Like many of the leaders of developed nations, Boris Johnson has been struggling to assert his leadership role in the thankless combat against the current scourge of humanity: a particularly aggressive infectious disease that has now landed even the prime minister himself in hospital. Boris has welcomed on the scene a knight of the realm, Sir Keir Starmer, who may help him, even if The Economist has some doubts about the quality of his shining armor.
On April 4, the Labour Party has finally replaced the much despised Jeremy Corbyn. A day before Saturday’s election, The Economist’s Bagehot editorial greeted Starmer’s election with approval while expressing some slight trepidation. It reminded readers that the doughty Sir Keir is replacing “the party’s most disastrous leader ever” but helpfully suggests the new leader “should beware of ‘war socialism,’” without offering a clear explanation of what is meant by “war socialism.”
The term has in the past been used to describe the effort a government makes to mobilize its industries and its people to contribute to equipping the military to fight a war. But with no general election in sight before 2024, it’s difficult to imagine an opposition leader with the authority to command an economy warring with a virus. What exactly is Bagehot worried about?
The concern becomes slightly clearer when the editorial cites the sudden optimism felt in Corbyn’s socialist camp after the 2017 general election that robbed Theresa May of a Tory majority, followed by the December election: “The catastrophic failure of 2019 dispelled that illusion and reconciled all but fanatics to the idea that politics is the art of the possible.”
War socialism thus appears to correlate with an impossible ideology adopted by fanatics who refuse to respect the divine right of free markets, the only reality that The Economist recognizes as “possible.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Art of the possible:
A synonym for the status quo, all other political or economic systems being deemed impossible.
For those who are familiar with The Economist, the editorialist Bagehot is not an actual author but a nom de plume chosen for its historical resonance. Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) was The Economist’s legendary 19th-century editor-in-chief, a diligent and prolific promoter of economic liberalism. Today’s Bagehot is Adrian Wooldridge, an atypical journalist with an Oxford D Phil in philosophy (Balliol, no less). Woodridge wandered into journalism after a stint as a fellow of All Souls College, the only Oxford college that has no students, only fellows. In other words, Wooldridge is a disciplined intellectual intimately familiar with Britain’s and the world’s elites.
Like other British commentators, Wooldridge is trying to come to grips with two major national and international dramas that have converged in time but lack any direct link of historical logic. The coronavirus pandemic has delivered what some suspect and others fear may be a fatal blow to the status quo of Western economies. But the existing political and economic order in the UK had already reached an advanced stage of precarity with the ongoing, never quite resolved existential drama of Brexit. This year has left Britons wondering when they can leave their homes and when (and how) they will leave Europe. They also realize, with growing concern, that in 2019 they elected Boris Johnson to run both of those shows — and keep them running until 2024.
After Johnson’s historic but already atypical victory in December — made atypical and, to some extent, meaningless by Brexit — the change of leadership in the Labour Party should normally stir little more than vague curiosity. The fact that commentators are wondering about Starmer’s ability to handle the issues reflects a real, but widely shared (and rarely expressed) suspicion that Johnson may not last long as prime minister. That means that if new elections were to take place as a result of unforeseeable events, there could be some electoral suspense. Anti-Brexit Tories and diehard Blairites in particular have clung to the hope of seeing things come back to normal by canceling Brexit while there’s still time before the final bell at the end of the year. But now they have the added concern with getting back to normal once the pandemic recedes.
In the leadership race, many commentators saw Starmer as the Labour candidate who represented a possible return to the “radical centrist” or the Third Way tradition of Tony Blair, a position The Economist would have no problem embracing. But Wooldridge can’t suppress his nagging fear that the new Labour leader, having promised to unify the party, may be tempted to make too many concessions to the Corbynites, who still constitute the main and most vocal base of the party.
The Independent, a newspaper equally favorable to radical centrism, has expressed its hope that Starmer will “compromise with a basically right-wing electorate that rejected it so decisively in December.” With some alarm it notes a different problem: “Starmer’s victory may be broad … but the enthusiasm will not run deep. There is no army of Starmerites willing to die in a ditch for him. He has no Momentum and Corbynistas, but instead the grudging respect of those who soberly realise he is their last great hope of winning another election. Starmer has electability, in other words, but not the charisma to inspire a fanbase.”
