On the uses and abuses of Karl Marx in the freedom of movement debate

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‘If you don’t make any more wages than you need to live, you are a neoslave. You qualify if you cannot afford to leave California for New York. If you cannot visit Zanzibar, Havana, Peking or even Paris when you get the urge, you are a slave. If you’re held in one spot on this earth because of your economic status, it is just the same as being held in one spot on this earth because you are the owner’s property.’

Diane Abbott’s piece in the Guardian today – in which she argued freedom of movement is a worker’s right – reminded me of these words, penned by the Black political activist and wrongfully imprisoned inmate of Soledad Prison, George Jackson. In this short passage from his prison letters, Jackson outlines a critique of the abstract right to freedom of movement so vaunted by liberal thinkers operating in the tradition of the enlightenment, a bourgeois political tradition that led the masses to the barricades with the promise of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’. For Jackson, the promise was – and is – not enough. His criticism lies not in the proclamation of the right itself – the freedom to be able to travel, to come and go as you wish – but in the capitalist structures that prohibit it. “Freedom of movement” is an unrealisable dream to the wage slave, ‘held in one spot on this earth because of [their] economic status’.

How far the left has travelled since Jackson put pen to paper in the 1960s. Now, there are some who argue that the dream should remain unrealised – that it’s no dream at all, but a nightmare. They say that in the wake of the Brexit vote, the left should oppose freedom of movement under the auspices of an ostensibly radical economic perspective – that the free movement of workers from Europe forces down wages. This has been put most succinctly in The Morning Star:

‘Most of the shop stewards have not read Karl Marx, Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman but they have grasped the simple truth that a surplus of labour drives wages down’.

The invocation of Karl Marx is one I’ve heard in debates with those on the Sheffield Left. The quotation to which they often refer is from a speech by Marx to the First International:

‘In order to oppose their workers, the employers either bring in workers from abroad or else transfer manufacture to countries where there is a cheap labour force.’

So far, so radical. We should oppose freedom of movement on the basis that it’s used as a tool by bosses to suppress wages.

Or is it? There’s no evidence to indicate that immigration does in fact reduce the pay of local workers (see also here). Actually, some have argued that on average immigrants earn more than British-born workers, which suggests immigration actually has the opposite effect. There’s certainly no correlation between the growth of wages in European economies and their respective levels of immigration.

I don’t want to dwell on these arguments for two reasons: the first is that others have made them much better than me; the second is that they’re often just ignored. You can repeat until you’re blue-in-the-face that there’s no evidence that freedom of movement suppresses wages and people will continue to make the same bogus claim. So, I want to address the argument on its own – purportedly radical – terms.

Yes, in theory a reserve army of labour can be used to drive down wages. The worker goes to market to sell her labour power. If there’s a surplus of labourers then she’s forced to sell her labour power for less. It’s at this point the radical opponents of freedom of movement put down their copy of Capital and proclaim victory. QED: we reduce the size of the labour surplus by reducing immigration, which in turn halts the downward pressure on wages.

What’s missing from this account, though, is the role of the capitalists. In fact, one of the great – and certainly far more central – insights of Marx is that the capitalists control the demand for labour. It’s the capitalist who decides whether and how they’re going to invest their capital, and consequently whether or not there is a surplus of labour at all.

One of the things characterizing the UK’s current economic stagnation is the moribund investment rate. Without the assurance of profits, business is hoarding capital, rather than investing it. From a Marxist perspective this is a text-book example of the contradiction between the relations of production (private property relations which demand that investment decisions are made on the basis of private profits) and the forces of production (the development and growth of the economy).

It’s this contradiction – not freedom of movement – that is the driver of falling wage rates, as big business attempts to force down wages to increase profits. I suspect you could halt all immigration tomorrow and it would have no effect on this dynamic (indeed, the reduced revenues from the taxes paid by immigrants – they are net contributors to the economy – might even provide the political cover for implementing harsher austerity policies aimed at transferring wealth upwards). A “hard” Brexit will only intensify the process. Britain’s withdrawal from the Single Market (membership of which is predicated on the free movement of labour) and the “frictionless” supply chains it affords will act as a further squeeze on profits, leading to yet more ferocious attacks on standards of living.

Having put these missing pieces of the puzzle in place, our radicals seem anything but. The surplus of labour – the crutch they lean on to justify their opposition to freedom of movement – is a product of the refusal of capital to invest. Their ostensive “defence of wages” transforms into a tacit defence of its opposite: the absolute right of capital to dictate and set the demand for labour; that is, to define what a surplus of labour is. This isn’t a socialist – let alone Marxist – policy. Rather, its effect is to create a reactionary bloc in which the interests of British workers are tied to the exigencies of (one section of) British capital.

