Can lyric poetry save us from our Hobbesian selves?
Today, there is a feeling that politics as an activity or process is out of joint and dysfunctional. This goes beyond disaffection with particular politicians or the outcome of specific elections, or even with the dominant ideas of public discourse and policy. Rather, it is a discontent with the nature of the activity itself, with the way that politics is done, above and beyond its ideological content or the personalities involved. The discontent is about both the method of politics and its subject matter, the things it is concerned with. The common sentiment is that it is irrelevant and has nothing to say to ordinary people. This attitude infuriates the politically engaged and provokes weary acceptance among the professionals but it is a feeling that has become ever wider, in the United States as much as the UK or continental Europe. The disaffection is now finding expression for some in so-called populist politics, which for some at least is a rejection of politics as such, with a dangerous search for the meaning to be found in an imagined identity or a strong leader figure.
Marc Stears’ Out of the Ordinary grows out of that discontent and expresses it powerfully, while rejecting the option of destructive populism. It is not however a simple jeremiad. It proposes an alternative way of understanding what politics as an activity might be and what it might be founded on and concerned with. It does this by reconstructing a way of understanding both politics and everyday life that found expression in the work of several figures in mid-twentieth century Britain, particularly during World War II and its aftermath.
Care for the Ordinary
Released today, the book is hot off the press, complete with allusions to the Covid pandemic and the way the impact of that event illustrates its argument. The author is himself a political professional, having been involved in both the world of think tanks (as head of the New Economics Foundation) and that of party politics, as an advisor to Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader. He thus critiques existing politics as someone who has been at the heart of it. However, Stears brings a particular perspective to bear on the subject, one that he does not explicitly spell out but which it is important to know. He is associated with the so-called ‘Blue Labour’ tendency within the Labour Party associated with people such as Maurice Glasman and Adrian Pabst, which looks to combine economic radicalism with a valorisation of the traditional and patriotism, and to emphasise solidarity rather than technocratic planning. The book is thus in some ways part of an argument within the contemporary left. However, part of its value is precisely that it is wider in scope and addresses questions about the nature of politics at a meta-level, making it useful for conservatives and liberals of a certain disposition as well.
Although the book, as its final chapter makes clear, is addressing the present situation, the focus is not on contemporary events. These are alluded to but do not drive the argument or content. Instead, it is largely a work of intellectual history. It looks back to a period between the mid-1930s and the Festival of Britain in 1951 and examines how, during those years, a variegated collection of intellectuals reacted against the dominant intellectual and political tendencies of their time. What they did, according to Stears, was to produce a different kind of take on the world, based upon an affectionate account of the everyday life of ordinary people. This was apparently non-political but, he persuasively argues, it was in fact profoundly political. The language of politics that these people created was however a radically different one from that found on either the left or the right, then and later.
The people Stears puts in this reconstructed tradition of argument were a varied and diverse group. The ones he devotes the most attention to—George Orwell, J. B Priestley, and Dylan Thomas—were all professional authors as was another who is mentioned frequently but not given the same attention, Laurie Lee. Two other significant figures for the story are the photographer Bill Brandt and the artist and designer Barbara Jones. At first sight they do not form a natural group. As Stears acknowledges, they hardly knew each other, did not work together, and in several cases did not like each other. They certainly did not see themselves as part of a political or intellectual movement. Is this not a case of creating an artificial category, based on superficial similarities? The book argues convincingly that the common subject matter, analysis and narratives of the works they created were such that they can all be seen as making the same kind of argument and presenting a common kind of position. In their work they helped to form but also captured and expressed and gave voice to, a significant current in the cultural and social life of twentieth century Britain, one that is largely ignored or slighted by the dominant intellectual traditions of left and right.
The book adopts a broadly chronological approach to its work of intellectual recovery. The starting point is the alienation that all felt from the dominant intellectual and political tendencies of the inter-war years. On the right was a kind of melancholic conservatism, as articulated by people such as T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis. This rejected the loss of authority that they saw around them, and what they saw as the vulgar and spiritually empty world produced by the Great War and modern technology. On the left was the faux-revolutionary politics of people such as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, flirting with Communism and espousing a kind of radical intellectual politics that rejected the status quo as the corrupt product of capitalism, fit only for sweeping away. These tendencies shared two features; a dismissal of the everyday and actual reality of life and of the experiences and values of ordinary people, and a focus on the abstract and general rather than the concrete and particular. All of the figures in the book rejected these approaches, asserting instead the capacities and abilities of ordinary people and the importance of mundane and quotidian life, the lived experience of growing suburbia and provincial England (it was very much England rather than Britain). The focus was on the local, concrete, and particular instead of the abstract and universal.
