It was a revelation, and shocking, to learn, as a young woman, that Marxists interpreted the welfare state as a trade-off. That rather than it being an expression of care first, or even, second, an ameliorative structure for the delayed processing of our fundamental equality, it was a stabilising structure for the pursuit of capitalist growth and profit. It was a trade-off—by the capitalists. The tumult, the unpredictability, of laissez-faire capitalism was dampened and its consequences softened with the rise of a state form and administrative apparatus that combined an attitude of preservation of stability with a certain hope for docility among the people, and this provided the ground upon which something like stable growth could occur.
Despite, or rather because of, this apparent ‘compact’ between the classes, the stage was also set, or context given, for a particular expression of democracy. And it was true enough that people really did have something to argue about within the constrained limits of parliamentary and electoral politics: largely the carve-up of the social product, by which ‘equality’ could be materially judged, and later something closer to recognition of individual and sectoral rights. Democracy was real—at the least, the disputes had real consequences, and the positions in which arguments for greater sharing or recognition of rights were put were very much contested. There was something at stake for both sides of the arrangement, even if the hope of some on the Left that the compact itself might burst asunder would always be heavily constrained.
In this view, then, even that hallowed notion, democracy itself, can be seen to have been a trade-off. A certain range of democratic dispute was part of the larger deal in which the state was, most importantly, involved in creating the broad conditions for development (in the context of nation building) and for the operation of a (then limited) market. As Marxists always said, and are again pointing out strenuously today, what counted for democracy was integral with the allocation of the means by which, and organisation of the settings in which, investment, development, work and consumption would all be arranged: there was an agreed field of disputation. This arrangement had benefits for ordinary people—the guarantee of work, shared public resources of various kinds, a stable life-world for most. But at base the democracy of which we rue the loss today, and which we hold up as some ultimate expression of value, we can now see was conditional.
Today the limitations of democracy within that framework of national development open onto a field of radical indeterminacy. As successful elements in the nation’s pursuit of growth, the central democratic institutions and their ethical narratives, often blind to their actual conditions of existence, commanded relative legitimacy even among some capitalist owners and managers, and certainly broadly among the ‘enlightened’ middle class. For many ‘social liberals’, or wets within the Coalition parties even, there was some level of accord that we were, despite our differences, in this society together. Moderating influences could see that the integrity of the social body was of common concern. The conventional, legal and administrative checks and balances around notions of competing interests and on the basis of some recognition of ‘fairness’, even where they might dampen profitability or rile the individualism of liberals, were the cost of a ‘decent society’. But what happens when the ground itself of that ‘democratic compact’ shifts, and the efficacy of those institutions for achieving their basic purpose in development and growth are called into question? In the case of Trump, and in other cases, where we watch the progress of far right parliamentary and extra-parliamentary groupings, the conditions of the democracy we once took for granted are thrown into relief; while what form governance and the state might take in the future become open questions.
The recent failures of our democratic states to be receptive democracies—either directly receptive to the new excluded (the blue-collar working-class and middle-class precariat) or to those social liberals and social democrats who don’t understand why the welfare state has to be dismantled—has been a conundrum that many, especially the small ‘l’ liberal commentariat, have been at pains, but failing, to grasp. ‘Why is political leadership wanting?’ ‘Why has the distinction between Left and Right in the mainstream parliamentary parties collapsed?’ ‘Why aren’t our politicians listening?’ ‘Why is there malaise and cynicism among citizens?’ And last, but by far the least: ‘Where has the new far Right come from?’ In other words, why is democracy failing? All these issues are mysteries if you cannot see that the taken-for-granted world and the institutional arrangements that held it together have profoundly changed since that time when systems, values and experience dovetailed to produce a particular form of social solidarity.
In Arena Magazine we have commented before on how, just when you thought neoliberalism had gone as far as it could—in dismantling public education, health and social services, in the derogation of the university and its ancient purposes, in the destruction of blue-collar work and viable communities—yet something more in fact could be sold off, undermined, destroyed. Hardly the subject of democratic consideration, processes reaching from elsewhere than the old national democratic core were in train over which national institutions had seemingly no or little control, and our naive belief in what we thought was given rather than contingent just kept it bubbling along with ineffectual cries that fairness was being undermined, or that good governance might be readily restored if values were stronger, or that politicians needed to listen. Investment decisions; trading arrangements; monetary policies; new administrative logics; new visions and practices even of the effective and productive person have in fact all fallen into place, in large part behind our backs. The new is here, installed, waiting to take on its full form.
