Over the past couple of London mayoral contests why has the issue of the London Routemaster bus taken on a weirdly strange prominence? In the absence of any underlying differences between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson’s politics or priorities a semblance of political antagonism has been pried out of the debate over the old Routemaster design versus the bendy buses. One design is positioned as representing the left, and one design that of the right. It represents what we could see as a contest between a decision procedure pitting idealistic principle against hard nosed utilitarianism. On the one hand, emotive and inclusive principles are forwarded on a social justice basis for replacing the Routemaster buses—one injury jumping on and off is too many, they are not accessible to disabled people, and so on. On the other hand, the utilitarian argument accepts that occasional (even if rare) injuries are the price one has to pay for efficient transport and that the interests of the majority are overridden by pressing for universal, if seldom necessary, demands for access to all buses by the disabled population.
Yet there is no obvious class angle here, and so I would question whether there is any left-right distinction to talk of in the debate. Even given the success of a global communist revolution I think the questions surrounding utilitarianism would remain: its exact limits and remit. What is dangerous here, and why I think the left is currently in retreat everywhere against a wave of populist backlash against ‘political correctness gone mad!’, is the abandonment of basic utilitarian arguments to the right.
The same problem is iterated in the climate change debate. On the left climate change is presented as an all-or-nothing battle for survival, with advocates of the do nothing camp placed in the guilty company of the likes of Sarah Palin and the BNP. But surely the question of whether to cut carbon is, like the Routemaster bus, one of a utiltarian calculation. Since it is highly unlikely that class forces will be mobilised one way or the other on the question (since the source of the problem is not, at root, socially antagonistic) it is thus for policy makers a utilitarian issue. That is, weighing up costs and benefits and making a decision beneficial to the majority.
Recently, I have been reading Bjorn Lomborg’s book ‘Cool It’ about climate change. He makes a convincing argument that measures at adaptation would be more cost effective and beneficial than carbon reduction. Indeed, he even raises the point that in many way warming could be beneficial to a great number of people on this earth. I have not read all of the book yet, but what looks likely to be a weakness from a leftwing perspective is the lack of any incorporation of class analysis. We hear a lot about global poverty and absolute conditions of immiseration, but very little about the future standards of living and political strength of the growing industrial working classes in China and India.
There is a similar weakness of leftwing critics of parochical ‘do nothing’ advocates in the West. They claim that this position affirms Western privilege and that Marxist advocates of it have renounced their internationalist credentials. And yet, again what seems to be lacking is any gesture towards a utilitarian reasoning. What may have negative effects for rural dwellers in Africa, may, through the attenuated development of the productive forces in China and India, have positive effects for the growing urban working class and their political prospects there. Of course, this is to grossly simplify the argument, but I hope you get the picture.
The danger is that climate change apocalypticism comes to be the global left’s bendy bus. Something neither representing the interests of the global working class, nor matching up to any reasoned utilitarian calculation of the majority’s interests.