The Next Left: A Transatlantic Conversation

Jonathan Freedland and Michael Walzer

Published in Gerry Hassan (ed.), After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade, Lawrence and Wishart in association with Compass 2006.

London
May 23rd 2005

Dear Michael,

In the Clinton-Blair years, progressive parties in Britain and the US joined forces, trading electoral techniques and even the ‘New’ philosophy that saw them shed unpopular positions on welfare, crime etc in order to become more electable: New Labour, New Democrats.

In Britain that approach has weathered better than it did in the US: Labour is still in government while Democrats have been ejected from both Congress and the White House.

Could there be a new kind of transatlantic progressive dialogue that might heave the Democrats out of the hole – and rejuvenate a flagging Labour government? There are dozens, including climate change and immigration etc, but I propose three areas to consider:

1) ‘Values’: Can progressives construct a response to the ‘values’ agenda which has done so much to keep the right in power in the US and badly inhibits Labour in the UK? Can the left find its own language of morality, not merely to dress up old left positions in moral vocabulary, but to imagine new stances? Might there be some left shibboleths which have to go as a result, much as several shibboleths had to be discarded in the Blair/Clinton era? For example, might it fall to the left to call a halt to the sexualisation of the public sphere and mainstreaming of pornography, partly for traditional left reasons (feminism, anti-exploitation) but also for reasons that would strike a chord with social conservatives e.g. ensuring a public realm that is not off-limits to families, children etc?

2) Domestic policy/Welfare: Could the left rethink its own liberalism, adding a remodelled economic liberalism to its social liberalism? The right currently understands ‘non-state actors’, invited into provision of public or collective services, to mean private, profit-seeking companies. Could there be a refashioning of that non-statist approach that would involve actors that are not state but not commercial either? Actors from the voluntary or third sector: churches, charities etc. This is not news in the US. Even in Britain this approach would revive Victorian notions of mutuality and even municipality. Nevertheless, spelled out coherently, it would count as innovative in the UK.

3) The left and the world: Is there a coherent, progressive response to the neo-con project? Currently it is the right who are articulating what used to be a left aim – a revolutionary plan to change the world, through force if necessary. Can those who opposed the Iraq war and the Bush method nevertheless craft their own doctrine which might hasten the demise of tyrannies around the world – without starting illegal wars or
repeating the mistakes of imperialisms past?

Put together, might these ideas amount to an alternative Anglo-Saxon model? Right now, that model is understood – especially in Europe – to be neo-liberal on economics and neo-con on foreign policy. Might progressives in both the US and UK be able to construct a vision which would connect more easily with European approaches, thereby healing the
current US-European rift and soothing Britain’s own, strained relations with its continental neighbour?

Yours,

Jonathan

Princeton,
July 1st 2005

Jonathan,

Thank you for your initial thoughts.

In response to your three areas.

1) ‘Values’:

‘Values’ on the American right today have to do almost entirely with sex: gay marriage, abortion, pornography in Hollywood, and so on. Of course, right wing opposition in these cases isn’t serious: the number of abortions has increased during the Bush years, primarily because of the decline of welfare programs aimed at children; the spread of pornography is a market phenomenon, and the Bush people are not interested in regulation; they can stop gay marriage, though so many gay men and women are drawn to libertarian ideology that they may soon be a major presence in the Republican party.  It isn’t crazy to think that this issue will pass to the Democrats – who shouldn’t be eager to adopt it. The politicisation of sex is probably not in the interest of the left. We can’t become the censors of movies and books, not even of billboards, and the internet is hopeless, short of the kind of controls that the Chinese government imposes. The right
will always outbid us on these issues. Anyway, the truth is that morality is already the dominant discourse of the left, while on the right the dominant discourse is ideological (or theological). We have lost confidence in the old theories and the big picture; instead we talk endlessly about values: human rights, commodification, community, corporate corruption, equal respect .… The list goes on. Our primary task, it seems to me, is to make the value story coherent, to re-discover the big picture.

