The Second Wave: The Specificity of New Labour Neoliberalism

This was published in Soundings in Spring 2004 and was sort of a reply to Stuart Hall’s widely-cited article ‘New Labour’s Double-Shuffle‘. Insofar as I had any disagreement with Stuart’s analysis (which obviously wasn’t very far), I felt that it was mistaken to identify even a subsidiary social-democratic dimension to New Labour’s project, because the apparently ‘social democratic’ elements of their programme, even where they were genuinely redistributive in their effects, were always motivated by clearly meritocratic and individualist principles, rather than genuinely social democratic ideals of equality and collective provision. In particular the reforms driven by Gordon Brown and his close allies in the cabinet, while they did make genuine inroads against child poverty, were always clearly motivated by the desire to create equal access to the labour market but not actually to reduce overall income differentials in the long term.

In fact I realised later that whatever the ‘objective’ validity of Stuart’s categories, his account certainly matched that of the ministers in question themselves. Years later, during some interesting discussions between Compass activists and Brownite ministers, it becomes very apparent to me that the latter simply had no conception of neoliberalism as a specific ideology which could be differentiated from classic 19th century laissez-faire. They thought that what the Tories stood for was government doing nothing for people, and so as long as they were doing something – anything – then they could see themselves as social democrats of some kind.

Of course, as Foucault showed in his now famous lectures on neoliberalism and biopolitics (first published in French in October 2004, and in English a couple of years later, under the title The Birth of Biopolitics), there is a marked difference between neoliberalism and classical liberalism, in that neoliberalism does not simply wish to withdraw the state from the social and economic field, but rather wishes to use the state to enforce competitive individualist norms. And as Michael Young and others suggested decades earlier, it was a completely different thing to try to create real social equality and simply to try to legitimise a highly level of inequality one through the introduction of meritocratic mechanisms which gave some poor people the chance to rise to the top. But sadly the ministers we met seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that that was what they were doing, and that in the process they were normalising an individualist ideology which could only ever undermine their own best intentions. So on an important level, Stuart was right, but then, on another level, I was too.

Anyway here is the article The Second Wave