Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Open Left and the redistribution of power

Many leftie thinkers have been contributing to a series organised by 'Open Left' about what it means to be a leftie and why they are lefties. This is part of a process which is intended to help revive the political Left.

The good news is that there is a lot of overlap in their ideas, even though these lefties are drawn from all factions of the Labour Party and beyond. They talk about how lefties are opposed to all sorts of discrimination, the need to reduce poverty and inequality, the belief that our society could be very different and better for all of us.

But what I think is really interesting is that none of them mention political power. When these kinds of discussions were held just over a century ago, securing political power for working class people was what brought the Labour Party into existence. And if anything, the gap between the powerful and the rest is greater now than it was then.

Something by Alex Smith, editor of Labour List, summed up the 'Open Left' approach:

"Yes, our society should be meritocratic. We absolutely need the best people, and the right people, in the right jobs. As you say, someone who's tone deaf or has two left feet is not going to be a musician or a footballer.

But that meritocracy should be based from a starting point - legally, socially and culturally - of absolute equality of opportunity and aspiration. That means creating a society which is totally free from prejudice."

I think that reflects a position which most, if not all, contributors to 'Open Left' could agree with. The task of the left is to remove all the barriers which currently exist, whether caused by poverty, lack of educational opportunity or attainment, discrimination and so on. Once this has been achieved, 'the best people' can rise from the ranks to get the right jobs, regardless of their background.

*

While the Open Left society would have many advantages over our own, I don't entirely agree with this approach. One of the radical, subversive and wonderful things about democracy is that (in theory at least) it gives equal power to each and every person, irrespective of merit. There are almost endless occasions when the interests or priorities of the majority of people conflict with those of the experts or of the politically powerful and well-connected. In a meritocratic society, power is wielded by the minority who are judged to have the most 'merit'. Is that really what the left should be aiming for?

Furthermore, creating 'equality of capability' and ending discrimination are activities for a minority of policy experts to take the lead on. As a political project, it seems to involve identifying problems and barriers to people being successful, and using a variety of policy tools to remove them. In contrast, redistributing power is something which, by definition, everyone has to be involved in.

If you look at the great achievements of the left over the past century, from the NHS to the weekend, civil rights and gay equality, the old age pension to the minimum wage, the recurring theme is that of ordinary people coming together to use their power, whether through the ballot box or in the streets.

Or as Eugene Debs put it,

"I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses — you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks."

3 Comments:

At 9:38 am , Anonymous Paul said...

V good post, Dan. we need to keep coming back to power and who had it

Will link to this.

while i'm here

Can you do me a post over the summer about the role of the voluntary sector, maybe vis-a-vis state capacity/control blah de blah to go on my Carnival of Socialism

 
At 10:14 am , Anonymous tim f said...

"Furthermore, creating 'equality of capability' and ending discrimination are activities for a minority of policy experts to take the lead on. As a political project, it seems to involve identifying problems and barriers to people being successful, and using a variety of policy tools to remove them. In contrast, redistributing power is something which, by definition, everyone has to be involved in."

Yes, yes, yes.

I actually agree with Sen on capabilities, but I think of it a useful way of conceptualising poverty and bypassing tedious debates about relative vs absolute poverty. As a political project it risks giving power to a small band of people who get to decide which capabilities are important (or at best set up an administrative project where poor people get to tell middle-class people what capabilities are important and middle-class people get to synthesise their results).

 
At 9:35 pm , Anonymous Jako said...

That is a brilliant Debs quote.

 

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home