The future of the left since 1884

Thinking out loud

Our ability to deliberate constructively is being eroded - we must change course, argues Jonny Thomson.



The Labour party is the party of communities. Day centres, parks, youth centres, pubs, public libraries and spaces for children matter to the left. When Thatcher said, “There’s no such thing as society,” she was, in a way, defining the left as much as the right. The Conservative party was about individualism. Labour was about communities.

But community is not just about public space. It is about how we all come together to discuss the things that matter to us. In the very bones of the Labour party lies a leftist view that people are capable of great things when they work together. That collaboration, cooperation, kindness and support are what add meaning to life. They make us feel a part of things.

And yet, today, we are more isolated and separated than ever before. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Conservative-led austerity had done more than any policy ever before to destroy communities. Thousands of community centres were shut down, and nearly 44 per cent of community organisation income dried up. To see why this is especially damaging, we can turn to the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas.

Habermas was part of the Frankfurt School, whose earliest thinkers had taken a pretty dim view of our ability to think and reason things through. People, again and again, made bad decisions after bad deliberation. For Habermas, though, this was born of a misguided assumption that humans are best when they are on their own, deep in thought, probably in a dark room and smoking a pipe. But this is not how we are meant to think. As Aristotle had said, millennia before, humans are social and political animals. Habermas, therefore, argued that there existed another type of thinking or deliberation that suited us much better. He called this ‘communicative rationality’.

Communicative rationality is the way we work with one another to combine our subjective experiences of the world. We are each, privately, limited by our own inner life. We have only the one view of things. Yet, when we come together in conversation, we form structures and concepts with which to operate in the world. For Habermas, this collaboration of intelligent minds gives us the rules by which we live. These rules might be as trivial as social etiquette or fashion, but they also include our use of logic and language.

The power of communicative rationality lies in what the philosophers Hegel and Engels called a ‘dialectic’. It involves coming to an agreement by navigating each other’s individual contributions, and then reaching a final, superior conclusion. It involves creating mutually agreed values towards life, such as ‘speak truthfully’ or ‘value life’.

A great example of what Habermas meant is seen at Labour party conferences. Not only is there an exciting and vibrant collision of ideas found in fringe events (or even over a drink), but the entire structure of whittling down topics for debate, and the final delegate voting system, is a formal expression of communicative rationality.

The problem in wider society, though, which has been exacerbated both by the isolation of Covid-19, and a conscious assault by the Conservative party on community spaces, is that communicative rationality has been eroded. There is no genuine ‘marketplace of ideas’ where we can each honestly contribute to the rules by which to live. Without community or public spaces, people cannot discover what matters to them. We cannot discuss and debate. We are, in essence, removed from the ‘public sphere’.

Social media is a poor replacement. Such platforms are often just echo chambers, which degenerate into caps lock and exclamation marks at the first whiff of an alternative view. We only grow in our ideas when we actually meet other people from all walks and stages of life. This face-to-face, human-to-human, interaction not only satisfies a deep, primal need, but also clarifies what matters to us.

The problem that Habermas foresaw is that, eventually, we would no longer learn about the world from other humans. Everything we know would be filtered through the lens of some media outlet or some politician, both of which are not interested in an authentic discussion, opening a dialogue or teaching us about the world. Instead, they are like salesmen trying to sell something. In a world of properly funded and supported community environments, people trust each other, respect each other, and learn from each other. When these are taken away, it is no surprise at all that trust, respect and learning should fall away too.

What we are dealing with, today, is an imitation of rationality. People are speaking, but it is not a conversation. It is persuasion. It is talking without communicating. The result is that we are being told what to think, and we do not participate in the ideas we adopt.

The Labour party has always been the party of communities, and Habermas teaches us how important this really is. When our public spaces are taken away, when political engagement is reduced or filtered through only a Westminster MP or a daily tabloid, we are worse off for it. What the Conservative party can never appreciate is that, in an effort to save money by defunding community spaces, they are taking away an essential part of being human.

So, what can the Labour party do? The most obvious is to reverse austerity. Ideally this could be worked in the byzantine reshuffling of the chancellery, but it might, indeed, require taxes. Council or national taxes are never popular, but local community and services are a tangible and very visible area of improvement. It is much easier to say, “this library was paid for by your council tax”, whereas such benefits can be easily lost on a national level.

Above all, politicians of all stripes can change the tone of the conversation. Having intelligent debates about values, principles and even political philosophy will elevate Habermas’ sense of communicative rationality. Though sound bites and PR may always play a role, parliamentarians can change course by encouraging mature, informed political discussion. If not, this sense of alienation and division, from politics and each other, may just remain.

Jonny Thomson

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford and runs the Instagram account Mini Philosophy. He is author of Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

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