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Friday, 7 October 2011

Ed Miliband's Values

‘Value’ was at the semiotic core of Ed Milliband’s 2011 Labour Conference speech. In an oration of some 5,880 words,‘values’ popped up more than any other, a staggering 45 times in all (although a leak from Conservative Central Office puts a much lower figure).

By contrast he mentioned ‘predators’ and ‘producers’ six times apiece. Workers (zero), bankers (zero) and capitalism (zero) propped up the semiotic table.

A Guardian editorial linked to a recent paper on ‘ethical socialism’ by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford with the implication that this might provide some intellectual background to Miliband’s conference rhetoric.

Miliband’s speech was to my ear one of moral certainty.

He spoke of: ‘the true values of Britain…’ adding that these truths were self-evident to his audience, ‘You know what your values are.’ He said.

But there are pitfalls for politicians who rely on moral certainty, see John Major’s ‘back to basics’ policy of the early 90s,  or consider the conscientious but ultimately erroneous moral position adopted by Tony Blair in his decision to invade Iraq. Conscientious in the sense that he probably believed it was the right thing to do. Erroneous in the sense that an appeal to individual conscience is inherently difficult to assess. Such an appeal could be insincere, untrue or mistaken; and therefore arbitrary and capricious (see Donkey passim).

Moral certainty too often leads to the adoption of arbitrary, fixed and inflexible positions and it leaves the politician exposed to contradictions.

‘…the lesson I have learnt about this job and myself over the last twelve months.
To be true to myself…. My values.

However, one reason why a politician like Ed Miliband would put morality at the core of his speech lies in the assumption that such ‘values’ are universal, or in the case of the speech in question, universal to Britain. In a liberal democracy, values are said to transcend categories like race, class, sex, occupation, they therefore they transcend political constituences. ‘Neutral’ appeals for greater ‘responsibility’ can in this way be aimed at the ‘benefit cheat’ and ‘bankster’ alike, all the easier to avoid the traps set by media and political opponents. This type of transcendence, it seems to me, might be crucial to triangulation , the tactical principle adopted by many politicians.

But it reasonable to question if such statements really are neutral and not in reality a reflection of a ruling set of values. One way to find out would be to subject such statements to a test. Habermas’s Discourse Ethics is helpful here in providing a set of discourse ethical rules of moral argumentation a corrolary of which is the highlighting of the ideological content of apparently neutral statements.

It is not uncommon to hear people talk of the run up to 2008 as a morally debased period, during which greed was said to have become a good. And whilst attitudes like this are rarely trumpted on live TV I sincerely doubt that greed has been vanquished.
What of the ‘enlightened self-interest’ advocated by Adam Smith deemed a necessary oil to the proper functioning of a capitalist society? In the Grundrisse, Marx re-phrased enlightened self-interest as ‘generalised selfishness’.

Call it what we may, enlightened self-interest / generalised selfishness can be viewed as a normalised social relation between individuals forced to compete in a capitalist society. Greed, selfishness and inequality seem to be hardwired into such societies.
Miliband’s position is probably that we should not seek to rid society of these selfish norms, but that we should tame them.
It will be interesting to see how specific policy proposals are value-audited in the future.

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