The limitations of ‘ethics’ – a reply to Ed Miliband
Ethics and politics are a highly volatile and potentially toxic mix. It may well be that the person making the ‘ethical’ proclamations is a pure-blooded saint (although that still is highly unlikely) but if your in a leadership position than the odds are stacked heavily against the rest of your team being the same. Making these kind of judgments on the lives of others is thus a open invitation to the press to bite you where it really hurts because there is nothing the press loves more than to gorge itself on the hypocrisy of politicians, something that frequently covers its own.
So, it was with some natural caution and weariness that I approach Ed Miliband’s ‘ethical’ constructs. Weariness becomes actual alarm when he talks about ambitious projects to “change human behaviour”. This wrongly assumes that human behaviour is the problem in the first place. It generally isn’t (though in some cases it is), the problem is the way society is structured. Furthermore, it becomes potentially tyrannical in its implication that state activity should be used to form and shape ‘human behaviour’.
In fairness to Ed, in the last complaint he is doing no more than reflecting a general problem with the left which sees state as the first port of call when anything is wrong and seems to have given up the pretense of even trying to empower people and extend and deepen democracy. The choice is not ‘the state or the market’; there is a third camp of people and democracy that the left should choose. Even in the areas where the state does need to control it should not do so in a bureaucratic but in a democratic manner. Co-op’s, mutuals, workers councils are all bodies and forms of organisations that should be promoted by a left committed to extending peoples control over their lives and see the state merely as a means of wresting that control back from the market ; not as an end in itself.
Ethically critiquing capitalism isn’t enough because it is blind to problems and issues of structure (and consequentially, how these structures shape human behaviour) and rarely encourages you to seek policies that address problems at their root cause. So, we see with the raft of policy suggestions that Ed has made that they are limited by this flawed starting point and therefore of dubious value. He identifies problems (high energy/rail prices, tuition fees and their effect on students from poor backgrounds) correctly enough but proposes solutions that don’t really solve the problem.
For example, the reason energy/rail prices are high is because of the fact that both are in the hands of private enterprises with no clear chain of accountability to their consumers and workers. So, creating a pooled energy resource which they all can draw on won’t really change anything – in fact, it will encourage them to ratchet-up the cost to the consumer in other areas either by levying additional surcharges or some such other device and they will get away with it because that chain of accountability, of democratic control, will still not exist. In real terms, it might even end-up driving prices up as the companies claim the cost of producing this pooled energy back.
Democratic critiques of capitalism are better because they address themselves directly to how society is structured and lay the blame for societies problems at the door of that issue, not at the door of ‘bad apples’. It also eschews the frankly logically mind-bending contortions that an ethical critique of society goes through when it falsely and factually incorrectly lumps the problems caused by the banks in with the problems caused by benefit fraudsters. It also solves both by positing the democratic redistribution of social wealth as the solution because it recognises both issues are ultimately rooted in how society is organised and the undemocratic concentration of socially produced wealth in the hands of the few, as opposed to the many. This is the giant elephant in the room of Ed Miliband’s ‘ethical’ critique of capitalism and its one that his policy solutions and rhetoric are blind too and ultimately it is not an elephant that either Ed Miliband nor Labour can afford to ignore if they are serious about building the new society that both claim to want to see.