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Balancing Acts: Towards a Critical Politics


Introduction: Balancing Acts

Jonathan Rutherford and Jeremy Gilbert

In the summer of 1997, Signs of the Times began a discussion on Marx and the new forms of global capitalism. The group had begun life in the last years of Thatcherism, organising seminars and conferences, creating a public space for thinking about an oppositional politics to the Conservatives. All that changed on May 1 1997 . New Labour was returned in a landslide victory amongst euphoric hope. For some of us since, it has been a period of disappointments and disillusionment. Each of us has had ‘that moment’ when we’ve said to ourselves enough is enough - the cutting of single mother’s benefits, the punitive approach to the poor, the Bernie Ecclestone affair, Derek Draper and ‘Lobbygate’, the refusal of New Labour to confront neo- liberal hegemony, its authoritarianism, the cruel humiliation of refugees, the feeble proposals for a law on freedom of information, prejudice toward the public sector . For others of us, New Labour evoked few disappointments because it had promised little more than relief from the loathed Conservative Party. Whatever our initial and subsequent response to New Labour, none of us in Signs of the Times believes that New Labour represents a continuation of Conservative rule. It is true, that in many respects it is the child of the 1980s; the class fraction that sustains New Labour a product of Margaret Thatcher’s meritocracy and the boom in the media and information industries. But we think that New Labour is a qualitatively new ideological project whose utilitarian values of political managerialism represent, in Geoff Andrews phrase in this pamphlet, a neo-liberal humanism. New Labour is the attempt of a relatively new class fraction to build a political hegemony which can sustain governance in a radically changing and unstable world.

Our turn back to Marx was symptomatic of our attempt to understand the emergence of new sectors of capitalist production and their social impact, of which New Labour is a consequence. There was a recognition that economic and financial globalisation is a form of ‘wild’ or, as Edward Luttwak has described it, ‘turbo- charged’ capitalism reminiscent of the imperialist venture capitalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But also that conventional Marxist responses to this development were inadequate. Over the months we have engaged in argument and discussion which can euphemistically be described as inciting a creative tension in the group. For some of us the task was to reinvent the Left. To breathe back life into its political language and its defining category of class, and so to engage critically with New Labour and the centres of power. For others there was a belief that the Left is redundant, that new forms of politics - what has been described as counter cultures of modernity after an essay of the same name by Zygmunt Bauman - are yet to emerge, and that the role of S.O.T is to express a speculative and more searching analysis. Somewhere in this argument there emerged a centre ground which holds us together. It is characterised by three points of view. The first is a recognition that the state and the exercise of power demand that we engage critically with New Labour and with the conventional discourses of politics however ossified they might be. Second, we think that New Labour’s version of modernisation has created a political life in which the only significant criteria is utility. This is most in evidence in New Labour attitudes toward education and learning. It is a regressive and anti-democratic modernisation, besotted with business, and unwilling to embrace the kind of plural, democratic and more equal society we would like. Third, we recognise that we are living through a period of extraordinary cultural, social and economic change in which new forms of identity and ethical values are emerging which will radically alter the terrain of the political in the new millennium. The local and the global, the political and the ethical, the public and the private are categories and relationships in a state of flux. As we end a European century in which ideologies have lent themselves to historically unparalleled barbarism it is sanguine to be wary of any desire for new political certainties. And yet we must devise new forms of critical engagement with the power of capital and the state. This century has shown how democracy has had only a tenuous hold on the popular imagination in Europe. It needs reaffirming, strengthening and extending.

Responding to our current situation is a difficult task. How do we break with the habits of a past so marked by failure as that of the British Left, learning to ‘think politics otherwise’ and to do politics differently, without losing sight of the fact that the very conditions which brought the left into being — inequality, poverty, the absence of democracy from most areas of social life - still obtain today? How, for instance, do we maintain an insistence on the centrality of the fight against poverty to any attempts to maintain standards of education, health and social order without resorting to a reductive politics for which the redistribution of wealth is the only issue, the only goal and the only idea? How do we tackle the growing sense of powerlessness in the workplace for generations of people for whom the notion of class struggle means less than nothing? How do we relate critically to both the inheritance of the Left and the legacy of Thatcherism without collapsing either into nihilism or the ineffectual piecemeal empiricism of the no. 10 Policy Unit? These are, in part, the type of questions which are trying to think about here.

This pamphlet is not a definitive statement, nor a blueprint for the future of a radical democratic politics. It’s more a conversation in progress. How can we recapture a collective desire to challenge poverty, exploitation and inequality - concerns which made Left democracy in the twentieth century a central humanising force - with a language and practice of the public good which equally encourages the individual desire for personal autonomy, emancipation and self-expression? We need a sense of the future which can dispel some of the cynicism of the present. The aim of this collection of essays is to generate debate and discussion, and to challenge that politics which, under New Labour, has become contemptuous of openness, critical thought and imagination.


About Signs of the Times


Signs of the Times is a London-based discussion group. The group was formed in early 1992 when the magazine Marxism Today closed and sought to continue to develop the debate around the magazine’s ‘New Times’ analysis ; especially post-Fordism, postmodernism, globalisation and the politics of identity.

Since 1992 Signs of the Times has organised conferences on the legacy of Foucault, theories of postmodernism, the revival of the city state, and the long-term significance of Labour‚s 1997 landslide. Speakers have included Anthony Giddens, Doreen Massey, Charles Jencks, Sadie Plant, Ed Soja, Nikolas Rose and Elizabeth WilsonThe core activity of the group is a twice-yearly seminar series. These run over a six week period on Monday evenings. Recent themes have included a critique of the Third Way, the rebranding Britain debate, how governments can affect the cultural industries and the basics of good governance.

Signs of the Times has published three books, all with the publishers Lawrence & Wishart. The latest is The Moderniser’s Dilemma : Radical Politics in the Age of Blair. A wide-ranging exploration of both new Labour, and oppositional, models of modernisation contributors include Andrew Gamble, Stephen Twigg, Anne Showstack Sassoon and Michael Gove.


Balancing Acts

The Hard Centre by Jeremy Gilbert

Technocrats or Intellectuals? By Geoff Andrews

The Spin Cycle: Truth and Appearance in Politics By Tim Bewes

The Art of Life By Jonathan Rutherford

The Long Revolution by Wendy Wheeler

From Signs of the Times to Signing the Times By Mark Perryman