2) Domestic policy/Welfare:

I have been arguing for many years for leftist initiatives in this area. We should be the advocates of many different forms of civic action. The‘faith-based welfare’ programs now being pushed by the Bush administration are not new in the US. Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and others have for many years run mini-welfare societies–day-care, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.- with access to tax money. The money spent by Catholic Charities, for example, is almost two-thirds state money. The trouble with these programs in the past is that the strongest groups collect and distribute the most money. If black Baptists were running welfare programs as extensive as those of white Lutherans, American society would look significantly different than it does. So what the state should do is to enhance the resources and capacities of the weakest groups first. But it shouldn’t be only religious groups that provide these services. The actual legislation here in the US
calls for community – based, not faith-based, welfare, so why haven’t labour unions, say, rushed to develop programs? Why shouldn’t there be day-care centres run by unions in factories and office buildings around the country, partially funded by the state? We have to oppose things like private prisons (a real danger to American justice), but we also have to support third-sector nursing homes. And we have to be able to explain the difference.

3) The left and the world:

You are right. In this country, at least, the right is ideologically committed, single-minded, and radical, whereas the left, or the near-left, is cautious, prudent, and ‘realistic.’ I am less worried than you are about illegal wars. NATO in Kosovo was illegal, as was the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, India in Bangladesh, Tanzania in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Any intervention in Rwanda would have been illegal, since the UN was not going to authorise it. The problem is with unnecessary and unjust wars. It seems to me that the best way to stop them is to recognise the value of force-short-of-war. We should be the advocates of new forms of collective security, which will sometimes involve sanctions, embargoes, coercive inspections, no-fly zones, and so on – all the things that actually worked in Iraq and made that war unnecessary and unjust. In the face of actual aggression or massacres in progress, we have to be ready, as we mostly are not, to go to war. In the face of aggressive and brutal regimes, which have not yet attacked their neighbours and are not actually killing their own people, we need to open up a range of options. If collective security is to work, however, we have to resist the cant phrase about force being a last resort. It isn’t; force-short-of-war obviously comes before war itself. Collective security is a ‘realist’ strategy, prudent, tough minded, and (we hope) unexciting. So, at the same time, we should be promoting a third sector radicalism. Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International actually work for regime change in places where state action would not be justified. The left generally should be engaged, and engaged enthusiastically, in this sort of work.

It is in the global arena, most importantly, that we should be putting forward an alternative to neo-liberal economics. We need a theoretical account of free trade and industrial production in the third world that factors in the environmental costs and the human costs – and points toward some way of dealing with both. Here, it seems to me, the US and UK need to move closer to European social-democracy – conceived, however, in international rather than in domestic terms. But with regard to foreign policy, it is Europe that needs to move – not with reference to Iraq, where the US and UK are stuck and can’t expect to be rescued, but on all sorts of other issues. What is important is that Europeans accept that they too are responsible for the way the world goes, in Iran, for example, or in Darfur, or in Afghanistan, wherever they have the capacity to act. I doubt that the rift with the Bush administration would be healed if the EU acted with greater responsibility and independence. But it would be a better rift, and some future American administration would recognise the improvement.

Michael

London,
September 2nd

Michael,

The summer hiatus in our correspondence may have brought a change in perspective. Bombs have gone off – and just failed to go off – in London and, as I write, New Orleans is vanishing under floodwater. Both our countries have withstood some shocks.

To respond to your thoughts in those initial three areas. On values: one potent left tactic, at least, might be to do more often what you did in your last note – namely, to expose the right’s failings to live up to their own rhetoric. As you say, abortion and pornography are both on the increase and the right are hobbled in their reaction – chiefly by the contradictions between their social conservatism and their free-market liberalism.

That’s a useful debating point for liberals, but I would not yet want to give up on a left assault on some of this same ground. Sure, if that means the ‘politicisation of sex,’ with Chinese-style censoring of the Internet, the left would want to keep well away. But we are surely capable of a response which is somewhere between indifference and a Beijing-style crackdown. An example: The Guardian recently ran a story about a leading British store selling Playboy-branded stationery to young girls. There was an enormous response from all kinds of readers – young and old, male and female – almost unanimous in their condemnation of the store. These were self-described liberals and leftists who felt bereft of a vocabulary for speaking about this issue. They were not prudes or bigots, but they disliked the idea of big companies profiteering from the sexualisation of childhood. I don’t think we can abandon that sentiment – or those people. We ought to be able to draw
from feminism, amongst other ideas, to find our own language in this area.

