Monday 16 December 2013

The State We Need by Michael Meacher

A strange calm has settled over the Labour Party. There are debates over trade union influence, over what needs to be done to retain those poll leads, but when it comes to the question of political economy there is almost unanimity. From the left in the LRC to the right in Progress there is an understanding that neoliberalism is done. That Britain was dangerously exposed by the unfettered market New Labour assiduously cultivated. And, lastly, to get things going again requires some new thinking or, for Keynes fans, new old thinking. It is therefore a shame that Michael Meacher's new book, The State We Need hasn't had the circulation it deserves. It is very much a work of Labour's consensus around matters economic and, it could be argued, serves as an outrider for a "Milibandist" vision of Britain. This is not work of the hard or soft left, but rather the realistic left. And as such I can only see it attracting minor quibbles from the quarters that sit either side of it.

Obviously, The State We Need is a title that places itself in the camp of Will Hutton's reformed capitalism, as detailed in his important The State We're In. Like Will's book, Michael accepts that capitalism is the name of the game (although Michael chooses to label in 'ethical socialism' - a branding √Čoin Clarke has been keen to revive), and that the immediate task is to make up for lost time. That is a root-and-branch reform of how Britain does business to turn around its century-long decline. I've said it, but how do you go about doing it?

Michael suggests what Britain needs is a decisive break with neoliberalism and a move to what he calls 'national interest capitalism'. His book details schemes for reigning in the banks, engineering class privilege out of the education system, rebuilding public services by severely curbing and reversing marketisation, rebalancing the economy with a necessary stress on manufacturing, lassoing corporate power with the thick rope of democracy, clamping down on tax dodging and the socially useless (and value-destroying) power of finance, and an vast expansion of green jobs. No country is an island, not even Britain, so Michael talks about the leverage it could use to rewrite the global rules of trade. It's also worth noting his is the first book on global political economy I've read that takes the issue of water shortages seriously. As you might expect, the state is the central mechanism for enacting these policies. But The State We Need is not a shopping list of uncosted demands. It's more an exercise in institutional design and the enacting of powers.

I'm not going to get into the nitty-gritty of Michael's suggestions. Together though, they make for a coherent package. And, crucially, they begin from the position Britain is in: a country whose assets have been flogged off and whose governing ideology is completely ill-equipped to guide its way in a global economy increasingly dominated by the East.

There is unfortunately one weakness to Michael's argument, but not a fatal one by any means. On one level, the structural reforms the book sets out are a necessity. Britain needs to go with the global capital flow and have a much more activist state that will drive investment and provide economic leadership. How do we get there? We can't expect our decadent ruling class to do it. They've had ample opportunity over the last 100 years and fluffed it each and every time. National interest capitalism requires longer-term vision and demands key social supports not beholden to short-termism and reckless profiteering to carry it through.

Policy is never a matter of free-floating ideas. They are always tied to and champion specific sets or ranges of interests. That's the nature of the capitalist beast. Its political economy is thoroughly contradictory and antagonistic - ideas and policies are specific moments in that interminable, restless struggle. Ethical socialism, for example, presents itself as a nice idea and that's it. But it's not. It too condenses the outlook, the collective experience of certain sets of people. Just as liberalism does. Just a Toryism does. Just as UKIP's faux libertarianism does. There's a reason socialist billionaires are few and far between.

National interest capitalism is no different. Clearly, that section of business who gained and are still doing well under neoliberalism's dysfunctional sway would lose out on the basis of Michael's plans. But who would gain? Business closely associated with manufacturing. Small and medium-sized enterprise. Firms into the promotion of renewable energies and green technologies. Yet the most immediate beneficiary would be working people - the vast majority of us who've had to put up with decades of uncertainty, hire-and-fire, scapegoating, crap wages, the erosion of dignity at work, the stripping out of social security supports, housing shortages, spiralling bills and rising food prices. While our interests ultimately lie beyond capitalism the immediate situation demands a capitalism that concedes a severe back-pedalling. Concession, however, is an outcome of applying pressure. Therefore getting Labour back into government in 2015 is an absolute necessity, but we need the labour movement to build a head of steam behind plans like Michael's. Thankfully, the trade union and cooperative movements as a whole already are. It just a simple job (pah!) of recruiting more and getting more working people into the party. And, to be fair, there are elements of Michael's plan to be found in the front bench's evolving thinking about matters economic. But it's not a one way street. The historic crisis of capitalism cannot be reduced to a question of proletarian leadership, but it is not irrelevant. A strong labour movement pressing for social democracy needs a quid pro quo, a policy compact where new measures benefit working people, ease that deep sense of insecurity and make it easier for the labour movement to organise and grow.

If that dialectic can be jump started, we're on our way.

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