Saturday 14 October 2017

Corbynism and the White Heat of Technology

What do the Tories offer? Putting aside the squabbling and the Brexit meltdown, there isn't a great deal. At the beginning of her blighted reign Theresa May promised a rosy picture of a one nation Britain in which everyone had their place and everyone got on. This was 50s Toryism respun, a kindlier, industrious society (except for immigrants and recipients of social security) where racism became a bad memory and the proceeds of wealth were shared more fairly. Accused of channelling her inner Ed Miliband, this was thin gruel. But coming after six years of Dave who, in many ways, appeared to be the continuity of Blair/Brown and who, in their turn, left the Thatcherite settlement untouched, May's Toryism seemed fresh. Her initial success and thumping poll leads weren't just down to making a hard Brexit her own. Believe it or not, she represented change and got the plaudits for it.

18 months is an eternity in politics, especially when instability hits and events accelerate. Now it is Jeremy Corbyn who is the change candidate and Labour the vehicle for rethinking politics and trying something new. Therefore his speech at the Co-op Party's conference presented an opportunity to consolidate this position, and he did not disappoint. Our Jez grabbed the headlines by conceding Philip Hammond's charge that Labour was a threat to his economic model. Too right, but the populist flourish wasn't the main point. What was is the vision of the future as a better place in which people are not just better off because of sound policies, but the application of technology to enhance our lives.

It being the Co-operative conference, it was entirely right to float ideas from Labour's Alternative Models of Ownership report. Singling out the new wave of parasites enabling then feeding off the so-called gig economy, he raises the prospects of using digital architectures to facilitate cooperative businesses that can displace and out-compete the Ubers and the Deliveroos. As we have seen, because their business models can only operate by cornering markets there is a very clear public interest such monopolies are broken up or cooperatised. Indeed, he is broadly in favour of extending cooperative business - not least because the standard share holder model of ownership leads to wealth concentration and, in Britain's case, the present investment strike and the consequent tumbling productivity figures.

More importantly, in moving on to robotics and automation Jez suggested their use cannot be inseparable from increasing workers' control. Indeed, when we consider the dire warnings of an employment apocalypse thanks to the possible obsolescence of thousands of job roles, the surest way of avoiding that is ensuring workers have input and control over the design and implementation of new technologies. You can bet if the next wave of automation happens under the Tories, people are just going to be left to rot. Even more exciting, Jeremy also raises the prospect of using more technology to reduce the working week, the first time a leader of a mainstream political party has broken with the ruling orthodoxy that work should be the be-all and end-all. A taboo subject, nevertheless this dream has deep roots in the Labour Party and labour movement. While the party of labour, it has a proud history of reducing the amount of time we have to spend renting our bodies and brains to make a living. I'm sure it was accidentally on purpose this understanding of what our movement should be about was buried during peak market fundamentalism.

Obviously, this is just a speech, but it is a statement of intent. It shows how Corbynism is about fusing the old promise of high technology with a more just, democratic way of doing things; of taking the cutting edge of innovation out of the hands of the wealth takers and putting it at the disposal of the wealth makers, to paraphrase one of Jeremy's asides. Slowly the shape of a Labourist future for the 21st century is emerging, the trick is to make sure this speaks to the interests of those already won over to Labour and those, for a number of reasons, who cling to the Tories. Here we do have an historic opportunity to redefine politics around these objectives as the Tories are weak, are out of ideas, and their material advantages are eroding. There is much to be done but for once, and for perhaps the first time during my life time, socialism can go on the offensive.


Zephleppard said...

Couldn't agree more. A positive vision of socialism for the future.

Ken said...

However, I do remember a speech by Tony Benn which sketched out the wondrous vista which the then modern technology would allow us to reach. I congratulate my older self fit my scepticism.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be Mr Grumpy here, but...

But my reading of the 'class politics of technology' material from the 1970s and 1980s strongly suggests that viewed in the context of the circuit of capital (use-value, value, etc) the formal liberatory potential of technology is subordinated to the social relations of production.

You know the argument.

I welcome Corbyn's insistence that technology can be progressive, but the Labour Left have never been good at recognising the distinction between capital and capitalists.

Corbyn's voluntarism can be exciting. But given the broader balance of class forces within which new technologies are very likely to be applied, it is also likely to be disappointing and disorientating.