John Clarke is a Professor of Social Policy at the Open University, UK and a recurrent Visiting Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, at Central European University. He is one of the best-known social policy researchers of his generation. His work has explored political and cultural transformations of nation, state and welfare, with a particular interest in the role of managerialism and consumerism in the remaking of public services. As a postgraduate student, he was part of the Open University Cultural Studies group gathered around Stuart Hall. The outcome of his formative years was Policing the Crisis (Hall et al., Macmillan, 1978), which examined the emergence of authoritarian populism and the exceptional state in 1970s Britain. His more recent works include: Changing Welfare, Changing States (Sage, 2004) and Publics, Politics and Power (with Janet Newman, Sage, 2009). He is currently involved in two research and writing collaborative projects, on the themes of Disputing Citizenship and Policy as Translation.
FF: Let’s start with the very beginning. You have seen neoliberalism getting born and growing up and you’ve been a vocal criticizer of the whole process for decades now. To your mind, which are the main social transformations that neoliberalism brought about?
JC: I think there are two levels. The first one is what’s immediately visible: which is the global sense of trying to liberate capital from as many constraints as possible. The whole rhetoric and practice of free markets: free markets everywhere, expanding the field of possibilities. And it does seem to me that it treats us all as though we might be part of this process. That we might all be little capitalists, little entrepreneurs and that our interests would therefore be the same. You know: you liberate capital, you liberate individuals, you liberate people from constraint, from states, from taxes, just free, free, free… That’s such a strange notion of freedom. So I think in a sense that’s the most obvious and the most pervasive, the most dominant. You can see a variant of it anywhere, even in places where you might not say were neo-liberal. You can hear the echoes of that rethinking. But I guess the second level is more important for me, which is the immense flexibility of neoliberalism, its capacity to find other voices to speak through, to adapt to local circumstances, to change its shape a little, to make friends, to go and walk in company. So, you know I talk too much about the United Kingdom, but it is awful to see a formerly social democratic party speaking about markets, consumers, and liberation in this sense! That seems to me to be the other side of neoliberalism, that it appears in clothes that you don’t expect, to speak through voices that you don’t expect and it keeps on going and it keeps on going… I said two, but there were actually three, of course. The third thing which is what the geographer Jamie Peck called the fact that neoliberalism always fails, that the fantasy of the world that neoliberalism imagines can never come true because nothing ever works like that, so it fails… Jamie’s wonderful line about neoliberalism is that “it always fails and flails forward”. So when it fails is because we haven’t tried hard enough, it’s because we didn’t do it right, so next time it’s not that we should probably do something different. No. We should do free markets again, but more, but better. And that seems to me to… If you think about that global, massive financial crisis that started in about 2008, and people said: “Oh, no one believes in markets anymore!”. Well actually what the neoliberals said was: “It wasn’t the markets’ fault, it was the regulators’ fault”. So the way forward is a neoliberal one. This is a scary capacity to rethink yourself again and again. So neoliberalism will never become mature, it will never become grown up and it will remain in a sort of strange adolescence, because it lives its fantasy all the time. And if its fantasy wasn’t so dangerous for everybody else, that would not be a problem.
FF: You’ve described freedom under neoliberalism as “strange” – “a strange freedom”. Can you expand a bit on that?
JC: Yes I can… It’s strange, because it is the imagined freedom to spend your own money, which is a strange consumer-like freedom. So it doesn’t involve the freedom to do all sorts of other things that are not articulated, connected through markets. So, that’s strange. But the other strangeness seems to me to be is… you can make your choices, you know, you can make your own choices, you are free to chose and then there is what in English law is called “the small print”. And the small print says: you can make your own choices, but you should make the right ones. So, it’s a strange freedom. One which says “Please, choose!”, you are autonomous, a powerful individual, but “don’t do that”, “don’t do that”, “don’t do that”… “Oh, yes, you should do this one!” I have friends whom have written about changes in mental health policy in the United Kingdom and they are very interesting because they say there is a responsibility to make “right” choices and the moment you make “wrong” choices” you are in trouble. So I think that this freedom is a massive rhetorical device, but its practice looks tiny. And it comes with economic, social, political constraints. And that’s why I think is a “strange freedom”.
AC: You place this notion of “strange freedom” where I would end with it. At the moment of individual choice. But isn’t this whole notion of autonomous, free and basically equal personhood involved in these processes and equally problematic to what you’re saying?
JC: Oh yes! Oh yes!