From all this, the position of the left should be clear. Our opposition should not be to freedom of movement between Britain and the EU, a freedom rightly championed as an unrealised dream by the likes of George Jackson and Diane Abbott; on the contrary, it should be to the big businesses that hoard the capital required to develop Britain’s economy, an economy that has alternated between stagnation and crisis for the last decade. If big business won’t invest, then the state must. If you care about defending wages, then this – not an end to freedom of movement – should be your principle demand.

Hot takes: Trump, racism & the American working class

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**EDIT: I no longer agree with all the analysis below. I think it’s fair to say that it’s pointless reaching out to the people who voted to ‘build a wall’ – we should be trying to mobilise the millions of voters who voted Democrat last time but for whatever reason sat on their hands and didn’t vote for anyone this time. However, the stuff about lower middle class voters fuelling the Trump surge now seems plainly wrong. Although I’d seen the votes for each income category, at the time of writing I hadn’t noticed the swings. Actually,  it’s quite hard to sustain the argument about a relatively privileged section of the working class voting for Trump when the largest Republican swing – 16 points – was in the poorest demographic. Sorry, my bad…**

Trump won. And the dust is settling, still.

In all honesty, I’m a little perplexed by all this. What I’m offering, then, is less an authoritative account of What’s Really Going On, and more a sketch of what I suspect the situation is – why I suspect Trump won.

From what I’ve seen there are two serious explanations for how we ended up in this position. The first goes something like “after years of being screwed, the American ‘white working class’ (a term I hate – more on that later) finally had enough and gave the establishment a kicking”. The second goes something like “America is a profoundly racist and sexist society which meant voters were susceptible to Trump’s anti-immigrant racism and hated Hillary Clinton”.

I’m not sure either of these is completely right (although I agree more with the latter than the former). Although there was a swing to Trump amongst low income electors, the Democratic vote held up amongst the poorest in society. Poor (i.e. working class) people voted Clinton. It was amongst middle income, white people that the vote for Trump was decisive.

As the so-called ‘elephant graph’ demonstrates, it’s precisely this group of people who have seen almost zero gains in their real income between now and 1988. As stagnation hit western developed economies, so too did the US middle classes suffer in a way they hadn’t previously.

I agree with Paul Mason, then, when he writes

Donald Trump has won the presidency – not because of the “white working class”, but because millions of middle-class and educated US citizens reached into their soul and found there, after all its conceits were stripped away, a grinning white supremacist.

Mason’s piece is well worth reading; it’s conclusion, especially, is very good. Of course, from the perspective of classical Marxism (which is broadly the one from which I write) the middle class are just a privileged “white collar” section of the working class – for all their cultural capital, they still sell their labour to subsist. Trump’s success, then, was in forging an alliance – on the one hand – between relatively privileged sections of the working class who have lost out under the processes of globalisation and the secular stagnation of the US economy, and – on the other – the most virulently racist parts of the American ruling class.

After all, the nostalgic slogan, ‘make America great again’ is only coherent – only has any resonance – if the “greatness” of America once benefited you. For the poorest sections of the American working class (who are also incidentally the non-white sections) this is obviously fantasy – America was never “great”.

But for the most privileged sections? Well, provide them with a (racist) reason for their stagnating living standards and it makes a kind of sense – you’re materially less well off because of Muslims, Hispanic people, immigrants etc. etc. I’d argue that this section of the working class is the most susceptible to these kind of arguments. Until recently, the system benefited them; they are the least class-conscious precisely because of their historically privileged status. White supremacism comes more naturally to the provincial, white, lower-middle-class man trying to understand why life is harder now than 30 years ago – indeed, the latent racism was probably already there.

Which leads me to my main criticism of the “after years of being screwed, the American ‘white working class’ finally had enough and gave the establishment a kicking” argument: it sees the working class as an undifferentiated mass. Or, rather, the main – insidious – differentiation it identifies is racial. But this is to play ruling class games. White workers are not oppressed because they’re white; they’re oppressed because they’re workers. It’s an illegitimate – racist, even – differentiation to make, which only serves the divide and rule agenda of the bosses. Rather than adopt phrases like ‘the white working class’, socialists should subject them to ruthless criticism.

