Between Plato And Aristotle
Tim Stacey on the Christian Socialist Movement, the Movement for Change and a vision of a Big Society
This piece explores a politics between Plato and Aristotle to discover a politics that is simultaneously traditional and radical. Plato is required because he understands the need for people of great intelligence to sit back and discuss ideal states, and to subsequently try to implement policies that bring the world as it is to being the world as it should be; he understands the need for professional politicians, think-tanks and academics. Aristotle is important because he sees that the world as it should be cannot simply be implemented but must be lived by a group of people towards a common good; he understands the need for Churches, Mosques, friendship societies and trade unions.
In The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, Lord Maurice Glasman explains that Labour grew up between Plato and Aristotle:
"We have an Aristotelian Dad and a Platonic Mum, a Common Good Dad and a progressive Mum, a traditional Dad and a radical Mum. For the Mum, the overwhelming concern, the categorical imperative, was with the ‘poorest and most vulnerable in our society’ and the use of scientific method and techniques to alleviate their condition. For the Dad, they were a big warning of what would happen if you didn’t have friends, if you didn’t organise, if you didn’t build a movement with others to protect yourself from degradation, drunkenness and irresponsibility…
…The problem in the marriage was clear from the start. The Mum had all the advantages of class – resources, eloquence, confidence and science – and none of the experience of hardship. There was a lack of reciprocity as the years went by and Labour moved towards government. The Mum was much better suited to the demands of the modern world, capable of understanding the big picture, developing technical complex policies, managing change."
The Aristotelian Dad was the early Labour movement encapsulated in the trade union. The Platonic Mum was the Fabian movement. They now seem well divorced. Even to the extent that Labour continues to involve the Trade Unions, those Unions themselves represent fewer people with each passing year. The Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) and the Movement For Change (MfC), under the leadership of Andy Flannagan and Blair McDougall respectively, have been looking to reconcile the estranged couple.
Flannagan sums up his vision in a recent blog post marking the launch of the CSM’s “Put your money where your mouth is” campaign:
"Our nation has seen too much of those who espouse certain policies but whose lifestyles look no different to anyone else. There are also plenty of us who studiously model a different way of living, that springs from a different set of values, yet step back from arguing to see those values fleshed out in public policy. Both are required, and to be a movement you need both."
In the terms I have been using, we have both Platonists and Aristotelians; just not the key combination that makes politics meaningful. The CSM is well placed to rectify this problem because it sits between the two: it is almost as established within the Labour Party machine as the Fabians. But the majority of its work is undertaken in partnership with religious and civic groups. The CSM acknowledges that the best work in carving out a common good comes from civil society movements such as FairTrade and LivingWage, and the groups that champion those movements, such as churches, mosques, synagogues and community organisations like London Citizens.
The MfC was set up under McDougall’s leadership as a joint operation between David Miliband and London Citizens. When I met with McDougall, he explained to me that while there is a wealth of much needed enthusiasm for Aristotelian style reforms in the Labour party, reforms that make community organising key to what the party does, it is equally important to maintain the Platonic tradition. So just as Labour needs to focus on getting local people together listening to what they want and undertaking joint enterprises with those people, it is vital that Labour does not lose the professionalism it built up with the Fabians and perfected under New Labour.
The idea shared by the CSM and the MfC is that the party machine must stay but that part of its work must be organising in the community. It is a machine and a movement. Perhaps what has been forgotten is just how much time and effort is required for the latter. Machine work is easy: we devise a policy at the centre, pass it down more or less unchanged to each region and it is left to locals to interpret and implement that policy. Movement work is far harder and more time consuming. It involves listening campaigns whereby local people are brought together on a regular basis to share their concerns; assemblies whereby those same people join together to vote on the appropriate actions to build the strength of the community and where specific members of the community are allocated roles; continued meetings used to monitor progress; and social meetings throughout that strengthen relationships between those involved and the wider community.
I hope that readers have duly been frustrated at my not mentioning movements of the right, namely, the Big Society. My feeling is that the Big Society is ultimately Platonic. It tried to implement central reforms that either incentivise or pressure local people or groups to take responsibility for themselves. Oddly, the Big Society also has Aristotelian elements. By handing a £5 million pound contract to Locality, the government stated its belief in “social action and self-reliance through community enterprise”. But by being one and the other without being both simultaneously, the Big Society failed to be a movement.
Perhaps the Big Society has something to learn then from the CSM and MfC. In order to champion the movement, an established Platonic body must champion then organic Aristotelian organisations. Real time and effort needs to go into nurturing the Aristotelian organisations, and creating relationship between the people at the top and bottom. Unless and until this link is restored, the Big Society will be lost.