Book Review: Marquand’s Missing Link

Review of The New Reckoning: Capitalism, States and Citizens by David Marquand
Polity Press, 1997

David Marquand is an engaging and stylish political thinker, who moves adventurously across academic frontiers and straddles the worlds of scholarship and politics. His main interest is in what may be called the “government of Britain” question; the failure, as he sees it, of Britain to develop into a properly democratic state. His method is one of persuasive argument, conveyed most felicitously in essay form, where thought is not unduly trammelled by the demands of rigour or specificity. His style is that of the seminar rather than the pulpit. He does not try to bludgeon the reader into submission and is too sceptical to admit to “final” beliefs himself.

It was a good idea to assemble a dozen of these essays-written since 1982-in one book. They give a better sense of the flow of his thinking than do his big set-pieces: his Ramsay MacDonald, published in 1977, and The Unprincipled Society in 1988, both prisoners of the mood of their times. They show the crab-like progress of Marquand’s quest for a more democratic British state.

Why is he so obsessed with this idea? The answer is given in a revealing chapter of intellectual autobiography. He became increasingly aware, he says, of the connection between Britain’s economic failure and the “pre-democratic” nature of the state. He was the product of “cradle Labour,” wartime solidarity and Oxford scepticism; Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956) and Andrew Shonfield’s Modern Capitalism (1965) commanded his allegiance. These revisionist bibles accepted that capitalism was here to stay, but it was capitalism transformed by what Marquand called “Keynesian social democracy”: tamed by the managerial revolution and the countervailing power of state and trade unions, planned for growth, and equalised through redistributionary tax policies. As a young Labour MP (1966 to 1977), what interested Marquand was how to reconcile planning with democratic control.

But by the end of the 1970s, revisionist social democracy was dead. Britain was in a crisis of ungovernability, and the road to Thatcherism had opened up. Marquand came to see the flaws in his creed not as inherent in the project itself, but as arising from the nature of the British state, in particular from the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. It was not that the outcomes which British governments in the 1960s had been trying to achieve were wrong-Marquand saw Thatcherism as “economically wasteful and socially destructive”-but that they had sought to engineer these outcomes from above. He concluded that TH Marshall had been premature in his view that “political citizenship” had been won, and that the next stage of progress was economic and social citizenship. Political citizenship was not to be equated with periodic opportunities to vote for a sovereign parliament. It required power to be shared; subjects of the Crown to be turned into citizens. Only then could a “public philosophy of mutual obligation and common purpose” develop to protect the public good against rampant market forces.

Marquand noticed a similar “mismatch between the purposes and structures of the European project.” Again, he approved the purpose because the taming of the market had to be continental in scope. But technocratic Europe had raced ahead of political Europe. The idea of dispersing power in Britain merged in his mind with the idea of decentralising and federalising Europe. He concludes his intellectual autobiography on an apocalyptic note. Only the reassertion of power over the market can prevent the return of the demons. “Globally and nationally, we shall sooner or later have to choose between the free market and the free society.”

What, then, has changed over the years? In its earliest form, Marquand’s argument for political reform of the British state was linked to the problem of poor economic performance and the failure of Keynesian social democracy to work as well in Britain as in some other countries. This link was never convincing-as Brian Barry pointed out in a devastating review of The Unprincipled Society in the TLS. It has also been overtaken by events. What Marquand calls the “collective project” broke down everywhere, whether in its Russian, British, French, German, Swedish or Japanese forms; whether power was centralised or decentralised, sovereign or shared.

Marquand was slow to see that the crisis of collectivism in the 1980s was a global, not just a British, phenomenon. He urged Britain to adopt neo-corporatist practices when these practices were breaking down in Europe and Japan. This initial blindness to the global nature of the transformation of the last 20 years is rooted in a British parochialism, surprising in such a fervent European. For much of the 1980s his discussion remained obstinately anchored in the debates of the 1960s concerning the causes of Britain’s relative decline against France and Germany. He had still not abandoned this discourse in the early 1990s, writing that Britain was “leading the race to the bottom” of the EU. This argument is even less convincing today than it was a few years ago. All the evidence is that Britain’s relative decline against its continental peers has been halted and reversed by the reforms of the Thatcher-Major years. Marquand finds this hard to accept, because of his visceral hatred of Thatcherism.