There are, however, legitimate differentiations to point towards. It may be the case that one historically relatively privileged section of the working class has been won to Trump’s racist arguments, but it’s certainly not true to say all sections have been. I’ve already said that the poorest voters were not won decisively to Trump’s brand of demagogic racism.

Importantly, too, turnout in this election was down. The candidates from both parties received less votes than in the last election. I can’t help but think that the 7 million fewer votes than Obama received were largely to do with the uninspiring candidate chosen by the Party. The political situation demands radical solutions that Clinton’s ‘Third Way’ social democratic politics simply cannot – will not – deliver. I suspect that Clinton’s “establishment” candidacy did not so much mobilise Trump supporters against her, but demobilise people who would otherwise have voted Democrat.

All this is to say that just as some sections of the (more privileged) American working class are racist, there are other sections that aren’t. In fact, some are to the left of the Democratic Party leadership. We simply shouldn’t ignore the fact that 52% of people with incomes under $50,000 – the progressive working class – voted for Clinton and that 7 million people sat on their hands, totally uninspired to vote. Rather than pontificating about how we win over a layer of people who are quite happy to support a partition wall between the US and Mexico, the question we need to ask is how we create an anti-racist electoral coalition out of the social forces that actually exist, now. I don’t think we can do that with a candidate like Clinton.

So, my view is that Trump won by ramping-up racism and garnering support in the most backward, but historically most privileged, sections of the US working class; and that Clinton lost because she failed to mobilise the progressive vote behind her – corruption allegations, her “establishment” credentials, alongside her promise of “more of the same” made her the wrong candidate.

And I guess that, friends, is my “hot take”.

Good Opposition: bad opposition

 

In my job I teach a thing called Critical Linguistics. It’s about unpicking the relationship between language and ideology and asking how the words we use might sustain or legitimate unequal or illegitimate relationships of power and domination. There are lots of things I ask my students to look out for in seminar, but one of the main ones is opposition – how do language users construct binary oppositions in the texts they produce? And in opposing two concepts, which one is it they privilege and which one is it they denigrate?

All this isn’t to say that opposing two ideas is always wrong, but it makes me suspicious. I’m wary when I hear Labour politicians like Lord Kinnock wheel out a series of oppositions as if the ideas they were talking about were all mutually exclusive. For Kinnock and his like, the Labour Party is either a party of ‘power’ or of ‘protest’ (note the alliteration, too, just to add a little more rhetorical force to the dichotomy); we’re either interested in winning or in remaining pure; we’re compromising and in government, or principled and consigned to opposition; we either represent the broad view of the electorate, or the narrower view of Labour Party members.

Notwithstanding the quite wonderful irony of making the case for political ‘moderation’ on the basis of such a Manichean rhetorical style, I think these binaries are illusory. It’s a shame that some on the left fall into the trap of accepting them. So, Jon Lansman – one of the co-founders of Momentum (an organisation I should emphasise that I support) – yesterday gave the impression on Twitter that party ‘democracy‘ and ‘winning’ elections were two opposed, competing concepts (which I don’t actually think he believes). The tweet attracted the sanctimonious ire of a number of anti-Corbyn MPs, not least Hilary Benn, who in a flurry of tweets outlined a host of Labour’s successes in power, ending with the question ‘aren’t these all the result of “winning” in a democracy, Jon?’

As far as I’m concerned, accepting this division between internal party democracy and electability is very much to play the Labour right’s game. In the parliamentary democracy we have – and which isn’t going away any time soon – winning elections is important. But, as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and therein lies the problem with the simple-minded, black and white view that we either ‘moderate’ positions and win, or stick to our principles and lose.

There are a plurality of strategies for winning an election – strategies that cohere with the different values and variegated ideologies of the Labour party ‘broad church’. My problem is not that the Labour right compromise; it’s that they make rotten compromises. It’s not that they want to win elections, but that the strategy they propose for doing so is wrong.

Which leads me to the coup attempt in the PLP. The reasons for the coup and Angela Eagle’s newly announced leadership challenge, she assures us, are not about policy or politics, but about Corbyn’s competence as a leader. This is nonsense. I simply don’t buy into the idea that an opposition leader that in 9 months has closed the gap between their own party’s share of the vote and the government’s, won every by-election, every mayoral election and, as the man himself points out, inflicted 22 defeats on the government, is ineffectual (especially when he does so despite an unprecedentedly hostile media and sabotage by elements of his own shadow cabinet).

Doubtless, some on the soft left of the PLP do have concerns about the competence of Corbyn’s outfit, even if I think these concerns are unfounded. As we’re endlessly (and a little smugly) reminded, this is not just a Blairite coup.  But pointing to the composition of the coup in terms of its participants is not the same as defining its political content.