AC: Then let’s talk about class now…
JC: About class and not only! …not only… So it is absolutely centred on the free, autonomous, well-resourced individual which is why the way that it imagines equality involves an equal right to choose how to spend your money and having your money is a condition of that. Anybody, anybody can make those choices, anybody can choose, and the small print reads “subject to them having the necessary resources to do so”. And that whole question of who has the resources to do it is blurred deliberately, willfully, intentionally, because if you don’t have the resources it’s through your own fault. You have the opportunity to acquire those resources. Everybody does! It’s that sort of world! And so if you can’t afford a branded pair of jeans, you know, or a beautiful pair of shoes it’s because you didn’t try hard enough. And it does seem to me that the attempt, and I’m going to insist that it is an attempt, to write inequality out of a social story, out of a political story is central to neoliberalism. You have to try and make it go away, because that’s the thing that we all trip up on in everyday life, which is “Yes, it doesn’t look like autonomous, freely choosing, equal individuals. It looks like some people have lots of money. Some people have more money than we can imagine and some people have none. And do we quite believe that that’s just a matter of their own effort?” Last weekend the Swiss voted to put constraints on managers’ bonuses and I’ve heard people saying that gaps, the interval of wealth, are becoming too wide, too unreasonable: they don’t make sense and what they ended up saying “and they cannot be justified”. And the problem for neoliberalism making this attempt is whether it can persuade us that it is justifiable. And I think one of the interesting effect of the financial crisis is that is harder to believe it’s justifiable. So I think there are profound income inequalities, there are profound wealth inequalities, and these are profoundly organized by questions of class, they are also sadly organized by questions of gender. The persistence of gender income inequalities: in the UK women historically make some 75% of what men do for the same jobs. It is very marginally moving after thirty years of struggle, but not much. And in UK there are significant racialized inequalities. And so, for social analysis, it looks obvious to find organized unequal distributions. And that’s an issue that neoliberalism is forever troubled by. You know, it’s like taking an ideological cleanser and trying to scrub the obviousness away and say: “No! Individuals. No! Just individuals. And some do it better than others.” [imitating Margaret Thatcher] And you say: “Come on! It continues to look systemic” [in the low voice of a child]. And it seems to me that one of the struggles is to keep the language of systemic, organized inequality part of the public discourse. To absolutely insist that the words need to be there so that the people who feel uncomfortable could use them and talk with them. And for me, one public use of the social sciences is about keeping words or vocabularies alive through which people can talk about various processes and relations like inequalities and the need for justice.
AC: Paradoxically, it seems to me that the right does this talking quite well. It collapses the talk about organized inequality and the cultural and political tropes of individualism and transforms the discourse of individual responsibility in a discourse related to the backwardness or the incapacity of certain categories to perform well in a civilized, advanced, progressive regime. Can you elaborate a bit on this?
JC: Well, I can, because I’m British and the British have a long imperial history that is organized through those categories. [He laughs] We always knew, obviously, that we were the advanced section of the world, and therefore it is not surprising that we ruled the world, and it’s not surprising that we accumulated forms of material and cultural wealth from all those other places, because we were obviously the most advanced. There is a temporal organization of people, as it were: you know that some are backward, you know that some might be rescued or developed to become more like you. You know, part of imperial governing is to find the sections that you might develop, make them more like the British. And so I think that’s a powerful historical lesson for me: always a part of imperial history that we, the British, applied everywhere and what interests me is the way that even after the empire the patterns of thinking about the advanced and backward groups still becomes folded back into at least conservative thinking. And unfortunately sometimes it interrupts progressive thinking too. You know, we think of some groups as not quite ready to become part of “us”. And I’ve also seen left groups having those conversations, unfortunately. So I think it’s widespread and I think it is always, it’s always been reintegrated, I mean a lot of our thinking about cities includes the marginal, peripheral, backward sectors who probably shouldn’t be there. They just make the place untidy and it would be better if you could put them in the countryside. You know, further away. In the early parts of the 20th century we used to have the idea of labour colonies and you could send those people away to labour colonies. You would keep the place tidy, if you kept some people out of circulation.
FF: This immediately connects to one of the liveliest political debates in Romania concerning immigration and the debates in the United Kingdom to somehow keep blocking the free movement of the labour force within the European Union post-2014, which has been taken up immensely by the Romanian media, cited as a site of repugnance towards Eastern Europeans and also as a way of showing the arrogance of the British towards the rest. Of course, by now it took a life of its own.
