The future of the left since 1884

For the common good

Labour needs a new philosophy to guide it – and an approach with its roots in the thinking of Robert Owen, Clement Attlee and Martin Luther King could offer just that, argues Luke John Davies.


Long read

Labour’s moderates need a new paradigm, a new theory of what human beings are and what society is. Our values remain what they have always been: equality, social justice and the ability for people to make better lives for themselves. But we need a new model of how we translate those values into reality and what a good society looks like.

When the Keynesian consensus collapsed in the mid-1970s, the Chicago school of economists had their answer ready. Humanity was a collection of individuals and society was defined by competition between them. An individual’s loyalty was to themselves alone, perhaps their immediate family, but they owed nothing to wider humanity. When, in turn, their neoliberal model with its massive inequalities failed in 2008, there was no social democratic alternative in place. Social democratic parties had adopted too much of the individualist perspective and become progressive liberal parties. Now, however, there are signs that a social theory may be re-emerging and it is based on an established and rich philosophical tradition which once formed part of the social democratic DNA – communitarianism.

Communitarianism is a social philosophy that places an emphasis on communities, society and the relationships individuals have with them. Communitarians recognise that although each individual makes decisions for themselves, the moral reasoning they use to do so comes from the people who surround them throughout life, especially when they’re young. It therefore looks to explore ways in which shared concepts of the common good are formed, spread and changed through communities, social relations and the public moral conversation that goes on within them. In its political form, communitarianism aims to protect and promote those social relationships in a way that balances them with individual liberty.

After all, almost every form of identity an individual has denotes their belonging to a larger sub-section of humanity, whether that be family, geographical, religious, ideological, citizenship, ethnic, professional or sexuality based. The enacting of an individual’s identity then is an enacting of their relationship to wider communities, and it is that multifaceted social belonging that communitarianism focuses on. What a human being is, what personhood is, is largely the connecting point of all the communities to which they identify and belong in a continually shifting balance. Individuality is intersectionality.

Communitarians put the emphasis on an individual’s belonging to multiple intersecting communities, and on solidarity, empathy and the common good. This means they are in opposition to the aggressively atomising individualism of both the neoliberalism of the centre-right and the Rawlsian progressive liberalism that has dominated much of Labour’s thinking since the death of John Smith if not before.

Communitarian ideas have long been associated with the centre-left – indeed the word itself was coined by John Goodwyn Barmby, one of the leaders of the Chartists. Through the connection with Robert Owen – who, it is often forgotten, had a far greater impact on the early Labour party than Karl Marx ever did – communitarian ideas strongly influenced early British socialist and Fabian thought. To give just one example, communitarian tenets of the nature of society come through very strongly in Clement Attlee’s book The Social Worker. In the book Attlee laid out his vision that public service should be radical, realistic, reciprocal and – vitally – relationship based. The latter two points in particular are collectivist, communitarian ideals, with solutions to the problems of the poorest being worked out with them not for them. Attlee put those communitarian ideals to work in 1945 to rebuild a battered and exhausted country. The NHS was created as a shared public institution uniting society. So too was the welfare state. Mass housebuilding allowed people to put down roots and build communities together. Other heroes of the centre-left’s past, such as Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, were also strongly communitarian in their political outlook.

Indeed, King’s use of communitarian ideas is interesting, because a principle objection to communitarianism for some is that it too often slides over into authoritarianism, whereby dominant social norms are imposed on oppressed or marginalised groups. The concern that communitarianism’s interest in upholding a social moral order could stray over into oppressive tendencies is a genuine one and needs to be taken seriously. It is the intellectual trap which Blue Labour fell into. This is however one area where the public conversation is some way behind academia, which addressed these concerns in the “responsive communitarian” debates of the mid-1990s.

Responsive communitarianism seeks to balance social order with individual liberty. The structure of modern society in itself supports that balancing. Unlike the historical ‘total communities’ of the 1950s, in the modern era the people we grow up, study, work and socialise with tend to form distinct social circles, meaning ostracisation from one, whilst painful, is far less powerful as a form of social control. The  ability of the internet to connect geographically disparate individuals into a community is a further driver of this process.

Further, the social pressure itself is not an issue, indeed it is inevitable that different communities will set different rules of belonging and seek to enforce them. Rather the issue is what the norms it is used to enforce are. As liberation politics have advanced, the moral conversations have changed. In many, though sadly not yet all, communities in the UK an individual is more likely to be ostracised for being homophobic than for being homosexual. It is those public moral conversations which are key to the advancement of progressive values.

The essence of communitarianism then is in fostering the social and institutional space for that public debate and in ensuring that there are enough ties that bind us. When we focus too much on individualism and allow those unifying factors to weaken, then the fabric of society cannot withstand the pressures of a large public debate without buckling. This is sadly what we have seen since the EU referendum: the huge public debate on what kind of country we want in the form of Brexit has led to a Balkanised and shattered society. The mission of Labour’s moderates in the future will be the knitting together of Britain’s ravelled common weal.

It is a daunting task, but the good news is that we are not as divided as much of the media and many populist politicians would have you believe. If you force people into a binary choice and judge them entirely on that, do not be surprised if you get a population with a binary division. Public commentators on both sides have come to see Brexit as a shibboleth and assume someone’s Brexit position is a shorthand for large swathes of values, ideals and political positions. Coming from a family and community divided by Brexit, I know that assumption simply does not hold true for many people. If you broaden the discussion you will find many underlying values are in fact shared across the Brexit divide. Not all of them of course, but as Jo Cox said we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.

Lisa Nandy MP in her Attlee memorial lecture eruditely decried the false binary choices currently forced on us by populists of both the right and left. She was right to do so. Those choices lead us into a culture war we cannot afford. Nobody ever wins a culture war, nobody ever advanced society by insulting huge swathes of it or believing millions to be evil based on a single political choice. But that is the inevitable culmination of individualist identity politics whereby any compromise is a betrayal of the self.

To combat it we have to speak with and for all, to engage in respectful discourse and work  to reduce inequality in both economic and socio-political terms. We need to  give people a better stake in society and more agency over their lives as well as the means to improve their material situation.

People, not just in Britain but globally, are crying out for a less lonely, more connected life. For an economy which aims not at enriching a tiny few but at providing a good living for all, and in which the fetishisation of growth is recognised as being merely the exponential extraction of finite and diminishing resources. Where an economy providing for all without massive leaps in GDP is recognised as sustainable, not stagnant. For a politics where power is invested closer to home, in our regions, cities and streets; where we dare to do more democracy. For a country that invests in its own social and physical infrastructure – in public transport, education and the NHS but also in the cultural touchstones that bind us together: sports clubs, civil society, the local pub and local post office, music, culture and the arts. And most important of all dignified and decent housing. People cannot build communities unless they have a secure and stable place to live.

That is an agenda built on prioritising people and how they fit together in society. It is an agenda that is bold, radical, achievable and fit for purpose in the 21st century. It is also an agenda that can only be tenably held together by an understanding of humanity and society as intertwined, collectivist and invested in each other. We truly can achieve more by our common endeavour than we can alone.

Luke John Davies

Luke John Davies is a PhD student at Aston University and the chair of the Birmingham and West Midlands Fabian Society. He sits on the Fabian Society executive committee.


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