All three of them were dismayed and downcast by the arrival of the War in 1939. Their fear was that it would sweep away the familiar and comforting and destroy it. However, as the War continued, their observation of the way the conflict was experienced by the public, and the popular response to the challenge, encouraged them and fortified their feeling that there was something profoundly valuable and humane in the commonplaces of everyday life, that pointed the way to a rejection of both unthinking support for the status quo on the one hand and abstract revolutionary politics on the other. They also became more aware of the existence and importance of something beyond the local and parochial, which was a national identity and a simple but not jingoistic patriotism, founded on a shared history and culture, despite the great local variation. This was combined with an awareness of the individuality and eccentricity that was a central feature of the national identity. This meant they came to articulate a kind of politics that rejected grandiosity or pessimism but also abstraction and utopianism. The focus instead was on the everyday and on the local and concrete, the rooted (in the sense of having a connection to both a location and a shared past), and an emphasis on individuality and the particular. Meanwhile Brandt used the medium of photography to capture the experience of the war and what it revealed about British society. All of the people the book looks at came to articulate a kind of politics that was simultaneously radical and reformist yet conservative. Above all it was a politics that was based on the value and centrality of concrete lived experience rather than ideals or abstract principles.
One area of ambiguity that seems strange now was the attitude of all of them to the Empire and the connections it brought. A central feature of the vision they articulated was a kind of little Englandism (or little Wales in Thomas’s case) in which the Empire was simply ignored or seen as somehow irrelevant to the true nature and everyday experience of ordinary people. The whole imperial project was seen in much the way J.R. Seeley had described it, as something entered into in a fit of absence of mind. This denial of the imperial nature of the British state, explains the way that Ireland and Scotland hardly figured and is also connected to the xenophobia that was a feature of several of them, notably Priestley.
Although clearly on the left, none of the people discussed found the Attlee government congenial. They disliked the model of centralised planning described in Douglas Jay’s remark that “The gentleman in Whitehall knows best” and rejected the shiny modernising politics of Fabianism. I suspect that for Stears, the Attlee government was the point where Labour politics took a wrong turn and abandoned solidarity and localism for technocracy and modernisation. The book has a whole chapter on the 1951 Festival of Britain which is seen as the final expression of the celebration of the ordinary that had been articulated during the wartime years (against the intentions and plans of the Government ironically). Barbara Jones played a central part in this, having previously identified and celebrated the commonplace decorative arts of working-class Britain.
What should we make of this? Was the phenomenon Stears identifies real? Undoubtedly yes, we can see other figures who would fit into this story such as Michael Young and Richard Hoggart or, later, Raymond Williams. Why bother with it if it was just an episode? Firstly, because it was not, the sentiment and approach described persisted and even survives, as Julian Baggini’s Welcome to Everytown shows. Mainly though, Stears argues, because this way of understanding what politics is offers an escape from ways of thinking on both left and right that are unsatisfactory, deeply destructive of social goods and good government, and exhausted. Is this different way of thinking feasible though? What undermined the phenomena these people identified and described, as a form of politics? It was not simply other ideas. Rather as a politics based in the everyday, it was undermined by changes in that everyday life brought about by technology, some of which were happening as they wrote. One was the growth of electronic media and entertainment, above all television (and now social media). Another was the impact of the motor car and subsequent hyper-mobility. There are also changes brought about by deliberate policy. Two in particular are the rise of meritocracy and the meritocratic labour market, and the unleashing of finance in the 1980s. The problem we are left with is this: if we agree that a politics of the everyday and ordinary is what is needed, then what concrete form will or can it take? What is the praxis in other words?
The book is engaging in style, with frequent reminiscence of the author’s own life and childhood. The argument for a different way of understanding and practising politics is cogent and timely and applicable as much to countries like the US and Canada as to the UK. Although Stears writes from the left, the argument is congenial for a certain kind of conservative (one thinks of Front Porch Republic) and is equally applicable since it is an argument for changing all kinds of politics, left and right. One arresting passage compares the arguments of Priestley and others with those of Virginia Woolf who also believed in focusing on everyday experience but thought that in the modern world that experience was hopelessly fragmented and individualised. The question is who has the better account of how we live today.