The meaninglessness of terms like ‘neoliberal’ reveals Labour’s deep intellectual fragility
Politics is a trade littered with meaningless terms. Ask a roomful of political types to define any of the big political words such as ‘socialist’, ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’, ‘capitalism’, ‘the state’, ‘neocon’ or ‘internationalist’, and you may as well ask a kindergarten class to do your tax return. Each of us may have our definitions, but these are seen through the prisms of our own values, beliefs and prejudices. To attempt to agree definitions would lead to anarchy, if only we could agree what that meant.
The absence of clearly defined terms permits sloppiness, laziness and downright sophistry. Without precise terms of trade, politicians can appear idealistic while venal, and principled while self-aggrandising, by invoking some half-understood phrase such as ‘freedom of the individual’.
As George Orwell, our perennial guide in such matters, pointed out, bad writing is the product of bad thinking. The opposite is also true: ugly writing leads to ugly thoughts.
In August 2015 Jennie Formby, political officer of the union Unite and Labour National Executive Committee member, stated that, ‘I totally disagree that neoliberal multimillionaire war-mongerer Blair has anything useful to say.’ It is a fairly typical use of language on the hard left, and serves to demonstrate the wider point.
We can park, for now, the wisdom of the advice that we should ignore a three-times election-winner after two election defeats. And we can ignore the use of ‘multimillionaire’ as an insult, because, in the world of leftwing trade unionism, all rich people are the enemy, apart from Tony Benn, Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach, Russell Brand, Billy Bragg, and pretty much every trade union general secretary.
We should, perhaps, give Formby the benefit of the doubt and assume her use of ‘war-mongerer’ is an unfortunate typo. As a 10-year-old can tell you, the word does not exist. She means ‘war-monger’, based on the word ‘monger’, meaning one selling or promoting something. So let’s assume she made a simple mistake after a long day battling the boss class.
Let us focus instead on that use of the word ‘neoliberal’. What does it mean? To describe a former Labour prime minister as one should suggest that the speaker has a definition in mind. It may be that Formby was using it in the sense it is used by economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, to mean one who believes markets should pervade aspects of civic life. This is an odd thing to ascribe to a Labour prime minister who ensured state intervention into the free market in wages to deliver a statutory minimum wage for workers, and led the renaissance of a state-owned, tax-funded health service.
It might be that Formby takes ‘neoliberal’ to mean anyone who accepts a role for any market of any kind. Within the Labour movement, there have always been those opposed to markets, preferring the state to direct goods and services. They have tended to be on the extremes, such as the People’s Assembly, who want civil servants to run your mobile phone provider. Harold Wilson sarcastically referred to them as people who wanted to make ‘Marks and Spencer as efficient as the Co-op’, and Aneurin Bevan complained of those ‘who appear to threaten the whole of private property but who in practice would threaten nothing; they are purists and therefore barren.’
The challenge to those using ‘neoliberal’ as a putdown to those accepting economic realities is simple: what system do you propose instead? There has been no form of non-market economy throughout history which is preferable to a stroll to the shops in every British town or city, where goods are efficiently distributed, prices set to people’s pockets, and innovations driven by the desire to make profits. What nightmarish dystopia might the alternative be? Government-owned restaurants and supermarkets? Government-run cinemas and pubs? The local council cutting your hair? You see how lazy use of language covers up intellectual laziness.
‘Neoliberal’ has become a catch-all for anyone with whom you disagree, and this how I strongly suspect Formby was using it. In this, she is not alone. It has become the stock-in-trade of the British left, and will be heard with ever more frequency as the battle for Labour’s soul intensifies. It joins similarly vacuous terms such as ‘neocon’, ‘Blairite’ or ‘Tory’ as an easy insult aimed at Labour’s mainstream moderates.
The issue is not that people at the top of the Labour party believe this is legitimate language to be fired off at people within their ranks, nor that it creates an orthodoxy to rival Spanish Inquisition. Nor is the fact that terms such as ‘neoliberal’ give, in Orwell’s famous phrase, ‘an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. No, the issue is that it serves as a substitute for the intellectual reconstruction that Labour must undergo in order to win an election. In short, by masking the failure to provide a workable and popular alternative, it helps the Tories win.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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