JC: I mean, what am I gonna say? They are entirely right to recognize the cultural judgment, the arrogance and the categorization of “the rest”. But the little I add to that is that it is the recurrence of imperial thinking, and it brings two other things together. One is the conservative, I don’t just mean party – political conservative, but culturally conservative, British thinking about the state of the world and how sad it is that we don’t rule it anymore. Things would be better if only we would rule the world: the true imperial fantasy. So there’s a legacy of that and then there’s a more immediate or conjunctural set of questions about the relationship between Britain and Europe and the European Union with which the conservatives, not only but especially, conservative politicians have never been comfortable. It’s a major site of strain, political strain, in the ruling party and that it means that they look obsessively for the flashpoint. What is the set of issues that would give them traction, leverage to be anti-European without quite saying they are? So I think, as it were, that Romanian media is right to recognize the arrogance for what it is, but I’m not sure they quite recognize as well the cynicism that sustains it. Because it’s harder and harder to simply say that we are just against the European Union, or just against the free movement of people. That’s neoliberal after all. But then… then there are people who are not really European and it seems to me that is the moment of Romania’s appearance in the British political imagination: “Ah! That’s where the edge of Europe is! They are… they are beyond”.. and that sense of the place that is not quite European allows the full articulation of horror: “Oh! No! Don’t let them come.” Now, in my sixty years I have seen the “Don’t let the Jamaican people come”, “Don’t let the Indians come”, “Don’t let the Africans come”, “Don’t let the French come” (because we didn’t want to join the European Union in the first place): “Don’t let…and, and, and…” You know, don’t let the Poles come, don’t let the Bulgarians, don’t let the Romanians come. Turkey remains at the edge of the European imaginary even beyond Romania: another world… And so the capacity, as it were, of the British political culture to find the next place that we think is not really like us is impressively horrible.
AC: If I understood you correctly, you were mentioning that these forms of othering, as we as anthropologists would call them, also feed a little bit into the leftist thinking in the UK. Can you talk a little bit about the danger of the left being fed with these frames of thinking?
JC: Well, I can. It’s not easy. It makes me politically uncomfortable, but I think that there are at least two ways in which it cross-cuts: historically the British left has been caught between an internationalism and imperialism, and one of the problematic things about imperialism is that the national working-class is a beneficiary of imperialism. Imperialism also allowed for the construction of a relatively vast welfare state. The resources of empire coincide with the moment of making the welfare state. So the left has a sense of strain and that includes, historically, a sense of imperial advantage. That’s always in tension with a powerful internationalism, I mean I grew up with a very strong sense of working-class internationalism, of solidarity across national or racial boundaries, you know, the places where my father worked in factories always had sections of a migrant working-class in them… So there’s a strain. I think currently it’s a stronger strain because I think many, not just British, but also other bits of European left, are worried about whether migration undercuts the capacity of labour to regain a position in its relationship with capital. Does migration drive down average wages? Are working conditions undercut by migration? And so on… And I think, as it were, there is always an economic argument there, but there’s a moment in which I always feel the left is never quite free of a sort of nationalism and racism and allthat legacy. And this makes me uncomfortable because none of those conversations are ever innocent, they’re never easy, because the anti-capitalist logic is folded into a national set of calculations and is folded into some nationalist presumptions. And that’s a potentially ugly meeting. And when a previous Labour prime-minister tried to speak-up for Britain he said “All we want is British jobs for British workers!”. That was also the slogan of the ultra-right British National Party. That is a little folding together that appeals to Britishness always have at stake in them. You can’t do Britishness without working a bit harder to disentangle those elements. And I think historically the British left has had some troubles with that. Look – I’m shrugging my shoulders. It makes me uncomfortable and I think it means we should try a lot harder.
FF: Of course, with the growing inequality and the working class people we turn to your main preoccupation that is welfare and the transformation of welfare. Classical welfare and welfarism meant intervening to reduce some of this inequalities produced by capitalism in some of its older versions. Neoliberalism has done away with all that, much more successfully than it was ever expected. How did this process go in Britain?
