Monday, 29 June 2015

The Secret Fire

Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst

"We can renew our country if we renew our love for each other and for our common quest."

John Millbank, The Blue Labour Dream, in Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics.


"After us, the Savage God," prophesied W.B. Yeats in 1896, stunned by the crudity of Alfred Jarry's play, Ubu Roi. The poet recognised in this tale of an idiot dictator the potential for lunacy inherent in a free-floating world sundered from its social and spiritual moorings. Likewise, the revolutionaries of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's, The Possessed, dazzled by the prolixity of Pyotr Verkhovensky, allow themselves to become vehicles of the demonic and conduits of nihilism. "Listen Stavrogin," declares this agent of disintegration. "To level the mountains is a fine idea, not an absurd one. Down with culture. The one thing wanting in the world is discipline. We'll reduce everything to a common denominator."

We have arrived, it appears, at Arthur Rimbaud's temps des assasins - a dark age of discipline without liberty - one step away from the life-negating totalitarianism of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. Here human beings cannot bear very much reality, still less responsibility. Beaten down and passive, they require and welcome the control society of the elite, guaranteeing comfort and security at the cost of freedom.

This, I believe, is where the West will find itself if it continues to allow liberalism to run riot. The vision of the good society articulated in Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics stands at the antipodes of this - fourteen essays extolling liberty within discipline, promising a less hedonistic, less 'me-centred', less materialistically-orientated future, in which traditional and currently unfashionable notions of honour, service, tradition, faith and fidelity have substantial and dynamic roles to play. Rowan Williams sounds the clarion call in his Foreword. "We need to wake up," he declares, "to the fact that a lot of our politics assumes various things about our humanity that are not true; that we are being actively encouraged to live lives at odds with what we actually are, with how our minds and feelings actually work. The challenge to conventional politics at the moment is the question of what the political world might look like if it tried to work with rather than against our humanity."


Blue Labour, therefore, has no hesitation in laying down the gauntlet. Ed West, in his essay, The Gentle Society, describes the damage done to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society by unfettered liberalism, a phenomenon with a two-way sting: social and economic. The sexual revolution of the 1960s (an example of social liberalism) played a pivotal role, he claims, in weakening working-class family structures, leaving communities considerably more vulnerable to the ravages of Thatcherism (economic liberalism) than they would have been, say, in the 1930s. 

Sex and money, West continues, dominate the media discourse in contemporary Britain, inverting previously acknowledged scales of values and trampling all over what residues of tradition still stand in their path. "British society," he writes, "had come to worship conspicuous wealth, a truth illustrated by the fashion trends of the late '90s and early 2000s, with their fondness for bling, gold and champagne." At the same time, "sex seemed to become more than ever a commodity to sell or shock, while judgementalism replaced sexual immodesty as a cardinal sin."

There are no bounds to the free-market in this 'brave new world'. It has slipped its economic moorings and trespassed into wider society. The family, for instance - man, woman, and child - was until recently, as Michael Merrick points out in his essay, The Labour Family, regarded as a 'protected model.' Not any more. The family, an institution predating the State and seen by many as the bedrock and motor of society has been 'opened up to competition' and now has to share its space, uneasily at times, with a variety of competing models.

Much has been gained in this sphere, perhaps, certainly with regards to an individual's freedom to define and shape the contours of his or her life. Much, however, especially concerning social and sexual stability, identity, and cohesion, could potentially be lost. It is here that Blue Labour shows its worth, not through advocating a return to an anachronistic and authoritarian past, but rather by setting limits and boundaries to individual and corporate autonomy, situating personal choice within a wider framework of connection and relationship.

The individual, according to Blue Labour, is not an autonomous Imperial self, freed from bounds or constraints, at total liberty to take whichever business decision or lifestyle choice he or she prefers. The individual also has a responsibility to the wider national community, a society of persons existing not in some amorphous, post-modern 'now', but extending both forward and backwards in time - back towards our predecessors and forward to our children and beyond. We should, in other words, always be working to achieve the 'Common Good' (a key Blue Labour phrase), taking a long-term, holistic view of policy, that is simultaneously grounded in our past and shared historical experience. What we lose thereby in unbridled freedom of choice we gain in a deeper, more meaningful connection with our fellows and a renewed sense of civic and national unity.

The Good Society, for Blue Labour, stems and flows from natural, innate bonds of friendship, co-operation and family loyalty, within the context of a local culture possessing a strong sense of right and wrong, meaning, purpose and direction. The movement understands the value of rootedness - of faith, family and flag - but it is also alive to the gift of humanity shared by all - what J.R.R. Tolkien called the 'Secret Fire' - beyond and beneath the surface levels of class, colour, gender and creed. "Disempowerment," as Merrick concludes, "comes through fracturing of relationships; we are weaker when we cease to live and stand together."

It is a heartening message. The Savage God, we realise, is far from invincible. His advent is not, after all, inevitable. Dissolution and fragmentation do not have to have the last word. We have the last word - two words, in fact - more redolent of beginnings than endings - the perfect riposte to Pyotr Verkhovensky - one hundred and five years old, and given political shape and definition in 2015 by Blue Labour.

In the immortal words of E.M. Forster: 

'Only Connect.'

Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics (2015), edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst is published by I.B. Tauris.


At 19 July 2015 at 02:13 , Blogger Simon Franklin said...

We are certainly living in fascinating and turbulent political times and I fear that the Centre Left is facing a monumental struggle in creating an effective narrative that effectively recognises the reality of the economic and cultural changes that are occurring within the UK and currently failing to find a strategy that can gain popular appeal. The Election result seems to suggest that it it is the Centre Right that is understanding better how the ground is shifting and, arguably, the Conservative Government are responding with a coherent programme that is locked in the current centre ground of public sentiment and values and is combining an effective strategy that balances the need to meet human aspirations with social cohesion.

I wonder if part of the problem with the Blue Labour narrative - or from what I understand of it - lies in its emphasis upon 'families' as a building block for change. We are living in a world where the very concept of 'family' is becoming harder to define and is being de-traditionalised. Over 30% of households in the UK are now occupied by people living alone - whether by choice or circumstances - and solo households are now outnumbering those composed of the traditional nuclear family. This trend is set to continue to grow and yet seems curiously unrepresented in the prevailing political narrative with all its emphasis upon 'hard working families' etc.

However this drive towards greater individualism - far from leading to a disintegration of community and social bonds - is actually strengthening them. Evidence suggests that these 'singletons' are far more engaged in their communities and civic life than other types of demographic groupings. A political narrative that appealed to this growing demographic - and which doesn't marginalise or put people off with constant references to 'hard working families' etc - offers some important clues as to how to rebuild a constituency of political support that combines a recognition of individual aspirations with civic virtue.

Love & Light!

Simon Franklin


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