Neoliberalism is very different from an older style of conservative politics, which followed Burke in urging caution about institutional change because institutions may embody the wisdom of previous generations. Neoliberalism is broadly the theory that society should be governed by the market rather than by values, or even that economic goals are all that matter. It is thus the political embodiment of unfettered capitalism unconstrained by values of any kind.
Political opponents of neoliberalism currently lack a convincing answer to it because such an answer has to attack the basic premise that economics is the only proper foundation of public policy. But that requires a strong, widely accepted foundation of some other kind. Our pluralist, relativist society generally lacks such a thing, a familiar theme of course on these pages. What we lack in particular is any shared sense that there are ethical and social values which take priority over market forces.
Even old political standards like fairness, justice or equality, while they may have emotional resonance, lack intellectual traction because they only work if they are embedded in precisely the kind of shared value system we lack. As things stand they are often empty terms, bandied like playground slogans. We may have a sense that certain things are unfair, for example, but it is a shifting sense. Is it fair that some people are more talented than others, or have the ability to apply themselves and so become more successful? Surely such random talent is not fair, but crucially it is not an unfairness to which we generally object – think of sports stars for example.
So we can tolerate some kinds of unfairness but not others and we need a further test of when “unfairness” is unacceptable – which just shows that unfairness as such is not the problem. We need a test for something like “morally unfair” but we don’t have one because we don’t agree about morality, ethics, values or whatever you want to call it. It is thus a shared ethical framework we lack, because we have come to think of ethics as a matter of personal opinion, culture or taste.
So the really desperate problem today for parties of the left, as for those on the right who dislike neoliberalism, is that there is no coherent value system shared by enough of us to which they can appeal to show why certain political approaches are unacceptable. The central issue is about values or ethics but our values are fragmented, dispersed. This is one reason why the left has increasingly become a coalition of single cause pressure groups, many based on identity.
If we have values at all, they must be based on what is most important to us and what, if we are behaving in a thoughtful way, we structure our behaviour and indeed our whole lives around. So to share individual values requires that we agree on what is indeed most important to us. It makes sense that if a collection of individuals – a society – agreed in this way they would want their priority expressed in the way their society was organised.
What doesn’t make sense is that there might be new “values” which only emerge at the aggregate, social level, as traditional political values tend to do. If this were the case there would be a potential conflict, in fact an impossible dilemma, because individual and political values might point in different directions. If every individual’s values are based on what is central or most important in that person’s life, how could anyone agree to put those values aside for a collective goal?
The only way to resolve this dilemma is to base political values, such as they are, on the values of individuals. They cannot be based on economic theories, on the distribution of income and wealth,
on class, still less on theories of historical destiny, but on the values by which individuals live. The issue then becomes how a modern society of many cultures, views, beliefs and interests can find sufficient common ground to share such values.
This is not comfortable news for the left. It implies that a central question of politics needs to be the search for a basis on which we can share values – a search which neoliberals may be expected to disrupt and pour scorn upon. It is not just a matter of a new political slogan but a foundation on which individuals might anchor their own lives, so that politics could become an expression of people’s aspirations rather than a dull spectator sport.