JC: I think it probably went faster and easier in Britain than anywhere else. And that’s because I think the dominant variant of neoliberalism has been Anglo-American and the neoliberalism that I know best, or worst, is the neoliberalism that speaks English. And it speaks English in the places that speak English so a lot of the neoliberal experiments are in Anglophone societies: New Zealand, Australia to a certain extent, Canadian version, but especially the United Kingdom and the United States. And it’s true that in comparative welfare state analysis the United Kingdom was one of the weakest European welfare states, which is less generous, more mean-spirited, more grudging than the Nordic systems, and than the Western European, French, German. All of them have a sort of more institutionally embedded quality. The British welfare state I think, historically, was always constructed on a sense of suspicion. That if you made welfare too nice, too generous, too easy, things would fall apart! And so I think that suspicious meanness provides a point of entry to neoliberalism. To me, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom there is a perverse set of connections between neoliberalism and conservatism. Neoliberalism provides an economic logic for why you don’t want welfare states and it provides a more generalized antistatism. “States are bad!”, you know. You get that element out of neoliberalism. Out of conservatism, on the other hand, you get the huge moral vocabulary of antiwelfarism. You get: “it undermines families”, “it destroys moral fiber”, “it makes people dependent”, “it saps the drive to be independent”, “it makes people pathetic”, “it creates lifelong, intergenerational moral idiots”. And that seems to me that we have had very strong versions in Anglophone countries. I mean, when I talk to my friends in Germany for example or in Norway, they know the arguments, they see the arguments, but I don’t know that they have the weight that they have in the UK and especially in the United States. So I think the inroads into welfare have been made by that very interesting conjunction of two lots of practical and political resources.
AC: You mentioned the state and I think we should stop a little bit to talk about this strange alliance, contextual alliance, between neoliberalism as an always in the making project moving towards an utopic world and the state. The state is always bad, except for the moments when it bails out banks or socialize debt. So the private debt can be socialized very well and this should be a very strange understanding of what a free, autonomous, capitalist means.
JC: Oh! I think you’re absolutely right. It is a very strange understanding and it’s one that they don’t want to talk about, because it is an almost foundational contradiction of neoliberalism: which is “Yes! Free, autonomous, individual…” yet massively supported, sustained, and rescued. I mean the official neoliberal discourse on this matter: “Oh well! Of course! We need military, police, we need the nightwatchman minimal state, but the authoritative state”. Well, yes, but it does seem to me that they have massively benefited from other sorts of state action and the financial crisis is one and there is a moment when it looks like the entire financial system of the world was too big too fail. And this was not just a matter of bailing out banks, this was a matter of saving the system from itself. And so there is something interesting about the belief that putting banks on public funds is not creating moral idiots. I mean, we’re not prepared to look after poor people, but we’ll certainly look after rich people. There is also, it seems to me, as a part of neoliberalization, a process of turning public assets into private ones. So there is a sort of gift of public resources to the process of capital accumulation. There are, in welfare terms, there are really free gifts: the process of socializing low wages, tax-credit systems, and processes that pay supplements that enable employers to pay much lower wages. So, that’s a subsidy to capital. And then, certainly in the United Kingdom, there’s the process of making the processes of subcontracting welfare into a resource for capital accumulation. So, the British system of finding employment for the long-term unemployed, the “work program” as it is called, is run by a very small number of very large companies on contracts from the government and then they subcontract the actual working with the long-term unemployed to smaller companies. So that’s the process that makes the work of welfare a possible site for capital accumulation. And all those together, I mean healthcare, education, and, and, and… A friend of mine in England has called this the move from social welfare to corporate welfare. Capital is rejuvenated by the remaking of what used to be welfare. It becomes a playground for making profit. And, of course, because they are not very good at it – for not making profit. That is the field of possibilities. And you’ve heard me say that I’m interested in failures and the moral failure that we have to keep remembering is that capitalists are not very good at being capitalists. They don’t necessarily succeed! They fail! They do! Consistently. And isn’t it nice that states still look after them? …
AC: You know, your assertion about failure takes me to the one central element of the strange mix which the anticommunist discourse in post-socialist countries is today. That whatever we say about any alternative ideology, capitalism is simply better, because it’s simply more efficient. So “efficiency” was never really questioned seriously.
JC: Yes. I mean I don’t want to underestimate the significance of that language in post-communism… But we had it too! And it came out as one of the world’s great stories. Which is, whatever else you say about it, capitalism is efficient. Ok. So, that is the capitalism that is efficient which ran the chain of care houses in which one of my old aunts was accommodated. They ran out of money. They failed to make a profit. They had to sell the houses. They didn’t sell the inmates, you know, the people in the home. They sold the home. And the incoming company was asked whether it wanted the building, the land or the income from people in the home. Actually the land was more profitable than running a home for elder care. And so… Out go the old people! At which point the local state had to step in again and say “we have to find some place to put these people”. Now, here are two sorts of inefficiencies. The economic inefficiency of not making a profit and the social inefficiency of not having any obligations to the people. So, I’m forever told stories about efficiency and everyday I fall over the evidence of more inefficiency. One of the things that neoliberalism and its globalization, in fact, brought is the export of inefficiency. It is possible to make costs and problems go elsewhere. It is possible for the privatized, subcontracted, contracted waste collection services in the United Kingdom to not find technological, effective remedies for what to do with waste, by putting it in containers to China. China now receives our waste, receives other sorts of pressures and problems from us as well. But globalization means: you can move things. You can move waste, you can move cash, you can move labour, but you can also move problems. And that seems to be a scary consequence of globalization. That means that we are able to move inefficiency around.
