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Hirsch, Secularism and the Catholic Curriculum

In a previous blog (‘Contesting the Canon’), I explored concerns regarding the potential (anti-Catholic) partiality of the canon, but also the overarching effectiveness of the core knowledge curriculum for achieving its principal goal of cultural literacy. In sum, I suggested that whilst I support and advocate the idea of a canon, the core knowledge approach seemed to have taken on an overtly secular character, meaning the contents of its canon were necessarily restricted and restrictive. This was a problem for us, a Catholic school, but also for the very notion of cultural literacy – or as I wrote then, ‘if one starts from a position of neglecting the religious and theological backdrop of the culture in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a shadow of artefacts, and ultimately historical and cultural illiteracy, a secular humanist wish-projection of what our shared history and identity should have been, rather than what it practically and really is.”

With the kind help of Dame Rachel de Souza (@Rachel_deSouza) of the Inspiration Trust, the blog gained the attention of E D Hirsch, architect of the core knowledge revolution and someone whose work and influence I admire. He was kind enough to comment on the blog and gracious enough to answer a follow-up question, which shall form the basis of this blog.

But first, the background of the question. Since the core knowledge (or similar) agenda took off in the UK, I have wondered why it seems to neglect such a huge area of learning as scripture and theology. Since one needn’t have a faith persuasion to study either of these things, and since they seem fundamental to a halfway competent understanding of so much of our shared history and culture, the oversight is curious. Quite why it might exist is open to debate: be it subliminal partisanship or wider ignorance (in the literal, non-pejorative sense), it nonetheless existed.

But the danger of such an oversight seems clear: one risks falling into precisely that trap set by anti-canon activists, who insist the whole project is not the objective exercise in aesthetics its proponents claim, but instead the imposition of a highly partial and exclusive account of ‘us’. I disagree with this, but the absence described above opens a door to the claim – after all, if we wish to construct a canon of the best that has been thought and said, we better make sure its contents reflect the value of things in themselves, and not the personal hangups or preferences of those charged with collating it. Failure to do so risks precisely the philistinism of which the core knowledge agenda is intended to be a riposte.

It is from this perspective that I wished to press the point regarding the secular character of core knowledge. Whilst I recognise that Hirsch operates in a US context, and has indeed tipped his hat to the role of scripture in shaping the cultural, I was curious as to how far he thought his might go, not least since advocates in this country seem to have paid this curiously little attention.

And so my (with hindsight very wordy) question, which was:

My main question… is to do with the core proposal of the original piece, which is that the core knowledge movement, certainly as I have come across it in the UK, seems to have become secular-humanist in both content and delivery, and in so doing risks two consequences, each of which aggravate against the very concept of core knowledge: firstly, it can neglect high value cultural treasures and over-promote others, thus giving a distorted account of cultural value; secondly, it presents an obstacle to effective understanding of the key content of our canon, denying pupils the principal interpretative framework to understand the canon in its true historical and cultural context…. Hence the suggestion that core knowledge, in this particular form, risks promoting cultural illiteracy and misunderstanding, and putting together something akin to a ‘knowledge menu’, which is prone to the kitsch… I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the matter.

 

And thus came the response:

In the UK there’s a Church of England.  In the USA, there’s not a Church of the USA.  That was the political/cultural decision that was taken by our founders, and stressed before the founding in the Virginia Statute for religious Freedom of 1786 authored by Jefferson.  The statute named theology and scripture “opinion” and indicated that it must never be part of the official public sphere.   The aim was to keep unity and peace — against the backdrop of the bloody wars of religion of prior centuries in Europe.   

The tradition in the American schools was to teach about religion as a historical phenomenon, but to leave hymns, prayers, and scripture to the home.  

Instead we instituted a quasi civil religion (Rousseau’s idea) with a National Anthem (i.e. National Hymn), a holy secular symbol (the flag). The Core Knowledge curriculum outline is very much in that tradition.  Even Bible stories as stories were approached with caution.  

There is a lot to unpack there, beginning with that very first sentence, since it rubs against the argument of the original post that the core canon excludes the Catholic from our accounts of culture and nationhood, and that this had been precisely the intention and reality for hundreds of years (see the original blog for the expanded version of this argument).

But to focus on the broader argument, Hirsch seems to be clarifying that the core knowledge curriculum is intentionally framed within a resolutely secular narrative that actively confines to the personal many of those things that I would argue are essential aspects of any broad account of cultural literacy. Religion could be studied through a sociological gaze – which might itself be open to questions regarding effectiveness – but any more than this transgresses the separation-ideal of American civic life (a civic space that, it must be noted, is very different in history and character to the UK.)

At this point, the core knowledge curriculum appears to take on a slightly different ambition from what I had assumed, and I now wonder if it might be better to suggest that it more accurately advocates the acquisition of ‘knowledge capital’, which is unquestionably a good thing, and with which we acquire cultural literacy. I understand how this might make sense within a clean-slate secularism such as that which prevailed in the US, though whether it can be seamlessly transposed into the rather more entangled and undulating history of the United Kingdom strikes me as doubtful. The direct link from expanding knowledge capital to improving cultural literacy might make sense in a US context, but less so in a UK context, and insisting upon such a separation might even have the unintended consequence of inhibiting it.

Of course some might disagree here, and suggest that Hirsch’s divide between these two knowledge realms is desirable, perhaps even necessary within our de facto secular education system. And whilst I see how this might make superficial sense, or better reflect the worldview of those without faith, or those accustomed to the view that faith is a private matter, I only offer the same challenge as set down in the previous blog: how do you give an honest and authentic account of our cultural inheritance whilst sectioning off those things which were and remain principal components of it? How do you teach an accurate understanding of so many of our historical events, of our institutions, of our political reforms, of myriad cultural references, of legal developments, or literary expression, or social customs, or shared festivals and celebrations, or architectural history, or innumerable other things, without it?

