Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism
Pluto Press, 2014
Over the last decade, the idea of 'liberalism' has come in for a bit of a beating in many intellectual and political circles in Britain. Understood as a set of legal principles, it has been trashed by the tabloid press and Tory backbenches, as a basis to stick up for paedophiles, immigrants and Islamists, with a logic that only Shami Chakrabarti or a Strasbourg judge could understand. Blue Labour and Red Tories have depicted 'liberalism' as a form of infantile liberty, manifest in the right to do as you please and to hell with the consequences. In many ways, New Labour claimed some of this territory early on, with its so-called 'respect' agenda.
Historical and philosophical nuance is sorely lacking from much of this. In particular, there is scant recognition that liberalism as a political philosophy is 350 years old, and as a form of government over 200 years old, and that it has been suffering attacks and declarations of its imminent demise ever since. The fact that liberalism has always operated alongside romantic and theocratic reactions, and could continue to do so for much longer, surely poses the question of why the 2010s should be the moment when we finally rid ourselves of this ghastly individualism. Meanwhile, efforts to disentangle 'liberalism' from 'neoliberalism' can go horribly wrong, if the latter is assumed to consist in some form of free-market anarchy.
One of the problems here is that the alternative to 'liberalism' too often appears like illiberalism. The fact that religious communities are not based around liberal principles seems to be enough to commend them to some communitarian thinkers, even when the latter have no theological commitments of their own. Another problem is the complete failure to spot that neoliberalism operates as much via mechanisms of constraint – debt, management, surveillance – as it does via individual choice or autonomy. If the conceptual armory of politics is reduced to binary oppositions of freedom versus constraint, then we remain trapped in a situation where we have only markets and hierarchies to choose from.
Jeremy Gilbert's Common Ground is a bold, brilliant and ultimately hopeful attempt to build a critique of liberalism and neoliberalism on different foundations, avoiding the above pitfalls in the process. By focusing on Thomas Hobbes as the originator of liberal (and, indirectly, neoliberal) thought, Gilbert immediately puts himself in a much stronger critical position. Hobbes' Leviathan offered a brutally simple and pessimistic anthropological worldview: without powerful third parties to provide the rules of social life, humanity would descend into violence. Gilbert shows how this 'Leviathan logic' has come to define our understanding of not only nations but also markets, organisations, communities and – thanks to the pessimistic psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Gustave Le Bon – our selves.
The implication of Leviathan logic is a depressing one, namely that freedom is fine as long as it is not coupled to any real power. Moreover, its vision of freedom is an implicitly asocial one, as manifest in the freedom to consume. The assumption is that when individuals start to congregate into larger autonomous units, the results are politically disastrous. Despite its rhetorical appeal to spontaneous market forces, Gilbert contends that neoliberalism offers the example par excellence of Leviathan logic at work, carefully ensuring that all forms of creative and collective potential are channeled into areas of social and economic life where they are ultimately impotent. Liberal individualism is not something that represents any check on managerial or governmental hierachy; on the contrary, it is only possible thanks to that hierarchy.
The way to escape the Hobbesian and neoliberal bind cannot, therefore, be to simply identify new forms of collectivism that are imposed from above or the past. To argue as much, as many reactionaries and communitarians do, is to remain within the pessimistic Leviathan logic. The genuine alternative, which Common Ground is largely dedicated to exploring and developing, is to embrace open-ended horizontal relations, which emerge in often unpredictable and creative ways, in unexpected places.
Mining cultural and psychoanalytic theories from the last 100 years or so, Gilbert carefully constructs an alternative philosophical anthropology, one which pulls the Hobbesian rug out from underneath state-centric liberalism. Sociality is central to his vision of the human condition, but in ways that are replete with possibility for constant recreation and not simply a function of pre-existing tradition.
In this venture, capitalism is both ally and obstacle at the same time, just as Marx believed. It is an ally in this radically democratic ambition, thanks to the shift into 'post-Fordist production' that emerged from the 1970s onwards. This has made the centralised control of private economic production increasingly hard to maintain, given that flexibility, sociality and enthusiasm are what now create value. On this point, Gilbert voices his debt to the Italian autonomist Marxists, led by Toni Negri. This partly answers the question of why might now be the historical moment to throw off liberal individualism.
