All over the world, the Left is facing an impasse, and not a conjunctural or passing crisis, but an historic crisis, while, in the context of economic globalisation, the far Right has enjoyed a resurgence. Driven by racist ideologies, the populism of the Right has enabled the politicians of neo-liberalism to maintain their dominance of the political field, despite the increasing unpopularity of economic rationalism. Blaming the massive shift in wealth and the containment of democratic controls on the state, on “cultural elites” and “illegal immigrants,” the populist Right - from neo-fascists to mainstream conservatives - have effectively controlled the political agenda in the industrialised democracies.

The movements for economic justice and equality which defined progressive politics at the beginning of the modern era have gradually had to accommodate progressive movements centred on the struggle for recognition, notably national and ethnic liberation, civil rights and gender politics.

The contention of this article is that the political field now opening up poses a completely new way of doing progressive politics, ethical politics.

Ethical politics is the field constituted by the tension between redistributive justice and the struggle for recognition. Questions of redistributive justice spring from the socialist tradition, aiming to redress economic inequalities and are located under the signs of equality and liberty. Questions of cultural recognition spring especially from the new social movements of the post-1960s era, aiming to redress the misrecognition of cultural specificity and the devaluation of difference, and are located under the signs of recognition and difference.

Thus ethical politics is the form that the problem of the different oppressions suffered by the “holy trinity” of class, race and gender takes in the current period, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Left must aim to construct a discourse capable of dividing society between “the people” and “the power bloc,” between “us” and “them,” but populism cannot be the form of this discourse.

Bluntly, “ethical politics” must seek to “ride the tiger” of popular moralism in exactly the same way that the mainstream Right has been able to ride the tiger of populist racism. At the same time, ethical politics links up with the forefront of intellectual debate on the theoretical options confronting the Left today. This discussion, rather than being a theoretical ghetto, is capable of challenging mainstream political philosophy, sociology and ethical theory on its own terrain and shifting the debate to the left. Ethical politics therefore addresses the key dimensions of “moral and intellectual leadership” that are central to the ideological struggle for hegemony.

Ethical politics needs to mobilise the immense potential constituency of the moral common sense of the Western societies. This moral common sense is defined by the notion of respect for the moral worth of all persons and underwrites many of the claims for cultural recognition that have been successfully institutionalised in multiculturalism and equal opportunity legislation.

The task of framing the terms of ethical political practice lies ahead of us, and this article is intended to contribute to posing the questions whose answers can shed light on this task.

Political discourse is currently structured in such a way as to exclude the formation of a broad, popular emancipatory movement challenging the neo-liberal hegemony over public discourse. The point is to change that landscape. At the level of ethical discourse, the divergent signs of redistributive justice and the recognition of difference can be correlated. Contemporary globalised, multicultural life, is the ground on which an embryonic, universal ‘moral common sense’ is growing, and provides the opening for such a correlation.

This is as far as we can go at the moment by way of a preliminary definition of “ethical politics.”


In broad outline, my argument leading up to the definition of ethical politics runs as follows:

The economic and social conditions of modernity are the driving forces underlying the emergence of ethical politics. Many authors have described the characteristics of globalisation and the economic aspect of modernity, and I do not make any claim of originality in respect to this.

In the first part below, I summarise the “landscape” of the present period and the underlying tectonics. The two salient features of this landscape - internationalisation and the ubiquity of the commodity relation - in other words, the world market, have been noted by political economists and revolutionaries alike since the eighteenth century. The intensive and extensive growth of the market remains the fundamental driving force underlying the changes taking place in the domain of culture and politics.

What basis is there for looking to a three-hundred-year-old process for the analysis of brand new ideological phenomena? Firstly, the author believes that for most of the twentieth century, the Cold War held back the development of these phenomena even while the underlying pressures located in the labour process continued to build up. Consequently, the fall of the Soviet Union unleashed a pressure which had been bottled up for seventy years, and almost the entire twentieth century was shown to have been a detour. Secondly, the continued supplanting of all other forms of human relationship by the relation of commodity exchange and the underlying development of technology and work practices gives rise to sudden qualitative shifts at the level of politics and the class struggle. This is precisely analogous to the way in which the incremental build up of tectonic pressures release themselves in earthquakes after long periods of quietude.