Without scripture and theology one is destined to miss the target on these things, and will instead garner only a superficial collection of cultural tidbits (themselves chosen by the same highly partial criteria), denied of the framework within which to properly understand their worth, making erroneous assumptions about our shared history and identity accordingly. In other words, there is a difference between knowledge capital and cultural literacy, and the latter requires more careful thought than the former, since the former can easily collapse into a form utilitarian kitsch whilst the latter depends upon judgement and wisdom

What does this mean for our schools? Over the next few months at the St. Ninian Catholic Federation we will be seeking a way to integrate the best of the core knowledge agenda as it has already developed, rooted in the desire for both knowledge capital and cultural literacy, whilst curating a canon that better reflects a fuller account of learning consistent with the Catholic vision of education.  In other words, we are looking at how we offer a genuinely Catholic core knowledge programme, to present the riches of human achievement on the one hand, situated within a proper account of human understanding and flourishing on the other (whilst out of fashion now, Catholic philosophy historically preferred to use the term ‘formation’, which more accurately depicts this account of flourishing).

Of course, this is not a process of manufacture and pedagogical consideration also informs our considerations, as do questions of what support structures we can offer to help children achieve the highest standards. Perhaps that will be a matter for another post, but for now the focus is on constructing a compelling, broad and challenging curriculum. It promises to be an exciting project. If you are interested in our work, or would like to collaborate in creating an outstanding core curriculum, then do please feel free to get in touch – we would be delighted to hear from you.

 

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Contesting the Canon

The face plate opposite adorns the tomb of Philip Howard, who died in 1786 while in the service of the King of Sardinia. It is a moving tribute and speaks of the earnest desire of an Englishman to serve his country, even whilst precluded from doing so. His patriotism was clear; his cultural endowment ought to have been equally so.

But it wasn’t. The Howards were recusants, seeking to uphold the Old Faith against a political elite determined that such obstinacy was tantamount to sedition. And this little Anglican chapel nestled on the western banks of the River Eden at Wetheral, with its mausoleum hidden away through the north transept, housing the testimonies and remains of ‘papists’ and bearing this poignant plea for clemency, stands in quiet witness to the messiness and splintered loyalties bequeathed by the Reformation and the persecution that followed (the chapel was originally the local church for the Howard family of nearby Corby Castle, the same Howards who, following the emancipation of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829, commissioned A.W.N. Pugin to build a Catholic church, further away though this time on their side of the river). Whilst another branch of the Howard line, based ten miles to the east at Naworth Castle, eventually conformed (with inducement to do so – Charles Howard was made first Earl of Carlisle), others held firm and became outcast.

And outcast really is the word, especially if our interest is cultural inheritance. Loyal Catholics, during that period described by Cobbett as ‘an alteration greatly for the worse’, had their wealth purloined as much as their stake in society, and found themselves asset-stripped as the Acts of Uniformity, the Test Acts, and myriad other laws achieved their principal objective and diminished the influence and position of Catholics. Cultural alienation followed – notwithstanding notable exceptions, from Byrd to Tallis, Campion to Shakespeare(!), it is difficult to generate, let alone bequeath, great art, literature and architecture, while isolated and stripped of the web of relationships and influence that underpins such flourishing. From patronage to possessions, Catholics found themselves outcasts in their own lands, a land they built, a land which bore the marks they laid upon it, which sang the testimony of their deeds in stone and quill.

Carlisle Cathedral, Eastern window

It may be tempting to see this as an historical debate, though that would be to miss the continuing impacts of that centuries-long dispossession, one that is a source of interest for anyone wishing to think again about curriculum and what we pass on to our children. Sat amidst the architectural and artistic beauty of Carlisle cathedral (described unfairly by Pevsner as ‘not much more than half a cathedral,’) during a recent choral concert,  the question became pertinent: why does the Catholic community have such comparatively feeble offerings? Why are we largely absent from culture in this sense, a culture which we historically defined, the treasures of which remain at the heart of our national story today? The answer lies in the disenfranchisement outlined above, no longer possessing the organic infrastructure or accumulated expertise and culture to do so. Whilst this might be ameliorated in the big cities, beyond here the Catholic church often exists in a liturgically, architecturally and aesthetically emaciated form.

Since exclusion was as much about ideas as it was property portfolios, so  ignorance of, and hostility toward, the Catholic faith became a way of asserting rightmindedness and affirming social credentials – to be a member of the in-crowd, one had to be able to mock and ridicule Catholics, to repeat and defend what Newman called the ‘myths and fables’ of the anti-Catholic record. The temperament remains prevalent today, with ignorance of the Faith seemingly synonymous with a cultured worldview and an elevated intellect (one might point to the jingoistic whiggery of Michael Gove’s recent offering as a fine example of this enduring phenomenon). And politically, too: we fight for our right to exist in the state sector, and put at risk our employment within it where our adherence to doctrine might be deemed incompatible with the dictates of the state. How poetic history can be.

What relevance has any of this to curriculum? Well, it is important to state these truths, since this is the historical milieu from within which our educational canon is constructed, the well from which our intellectual waters are drawn. If we are to discuss what we deem worthy of transmission from generation to generation then the curation of that canon, and the judgement of what best comprises it, is a matter for scrutiny, lest we risk repeating the disinheritance and wrongly calling it scholarship.

For myself, this has become a more pressing matter in recent weeks, as we look at ways we can develop a core knowledge curriculum at our schools, a broad vision of learning which really does offer, to quote Arnold, the best of that which has been thought and said.

And here one runs into difficulty. Bluntly put, one is tempted to question whether the Hirschian approach, and more so the evangelism of his disciples, might be insufficient for the task. It seems increasingly the case that the core knowledge movement restricts itself to the straight jacket of secularity, cutting itself from whole fields of interpretative frameworks and placing insufficient stress on theology and especially Scripture. For many this presents no barrier (I have seen few protest the point), either lacking the personal belief to deem it important or working in a non-church school where it might be deemed inappropriate anyway. But surely this is to accept an impoverished canon, blind not only to the realities of our shared history but also to the very concept of core knowledge and cultural capital in the first place.