The new questions in political economy are how to protect countries against speculative attacks on their currencies; and how to protect the victims of change, bad luck and incompetence without bankrupting national exchequers. Therefore they relate to the control mechanisms of a global economy, and to the nature of social contracts between affluent majorities and poor minorities.

These are serious issues. Karl Polanyi, a sociologist who greatly influenced Marquand, believed that markets in land, labour and capital were “unnatural.” They had to be forced on societies in the 19th century by governments schooled by economists who told them that the effects of free buying and selling of “factors of production” would be beneficial in the long run. But because societies experienced these “market disciplines” as destructive of social warmth and settled expectations, spontaneous resistance arose. This either took the benign form of social democracy and trade unionism, or the malign form of fascism and communism. Marquand believes that much the same is happening today: capitalism is again a wild beast. With markets set free from benign constraint, the danger is a recurrence of forces which almost destroyed western civilisation in the interwar years. Democracy must therefore be strengthened-not just in Britain, but in the EU.

This is not a negligible argument, and I hope I do not underestimate the danger of “Wild West” capitalism. But unless the threat is carefully specified, it sounds like wilful doom-mongering. Polanyi, writing in 1944, was clear that the main defect of market capitalism was its susceptibility to violent fluctuations. So first we need to form a view about how unstable contemporary market economies are-whether they contain an inherent principle of order or whether this has to be imposed from outside. Moderately flexible product and factor markets are not likely to be violently unstable. It is wrong to read the Great Depression of 1929-33 as a “typical” outcome of unregulated markets. The question of “re-taming” capitalism may have to be confronted anew, but it will have little to do with eliminating democratic deficits and more to do with boring matters such as central bank co-operation.

Latterly, Marquand has reformulated his political project in terms of a “civic republicanism” which can deal with the crisis not of the British economy, but the welfare state. But what is “civic republicanism?” The implications are not entirely comforting to anyone who recalls Robespierre. There are plenty of phrases about “mutual commitment” and “inclusion.” But at the core is the notion of duty which we owe each other as “citizens.” Marquand reaches this conclusion by a double transformation of liberal language. The individual’s rights against the state become “rights to resources.” And rights to resources are said to be “necessary conditions” for doing your duty. The first step was taken by the New Liberals at the turn of the century; the second has very little to do with liberalism of any kind. The right to resources to enable you to fulfil your own plan can be seen as an extension of liberty, but the right to resources to enable you to do your duty has a nasty Fabian ring. Marquand asks: “If resources are redistributed in your favour, are you not under some obligation to make proper use of them?” Does he mean moral or legal obligation?

Marquand wants to create a public philosophy of reciprocal duties, but why does he suppose that civic republicanism would provide one? Sometimes he seems to believe that a community based on process (a political community) will agree on these matters as readily as one based on custom (a traditional community). Elsewhere he calls for “a new civic religion based on humanism.” This is plainly incompatible with what we mean by a free society; it could only be realised by totalitarian methods, which Marquand would be the first to condemn. Once more, the all-purpose solution turns out to be vacuous. There may be good reasons for “modernising” Britain’s state. But they have no more to do with humanising capitalism now than they did with improving British economic performance earlier.