More interesting though is your larger point about rediscovering the big picture. What might such an over-arching ideology for the left consist of? I once toyed with the slogan ‘putting people in charge of their own lives’ – which would capture everything from increased powers for local communities (a big issue for Britain which has little of the decentralised powers Americans take for granted) to women’s reproductive rights and plenty in between. It would encompass democracy but also economic empowerment. Its central creed would be autonomy, the power to govern ourselves: that would extend to an internationalist belief in the right of self-determination, for Iraqis, Palestinians and, one might add, Israelis. But if that does not fly as a coherent left ideology, maybe it’s ‘dignity’ or perhaps ‘the equal worth of all human beings.’ The right have ‘markets and freedom’. We need a story of our own.

On domestic policy and welfare, I think we are in agreement. The US is much further down this third sector role than the UK. I can see that the challenge in the US is to ensure resources for the weakest groups. In the UK, we need first to establish the very idea! And that will mean a culture shift for the left. Since 1945 we have got used to seeing the state as the only legitimate actor – and have been suspicious of all other players as somehow presaging a return to pre-1945, Victorian-style ‘charity.’ On a specific: you condemn private prisons, which are pretty well an unchallenged part of the Blairite creed. Perhaps you could say more on your opposition to them?

Finally, on the left and the world. I take your point about legality. It chimes with my own view of the Kosovo war, which I believed was legitimate even if illegal under UN rules. So legitimacy is the issue. A very large challenge is to define legitimacy more precisely, and perhaps come to a new understanding of the very idea of sovereignty – one that would give us a clearer guide as to when nations can intervene in the affairs of other nations. I think the international commission which recently came up with the idea of a ‘responsibility to protect’, rather than a right to intervene, helped us along this path. But there’s more work to do.

The force-short-of-war idea is similarly imaginative – and I cannot argue with your demand that the EU buries some of its pious inertia and starts taking responsibility for matters it currently dumps on the Americans. (Though this feels less likely now than ever. The defeat of the European constitution has brought the European project to a halt, while the internal woes of France and Germany leaves both those nations in little mood to shoulder global responsibilities.)

But, perhaps mindful of what happened here on July 7th, I think we need a left response to what feels like the great issue of our times: global Islamist radicalism. This movement is totalitarian and theocratic, but it clearly articulates the anger felt by those for whom the left would traditionally feel sympathy – the poor, the disadvantaged, the discriminated against, and, in some cases, the occupied. Are we to join Christopher Hitchens and others in branding this as Islamo-fascism – Nazism in a green bandana – or are we to join George Galloway et al in seeing it as the (perhaps unattractive) face of a global movement against imperialism? Or can we stake out some viable ground in between?

Jonathan

Princeton,
September 18th

Jonathan,

It looks like we are talking about three sets of issues, and I have organised my responses to fit that pattern.

Firstly, I certainly don’t want to defend indifference to cultural pornification or to the sexual exploitation of children. Of course we should oppose that sort of thing, and we should identify it, accurately, with market freedom and corporate (also entrepeneurial) profiteering. This is capitalism unbridled. But what puzzles and disturbs me is that I don’t see precisely how we mean to bridle it. With regard to child labour or factory safety or environmental damage, I know pretty clearly what constraints I want to impose on the market. But here I don’t know. Where is the middle ground between Chinese style censorship and libertarian permissiveness? Or, better, what policies can you describe that are appropriate to this middle ground? Some feminists in the US are ready to defend censorship; I see their point, but given who the censors will be, I don’t want to move in that direction.

As for the big picture – well, its creation can’t simply be willed. The central ideas must respond to actual anxieties and aspirations. Individual autonomy is an aspiration, and it has great appeal these days, especially, I think, to younger and more affluent Americans (and Brits?). A student at Yale University wrote a piece for ‘Dissent’ about the last elections in which he claimed that his classmates’ overwhelming support for Kerry had more to do with gay marriage than with health care or social security or, for that matter, the war in Iraq. His sense of their emerging politics – a combination of cultural/social radicalism and neo-liberalism. That’s not a good formula for the left’s future.

