The defining moment of our time

By Jon Crooks

The UK and the world at large is in a bad place, heading in the wrong direction. To get out of this we need new economic systems and a new force in politics. Where will this come from?

As things stand, whoever you vote for in the UK, the same people win. In the recent past, whether it’s a Labour, Lib Dem and/or Conservative government, there has been no change to the status quo. Wealth and power has continued to be held and to accumulate in the hands of a few. But the existing political and economic orders are being questioned more than ever now. Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the movement behind Bernie Sanders in the US and here in the UK, where a strong new progressive force is doing the unthinkable; it’s taken over an established existing political party (something that, sadly, Bernie Sanders wasn’t unable to achieve across the pond).

The current leader of the Labour Party was voted in by a new wave of members and supporters intent on shaking things up and bringing about change from inside an existing political structure. New forces are at work. Big decisions lie ahead.

This is long overdue. Our first-past-the-post electoral system places the outcome of general elections in the hands of a few middle-income voters. Our system grants inordinate power to the corporate media, which only needs to influence those ‘middle England’ marginal constituencies to capture the vote. This combination of a media owned by billionaires and a first-past-the-post electoral system is lethal to democracy and has maintained the status quo for too long. Unless something drastic happens, we will just keep getting more of the same. That’s simply not an option.

We face huge problems in British society, which have come to light in the wake of the referendum vote. The causes of the Brexit result are deep-rooted and complex, but economic inequality has been touted by many as the main cause.

Global inequality is a huge and growing problem too and this sits alongside an environmental crisis that threatens our very existence on this planet; climate change is only one part of this problem. Two major studies by an international team of researchers, published in Science and Anthropocene Review in 2015, pinpointed the key factors that ensure a habitable planet for humans and found that of these nine worldwide processes, four have already exceeded safe levels. These processes are referred to as Planetary Boundaries and the four critical ones are:

  • Climate change
  • Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)
  • Land system change
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans

All of these changes are shifting Earth into a new state that is becoming less hospitable to human life and these changes are down to human activity, not natural variability. Our economic systems have gone into overdrive and as a result there has been a massive increase in resource use and pollution on a global scale.

These economic systems are based on the political and economic ideology of our time, which many refer to as ‘neoliberalism’. A belief that the invisible hand of ‘the market’ must decide everything to deliver prosperity for all. It’s a broken promise, which only delivers prosperity for those who already have it and the endless pursuit of economic growth on which it is based will destroy us.

The core tenets of neoliberalism are:

  • So-called ‘free’ markets;
  • Keeping state intervention as small as possible;
  • Boosting private rights for those able to afford property (supported by state intervention);
  • Low taxation; and
  • Individualism being celebrated (for instance through the cult of celebrity)

Neoliberalism offers the seductive view that it provides market-based solutions to all our ills and enables everyone to become wealthier. This is supposed to be due to a ‘trickle down’ effect and it’s this that has been the central mantra of neoliberals for the last 35 years.

According to Oxfam, the 65 richest people in the world currently own more wealth than the 3.5 billion poorest combined. Eradicating extreme poverty and bringing the very poorest people in the world up to just $1.25 per day, at current rates of ‘trickle down’ economics, would require global GDP to increase by over 15 times and take at least 100 years to achieve. Under the current economic system this would require huge increases in consumption levels.

This would continue to require cheap energy – which in the past has come from fossil fuels, accelerating climate change – and from more land being used to boost agricultural output at any cost, driving deforestation and environmental degradation and making the poorest of people even more vulnerable to extreme weather events.

This dominant economic theory has ruled for the last 35 years. It’s an extreme version of capitalism and any criticism of it should not be viewed as a criticism of capitalism itself, which is a longer term change that we’ve been going through since around 1610. That change has many different modes. The extreme form we now refer to as neoliberalism is just its current incarnation, and it is this particular form that we need to defeat.

The crisis facing Britain post ‘Brexit’

Austerity under the previous government has certainly had a severe impact. In particular, cuts to public services and the welfare state in particular, which many centrist ‘Blairite’ Labour MPs supported.

But the problem goes much deeper. The problem of growing inequality began with the hollowing out of our manufacturing industry as globalisation and neoliberalism took hold in the 1970s and 1980s.

I voted for us to remain a member of the EU for many good reasons that I won’t go into here, but I appreciate some of the motivations behind many of those who did vote to leave. There is at the very least a perception that immigration from Eastern Europe is depressing wages and putting pressure on public services (albeit the latter is likely to be more a result of the Conservative Government’s austerity policies).

