Labour need to engage and promote a politics of the common good and resist the tendencies of market society to reduce all social issues to the logic of exchange.
This was the message of Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University, international guest at Labour Party Conference 2012, who in two sessions on Sunday afternoon stimulated a range of debate on the future of the left politics in the UK.
In a speech to conference earlier in the day, Professor Sandel dwelt on thinking recently outlined in books such as The Moral Limits of Markets. Here, Sandel examines the many ways in which the dominant market frame of late capitalist society corrodes the many things we value as citizens. Questioning the ubiquity of evaluation that recognises only cost benefit as legitimate and worthwhile, Sandel indicated the need to insure certain social goods against this inappropriate logic.
At a session hosted by IPPR, Sandel examined these ideas in more detail, the interview style of this event providing political context and historical breadth in relation to the international guest’s academic work as well as the Labour tradition. Professor Sandel began in this vein by emphasising the important role of deliberation in civic life. While a politics founded on the concept of the good life will not always achieve consensus on matters of public importance, we cannot know unless we engage in the process.
This prefaced an excursion into Sandel’s early intellectual development, and the trajectory by which the themes that featured in the day’s earlier speech emerged in his communitarian philosophy. Taking his 1981 Liberalism and the Limits of Justice as the starting point, Sandel offered thoughts on many of the underdeveloped issues emerging in Ed Miliband’s attempt to forge a narrative around a new and responsible capitalism.
In this book Sandel takes the form of Liberalism dominant in America at the time to task for failing to account for the way in which citizens relate to those things that make their life meaningful. We do not, he argues, relate to social goods in an acquisitive manner, things to be taken up and discarded as we please. Rather, they are constitutive of the good life, a precondition of which is an end to which we work and direct ourselves.
Contrasting the public politics that this philosophy envisages with the technocratic forms of social democracy that emerged in the Third Way and New Democratic years, Sandel was keen to impress that he did not think the market was always and ever a social ‘bad’.
Engaging with remark from the floor that in many cases the market addresses left wing concerns – by distributing power and breaking up monopolies – the Harvard Professor questioned the dominance of marketisation and commoditisation in our society. While differentiating his position from that of New Labour, who inherited a ‘neo-liberal’ framework only to add fairness and more equality as optional extras, Sandel nevertheless interpreted his own attitude to privatisation as ‘pragmatic’. What is needed, he suggested, is multiple forms of evaluation in which that of the market is not dominant: less hierarchy than hetrachy.
Whatever conference thought of their guest from Harvard – and the mood was mixed – Professor Sandel succeeded in prompting debate on the future of the party and the issues that will dominate its programme for years to come under Ed Miliband’s leadership.