The Unbearable Lightness of Politics

Tom Barker

The list of political events that, just five years ago, would have seemed ‘unthinkable’ grows ever longer. The first of these improbable eruptions (at least in the UK) was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015. No one appreciated this improbability better than Corbyn himself, who memorably noted of his leadership bid, “Well, Diane [Abbott] and John [McDonnell] have done it before, so it was my turn.” Corbyn was, and is, everything we had been taught a modern, mainstream party leader in Britain could not be: radically left-wing, scruffy, unpolished and over the age of 65. He was, in short, the reaction against New Labour personified—and it was this stark contrast, along with a change in the party’s method of electing its leader, which allowed Corbyn to win. This much was fairly obvious at the time. What was less obvious—at least to ‘sensible’, moderate opinion in the Labour Party and the commentariat (and I hold my hand up as a sceptic)—was that Corbyn and ‘Corbynism’, with its simple and unapologetic restatement of core social democratic principles, could gain the support of a large enough portion of the public to improve Labour’s electoral position. Fast forward to 10pm on 8 June 2017, and that BBC exit poll which shattered assumptions about what was possible in mainstream British politics.

By then, of course, other events had turned Anglo-American politics on its head. The vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president were seismic events of far greater world-historical significance than a Labour leadership election, or even a UK general election, yet they all shared that shock value. They were unanticipated by many intelligent observers across the political spectrum, and left numerous pollsters red-faced at the failure of their carefully crafted models.

And it’s not just at the level of ‘big ticket’ issues like Brexit that the normal ‘rules of the game’ and old certainties of politics seem to be breaking down. The same is true even at the level of constitutional convention and procedure. We live in an era when collective cabinet responsibility can all-but break down, but the government limps on; when the Prime Minister can have their flagship policy defeated three times in the House of Commons (by historic margins) and still survive in office long enough to contemplate bringing the bill back for another go; and when the Supreme Court rules that the government’s decision to prorogue parliament in the lead-up to the Brexit deadline was unlawful.  

Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space

The cumulative effect of these bizarre and improbable happenings is the curious sense of lightness, even weightlessness, which now pervades our politics, the sense that—to steal from Peter Pomerantsev’s excellent book on modern Russia—‘nothing is true and everything is possible’. Decisions and events lack fixity; era-defining changes hang in the balance. Like a jigsaw puzzle on a spaceship, all the pieces of our politics have been thrown into the air and are spinning around, with no one quite sure when (or even if?!) they will all fall back down; what picture they might form when and if they do is even less certain.

More specifically, this sense of weightless uncertainty derives not so much from the fact that so many improbable things have happened, so much as that they have ‘happened’ but are not yet complete. Most of the major events of the last few years remain unfinished, contested revolutions which are still deeply vulnerable and precarious. Jeremy Corbyn cemented his leadership in 2016 and again following the snap election of 2017 (in this age of glib, portmanteau terms, surely the one we desperately need is some kind of pithy elision of the concepts of ‘defeat’ and ‘victory’?!), but it remains to be seen whether he, or his brand of socialism, will have any lasting impact on our politics. So too for Donald Trump; after next year’s election, his presidency may well come to be seen as a blip—a brief, terrifying moment when America stared into the abyss, and then decided to step back. And Brexit may still not yet happen—three years after the referendum which seemed to change everything.

It may even yet prove to be the reaction to these things, rather than these things themselves, that ends up having a more lasting impact. January 2021 may see the inauguration of a radical Democratic president who implements a Green New Deal and transforms the United States into a beacon of progressive hope. Unlikely? Yes; but possible because politics—on both sides of the Atlantic—is now so polarised. Two different camps, with different diagnoses of our present malaise and different solutions, have now bedded in, with neither (at least not yet) seemingly able to deal the decisive blow and achieve outright victory.

