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Reconciling Globalization and Social Democracy: The Strange Case of the Purple Book

David Ritter - 28th November 2011

Purple haze all in my brain
Lately things just don't seem the same
Actin' funny, but I don't know why
Excuse me while I kiss the sky

How do centre left governments achieve domestic objectives in an age of globalized capitalism?  A recent work that tries to answer this globally significant question, albeit in a distinctively UK context is the Purple Book, an anthology of essays produced under the auspices of Progress, a leading New Labour pressure group.

Curiously though, the Purple Book largely ignores the global context.  On the second last page the editor notes:

Our focus has been on the domestic agenda – and important elements of that, like environmentalism, are, we are aware, largely absent from these pages.  Similarly, the challenge of assembling an agenda for how Labour might in government contribute to the redistribution of power internationally – from promoting democracy and human rights overseas to trade justice and widening the circle of winners from globalisation – was, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this project.

It is always hazardous to criticize a book for wishing it had been about other things - and the Purple Book obviously does not lack for good will and interesting ideas - but the worth of the work is curtailed and undermined by what is omitted.  In 2011, you just can’t draw the curtains on the outside world without losing relevance, as five examples should serve to demonstrate.

First, the sheer centrality of the Iraq war to the last Labour government in Britain makes the omission of anything at all about international affairs disappointing, if not altogether surprising.  The attack on Iraq certainly represented one version of ‘how Labour might in government contribute to the redistribution of power internationally’ through ‘promoting democracy and human rights’ – and the disastrous legacy of that fateful ambition requires ongoing assessment and reckoning.           

Second, the current global crisis has been brought on entirely by the corporate power of the banking and finance sector, yet the Purple Book is chiefly preoccupied with the state rather than corporations.  ‘High-octane reform’ is promised for the public sector; while the genteel language of ‘encouragement’ is applied to big business.  Indicatively, in the book’s conclusion there are more than seven pages on ‘reforming the state’ and only one on ‘reforming the market’, while the promotional website promises 'leaving the big state behind'.  You don't have to be an unreconstructed statist to feel that this focus seems seriously out of keeping with the spirit of the times.      

Third, the Purple Book eschews any serious engagement with the new technologies and accompanying social formations.  You don’t have to resort to the kind of vulgar reductionism that sees Twitter as the cause of the Arab Spring to recognise that social media, ecommerce, handheld smart technology, wifi, gaming culture, online subjectivities, and the ‘screening’ of life, etc are among the principal (and most dynamic) forces in contemporary society: not to address their multiple meanings seems gravely anachronistic.

Fourth, there is little engagement with the social realities of everyday life under globalized supercapitalism.  Time-poverty; growing insecurity for all but the rich; deepening indebtedness fuelled by increasing consumption; increasing pressures on parents and family life; a middle class that is no longer rising and a working class that is culturally villified and politically marginalized (as Owen Jones recently argued in his superb polemic Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class), are all part of the zeitgeist – but these concerns are strangely muted in the Purple Book.  Indeed, the principal prescription across a range of policy areas offered by many of the authors is for more political decentralisation and local participation, but what is not clear is who the people are to fill these roles, or how they will find the time.

Fifth, the Purple Book is silent on climate change and the other crises that currently threaten our global life support system.  This egregious ordering of priorities does rather suggest that whatever else it might be, purple is not green.  Is Progress really more worried about the ghost of Michael Foot than global warming?  It appears so.

New Labour’s conception of history was founded on the assumption that the old left was wrong and the Thatcherite revolution was irreversible.  Claiming to have discerned a third way - and like all good ideologues - New Labourites were explicitly teleological.  The mantle of ‘progress’ was a statement not only of ‘progressive’ (rather than social democratic or socialist) values, but a proprietary stance towards the forward direction of human endeavour.  The consequence of the Purple Book’s narrow national focus is to surrender any serious claim over the direction of history.  Despite being published by Progress about ‘progress’, the work is quaintly backward looking.

David has been away, robbed and had food poisoning in the course of the last few weeks so no blog.  Normal service has now returned.  Follow David on Twitter here.