There is abundant evidence to suggest this manufactured crisis was a long time in the making (see also this). The engine of discontent in the PLP is not the technical question of Corbyn’s competence, his ability to ‘lead’ etc. but the anti-austerity, anti-imperialist politics for which he stands. The coup leaders may well have forged an alliance between the right and soft-left of the party ostensibly on the basis of these technical criticisms, but their motivation for the coup is rooted very firmly in their political opposition to Corbyn. The idea that there is a “continuity Corbyn” candidate is fantasy. As I’ve written elsewhere, the political outcome of removing Corbyn would be to row the anti-austerity economic agenda back to the boat house.

And this would be a disaster. We’ve already seen what happens when we run a “centrist” campaign founded on an incoherent policy of austerity-lite. Re-running the 2015 general election will give us the same result as it did last time. As I’ve argued, and as the polling has demonstrated, Labour lost the last election because it wasn’t trusted on the economy. It will never be trusted for as long as it offers a watered-down version of Tory cuts. Why have that, when you can have the real thing? We need to define a new narrative on the economy. Corbyn’s break with austerity represents the opportunity to do just that – an opportunity he and John McDonnell are very effectively seizing upon.

Think, too, what the effect of a coup would be on the Party itself. Although it’s the PLP renegades that have created this crisis, the Labour left has been accused of pushing the party to a split. But if the PLP is successful and Corbyn is removed, the fallout will be profound. Kinnock has argued that the wishes of the PLP matter because Labour was founded as a political party committed to parliamentary democracy. Certainly, it was – a party organically linked to the labour movement and committed to representing the voice of working people in parliament. If the PLP is able to place a veto on the decisions of the membership and affiliated supporters, what then for the idea that it is the voice of the labour movement in the corridors and halls of Westminster? Subordinating the membership to the parliamentary party implies the opposite relationship – that Labour members should be the voice of the parliamentary party on the electoral doorstep.

The PLP rebels may well invoke the spectre of unruly Momentum supporters to justify their collision with the membership – that these aren’t “real” Labour supporters, or that the new layer of left-wing “ultras” in the party are out of tune with the politics of the average elector – but a veto is a veto is a veto. This coup is an attack on not just those supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, but the right of the whole movement to have their voice heard in parliament at all. It will be a victory for the right today, but will also set a precedent in the years to come that says it is the PLP, not the members, who in the final analysis control the direction of the party. This coup is about more than just a political struggle in the short term, but competing long-term visions of what a progressive political party should be.

One of the many reasons Corbyn won last September was because people were fed up of being taken for granted. The subsequent growth of Labour to over half a million members should be a cause for celebration. It’s absurd to suggest that there is some inherent opposition between the size and democratic representation of the membership and our ability to win elections. These aren’t just more people to knock on doors; they’re people with new ideas, new talents and new areas of expertise that should make the Labour party ideologically, politically and electorally stronger, not weaker. Treating them as anything less will lead to disaster. It’s exactly this mentality that has destroyed the Labour Party in Scotland and hollowed out our support in England and Wales. The anti-democratic manoeuvrings of some Labour MPs to “save Labour” will only exacerbate this process of hollowing out.

Kinnock’s attempt to prettify attacks on the parliamentary representation of Labour members with high minded appeals to Keir Hardie and labour movement history is rather a non sequitur to the debate. No one is saying that we should take to the barricades in extra-parliamentary armed resistance to the government. To suggest that they are is ridiculous hyperbole. All that is being argued is that the members have a right to expect that the results of a leadership election are respected. If asserting this right is an act of revolution, then what exactly is the democratic content of Kinnock’s ‘democratic’ parliamentary reformism?

Okay okay okay, but remember why we’re stronger in

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I’ve not done much since last Friday morning but stock-up on tinned food and pesticides in anticipation of the swarms of locusts, oceans of blood and the legendary quartet of horsemen we’re supposed to be seeing around now. Well, that, and feverishly check Twitter every few seconds for news of more resignations, economic calamity and memes featuring the word ‘fucked’. Post Brexit Britain already feels a bit end of days.

I was a solid ‘remain’ and shocked and depressed when the country voted ‘leave’. I’m even more shocked and depressed at the political fallout. Not content with the economic and political whirlwind unleashed by the result, an alarming number of the shadow cabinet feel that this – of all times – is the moment to launch a vicious coup against Jeremy Corbyn. All this proves in spectacular style the old adage that for every one Conservative Member of Parliament giving Labour a kicking, you can always rely on at least another Labour MP who wants to do the job for them (okay, so it may not be an ‘old adage’, but I’m marking that one for posterity).

