Messy morals - RSA

Messy morals

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  • Institutional reform

David Marquand wants a new public philosophy. This philosophy will be based on ethics – a morality of social justice beyond the market. He sees that we are in a ‘moral crisis’. Markets, individualism and greed have taken over. The public good has been in retreat since Margaret Thatcher came to power.

He has found unlikely allies this week. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and a group of capitalists gathering under an ‘inclusive capitalism’ banner have also suggested a different moral economy – though they would not necessarily express it that way. Smart business people and financiers see that the legitimacy of their activities relies on a different alignment between ethics and business. It is more about self-interest than morality. Nonetheless, the crossovers with David Marquand are intriguing.

There is much that is good in David Marquand’s new public philosophy. But there are significant problems too. Marquand went out of his way to coruscate Labour’s default position of top-down statism. He was effusive in his praise for grassroots organisations such as Compass and Citizens UK. So far, so good. But then it begs the question, how do you go from a messy and vibrant set of grassroots organisations to a universal public philosophy? It feels very much like it would be an elite driven project with some grassroots links.

And if this public philosophy doesn’t come with an institutional push, from the state for example, where does it come from? Churches are weakened as strong moral voices. So are trade unions and political parties. Is the school the place to promulgate a singular moral outlook that has political content? Or universities? Is the media, cacophonously divided between different moral and amoral viewpoints, going to be the vanguard movement? It all seems very unlikely.

Marquand is a big fan of Karl Polanyi, as am I. Polanyi tracked the social and economic forces that gave rise to state liberalism in the nineteenth century and then the social democratic state in the twentieth century – projected forward by working class movements following universal suffrage. What are the similar forces that will now create a new public philosophy/moral economy? Is Marquand asking us to go back to a solidaristic world which is out of reach thanks to value shift, the internet, and personalism?

Those inclusive capitalists will get bored soon enough. It’s not that they aren’t genuinely motivated; it’s just that the bottom line will reinforce itself soon enough. The Bank of England would love to see a more ethical financial system as it lightens its regulatory load. But again, what is the translation mechanism? The old institutional bindings have become plural and particular rather than universal and solidaristic.

Noble as Marquand’s project is, it is destined to fail in a world pluralistic values, interests, and, yes, moralities. For example, those attracted to far right parties in last week’s European Parliamentary elections have a particular (reactionary) moral outlook. They are driven by the value of the insider v the outsider, the moral purity of the people v the elites, and us v them. This has been tracked in the work of Jonathan Haidt and Pat Dade/Chris Rose amongst others. There is little appeal of an (elite sounding) universal public philosophy to these groups.

I would suggest a different path. Instead of trying to elevate what is a political economy to a public philosophy, we should concentrate on nourishing the roots through a revived civic democracy. Marquand is absolutely right on this (though I disagree that Occupy is a realistic vehicle). Then we need to think about new economic institutions that better meet the needs of more of our fellow citizens: living wages and better support for wages, better training and careers guidance, better regulation of the City including separating high risk from lower risk institutions, focusing on shifting power down to the lowest point, more diversity of provision in public services, and measures to spread ownership and access to capital, knowledge, and intellectual property. We accept that this will be uneven, fractured, messy, and inconclusive. Equally, we know that the risk of trying to turn a set of political values into a public philosophy is prone to induce cultural warfare much as we’ve seen in the US. Civic action and practical institution building is a better way forward, messy though it may be. My colleague, Ben Lucas, recently blogged about how this was happening in US cities under the banner of networked localism.

There is the democratic republican David Marquand and the European social democratic Marquand. Often they are in tension. In our messy, divided, pluralistic word, it is the former who has the better chance of advancing social justice. A bigger moral universality has its temptations. But it ends up being both too easy to pursue and too hard to achieve.

Anthony Painter’s latest book is ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ .

*These thoughts are based on Professor Marquand’s talk at the RSA today rather than the book itself which I will look forward to reading in detail – hope you do too. I would also very strongly recommend ‘Britain since 1918’ by Professor Marquand (my own book draws on this work extensively).

** Jonathan Derbyshire at Prospect did an interview with David Marquand in which he explores the co-existence of different moral economies (he makes the slightly strange claim that ' ... I develop the idea, which I think is new, that you can have more than one moral economy in a society at a given time, and that they can be at war with each other' - pretty much all political economy implicitly starts from this very point.) The real point of difference is my contention that this moral conflict is a persistent state so any thick notion of a universal morality is potentially a highly destructive enterprise. Better to live with plurality - so democratic discourse becomes a key set of values.

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  • The term 'grassroots' used here, is used as if it were 'grassroots'.

    Everyone knows the localism agenda is the next phase in the global capitalist agenda, and therefor the so called grassroots activism we see in many urban environments is a false representation of human agency and spontaneous action at a grassroots level.

    The biggest problem we will face in the near future is deciphering the knowledges and inputs we receive.

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