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.

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