Examples? Well, prayer is an obvious place – is Kipling’s If self-evidently more worthy of recitation than the Our Father? Is the rosary in possession of less cultural capital, and worthy of less attention, than Shelley’s Ozymandias? Is the liturgical year, the cadences of which shaped the very psyche of our island and the customs and rituals therein, unworthy of detailed study? Is scripture, which lay at the heart of learning for hundreds of years and shaped everything from our laws to our literature, not a foundational aspect of any coherent concept of cultural capital? And lastly, is theology, the lens through which one must approach so many historical events to have any meaningful understanding of them, not worthy of as much attention as the events themselves?

Calendar page from the Book of Hours of Jean de Berry

Of course this might jar, with some seeing a jump into the theistic problematic in a system that is resolutely secular (though I suspect Arnold himself, whilst no theist, would have rejected this line of thought). But if that is the case, then we must confront an uncomfortable truth: should the best that has been thought and written be determined primarily by our present philosophical hue? If we say yes, then do we not also reject the notion that elevated knowledge and cultural value is timeless, and reaffirm that our curation is focused not by the worth of the texts themselves, but as the reflection of our own prejudices in approaching them? And if so, isn’t this precisely the point that those who criticise the notion of having any canon at all (‘Dead, White Males’) have long been making themselves?

In short, if one starts from a position of neglecting the religious and theological backdrop of the culture in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a shadow of artefacts, and ultimately historical and cultural illiteracy, a secular humanist wish-projection of what our shared history and identity should have been, rather than what it practically and really is.

Which brings me back to our schools. Taking into account this deficiency, wanting to give a fuller account of that cultural fruits we wish to see preserved and bequeathed, do we, as a Catholic federation, need a Catholic canon? One hundred and sixty five years after Newman sought to define the proper curriculum of a Catholic university, must the Catholic community undertake a more systematic effort to define the proper curriculum of a Catholic school? Do we need to stake out our own vision, to include those treasures of our own that have not only been neglected, but from which we have been excluded? Something of the sort does exist, though not in a collated or systematic form. Should that be our next project? And if so, does that undermine the very notion of a canon, by definition shared and universal, or reaffirm it?

Or should we accept what we might believe to be a sanitised product, projecting an account of worthiness defined, ironically, by the whims of the now? This would certainly be easier. But I for one cannot shake the feeling that we might have something worthier still. Or put another way, would a Catholic canon cast aside the secular in the same way the secular casts aside the theological, or a thousand years after last having done so would it instead preserve them equally since, as with Chesterton, ‘it is only Christian men/Guard even heathen things’?

I’d certainly welcome your thoughts.

Read the follow-up post, including an email dialogue with Hirsch, by clicking here.

 

 

 

The Labour Family

For those who have found the commentary of David Goodhart of interest recently, and particularly his accounts of recent family policy and its unintended consequences, then you might perhaps be interested to read my own contribution to the discussion, a version of the essay that appeared in the Blue Labour book (available to buy here)

 

The Labour Family

by Michael Merrick

Introduction

The family. Not something the contemporary left is terribly good at talking about, the family. Mere mention of the word can bring about fits of blushes in the more timid whilst raising the hackles of an energetic few just waiting to pounce on anything that smacks of judgement or prejudice. When, in the occasional burst of courage, the left does advance and broach the subject of the family, the words that come out of its mouth are often so vague and platitudinous as to verge on the meaningless. They do not say anything in particular, because they think not saying anything in particular is the safest thing to say. Or, worse, they believe that not saying anything in particular is the right thing to say.

The reasons for this are myriad, though one main problem is that there are so many people one can potentially upset, or at least presume to upset (which is not quite the same thing). So many identities and ideologies, so many lifestyles and life choices, all of which must be respected if we are to fulfil what has become the ultimate and overriding goal of the contemporary left: to be inclusive. The logic of this is circular, as we shall see, but for now suffice it to say that talk of the family can appear such a toxic issue because, save for the release of saccharine niceties laden with innumerable caveats so as to avoid all possible offence, it is just so hard to get right. Politicians, terrified of appearing moralistic before an electorate who know all too well the shortcomings of the political classes, instead choose silence for fear their appeal to accounts of the good might instead appear as diatribe delivered from upon high to those living on the truly sharp edge of such realities.

For those who disregard the taboos, who earnestly appeal to the values of the Labour Party they grew up with, the values of their parents and grandparents before them, who speak honestly and unambiguously about the family, its importance to society, its breakdown, the role of the state in its breakdown, and the consequences of that breakdown – for those courageous souls the political collateral is significant. If their ideas are tolerated then their presence within positions of prominence with which to enact their delusions and/or prejudices most certainly is not. Such speakers are banished to the fringes, since in daring to say something particular they also sound exclusionary, thereby abandoning (their opponents would claim) those vulnerable people whom the aim of Labour it is to champion.

Yet it must be recognised that the left have not always placed themselves in this position. There was a time when talked openly and freely on the subject of the family, primarily because it talked openly and freely about moral imperatives and the common good without the constraints of relativism and reticence that so besets the contemporary left. Which leads us to the single biggest reason why the contemporary left does not and often cannot talk effectively about the family: it has embraced a creed that limits its ability to do so.