AC: I think this problem of efficiency has always been thought in three highly problematic ways. One, which you talk about now is a very non-spatialized way of thinking about efficiency. The second one a very non-temporal way of looking at efficiency. And the third one is understanding efficiency as profit and profit only.
JC: I think you’re right about it. We talked about the spatial one… The temporal one is really important, because shunting costs of economic, social, environmental troubles into the future is a major accomplishment of how you calculate efficiency, but it has a fairly disastrous implication for anybody else beyond you and me. That somebody else is going to be the victim of that temporal shift. And I think it’s massive and it’s global as well. I think that’s the spatial and temporal combining. But the third one: you’re absolutely right that the notion of efficiency is framed by such a narrow conception of both costs and achievements that it makes little social sense. There is nothing for the rest of us to be gained from such a narrow calculation of efficiency. Because it just means that all the costs of being efficient are out there with us, or with our children, or with our grandchildren, or with somebody else’s children… but they are not in the company. And how could anybody think that the only rational way to calculate efficiency was in a company accountancy system? That is beyond me. That looks to me like a great original thought. Somebody did really well, but for the rest of us bearing the consequences… We just end up in such a stupid discussion about efficiency. And you have to go through such long discussions about why is not a sensible way to think about efficiency. You know, before I was born the railways in the United Kingdom were nationalized. They had been run by large numbers of small companies, each of which had a bit of something that was not even a system, because they built them on different track rails and, you know, things did not join up and they didn’t even use the same time to construct timetables. So, it was sort of a mess and they were dangerous. And, partly because they were not efficient, we nationalized them, to construct a system in which the rails joined up, the timetables were sort of integrated, you could make different journeys around different parts of the system. And for a while that looked like the sensible thing to do. But then… in the 1960s an accountant’s model of efficiency came back and we were told that the railway system was not profitable, could not be profitable, so it was chopped up. Large parts of it were abandoned. Which meant that efficiency declined further and rail could not compete with more efficient forms of transport like the individual motorcar. Now, that is a way of thinking about the efficiency of the individual car, in terms of the car companies and in terms of the individual drivers. But in any national or international understanding of social progress, it is not an efficiency to have millions of private cars on a road network that can barely keep them moving. I mean, in every sense this is not efficient. So, we inherited a concept of efficiency that consistently makes the world worse. Thank you…
FF: All of the tensions and contradictions that you describe are blatantly obvious in the shift of welfare regimes to workfare ones, but a “workfare without jobs”. I’d like you to tell the story of this transformation.
JC: Well. The official story of workfare is that the bad thing about welfare is to maintain people in a state of passive dependence. You gave them money and they sat at home, watched television and produced children.
FF: And got drunk!
JC: And got drunk. I mean it is these vastly demoralized people that take morality away. So, it’s obvious, if that’s the story, then you need to make people active. And you should make them actively take work, look for work and you should make benefits available on the condition of them becoming active. Ahh! I’ve told the official story… and I have two little problems, let’s call them contradictions, that I think emerge on the road from welfare to workfare. One is, countries make that move at the point when employment declines. So you make people make themselves ready for work that does not necessarily exist. And there are spatial questions about that as well, because you have them make themselves ready wherever they are, even in places where companies close down and leave the area. You should be ready for the job that will be available in five years time! You should keep yourself ready! Ok, I think, it’s a contradiction. It’s at least hypocritical of government to ask people to take workfare when government no longer thinks it matters to make work. Right: governments have moved to managing the people that work and they have stopped almost any interest in local and regional economic development of employment. You know, the British government of the last thirty years has said “that’s impossible! We can’t do that sort of thing! We need the market!” And, as usual, the market has no spatial consciousness about its obligations to deliver employment in particular places. So in lots of places there are people on workfare in a local world without much work. Ok, that seems to me to be a contradiction. But the other side of the story to me, and I don’t know which I find more offensive, is that everybody talks about work as this very nice thing. An experience which is intrinsically satisfying and rewarding, and which is socially enriching. You meet people through work, you will make friends, it helps the family because parents who work are better role models for their children than parents who don’t work. It’s better for the national economy, because people in work don’t cost as much as people out of work, even though we are subsidizing employers to employ those who were unemployed. Work is an all-round wonderful thing. It is the magic of the heart of the new economy. And when I say “magic”, I mean magic, because it doesn’t bear much relationship to the reality of the employment that most people experience if they get jobs. Which is poor work, it is degraded and degrading work; it is fragile work, in terms on no long term contracts; it is discontinuous work in terms of how long the contracts are and when you might or might not be summoned to work a few extra hours. It