My own sense is that we would do better right now to address anxieties. Hence the slogan I would adopt is an old one, first enunciated by Churchill and Roosevelt: ‘Freedom from Fear.’ The left has to address the question of security, and our way of doing that should be to talk about collective security both at home and abroad. I think that ordinary men and women (though maybe not the overprivileged young) feel very vulnerable these days – and not only because of terrorist attacks. Market forces produce their own terrors, and the steady erosion of all the forms of social protection exposes people to a new range of risk. The classic task of the left, I have always believed, is risk-reduction for the people most at risk. Egalitarianism is a commitment to make poor and poorer people as much at home in the world and as safe in it as rich people have always been. Well, that’s a reductionist account, but maybe a useful one.

On domestic policy and welfare, twenty years ago I wrote an article (in ‘The New Republic’) against private prisons. I mean, private for-profit prisons; maybe the Blairites imagine prisons run by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. I would probably be against that too, but the other opposition is much easier. What’s wrong with the private prison? ‘It exposes the prisoners to private or corporate purposes, and it sets them at some distance from the protection of the law. The critical exposure is to profit-taking at the prisoners’ expense, and given the conditions under which they live, they are bound to suspect that they are regularly used and exploited. For aren’t the purposes of their private jailers different from the purposes of the courts that sent them to jail? All the internal rules and regulations of their imprisonment, the system of discipline and reward, the hundreds of small decisions that shape their daily lives, are open now to a single unanswerable question: Is this punishment or economic calculation, the law or the market?’

I still believe that the practice of punishment must be the responsibility of the state and that the agents of punishment must be officials of the state, bound in the first instance by its laws. You can privatise the prison’s kitchen and its laundry, but not the prison itself. Surely the Blairites don’t want to privatise the police – for that would raise very big questions about the legitimacy of just about everything the police do. But prison guards vis-à-vis prisoners are simply police, and their legitimacy, it seems to me, depends on their public role.

Finally, on the left and the world. Surely it is the responsibility to protect that gives rise to the right to intervene. If protection involves sending an army across an international frontier, then we might as well call it intervention. If you want to pose clearly the question of sovereignty’s limits, then we might think of humanitarian intervention as the enforcement of human rights. Individual autonomy is limited by the rights of other people, and state sovereignty is limited by the rights of the state’s own people. There is no sovereign right to massacre your own people, as the Khmer Rouge massacred the Cambodians, for example,: sovereignty ends at the killing fields. How many people have to be at risk before intervention is justified? That is a hard question, and I don’t know how to answer it. But it probably is a theoretical question. In so many places, from Cambodia and Uganda in the 1970s to Darfur today, the numbers were and are so great that the question isn’t hard at all.

Does radical Islam in its terrorist versions articulate the anger of the poor, disadvantaged, and so on? We should not be too quick to accept that – given, first, that so many of the Islamist militants are neither poor nor disadvantaged and, second, that so many poor and disadvantaged people have found other articulations of their pain and anger. The causes of terrorism are no doubt deep and complex, but I would guess that they have more to do with resentment than with poverty. And for that reason I am tempted by the analogy with fascism – though it is important to note that fascism was (except in Spain) a secular movement, so any religious likeness is bound to be unlike the original in some respects. Still, authoritarianism, state-sponsored thuggery, daily cruelty, and the cult of death (as evidenced most clearly in the Taliban regime): all these argue for the analogy. And I am drawn to it for another reason: in the past, anti-fascist politics, in contrast to anti-communist politics, has tended to go along with a leftist domestic agenda. Maybe opposition to radical Islam abroad will improve the prospects of secular radicalism at home. Finally (we can talk more about this), imagining the enemy as fascist-like doesn’t entail an all-out military response. Until 1939, there were forceful responses short of war that would have contained the Nazi regime and would probably have brought it down. And similar options certainly exist today.

Michael

London
October 28th

Dear Michael,

Usefully, I think, we are beginning to converge in those three areas. Perhaps I’ll say a little more on each – and then suggest another question for us to mull.

