The Crisis of a Social System: Is the Current Political Settlement Sustainable?

By Rustin, Michael | Soundings, May 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Crisis of a Social System: Is the Current Political Settlement Sustainable?


Rustin, Michael, Soundings


The persuasive view that Stuart Hall has set out in his article in this issue is that the Coalition is the most radical government since Thatcher. He describes its ferocious programme to further subjugate Britain to the hegemony of neoliberalism as an ideology and world-view. Doreen Massey's complementary argument is that resistance to these conservative forces has to be mounted from outside the compromised perspectives of social democracy with its half-hearted qualifications to market-led regimes whose domination it largely accepts as necessary and inevitable. She argues for a politics based on alternative values and on forms of agency whose potential comes in part from outside the conventional political system.

Both of these arguments, most of which I agree with, are organised around a dynamic conception of ideology, which after all is what 'neoliberalism' essentially is. In Hall's article the concept of ideology, however, becomes expanded, such that the term 'neoliberalism' is not merely employed to describe a doctrine or system of ideas, but becomes a description of an entire social formation, seen as the enactment of its animating ideological principles. One can say, without disparagement, that this is a kind of 'culturalist' approach to political analysis. Since neoliberal ideology is indeed the organising principle of the great transformation of our times, this perspective captures much of what needs to be understood about the 'present conjuncture'.

A systemic crisis

Nevertheless, I want to frame my contribution to this debate in slightly different terms. Suppose we think in terms of the development not of an ideological system, but of a social system, whose dominant ideas and mentalities are only one of its components. Suppose one reverts to the antiquated term capitalism, as the name not merely of an ideology but of an ensemble of interrelated elements (modes of production, distribution, social control, socialisation, communication, military power, etc). Suppose one further reintroduces into this model the idea of social classes, in all their complex aspects, and identifies these rather than the ideologies that both construct them and are constructed by them as the prime agencies of change. Any conceptual framing of these issues has its own problems, as arguments within Marxist social theory over recent decades have taught us. Nevertheless, some light might be thrown on our situation through the use of a 'social system discourse' which an ideology-focused account may not provide.

The question which this other framing of the issues may enable us to ask concerns the stability and viability of the systems animated by neoliberal ideology. 'Systems theories', in both their sociological and structuralist Marxist variants, were always concerned with the preconditions of social equilibrium (the issue for functionalism) or potential disequilibrium (the issue for Marxists such as Althusser). The question I want to raise concerns the 'equilibrium' or otherwise of one particular system, namely that of the United Kingdom's national version of capitalism, shaped as it has been by its own specific history. How stable, now, is this particular configuration? My purpose is not to critique in normative terms the neoliberal project for Britain, but rather to ask what its outcomes are likely to be, here in Britain. As a governmental project, can it work, even in its own terms? And should it fail, in what forms might failure manifest itself, and what opportunities might this failure offer to the development of alternative kinds of politics? (1)

It is certainly the case that global capitalism has been enjoying a spectacular advance over the past thirty years. This advance began first with the economic and political crisis of the 1970s in the West, and the victory of neoliberals in the struggles of that period. Its second major precondition was the collapse of European Communism, and the emergence of China as a new kind of hybrid formation, capitalist in its economy but still with a notionally Communist one-party form of government.

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