A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Reclaiming the modernity mantle

To talk of "modernisation" is to speak the language of neoliberalism. To be radical and revolutionary, to transform this, reform that - to anyone under 40, these terms evoke the rhetoric of what Peter Mandelson called "the Blair revolution" of 1997 as much as the Russian revolution of 1917. While it couches itself as the very thrusting edge of modernity, neoliberalism harks back to an earlier, allegedly better time, that of neoclassical economics, the system of the workhouse and "self-help." Nonetheless, the actual effects of neoliberal capitalism - the destruction of working-class communities, of entire countries' economies, of the very notion of "society" - are extreme in their effects. Bertolt Brecht once claimed that "communism is not radical. It is capitalism that is radical." Capitalism is the system that makes all that is solid melt into air, the furnace of all traditions - while communism, at least as he imagined it, tries to slam on the brakes and to take control of a relentlessly accelerating, unmanned vehicle. Today, where the remains of the welfare state that have survived the last 30 years are facing even more extreme attacks in order to repay a "deficit" created by the bank bail-outs, the right is again posing as fearless, unsentimental and radical. How should we respond?

For historian Tony Judt, the left must assume its mantle as the new conservatism. He claims that social democracy, as a counter-movement both to laissez-faire capitalism and communism, was a movement against insecurity. As generations got further and further from the Depression and the war, the security of the new social infrastructure was carelessly, thoughtlessly discarded. Politicians like Gordon Brown bizarrely argued that their speculative boom meant "an end to boom and bust." Judt argues that such arguments only seemed credible because, by the 1980s, "few in the West are old enough to know just what it means to watch our world collapse." Yet he implies that we will do, sooner rather than later. Judt says that the welfare state and social democracy are still viable, more so than the seamless fantasies of neoliberalism. But his argument goes further than this. "The 20th century narrative of the progressive state," he writes, "rested precariously upon the conceit that 'we' - reformers, socialists, radicals - had history on our side ... if social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past ... the left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project."

We can leave aside Judt's occasionally glib anti-communism and the conventional amnesia over social democracy's record of grim political conformism. From the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht in 1919, to collaboration with colonialism and imperialist wars, to standing idle in the face of Hitler, social democrats have a far less impeccable a moral record than they think they do. His central point is intriguingly counterintuitive - the left should appeal to the memory of the recent past rather than the imagined future. Frankly, it sounds preferable to smashing in the windows of McDonald's. But what does this mean for those who have no memory of social democracy? What use are memories of Nye Bevan to those who can't remember Thatcher? Curiously enough, the main outlet for this yearning for the recent past is not in party politics, which - with some Marxist-inflected exceptions which Judt no doubt disdains, such as Die Linke, France's Nouveau Partie Anticapitaliste or the "pink tide" in Latin America - remains overwhelmingly neoliberal. It can be found instead in much contemporary art and music. Here, over the last few years something often described as a "nostalgia for the future" has obsessed over the lost gains of the post-war settlement, to often brilliant effect. The Ghost Box record label, for instance, shows an obsession with the public modernism of an earlier era - the egalitarian spaces of comprehensive schools and council estates, the unearthly sounds of the BBC's avant-garde Radiophonic Workshop or the minimalist design of cheap Pelican paperbacks.

This isn't at all a phenomenon localised to the "democratic" side of the ex-iron curtain - east European artists have spent much of the last two decades playing with the futuristic dreamworld of "actually existing socialism" as if to reimagine its collective spaces without its petty brutalities. This nostalgia is not for the recent past itself - it is a yearning for the future that it promised. Such artists hold up yesterday's examples of social democratic modernist design as a quiet protest against the crassness and barbarism of postmodern capitalism. But it is also as a reminder that it failed to bring about a new society. The social democratic welfare state was, for many, not so much a settlement as a step on the way to something else - socialism. Yet it seems unlikely that socialism can be rekindled by appealing to past hopes and dreams that few can remember. Nostalgia for lost dreams of the future only has value if it can actually help create a viable path forwards - otherwise, it's English Heritage with spacesuits. The left would do well to remind people that poorer societies than ours spent more on health and welfare than we do and that they considered education a right, not a product. But such lessons from history must be combined with a new modernism of the left. To hand the mantle of "modernity" to the right is to give it a powerful weapon against which halcyon memories, real or imagined, are powerless.

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