Yesterday’s FT featured a book review by the Conservative operative Danny Kruger. The book reviewed was The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, a book that lays out the intellectual framework for ‘Blue Labour’. Blue Labour is a newish move in the British Labour Party to appeal to middle class and working class voters by shifting to the right (the Tories are blue and Labour is red here) on a number of social issues, particularly immigration, crime, and the welfare state. It is not unlike the idea of ‘blue dog democrats’ in America in its appeal to somewhat socially conservative, blue collar and middle class voters. I haven’t read the book and this isn’t a counter-review. Kruger made some interesting statements, though, in defense of the ‘blue’ of Blue Labour.
In terms of the political spectrum as outlined by Kruger, there are both ‘Utopian’ and ‘Nostalgic’ forms of both Labour and Tory ideology. Blue Labour conforms to the Nostalgic: He reports that Maurice Glasman (one of the leading lights of Blue Labour) ‘wants to rebuild a “Tudor Commonwealth” of freemen, hustings, guilds and guildhalls. The task for Labour, in today’s outsourced and globalised world, is to be “the collective poet” for England, retelling the stories of the nation.’ In contrast, the New Labour of Tony Blair and the Millibands is Whiggish and Utopian. Kruger points out that the Conservatives have the same two strands of Utopian and Nostalgic ideology. He rejects the Utopians in both parties and supports the project of Blue Labour for that reason. He likes that ‘Glasman and Rutherford give hat tips to Burke, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Conservative elegists who saw the 19th century coming and didn’t like it. Most of all, credit is given to Aristotle – though Moses and Jesus should also have got a mention too, given that Blue Labour’s worldview is, in large part, Judeo-Christian. Instead of progress, our task is civilisation, the melioration of brokenness.’
However, he says that this Blue Labour project is still impossibly flawed. His reasoning? It is ‘unhistorical’. He argues that ‘”Progressives” cannot explain the gradual, messy process by which society evolves: their only agents of history are either deliberate injustice or ineluctable economic forces; dispossession or the dialectic. And so, if you are on the left, you have to choose between the past and the future, forward or back.’ He objects to this choice between Utopia and Nostalgia, claiming that while he supports Blue Labour for making ‘the right choice, for the past,’ ‘Tories, and other real people, don’t have to choose at all.‘ This is fairly contradictory: he’s saying that he, and presumably the Tory policy makers he represents, ‘choose the past’ as well, but simultaneously that they don’t have to choose.
The blue of Blue Labour is exactly why I don’t like them. Not because I object to all Conservative ideas per se. But because I object to the ‘idealized past’ model of both types of conservatism. Conservative thinking on both Left and Right faces the problem of trying to freeze a moment in time and recreate it. The past was neither a heyday of paternalistic values nor was it a heyday of working class unity, etc. Kruger seems to be saying that the problem for Blue Labour is that they want to be both ‘progressive’ (i.e. radical, anti-establishment) and also nostalgic. This is a problem for them, I agree. But it is as much a problem for Conservative Nostalgists: there is no static past. Part of those things may have existed but they were always changing and mostly relied on that same change to even exist briefly. Braudel’s comment that ‘time does not flow at one even rate, but goes at a thousand different paces, swift or slow, which bear almost no relation to the day-to-day rhythm of a chronicle or of traditional history’ best encapsulates the difference between the choice of a political party or ideology to focus on ‘a past’ and the actual happening of the past. Perhaps history looks like a step function, and we might think of it that way, but time, i.e. things actually happening, is linear, not stepwise.
This has long been my problem with nostalgia in American politics. The Nostalgic Left looks to FDR’s interventions as a Golden Age of socialist solutions in American history – but those solutions only came into being in response to disaster; and they were intended to move us forward to a point where we wouldn’t need them anymore. Or they look back to a time when all production was domestic, the US was the engine of the world, and infer that therefore localism and family farms and bicycle riding and public transportation were all national values. The Nostalgic Right makes up some imagined past in which everyone lived in Pleasantville and there were no social problems. Or they invent mythical Founding Fathers who knew best and foresaw (and planned for) the abolition of slavery, universal enfranchisement, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the internet. I may be more sympathetic to the Nostalgic Left, but I find both difficult to communicate with because their visions of the past are static, with change only a recent, unwelcome invention.
The Utopian Right and Utopian Left are equally frustrating: the UR because they imagine that there’s some world in which Free Market Economics, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman will all be proven correct; the UL because they blame Obama when he is unable to fix all the national and international problems we face within the first 2 years of becoming president simply by virtue of being a different skin colour than previous presidents.
What there really are in political attitudes to time are three visions: Nostalgic, Pragmatic, and Utopian. All three are needed to ground policy – the history of the movement, what can be done today, and what goal is being worked towards – but they should operate together and none should dominate the ideological field. History can be useful in understanding where we’ve come from, politically. But both Left and Right conservative nostalgists face the problem of looking at where we’ve come from without examining the processes by which we’ve arrived where we are; and thereby both groups tend to dismiss the complexities and realities of the social, economic, cultural, technological, and individual contributions to change.
In other words, Conservatives may hate change, but without the women’s suffrage movement, they wouldn’t have Sarah Palin/Michele Bachmann. Hm…maybe they have a point after all.