Among the evidence for claiming that internationalisation and the ubiquity of the market has reached qualitatively new levels of intensity, we could quote the phenomena of the movement of whole peoples from continent to continent constituting a stateless labour force for which there is no precedent in history, and which has emerged in relatively recent times. The transformation of the United States into the world’s greatest debtor nation at the same time as it has consummated its status as the only world super-power points to profound changes. That the movement of goods across borders is increasingly overshadowed by trade in services is entirely cast into the shade by the fact that both make up only the margins of world trade, utterly obscured by trade in money and various forms of fictitious value.

The central concept here is the commodity relation. This relation is supplanting all traditional and hierarchical relations, whether functional, political or domestic. It creates new, symmetrical bonds where previously there was either no relation at all, or relations of domination. But it is at the same time the very source of our crisis. We define as collaboration the relationship which transcends fair exchange and constitutes the only genuinely human relationship.

Our point then is not to make any new contribution to political economy, but rather, two-fold: firstly, to give a foundation for the emergence of a popular moral consciousness which constitutes the substance of ethical politics; and secondly, to give some foundation for tracing the successive stages unfolding in the forms of radical subjectivity over the past 150 years, in order to highlight the emergence of a new form which is under way at this moment.

In the second part, I trace the successive forms of radical subjectivity from the secret society of the first half of the nineteenth century, to the “mutual aid” organisation called the First International, to the mass working class political party of the First and Second Internationals, to the Front in which a working class party led the popular masses throughout the middle part of the twentieth century, via the national liberation Fronts/movements of the 1950s to the social movements of the 1960s, the unravelling of the social movements to identity politics, and the negation of identity politics into alliance politics, which I maintain, constitutes the environment in which ethical politics is growing, consummating a journey which began in the 1830s.

Parallel with this narrative of the radical subject, I trace the development of the labour process from the crude form of capitalist exploitation described by Marx in Capital, to the proliferation of technical and supervisory strata under Taylorist “scientific management” to the advent of expansive, paternalistic Fordism; the export of industrial production to industrially undeveloped countries (combined development); the New Deal and the post-World War II compromises built around the Bretton Woods arrangements; the spread of “Japanese” management techniques, with the more privileged full-time employees on one side, and the mass of casualised, out-sourced labourers on the other, alongside the devolution of mental labour to the shop-floor; the abandonment of macro-economic management and class compromise based on the Bretton Woods arrangements in favour of “micro-economic reform” and the decline of stable wage labour, devolving risk to the shop floor and finally, the radical reshaping and fragmentation of all production and employment relations.

The relation between these two processes is complex, highly mediated and many-sided, but it is undeniable that it is the highlighted changes in the labour process which are causal in relation to the changes in radical subjectivity, rather than the other way around.

This brings us to a description of the current radical political environment with both some understanding of its historical genesis and its relevance to the diverse aspects of the postmodern economic and social world which it confronts.

We call this political life-world “alliance politics,” and this is the subject of part three below. Alliance politics is characterised by the formation of temporary collectivities united for a finite period of time for just one objective. Alliances do not exclude leagues, parties, fronts, social movements and identity politics, but constitute the forms through which they become politically effective. This effectiveness is however extremely problematic; alliances are seen by the participants as instrumental, or as an unwanted necessity for want of anything better. If an alliance of people and groups who momentarily leave their profound disagreements at the doorstep, could bring into being something radically new, no-one imagines that this radically new could itself be an alliance. Thus, the political landscape to which alliance politics must give way is already visible, and the author contends that this is ethical politics.

The final part of this work is devoted to sketching so far as possible what ethical politics is, and dealing with a number of concepts which are not ethical politics, as we understand it, but rather constitute some of the arenas of struggle over which ethical politics will be shaped.

In a sense, the successive forms of radical subjectivity, beginning with Auguste Blanqui’s plan to gather together a few good men, seize power and institute socialism, take the form of the successive abandonment of the illusion of an easy way forward. At the end, ethical politics squarely confronts the impossibility of political programs to achieve the radical end and poses to itself the really hard questions of progressive social change.