On values, we both agree on the need to restrain some of the most directly exploitative consequences of capitalism: the challenge is to find the means to bridle them. I share your fears about censorship. In Britain just now we are getting an object lesson in how powers sought for legitimate reasons – say the fight against terrorism – end up being used to restrict our freedom. An 82-year-old heckler at the Labour Party Conference was thrown out of the hall – and then detained under anti-terror laws. So I don’t doubt that if we handed to the state new authority designed to thwart pornographers and child abusers, it would not be long before it was used to gag the rest of us.

But maybe there is a mechanism which would entail collective, but not state, action. I’m thinking of the consumer campaigns which have punished corporations deemed guilty of unacceptable behaviour. In the 1980s it became financially damaging to trade with South Africa. No right-thinking person wanted to have any association with apartheid. Could we not demand that the software giants, the major search engines and internet service providers do whatever it takes to ensure they are not disseminating violent abusive porn – and withhold our custom from those who refuse to do the right thing? Something tells me that, faced with such a challenge, those companies would soon find a technological answer. It would be even easier to direct an equivalent campaign at shops (like my Playboy stationary example). We are being told all the time that we live in a consumer society: well, if that’s so, what about some consumer politics? (Interestingly Britain’s National Consumer Council is now run by Ed Mayo, a man who previously led one of the country’s most radical think tanks: a hint, perhaps, that he sees consumerism as a political movement, potentially at least.) I like, too, the stories of pressure groups who have bought shares in financial companies – only to attend shareholder meetings, demanding the dumping of stocks in the arms industry.

This might feel like tinkering at the edges, but I think of the way big tobacco has had to change its tactics thanks to a marked shift in attitudes to its products. Could we not do the same about the corporations guilty of exploitation, both in the pornographic sense of that word – but also in the more traditional sense, by using, say, slave-wage labour abroad. Nor need this be solely the task of grass roots activism. With sufficient prompting, governments could surely put legal and tax obstacles in the path of corporate villains. But it is up to us to do the prompting.

On the big picture, the autonomy notion I flagged up earlier might be meatier if we link it to economics. We might say that an individual is not meaningfully autonomous if he is so poor that he merely exists rather than lives. In this way, and without reviving the old debate about positive and negative liberty, we could reclaim ‘freedom’ from the right – but endow it with a richer sense of possibility: freedom plus. (Though I concede that, on the page, that slogan looks uncomfortably close to positive freedom.)

In a similar vein, I would shy away from your line about ‘Freedom from Fear.’ The first objection is tactical: it sounds too negative. The left have often made the mistake of seeming like the gloom party: witness Ronald Reagan’s monopolisation of optimism in the 1980s. Britain’s Conservatives are set to choose David Cameron as their new leader, a young, smiling character whose face seems bathed in morning dew. It’s a cliché that we should appeal to people’s hopes not fears, but perhaps a sound one. It’s partly for that reason that I am loath to disregard those quasi-libertarian instincts of the young (who voted for Kerry over gay marriage not health care). There is a rugged kind of confidence there that the left needs to harness, rather than shut out. Perhaps, then, instead of speaking about fear we might talk about opportunity. Admittedly tired from overuse, that word nevertheless might speak to those young Kerry voters. We don’t merely propose risk-reduction for those at the bottom; we demand opportunities for them. Opportunities to work, to live, to express themselves.

Our discussion on domestic policy lighted upon the question of private prisons. I am wholly persuaded by what you say. I would add one note. I was speaking with a former British army officer this week who predicted a return to the Napoleonic notion of the mercenary garrison: the outsourcing of warfare. Already catering and other army functions have been privatised. He says it will not be long before a private security company offers a fighting unit for hire. All your arguments on prisons would apply to that in spades.

As for the left and the world, we agree on the responsibility to protect and the right to intervene – notions which merge in the most desperate circumstances. My fear is that the Iraq episode has tainted this just notion, perhaps for a generation to come.

On the question of whether we should describe Islamism as a mutation of fascism, I can see your logic – yet something holds me back. Perhaps it is the overlordism I associate with fascism – and yet which is surely absent in a worldwide Muslim community which regards itself as on the losing side in almost every sphere. It is true that Islamism has state power to call on in Iran, and had it in Afghanistan under the Taliban, but globally, Islam can make a strong case that it is under the boot-heel rather than wielding it. More candidly, perhaps my worry is that the f-word will demonise Muslim communities themselves. In Britain and Europe that is no idle risk: they are here in substantial numbers and, to paraphrase Rodney King, we have to get along.