What the Brexit, Trump and 2017 election results all had in common was that they were so close, ‘won’ by only narrow margins (Trump lost the popular vote by an historic margin), yet promising radical breaks with what had gone before; lacking the thumping democratic mandates which usually accompany epoch-making, transformative victories. For someone who grew up in the two long periods of Tory then Labour dominance—when a Prime Minister could embark on a deeply unpopular war in the middle east and still gain a majority of 66—our current stint in zero gravity is unnerving and exhilarating in equal parts; nausea-inducing, but full of the promise that, while something much, much worse could be just around the corner, so could something significantly better. Like an astronaut, mid-space walk, the margin between success and catastrophe is tiny—wildly different outcomes hang in the balance. Never did TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’) seem a less convincing line of argument.

You shift if you want to: this paradigm’s not for shifting?

One quote often invoked in reference to our current situation is Gramsci’s famous line from The Prison Notebooks: ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’. Gramsci talked of an ‘interregnum’ period, which maps usefully onto recent debates about paradigm shifts in political economy. Some have argued that the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007-08 heralded the demise of neoliberalism, and that, for over a decade now, we have been living through its protracted death-throes. According to this way of thinking, a new paradigm, to supersede neoliberalism, should be just around the corner. Until it emerges, however, we are stuck in limbo—between the old order and the new.

This way of thinking about change in economic ideas and policies draws on the work of the political economist Peter A. Hall, who, in turn, was influenced by the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. Hall talked of three degrees of (increasingly significant) change in public policy, with ‘third order’ change equating to a fundamental alteration, not just in policy instruments and settings, but in ‘the hierarchy of goals behind policy’. Hall’s third order change amounted to what Kuhn (discussing the natural sciences) described as a paradigm shift—a transformation of worldview in response to anomalies which old ways of thinking cannot explain. In his seminal article on the issue, Hall identified the shift from Keynesianism to monetarism (which most would now expand into neoliberalism) in the UK in the 1980s as a clear example of such third order change, while the shift from laissez-faire to Keynesianism between the 1920s and 1940s is usually cited as the 20th century’s other paradigm shift in political economy.

Given the severity of the GFC and subsequent recession, and the shallowness of the recovery in many countries (including the UK) in the years since, it is certainly legitimate to ask why neoliberalism hasn’t been utterly discredited and supplanted by a new paradigm. How much longer must we endure this protracted interregnum? In an article for The Political Quarterly in 2017, Alfie Stirling and Laurie Laybourn-Langton pointed to a number of significant changes over the last decade, including the rise of macro-prudential regulation and quantitative easing, which they suggest amount at least to second order change in Hall’s schema (a change in the instruments of policy as well as their settings), though, ultimately, they are not convinced that third order change—a paradigm shift—has yet really taken place. Ultimately, they believe the problem lies in a continuing lack of ideas: ‘The missing ingredient is an alternative with the power to displace the existing ‘world view’.

While this way of thinking can be useful, however, it also risks leading us astray, potentially blinding us to the complexity of the real world and encouraging us to impose a template for change on the present (or near-future) derived from a stylised conception of the past.

One thing we must be attuned to is the often tortuous pace and progress of change. A common cognitive bias is to truncate history, to skip over the often prolonged, tumultuous and ambiguous periods in between ‘major events’; the effect usually being to make these events seem unambiguous and inevitable. In the immediate aftermath of the GFC, there was a flurry of commentary calling time on neoliberalism. Indeed, so expected was a paradigm shift by so many that the political economist Colin Crouch felt compelled to dissect what he termed The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism in his 2011 book, when it became clear a shift was not immediately forthcoming.