The reason for all this? He was supposedly a bit lacklustre in the EU referendum campaign. I’ve got to say I think this is a bit lame, as excuses go (and it is an excuse – as Diane Abbot pointed out on Question Time, this has been in the offing for some time). Notwithstanding that it’s mostly based on gossip and hearsay (I mean, really – Chris Bryant speculating that Jeremy actually voted ‘leave’ despite all evidence to the contrary is just, well, silly), there are a few reasons why it’s daft.

Firstly, the “lacklustre” performance delivered at least 63% of the Labour vote. Other polls put it at 70%. If this is lacklustre, what would success have actually looked like? As Dawn Foster points out, not a single coup plotter has answered that question by putting a number to it.

Secondly, Corbyn would have looked utterly ridiculous if he’d come out as a bullish Europhile. His record clearly demonstrates that he – rightly – has misgivings about the EU institutions’ commitment to austerity (just look at how they treated Greece) and its democratic deficit. The call to stay in Europe and reform makes sense. Moreover, of all the party leaders, it’s the pro-European position that most reflected the national mood. Corbyn’s plain-speaking, pro-EU position was a strength, not a weakness and that’s why the remain campaign were so keen to have him on board.

Thirdly, remain lost by 1.2 million votes. Are the plotters seriously suggesting that had Corbyn given the EU a 10/10 on a comedy programme, 1.2 million people would have changed their mind? As several friends of mine have pointed out, if Corbyn is such a powerful, persuasive figure then he should definitely stay.

Corbyn delivered the vast majority of Labour supporters to the ‘remain’ camp, so the ‘lacklustre’ line just doesn’t wash. The idea that getting rid of him is somehow good for the future of the ‘remain’ cause is also confused. It’s all very well saying Corbyn gave a tepid defence of the EU and that we’re ‘stronger in’, but why are we stronger in?

I voted to remain for two reasons. The first was that a leave vote would unleash a wave of racism and a race to the bottom on anti-immigrant rhetoric. The second was that the EU invests millions into the British economy (not least my own sector – Higher Education). It’s highly unlikely that a Tory government committed to massive cuts in investment would offset this in the event that we leave.

Both of those things have come to pass. We’ve seen a spike in racist hate crimes since the vote and already Brexiters are back-pedalling on their commitment to invest that mythological £350 million into the NHS. Assurances are being sought that the government will make up for the short falls in regional investment – assurances that aren’t at all being met. A Brexit vote has meant more racism and austerity (not less, as the “Lexiters” rather foolishly suggested).

Any leader that replaces Jeremy will lurch to the right on immigration. Remember that the same forces conspiring now only last year produced a red and white mug with the slogan ‘controlling immigration’ (Controlling. Immigration. Taking back control. Of immigration… let that sink in). The briefings are already there on how Labour needs to “take voters’ legitimate concerns seriously” – language that is really all about prettifying an accommodation to anti-immigrant racism. If you want a voice defending the rights of migrants without making any concessions to racism, Jeremy is your candidate.

And any leader that replaces Jeremy will almost certainly move to the right on the economy, serving up the same confused porridge of not-too-hot-not-too-cold economic policy that constituted our offer in the last election. If you want someone who will provide a coherent, response to economic stagnation – a policy that defends the living standards of the majority of people at the same time as it grows the economy through investment, not cuts – then Jeremy is your candidate.

The problem for the coup plotters is that whilst they blow hot and heavy on the ‘in’ vote, they’re commitment to the progressive reasons for staying in is pretty fast and loose. My prediction is that if it does come to a leadership election, the Corbyn challenger will repeat the accusation ad nauseam that Jeremy isn’t committed to the EU and that this showed a failure of leadership.

And they’ll talk about nothing else. Because, fundamentally, they’ve nothing else to say (or nothing that will win them any votes, anyway). They might well win the leadership election by doing this – we’ll see – but at what cost? A return to business as usual on economic policy and a more reactionary position on immigration? That’s the strategy that will lead the Labour Party into the wilderness, not Jeremy’s.

It’s the economy (and an apocalypse-inducing six megatons of explosive thermonuclear energy), stupid

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So it turns out the lefty ex-Channel Four economics editor and mostly-good-egg, Paul Mason, is pro-nukes, which disappoints and surprises me (to be fair, it surprises me whenever anyone suggests that a device capable of instantaneously evaporating millions of human beings, leaving only charred, people-shaped marks on the floor is A Good Thing. But hey, I’m a sensitive soul).

