Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Book review

Review: What's In It For Me? Self-Interest and Political Difference, by Thomas Prosser

Tony Wright



| 7 mins read

‘The premise of this book’, writes the author, ‘is that humans are self-interested and that this manifests itself politically’. In other words, because human beings are essentially self-interested, then political movements will necessarily reflect the self-interest of their supporters. This is illustrated by identifying five ‘worldviews’ (conservatism, national populism, liberalism, new left, social democracy) and demonstrating in each case why they are rooted in self-interest. Once this is recognised, then it becomes possible to find some common ground.

What does 'self-interest' mean?

An initial problem is that the concept of self-interest is not really pinned down. On one hand it is asserted that ‘serious discussion of self-interest is surprisingly rare’, while on the other hand that ‘self-interest has long interested social scientists’. Without a serious attempt to pin down what self-interest means, we end up going round in circles.

It also leads to a range of judgements, some contentious, as the various worldviews are fitted within the Prosser's framework of self-interest. Thus, conservatism reflects the interest of its wealthy supporters, while at the same time not just being about self-interest. This causes internal tensions and ‘it is more difficult to explain richer conservative support for Brexit’. To this could be added working class support for the Conservative Party. Where the author finds conservatism defective is its tendency to generate inequality and consequent disorder.

As for liberalism, ‘there is a compelling link between liberal ideas and the interests of richer citizens’. The liberal focus has been on removing obstacles to middle class advance. Thus, feminism has been mainly of benefit to professional women, while support for immigration has been a matter of middle class self-interest. This leads the author to conclude that liberalism has weaknesses, as well as strengths, as a worldview.

The new left (by which he seems to mean Corbynism) and social democracy get the same treatment. We are told that ‘new-left parties inadvertently favour the younger, wealthier followers of such movements’. They are less concerned with poverty than other goals. Evidence offered in support of this is the Corbynite emphasis on tuition fees rather than benefit cuts. The author is too fair-minded not to insert some necessary caveats, but this is where his argument about self-interest takes him.

When it comes to social democracy, which offers ‘a more promising means of reconciling different interests than alternative worldviews’, it needs to re-establish its relationship with working class communities if it is to fulfil its historic mission of bringing together working class interests with liberalism, thus reconciling self-interest and the common good. However, this requires social democracy to give more attention to the attachments of place, including attitudes to immigration, and the needs of long-term residents. It also needs to attend to the changing economic and social position of particular groups. The author favours ‘a moderate Labour Party’ but is more concerned that other parties should adopt social democratic principles.

National populism

It is when the author turns to national populism (under the heading of ‘Are Brexiters stupid?’) that we get to the heart of the book. He clearly wants to write his way through his own experience of Brexit and its associated divisions. As someone living and working in South Wales, he was confronted with towns like Ebbw Vale, which had received considerable amounts of EU funding, but which voted by large majorities for Brexit. How was this to be explained? And how could it be reconciled with a theory of political self-interest? As he puts it, ‘the case of national populism offers a fascinating insight into the relationship between self-interest and politics’.

He does a good job of identifying the factors that drove the Brexit vote in areas like the South Wales valleys. There was the sense of a way of life under threat from globalisation and immigration. De-industrialisation had ravaged communities and destroyed old identities. It was not difficult to see why national populism offered people a way to rebel against establishments, especially when it combined redistribution with cultural conservatism.

But Prosser's theory of self-interest means that he has to go beyond mere understanding. His argument is that ‘many aspects of Brexit were consistent with the interests of low income and education citizens’, for both material and non-material reasons. In fact, national populism demonstrates the ability of non-material factors to meet the needs of low-income groups.

This is where his argument about self-interest runs in to its greatest difficulties. If self-interest means not only material interests, but what people feel about their interests, then it ceases to be useful as an analytical tool. What if they are wrong about their real interests? People may have believed that Brexit was in their interests, but what if it turned out not to be?

This is where the failure to be more precise about what self-interest means is most serious. Prosser himself had clearly believed that a Brexit vote was not in the interests of the communities he wrote about. So, was he wrong? He does not tell us.

What he does tell us is that most commentators have not understood the relationship between national populism and lower-class interests. This makes him sympathetic to national populism in many respects, at least domestically, apart from its proclivity for identifying internal and external enemies. But his real hope in this book is that by demonstrating that all political viewpoints are essentially rooted in self-interest this will invite reflection, reconciliation and a better understanding of the common good. This is a generous sentiment. Some may regard it as naïve; others as optimistic.

What's In It For Me? Self-Interest and Political Difference, by Prosser, Thomas, is published by Manchester University Press. 201 pp. £14.99.

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