But a closer look at the course of previous paradigm shifts shows us that change can be a long time coming, with many twists and turns along the way. A textbook account of post-war history sees us move seamlessly from the demise of the Keynesian mixed economy to the embedding of neoliberalism. But the crisis of the 1970s was protracted and, to most of those living through it, by no means had an obvious conclusion. There were a number of ‘wrong turns’ and ‘false dawns’ during that period that both helped shape the eventual outcome but also could conceivably have led to quite different outcomes. In the UK, we had both the proto-Thatcherite Ted Heath (‘Selsdon Man’ as Harold Wilson dubbed him) and the u-turn Ted Heath who ended up nationalising the ‘lame ducks’ of industry. Similarly, we had two quite distinct Labour parties during its time in office from 1974-79: on the one hand, the Labour Party of the social contract, on the other, the Labour Party of spending cuts and nascent monetarism.

The interregnum between the crisis of laissez-faire capitalism and the emergence of the Keynesian settlement was even more protracted, with the US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon advising a doubling-down on the old methods in the immediate wake of the Wall Street Crash: ‘Liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate.’ As that crisis crossed the Atlantic, the Labour government collapsed in recriminations with the Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald, insisting on a path of Treasury orthodoxy. Drawing parallels with the current crisis, we could characterise the 2010-2015 Coalition government as following a similar path, responding to the crisis of neoliberalism with an extra-strong dose of the old medicine—austerity, welfare reform, further privatisation. It was probably always wishful thinking that a paradigm shift would follow within a year or two of the onset of the GFC.

Wishful thinking may also have clouded predictions about the type of change a paradigm shift will likely bring. The bulk of the discussion about this topic has taken place on the left, and a sense clearly prevails in some quarters that ‘history is on our side’; that, just as the crisis of the 1970s led to the triumph of the right, so the crisis of the 2010s must, almost inevitably, discredit the right and favour the left. There is a certain logic to this way of thinking, and it clearly influences the current Labour leadership. Corbyn and his supporters believe it is their historic mission to act as the gravediggers of neoliberalism, and to usher in a new era in which the ideas and values of the left will once again be in the ascendant. But while this is an attractive way of thinking it is also potentially misleading. We could label this the ‘pendulum fallacy’: the mistaken notion that the balance of ideas, influence and power must naturally swing back in ‘our’ favour, the right having so long held the advantage.

But if we look around us at the world today, we might be more likely to reach a very different (and, for the left, much more pessimistic) conclusion about the political direction of travel. Why not use the lens of paradigm shifts to interpret Brexit, Trump and the rise of populist, nationalist movements in Europe and elsewhere? What if the crisis of neoliberalism is eventually ‘resolved’, not through a swing to the left, but through a further jolt to the right? It is conceivable that we are witnessing the emergence of a new paradigm based, not around a new, progressive collectivism, but around principles of nativism, economic nationalism and, potentially, authoritarianism. This is by no means a foregone conclusion, but it is a scenario parts of the left would do well to take more seriously, as an antidote to any complacent sense of historical entitlement.

Alternatively, a quite different interpretation of recent events is that, while they are undoubtedly important in their own right, they may not be signs of a genuine paradigm shift. Brexit, for example, might be a harbinger of deeper, more pervasive change, or it might end up being a fairly localised phenomenon which is managed within the existing framework. Any kind of Brexit will have profound implications for the UK, but it is not inherently incompatible with neoliberalism. Nor is it incompatible with much more dirigiste forms of economic governance, as the Lexiters would emphasise. Jeremy Corbyn himself clearly sympathises with this view, tending to see the European Union as a ‘capitalist club’. However, I also sense that for him, Brexit is really something of an irritant, it was not ‘part of the script’ for a Corbyn-led, leftwards paradigm shift; it has come along and cast its dark yet ambiguous shadow over British politics at a time when he wanted to focus on transforming the domestic economic and social agenda.  