This echoes what many in the Democratic Party in the US are now saying about the party’s presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, with a similar note of worry. In both cases, the candidate deemed “electable” turns out to be singularly uninspiring. In normal reasoning, this should cast doubt on the notion that such candidates are electable. It should also inspire reflection that establishment centrism may be the problem rather than the solution. An “electable” candidate appears to one who is pleasing to the oligarchy, with a promise to defend “normalcy.” Such candidates must show themselves to be malleable, easily influenced or managed by the less visible and more powerful interests that control the economy and politics.
Though no one dares admit it, partly because Johnson’s approval rating has never been higher, British mainstream media across much of the political spectrum may no longer be counting on Boris Johnson to be the leader who defines the UK’s future. With the battle against a pandemic raging, and the end-of-the-year Brexit guillotine sharpened to fall possibly before the virus is defeated, many commentators appear to hope that Labour under Starmer, once he has rejected “war socialism” and realigned with a Blairite defense of the status quo, could provide the impetus to bring back the pre-Brexit, pre-coronavirus neoliberal order.
Wooldridge offers this comforting observation to counter those who see radical change in the air: “But the current expansion of the state does not represent a philosophical conversion to the case for revolution. … This debt-fuelled expansion will certainly lead to higher taxes in the long term but it will also put a constraint on the state’s future ambitions.” In other words, the massive debt incurred in the effort to save the status quo and bring it back to life will inevitably imply austerity in the future, as was the case with the 2008-09 bailout of the economy.
Wooldridge knows how society works. He is convinced that people will vote the same way in a post-coronavirus world as they did last December. Referring to the hyper-Keynesian measures taken to counter the virus, he adds: “Any or all of these policies might be wise, radical (in a good way) and eminently in the national interest — but they did bomb at the last general election.” The Independent sends the same message: If Starmer “sticks to so much of the 2019 programme, as he has pledged to, he risks a further lethal defeat at the hands of the Tories come 2024.”
At the very end of his article, Wooldridge finally offers some clarity concerning his definition of “war socialism”: If Starmer “bets on a new era of big-government socialism, he will waste his political capital.” We should take that as Wooldridge’s lesson in how political capitalism works.
Walter Bagehot was the prolific collaborator of The Economist’s founder, James Wilson, considered by many to be the father of the ideology of liberalism that dominated economic thinking in the 19th century and eventually led to the theoretical work of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman in the 20th century. It is still the driving force behind The Economist that colors the ideological stance of its reporting, despite its solid commitment to serious, factual analysis of economic news. In 2018, on its 175th anniversary, The Economist dedicated its issue to producing “a manifesto for renewing liberalism.”
In 2018, Adrian Wooldridge affirmed his renewed liberalism when he co-authored “Capitalism in America: a History” with former president of the Fed, Alan Greenspan. The New York Times describes the book as an ode to Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction” and a “plea to re-embrace America’s long-held capitalist traditions and entrepreneurial culture in order to rescue the country from its current ‘fading dynamism.’”
This may sound to some actual historians more like the celebration of “war capitalism,” if only because the capitalist culture and the success stories they describe wouldn’t have been possible without war, territorial conquest and, at times, genocidal bloodshed, all instrumental in building the industrial empires the authors admire. After dedicating the 19th century to spreading its economic organization across the North American continent, the proponents of “creative destruction” began — in 1898 with the Spanish-American War — to spread their empire across the globe.
Today, with a pandemic wreaking havoc on the economy, Wooldridge is less focused on renewing liberalism than saving it from its own creative destruction. He looks forward to a comforting repeat of history, when governments can — as they did a century ago — say they have defeated the aggressive viral enemy. “When that blessed day comes, voters will desire nothing so much as a ‘return to normalcy’, just as they did in the 1920s after the first world war and the Spanish flu.”
Imagining a 21st-century version of the Treaty of Versailles, Wooldridge imagines the historians’ future verdict on how we dealt with the current pandemic. They will see it as “a temporary crisis that involved a weird combination of admirable collectivism and irritating restrictions on personal freedom.” He acknowledges the debt incurred to respond to the pandemic will mean a new regime of austerity for everyone.
But he also imagines that average citizens will then gleefully return to their routine of being obedient consumers and refrain from asking why governments couldn’t start making the collective investments required to look after, and even anticipate, their needs, rather than waiting for crises to occur that drive entire societies into panic, only to saddle them with new layers of debt and subservience.
Wooldridge dismisses by name Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein and Grace Blakeley — thinkers who have begun wondering whether, after all that has happened, any rational being could uncritically countenance an unthinking return to the kind of laissez-faire normalcy he imagines the sacred cause of liberalism requires. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that it isn’t just the nuts and bolts of the economy that will be different when the crisis is over, but the perceptions and mindsets of entire populations.
[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.