Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington & Stamford Hill: A Polanyian Democratic Activist in the House of Lords

Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington & Stamford Hill: A Polanyian Democratic Activist in the House of Lords

Jeff Weintraub: Lord Glasman, A Polanyian Democratic Activist in the House of Lords

Every once in a while one gets reminded of the ways that Britain is a funny sort of place, where the interplay between modernity and tradition continues to take rather quirky forms. Consider, for example, the case of the great historian of classical antiquity Moses Israel Finkelstein—or, as he would have been known while he was teaching at CCNY in his twenties, Moe Finkelstein. If Moe Finkelstein’s name doesn’t ring a bell with you, part of the reason may be that in the 1950s his having been a Communist for a while in the 1930s caught up with him, McCarthy-era persecution cost him his job at Rutgers and made him unemployable in American academia, and he moved to England, where he spent several decades at Cambridge and became not just Moses Finley (or M.I. Finley), but SIR Moses Finley.

I was reminded of Moe Finkelstein’s story by the latest news about my good friend Maurice Glasman (an authentically English Jew, with remaining traces of a London working-class accent to show for it).

As I explained on my blog back in 2006, Glasman is an exceptionally bright and argumentative London-based intellectual, academic, and sometime jazz musician. We met in 1991 when our paths crossed at the European University in Florence, where he spent time as a graduate student. Since 1995 he has taught politics at London Metropolitan University.

According to Glasman’s university website, “His research interests focus on the relationship between citizenship and faith and the limits of the market”—which is at least partly right, but by itself seems a little bland and limited.

I think it is fair to say that Glasman has established himself as a committed and sophisticated partisan of democracy, critical rationality, cosmopolitan imagination, community, and the pursuit of equality, and as a persistent and penetrating critic of market utopianism, ethnic nationalism, the use of cultural-relativist arguments to support oppression and xenophobia, and trendy or fraudulent thinking in general. His writings include an ambitious critique of top-down “shock” marketization in post-1989 east-central Europe and its socio-political consequences, which also seeks to put this story in its larger historical and theoretical contexts, Unnecessary Suffering: Managing Market Utopia (1996). As that reference to market utopianism in the subtitle suggests, Glasman’s perspective has been profoundly influenced by Karl Polanyi, especially his interpretation of Polanyi’s mid-century classic, The Great Transformation. While finishing up his book he wrote an essay on Polanyi’s argument and some of its practical implications that I would describe as occasionally problematic but deeply insightful and basically brilliant, “The Great Deformation: Polanyi, Poland, and the Terrors of Planned Spontaneity.” Anyone interested in Polanyi and the issues he raises should read that piece.

As founder and director of an enterprise called the Faith and Citizenship Programme, Glasman has been trying to help establish a civic practice of interfaith scriptural reasoning, in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims explain their holy books to each other. And he’s working on a book about the City of London, the city’s financial district, in the context of the civic impoverishment of London and the destructive effects of financial deregulation for British society as a whole, provisionally titled Capital City. (For more on this subject, see here and here.)

GLASMAN’S INTEREST in community has been practical as well as intellectual. Among other things, he has been actively involved with London Citizens, an umbrella organization of community groups. As reported in a September 2010 piece in the Guardian:

The Labour party was born out of civil society groups organising against power, and he thinks Labour needs to return to that, weaning itself off a reliance on the state as the sole organising force of leftwing politics. Through his work with London Citizens, Glasman used those techniques to help organise people into persuading Ken Livingstone to agree a living wage when he was the capital’s mayor.

(Back in November 2008 Glasman was excited by the fact that a former community organizer, influenced by the approach of Saul Alinsky, had gotten elected President of the United States. I suspect that, since then, the style and substance of Obama’s record in office have may disappointed some of Glasman’s hopes and expectations.)

