Centrism: the problem, not the solution

August 17, 2017

There’s talk, much of sceptical, of the formation of a new centre party. For me, this misses the point – that centrists are the problem, not the solution.

Owen Jones is bang right to say:

It is the economic order centrists defend that produced the insecurity and stagnation which, in turn, laid the foundations for both the ascendancy of the left and its antithesis, the xenophobic right.

This is true in two senses.

First, centrists contributed to the financial crisis by under-estimating the fragility of the system. They over-estimated market rationality. As Martin Sandbu says, the lie of capitalism is that “market values of financial and other assets accurately reflect the economic value they represent.” They also failed to appreciate that top-down management unconstrained by effective oversight is dangerous: the banking crisis wasn’t just a market failure but also an organizational failure.

If that was an error of omission which is clearer with hindsight than it was at the time, centrists’ second error is less forgivable: fiscal austerity. The Lib Dems supported this in government, and Labour’s centre-right failed to oppose it vigorously enough.

These two errors have had disastrous effects. They have given us a decade of stagnant real wages. Not only is this terrible in itself, but it also led to Brexit. Stagnation bred discontent with the existing order and hence a demand for some sort of change, and also had the effect history told us it would – of increasing antipathy towards immigrants.

In this context, centrists made a third error. With a few exceptions, such as the heroic Jonathan Portes, they failed to make a robust case for immigration: remember Labour’s shameful “controls on immigration” mug? This might be no accident. Blaming immigrants for poor public services and low wages helped to deflect blame from where it really lies – with austerity, crisis and capitalist stagnation.

Centrists are right to oppose Brexit. What they don’t appreciate, however, is that they themselves helped to create the conditions which led to the vote to leave.

I don’t think these were idiosyncratic failures of individual politicians. I suspect instead they arose from three systemic failures of centrism:-

 – Insufficient scepticism about capitalism. Centrists have failed to appreciate sufficiently that actually-existing capitalism has led to inequality, rent-seeking and stagnation. New Labour’s deference to bosses fuelled their presumption that banks were in good hands and didn’t need to be on a tight leash.

 – A blindness to the importance of inequalities of power. Centrists take it for granted that elites should be in control, even if they lack the capacity to be so. This left them vulnerable to Vote Leave’s slogan, “take back control.”

 – Excessive deference to the media. Centrists were for years obsessed with a form of “electability” which consisted in accommodating themselves to media lies about austerity and immigration.

In these senses, then, centrists’ failure has been a structural one.

Which poses the question: why, then, does centrism seem so appealing?

I suspect the answer lies in the failure to appreciate the distinction between extremism and fanaticism. Centrism’s intuitive appeal lies in the tendency to associate it with the virtues of moderation and empiricism.

Such an association, however, is at least partly unwarranted. In failing to appreciate sufficiently the flaws in capitalist hierarchy, centrists are being ideologues more than empiricists.

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