The new area I want to mention is about politics itself. For this I’m afraid I have to resort to anecdote. This week I was speaking with an author friend now working on a book about the sex traffic industry across Europe and the Middle East. He interviewed women who had been abducted in Moldova and were now held by Russian hardmen under lock and key all night, until they were driven to a brothel where they ‘service’ up to 20 or 30 men at night, from 6pm till 6am. The women he interviewed were dead behind the eyes; their souls had been erased.

Driving back that night, I listened to the radio news: rows about a smoking ban in Britain, about the Valerie Plame affair in the US. It struck me that what passes for political discourse – the rows and arguments that dominate our media and our legislatures – bare scant relationship to the real injustices that scar our world. There is great cruelty going on everywhere, every day. And yet politics not only fails to stop it – it barely mentions it.

Others will say the same about climate change; our politics seems to miss the things that really matter. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m sure that the search for one is the work of the left.

All the best,

Jonathan

Princeton
November 7th

Dear Jonathan,

Yes, we are, as you say, beginning to converge, but there are also some interesting differences, which make me feel a bit like an old leftist, even a very old one, sitting here in the New World. Let me focus on some of these disagreements, taking our broader convergence for granted.

Consumer politics is certainly better than state action on issues like media violence and pornography. But the South African example suggests to me that a leftist politics here might best begin with issues (which you mention also) like racial and gender discrimination, child labour, exploitative wages, and so on. The anti-sweatshop campaign among American college students is a useful example, aimed at forcing universities buying athletic equipment to deal only with companies that meet decent labour standards. I am not against directing campaigns like this against companies that use ‘violent abusive porn’ to sell their goods. However, I am a little more cautious here, because such campaigns will be adopted (here in the US at least) by right wing groups, and used against publishers who sell cheap editions of Lawrence or Nabokov, television stations that air scientific programs on evolution, and theatres and cinemas that cater to gay audiences. We may well end up longing for a free market in these areas.

You say that you are loath to disregard the quasi-libertarianism of the young: ‘there is a rugged kind of confidence there that the left needs to harness, rather than shut out.’ Maybe so, but the young Americans that I described in my last letter were students at one of our elite universities and I suspect that if you have similar British young people in mind they will also be from the upper or upper middle classes. Their confidence has an economic basis. But more and more people here, and probably in Britain too, are less and less confident about their futures. I will write only about the US, where, in the last few days, the media have been pouring out stuff about the dangers of a bird flu pandemic. The anxiety is less about the birds and the flu than about the government’s ability to cope in an emergency. It can’t cope with terrorist attacks or hurricanes; it can’t produce a decent health care system; it has visibly lost its ‘wars’ against crime, poverty, and drugs; it is providing fewer and fewer Americans with full-time jobs and adequate benefits. Why should anyone trust it to deal with the next crisis? A politics that offers some hope of dealing competently and successfully with terrorism, natural disaster, and joblessness seems to me the right politics for the left. I don’t think that security is a negative idea, and the hope for security is the very opposite of gloom and doom.

I agree with what you say about opportunity, but the opportunities that people want are not focused only on individual careers, personal advancement, and self-expression. Of course, we have to talk to those ambitions, but people also want to be able to provide a secure environment for their children and their ageing parents. They want safe streets, and good schools, and available doctors, and clean air and water, and dikes and dams and bridges that won’t collapse in a storm. Laissez faire government and free markets don’t provide any of these. And this is what social democracy is all about – boring, perhaps, in ordinary times, but we are not living in ordinary times.

Yes, you have to get along with Muslim immigrants and fellow-citizens, and if a politics of recognition will help in that process, ‘Islamic fascism’ is probably not a useful term. But recognition by itself won’t help enough unless it comes together with good schools and good jobs and, yes, ‘opportunities to work, to live, to express themselves.’ Another old left nostrum, but it is true, I think, that economic integration is the key to every other kind of integration. And if economic integration is effective, there wouldn’t be much risk in arguing that supporters of terrorism, religious repression, and the radical subordination of women were near fascist in their politics. There would still be plenty of room for the recognition of Islam as one among other British or American religions.

