The Hollow Centre

September 23, 2018 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

It’s hard now to believe how things once were. Full-blooded socialism never found a secure place in the British experience, but through the Seventies we had something more than the piecemeal reform of social democracy. So many national assets – including much of our manufacturing base – were sufficiently treasured to be in public ownership. We had the framework apparently secure enough for me to turn tables on the curmudgeonly and say, ‘If you don’t like we do things in this country….’

It didn’t last. Hubris invites the retribution of a jealous fate. A collusion of apathy, cynicism and hostility acted to bring society to its knees. A vengeful politics was ushering in self-centred advantage as the governing principle of public life.

Only in the last three years or so has the anti-social principle been seriously challenged. Labour after 1979 began a long retreat. New Labour removed even the language of socialism. The justification was the need to modernize. Socialism was the language of the past. Reality had to be accepted.

The rhetoric was an appeal to justice and fairness. It looked progressive, dedicating itself to an inclusion of the marginalized. The essential framework, though, was not about change: it was going to widen its access to accept everyone. ‘We’re all capitalists now.’

The Crash of 2008 exposed not only the dubious economics of popular capitalism. It exposed the moral inadequacies of an unsustainable promise. The governing principle since then has been the desire for stability by means of a re-asserted imperial sovereignty.

This has proved elusive because it is not credible. The diminution of power is an observable reality. The disarray caused by romantic nationalism is no less fractious than such a polity has shown itself to be elsewhere and at other times.

The intelligently aware, articulate and engaged, have rejected capital and empire in favour of common wealth and social responsibility. When the choices are stark there is no room for compromise. There is no centre but a barren hollow. The only available alternative to the retrogressive orthodoxy is the revived idealism of Labour. It is a fresh start, a radical challenge that has shaken decades of unsupported complacency and unjustified consensus.

The idea of a liberal consensus has proved a non-starter. Opposition to conservativism did not produce a cohesive and sustainable alternative. There was some ad-hoc agreement that social policy could not be determined by market forces alone.

There was no agreed procedure beyond that. Those who sought root change conflicted with those who sought adjustments and remedies to the existing economic and social structure. Socialism is not liberalism.

The liberal polity is to improve existing conditions. It may seek to widen access to social goods, but not to change the nature of society. Liberalism, though a progressive force, shares little common ground with the transformative dynamic of socialism. Social democracy, though sharing certain means with socialism, is vulnerable to the charge of compromise in the face of radical [and, surely, undeniable] necessity. In recent years social democracy has sought to assert its primacy by underhand means, creating the impression that the only alternative to social democracy on the left is a discredited totality.

This is demonstrably untrue. False assertions, however, dominate the mainstream of debate. Globally, elected and responsive leaders are routinely dismissed as dictators. Harmonious societies are portrayed as victims of an imposed ideology.

What is offered as the reasonable, indeed the obvious, alternative is ‘the centre-left’. The phrase is vague enough to appeal to a broad spectrum. This is held to be a virtue. It is surely a weakness. Our society, in common with many in the West, seems dangerously lacking the cohesion essential to a functioning society. An ideal of community may be discerned [if only in the margins], but its existence as a credible polity requires something more than wishful thinking. A benign community evolves organically. The true revolution is the long one. The future has to be planned in advance. It cannot be left to chance.

The first requirement is an understanding of society. The impediments to clear vision include prejudice, supposition, and nostalgia. These things appear in various guises. The search is for an agreed narrative, a means of cohering the cacophony of voices into a collective harmony. Harmony is a blend of voices.

Community is a cohesion of individual elements. What we may find instead is insistent unity leading to bland uniformity.

The centre left ‘dream team’ of the Eighties is noted now for two things. The first is its intolerance of opposition. The second is its failure to catch the public mood. Humiliation, it should be noted, did not lead to humility. Criticism of the current Labour leadership has been most vocal from the centre left.

New Labour, it should be noted also, began as a radical, if vague, promise. Support drifted away when the promise was not kept. Centre left policies, history makes clear, have no more chance of electoral success than the purposefully socialist. The public mood is caught by a purposeful vision, of left or right.

People may say they favour moderation and compromise, but they are energised by the dynamic of change.

When the dynamic of change comes from the right the consequences are visible in the ruinations of deprivation, distress and social violence. That, of course, is not what people hope for, nor do they expect it. They are entranced by dreams of prosperity and the ease and freedom money can buy.

It is a selfish and illusory promise, although its allure is evident. Not to be beholden to others initially liberates the mind. All too soon a directionless life dissipates its creative potential. We see the effects in our directionless society. In the conflict between common wealth and capital it is capital that fails to support those who advance its cause. Moral bankruptcy precedes the financial collapse that occurs with alarming regularity.

It is the state to which people turn in a time of crisis. When it is weakened and fragile the grass grows between the cracks, the pensioner dies alone, and the mother cannot feed her child. Who takes the blame? The right seeks scapegoats. The centre evades the question. The left seeks answers.

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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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