Mike Phipps reviews The Dignity of Labour, by Jon Cruddas, published by Polity
From the Preface onwards, where he talks of “ethical duties in how we order society to remedy the violation of dignity”, Jon Cruddas is on a moral mission. Nothing new there: Harold Wilson famously said of Labour: “This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.”
Capitalism, argues Cruddas, has failed, but it’s the left that’s in crisis, underlined here by the 2019 general election defeat. “Politically, this reflects the collapse of a post-war social democracy built around growth, welfare capitalism and distributive justice.”
In reality, of course, this crisis dates back to an earlier time. The real crisis of social democracy kicked in from the mid-1970s on, fuelled by its loss of vision and its inability to resolve key economic issues such as stagflation and the balance needed between economic efficiency and greater equality and between the welfare state and the tax burden.
Over the next decades, this crisis was exacerbated by the undermining of national sovereignty caused by globalisation, which limited the capacity of the state to act as a wealth redistributor and the collapse of the Soviet bloc which fuelled the onset of market triumphalism. ‘New Labour’ offered one response, but it wasn’t left wing or socialist, embracing the very ‘technocratic solutions’ that Cruddas is worried about here.
The general election of 2019 was indeed a debacle. But Labour’s election result in 2017 was not, and its strength was precisely its ability to present a popular socialist platform on an ethical basis, emphasising the immoral way capitalism wastes human potential by failing to offer opportunities for all.
As I explain in For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power (OR Books, 2018), in the battle for narrative dominance, the Corbyn leadership’s focus on the manifest injustices of neoliberalism and its offer of common sense solutions were hegemonic. Moreover, it successfully reconstituted important ideas, such as aspiration, within the framework of traditional socialist values, such as social solidarity and community. As Corbyn himself said, “We understand that it is only collectively that our aspirations can be realised.”
Yet for Cruddas, this was part of the era of “deterioration”, and social democracy of any kind is repeatedly dismissed as “stale” without further analysis. He sees the remedy in the elevation of work as a central feature of one’s identity. New Labour’s emphasis on the ‘knowledge-driven economy’ put the working class “on the wrong side of history”, but he equally dismisses the idea of a universal basic income as a “technological nirvana resurrected today by utopian ‘post-work’ theories.”
For Cruddas, rootedness at work is at odds with “a liberal cosmopolitanism in ways that assert a privileged global citizenship over other forms of fidelity and attachment.” Instead the left must “forge a positive reimagination of community and nation anchored within a politics of work.”
He sees the main problem as the left’s unwillingness to embrace community and nation. In fact, the principal obstacle may be that the nature of work is no longer rooted in community, but fragmented, globalised and often transient and precarious.
He draws heavily on Michael Sandel’s argument that the left must address the moral questions regarding the lives we want to lead. But Cruddas’s emphasis on community and nation is misleading. The two are not the same. Some people feel great attachment to their country. But not all do. Does that invalidate their sense of identity, tainted in the eyes of nationalists by its cosmopolitanism?
It shouldn’t. It’s good that Cruddas can see the problems inherent in the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of Blair and his successors across Europe and the US, but this may not be the only kind of cosmopolitanism on offer. As Jeremy Gilbert has argued, this is to
“overlook the possibility that communities might have coherent relationships to each other, to their localities and their histories, which are also informed by a commitment to open relationships with others… Critics of contemporary cosmopolitanism seem to struggle with taking seriously the fact that for many inhabitants of cities like London and Glasgow – including many poor and working-class people – cosmopolitanism is just as real and authentic a characteristic of our identities, our histories and our communities as localism and nativism might be for others. In fact this is a key reason why the emergence of Corbynism came as such a shock to so many political commentators: they simply didn’t believe, and still don’t believe, that the culture of the metropolitan left has any kind of reality or existential purchase. In this, they are simply, demonstrably mistaken.”
Elsewhere, Gilbert develops the point further:
“There is a powerful mythology shared by many sections of British political culture… According to this mythology, members of ‘settled’ working-class communities (be they former pit villages in Derbyshire or council estates on the edge of London) simply have stronger, more intimate bonds with each other and with their established habits of life than do other people… Cosmopolitans, it is assumed, are rootless: aimless postmodern individuals, with no real commitment to anything. These assumptions are central to the discourse of the ‘authentocrats’, as Joe Kennedy has named that range of commentators and pundits who claim to speak for the ‘authentic’ people of Britain.