The video in which he sets out his pro-nuclear stance is entitled ‘The Left Case for Nuclear Weapons’ and it broadly consists of two categories of argument. The first category relates to why nukes are A Good Thing. Lindsey German, of The Stop the War Coalition, responds to Mason and does a great job of arguing why nuclear weapons are A Bad Thing (and why ‘the left-wing case’ is suspiciously similar to the ‘right-wing case’), so I won’t rehearse those arguments here. Read German, it’s a good piece (and join Stop the War, while you’re on the website).

The second category of arguments all relate to ‘bending the stick’, as the Leninist phraseology goes. The gist is something like, “sure, okay, nukes are bad, but what’s more important is getting a left Labour government elected. The nukes are a distraction. We need to be hammering the government on the poor state of the economy and declining living standards, but for as long as we have this position on nuclear weapons that message will keep getting derailed and we’ll keep having silly discussions about whether Jeremy will push the button or not”.

Maybe I’m getting a little right-wing in my late twenties, but there does seem to be a vaguely compelling rationale here. Although German doesn’t say as much, she does seem to suggest that the Labour leadership should be picking fights about Britain’s membership of NATO. This, I think, would be daft.

Lets’ be clear: NATO is a relic of the Cold War. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union it’s been used as a vehicle for interfering in the affairs of countries in which the West has a cynical political or economic interest. But that’s not a majority position; as rallying cries go, “we demand an exit from the military wing of the global capitalist hegemon” is pretty abstract (although basically correct). In the event that we on the Left ever do take power, we’d be better off abstaining from a military conflict in which membership of NATO compels Britain to participate, and taking things from there (it seems to me it’s much easier to oppose a – preferably unpopular – war than it is to oppose membership of an “alliance” in the abstract).

So, from a tactical perspective, opposition to NATO seems like an unnecessary fight to pick. Beating a tactical retreat on that issue to make it easier to win the field on economic policy seems sensible (if, by “retreat”, you mean “not rocking the boat”).

But where Mason loses me (and where German is 100% correct) is that Trident is an economic issue.  To omit it from a discussion of economic policy would be ridiculous.

On the one hand, there’s the sophisticated ‘war is concentrated economics by other means’ argument (to mangle Clausewitz and Lenin); politics is the ‘concentrated’ expression of economic contradictions, and war is just another way in which those economic contradictions play out. To speak of economic policy is therefore to speak of the state’s capacity and inclination to wage war.

On the other hand, there’s the far cruder fact that at Mason’s (conservative) estimation, Trident costs a whopping £41bn. CND put the overall cost at over £100bn.

I don’t usually like arguments against austerity that say we should cut here instead of here. Actually, the UK’s record current account deficit is caused by a reduced tax take which is itself a function of a stagnating economy. The solution is for the state to invest to stimulate economic activity. Whether we cut this or that is really beside the point. John McDonnell’s various explanations of his ‘fiscal responsibility’ rule very elegantly capture this dynamic.

Having said all this, £100bn – hell, even £41bn – is a lot of money that could be productively invested in a plethora of ways that – crucially – don’t involve the manufacture of weapons so lethal they would render the planet uninhabitable in literally a matter of milliseconds were they ever used.

Mason is right in a sense – it is stupid to get bogged down in arguments about whether or not the Labour leader would push the button (read: plunge us into the End of Days). We should, however, be asking whether there aren’t better things to spend £100bn on, like green energy, rail infrastructure, new housing stock, the education system, high speed internet, house insulation, and/or saving the steel industry (amongst a million and one other things).

When we talk about how our economy should work, we’re talking about the kind of society in which we want to live. We should be asking what it is we need to be investing in to create the high skills, high wages and high technology economy we want. A discussion of Trident is a discussion of how we choose to invest public money and resources. It shouldn’t distract our attention from the key messages on the economy; it should complement them.

The (real) crisis in the Labour Party

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When people talk about Labour in the polls and the record of Jeremy Corbyn in opposition, I feel the same as I do listening to people who say they saw Jesus in the burn marks on their toast, or the milk in their coffee. The narrative you string out of the – erratic – figures very much depends on what you want to see in them. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour are either by-election supremos who have reduced a 10-point Tory lead to a 36-point tie, routing the Tory government and forcing U-turn after U-turn.