This creed, the unchallengeable orthodoxy of a liberal activist core (which shall hereafter be referred to as the New Left), though not of many others, is a political and philosophical stumbling block. The contemporary left, dominated by its middle-class urban intelligentsia, have adopted an account of self and social more consistent with the free-marketeering logic they claim to despise than the mutualistic Labour tradition under whose banner they earnestly march. Ideas supposedly shunned in the economic sphere are the same ideas warmly embraced in the social. In the words of John Millbank,

Politics has become a shadow play. In reality, economic and cultural liberalism go together and increase together. The left has won the cultural war, and the right has won the economic war. But of course, they are really both on the same side.[1]

As such, the contemporary left has wandered down a logical and political blind-alley. Cognisant of ways in which liberalism in the economic markets has ravaged communities, it refuses to countenance ways in which liberalism in the social markets has produced the same. Able to give coherent accounts of how economic capital, or the lack of it, can corrode the roots of family life, it nonetheless stumbles and stutters when confronted with how social capital, or the lack of it, has proven every bit as insidious. The contemporary left will acknowledge that the family was the traditional bulwark against the acute poverty suffered by our forebears, though refuse to countenance ways in which the ‘progress’ championed by Labour Mum, to use Maurice Glasman’s terms, has often come through jettisoning precisely those protective customs and conventions once upheld by (now-cowed) Labour Dad.[2]

In what follows I shall try to give an account of how these ideas inhibit the left’s ability to talk meaningfully about the family, a dereliction that has harmed its core constituency more than any other. The evidential argument is not one that I seek to offer. The evidence pertaining to the broad superiority of the stable family for producing positive life outcomes for children is so overwhelming that it seems tedious to reproduce it here. Besides, such an argument is unlikely to convince those that have set their face against it, precisely because they have set their face against it primarily on non-evidential terms. The questions I shall attempt to address, then, are these: how has this situation come pass? What form has it taken? And what can Blue Labour offer in response?

 

The Rise of the Revolutionary New Left

To tell the tale of the revolutionary New Left is actually to tell the tale of the gradual triumph of radically right-wing accounts of the social sphere. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is to document the gradual triumph of a fundamentally asocial ideology able to manifest itself in the language and thought of both wings of the political spectrum. It is for this reason that the saga is not restricted to the political left, even whilst we can readily admit that the political left is where the culture and thought of which we speak originally found its most obliging host. Rather, documented here is the broad advance of an idea, a habit of thought, which gradually commanded loyalty across the political spectrum. The left’s role as recounted here, therefore, was as much through contribution to the evolution of this doctrine as through the pursuit of particular legislation, be it their own or that of others.

The key word that frames the entire movement here described is ‘liberty’, the cherished goal that runs through the very DNA of the New Left. However, the liberty of the revolution was not, to phrase it in Blue Labour terms, constructed within relational frameworks drawing upon notions of virtue to define civic and social freedoms, but was instead portrayed as the autonomous individual empowered to freely contract relationships of consensual exchange. Liberty so defined was predicated upon a rejection of the social: the founding principle was that agents should have freedom to enter the social marketplace as autonomous actors, liberated of unwarrantable restraints spread horizontally throughout the community and/or imposed vertically through the levers of the state.

Thus, the organic interweaving of civitas and societas that traditionally constructed the ‘social conscience’ within which the individual operated as one interconnecting link in a living social chain, was gradually decried as imposing upon the individual illegitimate restrictions to the reasonable pursuit of self-interest. Norman Dennis, speaking from within the tradition of English ethical socialism, commented on the similarities between free-market thinking and the post-1960s social and sexual revolution championed primarily by a middle-class intelligentsia. For him, the common feature was the primacy of self-interest over ‘the irrational restrictions of socially inculcated ‘conscience’ and rules of conduct regarded as being absolutely binding regardless of the wishes or welfare of the particular individual’.[3]

In other words, potentially restrictive claims of family, custom, community or tradition were out, and the pursuit of self-interest was in. In this sense, the social revolutionaries really were constitutionally anti-social, the ASBO generation of their time. They elevated ‘I’ over ‘us’, promoted the pursuit of individual goals over claims of communal interest, and used the reasoning they would later claim to eschew in order to achieve it. Laissez-faire liberalism was embraced in the personal sphere even whilst denounced, for a time at least, in the economic. Or, put more glibly, what the New Left claimed to reject in the boardroom they demanded in the bedroom.

The problem was, as Phillip Blond has argued, this deified not choice but rather the act of choosing, such that the left’s accounts of autonomy no longer consisted in a particular vision of the good life, based upon distinctions between good and bad choices, but instead on an illusory ‘neutrality’ that offered only the guarantee of the freedom to choose.[4] The refusal to distinguish between successful and unsuccessful attempts at the art of living well left politicians using libertarian means to pursue libertine ends, such that fashionable political mantras focussed exclusively on the noble ideal of giving people more power, without ever indulging discussion on what people ought properly to do with it. The role of the state was not to cajole citizens into making the kind of life choices that the chief custodians of relational politics, tradition and community, had long decreed were best for both individual and society, but rather to remove potential impediments to self-fulfilment and secure the capacity of the individual to act as an autonomous agent within the social marketplace. Here, then, the source of disdain against those heresies to the progressive creed, social and moral conservatism, that articulated fixed ideas on behavioural standards in satisfaction of the obligations one owes principally toward not oneself, but others.

As such, the advance of the New Left established the near wholesale acceptance within the Labour Party, and more recently within the Tory Party too, of the language and logic of absolutised individual sovereignty: the belief that society, custom, convention, ritual, duty, responsibility, taboo and tradition held no legitimate transcending claim over individual action – that these were arbitrary, unreasonable and illegitimate, remnants of a romanticism that the new rationalism does not permit.[5] Individuals were competitors in the social markets, and so long as interactions were conducted upon lines of mutual consent then good government consisted in guaranteeing the freedom necessary for that exchange.

Whilst this constituted a departure from certain classical liberal thinkers, who upheld the importance of social restraints even if they could not adequately explain why, the triumph of coldly contractual accounts of the social revealed the Rousseauian ancestry from which it derived, such that the idea that commitments should pertain beyond the collapse of mutual consent was anathema. Liberal economic dogma was producing an army of free-marketeers on the political right who maintained that two independent agents should be allowed to enter freely into contracts of exchange without external interference; preceding it was an army of free-marketeers on the left using much the same arguments to break open the social markets.

Accordingly, the left became stultified by an attempt at neutrality that neutered its ability to articulate the moral instincts of the many, choosing instead to level down all life choices as equally valid and tarring those who challenged such accounts of freedom as moralistic, judgmental or prejudiced. In so doing, the left ceased to communicate what its tradition instinctively knew: that true and authentic freedom comes not through liberation of choice, but through the act of choosing wisely.

