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September 21, 2012


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This is one of the most thought provoking blogs I've read in ages.
Thank you.

Dick Pountain

This is magnificent stuff Will - the arguement is worthy of making into a whole book. If I've read you correctly, an implication is that the left should stop moralising (which alienates vast sectors of the electorate) and start pragmatically reforming institutions. Also you sentence:

"In short, pursuing the separation of rival institutional spheres is also a way of keeping the state out of our domestic and personal lives."

is a doorway through which to appeal to libertarians who've recently tended to defect to the right.

Will Davies

Thanks, both.

Dick: your point about the 'right' is an interesting one. But really this is about what used to be known as the 'social market', deriving from German ordo-liberalism. The British neoliberal intelligentsia of the 1960s and early 1970s were unlike the bastard capitalists that were unleashed in the 1980s and 90s, but heavily influenced by the Austro-German example of entrenching markets in robust legal and monetary institutions. Of course this can be a very austere model (as Angela Merkel continues to demonstrate) but its logic is at least amenable to a different type of liberal-left.

Whether 'libertarians' can or should be appealed to, is another matter. I've never liked the term very much. It seems to reduce individual autonomy to a sort of protest.

Ian C

A brilliant post - thanks Will. And I agree with Dick, this is an argument worth expanding into a book.

One way of coming at this is to revive and adapt some old ideas - 'checks and balances' in institutional design, for example. Neoliberalism, like Actually Existing Socialism used to be, is in essence 'totalitarian' - all about overcoming old cultural and institutional checks and balances on its variety of power. It ought to be repellent to social-market ordoliberals and Burkean conservatives, many of whom have been swept along by it for 30-40 years and who could be at a tipping point of disgust, as you suggest. (A sufficiently large defeat for the Republicans in November might push enough people over the edge. We can hope.)
Another way of seeing these issues might be in terms of a reversal of the accumulation of oligopoly power - a reassertion of market diversity, a programme that could unite left-liberals, ordo-liberals and old Burkeans against neoliberal excesses.
And yet another way of thinking about all this could to be push for diversity and resilience of ownership models - new business forms, new commons, etc - against the ultimately inefficient and perhaps ruinous domination of stock market corporations and private equity.

Will Davies

Yes, agreed. In a sense it's a revamp of 18th century calls for 'separation of powers'. It adds to that a pragmatist (Deweyan) call for a separation of institutional logics or modes of evaluation.

Account Deleted

You are right that equality of opportunity is just a convenient fiction, but the "re-separation of institutional spheres" is an essentially conservative response, open to the charge of buttressing vested interests.

I'm also dubious as to the distinction you make between 19th century liberalism and 20th century neoliberlaism. The totalising tendencies of the latter were there in the fomer, but constrained by the conservative temper of the times. This is just evolution, not a change in kind.

At a pragamtic level, institutionalising limits to the market makes a lot of sense, but we should also recognise that damming tributaries is not as effective as damming downstream. For example, mandating that Oxbridge only takes 7% of its intake from private schools would be the quickest way to reform the latter. Equality of opportunity may be impossible, but equality of outcome is not.

Dick Pountain

Will - I was meaning "libertarians" with a small "l" - not the American anti-state nutjobs but a whole large cohort raised in the '60s who are instinctively socially liberal but suspicious of the state. Many once voted Labour but have since defected.


This is the first time I can ever recall 100% agreeing with you. And it would be nice to see these ideas pushed further into the mainstream, whether by a book or otherwise.

A couple of constructive suggests:

Firstly, families can also pass on disadvantages as well as advantages, and it is as important to blunt their effects as to diminish the advantages of middle class families.

Secondly, you personify capital ("capital’s demand to expand") and that shorthand needs expansion. Capital is not like water finding the lowest level; it needs human agency.

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