Against this, neoliberal politics and management clamp down on the democratic potential of the innately creative possibilities of the post-Fordist economy. The challenge, as Gilbert sees it, is how to produce flexible, participatory political institutions, to mirror the flexible, socioeconomic institutions on which capitalist production now depends.
This is a book that is generous in its accreditations, and is partly about building intellectual bridges between some quite disparate bodies of theory. Unlike the communitarian critique of liberalism, which tends to privilege a single Aristotelian vision of virtue ethics, Common Ground offers more of a bricolage of theories, in keeping with its fluid and dialogical political spirit. Gilbert is a professor of cultural studies, and the book demonstrates all of the theoretical and interdisciplinary creativity of that tradition, though with its original political purpose intact.
In practical terms, Common Ground offers consistent support for the goals of the new left: democratisation and a distribution of power and voice within all institutions. If this means a great many more 'meetings', Gilbert wryly suggests, then so be it. But, unlike today's vacuous managerial meetings, these ones would come with real potential built into them.
In the context of a broader reaction against liberalism and neoliberalism, which currently includes various figures around the Labour leadership, Common Ground offers some important correctives. For some Blue Labour intellectuals, the left lost its way in the early 1960s, when the New Left abandoned its vestiges of communitarianism. Others date the origins of the problem back to the early 20th century and the rise of Fabianism. No doubt some on the right would date the origins of our current pathologies much earlier still. But all are agreed that the liberalism that followed 1968 – selfish, unruly, relativist – is the problem, and that it can only be fixed with something more imposing, be that nation, church or class.
Common Ground resists such conservatism. The problem of liberalism (and even more, neoliberalism) is that, in failing to offer possibilities for collective autonomy, it offers too little freedom, not too much. The left should not seek to bury '68, but on the contrary to learn from the creativity and imagination of the movements that surrounded it and came in its wake – feminism, antiracist movements and emergent cultural collectives. Gilbert acknowledges those areas in which the left is already breaking out of Leviathan logics with moderate success, such as the Labour party's recent embrace of community organising and proposals (put forward by IPPR) that public services be remodeled along 'relational' lines. But there is still a lurking fear of what might happen once large groups of people are suddenly put in charge of their own social and economic destinies.
The million-dollar question is how this should be done. Other than 'democratically' and pointing to some examples of participatory governance, Gilbert abstains from offering normative answers. This, he would no doubt say, is consistent with a view of politics as creative and self-generating. The problem is that this leaves a very large sociological space in his argument, between some largely abstract theories of social life and some quite understated examples of how horizontal organisation can actually work. The question is whether this is enough to challenge neoliberalism with.
There is one form of Leviathan logic which Gilbert does not engage with, but which the early neoliberals were particularly influenced by, namely Max Weber's. Weber argued that in modern societies politics was being replaced by technical administration, which was expertly efficient but ultimately directionless. Arguably the founding period of neoliberal thought was the 'socialist calculation debate' of the 1920s, when promarket thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises attacked socialist planning on resolutely Weberian lines, declaiming that it could not hope to proceed efficiently. The case for the price system, as an alternative to planning, was a technical one.
The genius of the neoliberals (at least the European ones) was that they were philosophers who were also prepared to get their hands dirty with technical questions, concerning instruments, valuation, regulation and so on. It is obviously too much to expect of Common Ground that it should offer the philosophy and the route map and the technical instruments for an alternative, democratised political economy. But in its celebration of cultural congregations and the affective dimensions of social relationships, it seems to hint at a disdain for Weberian questions of how to govern – what accounting tools, measures, valuation systems? No doubt this is a far better strategy for getting people to commune in the first place. But, as Gilbert is all too aware, the really hard work begins when things cannot carry on democratically, spontaneously or joyously.
William Davies is a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. His book The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and The Logic of Competition is published by Sage. Purchase via Sage using the discount code UK14SM08 to get 65% off the purchase price.
Snakes and ladders: Tackling precarity in social security and employment supportAcross the country, people are trying to make ends meet, build financial security and pursue their aspirations. But, in a vicious cycle of snakes and ladders, many are being pulled down into poverty.
Making markets: The City's role in industrial strategyTo tackle climate change, we need a significant increase in public and private capital investment.
Broken hearted: A spotlight paper on cardiovascular diseaseProgress on cardiovascular disease was a significant driver of better health and prosperity in the latter half of the 20th century, however progress has recently stalled – with indications it may be in reverse.