So let me start on my subject, working-class politics in the contemporary world, with a quote from Ralph Miliband:
“All concepts of politics, of whatever kind, are about conflict - how to contain it, or abolish it.”
That is how I understand politics based on my own experiences, and on my own reading of our history. I say that not to celebrate conflict – still less violence – but merely to state a fact.
Politics is about struggle, about the clash of interests and, for me, ultimately about how to create a society and a world where there really are common interests.
After the Second World War, the pressure of the countermovement made decommodification the unacknowledged motor of domestic politics throughout the industrialised world. Parties of the working class, acutely vulnerable to pressure from below, were in government more than 40% of the time in the postwar decades – compared to about 10% in the interwar years, and almost never before that – and “contagion from the Left” forced parties of the right into defensive acquiescence. Schooling, medical treatment, housing, retirement, leisure, child care, subsistence itself, but most importantly, wage-labor: these were to be gradually removed from the sphere of market pressure, transformed from goods requiring money, or articles bought and sold on the basis of supply and demand, into social rights and objects of democratic decision.
This, at least, was the maximal social-democratic program — and in certain times and places in the postwar era its achievements were dramatic.
But the social democratic solution is unstable — and this is where the Marxist conception comes in, with its stress on pursuit of profit as the motor of the capitalist system. There’s a fundamental contradiction between accepting that capitalists’ pursuit of profit will be the motor of the system, and believing you can systematically tame and repress it through policies and regulations. In the classical Marxist account, the contradiction is straightforwardly economic: policies that reduce profit rates too much will lead to underinvestment and economic crisis. But the contradiction can also be political: profit-hungry capitalists will use their social power to obstruct the necessary policies. How can you have a system driven by individuals maximizing their profit cash-flows and still expect to maintain the profit-repressing norms, rules, laws, and regulations necessary to uphold the common welfare?
Politics is about gaining power as well as using power. It involves that which separates us (gender, class, age, ethnicity) as well as that which unites us as human beings. Reason often battles emotion just as minorities battle majorities and the future competes with the present. It involves loyalty and tribalism as well as objectivity and rationality.
Good politicians understand all of this but are not swept aside by it. It is when each of the tensions is ignored and politics reduced to a technique that we enter troubled waters. There is an important distinction to be made between the techniques that can assist politicians and politics as a technique. Politics requires research into both its ends and means but above all else it requires the capacity to judge and the will to decide in an imperfect world.