 

Statism and Welfare

The lurch toward statism that had become a hallmark of post-war left-wing politics provided the intellectual infrastructure for a re-envisioning of a state that could police and underwrite these new accounts of freedom. For liberty to flourish the state had to remain neutral toward the conduct of those residing within it. It could dispense justice where contracts were unjustly breached, but the manner in which they were drawn, the manner in which they ended, and the manner in which they affected third parties and society as a whole remained outside the purview of the state. Yet it also needed vigorous protection and a legislative commitment to mitigate the fallout from such self-centred accounts of freedom. This put the state in direct competition with that supportive web of relationships that traditionally regulated individual behaviour as well as helped absorb fallout when required. In providing an alternative to these networks, in rendering associative, reciprocal, mutualistic society no longer at the core of individual progress and preservation, the state had begun to monopolise the space where society used to be. The result was corrosive to any sort of relational politics; a system with a focus on outcomes, as Ruth Porter explains, ‘removes any connection between action and consequence. In doing so, it destroys the very reflex which encourages moral action. By consequence, this breeds a sense of entitlement. This undermines social bonds both in families and also communities more broadly.[6]

Thus welfare became the vehicle that reflected and advanced the newly reconfigured social arena: if a key Blue Labour principle is ‘no responsibility without power’, then this comes a rejection of the statist liberalism that had guaranteed power and eschewed responsibility[7]. The theoretical universalisms which informed accounts of individual freedom thus nudged welfare provision toward assessment of need, freed of important contextual detail.[8] The inherent relativism in the ‘freedom’ of the New Left produced a morally-neutral welfare system offering assistance regardless of personal behaviour. On such terms the state alleviated only material deprivation, a morally-neutral scale that did not impinge upon the free agency of the individual. The result was a system that increasingly bore the cost of family breakdown rather than challenging it. Mitigation soon resembled facilitation.[9]

Welfare, then, corroded those behavioural norms and expectations that historically constituted the social conscience.  Welfare was rendered a ‘right’ distinct from any authentic notion of reciprocity, precisely because the commonly held moral framework within which reciprocity might have held meaning was denied by the relativism inherent to the system. As such, welfare became disconnected from the lived realities of its recipients, no longer reflecting situated concepts of fairness or justice. Detached, distant, bureaucratic, unreflective of the moral framework within which most people still operated, at times even agitating against it: little wonder that public faith in the system corroded[10]. Old networks underpinning community and place, family and friendships, had fallen prey to the flourishing doctrine of social isolationism among our newly nihilistic elites. Putting right this wrong, through the resurrection of a reciprocal, contributory approach toward welfare, has become a touchstone issue for Blue Labour, an instinct that has received broad support across the political spectrum.

The cumulative effect of these changes was a challenge to the primacy of the family as the fundamental social (and socialising) institution, the unit that had proved the most effective safety net and ladder for the most vulnerable. In making neediness the criterion for state help, so neediness itself was incentivised, implicitly encouraging the abandonment of those relational bonds that could now actually render one less eligible for state assistance. The state had, in effect, bypassed lateral relations and set up a panopticonic relationship between the individual agent and the central authority – what John Milbank has termed the ‘simple space’. The condition-free support of the state provided an easy alternative that undermined family authority and its capacity to influence behaviour. Obligations proper to kith and kin, and the power of kith and kin to insist on them, had been negated in the name of freedom.

 

Individual Choice and the Market

Far from being an unforeseen consequence, such a development was the logical outcome of the marketization of personal and social relationships, since if the state was obliged to preserve freedom of contract then it also had to accept the freedom of individuals to break contract. In the family realm, this meant two individuals could legitimately separate simply because they no longer wished to be together, regardless of third party commitments. Obligations beyond the pursuit of individual happiness, such as the presence of children in the family home, no longer had the moral gravity to trump the pursuit of self- interest of those adults that had entered into the original agreement. Divorce law began to reflect this change. Research bodies and charitable organisations, pockets full with government funding, celebrated new diverse family forms that began to take shape and disparaged the notion that the old model was best[11]. The state funded more and more schemes to advise, support and help pay for divorce and separation, through legal aid, whilst remaining strictly indifferent to whether divorce or separation was the desirable outcome. The idea that policy might be developed to actively build resilience and stability within the family, as recently outlined recently by Jon Cruddas[12], was largely anathema[13]. Yet again, mitigation began to look like facilitation.

The extended family unit, appealed to as the saving grace by those seeking to stress the outmoded character of the nuclear model around which extended ties spread, became harder to establish since the strong and closely-knit extended family grew around the stability of the founding unit, that being the mutual creation shared by mother and father of the child. The blood and guts realities of such freedoms, the significant statistical deterioration of potential life outcomes for children growing up in such circumstances, or the significant increase in the likelihood of child abuse in non-traditional family structures, was brushed aside through a mixture of what Norman Dennis has neatly referred to as Social Micawberism and the habit of treating genuinely heartbreaking exceptions to the rules as the normative policy by which to proceed.

