Making sense of Maurice Glasman.

AuthorFinlayson, Alan

Having risen to prominence as a (possible) intellectual guru for the Labour Party, and as the most public figurehead of 'Blue Labour', Maurice Glasman has been variously denounced as a 'tool of apolitical centrism' (searchforthemastercopy, 2011), the advocate of a 'socially conservative, economically liberal agenda' (Glasman, 2011b), and as some sort of fascist fellow-traveller (Rooksby, 2011; Left Futures, 2011). Glasman himself urges Labour to attend to the common good through a 'politics that brings together immigrants and locals, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and atheists, middle and working classes' (Glasman, 2011b). It's all a bit confusing.

The fact is that 'Blue Labour' has created a framework within and against which Labour's internal debate has been energised. It has done so whilst bringing various factions together (Progress and Compass, The Fabian Society and Soundings) - no mean feat and certainly a break from recent Labour traditions (although the non-involvement of the Briefing left is unfortunate). If only for that reason it is, I think, worth taking time to work out what Glasman is all about. In response to Billy Bragg's charge that he was 'economically liberal' (Bragg, 2011), Glasman wrote this: 'Resistance to commodification through democratic organisation. That's the position' (Glasman, 2011a). So, let's see if we can understand what he means.

From individual morality to ethical institutions

Glasman is what political philosophers call a 'virtue-theorist'. For him, generalised moral rules make little sense. What matters is the quality of all of our actions in the context of the ongoing collective life of which they are a part; the extent to which such actions both contribute to and are rooted in a form of life in which individuals may flourish. There is a fundamental difference between this and Blairism. For Blairism (as for neo-liberalism in general) the only moral agent is the individual, whom government should help to become self-reliant, responsible, law-abiding. For Glasman the community is also a moral entity; only if it is rightly organised can people flourish.

This is not a 'right-wing' position. In Glasman's case it is also not a liberal one. Glasman thinks that liberalism treats values and principles in a way that extracts them from the communal and cultural contexts in which they have meaning and force. In so doing, it drains the ethical life from autonomous communities and depoliticises virtue by declaring that 'the good' will derive from formal rules and procedures professionally operated and enforced by liberal lawyers, philosophers and politicians. These are fundamentally concerned with specifying when the state can legitimately intervene into the lives of insufficiently liberal individuals. A consequence of this is that relations other than that between individual and state come to appear as having little or nothing to do with ethical and moral life; the most important of these is the economy.

To the liberal concern for constitutional justice Glasman wants to add economic justice. But he does not mean by this only that there should be a better redistribution of wealth. He means that the working part of our life should be about virtue and 'flourishing', just as much as every other part. For that to be so, people should have some measure of control over their lives at work, and that work should have intrinsic value and meaning. That is why Glasman admires the culture of the mediaeval guilds and G. D. H. Cole's attempt to invent a modern guild socialism. It is also why Glasman opposes to the Blairite project of inculcating 'transferable' skills - of the sort that float freely around the knowledge economy - the cultivation of vocational skills rooted in craft cultures and traditions.

For Glasman what matters most is the maintenance of autonomous communal life within which virtue may flourish. He is thus particularly concerned with the forces that threaten such community. For the right, traditionally, these threats are usually immoral individuals (single mothers, atheists, divorcees and so on). But for Glasman, not only individuals but also (and more importantly) institutions can be wholly incompatible with ethical life. And for him the most important of...

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