“The problem with these assumptions is that they are completely wrong… Cosmopolitanism is not merely a symptom of rootlessness. It can be just as deeply entrenched an element of a person’s identity as can attachment to a particular place and ethnicity… As the cultural historian Mica Nava has shown, cosmopolitanism can be ‘visceral’ just as conservatism can. This is not merely an expression of liberalism and individualism; for many of us today, our communities are not rooted primarily in our neighbourhoods or workplaces, but grounded in our dispersed and complex social networks. That doesn’t make us any less loyal to them. Crucially, this is not just a ‘middle-class’ experience. In places like London, cosmopolitanism and libertarian social ethics have formed a part of vernacular working class culture for centuries.”
Much of the first half of Jon Cruddas’s book takes us through the changing nature of work in the UK in the post-war years and the growth of service sector jobs at the expense of manufacturing. Most of these jobs, for all New Labour’s talk about a ‘knowledge economy’, require a limited skillset.
Cruddas then engages with some of the socialist responses to the 2008 crash. He pounces on Paul Mason’s suggestion that “the ‘networked youth’ are destroying capitalism as the information economy is not compatible with the market economy.” From this he infers some questionable conclusions that “these modern Marxists” are writing off the working class and that the push for a universal basic income will speed up the end of work and lead to “the indignities of a life without purposeful work” – although I don’t see how.
“Why resist the employment consequences of a global pandemic which might accelerate moves to an automated future?” he asks rhetorically. “Why ally with a trade union movement that seeks to defend what you desire to overturn?”
This is beyond a caricature and Cruddas would struggle hard to find a ‘modern Marxist’ who would shun relations with trade unions or see the defence of jobs as “political nostalgia” or “reactionary”. But it’s a convenient shibboleth, in order to claim the left has substituted a “new urban networked educated youth” for a base in class politics.
In fact, the entry of large numbers of young urbanites into left politics in recent years, and the Labour Party in particular, is a sign of the proletarianisation of many salaried jobs as well as the high costs, amid other problems, of renting accommodation and the lack of opportunities to buy in cities like London.
In this context, London’s overwhelming vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is less a feature of a culture war that Cruddas seems keen to buy into, and more to do with classic class issues. As Owen Hatherley points out in Red Metropolis, “Londoners were voting further left than anywhere else because they had less disposable income than anywhere else, worse housing than anywhere else, and were more obviously exploited than anyone else.” These truths were tragically underlined by the Grenfell Tower fire.
Cruddas follows the textbooks in seeing a “philosophical fault line within the left, often expressed between scientific rationality and humanism, economism and ethics.”
There is some logic to this, but only some. Reformist socialists, retreating from the unpalatably revolutionary conclusions of Marx’s rigourous approach, sought to refound socialism on an ethical basis. But the moral case against capitalism implies its capacity for redemption and it’s a lot weaker than the scientific conclusions reached by Marx.
However, it’s also worth noting that there’s a great deal of humanism in Marx’s work, and not just in the early writings. Marx in the third volume of Capital, declared a world dominated by money-making to be a form of life “not appropriate to and worthy of our human nature”. In that sense, the struggle for socialism is the struggle to be fully human.
It’s not ‘scientific socialism’ that is undermining human interconnection – it’s free market capitalism. As Paul Mason points out in Clear Bright Future, “Since the 1980s, free-market ideology has attacked our right to possess a self that is more than a collection of economic needs.”
Its original aim was the destruction of organised labour, “the main humanizing force within capitalism, far exceeding philanthropy and religion in its material achievements.” But it also sought to change how people thought, strengthening individualism and legitimising selfishness. As such, it was – is – an assault on humanism.
Cruddas, however, wants to root our humanism precisely in our labour and little more. He bypasses Marx to focus on an authentically “ethical English Marxist tradition”, drawing on William Morris and our “heightened consciousness to realize our true capacities of self-realization”. But he restricts these ideas to a socialism “considered as the fight against human degradation and the retention of human dignity, primarily in terms of human labour.”
Why such a limited vision? Possibly because to reach wider conclusions takes us beyond the reform of capitalism to its destruction. The American socialist Eugene Debs wrote, “I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.”
