In a post yesterday, I pointed out that Tony Blair – currently in Pakistan to meet president Pervez Musharraf – at least did not feel the need to salute the military dictator’s ‘courage, strength and indefatigability’, as George Galloway famously did on meeting Saddam Hussein.
But I’ve just heard the World at One on Radio Four. There was Blair, praising Musharraf’s ‘courage and his leadership in taking Pakistan on this journey of change and modernisation’.
Modernisation, eh? This touches on something Chris wrote recently:
[the] invocation of modernity is one of Blair’s common rhetorical tropes … Managerialists like Blair don’t like the language of value judgment and choices. So they try to pass these off as things that are inevitable, modern. David Marquand has said that this is the “myth” of New Labour:
There is one modern condition, which all rational people would embrace if they knew what it was. The Blairites do know. It is on that knowledge that their project is based, and by it that their claim to power is validated.
One more quote, this one from myself back in 1997:
Perhaps the strongest theme in the repertoire of New Labour – certainly the most inspirational – is that one word: New. Curiously, among the true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party’s ideologues to claim that Labour’s policies had to change because they were ‘old’: a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable.)
Like David Marquand, I think there’s more going on here than ‘managerialism’. ‘Modern’, in its New Labour usage, reminds me strongly of the old Communist term ‘progressive’. Both terms have an emptily circular quality – the leaders of New Labour (or the CP) call for commitment to the progressive cause (or modern values), but the only way to find out if a specific policy is modern (or progressive) is to ask if it’s supported by the leadership of the Party (or the Party leadership). At the same time, however, progress (or modernity) is seen as a real political value, rousing genuine commitment – even fervour – in Party loyalists. To be modern, as Marquand suggests, is to be cutting with the grain of history. Things are changing, in ways nobody can resist; great forces of historical change are working their purpose out in the world. (The pseudo-religious language is deliberate; Christopher Hill suggested in The world turned upside down that one way to understand the Puritanical sense of being part of a blessed revolutionary elect may be to think of the Marxist sense of working for the forces of historical progress. And, perhaps, vice versa.) ‘Modernisation’ (or ‘progress’) is both a world-historical force and a tangible fact; the only question is whether we are going to let ourselves be crushed by the steamroller or climb aboard – and, posed in those terms, the question answers itself.
But the emptiness of the concept remains. In 2006 as in 1997, for Blair to describe something as ‘modern’ means nothing more specific than that he supports it and anyone who opposes it is deluded. The positive content of ‘modernity’, in other words, is all in the type of commitment it evokes; the term itself is purely rhetorical, and can be applied to any policy, any regime, any change, any resistance to change. What interests me about Blair’s invocations of ‘modernity’, in other words, is not the indiscriminateness with which he sprays them around, but the reverse. If we could track the specific ideas, things and people Blair has identified as ‘modern’ over the years, I suspect it would give us a pretty good picture of how Blair’s thinking has evolved – and of which specific all-powerful historical forces have populated his personal cosmology at different times. In 1997 ‘modernity’ had something to do with Thatcherism; now, apparently, it has something to do with Pervez Musharraf.