Imogen Tyler and Bruce Bennett
Aspiration is a rhetorical device that seeks to whitewash a neoliberal economic and political project and the staggering inequalities it produces.
On the 9th of May 2015, Tony Blair published Labour must be the party of ambition as well as compassion, an opinion piece reflecting upon the general election result. In it he argues that Labour’s catastrophic defeat was the consequence of a failure to communicate a ‘politics of aspiration’ to voters aiming for a better life. In this analysis aspiration is defined by the experiences of the individualistic middle-classes. Blair’s vision is concerned primarily with trickle-down economics, in which the government supports unregulated global capitalism and a smaller state achieved through cuts and privatisation of the public sector. He imagines a post-political, non-partisan centre-ground alliance that puts its emphasis upon “empowering individuals”. Blair presents this vision as “progressive” and “future orientated”, cautioning that an aspirational politics “requires real thinking with an open mind, not an attempt to find our way back to hallowed ground which represents a dead end”.
Ironically however, what Blair sets out here is the operational ideology of the New Labour government, the rhetorical remnants of which are also central to current Conservative Party discourse. In 2012 David Cameron, in a party conference speech that could have been delivered by Blair, gave a vision of an “aspiration nation”, claiming to be a “modern compassionate conservative”.
In the days following the article’s publication, Blair’s ideas were quickly regurgitated in the speeches of Labour leadership hopefuls and pored over in political commentary. This process revealed very little about ‘aspiration’ as a political concept, exposing instead its continued use as a vaguely defined value that makes free-market doctrine palatable to voters.
Aspiration is a rhetorical device that seeks to whitewash a neoliberal economic and political project and the staggering inequalities it produces. From the perspective of government there are three central elements to this project: the financialisation of the public sphere (i.e. selling off public assets), the withdrawal of state funding for social infrastructure projects, and increased freedom for corporations. In this context, the state’s main function is to facilitate the accumulation of wealth by those at the top through the privatisation and ‘asset-stripping’ of public institutions, infrastructure and natural resources.
The ideological power of aspiration is that it describes people’s “sense of themselves as trying to get on”, while disguising “the reality and power of the social patterns that determine their ability to do so”. Aspiration shifts the responsibility for people’s opportunity to succeed or fail from the state onto individuals, and in the process obscures the class-based constraints that in reality shape social destinies. As Kim Allen notes, politicians’ “incitements to ‘be aspirational’” negate “the broader inequalities which characterise the contemporary climate and powerfully shape who goes where in education and the labour market”. Aspiration is a political concept that seeks to replace not only the ideal of the compassionate and caring Welfare State, but along with it other political concepts such as class, democracy, exploitation, solidarity, justice, dignity and rights.
The glorification of aspiration began simultaneously with the adoption of free-market economics by the Conservative Party in the 1970s. It constitutes part of a decades-long project to dismantle the post-War settlement. The Keynesian welfare state was imagined by its original architects as a ‘cradle-to-grave’ safety-net for citizens, a ‘welfare commons’ of shared aspirations and risks, which would ameliorate economic and social hardships in the post-war period. One of the major characteristics of welfare reform from the 1970s onwards was the emergence of a political consensus that the welfare state was in “a permanent crisis”1. Through this ‘crisis lens’, welfare was recast as the seed-bed for toxic forms of ‘welfare dependency’ that had a stagnating effect on economic growth and national prosperity.
In a reversal of the common aspiration for a welfare state in the 1940s, ‘welfare’ has come to be understood as the cause of poverty and social problems. These problems include ‘inter-generational worklessness’, drug dependence, anti-social behaviours, ‘troubled families’, teenage parenthood, crime and other ‘social ills’. The idea of a ‘bloated’ welfare state, responsible for both economic decline and entrenched social problems is a common-sense view of neoliberal aspirational politics. This common-sense is shared across the mainstream political spectrum, from the Conservatives:
The benefit system has created a benefit culture. It doesn't just allow people to act irresponsibly, but often actively encourages them to do so.
to the Labour Party’s Shadow Frontbench:
We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen [as], and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.
In the politics of aspiration, class inequalities are depicted as the consequence of individual choices: wealth is ‘earned’ and poverty is ‘deserved:’ hence the media presenting us with a rogues’ gallery of scroungers, skivers and the undeserving poor.
As we live through the deepest and swiftest cuts ever made in social provision, the better life that the majority desire will become increasingly unattainable2. Even for the sharp-elbowed middle-classes who are sufficiently aspirational, social mobility involves a fight up a ladder, which is dependent upon the perceived failures, exploitation and misery of others. Yet, as Stefan Collini noted in 2010, the politics of aspiration “is almost entirely silent about what happens to all those left behind in their original class after the ‘talented’ and ‘able’ have sped off to success”. The promises produced by the political class in manifestos, speeches and policy initiatives disguise this cruelty, as they are designed to garner votes, not change the socio-economic conditions required for a better life. Aspiration is not progressive politics, it is “a symptom of the abandonment of what have been, for the best part of a century, the goals of progressive politics”.
The left should not seek to rebrand aspiration, but should expose it as an ‘ideological displacement’ that, as Emma Dowling and Davie Harvie argue, enables the “structural conditions of a deep social, political and economic crisis” to be defined as a problem of “individual behaviours”3. The sheer scale of this task is currently paralysing those who seek to reinvigorate progressive left politics. What the left lacks is a political vocabulary with which to articulate these conditions and imagine alternatives. This language would traditionally have been that of class struggle. However, one of the effects of the transition from industrial to financial capitalism is that people may no longer recognise themselves as belonging to an existing social class. In particular, there has been an erosion of the ‘working class’ as a political identity deployed by people in everyday struggles against exploitation and inequality. While a political vocabulary of class has been undermined, social class hasn’t dissipated or dissolved under neoliberal conditions.
In the basic sense of the economic position in the society into which one is born, class remains “a much more powerful determinant of life chances than any other variable”. Inequality remains a matter of class, even when it is not explicitly understood as such by those who perceive or indeed experience inequality. What is missing is a way of articulating this fact as a common and popular politics against neoliberalism.
On June 11th 2015, billionaire owner of Cartier, Johann Rupert, declared in a speech at the Financial Times ‘Business of Luxury’ summit in Monaco that his greatest fear - what makes him lose sleep at night - is the “the poor rising up to bring down the rich”. It is a salutary reminder that a politics of aspiration – a politics, literally, of rising up – can be understood not as an accommodation to the neoliberal status quo, but as the basis for a politics of class struggle to overthrow the current neoliberal order – and that this is where the left should begin.
1 Langan, M. (1994) ‘Series Editors Preface’, in Burrows R; Loader B (eds.) Towards a Post-Fordism Welfare State? London:Routledge, xi.
2 Taylor-Gooby, P.F. (2013) The Double Crisis Of The Welfare State And What We Can Do About It Basingstoke: Palgrave, viii
3 Dowling, E., and Harvie, D. (2014), ‘Harnessing the social: state crises and (big) society’, Sociology, 48 (5), 872