And, as I have discussed elsewhere, much of Marx’s work wrestled with what it means to be truly human, leading Marx to describe communism as “the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as… the complete return of man to himself as a social (ie, human) being.”
Within that tradition, others have gone a lot further with the idea of creating a new consciousness. Che Guevara, for example, developed his idea of a ‘new man’ – the precondition for radical transformation. In Socialism and Man in Cuba, he wrote:
“To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman… That is why it is very important to choose the right instrument for mobilizing the masses. Basically, this instrument must be moral in character.”
The problem with theories of this kind, however, is that while they are provide a useful counterweight to the economic determinism of some Marxist thinking, they move quickly away from humanism to elitism.
In the same essay, Che Guevara, has some interesting remarks to make about work, and not just its ‘dignity’:
“In order to develop a new culture, work must acquire a new status. Human beings-as-commodities cease to exist, and a system is installed that establishes a quota for the fulfilment of one’s social duty. The means of production belong to society, and the machine is merely the trench where duty is performed… Individuals start to see themselves reflected in their work and to understand their full stature as human beings through the object created, through the work accomplished. Work no longer entails surrendering a part of one’s being in the form of labour power sold, which no longer belongs to the individual, but becomes an expression of oneself, a contribution to the common life in which one is reflected, the fulfilment of one’s social duty.”
Cruddas, meanwhile, moves on speedily from ethical Marxism to the moral vision of the young Tony Blair. But the person who is missing from this discussion is Jeremy Corbyn, who advocated progressive economic solutions alongside a strong ethical vision.
Cruddas laments the loss of industry in his East London constituency and opines that, “Reimagining the dignity of work can help the avoidance of despair in communities that have experienced a cultural death, like Dagenham.”
But he should recall that New Labour were in office for 13 years, offering little to offset the rapid downsizing of the constituency’s Ford plant, a process that coincided with the rapid rise of the neofascist British National Party. This prefigured the growth of UKIP in working class strongholds elsewhere, which New Labour had taken for granted, mistakenly assuming these voters had nowhere else to go.
The book ends with some good proposals for the future of work, but I was left with the enduring impression that it had begun from a false premise, namely that “There is a fashionable tendency across the left to write off the working class.” There really isn’t.
Cruddas accuses his opponents of political nostalgia, but one wonders whether his own view of the working class is not out of date, perhaps more male and white than the real picture? Electoral analysis of 2019 shows too how salient age was as a factor in voting behaviour. Labour could have won a majority, if people of working age only had voted.
It’s not just his understanding of the working class, but society as a whole that needs updating. In his book, 21st Century Socialism (Polity 2020), Jeremy Gilbert argues that contemporary society has undergone unprecedented globalisation and ‘post-modernisaton’.
“No human society on record has come close to accepting the diversity of lifestyle, personal philosophy, religious practice or sexual identity that most of us now regard as normal,” he writes. In contrast, the political system in most countries lags behind by about 100 years. It still presupposes a society where millions consume the same media, do similar jobs and have similar pastimes – a society which may simply no longer exist.
Cruddas is proud of the fact that Labour fought off the electoral threat of the BNP in Dagenham and even defeated the Brexit Party in the 2019 European elections. The lesson he draws is that we shouldn’t write off these ‘traditional communities – although I can’t think of anyone who says we should. Instead, we should reconnect with them, which is what’s happening, he argues, through council-led regeneration.
Good to hear – but two points need to be borne in mind. First, elsewhere in post-industrial Britain, for example Preston, the Labour vote also bucked the trend of decline in former industrial strongholds, underlining the fact that Labour’s fortunes in general elections may depend a lot on the quality of its performance in local government.
Second, regeneration, especially in London, has been a key mechanism for displacing the working class. A lot more needs to be done at community and national level to reconnect with Labour’s lost voters.
Which brings us to Keir Starmer, who endorses this book as an “essential read”. The Labour leader seriously misunderstands the problem that Jon Cruddas attempts to highlight here if he believes the answer lies in a vacuous patriotism.
For Labour to win again, it’s vital to learn what went wrong in 2019. But it’s equally crucial to understand what we got right in 2017 – and that’s entirely missing from this flawed analysis.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts