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December 22, 2010


Ian C

Completely spot-on. Thanks for the book reference - I shall get this like a shot.
One factor to bear in mind that ever since the early 80s the Conservatives have been trading under a misleading brand name, as they are a neoliberal party allied to revolutionary global capital. Ditto for the Republicans. A list of what these parties have conserved since 1980 would be pretty short; a list of the features of traditional conservative values they have trashed or abandoned to the market would be long. Hilton is being a true neoliberal.
On all this, see also the work of the great late Christopher Lasch, a conservative-populist-social democratic-civic republican radical of a kind we need badly these days. Eg The Minimal Self and The Revolt of the Elites.

Will Davies

Ian - it's worth knowing that Ehrenberg's book is the concluding part of a trilogy, all dedicated to this question of how post-68 neo-liberal culture leads to an anxious individualism of self-improvement. My French is sadly not very good, but is meant to be good.

Ian C

Thanks Will. Luckily I speak French so will get the trilogy in the original. One of the reviews I just read of the book you mention is critical of the translation in parts.
I agree fully with your call for a critique of neoliberal narcissism. One source of such critique used to be the universities - but these are now the front line for aggressive management and performance ideologues, who have taken over the sector and need no egging on from the Coalition.
One issue that arises in relation to all this is that of socialisation. Eg the idea that many liberals have that it is good to raise children to be questioning of all received tradition, and especially religion, so that 'they can make their own minds up when they are older', as if this set of capacities is entirely separate from socialisation into an account of what a good life is like. The result I observe in many families and among students is a lot of people who are ignorant of the influences that have made the world they find themselves in and, as you say, have tendencies to narcissism and depression, and a pervasive sense of not wishing to 'join' any social institution that makes demands on them while at the same time feeling bereft of community and belonging.

Will Davies

Well, the critique of neo-liberalism doesn't necessarily have to go as far as communitarianism, if that's what you're suggesting. It's possible to commit to certain institutions (in a civic and Enlightenment sense), precisely because those institutions facilitate critical appraisals of traditions, norms and political structures. I would include the freedom to criticise religious teaching in that.

Of course the problem (perfectly summed up in Foucault's essay on Kant's essay on Enlightenment) is what happens when Enlightenment critique turns upon its own preconditions, for instance questioning the authority of critique or the existence of a 'public sphere'. This is what sociologists would refer to as postmodernity. But another way of observing it is in the lazy presupposition that every opinion, every critique, every taste is as good as any other. This is what consumer capitalism encourages (and indeed what Hayek and Friedman sought to promote as a safer alternative to socialism). I recommend Peter Wagner's Modernity as Experience and Interpretation for an exploration of how we can remain committed to modern critique, but also draw on its 'postmodern' self-critique. Ultimately, treading this line is a question of phronetic judgement, of an Aristotelian and political nature, not something that theory or political philosophy will prescribe for us.

Ian C

Thanks Will - agreed, and I also like Wagner's work.

I don't go all the way to communitarianism. I agree with self-critical approaches to Enlightenment and tradition that don't collapse into postmodernism - one reason I am an Anglican, a way of thinking and acting that (at its infrequent best) achieves the difficult feat of treading the line you refer to.

Happy Christmas and all the best for 2011.


Isn't Hilton's "everything" to do with expectations and assumptions rather than concrete policies? He's not saying that every single aspect of government behaviour must change, but that our perspective on it must change. If I tilt a picture by 90 degrees, "everything" has changed even though the picture itself hasn't been altered. If we start, in 2010, with certain beliefs about what the state is here to do, and by 2015 those beliefs have been challenged and possibly defeated, it is reasonable (within the margin of hyperbole, at least) to say that "everything" has changed even if, in practice, nothing much has changed at all. He doesn't have a 10-point pledge card because the points aren't nearly as interesting to him as what we think about the things that happen anyway.

The Conservatives have basically accepted that the state is going to stagnate - they've opted not to waste a good crisis, and have set about "starving the beast". They often point out that this isn't a big change, because it really just takes us back to the spending levels of 2006 - a sleight of hand, but one that also reveals a lack of ambition. They really just want to let things slide a bit, and the "everything" they want to change is that they want us not to care, or to see this as being a good thing. They want to break the belief in the power to bring about good outcomes by spending more money. The details just don't matter to Hilton, which is why he can only really capture what he wants by talking in absurdly "big picture" terms like "everything". Of course, in the long run, ideologies really do "change everything", which is, if anything, a rather more worrying thought.

Dick Pountain


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