Why the left needs to reject the ideology of networked socialism

In today’s Guardian, Neal Lawson offers a cautious reading of Corbyn’s Labour, accepting the ascendancy of the left within the party but urging it to look outwards. I’m sympathetic to many of the substantive points Lawson makes in the article but there’s a rich vein of problematic assumption running through their articulation which needs to be challenged. I’m pretty sure that in Lawson’s case, the peculiar style of fin de siècle social theorising once dominant within British sociology, about which I wrote a PhD thesis, played a crucial in consolidating this outlook.

However, the problem extends beyond those who have taken Giddens, Beck and Bauman’s diagnosis of late modernity a little too seriously. In fact, I’d suggest the popularity of the aforementioned authors was in part due to their reflecting an emerging common sense, rather than being the originators of these influential ideas and motifs. In recent years, we’ve seen this transmute into what I increasingly think of as the ideology of platform capitalism: disruption has become the last refuge of the third way

I recognise that Lawson is as far on the left of this movement as it is possible to be, though he so uncritically reproduces some of its core axioms that it would be a mistake to identify his core ideological home as anywhere else. The combination of business and activism, profit and principle, found in his own biography is a striking expression of the ethos of New Labour. There are two core assumptions underlying his article which need to be pulled out, analysed in their own right and dispensed with:

  1. Social democracy “lost its power” because “a lack of responsiveness and heavy doses of paternalism made state socialism unpopular” while “the idea of free markets chimed with a more individualistic age”. It is a purely cultural reading of an epochal shift, with one idea ‘losing its power’ while another becomes dominant because it ‘chimes’ with the spirit of an (assumed) new age. The historical variability of how centre-left parties have struggled in recent decades, something which can’t meaningfully be considered in abstraction from the ‘modernising’ strands dominant within so many of them, finds itself reduced by Lawson to the (empirical) decline of a particular phase in the existence of a single welfare state. Explanation of this trend is replaced by a woolly historical narrative, in which one set of ideas loses to another because of a vaguely specified epochal shift. It’s pure Giddens: the collective gives way to the individual, the traditional to the modern, the secure to the flexible. It’s neither explanatory nor descriptive in any straightforward sense.
  2. The spirit of the age is “networked and collaborative” and “21st-century socialism will be participatory”. After all, “things move fast and nowhere is this truer than in politics” where, warns Lawson, we see a “swarm” which “can and will keep shifting”. The conceptual structure of this is analogous to the ‘cult’ accusations made by the Labour right: a nascent movement is reduced into a behavioural compulsion gripping a mass, driven in this case by the affordances of digital media and the susceptibility of millennials to be swept along. It’s a refusal to engage with the reality of the events taking place, reducing them into an epochal schema in order to advance a prior set of axioms about how ‘progressive’ political ends ought to be pursued. It is already decided by the analyst that the actors at what Filip Vostal terms ‘mega-forces’ (globalisation, technology, acceleration, digital media) so the empirical actors are reduced to manifestations of these forces.

This is only a brief attempt in response to an article I largely agreed with on a practical level. But the hunch I’m increasingly driven by is that ‘networked socialism’ is a re-articulation of ‘social markets’: it’s an ideological vehicle which, though sometimes correct on substantive issues, imports the conceptual structure of the ‘third way’ into debates about the future of the left.

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