Wednesday 10 March 2021

To Labourism and Beyond

I do admire Paul Mason's brave attempt to paint Rachel Reeves's recent big (and largely unnoticed) New Statesman essay in left wing colours, but it is nevertheless an interesting moment in the slow evolution of "Starmerism". Not least because the article, Our search for a national story borrows a lot from the left's analysis of the last 40 years, and why British capitalism is on the skids. A backhanded if unacknowledged complement? It just goes to show the depth Corbynist commonplaces have reached even among those for whom such arguments were anathama a few short years ago. This said, while Rachel's argument certainly isn't big C Conservative, it is big L Labourist, and that's where the problems are.

There are two things about the piece worth noting. There is the recognition of the depleted state, which we have seen in haphazard and dysfunctional action thanks to Tory cronyism and the abject failure of those aspects of pandemic management outsourced to party donors. This is thanks to decades of under-investment and dogma. Contrasting what happened after 1979 as opposed to the broadly communitarian thrust of post-war policy, Rachel argues after this time,
... the UK economy was reshaped around a much narrower set of interests. Many of the national assets built up over the postwar decades were sold off or run down. No other Western country has allowed so many of its strategic assets, great companies and public services to be captured by overseas interest. Rather than investing the proceeds in the modernisation of our manufacturing base or in our people, tax cuts were awarded to the rich, North Sea oil revenues were squandered when we could have created a Norway-style sovereign wealth fund, and great British industries – and the jobs that went with them – were left to collapse faster and more precipitously than those anywhere else in Europe.
Pretty standard left fare, I'm sure you'd agree. She goes on,
Meanwhile the state itself was being marketised and privatised. Outsourcing created a shadow economy of crony capitalism: unaccountable, extremely lucrative and frequently ineffectual. Money extracted from the public sector was handed to wealthy directors and shareholders. The consequences have been stark: deteriorating standards, mismanagement, corporate greed and, in the case of the construction firm Carillion, self-destruction. Working people paid the price in lost jobs, incomes and pensions.
The regular critique of neoliberalism, in other words. This is followed up by her observing that while Labour in government invested more in public services, it "maintained the country’s overreliance on outsourced provision" and came round to the idea of a state-led industrial strategy too late. Which is true, it was only after Gordon Brown had seen off the worst of the global crisis and Peter Mandelson returned as the trade and industry supremo that "industrial activism" as it was termed became a serious policy option. But this is where we encounter one of many self-imposed limits on the discussion. As a Labour politician firmly on the right of the party, I can understand why this potted history of Thatcherism and Blairism might skimp on details, but if we're to have an honest reckoning with these years we need to incorporate two standpoints. First, the further depletion of the depleting state under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was neither an oversight nor an honest mistake. It was a carefully calibrated authoritarian project designed to bed down corporate welfarism through outsourcing and marketising strategies, while pushing the semi-autonomous governance on the public sector and its clients. If this was not bad enough, the second problem concerns New Labour's short-sighted stupidity. This was the intended, entirely deliberate and enthusiastic effort to undermine the labour movement and disaggregate working class institutions and consciousness. Stupid because this is eating away at the basic spontaneous politics that predispose our people to supporting and voting Labour in the first place. And what do you know, this is precisely what happened. The 2019 result, coming after the wipeout in Scotland in 2015, was only in part thanks to strategic errors, leadership blunders, and infighting: it was a culmination of a process well under way before Blair had completed his first term.