Or they’re taking a drubbing in the polls, hovering limply around 28% and failing to resonate with voters in the constituencies that Labour needs most to secure victory in 2020. According to this view, the party is in crisis. We should be hitting the panic button.

For what it’s worth, I think Corbyn is doing well in opposition – any fair assessment of him has to concede that his party has put the Tories on the back-foot on a number of important issues (in a way that would be inconceivable had the party been led by someone else). After an initial teething period, John McDonnell is also proving to be a formidable Shadow Chancellor.

I don’t really know whether Labour will win in 2020 or not. I suspect we won’t do too badly in the 2016 local elections, but we’ll see (I do think, however, that raising expectations to the extent that winning anything less than 400 new seats is considered an abject failure – as some are doing – should be called out for what it is: a cynical attempt to foment the conditions for a coup when we inevitably win less than this – frankly, silly – target).

Having given all these two cents, actually I think wrangling about how we’re doing in the polls is rather tedious, because there’s a much more interesting “crisis” in the Labour Party. That’s the crisis of the Labour Right.

It’s often said on the left that Blair then Brown “hollowed out” the party, reducing party democracy, tightening the grip of the leadership over every aspect of policymaking (how ironic the grumbles now over Corbyn’s attempts to assert any kind of control over the PLP or NEC), and losing 6 million votes between them.

But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s also been a political “hollowing out”. With each generation of right-wing Labour leaders and apparatchiks, there’s been a rightwards shift – an accommodation to an agenda set by the Conservatives, halted – to a degree – by Ed Miliband. Now the “heirs to Blair” advocate positions well to the right of the master.

Whereas the “third way” was built on an analysis – the idea that the rich could get, well, filthy rich as the economy boomed and we shared some of the proceeds of that growth downward for things like Sure Start, tax credits and the national minimum wage (which some on the ultra-left forget were all Good Things) – the modern Labour Right are intellectually bereft. A barren wasteland of ideas. A void. An uncomfortable deadness behind the eyes – eyes to which the asinine, desperate “I’m being held hostage” smile don’t quite extend (ironically, a smile shared by – or rather forced upon – the millions of millenials – “Blair’s children”, just as Thatcher had hers – who worked hard and finished their degree only to find themselves employed not in the graduate jobs they were promised, but the badly paid, zero-hours Costa and Starbucks gigs that comprise our “service” economy).

The real crisis in the Labour Party is that the Labour Right have next to nothing to say of any substance about the pressing issue of the day: economic policy. In fact, they’d rather talk about anything else – Syria, Trident, the leader’s “lacklustre” support for EU membership, Gerry Downing, whatever Ken Livingstone has recently and ill-advisedly said etc.

When they do talk about the issue that we all agree lost us the last election, there’s plenty of stuff about how the electorate favour austerity, about how we can’t “change” or “shout” at voters, and about the “hard” electoral realities that face the party (often justified on quite flimsy evidence), but there’s no diagnosis of the causes of the current stagnation (in fact, some don’t even seem to register that the economy is stagnating), let alone any proposal for a policy framework needed to tackle it.

This is politics at its most vacuous. There is no underlying conceptual framework, no serious answer to Osborne’s knuckle-dragging deficit reduction narrative, only banal commentary about what will play well with the voters. The tragedy, of course, is that it ends in exactly the same nonsense that lost us the last two elections – a tepid and incoherent shopping list of policies that attempt to make us look “tough” on borrowing and the deficit, but not quite as nasty as the other guys.

Quite apart from the fact I think it’s not true, for the Labour Right to say that Corbyn is an electoral liability is really to demonstrate a breath-taking lack of self-awareness. We lost two elections on the basis of the policy porridge they proposed and are now once more proposing. It wasn’t under Corbyn that the electorate thought we were economically incompetent, it was under Brown and Miliband. What makes them think a figure like Dan Jarvis or Rachel Reeves will fair any better?

Actually, McDonnell has proposed the beginnings of a very sensible economic strategy (so good, in fact, that the Labour Right are trying to claim it as their own – a ludicrous claim that Paul Mason and Mick Burke both demolish). There are real signs that the Labour frontbench are developing a credible alternative to austerity politics, a model based on the solid Keynesian principle that the state should direct investment to stimulate economic activity, growing the economy to reduce the size of debt in relation to GDP, thereby increasing tax revenues to balance the books on everyday expenditure.