Over the years, Marquand has attributed a succession of economic and social problems-which Britain has shared with most developed countries-to the archaism of Britain’s monarchical state. The British state may be archaic; but the belief that these problems will be solved if it is “democratised” is wishful thinking. These essays are coloured by a systematic overestimation of the possibilities of politics; a deep pessimism about markets as engines of growth and job creation; and an inability to conceive of morality and effort outside a framework of constitutional reform. It is comforting that Marquand calls his intellectual autobiography “Journey to an Unknown Destination.” I hope I have offered some signposts to his next stop. David Marquand is an engaging and stylish political thinker, who moves adventurously across academic frontiers and straddles the worlds of scholarship and politics. His main interest is in what may be called the “government of Britain” question; the failure, as he sees it, of Britain to develop into a properly democratic state. His method is one of persuasive argument, conveyed most felicitously in essay form, where thought is not unduly trammelled by the demands of rigour or specificity. His style is that of the seminar rather than the pulpit. He does not try to bludgeon the reader into submission and is too sceptical to admit to “final” beliefs himself.

It was a good idea to assemble a dozen of these essays-written since 1982-in one book. They give a better sense of the flow of his thinking than do his big set-pieces: his Ramsay MacDonald, published in 1977, and The Unprincipled Society in 1988, both prisoners of the mood of their times. They show the crab-like progress of Marquand’s quest for a more democratic British state.

Why is he so obsessed with this idea? The answer is given in a revealing chapter of intellectual autobiography. He became increasingly aware, he says, of the connection between Britain’s economic failure and the “pre-democratic” nature of the state. He was the product of “cradle Labour,” wartime solidarity and Oxford scepticism; Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956) and Andrew Shonfield’s Modern Capitalism (1965) commanded his allegiance. These revisionist bibles accepted that capitalism was here to stay, but it was capitalism transformed by what Marquand called “Keynesian social democracy”: tamed by the managerial revolution and the countervailing power of state and trade unions, planned for growth, and equalised through redistributionary tax policies. As a young Labour MP (1966 to 1977), what interested Marquand was how to reconcile planning with democratic control.

But by the end of the 1970s, revisionist social democracy was dead. Britain was in a crisis of ungovernability, and the road to Thatcherism had opened up. Marquand came to see the flaws in his creed not as inherent in the project itself, but as arising from the nature of the British state, in particular from the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. It was not that the outcomes which British governments in the 1960s had been trying to achieve were wrong-Marquand saw Thatcherism as “economically wasteful and socially destructive”-but that they had sought to engineer these outcomes from above. He concluded that TH Marshall had been premature in his view that “political citizenship” had been won, and that the next stage of progress was economic and social citizenship. Political citizenship was not to be equated with periodic opportunities to vote for a sovereign parliament. It required power to be shared; subjects of the Crown to be turned into citizens. Only then could a “public philosophy of mutual obligation and common purpose” develop to protect the public good against rampant market forces.

Marquand noticed a similar “mismatch between the purposes and structures of the European project.” Again, he approved the purpose because the taming of the market had to be continental in scope. But technocratic Europe had raced ahead of political Europe. The idea of dispersing power in Britain merged in his mind with the idea of decentralising and federalising Europe. He concludes his intellectual autobiography on an apocalyptic note. Only the reassertion of power over the market can prevent the return of the demons. “Globally and nationally, we shall sooner or later have to choose between the free market and the free society.”

What, then, has changed over the years? In its earliest form, Marquand’s argument for political reform of the British state was linked to the problem of poor economic performance and the failure of Keynesian social democracy to work as well in Britain as in some other countries. This link was never convincing-as Brian Barry pointed out in a devastating review of The Unprincipled Society in the TLS. It has also been overtaken by events. What Marquand calls the “collective project” broke down everywhere, whether in its Russian, British, French, German, Swedish or Japanese forms; whether power was centralised or decentralised, sovereign or shared.

Marquand was slow to see that the crisis of collectivism in the 1980s was a global, not just a British, phenomenon. He urged Britain to adopt neo-corporatist practices when these practices were breaking down in Europe and Japan. This initial blindness to the global nature of the transformation of the last 20 years is rooted in a British parochialism, surprising in such a fervent European. For much of the 1980s his discussion remained obstinately anchored in the debates of the 1960s concerning the causes of Britain’s relative decline against France and Germany. He had still not abandoned this discourse in the early 1990s, writing that Britain was “leading the race to the bottom” of the EU. This argument is even less convincing today than it was a few years ago. All the evidence is that Britain’s relative decline against its continental peers has been halted and reversed by the reforms of the Thatcher-Major years. Marquand finds this hard to accept, because of his visceral hatred of Thatcherism.