In the last issue of Arena Magazine, Bruce Kapferer, writing on populism, suggested that the neoliberal paradigm is exhausted, both practically and as an explanatory schema. Especially in the United States and Britain, in this view, neoliberalism has been reaching towards its apotheosis in what might be called simply the corporate state. Here, as we suspect Trump is so engaged, a power struggle is in process between fractions of the owning classes whereby the legal restraints and balancing structures of an erstwhile liberal democracy are being made over to streamline the possibilities for the crudest forms of extraction, exploitation and ideological excitement, including war and the nuclearisation of new parts of the globe. In this view, neoliberalism has ushered in all the elements of an apparatus of social and economic governance—with new limits on the possibilities for political expression—on its way to the full expression of corporate power. And, true enough, the settings have now been achieved whereby corporate leaders might ‘sensibly’ become presidents, and businessmen prime ministers; where the populace agrees that political leaders should be businessmen and exceptional entrepreneurship is needed to ‘cut through’ emergencies like the one we are in. Rather than democracy being an enabling condition of capitalist growth, some now argue that objectively it has become a liability.
In this issue of Arena Magazine the effects of this range of developments are especially evident in our special section on the contemporary university. Neoliberal philosophy and governance has completely reshaped the mission and experience of the university. In line with the corporatist idea, the university has been almost fully integrated into economy. This is the mission of its businessmen and -women leaders and the aim of both mainstream political parties, with neoliberal forms of resource allocation, ‘human relations’, technology acquisition, administration, customer relations and branding ruling its daily life. Yet the university example is a special one that carries other implications, including crucial implications for politics.
In articles by Simon Cooper and Guy Rundle in this issue, the cultural forces in play today suggest that the power of the corporate state is itself derivative, and if we are to understand its power, and its threat, we must get to grips with the forces that have fuelled both capitalism’s radical new lease on life under the guiding hand of ‘neoliberalism’ and the crisis it is now experiencing, structurally and politically. Capitalist drive, personal greed, the amorality of the commodity form, systemic imperatives built into capitalist development, ideological misrecognition are all involved in drawing us more or less willingly towards capitalism’s would-be telos, but none of these classical factors explains the new power of new capitalism as such, nor the fault lines of its potential disintegration.
For Arena, the crucial factor has long been the emerging university itself, an observation that directs us to characteristics of the intellectual culture and its power in the high-technological reshaping of our worlds. Globalisation and that vast expansion of the market geographically is conditional upon it; the penetration of the self by the market, and its productivist promise that we might make ourselves to be Anything, likewise carries its distinctive imprint. For both Cooper and Rundle a new politics will not be adequate if it focuses merely on corporate power without recognition of the ontological disruption that techno-scientific capitalism carries. Rundle argues against a generalised politics of the Left, of the multitude against the (globalised corporate) powers, for instance, which is a popular notion and implies a radical, free-floating attachment to ‘democracy’. Instead he looks to find the material bases of the different forms of political subjectivity today (founded in more or less concrete or abstract relations to the material world) and suggests a very particular point of entry for radical political debate. Any future critique of power will have to be set within a perspective on the ontological issues that high-tech information capitalism throws up.
Writers like Wolfgang Streeck are presently considering what they view as the emerging conditions of capitalism’s collapse. Internal contradictions of all sorts are pressing. But especially today the crisis of democracy is evident, even if not yet heeded. What will happen when it is fully revealed in the operation of the corporate state that the needs of the people are not its concern? If capitalism no longer needs democracy, what do people need? Recognising the forces that have fuelled the arrogance of corporate capital—that have brought it politically to the fore and fuelled resentment and misunderstanding across new social divisions—will be crucial to any political debate that hopes to create an effective form of democracy against capitalist corporate power.