Just as the pursuit of self-interest lay at the heart of this new philosophy, so it was no surprise that its adherents were unable to confront the consequences of the abandonment of relational accounts of the individual. Intellectually tidy accounts of freedom formulated by a class of upwardly mobile and privileged theorists displaced genuinely social accounts of how concepts such as freedom are actually lived out in the complex and messy world of relationships, with heretics denounced as prejudiced throwbacks to an uncivilised age. Yet, as Tristram Hunt noted when writing of the metropolitan left’s hostility to marriage, opposition to sexism meant ‘many on the metropolitan left embraced a Marxist hostility to marriage and the family as a political end in itself. As it did so, it aligned itself with an ethos of social hedonism with profoundly unprogressive consequences for the offspring of generations of unstable households.[14]

Swathes of evidence mapping the significant statistical deterioration of life chances for those experiencing family breakdown, data illustrating the disastrous effects on the poorest communities, even the impassioned testimonies of those living on the sharp edge of such realities, was routinely rebuffed with manufactured ambiguities and smear: this was really just a right-wing attack on single-mothers, or the outrageous imposition of the right-wing bigotry of a previous age, or the chauvinistic right-wing assumption that women need men in child-rearing. That the consequences most acutely affected the poorest allowed the professional left to convince themselves, in a neat non-sequitur, that the sole enemy was poverty, even whilst its own tradition held that impoverishment could be caused by and expressed through more than just the material.[15]

At root, this was a clash of interests, in which the central dogma had to be protected because the relatively empowered New Left set that had dominated the landscape for so long were the very people who benefitted most from the tilting of the social markets: as with economic free-marketeers, cries of ‘freedom’ rang most loudly from that already empowered bloc that had the most to gain from it. The poorest, increasingly without the networks that once sustained and propelled them, living the consequences of this new ‘freedom’, were simply less competitive in the markets. The words of Chesterton took on a prophetic air; ‘Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else.

As such, the wider cultural erosion of the family hastened the triumph of the free marketeers, who asserted the natural right to independent action, an account of liberty more structured toward removing restraints on the powerful than enhancing the life chances of the vulnerable. The result, more often than not, was the same: the poorest, without the resources to absorb the consequences of this latest revolution, more reliant than their empowered comrades on those institutions and safety nets that the new philosophy corroded, became most entrapped by the pernicious consequences of it. The most vulnerable became more enchained by circumstance, all in the name of making them free.

Indeed, so complete was the triumph that Labour even pursued the dissolution of those charitable institutions that maintained the primacy of the traditional family unit as the framework within which to provide loving and stable family homes for vulnerable children. The traditional family unit was no longer a protected model, and had to be opened up to free-market competition. Any political move to suggest otherwise was fiercely rejected. Those who refused the move, who elevated one model over another, who practiced market protectionism, soon found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Not because of any sense that harm might come to children helped by such agencies, but rather because the refusal to embrace neutralism collided with the dogmas of the new open-market morality. The language within which such action proceeded perhaps provides the best view of the phenomenon I am attempting to describe; Catholic adoption agencies were closed down, even whilst the pool of adoptive parents was (and has continued) in an alarming downward spiral, since it was deemed they contravened equality laws constructed to prevent discrimination in the provision of ‘goods and services.’ Whilst Catholic adoption agencies spoke of vulnerable orphans needing the love of mothers and fathers, Labour was theorising equality through access to markets, to ‘goods and services’.

 

Freedom, Fragmentation, Fatherhood

Whilst the social revolution of the 1960s can be linked to the economic revolution of the 1980s in many ways, one key theme around which both came to coalesce was the notion that financial independence, viewed in isolationist terms, was the guarantor of individual sovereignty. Not genuine independence, with individuals owning the means or fruits of their production, but relational independence, visualised as freedom from monetary reliance upon others within the immediate circle of relationships. To be free, the individual had to be able to be alone.

And this directly influenced welfare policy. Mothers were offered such freedom as financial independence from the father of their child, the state assuming the role of surrogate parent in the provision of resources, an incentive all the more potent the further one descended down the economic scale and the potential financial contribution of the father decreased. This constituted the rejection of interdependence in the family home and parenting, a corrosion of the dignity of fatherhood all the more powerful in the most vulnerable communities. Put simply, fathers were deemed less than necessary, both financially and developmentally.[16] In the words of Frank Field, responding to the testimony of a young father detailing from personal experience what the Centre for Social Justice have termed ‘the couples’ penalty’, ‘if you were devising a crazy system in which to mess up kids, you’d come up with the system we’ve got now, wouldn’t you?[17]

As such, fathers were increasingly redundant. Young men were made the beneficiaries of a philosophy that claimed to liberate females, dissolving as it did traditional accounts of obligation and duty, eradicating those civilising and socialising responsibilities traditionally bestowed by social rites of passage, chief among them being fatherhood. Whilst the financial implications of fatherhood could be met by the state, the idea gained momentum that children suffered no developmental or emotional impairment from the lack of a father-figure within the family home.[18] Thus mothers were convinced they need not rely upon men, whereupon more and more young males became the kind of men that women really could not rely upon.

Whilst the state could offer autonomy through welfare provision, for most financial sovereignty came through labouring for a wage. Or, put another way, by the new rules of the game people were most free when they worked, which for the vast majority meant when they worked for someone else. Such logic was untouched by older insights on the spiritual value of work, insights that informed a once widespread critique of capitalism, but focused instead on the capacity to labour for a wage in order to prevent dependence on others. Thus, in a neat irony, subjugation to capitalist interest was all of a sudden a legitimate means of securing autonomy, rather than the chief impediment against it. This distinctly anti-social autonomy was still, for the majority, framed in terms of reliance, only now reliance was spread outside of the immediate relationship circle and toward distant agencies, thus freeing the individual from dependence upon those within their vicinity.

This narrative proved most radical for women, traditionally financially dependent on their spouse, and was instructive of the creeds of a particular, privileged middle-class movement trading on the theories of a nineteenth-century factory owner that the domestic was the most intimate site of the exploitative capitalistic economy. All of a sudden, relying on the income of a spouse was an affront to authentic autonomy rather than a possible, if not only, enabler of it. Thus the progressive march set about removing all obstacles to entry into the workplace: the irony did not register that in so single-minded a pursuit one saw eliminated all those competing loyalties and commitments that might traditionally have preserved the freedom of women not to be co-opted into a lifetime on the factory floor.