When John McDonnell spoke at my CLP, he said “if Blair’s mantra was ‘education, education, education’, the mantra of the next Labour government will be investment, investment, investment”. This is exactly right. We should be going into the next election with the promise that Labour will stimulate the economy by borrowing to invest in, among other things, rail and road infrastructure, high speed internet, education, research and development, green energy, housing and improving and properly insulating the existing housing stock. We should be arguing for investment in a high-skills, high wage, high technology economy that competes on the world stage as it increases the standards of living for all the people who live here. That should be our vision, our grand narrative.

We can only do that with the kind of economic policy being advocated by the current Labour leadership, not the gushing lukewarm platitudes of would-be challengers on the right of the party. So let’s stick with Corbyn and McDonnell. We could do much worse.

Old debates, new situations

Ralph Miliband lecturing in Canada in 1978.

In an effort to understand the phenomenal rise of Jeremy Corbyn following his entry into the Labour leadership race, I’ve been reading Ralph Miliband’s book on parliamentary socialism.

I’ve yet to finish, but one of the most striking features of the Labour Party’s history is the change in the nature of the debate between the right and left of the party, and especially the change in the ideology of the Labour right.

The old debates of the early twentieth century were oriented to the question, do we get to socialism by gradual reform through parliamentary process, or through violent revolutionary rupture with the bourgeois status quo? Importantly, the question was posed at a time when revolution was a very real prospect.

This is a dichotomy that some on the left still cling to.  British Trotskyists sagely attribute the defeat of Syriza to its pro-European reformism whilst writing editorials on why reformist politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, aren’t the answer. The campaigns against austerity are seen as radicalisations, opportunities to promote a revolutionary anti-capitalism amongst the masses.

These characterizations are wrong. It’s not that people have radicalized. It’s that the traditional leaders of social democracy have. To the right. Whilst the method of the early leaders of the Labour Party, such as Macdonald or Henderson, has remained the same – the cultivation of an air of bourgeois respectability, policy “triangulation”, and concessions to the right framed as an attempt to occupy the political “centre-ground” – the content has changed dramatically.

Orwell’s observation in Animal Farm – that sooner or later the pigs who speak and act like humans become humans – is true. The stated aim of the early Labour Party was to bring about socialism through parliamentary reforms, now Blair has said he wouldn’t want to win on such a platform. As David Wearing writes both tragically and humorously , ‘promises from frontbench leadership candidates that getting into government would allow them to “put their values into practice” become not a source of inspiration, but of dread.’

The last twenty years has seen an acceleration of the process. Many in the Corbyn campaign dismiss his opponents as ‘Blairites’. They’re wrong; the new Labour right are much worse. Now, neither Burnham nor Kendall will defend New Labour’s economic record and they are joined by Cooper in saying that the party “got it wrong” on immigration. These positions put these candidates to the right of Blair, and all in the space of only one new generation of Labour politicians.

That these are Blair’s successors is to be expected. The New Labour government was brought to power on a wave of anti-Tory sentiment at the beginning of a global commodity boom. It was possible to be relaxed about ‘people getting filthy rich’ at the same time as the economy grew and living standards improved.

But now the rising tide that lifted all boats has gone out, leaving the Labour right like fish on the shore gasping for breath. Burnham and Cooper flail about looking for a coherent economic policy; Kendall finds one, but it belongs to the Tories. It’s time for the exiled Jeremy Corbyn, our bearded Prospero, to have his day.

Because the stick only bends so far without breaking. Bereft of their  social democratic leaders, what’s a social democrat supposed to do? Well, get angry of course. Contrary to how some of the commentariat have described it, Corbyn isn’t running a ‘hard left’ campaign (indeed, the New Economics Foundation’s, James Meadway, puts Corbyn to the right of the SDP). The backers of his economic plan aren’t Marxists, but stalwart Keynesians, fed up of listening to the nonsense emitted from their more likely allies. No wonder people have flocked to him.

What, then, of reform versus revolution? There’s no rush to the barricades or, if there is, the protestors aren’t carrying placards that read ‘all power to the soviets’. The demands are either in the negative (‘no to cuts’) or thoroughly social democratic (‘tax the rich’, a demand that, strangely, has gained traction on the revolutionary left). Revolution isn’t on the agenda but extensive reform certainly is.

In this context, to speak of revolution is an abstraction; to speak of ‘the limits of reformism’ is only to point to the political horizons of the present conjuncture. Whilst I don’t agree with the wording of Yanis Varoufakis’s formulation, that we should ‘save capitalism from itself’, socialists should harness all forces to defend the living standards of the majority threatened by the economic crisis. If that means picking up and running with the demand for reforms, then so be it. These are the times in which we’re living.