Soundings magazine is currently hosting an online debate called Left Futures, organised around a series of article-blogposts. My two-pennyworth has been posted up, entitled 'What does free market collectivism mean for the left?'. It's summarised as follows:
What model of capitalism has emerged out of the ashes of the 1970s? While 'neo-liberalism' is the rhetorical answer, it is clear that something more subtle took hold over the 1990s. New types of collectivities were being pursued, resting on new types of market logic. Two in particular are worth thinking about: the neo-classical paradigm of 'market failure' and the Schumpeterian emphasis on innovation and 'competitiveness'. It may be easier for the Left to continue pitting itself against the Gordon Gecko ideology of individual greed, but responding to the market's own preferred collectivisms is the more complicated challenge. ......
I'm not sure if 'free market collectivism' is quite the right term (and certainly won't have anyone running for their intellectual property lawyers) but I feel there is something in this, at least as a corrective to some of the most unthinking traditional leftisim. The notion that the Left stands for cuddly togetherness, while the right stands for nasty selfishness makes no sense for two reasons. Firstly, it fails to address the question of why individualism holds the appeal that it does. Contrary to the notion that capitalism is an out-and-out scandal (and here I follow Boltanski) surely it's worth thinking about what promises it makes to people and the extent to which it does regularly deliver on them. Surely the whole basis of the Marxist critique of market liberalism is that it promises to enshrine individuals as legal-rational autonomous entities... and at least to some extent, the Left might benefit from accepting that it makes good on this promise with positive consequences.
Secondly, in what sense is 'collectivism' automatically better than 'individualism' unless one specifies some ethical or political goal? Fascism is a glorious example of collectivism in action. The point about the early Labour movement was not simply that it involved collective action but that it developed a clear set of objectives that were of material (and to a lesser extent cultural) benefit to its members, without significantly harming its non-members. Clearly nobody has a clue what the Left is actually about right now. But the notion that it stands for togetherness while the Right stands for loneliness and fragmentation, while being useful for Labour politicians at conference, sounds suspiciously close to the entirely uncritical, 'social capital' philosophy of Robert Putnam.