In recent years, the crisis of liberalism has been much debated, ever since Donald Trump sent shockwaves through world politics by defeating Hillary Clinton to take the White House. Then there were Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, both of whom mounted a bold (though far from revolutionary) challenge to the liberal centre from the socialist left, calling for a renewal of the welfare state, a redistribution of wealth and power, large-scale green investment and a less belligerent foreign policy.
The liberal centre retained enough institutional power – particularly its media support and control over party bureaucracies – to see off both Corbyn and Sanders, winning Joe Biden the Democratic presidential nomination and Keir Starmer the leadership of the Labour party. This isn’t to imply that Corbyn and Sanders were blameless for their defeats. Far from it. Nevertheless, it can hardly be said that in either case the liberal centre triumphed over the socialist left because of the dynamism of its ideas, or the superiority of its vision for society.
In fact, it seems resistant to developing any such vision. Some elevate this into a virtue: suspicious of ideology tout court, they prefer to see themselves merely as sensible managers. It wasn’t always like this. In New Labour’s 1990s heyday, centrists made a point of taking ideas seriously. Some of the thinkers grouped around the journal Marxism Today provided intellectual ballast, while Anthony Giddens’ The Third Way offered a polished account of what the New Labour project aimed to achieve, and the logic behind it.
Though New Labour governed for 13 years, its gains were built on sand. In the 1990s and 2000s, it could channel some of the proceeds of a finance-led global boom into public services and welfare programmes. But Blairism’s more progressive achievements were largely vapourised by the 2008 financial crash and Tory-Lib Dem austerity. Its ideological preference for market forces over structural state intervention ensured that the root causes of poverty went effectively unaddressed, making any advances in this area easy to reverse.
With economic depression and mass unemployment now looming, the old “third way” playbook offers no guidance. Nothing much has filled the void. While centrists still feel very strongly that they should be in charge, they’re reluctant to elaborate on why, and for what. Biden belatedly, and implausibly, poses as a latter-day Franklin D Roosevelt in public, but mollifies rich donors in private. Starmer, meanwhile, hesitates to commit himself to anything concrete, no doubt fearful of being tarred with the brush of “continuity Corbynism”. Attempts to decipher “Starmerism” have so far drawn a blank.
In his new book, This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain, the sociologist Will Davies examines how Anglo-American political life came to be dominated by the wilfully unserious. Trump and Boris Johnson goad liberals by flaunting their contempt for prim and proper political norms. As Davies notes, they can do this because public trust in institutions from parliament to the press has cratered, and because of the widespread (and frequently vindicated) suspicion that these institutions work against the interests of the majority, rather than for them.
The liberal centre raises hell about the falsehoods of Trump and Johnson, which are undeniably flagrant. However, the brazen fabrications of yesterday – most obviously, those that led to the catastrophe in Iraq, for which there has never been a proper reckoning – did much to pave the way for those of today. And yet only last month, Colin Powell, who personally presented the fallacious case for the invasion of Iraq to the United Nations, was paraded as a star turn at the Democratic National Convention.
Likewise, when Tony Blair recently popped up to warn Johnson against flouting international law by breaching certain aspects of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the lack of self-awareness on display was breathtaking. It’s not that Blair’s point was wrong, but the fact that he was the one making it allowed the Tories to issue the obvious riposte that their transgression of international law would pale in comparison to his.
Even if the liberal centre were in a stronger position to highlight the cynicism and dishonesty of Trump and Johnson, that wouldn’t be enough without changing the political conditions that gave rise to them. After all, neither Trump nor Johnson came out of nowhere. Trump inherited an apparatus of invasive state surveillance and militarised borders from a predecessor who himself presided over mass deportations, while in Britain, it was New Labour that first indulged bogus moral panics about asylum seekers and laid the foundations for today’s hostile environment.
Both Biden and Starmer might win elections simply by appearing to offer their respective electorates a steady hand. But mounting, interrelated crises stare us in the face: environmental, economic, social and political. Addressing any of them would require, for starters, radically curbing the prerogatives of capitalist vested interests wedded to a destructive status quo. It’s not enough just to install more competent and polite managers, and otherwise leave the same arrangements in place.
Without far-reaching change, it may be that another shift to the hard right is at best delayed by a few years. In spite of everything, a healthier, happier and fairer world is still possible, though we can’t dither for much longer if we are to build one. It will only materialise, however, if those who want it first recognise that a back-to-normal centrism would offer no way forward.
• Tom Blackburn is a founding editor of New Socialist