Finally, our inability to focus British or American politics on ‘the great cruelties that go on everywhere’ is certainly something to worry about – though I can’t resist pointing out that were we able to do that, we could hardly avoid seeming like the ‘gloom party.’ There is certainly a lot to be gloomy about, and angry about, in the world today. Most importantly right now: the murderous politics of the Sudanese government in Darfur, which the world watches (or doesn’t watch) and does nothing. As you say, the Iraq war has gone a long way toward discrediting the idea of humanitarian intervention. But we have to insist on that idea, even when the US and UK can’t be, shouldn’t be, among the interveners. We need a programmatic response to the great cruelties, which means that we have to keep arguing about when and where the use of force is justified. People on the left who renounce the use of force are making their peace with cruelty. We should never do this.

Regards,

Michael

London,
November 11th

Dear Michael,

The remaining disagreements between us are fascinating, not least because I suspect they evolve, indirectly, out of our wider convergence – or at least my assumption of it.

I agree, for example, with your insistence that a new kind of left consumer activism must begin by targeting companies guilty of what we might call ‘traditional’ exploitation – using child labour, paying slave wages and the rest – before campaigning against exploitative imagery in marketing. Of course that’s the right way around. I realise that I hadn’t written that from the outset because I assumed not only that we both thought that way, but that a left politics would always worry about the former – but suspected I had to argue for the latter. It’s a useful lesson, reminding me that we should take nothing for granted. Left politics needs to remake its case anew for every generation and every era. And those college kids you describe will probably have to be persuaded of the case against basic economic exploitation as if for the first time. So, yes, let’s get our priorities right. An anti-sweatshop campaign first; a campaign against Playboy stationary next.

Your next point is equally revealing about those things I took for granted. You write of Americans’ fears over governmental competence: its simple ability to cope with crises, from avian flu to the war on drugs. After Katrina and five years of George W. Bush, I can entirely understand those fears. But I don’t believe Britons share them, not when it comes to their own government. Now, heaven knows New Labour has made some calamitous mistakes and wasted some precious opportunities. But it can claim one remarkable achievement: it has rehabilitated the very idea of government.

Of course there are still complaints – about shortcomings in the health service or calls that go unanswered when you telephone the Passport Office – but the big picture here, after eight years of Labour, is that most people do feel they can rely on the state, more or less. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown still boast of their ‘investment’ (as opposed to spending) on schools and hospitals – and they do it because most people sense that their local school or hospital is pretty good now, and certainly better than it was.

In 1997 I suspect many Britons felt the way you suggest Americans feel today: that the public realm, the collective infrastructure, had been neglected so long that it was on the brink of collapse. People no longer feel that here. July 2005 brought two consecutive examples: London winning its bid to host the 2012 Olympics on July 6th and then showing tremendous skill and speed in its response to the bombs of the next day. My sense is that, in contrast with the US, people here do have a basic faith in government – and I think that counts as a genuine Labour achievement.

And yet, perhaps I had taken that too for granted. I can see from what you write that it is missing in the States – but I also realise that we may have to fight for it again in Britain. The story of this week is the arrival of David Cameron as the new leader of the Conservative Party. He is young, charismatic and winningly fluent. He presents himself as a ‘compassionate conservative’ – and we know who last used that phrase. It’s at least possible that he, like Bush, will run from the centre, only to revert to right-wing type once in office. And then we will see once again the truth of your observation that those ‘boring’ staples of everyday life are not provided by free markets or laissez-faire governments. So we are going to have to fight anew for these first principles – ones I, and perhaps most social democrats in Britain – have come to take for granted. Labour’s challenge now is both to keep making and to win the argument for social democracy – rather than taking it as read – but also to embed some of its core features so that they become a kind of Blair ‘settlement,’ a national modus operandi that is hard for any future government to unpick. FDR did that so effectively, the New Deal settlement endured for six decades. Brown calls it the ‘progressive consensus’ and aims for it at least to outlive this Labour government. Cameron’s surge should remind all progressives why that is a worthwhile goal.

