Left and right libertarianisms: where will we swing next?

My recent post on an unconditional citizen’s income has sparked quite a bit of correspondence, reminding me of an article I wrote 20 years ago for Red Pepper, published as ‘Contesting Liberty’,  in which I discussed the way in which the idea of a citizen’s income (along with various other concepts such as ‘liberty’ and ‘flexibility’) had been adopted at various times by libertarians both of the left and of the right.

The article started off as a review of Saturn’s Children: How the State Devours Liberty, Prosperity and Virtue, (Sinclair-Stevenson, London, 1995) by Alan Duncan and Dominic Hobson, two enfants terribles of the Tory Party then in vogue, which proposed an extreme right-wing version of citizen’s income.

Re-reading it now I see that it took me quite a long time to get to the discussion of how to distinguish this version from those advocated by feminists, greens and socialists. The first part of the article is mainly a reflection on cyclical changes in political thinking, exploring the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset’s idea that new patterns of hegemonic thinking become dominant as new generations come into power, at intervals 15-yearly intervals. Previous tipping points, it was argued, had been in 1903, 1918, 1933, 1948, 1963 and 1978 so the next such sea-changes should have taken place in 1993 and 2008.

What is striking in retrospect is how, although I was looking for evidence of such a change around 1993, I failed absolutely to spot any of the many significant changes which now seem so glaringly obvious: the launching of the Internet and the formation of the single European market in 1992, the bringing into being of the World Trade Organisation in 1994 … in short a whole range of things that consolidated the hegemonic power of neoliberalism, created the conditions for a new global division of labour, and established a new phase of capitalism that some have labelled ‘Digital’. (I have written about this in my new book: Labor in the Global Digital Economy: the Cybertariat Comes of Age). However I do not think my myopia at the time invalidates this approach, which perhaps has a new relevance right now. I doubt if there is anyone who will dispute the significance of 2008 as a historical watershed. As 2015 dawns we are, so to speak, in mid cycle so perhaps it is time to start thinking about what contradictions are playing themselves out in this present phase, and how the next generation will try to resolve them.

So in case it is still of interest to some people, and since it doesn’t seem to be available online, I have reformatted the only version of the article I could find (probably not the precise version that was published in 1995 by Red Pepper, but near enough. I added one footnote but otherwise left its contents intact). At six pages, it is rather long to post as a blog entry so I have uploaded it as a pdf file here.


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