Shalom Lappin responds to Tristan Stubbs

Stubbs claims that I have mistakenly identified Third Way politics with the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher era. Instead, he suggests, it aims to achieve prosperity by promoting entrepreneurial energy and freeing business from regulation in order to generate investment. This view is, from what I can see, indistinguishable from a vintage neo-liberal approach…

Setting aside the tone of Tristan Stubbs’ remarks let me respond to what I take to be his main points.

1. Stubbs seriously misinterprets my account of the rise of radical Islamism. The fact that I identify this movement as, in part, conditioned by the failure of secular nationalism to deliver democracy or prosperity in post colonial third world countries certainly does not entail that I regard poverty as the major cause of Islamism, nor is my proposed description of this phenomenon “materialist” in any obvious sense. It is unclear to me on what basis Stubbs arrives at these thoroughly unmotivated inferences. I was simply suggesting that radical Islamism has been filling the political void left by the collapse of secular revolutionary nationalist ideologies thoughout the third world. This claim seems to be uncontroversial in that it amounts to little more than a straightforward description of the facts.

2. Stubbs asks how free trade unions can be established in third world countries that are ruled by repressive regimes which do not respect the rights of organized labour. This is a reasonable question. I suggested a partial answer in proposing that global free trade agreements be used as instruments for promoting democratic institutions, as well as social investment in the developing world. The obvious precedent here is the demand for democratization and respect for human rights that defines a necessary condition for entry into the European Union. It is also worth recalling that when union activists struggling against an undemocratic government enjoy widespread popular endorsement within their own country and receive strong support from abroad, they can, in some cases, effectively challenge their government. This is how Solidarity established itself both as a free labour union and the main engine of democratization within Communist Poland in the 1980s.

3. Stubbs claims that I have mistakenly identified Third Way politics with the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher era. Instead, he suggests, it aims to achieve prosperity by promoting entrepreneurial energy and freeing business from regulation in order to generate investment. This view is, from what I can see, indistinguishable from a vintage neo-liberal approach. It is unclear how it differs from the model proposed by conservative devotees of liberalized markets, low corporate taxation, and reduced business regulation. On this approach, a rise in living standards will invariably accompany the economic growth that is generated by reducing the burden of taxation and regulation on business activity. The problem with this theory is that it stands in marked contrast with the observed facts. The social gap between the richest and poorest segments of the population in Britain has grown considerably under recent Labour as well as the preceding Conservative governments. The wages of large sections of the labour force have grown very slowly or remained static in real terms. The quality of social services like the NHS and higher education, as well as the public transportation system are suffering from massive underinvestment. This pattern Is even more acute in the United States. In the Third World, rapid development through economic liberalization and investment has indeed led to the emergence of an expanding middle class and a reduction of poverty in countries like China and, to a lesser extent, India. However, large sections of the populations in these countries have been left out of the new economy and are sinking even deeper into poverty and dispossession. It should be clear that I am not calling for the destruction of the market, but for its deployment in a manner that maximizes social benefit across the population at large, as well as economic development.

4. Finally, Stubbs suggests my criticisms of Third Way politics and my proposals for a robust renewal of social democracy in internationalist terms will alienate people who might otherwise sign up to the Euston Manifesto’s project. This is, at best, a puzzling assertion. I am presenting a personal view in the context of an open discussion on how best to renew social democractic policies in a global economy. Other contributors to the forum have taken alternative positions, some of them closely aligned to New Labour. Stubbs’ comments here appear to exclude free discussion and to seek political orthodoxy in terms of Third Way policies. If this is the case, then these comments are entirely incompatible with the diversity of opinion and free debate that we wish to encourage on these issues. If such debate prevents some people from joining the Euston Manifesto Group, then one wonders in what sense they could possibly be democrats and political liberals.

Shalom Lappin is Professor of Computational Linguistics in the Department of Philosophy, King’s College, London

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