is not very social, it might well be anti-social. If you’re a mother with children the likelihood that your working hours will correspond to the needs of your children is not strong. And so there’s a profound, horrible disjunction between the myth-making about work: “It would be good for people to go to work!”, “It would be good for people to have experience of work!” and what the work that exists looks like: degraded work. Even if we do believe in the magic of work… when my father was at the peak of his working life, he came home very tired, everyday… he lost a bit of his hand in the machine… Even if we believe in that period when many went out to work that involved making things, there’s a certain romance attached to the dignity of labour argument in both capitalist and socialist economies, the work that we are talking about now is not that! It’s not that! There’s a strange book by Richard Sennett about being in work that captures something about the whole field of disconnections that are at stake if you just use the word “work” to talk about how people worked in those fordist, industrialized economies of the postwar period. “I’m in a job!”, but it has little relation to things that are satisfying. The next generation of children in my family are such in such work. They are all contracted, subcontracted, self-employed – fragile, don’t know where the next money is coming from. The interestingly contradictory world of work!
FF: One of the main institutions that was affected by the changes in the regimes of work was the family. Over the last decades this institution has seen some tremendous change, which on a moral ground, on social ground, on economic, whatever… has always been central to politics. Again there’s a whole series of contradictions that emerge.
JC: Absolutely! I think one of the core ones is about the relation between neoliberalism and conservatism. Neoliberalism seems to me to oscillate, to move almost imperceptibly between individualism – the autonomous, free choosing individuals, who make all this happen – and familialism, and it can’t quite define whatever the basic unit of society is: the individual or the family? And that causes some interesting tensions and dynamics: neoliberalism is in favor of family relations? Well… to a certain extent. It is in favor of sexual liberation politics? To a certain extent… Individuals making autonomous, lifestyle choices. That’s what we expect. “They can do that!” And yet it sort of has in the back of its mind that the problems of social reproduction were largely dealt with by families and that’s quite a good idea even if it involves an old-fashioned gendered division of labour. And this pleases the conservative friends of neoliberalism, maybe with complete departures in almost every other matter, but with the satisfaction that there’s no way out from “the family is the foundation stone of society, large society, big society”… And so, you watch all this liberating wisdom, people might choose something, and it undermines the things that they are preaching. It seems to me that you get a round of applause for individualism and, you know, the famous quotation from my former prime minister Margaret Thatcher: that everybody knows that “there’s no such thing as society”. The second half of the quotation, though, is important! Cause she went on: “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and their families!”. There is Margaret Thatcher holding neoliberalism and conservatism together, under strain, and insisting that you can have it all. But this is what political fantasies don’t like to tell you: you can’t have it all. So that’s one dynamic. The other dynamic is long term changes in employment patterns, towards employing women as well as getting rid of men, because they are cheaper, more flexible, it benefits to have women in employment from the employer’s point of view. There are things about changes between the generations. And there are changes in geography about residents and migrants. So there are long term changes that make the family less like the ideal and certainly in the United Kingdom less people live in domestic settings that are familial than used to be the case. One of the interesting things for welfare policy is whether care should be provided for everybody indifferent to their living arrangement or whether welfare should support a particular form of domestic living. That is, should welfare be in favor of “the family”? And being in favor of the family always means the reassertion to the most traditional variant: “how can we enable women to stay at home? How can we enable men to be responsible family wage earners? How can we enable children to be brought up in the old way?” And welfare seems to me to be in a real fight around this question. It is an unresolved one because I don’t think that any of the political parties that I know are willing to say “if we know that welfare is universal (and actually, not many political parties now think that welfare should be universal, that’s the problem, but even to ones who think universal-ish) can’t quite bring themselves to think about what that might mean: to create welfare for everybody which did not judge the circumstances in which people live. A part of the terrible dynamic at the moment in the dismantling of the welfare state, is that the dismantling takes place with an assumption built into it: which is that families are always there to take up the slack. Families will always help. If you turn people out of hospitals quicker, there will be people to look after them. If you need to change school hours, parents will always be there to pick up the children. If you reduce benefits, there will always be families to help. And, even in the good old days, that was just an assumption. And, of course, within it there is a sort of gendered assumption: that if families take up the slack, this means the infinitely elastic labour of women will do this. Right. They will go out to work. They will do the familial things ,and they will do all the connective labour and work that makes homes stay together. And if you fragment welfare systems there is more connective labour to be done. But fortunately, I say this in a very British ironic way, fortunately women can do everything. And that it seems to me to be a “wonderful” ideological assumption on which to reorganize welfare.