With competing ties dissolved, accordingly the left began to treat mothers as absentees from the marketplace, a truancy that dovetailed with a coldly bureaucratic vision of mothers as independent economic units, not yet fulfilling their potential, to be re-entered into the markets as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Here, the value and importance of domestic work was downplayed, precisely because it did not conform to either market liberalism and GDP generation, or a new and highly particular form of feminism unwilling to value the significance of work done in the home. The positive freedom to choose stay-at-home parenting received limited support, an unproductive lifestyle choice, less desirable than re-entry into the GDP generating workplace. Government assistance here also combined with market forces to exert pressure on women to become GDP generators once more, abrogating to the state responsibilities once undertaken within the family home, intertwining nudge welfare designed to bring new mothers back into the workplace.

The outcome was a left-wing politics that thought it best represented mothers by removing all obstacles, biological and familial, to their re-entry into the workplace. In reality, an already empowered group were raising to the status of universal progress that which best coalesced around their own interests, desires and priorities. The equality narrative took on a distinctly middle-class air, such that progress focussed on the relative lack of females in the boardrooms of top companies and corporations and rarely addressed the changing economic landscape that, over the decades, had made stay-at-home motherhood, or indeed fatherhood, a privilege exclusive to the wealthy classes.[19] Clearly discernible was the latent prejudice which deemed domesticity unable to secure either empowerment or autonomy, so that those seeking independence must either forsake one or juggle both. The instinct stemmed from the liberal re-envisioning of relationships: ‘family is often, after all, an impediment to freedom and autonomy, a constraining realm of obligation and duty.’[20] In the guise of freedom to work, Labour increasingly demanded that all did so: they fought the good fight for parents to have freedom from the family, but expended far less effort in guaranteeing the freedom to stay with the family. And rarely did the welfare claims of children feature in this negotiation of individual freedoms.

This same restraint toward the associative ties of the family was also evident in education policy. After all, if parents were to be coaxed back to work, then schools needed to pick up the slack. Schools thus took on more and more responsibility for child welfare, and on much broader criteria than the traditional responsibility for development of the intellect. Once deemed to exist in order to assist parents in the education of their children, for our political classes schools took on the role of parenting our children, too. Policy had long marched toward wrap-around child care, which both underpinned the freedom of parents to work whilst keeping the markets serviced with reliable labour. This reached a peak under Michael Gove, whose inability to draw the line between family and state became a defining characteristic of his liberal interventionism, speaking regularly of a vision in which schools were childcare units, complete with longer days, shorter holidays, summer camps and sleepovers.[21] Such a blurring of the lines were advanced amidst pious cries of ensuring children ‘get a good start,’ or for helping families ‘juggle family life and work commitments’. In the clash between the market, the family and individual empowerment, our political classes decided we best help the family by paying for parents to spend less time with it.[22]

This presumption of fracture is clearly visible in what has become the cause celebré of education reformers: social mobility. Whilst academic attainment is almost universally desired by parents, the cold utilitarianism that has long underpinned the reformers’ approach betrays an implicit distaste – educational achievement for the poorest is too often about ensuring poorer children are different from their parents. With the absence of any account of the value of rootedness and place, social mobility became little more than the ability to move away from those we know and love, a phenomenon that affected the regions more acutely since moving away was often the non-negotiable price for pursuing such accounts of success.[23] Thus, family and background was a potential drag, something to be left behind or at the very least overcome, Billy Elliot-like, rather than the very foundations of future achievement and flourishing. We may now be beginning to scratch our heads and wonder at isolation and social atomism, yet we must consider the impact of having spent a generation and more telling young people that the reason we educate ourselves is to be able to walk away from who we are, or at the very least who we are from.

The net result of all of the above was the emergence of a left-wing politics incapable of speaking in the language of the family. Consideration of child welfare was rarely broached: the new morality was about the liberty of consenting adults. The embrace and pursuit of the free-market social sphere dissolved historic obligations to protect the family over and above alternative models, and indeed impressed upon the revolutionaries every reason not to do so. The family, long buffeted by the economic markets, now also buffeted by the social markets, began to dissolve. And its dissolution has destabilised more than anyone else that very constituency that Labour historically fought the hardest to protect.

 

The Contemporary Context and the Challenge of Blue Labour

Looking round, it would seem the landscape is changing. The very emergence of Blue Labour testifies to that. Emboldened by opportunities presented by the political dislocation of recent years, more and more dare question the zeitgeist. Following decades of socio-economic flux, there has emerged, in Jonathan Rutherford’s words, ‘an appetite in the country to conserve, safeguard, protect, defend and improve the fundamental elements of social life which are relationships, a sense of belonging, the familiarity of place, social security, the valuing of tradition, history, the past which is the basis of contemporary culture and social meaningfulness.’[24] The revivification of mutualism and reciprocity in the Labour conversation has meant revolutionary orthodoxies are beginning to creak. People look at the society they have delivered and sense something is wrong. And the questions are fundamental: what has the breakdown of the family achieved? How has it happened? Who has it really set free? How do we make things better? As Andrea Westall has suggested, the implicit neoliberalism of the New Labour years had a tendency to use the language and logic of the markets, even in those places where the market did not belong[25]. A Labour tradition capable of permitting the new conversation, let alone pursuing it, will find itself connecting with the innermost anxieties and concerns of those it wishes to represent. It will ditch its off-the-peg nihilism and once again find fluency in the language of life, of love, of liberty.

The left has within its tradition the tools to critique the external pressures placed on the family and the wider community by the advances of global capital systems. With this it offers something unique to the political milieu, allowing it to talk with clarity and wisdom on the pernicious outcomes delivered by the uncritical embrace of globalisation and economic liberalism, most explicit during Thatcher’s reign though embraced further by the New Labour project. Labour also has within its tradition the tools to critique the pressures placed on family and community by the drastic draining of social capital from our communities. This also offers something unique to the political milieu, something genuinely ordered toward the protection of the most vulnerable. Each of these analyses need each other if they are to be truly holistic, truly penetrative in insight. The left seeks to offer the former, but fails in its articulation of the latter, unable to speak the gritty language of lived relationships, incapable of verbalising what most instinctively feel, of taking its insights on vertical systems and institutions and spreading them horizontally through communities and individuals.