Glasman has also been trying to nudge the Labour Party back toward its historic roots as a social movement based on a genuinely communitarian (and not exclusively statist) form of politics. This project may sound quixotic, but his approach has generated strong interest in prominent Labour Party circles, and Glasman has developed a reputation as the intellectual godfather of “Blue Labour.” In British political imagery, “blue” is the color of Toryism. But the “conservative” element in this mix does not refer to Thatcherite free-market fundamentalism, social vandalism, and unqualified endorsement of unchecked individual greed (a package more properly seen as a radical version of nineteenth-century economic liberalism). On the contrary, it involves more genuinely conservative concerns, like protecting and revitalizing social cohesion, solidarity, moral order, and the “mediating structures” of social life (to borrow a phrase from the American conservative sociologist Peter Berger). Of course, these concerns have never been exclusively conservative, but the point is that they have been increasingly marginalized in the political perspectives of both left and right (appeals to religious bigotry don’t count)—and, in particular, too many people who consider themselves left-wing or “progressive” have become self-defeatingly allergic to any talk about morality.

In April 2009 Glasman described “Blue Labour” as pointing toward “a deeply conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.” (Though at one point he apparently added that “It’s also ‘blue’ because it’s a sad moment—in a Miles Davis kind of way.”) It could also be described as a deeply Polanyian socialism, since its guiding orientation owes more to Polanyi than to either Marxism or the kind of technocratic social-engineering approach exemplified by the Fabian tradition in British social democracy. (And if it’s not immediately clear what a Polanyian approach to socialism might entail, one way to get a sense of it might be to read “The Great Deformation.”)

According to the Guardian‘s Allegra Stratton, both David and Ed Miliband, the two brothers who competed for leadership of the Labour Party, were drawn toward Glasman’s thinking “during the leadership contest after Glasman gained credit in Labour circles for helping orchestrate what some privately say saved Labour 25 seats at the general election: Gordon Brown’s impassioned speech to grassroots charity London Citizens. Glasman helped to write it.” It was an unexpectedly powerful and moving speech, which is worth watching.

For Stratton, a September 28 speech by Ed Miliband “calling for the ‘good society’—to take on David Cameron’s ‘big society’—reflects the influence of Maurice Glasman.”

Along with this emphasis on work being rewarded, Glasman and Ed Miliband’s university friend Marc Stears have pushed what he calls Blue Labour—disinterring the conservative strains of Labour’s thinking.

Glasman has encouraged both Milibands into support for small business, a defence of the state but a demand for its reform along mutual lines and a patriotism rooted in British traditions of liberty. David Miliband called for the good society when he made a speech in August at the height of the campaign and Ed Miliband went further today….

Glasman’s thinking also extends to practicalities: if Labour is to return to some of the principles of reciprocity and mutualism out of which it emerged in the early 20th century, then it must re-learn how to run a membership organisation.

All this this brings me to the latest news. As we all know, the British Parliament (the Mother of Parliaments, if you please) has two parts, an elected House of Commons and a House of Lords. Over the course of the past few centuries, the powers of the House of Lords have been gradually chipped away. But in characteristically Burkean fashion, the British have never done anything so drastic as abolishing it, so it’s still around, and it still exercises some quasi-legislative functions—for example, it can occasionally delay bills passed by the House of Commons. In a 1999 reform of the House of Lords, most of the hereditary peers were expelled (though, for the moment, not quite all of them), and this chamber now consists overwhelmingly of appointed life peers.

For the latest round of appointments, the Labour Party had the opportunity to name ten new life peers. One of its nominees, in the category of working peers, was none other than Maurice Glasman. To quote the Guardian again:

The Labour appointments eschew the usual humdrum collection of former Labour MPs in favour of a list that includes Maurice Glasman, the academic and advocate of community politics. He will dub himself Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and believes he may be the first peer to live above a shop with a pink front door.

So Maurice is now Lord Glasman. (Technically, I believe, he is Baron Glasman, just as Margaret Thatcher is now Baroness Thatcher.) His wife is thus Lady Glasman, and his children—as long as they’re legitimate—are entitled to style themselves Honourable.

As I understand it, Maurice’s chosen moniker, in full, is Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill. Stoke Newington is the part of London where he lives, and Stamford Hill is the Jewish neighborhood in London where he grew up. Neither can be described as posh—though I gather that Stoke Newington is gentrifying.

Maurice richly deserves the recognition, as well as congratulations on his elevation. On the other hand, this is a hoot. As the saying goes, there will always be an England (for better or worse). Rule, Britannia!