Of further interest is Rachel's own embellishment of Keir Starmer's ham-fisted patriotic turn, and she does a much better job of it. Instead of the embarrassing flag 'n' family nonsense, she locates labourism's place in the country's national story. As she puts it,
What we sometimes call “British values” – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance and mutual respect – are not “British” because they are unique to our country, or found in our blood or in the air. They are a product of our history and of the struggles of working people. Our values have been shaped every bit as much by those who have chosen to make this country their home, as those who were born here.
Rachel talks about the "expansion of our national community", which is a natural outgrowth of working people pulling together to overcome the Nazis, rebuilding the country after the war, and the insecurity of "unrestrained markets." As Labour was founded as the political voice of working people, the party was a central actor in building the physical and cultural infrastructure of Britain. "Labour spoke in the name of the people against the private interests that held back investment, slowed the modernisation of the country and clung on to undue privilege. It stood for fair rewards for workers, and for greater security for families, communities and the nation." This is the distillation of Labourism as it conventionally sees itself. Less a movement of workers organising around the separate and ultimately antagonistic interests of our class vs capital's vampiric exploitation and theft of our time, hers is a story of workers securing their rightful place in the nation as a recognised and valued partner to business, the landed interest, the state, the lot. Therefore Rachel's brief people's history of the 20th century appears to have a radical and class-based sheen, and is broadly accurate considering the contours of the last hundred years, but stays well within the Labourist boundaries of her narrative.

It's interesting. To keep inside the political limits she's set herself, Rachel is forced to recognise, in fleeting glimpses, the realities of class struggle. Capital's minority interest is identified, the fact of tension and conflict is acknowledged, but systematically expounding on them is too much to expect. It would expose the illusory foundations of her own position for a start, and so the fact of struggle has to be repressed at the very moment it comes to light. It has to be buried because what her essay leads into is a particular kind of post-Covid recovery: national renewal with government working with "all those prepared to put national reconstruction first – managers, small business owners, workers, unions and beyond." In other words, one can speak about the genie in hushed, perfunctory tones but it mustn't be courted. The proper job of the labour movement is never to get serious about its interests and instead return a cadre of specialist administrators and technocrats who'll look after them when in office. Rachel's prescription is, unsurprisingly, purest Fabianism.

Don't get me wrong, this prospectus is much better than anything the Tories can offer, and in the slow becoming of the rising class of new workers a Labour government along the lines outlined in this essay can assist in this process by offering more economic security, greater opportunity, new forms of collectivism, and deepen the development of immaterial labour. It can, perhaps despite itself, help tip the balance toward labour and away from capital. But the struggle doesn't end when Rachel takes up residence in 11 Downing Street. In many ways, it's just beginning.

Image Credit


Shai Masot said...

"(W)hen ^Rachel^ takes up residence in 11 Downing Street. Ha-ha. Nailed it!

Dave Levy said...

No 11?

Blissex said...

«The proper job of the labour movement is never to get serious about its interests and instead return a cadre of specialist administrators and technocrats who'll look after them when in office. Rachel's prescription is, unsurprisingly, purest Fabianism.»

But it is still far to the left of the thatcherism of New Labour and of the Conservatives, and of starmerism, which is a slightly less loud version of New Labour's thatcherism. Fabianism may be infused with the illusion that class interest conflicts can be easily resolved, "wykehamism", but it is still better than the thatcherism, where class interest conflicts are always resolved in favour of the "wealth creators" as a matter of principle, and arguably it is still better than "the worse the better" maximalism under which it is foolish to fight for class interests as it just delays the inevitable and soon to happen revolution.

BCFG said...

No party in history did more to bring the private sector into the Public sector than Blair’s New labour and the things they didn’t outright privatise they introduced internal markets and private sector managerialism, with the emphasis on ‘efficiency’, cost cutting and marketing.

Suddenly everyone became a customer and a consumer.

This neo liberalism brought advantages and disadvantages, one advantage being more lip service to accountability and consultation, the disadvantage being a systematic reduction in the scope and quality of the actual services. Though technological developments mitigated against this somewhat.

However, most older people I meet say economically we are better off today than they were in their day.

Looking at the actual statistics this seems to confirm most of their observations.

This has occurred through the neo liberal, Thatcherite phase. Blissex’s belief that Fabianism is the solution is pitiful.

Nothing less than the end of Exchange will suffice. Everyone else is illogical and while ever we have exchange ‘working class’ people will continue to actively support tax evasion, for example as the Irish did when they said it was OK to let Google off paying any taxes. This was not stupidity by the Irish people, in the context of an exchange system it makes total sense.

The reason the left make no headway is because the 'working class' see the illogical reasoning behind these reformist ideas.