Politics and Markets


The market is constantly encroaching on our lives, and it increasingly pervades our politics too. The contributors to Soundings 36 explore this issue in a number of different ways.

Ken Livingstone is one of the most interesting and creative politicians in Britain today. In his discussion with Doreen Massey he acknowledges the many ways in which business interests constrain his choices, but he argues that you can always find spaces within which you can make a difference. For example he has worked with business on a number of environmental initiatives. This kind of principled pragmatism raises the question of where you draw the line. Is promoting the flourishing of the City and its institutions an acceptable price to pay for keeping your place at the table of the powerful? Is the market so strong that we have to look to business for some of our partnerships for change?

While Ken Livingstone is guided by robust pragmatism, Erik Olin Wright puts forward an equally robust theoretical guide to transformative politics. His clarity about goals and practices is informed by a recognition of the conflict of interests that exists between any egalitarian project and commercial priorities. Thus, against the tendency within Labour circles to believe that there can be a politics without winners and losers, he clearly recognises that, for example, profit maximisation is incompatible with the kind of regulation that promotes the common good. This enables him to demarcate a politics that combines radical egalitarian democratic values with an institutional realism that avoids any blurring of the boundaries between markets and politics.

Jonathan Rutherford explores the many intellectual and institutional links between business and politics in his research on the web of connections between insurance companies, the academy and new government policies on welfare reform. He shows how US company UnumProvident's intellectual window-dressing for refusing sickness claims was welcomed into the government's own claims adjustment project. The psychology institute set up by the company employs former government personnel on its staff. The institute then produces monographs that - delivering a service for both the insurance business and the government - show that incapacity for work can be seen as a cultural phenomenon that can be addressed by a learning programme for the claimant. This is a classic neoliberal move - and Michael Rustin in his article shows how Richard Layard performs the same manoeuvre in suggesting cut-price individual therapy for depression, while simultaneously recognising that trends in society more widely are generators of mental illness. Sociological theories that are outdated and/or comply with the neo-liberal order are deployed to simplify the complex interrelationships between individual and society, allowing responsibility for social problems to be redefined as a problem for individuals.

Janet Newman and Nick Mahony, in their detailed response to the Compass publication Democracy and the Public Realm, look at a number of ways in which the language of democracy and participation is merging with the vocabulary of consumer choice. They also analyse the government's focus on civil society as an empty and apolitical space in which they can trawl for social entrepreneurs. They argue that civil society is becoming aligned with the market in new forms of hybrid organisations charged with service delivery and community renewal. In this way more public space is colonised.

Michael Rustin revisits the happiness debate, and argues that it is the prioritisation of economic growth over other values that is making people unhappy amidst their increasing affluence. …

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