The new questions in political economy are how to protect countries against speculative attacks on their currencies; and how to protect the victims of change, bad luck and incompetence without bankrupting national exchequers. Therefore they relate to the control mechanisms of a global economy, and to the nature of social contracts between affluent majorities and poor minorities.

These are serious issues. Karl Polanyi, a sociologist who greatly influenced Marquand, believed that markets in land, labour and capital were “unnatural.” They had to be forced on societies in the 19th century by governments schooled by economists who told them that the effects of free buying and selling of “factors of production” would be beneficial in the long run. But because societies experienced these “market disciplines” as destructive of social warmth and settled expectations, spontaneous resistance arose. This either took the benign form of social democracy and trade unionism, or the malign form of fascism and communism. Marquand believes that much the same is happening today: capitalism is again a wild beast. With markets set free from benign constraint, the danger is a recurrence of forces which almost destroyed western civilisation in the interwar years. Democracy must therefore be strengthened-not just in Britain, but in the EU.

This is not a negligible argument, and I hope I do not underestimate the danger of “Wild West” capitalism. But unless the threat is carefully specified, it sounds like wilful doom-mongering. Polanyi, writing in 1944, was clear that the main defect of market capitalism was its susceptibility to violent fluctuations. So first we need to form a view about how unstable contemporary market economies are-whether they contain an inherent principle of order or whether this has to be imposed from outside. Moderately flexible product and factor markets are not likely to be violently unstable. It is wrong to read the Great Depression of 1929-33 as a “typical” outcome of unregulated markets. The question of “re-taming” capitalism may have to be confronted anew, but it will have little to do with eliminating democratic deficits and more to do with boring matters such as central bank co-operation.

Latterly, Marquand has reformulated his political project in terms of a “civic republicanism” which can deal with the crisis not of the British economy, but the welfare state. But what is “civic republicanism?” The implications are not entirely comforting to anyone who recalls Robespierre. There are plenty of phrases about “mutual commitment” and “inclusion.” But at the core is the notion of duty which we owe each other as “citizens.” Marquand reaches this conclusion by a double transformation of liberal language. The individual’s rights against the state become “rights to resources.” And rights to resources are said to be “necessary conditions” for doing your duty. The first step was taken by the New Liberals at the turn of the century; the second has very little to do with liberalism of any kind. The right to resources to enable you to fulfil your own plan can be seen as an extension of liberty, but the right to resources to enable you to do your duty has a nasty Fabian ring. Marquand asks: “If resources are redistributed in your favour, are you not under some obligation to make proper use of them?” Does he mean moral or legal obligation?

Marquand wants to create a public philosophy of reciprocal duties, but why does he suppose that civic republicanism would provide one? Sometimes he seems to believe that a community based on process (a political community) will agree on these matters as readily as one based on custom (a traditional community). Elsewhere he calls for “a new civic religion based on humanism.” This is plainly incompatible with what we mean by a free society; it could only be realised by totalitarian methods, which Marquand would be the first to condemn. Once more, the all-purpose solution turns out to be vacuous. There may be good reasons for “modernising” Britain’s state. But they have no more to do with humanising capitalism now than they did with improving British economic performance earlier.

Over the years, Marquand has attributed a succession of economic and social problems-which Britain has shared with most developed countries-to the archaism of Britain’s monarchical state. The British state may be archaic; but the belief that these problems will be solved if it is “democratised” is wishful thinking. These essays are coloured by a systematic overestimation of the possibilities of politics; a deep pessimism about markets as engines of growth and job creation; and an inability to conceive of morality and effort outside a framework of constitutional reform. It is comforting that Marquand calls his intellectual autobiography “Journey to an Unknown Destination.” I hope I have offered some signposts to his next stop.

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