The problem of course is not the EU itself, but the fact that the UK and the EU as a whole is in competition with other parts of the world and the neoliberal ideology that has dominated over the last 35 years has not sought to invest in alternative industries and sectors as others were lost. Much of this can be traced back to the Thatcher years. Some things improved under Blair, but not much and only temporarily. As Will Davies describes, referring to many of the former industrial towns in England and Wales who voted to leave the EU, in his recent analysis on the sociology of Brexit:

“Labour’s solution was to spread wealth in their direction using fiscal policy: public sector back-office jobs were strategically relocated to South Wales and the North East to alleviate deindustrialisation, while tax credits made low productivity service work more socially viable. This effectively created a shadow welfare state that was never publicly spoken of, and co-existed with a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency. Peter Mandelson’s infamous comment, that the Labour heartlands could be depended on to vote Labour no matter what, “because they’ve got nowhere else to go” spoke of a dominant attitude.”

Under David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, things got much worse, as they hit the neoliberal turbo button. But as Will Davies points out:

“It is easy to focus on the recent history of Tory-led austerity when analysing this, as if anger towards elites and immigrants was simply an effect of public spending cuts of the past 6 years or (more structurally) the collapse of Britain’s pre-2007 debt-driven model of growth.”

The problem of course goes back further. In Britain, most of our industrial towns have been devastated, not through the recently imposed austerity measures (though that has exacerbated the issues) or as a result of our relationship with Europe, but rather prior to that, to a period when we saw our manufacturing industries move out of Europe altogether, to places where labour is cheapest, natural resources are most abundant and where both social and environmental regulations and minimum standards are weakest. This is what we refer to as the ‘race to the bottom’.

In the long run, the winners are the big businesses that operate across national boundaries. They effectively play off nations against each other, causing countries, or trading blocs like the EU, to weaken standards to compete with China or India or wherever the next big workhouse of the world will spring up.  As these trans-national corporate big-hitters have grown in size and stature they’ve imposed themselves more and more on the seats of power in government, whose neoliberal ideology makes them good listeners. Hence, the situation is compounded over and over.

How do we counter this phenomenon? We could abandon the era of free-trade on a global basis, but is this realistic? It certainly makes sense from a green economy point of view to produce more goods locally, to reduce transportation and thus carbon emissions. But we can’t simply revert back to being small nation states that produce most of our own goods, especially as we’ve become so used to (and in many ways, reliant upon) imported goods. Yes, we need to do more of this where possible, but we can’t completely reverse globalisation. We need international trade; not least to drive the switch to a low carbon energy future.

Globalisation must work for all of Britain

Many of our industrial towns, that are home to most of our semi-skilled workers, feel on the wrong side of globalisation and voting to leave the EU was one way of ‘hitting out’. The idea that they could ‘take back control’ was appealing to people who felt betrayed by the current global economic system.

The UK needs someone – or something – to begin to address how we can make globalisation fair and inclusive. The real dividing lines are between those who are for a managed global economy – which tackles its injustices – and those who oppose intervention on ideological grounds (neoliberalism).

In this respect, Britain will first look to the new prime minister and the Tory party to try and unite us, but whilst Theresa May appears right now to be well-intentioned, they are not a party of intervention and reform. The Green Party have all the right ideas, but unfortunately they currently lack sufficient support among the wider population. Then there is Labour, who are currently in disarray. The current Labour leadership do seem to be up for the kind of radical change in economic thinking we need, but face a challenge from the right wing of their party, which has succumbed to mainstream economic ideology and don’t propose any new ways of tackling our relationship with the world.

It’s the same over the pond. Hillary Clinton represents a less dangerous and less extreme version of neoliberalism than Trump, but she is a neoliberal nonetheless. Bernie Sanders with his social reform and carbon tax was a missed opportunity.

Back here in Britain, the battle between left and right still rages on in the Labour Party. The neoliberal free-marketeers on the right of the party who have the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – the vast majority of incumbent MPs – versus the interventionists or progressives on the left of the party who enjoy minority support in the PLP, but who have the overwhelming support of the grassroots members, who voted the current leader in with a massive majority (60%) just 9 months ago.

Democracy

So tell me, should the PLP reflect the will and wishes of the members (which includes the unions) or should the members reflect the wishes of the PLP? I think the answer is clear.

Pretty much all the recent commentary has focussed on the personal qualities of one man, who I’ve purposely not named in this article up to now because this surely misses the point of what this movement is all about. The real battle is not over the personality of one man, or even a couple of hundred politicians. This movement is an attempt to change the rules of the game. David Graeber, a professor at LSE and who was involved in the Global Justice Movement and Occupy Wall Street, has put it like this:

“…it’s not the man himself but the project of democratising the party that really sets their [Corbyn’s supporters] eyes alight. The Labour party, they emphasise, was founded not by politicians but by a social movement. Over the past century it has gradually become like all the other political parties – personality (and of course, money) based, but the Corbyn project is first and foremost to make the party a voice for social movements once again, dedicated to popular democracy (as trades unions themselves once were). This is the immediate aim. The ultimate aim is the democratisation not just of the party but of local government, workplaces, society itself.”

