Delayed reaction

September 25, 2013 by
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics 

In a mixed LRB review of Christian Caryl’s book ‘Strange Rebels: 1979 and the birth of the 21st century’, David Runciman makes a point about the circuitous route of change:

‘The world that fell apart at the end of the 1970s had begun to unravel much earlier in the decade, in the succession of crises that included the demise of Bretton Woods, the Arab-Israeli war, the subsequent oil shocks and a world wide recession. That confused and confusing period turned out to be the dawn of neoliberalism, though it wasn’t until much later that it became clear what had happened’.  

He goes on to say

‘Now that neoliberal order is stumbling through its own succession of crises. We are barely five years into the unravelling, if that is what is taking place’.

This analysis sheds some historical light on whether Ed Miliband’s return to statist social democracy will prove to be a wise move.

There are two core assertions lying behind the Miliband programme: the first is that capitalism needs to be rebalanced from big business to small, from producer to consumer and from shareholder to worker. The second – implicitly – is that in a global competitive economy this rebalancing can be achieved by the state without major malign side effects.

The first assertion is the easier to sustain, indeed would be shared by people across the political spectrum. In many ways big business has not come up with the goods;  in investment, responsible tax payment, resource use, fair remuneration. In key sectors – most notably finance, energy and water – it is clear there has been systemic  ‘rent seeking’ (using market position to make money without adding value).

Whether the failings of big capitalism are enough to overcome public scepticism about the state, about Labour and about its leader is another matter, but here again it is worth quoting Runciman on the origins of neoliberal political hegemony:

‘The real story of the late 1970s in the democratic West is that people were tired of political and industrial strife and were willing to try something different, however uncomfortable. It wasn’t a revolution: more a collective shrug’

If we replace 1970s with 2010s and the words ‘political and industrial strife’ with ‘falling living standards and high unemployment’ the case can be made that while only a minority of voters share the enthusiasm of the left for Miliband’s speech, it might yet prove to be a successful gamble. Certainly, the Conservatives now face the challenge of attacking Labour’s policies without looking like they are defending unpopular corporate interests.

It is one of our many cognitive frailties that we tend to focus on unusual events rather than recognising longer term trends. The credit crunch and the resulting economic crisis was, of course, critical but the underlying trend is the thirty year neoliberal experiment in the West running out of road, assailed by its own internal tensions and populist critiques from both the right and left.

Whatever his other failings, Labour’s leader is not unrealistic: he does not think he can single handedly move the centre of political gravity to the left. Instead – and this realistically is all the boldness we can hope for from democratic politicians – he has made a judgment about where the future centre might be and taken the gamble to go there ahead of the electorate (and most of the media).

Whether or not it succeeds, this was then a historically significant speech. However, the pleasure that Miliband’s team gets from reading the reaction of the left may need to be qualified by a final extract from David Runciman:

‘What we are waiting for is a counter-counter revolution, led by progressives who have learnt the lessons from the age of neoliberalism and are unafraid to use its instruments to overthrow them….Someone will get there in the end and maybe by the end of the decade…..but it is unlikely to be anyone near a position of power right now’.




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  • Matthew Mezey

    Time to support the emerging post-partisans?

    Hi Matthew,

    I’ve got another (incipient) political dynamic which I think greatly deserves our support, even though it’s currently so unformed that it isn’t even possible to see the outline of its shape through the fog of present-day politics. (Yet being so incipient, even a small amount of support could really help!)

    I’m talking about the post-partisan dynamic: an approach that honours values – mentalities – from across (beyond!) the political spectrum, and which is built on the human capabilities described by people like Jonathan Haidt or Robert Kegan.

    Haidt has even recently set up an organisation to foster this post-partisanism:

    And he is also the Director of ‘Civil Politics’ – – which aims “to find and promote evidence-based methods for increasing political civility”.

    I do hope Haidt has conversed with veterans such as Mark Satin/Radical Middle who’ve battled for decades to open up the space of post-partisanism:

    (NB erhaps trans-partisan is a better term?).

    I must admit that I’ve not dug into what Haidt’s Asteroids Club is up to yet, and – let’s face it – he’s trying to move a boulder with toothpick, nevertheless… fantastic work Jonathan!

    And post-partisanism isn’t wholly without a constituency, during Prof Kegan’s wonderful lecture here at the RSA in May – – he told us that the ‘Self-transforming’ capability (which I believe is the strongest foundation for post-partisanism) is held by perhaps 4 or 5 million people in the UK.

    There’s plenty of evidence that the solutions to the UK’s – the world’s – ‘wicked problems’ will come from this group.

    And these solutions are more likely to emerge when supported by lots of trans-partisans.

    I’m not going to pretend that this is going to be anything but a very, very long process: it took Jonathan Haidt 16 years and two ‘intellectual awakenings’ to move from a merely conceptual post-partisan mentality to one which actually wanted to make post-partisanship real in the world and his own life.

    But hey, Haidt was in a particularly blinkered milieu: a US campus. He never even came across a conservative until he was in his 40s, he told some of us at the RSA…

    A measure of the uphill struggle faced by, er…, partisans of post-partisanship is what happened when Haidt pointed out that the academic discipline of Social Psychology is fairly close to being an ideological monoculture (left-leaning) – where explicit political bias is prevalent and acted upon to exclude diverse views.

    At least I think that’s what he describes on this – amazing – webpage (that I’ve not had time to peruse properly yet):

    My own thoughts on Jonathan’s latest book and ideas are here:

    I guess I was partly saying that he’d really benefit from making common cause with experts in Adult Development such as Prof Kegan, whose RSA lecture offered a fantastic example of a post-partisan practice, the Public Conversations Project, in Boston. Kegan has a free MOOC – online course – coming soon-ish on understanding/overcoming our ‘Immunity to Change': Don’t miss it, I’ve already signed up!

    It’s people like Kegan who have great insights into how to support people in their growth towards a trans-partisan way of being, and in negotiating major life turning points like Haidt’s successfully…


    PS If these topics interest you, you may well enjoy coming along to this free event at the RSA: – which launches Richard Wilson FRSA’s report ‘AntiHero – the Hidden Revolution in Leadership & Change’ (I helped him with the report)

    Matthew Kalman Mezey
    (Online Community Manager)

    A live dashboard webpage showing RSA online activity is here: (online community)
    RSA staff profiles (with photos):
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    Need support for your Fellows’ meetings, network or projects? Go to the Fellows’ tools & techniques page – – for guidance, how-tos and other support.

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