Danyl McLauchlan : At a liberal impasse.
Liberalism has reached a political impasse and its time for a new politics.

IT WASN'T SO LONG AGO that Spin Off writer Danyl McLauchlan was confidently championing his instrumentalist and technocratic view of politics. In a review of The New Zealand Project by Max Harris he wrote:

“Politics is technocratic because modern societies are complex: many things could be better, but almost everything could be much, much worse, and all the high-minded values in the world are worthless if you can’t keep the lights on. It is compromised because pluralism – the challenge of different groups in society holding different and conflicting but reasonable and valid views – is the central problem in politics, and cannot be fixed by re-educating everyone. Political reform should be cautious, because outcomes are uncertain and overconfidence bias is real, especially among groups of intelligent experts who reinforce each other’s assumptions – a dynamic that often leads to catastrophic failure despite the best of intentions.”

For technocratic liberals like McLauchlan, whose natural home is in the Labour Party, 'sound policies' have become an end in themselves and there is little enthusiasm for the welfare state 'consensus' of the post war era - hence Mclaughlin's comment that 'political reform should be cautious' -while any attempt to forge a new economy and society is regarded as 'utopian'. Instead the challenge is to balance the competing views of competing groups within society.

At least, that was McLauchlan's view.

But he seems to be having something of a crisis of confidence. The decline of liberalism has been obvious to all except those who have been invested in trying to prop it up. The neoliberal revolution, overseen for much of the past three decades by Labour-led governments that McLauchlan has presumably supported, has only led to increasing wealth disparity, growing poverty, a  much reduced welfare state  and a growing disenchantment with a political system increasingly unresponsive to the wider demands of the wider community. The only 'solutions' that the parliamentary parties  are prepared to consider are those that don't compromise the priorities and interests of 'the market'.

McLauchlan, prompted by the controversy that has swirled around freedom of speech issue, has half recognised that liberalism has failed. He writes: "Our biggest problem, I think, is deeper but less sensational, and is an ongoing failure of elites in liberal societies to make the systems and institutions of modern liberalism work for the rest of us.'

He has shifted ground from arguing that society is a common ground of competing groups to acknowledging that modern liberalism has been little more than convenient camouflage for the domination of the one percent at the expense of the many.

But rather than admitting that neoliberalism has failed, Mclauchlan will only go as far as say that we need a modern liberalism that works for all of us: "a just and fair criminal justice system; free markets that aren’t manifestly rigged; functional housing markets, fair labour markets."

At its best, this is little more than the utopian politics he himself rejects. At its worse, its just a self-interested capitulation to the right wing politics of the Labour Party. It comes as no surprise that McLauchlan has also written an article that declares that 'Jacinda Ardern was the right leader at the right time'. 

Unable to progress to socialist politics McLauchlan wants to create a neoliberal capitalism that will deny its own interests to create a more just and humane society. It's not only cloudcuckooland stuff, he offers no explanation as to how we are going to  get to this land of benign capitalism. His comment that liberalism "flawed and compromised, is as good as it gets' might be a convenient get out clause for McLauchlan, but such a view of liberalism is being swept aside by a resurgent right. No one is going to wait around while McLauchlan fiddles around in the liberal rubble.

Danyl McLauchlan, like liberalism itself, finds himself at something of an impasse. The answer is to push beyond the limits of the failed liberalism that McLauchlan describes. It means articulating a new progressive politics that is independent of the Labour Party. The liberalism that Mclauchlan reflects is one that imposes the worldview and economic interests of the one percent on the rest of us. But, as the rise of the alt right suggests, the rest of society is not enthused by this. The left cannot afford the smugness and complacency of liberalism any longer if we are to make progress.


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