to say ‘this is what I would like to see politicians talk about’; it’s another to say ‘this is what will win you elections’.  Postliberalism at the moment, I’d suggest, remains more of a political recommendation than a characterisation of the electorate.  There might be elements within UKIP’s agenda that this approach could tap into, as Max Wind-Cowie suggests, but it’s hard to see postliberalism as an electoral panacea for either Labour or the Conservatives, or to think that it will instantly resonate with the electorate now.

Of course, with Thatcherism in mind, I would argue that it’s possible for particular discourses and policies to in themselves change the weather, so that you make your own luck, but this can take time and power.

At the moment, I’d suggest that David Cameron expresses it pretty well: we’re all Thatcherites now, but then again maybe we’re not.  Certainly the effects of that individualistic (even neoliberal) worldview can still be felt – and not just in the corridors of power.  Politicians maybe aren’t so distant from the rest of us as the postliberals might have us believe.

*Although if they’d never been neoliberal, or even liberal, it’s hard to see how they would be postliberal rather than simply communitarian.
** To some extent the particular decline in the societal explanation amongst Labour supporters might have more to do with tribal loyalty than a particular worldview: wanting to believe that the party has done as much as it can, so any residual poverty will be the fault of the individual rather than the government.  However, in terms of effects, this still amounts to a neoliberal view that at least up to 2010 was remaining pretty resilient.
†In ‘A Note on Language’ at the beginning of his book The British Dream, Goodhart explains: ‘I generally use the word Britain when I really mean the United Kingdom.’  How to wind up someone with (some) Ulster heritage…
‡Though I should point out, in liberal fashion, that living here wouldn’t suit everyone, and some people would probably feel more comfortable and welcomed than others.


  1. I'm not sure I see the term 'postliberal' as a very useful one. Given liberalism involves abstraction and formalism, it has surely always invited versions of romantic, nationalist or aesthetic critiques. Anti-liberalism, maybe; but not sure that there is any identifiable moment when the shift into postliberalism occurs.

    Maybe the real issue here is liberalism versus some notion of democracy or populism. There is necessarily something anti-democratic about liberalism and neoliberalism. In the US, this is seen in the conservative cultural surge against the Supreme Court, post-Roe V Wade. And times of austerity make the maintenance of abstract formal rules harder to maintain, because political economy becomes more zero-sum. Hence specific claims start to be judged on their own, intrinsic terms, and less on formal terms.

  2. Thanks Will. I’m inclined to agree (as in the first footnote): the time element of *post*liberalism can be exaggerated.

    I think this is part of a tendency by commentators to want to identify trends/activities/developments as specifically new. I’ve seen this in various contexts, and from a range of backgrounds (media, academics, politicians). ‘Binge’ drinking as new is one; the other I’ve always noticed is a tendency for historians of whatever period to identify the birth of ‘the state’ in their period, be it the 11th, 14th, 16th, 19th or 20th century.

    But I’ve a question, thinking not in terms of abstract analysis but more as a personal view or prescription (which is what I think people like Blond, Glasman and Goodhart are making): don’t times of austerity actually make the abstract rules even more important?