AC: You are talking about this inadequate definition of “work” that is implied in welfare programs. It seems to me that all these things that come together as a package and all definitions that are not fully understood cannot be made into tools which could grasp at least a part of the complexity of social life. And they also transform the ways in which political subjects are formed and the notions of citizenship in the sense they had for welfarism. If work is a fulfilling activity, then there is a certain type of subject born out of the work/family nexus, which is not there anymore.
JC: Yes. I think that’s right and I think the citizenship system of the old model is founded largely on the wage earning men. The wage earning man who holds the work/family/welfare nexus together, because it is his wage which articulates work and welfare, and it’s him having a wife that organizes the family. This always tends to make him think that he’s a political subject and historically causes problems for her, about whether she was a visible political subject or not. And the interesting thing, of course, is that even before welfare, the capitalist system involved sufficient contradictions which went on through work. It’s difficult to be a heroic man in general if you can’t earn wages. It dislocates all sorts of things about the family, it turns the woman into the heroic figure, because she goes to work and maintains the family… And yet, she is not quite recognized as a political subject. And to me there is a third point of the triangle: work, family and nation, and there are disruptions going on there too. Because we used to think that we knew who the members of the nation were and for the last forty years of my life that has not been true. So instead, neoliberalism has tried to reinvent the citizen as a very different sort of political subject. And that political subject is one who has responsibilities: it has responsibilities to work, it has responsibilities for its own welfare, it has responsibilities to serve the nation. One of the things that neoliberalism does is, you can tell me if you think I’m wrong, that it reinvents a version of the nation that defines the obligations and responsibilities, and which we must serve. It doesn’t say we must serve the people, but it does have a real, compelling sense of obligation. Or it tries to have a really compelling sense of obligation which manages to speak individualism, tries to speak familialism, and tries to say, in my case, “the United Kingdom plc.” – the corporate United Kingdom – “needs you!” You know… our fortunes are bound together: the individual, his or her family, the company, the nation and, indeed now, global capitalism can only work if you are the responsible acting, wage-earning, self-choosing responsible citizen. You’re looking unsure and I think you’re probably right.
AC: I’m not sure if this connection is such an explicit and such an universal connection. But even more important for me is the fact that these complex transformations you are talking about always hold both constraints and emancipatory potential. True, this is something that the left does not want to hear. So, how is the left articulated in Britain? It is clear that this uncomfortable marriage between conservatism and neoliberalism seems to be functioning at least discursively, and in the Romanian case does not have any serious counternarrative. There is no meta-narrative of the left, just a huge empty space. And I do know that the left does not produce meta-narratives anymore. How do we go from here?