Events, dear boy: politics and contingency

This last point should lead us to argue for the importance of the real world, and real politics, more firmly in debates on paradigm shifts. Some narratives arguably place too much emphasis on the battle of ideas, neglecting the often messy reality of democratic politics and world events. What we would come to think of as neoliberal ideas were being developed as early as the 1930s and 40s, and were incubated in think tanks and seminar rooms throughout the long period of the post-war consensus, not really breaking through into the political mainstream until they found more receptive audiences amidst the crisis of the 1970s. But we must remember that it was not until 1983 that Mrs. Thatcher won her first landslide and was truly able to usher in a new economic order, and this victory owed less to the success and popularity of her economic policies over the previous four years in office than to the contingency of the Falklands War, which saw her returned to power on a wave of jingoism.

Without wanting to plunge too far into the murky depths of counter-factualism, had General Galtieri not taken the decision to invade the Falklands in April 1982, the SDP-Liberal Alliance might have been elected to office the following year, and Britain might have taken a quite different route. Admittedly, the same global forces would have been in play—Reagan’s ascendency in the US, the decline of the Soviet Union, the gradual liberalisation of the Chinese economy—but an Alliance government might have tried harder to reinvigorate the old consensus, or, at least, have led to a milder variant of neoliberalism taking hold in the UK, and potentially in others influenced by its politics.

Ideas are essential, and have real force in the world, but they are just one variable in the complex process of political change. Stirling and Laybourn-Langton argue that it is a lack of ideas that is currently holding back the emergence of a new paradigm. But what if we already have enough good ideas to implement a programme of fundamental, progressive reform? The 2017 Labour manifesto was more restrained than some expected, but represented a radical and (relatively) popular prospectus for change. Similarly, the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice stated explicitly that its aim was to develop a body of ideas and policies which would engender change in the UK on a scale similar to that ushered in by the Attlee government in the 1940s and the Thatcher government in the 1980s. Numerous other think tanks, academics and politicians have contributed bold new ideas and policies to the left’s arsenal. What if the problem is not a lack of ideas, but rather the lack of the democratic majority and, crucially, the political leadership, necessary to see them implemented?

This brings us back to our polarised politics, and the sclerosis which is keeping us trapped in this weightless twilight zone, where no faction seems able to win outright victory and little gets done. Some have argued that what is really needed to break the deadlock in the UK is consensus-building and/or a new centrism to bring the country together. We saw signs of this in the early stages of the Tory leadership contest earlier in the summer, with Rory Stewart talking of the need to be honest with the public about the hard realities of Brexit, and refusing to commit to the kind of irresponsible tax-giveaways promised by some of his opponents. In a recent article for Prospect, Stewart even hinted at the possible need for a new constitutional settlement to set clearer limits to power and to rein-in the ‘extremists’ on both left and right. Meanwhile, Change UK (née The Independent Group) elicited comparisons with the SDP when a number of Labour MPs resigned from the party to found the new grouping earlier this year, quickly being joined by a handful of like-minded Conservatives.

There are a number of possible reasons for Change UK’s failure to capture the public’s imagination, one being that it was attempting to move in to space already occupied by the Liberal Democrats. Moreover, as an avowedly pro-Remain party, it is questionable to what extent its luminaries were really set upon genuine, deep consensus-building. But perhaps the philosopher John Gray got closest to the truth when he argued that Change UK’s real problem was its failure to offer anything genuinely new: ‘there is little reason to think voters will flock to a party that offers to take them back to the conditions that led to their present alienation…’. While we cannot rule out a new, consensual, centrist force gaining popularity—even power—it is probably the least likely vehicle for the kind of radical, paradigm-shifting change that so many seem to crave, and expect. The fortunes of Emmanuel Macron and En Marche in France arguably highlight the difficulties inherent in leading ‘revolutions’ from the centre. Radical change is—almost by definition—much more likely to come from the further reaches of the left or right. But when and how one of these sides might be able to break through the impasse, win convincingly, and hold power for long enough to realise their vision of the future, remains to be seen. The greatest worry must be that it will take another crisis for the stalemate to be broken and for the pieces to fall into place.

The author would like to thank Dr. Dan Bailey, Dr Conor Farrington and the Renewal editors for their comments on this piece.