As for Muslim extremism, I’d like to believe that economics could reduce much of that danger – but I worry about it. It’s a cliché now to note the wealth of the 9/11 hijackers, but Britain’s own 7/7 bombers were also economically well-integrated. This is one area where the left’s old nostrums only go so far. It may be that nothing less than a radical rethink of Western foreign policy can address this challenge. And when you hear the President of Iran doubting the truth of the Holocaust, you wonder whether even that would do the trick. In my darkest nights, I fear this is a rage that can never be put out.

On intervention, we wholly agree: the left cannot abandon this idea, despite the taint of Iraq, and Darfur is an object lesson in why not. But since we’ve been talking of old left nostrums, I thought I might conclude this final missive of mine by mentioning perhaps the very oldest.

I find myself appalled anew by the latest manifestations of old-fashioned economic inequality. There are hedge fund managers in this country whose annual bonuses run into the tens of millions. A group of bankers were recently reported to have asked a bartender to make the most expensive cocktail he could dream up: he prepared a drink costing £333 a glass. The bankers bought enough to run up a bill of £15,000.

I read about that in the same week that a new survey found that half a million British households are so cramped, kids have to sleep in the kitchen, on the floor or in the bathroom. It was as if the clock had turned back, to France in 1788. Despite all our progress, we are still a world of wild, extravagant gulfs between rich and poor – within societies and of course across the globe.

Do we raise taxes on the rich? Do we call for a Maoist style maximum wage? I don’t know. But I think the left have to find again the confidence to rage with righteous fury at such a state of affairs – to discuss inequality in the moral terms it demands.

I don’t expect a simple answer to that or any of the other questions we’ve raised over the last few months. Just to share them and discuss them together has been a privilege, for me at least. Sometimes the left can seem like an ageing beast, tired after so many bloody bouts. But after this exchange, I feel heartened: there’s life in the old creature yet.

With comradely best wishes,

Jonathan

Princeton,
December 27th

Dear Jonathan,

There is, as you say, life in the old creature, but here in the US our health is not so good. We feel some revival as the Republican grip on power weakens. But this is more because of the corruption and incredible arrogance of the right than the courage or wisdom of the left. Now secular leftists pray for the truth of a biblical maxim: Pride goeth before a fall. The current ‘spying on Americans’ scandal may give the Democrats a boost, but at the same time it illustrates our difficulty: for no Democratic administration is going to give up searching the electronic mail for keywords that turn up, say, in Al Qaeda recruiting materials. I worry that the same thing is true of neo-liberal economic policies: in opposition, Democrats will attack the consequences of these policies, but none of the party’s leaders have a real alternative in mind. It is probably true that no alternative can be merely national in scope; we need a global social democracy – you and I have touched on this before – and whatever is the case in Europe, American Democrats have barely begun to think about that. So, we are breathing, but we are not robust.

I agree that domestic inequalities should be a focus of liberal and left politics – of public anger and also of policy proposals. Our inequalities are probably worse than yours, since they extend dramatically to health care. Our upper classes (college professors are included here, so I can speak from experience) receive excellent care, addressing not only illness but also the prevention of illness. But millions of Americans get no preventive care at all; they depend on the emergency rooms of the local hospital; they live from one emergency to the next, and so do their children. I don’t understand why this isn’t a major issue in American politics, though I guess that we might find the answer in the voting statistics for those Americans who get their only medical care in the emergency rooms.

Since it is mostly poor people and members of minority groups who don’t vote, American liberals and leftists have always believed that if we increased the turnout, we would win the election. That didn’t work in 2004, when there was a six percent jump in the number of eligible voters who actually voted (the number is still shockingly low). For many of these voters, apparently, it was religion, not class, that determined their vote. We used to think that the old proverb about not living by bread alone was repeated most often by people who had plenty of bread, while the others were more likely to respond to Brecht’s lines: ‘First feed the face/And then talk right and wrong.’ But it isn’t so simple, and we do have to find a way of addressing the moral and cultural issues that you raised at the beginning of this conversation. Here, however, those questions are also religious, which makes them much harder. We have to persuade church-going Catholics and Protestants to vote for a liberal-left that is ideologically and often militantly secular. But I still believe, or cling to the hope, that with one or two more six percent jumps, we would not only win, we would win strongly – even without compromising our secularism. But that’s an old leftist talking. If I am wrong, well, then we need to begin a new conversation.

Regards,

Michael