But it really should. With a renewed critique of liberalism, the left will rediscover the tools with which to fight the unjust pressure being exerted upon those most susceptible to social and economic libertarianism. If, on the contrary, Labour remains speechless on the good, the virtuous, even (dare one say it) the moral, then lost is a narrative lens through which to articulate and determine such fuzzy concepts as ‘social justice’. After all, if one eschews talk of moral and virtuous action, then one can no more deride the selfish pursuit of self-interest that breaks up economies any more than one can deride the selfish pursuit of self-interest that breaks up families – they share the same moral roots. In which case what frameworks, other than mere subjectivistic outrage, does the morally-neutral left have available to call out such conduct? By critiquing liberalism, Labour will rediscover its voice, and rediscover its radicalism. Blue Labour can help our proud tradition re-articulate one of its most important insights: disempowerment comes through fractured of relationships; we are weaker when we cease to live and stand together.

 

 

[1] John Milbank, ‘Three Questions on Modern Atheism: an interview by Ben Suriano’, The Other Journal, 4th June 2008.

[2] Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White (eds.), The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox. The Oxford London Seminars 2010-11, available online: http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/Labour_tradition_and_the_politics_of_paradox.pdf

[3] Norman Dennis, Families Without Fatherhood (London: IEA, 1992).

[4] Phillip Blond, Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).

[5] This fracture is increasingly visible not between political parties, but within them, seen in the increasing friction on both sides between ‘small c’ conservatives and cosmopolitan liberalism. This sense of dislocation and conflict perhaps explains the interest generated by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind (London: Allen Lane, 2012) in trying to articulate the fundamental sociological and perhaps anthropological aspects of this fracture.

[6] Ruth Porter, ‘The Case for Connection’,  Nick Spencer (ed.), The Future of Welfare. (London: Theos, 2014)

[7] From Maurice Glasman’s speech at the Tackling Poverty Conference 2013. Available online at:  http://cuf.org.uk/blog/text-maurice-glasmans-speech-tackling-poverty-conference-2013

[8] An issue explored by Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young, The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict (London: Profile Books, 2006).

[9] See the influential report Breakthrough Britain: Dynamic Benefits (London: Centre for Social Justice, 2009).

[10] In addition, the RSA paper ‘What do people want, need and expect from public services’ (March, 2010) usefully explores the concept of fairness in public service benefits, with popular notions of legitimate need being determined by both circumstance and, importantly, life choices. Similar considerations, and suggestions for reform, can be found throughout the collection of essays gathered together in Nick Spencer (ed.), The Future of Welfare. (London: Theos, 2014)

[11] Dr Katharine Rake caused controversy when, as the newly installed head of the Labour established Family and Parenting Institute, she used her opening address to talk of the decline of the nuclear family and discouraged use of government to support a now outmoded ‘traditional’ family model.

[12] Jon Cruddas, ‘How Labour will strengthen family life and relationships,’ The New Statesman, March 2014.

[13] For example, the responses of senior Labour figures to the proposed Marriage Tax Allowance, criticised for being ‘expensive’ and guilty of ‘social engineering’. That the status-quo was both expensive and served to socially engineer was an irony left largely unattended in Labour circles.

[14] Tristram Hunt, ‘Divorced from reality’, The Guardian, 9th January 2010.

[15] Reactions to the London riots were intriguing in this regard, since they demonstrated a tendency to explain the rioting by appeal to issues of poverty and/or the withdrawal of services and benefit entitlements. Wider concerns regarding family breakdown, loss of parental authority and fatherlessness received far less attention on the political left, though some did choose to assess the importance of these factors, such as David Lammy MP in his book Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots (London: Guardian Books, 2011).

[16] The vote against a clause in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill requiring those undergoing fertility treatment to take into account the need for a father-figure when considering the future welfare of their child is a good example of how fathers had become an optional extra, a motion which attracted the votes of even those politicians who have since rediscovered the importance of fatherhood.

[17] Panorama: Britain’s Missing Dads. BBC One, 17 January 2011.

[18] Pamphlets such as The Family Way, co-authored by Harriet Harman, Patricia Hewitt and Anna Coote, were full of such prejudices, such that Erin Pizzey, founder of the first battered wives’ refuge in 1971, could criticise the aforementioned as being part of an anti-male and anti-family politico-cultural agenda.

[19] The Centre for Policy Studies published a booklet entitled What Women Want (2009) which would suggest the New Left narrative account of liberty does not align with the interests of a majority of women; its account of liberty is too narrow, often restricted to the freedom to go beyond the domestic, yet leaving untouched the freedom to choose the domestic and reject, even for a limited time, the workplace. This option is now available almost exclusively to the wealthy.

[20] David Goodhart, ‘A Postliberal Future?’ Demos Quarterly, Issue 1, January 2014.

[21] Department for Education, ‘More Affordable Childcare’, July 2013. Available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/212671/More_Affordable_Childcare.pdf

[22] Stephen Twigg, former shadow Secretary of State for Education, articulated this view in his speech at the 2013 Labour Party conference: ‘This [the Primary Childcare Guarantee] will give all parents of primary school children the certainty that they can access childcare from 8am-6pm through their school… A clear message to hard working parents: Labour is on your side.’ Unless, of course, those hardworking parents happen to wish they didn’t have to work so long and so hard and miss their children growing up as a consequence, and who with this have even less of a case to make to an employer seeking extended hours and commitment.

[23] For example, the child from Wembley seeking to pursue a career in the professions can conceivably do so whilst remaining geographically close to her family and social surroundings, limiting familial and social dislocation. This is quite often simply not the case in many parts of the country, without the same opportunities, institutions, networks and cultural infrastructure to allow such an option.

[24] Jonathan Rutherford, ‘Should the Left Go Blue?’, an interview with Alan Finlayson, available online at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/alan-finlayson-john-rutherford/what-is-blue-labour-interview-with-jonathan-rutherford

[25] Andrea Westall, ‘Transforming Common Sense’, in Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White (eds). The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox (London: Oxford London Seminars, 2011)