He continues:

“… the object is to move from a politics of accountability to one of participation: to create forms of popular education and decision-making that allow community groups and local assemblies made up of citizens of all political stripes to make key decisions affecting their lives.

There have already been local experiments: in Thanet, the council recently carried out an exercise in “participatory economic planning” – devolving budgetary and strategic decisions to the community at large – which shadow chancellor John McDonnell has hailed as a potential model for the nation. There is talk of giving consultative assemblies real decision-making powers, of “banks of radical ideas” to which anyone can propose policy initiatives and, especially in the wake of the coup, a major call to democratise the internal workings of the party itself. It may all seem mad. Perhaps it is. But more than 100,000 new Labour members are already, to one degree or another, committed to the project.

If nothing else, understanding this makes it much easier to understand the splits in the party after the recent rebellion within the shadow cabinet. Even the language used by each side reflects basically different conceptions of what politics is about. For Corbyn’s opponents, the key word is always “leadership” and the ability of an effective leader to “deliver” certain key constituencies. For Corbyn’s supporters “leadership” in this sense is a profoundly anti-democratic concept. It assumes that the role of a representative is not to represent, not to listen, but to tell people what to do.

For Corbynistas, in contrast, the fact that he is in no sense a rabble rouser, that he doesn’t seem to particularly want to be prime minister, but is nonetheless willing to pursue the goal for the sake of the movement, is precisely his highest qualification.

As the Labour leader himself has recently said:

“Our priority must now be to mobilise this astonishing new force in politics and ensure people in Britain have a real political alternative.”

The MPs trying to bring him down seem unable to understand that Labour can only sustain itself by becoming the grassroots movement it once was, driven by the determined energies of its members. As George Monbiot says:

“This transformation – from the opaque, corrupt bureaucracy created by Tony Blair, to a party owned by and responsive to its members – is Corbyn’s great achievement.

Yes, his opponents in the party want to win elections. But it is not clear why they want to win. If they possess a political programme (and most of the time it is unintelligible), it amounts to a slightly modified version of Tory neoliberalism. Lacking anything resembling an inspiring vision, their chances of success (if somehow, they manage to install a new party leader) are even smaller than his.”

An alternative vision

  • A new kind of politics, with more bottom-up, participatory democracy, proportional representation, real devolution and radical reform of campaign finance and media ownership rules
  • Fight the epidemic of loneliness and rekindle common purpose;
  • More government intervention to help guide the invisible hand of the market to serve the interests of people and planet above profit – a system that works for the people rather than an offshore elite;
  • Contain corporate power – insisting that companies offer proper employment contacts, share their profits, cut their emissions and pay their taxes;
  • Invest in the NHS, education, affordable housing and secure jobs
  • Regain control of public services, like buses, trains, energy companies and other utilities and invest in them too;
  • Develop a political and economic philosophy fit for the 21st century

Given humanity’s extraordinary impact on the planet, any sort of efforts directed at fairly distributing the Earth’s resources might seem to be a sensible aim. We need a more equal, fair and sustainable society to protect the Earth’s environment and resources for future generations.

We need a proactive and aggressive redistribution of wealth both within and between countries. Progressive taxation is essential to rebalance inequalities. Such redistribution would actually help to reduce costs as it has been shown in countries such as Japan that the smaller the levels of economic inequality within a country, the lower the health care costs and the higher the longevity. Human well being and the health of our planet must be our barometers, not GDP growth.

Just imagine if UK politics could really offer an alternative, with more equal distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities and collective global action on climate change, environmental degradation and global security. Remember, the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, with an estimated nominal GDP in 2015 of £1.94 trillion. So why are the bottom 99 per cent of people living here continually squeezed economically in recent years?

The priority must be to establish a viable, UK-based, publicly owned renewable energy industry that can operate alongside a thriving private sector industry, which needs government support to continue to innovate and grow. This will enable a just transition for those whose jobs in fossil fuel industries will cease to exist in the coming decades.

The vested interests of the privately owned energy monopolies have to be challenged, a point eloquently made by climate activist Naomi Klein at a packed meeting during COP21 in Paris. Sharing that platform was the current Labour leader. Whatever his detractors may say about him, he understands that this global emergency transcends party politics and ideological divisions.

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One thought on “The defining moment of our time

  1. Pingback: For the world we dream of, should Corbyn stay or go? | 141 Characters

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