Imprisoned within the national
Comparisons with Donald Trump are dishonest - but that does not mean Corbyn’s industrial strategy will actually work, warns Paul Demarty
To read the latest headlines about Jeremy Corbyn - at least those that are not basically accusing him of building gas chambers on his allotment - he has turned himself into a new Donald Trump. Both it seems, are guilty of “economic nationalism”, which - according to the wise old sages of the Institute of Directors and suchlike, amounts to attempting to turn the clock back on decades of “progress”.
Corbyn finds himself chained up in this particular pillory for launching his ‘Build it in Britain’ campaign, which aims to spend more of the hundreds of billions of pounds the state contracts out to the private sector on firms that operate and employ workers in this country.
Naturally, Corbyn demurs from comparisons to his purported transatlantic equivalent - “I suspect it is a surprise to both of us”, he said. It is, certainly, a malicious lie - Abraham Lincoln was a protectionist, but that comparison would hardly have the desired effect … But, like most such pieces of ‘fake news’, it is not wholly false either.
It is true that Corbyn has in his sights, in this speech, certain matters that impinge especially on national pride. Why are British passports to be made in Europe? Why is a contract to build three new navy support ships being farmed out overseas?
Yet the underlying point is more classically left-Labourite. Again we learn that Britain needs an “industrial strategy”. Financialisation has worked out splendidly for City fat cats over the last few decades; however, all but the largest and internationalised industrial firms have suffered, as have the working class communities around the old factories - “a lack of support for manufacturing is sucking the dynamism out of our economy, pay from the pockets of our workers and any hope of secure well-paid jobs from a generation of our young people”.1
The wider context is clear. Though Corbyn ducks away from the ‘B’ word, the question of Britain’s future existence after Brexit is finalised (or finally defeated) looms over any ‘strategic’ economic doctrines just now. All the more so, the more Britain looks on course for a cliff-edge exit. Among those who are insouciant about such a prospect are people who have some sort of strategy - viz, that Britain should complete its deindustrialisation and commit itself fully to mastery of global financial services, a north-Atlantic Singapore … Here we have the exact inverse: the idea (albeit implicit) that freedom from the stringent regulations against state aid in the common market (bluffly ignored by right-on remoaners) will allow the rebuilding of Britain as an industrial powerhouse, with a consequent amelioration of economic inequality and suchlike.
Is it viable? The evidence in favour, such as it is, is that these things are presumably being manufactured somewhere, and - if we accept the desirability of a British industrial revival - there is surely no necessary reason they could not be “made in Britain”, in the old style. This is the basic lie of the Trump comparison. As Larry Elliott points out in The Guardian, a decision to award contracts like this internally would make a putative Labour government no more protectionist than Frau Merkel’s Christian Democrats (Germany builds its own rolling stock), never mind America’s long-standing use of the defence industry as a Keynesian stimulus package.2
There is additionally the old scare story about going (or being taken) ‘back to the 1970s’, whereby the political-economic changes wrought since that time are identified wholly with progress, and objections to the same dismissed as so much Canutian folly. But that is a spectacular lie - there has, of course, been great technological progress in many branches of industry, but the modern regime of permanent mass unemployment and underemployment, casualisation and domination of ‘services’ is the result primarily of a deliberate political project, and at bottom a matter of ‘class against class’. The Institute of Directors and its friends in the press gallery do not want this recognised not because it cannot be reversed, but because it can.
Nation or class
Can it be reversed like this? Alas, we must answer in the negative. There are a number of reasons for this.
The first of these follows directly on from the latter point. The economic transformation of which Britain’s deindustrialisation is a part is a class offensive, but class as such is suspiciously absent from Corbyn’s musings on the topic - he wants to help small businesses and ordinary working people, apparently (who wouldn’t?) but the means he has principally chosen to do so is to funnel money into mega-projects (the boats, but also rail modernisation), which will principally benefit what remains of big British industrial capital. The small businesses that do, of course, swarm around these major industrial concerns are dominated and exploited by them.
As for the workers, the one feature of the 1970s that would really help out would be stronger trade unions. On this point, Corbyn’s Labour remains remarkably timid. We have a commitment to repealing the especially egregious 2016 Trade Union Act, but not the 30 years of salami-slicing that led up to it. Shadow transport minister Andy McDonald claims that the point is “to promote 21st century manufacturing, and to defend jobs and the communities that depend on them”.3 But this is to assume either that there is a common interest of labour and capital in creating jobs, or a common interest of industrial capital and labour in resisting the exploitation of finance capital. Both are untrue, although the latter is a particularly attractive myth to left Labourites like Corbyn: they believe it means erasing the memory of the brutal suppression of labour organisations by industrial capital in this country before they established themselves sufficiently no longer to be so treated; but it involves wilful blindness to the brutality of capitalist production in its present industrial heartlands.
This brings us to the second and more profound difficulty, and also the grain of truth in the bourgeois criticism of the plan. ‘Build it in Britain’ is nationalist in its assumptions - not in the ‘vulgar’ sense of chauvinist ideology, in assuming that a government in Westminster can be the agent of transformation. We are confronted, as we often are, with the ‘sources and component parts’ of British left-Labourism - trade union sectionalism, middle class radicalism and half-digested Stalinism - that are all united in their imprisonment within the national frame.
The primary problem is that our enemies are not. The class offensive of the post-1970s era was international in scope. It was not a matter, as is often assumed by Labourite wonks, of Thatcher and her confrères suffering from extraordinary ideological fanaticism. It was the form in Britain of the US-led capitalist order’s attempt to bury, rather than contain, the Soviet Union. That unity of purpose is - to put it mildly - not so much in evidence today among the international bourgeoisie; but the weakness of global order relative to its power in 1991 should not be confused with weakness relative to the international workers’ movement.
Furthermore, world order has a form as well as a purpose: countries have their places within it, and jostle for position for better ones. Britain has done well, as expiring imperial powers often do, building up a position as a centre for excellence in financial skulduggery. Its remaining industrial base is a sort of weird, useless appendage, and we can hardly blame the hard Brexiteers from simply wanting to lop it off. We said that this is not necessarily true, and indeed it isn’t. A serious British industrial policy, however, ultimately must mean more than merely giving state contracts to British firms, and instead competing with the incumbent industrial centres- Germany, China and whoever else - for capitalist investment, from a very poor starting point. Either British workers must be won to accept ‘Chinese’ wages, or else the Germans must be, ah, knocked off their high horse … somehow. The history of the 20th century presents a bloody picture of where this kind of competition can lead; but, short of that, sanctions and aggression in trade relations are possible, and bode ill for a country like Britain, which is so dependent on imports not only of industrial goods, but of food.
Inter-state competition forms a system, which must be confronted systematically. The problems we have mentioned would not be faced nearly as dauntingly by a European industrial policy. The EU has never been a body capable of such a thing, however (not least due to British sabotage). Only authentic internationalism - which must, in the end, escape the antagonistic drives of capitalist competition - can offer a rational organisation of production, alive to the needs of people at large, as well as the dangers of environmental degradation, and able to abandon useless sources of waste (like - alas! - those navy boats) without thereby casting people into penury. To achieve such ends, we must leave the bourgeoisie - including its industrial fraction - behind.