JC: Oh! Welcome to my world! I’m disappointed because there isn’t a left to produce meta-narratives. There are segments of the left that hold meta-narratives: “capitalism can be overturned any day now”. There are segments of the left that have a strange sense of temporality. I’ve long argued with people who say: “if only we could get back to the 1970s”. The 1970s was the moment just before Thatcher. For the left in Britain there is a sort of seductive nostalgia. And I say: but those were the moments when we were fighting against the welfare state, I mean, those were the popular struggles that were against preserving the welfare state, and aimed to transform it. So, there are different segments of left narratives. I think my left, our left, in the United Kingdom is still struggling in part with a moralising inheritance. So it is unable to think that the appeal of choice and consumerism is anything but false consciousness. So, it doesn’t understand the double: the constraint and the emancipatory promise that the present holds. And I had long arguments with people in left groups about the need to take seriously what the promise of freedom might imply. If you think that’s a moment of false consciousness you might never be able to speak in a popular voice. That’s not to say that we should celebrate shopping, but I was formed in cultural studies, and, I think, a good form of cultural studies, where we were always interested to think through the popular. And so, not what we think that the people should think, but what people think and speak. What mobilizes them. You understand that as a contradictory field. Not as: there is that or that. When I was learning, we all read Gramsci and Gramsci says… It’s interesting cause Gramsci is always reported as saying “common sense is important”. But the Gramsci that I remember is saying: “there are many common senses”. Right. Start thoroughly and try to find what that means. There all sorts of things, and the task of political work is to know that, is to know how complicated the field of the popular is and then to think about how and with what you might get connected. That’s the politics of articulation. So, mine would be: I’m interested in what sorts of, let’s call them, old-fashioned ideas about solidarity and justice and mutual support and welfare and need. Problems and needs. What do we have in common? We have problems and needs. Problems and needs are things that cannot be resolved individually, problems and needs are things that need support to enable you to move beyond them. I mean, those seem to me to be… When I have little conversations in the United Kingdom, these are the sorts of things that people talk about and cannot see expressed in the dominant discourse of the welfare reforms. People know that being in need is not a nostalgia. That a beer after work is not just about being lazy. It’s something that has to do with reproduction. So I think that we’re old-fashioned and there are new possibilities that people begin to talk about. There are things for which, they say, shopping is a reasonable solution, but it’s not for problems and needs. So how do you move? A problem is partly given the shape of the dominant discourse, but my small contribution to this is, to keep on saying the words about inequality, about problems and needs, about solidarities, about issues of justice. There are very interesting distinctions going back to the riots a few years ago when the government talked about fairness, saying “we are fair, to the people who earn it”. A very neoliberal take. But the very interesting story is that the young-ish people that rioted did not use the word “fair”, instead they talked about “justice”. A lot. And so what is about justice that has this popular significance? That’s the thing of thinking through the popular, keeping in mind that there’s never just one popular. It’s about having a small, shared common sense. You have to be there and that’s why I think meta-narratives probably wouldn’t work. But I think you should be willing to go and be left ethnographers, be willing to listen to how people talk about the world and what they think about what happens. What do people do when they have a choice, not that we always do, but when they do what it is that it does for them? what it is? And I have had some interesting conversations with people. Choice is the only way sometimes that people can imagine power. Choice at this moment, in this place is a promise of a sort of power that they don’t have. Showing it is being recognized as an agent. The working class, poor people, marginalized people, disenfranchised people, have no sense of being seen, being heard and of being anything other than a problem. Can I talk about a book? I’ve just finished reading a book called “In Defence of the Terror”, about the French revolution, by a French historian, Sophie Wahnich. It’s wonderful partly because it adresses the revolution by understanding what it meant to engage the people. It wasn’t about making everybody equal in a flat sense. It was about insuring that wealth did not multiply its advantages. That is, a politics of giving voice to liberty and equality, giving voice in a strict sense, to everybody. You could say things, you could complain and you would not be treated dismissively. That is the beginning of a story of citizenship which I borrow a lot, about a line at a Brazilian bank when this very bourgeois figure hurdles to the front of the queue and says “I’m sorry! I’m in a hurry!” and a young, poor woman who happened to be there said “Citizen… This is a queue of citizens. Please move to the back.” And I just think that a part of what the popular might have for us is a sense of the justice of everybody, but everybody having the capacity to engage. Then choice might mark a word about what allows people to engage.
AC: Just one more thing. It’s maybe a very nasty statement. But I think that the even the left is sometimes uncomfortable with the possibility that everybody can engage.
JC: You might be right that it’s a nasty statement. But I think it doesn’t stop it from having a certain truth. The left is always not comfortable… No, no! Not over do it! My bits of the left that I know well are always presenting the notion that “we know better”. And that seems to me to be a very difficult and dangerous position to hold. Because if you know better, you tell people. And I think telling people is not always a good mobilizing strategy. I think that’s true in my politics and in my work. By and large if I tell people they are under false consciousness, they are unlikely to be engaged, and the question needs to be posed of whether you can have what Bakhtin would call a dialogic which understands many voices coming together to produce something rather different from the vanguardist model of the left which knows things and nobody listens. Right. People can have all sorts of ideas, but if you want to be effective, having people listen seems to me to be quite important. I don’t know how you mobilize people by shouting at them. That is the model of a military vanguard that requires a degree of trust or deference, which for good or ill no longer holds. And if people would not be deferential to bourgeois power I think, and they are sometimes not, there is no reason that they would believe that the left and progressive power would be any different or more suuccessful. I don’t see why we would make our own already difficult political lives any more difficult by presuming that we knew best. I’m pretty sure that I don’t know a thing, I’m pretty sure that the people are at least as clever as me, and at least as stupid as me and therefore we might conversationally think work some things through. I understand that this might sound rather like a limp, liberal and slow process, but the other one did not work very well.