Cold light of day
Could a Labour government really act in the interests of both workers and capital? Rex Dunn gives his take on the Financial Times and Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto.
In this article I shall rely heavily on what is currently being said in the Financial Times, if only because it reflects the opinions of the most sober representatives of the British ruling class. That said, on a much broader level, it is clear that many people have a sense that the world is out of kilter. As I pointed out in a letter to this paper (November 21), when the leaders of the Labour Party and the Confederation of British Industry, along with the editor of the Financial Times, are in alignment, Channel 4 news was right to quote the famous remark of Marx and Engels in the Communist manifesto: “All fixed relations are swept away. All that is holy is profaned.”
At the same time, the FT is at sixes and sevens. This is a sign that the ruling class is in an unprecedented bind. But we do not know whether the working class will continue to move towards rightwing populism or respond to Corbyn’s bold move to the left. Is Britain, at least, on the cusp of historical change? Might the rest of the world follow suit?
In order to deal with this extraordinary situation, we have to go beyond the historical truths: eg, the fact that social democracy has consistently betrayed the working class, and will do so again. Rather, as Lenin said, we have to start with a concrete understanding of a concrete situation (with a bit of theory thrown in!). Today both the ruling class and the Labour Party understand that humanity is confronted by an existential crisis. In addition, here at home, we have a Brexit crisis, which could end in disaster for the British economy. On the one hand, the ruling class is in a dilemma about what to do: should it stick with its neoliberal economic agenda or ‘reset capitalism’ - ie, allow for a degree of Keynesian reforms, including nationalisation of failing industries. On the other, Labour has produced a rational plan in order to solve the crisis by means of radical policies. But it is based on the illusion that this can be achieved under capitalism.
Assuming that Labour was going to serve up a rehash of its 2017 manifesto For the many, not the few (ie, Keynesianism-lite), before the publication of the 2019 version, It’s time for real change, the editor of the FT - along with the director of the CBI - were remarkably predisposed towards a Labour victory in the December 12 general election. But then Corbyn and his team produced their bombshell (ie, Keynesianism-heavy): Labour’s 2019 manifesto is the most radical since 1945. As a result, the FT underwent an enormous reality shock and its editorial reverted to the paper’s default position: it was now arguing that Labour’s latest manifesto is “a blueprint for socialism in one country”, which threatens to “turn the clock back 40 years”. (So we have already had a taste of socialism in one country!) Yet a few days earlier, the FT’s editor, Lionel Barber, had run a front page which boldly declared that “capitalism needs a reset”. Upon sober reflection, the FT’s editorial was now saying it would only accept a “responsible centre-left programme to restore fairness and opportunity, to rebuild public services, and preserve private-sector incentives” (November 22). Normal service had been resumed.
Nevertheless, Labour still enjoys some support within the pages of the FT. In his ‘Insight’ column, Robert Shrimsley acknowledges Corbyn’s bold approach to this election: ie, he has played the green card in the hope that his “high stakes strategy pays off”. In addition, he has been rather clever in his decision to confront head-on the full weight of negative criticism from the powers that be, which is a “sign that he is on the side of ordinary people in fixing a rigged system”. On this basis, Labour’s manifesto calls for
staggering tax rises, boosts to the minimum wage, investment in public services, nationalisations, which will give the state 10% of the shares in big companies, plus rolling back Thatcherite union reforms [sic]. But Mr Corbyn’s trump card in this contest is his Green New Deal, aimed at younger voters, for whom climate crisis is more important than Brexit; it is a potential game changer.
Throw in free broadband and an end to tuition fees, not forgetting fixing the NHS. Nationalisations and tax rises “signal [Labour’s] diagnoses of the evils of modern Britain: that the tax system favours the successful and punishes the poor. Mr Corbyn is harnessing the angry response of business leaders and the wealthy”; ie, those who are appalled by the threat of a Tory government dominated by reckless financial speculators. But, Shrimsley warns, there are three risks to Corbyn’s approach: “The first is Brexit … where he looks indecisive on the big issue of the day. The second is that voters are suspicious of radical disruption … The third is Mr Corbyn’s character.”1
Shrimsley appears to be saying that Corbyn’s strategy is just an election ploy, whereas I would argue that he is sincere in his plan to transform capitalism, but it is based on a fundamental contradiction: on the one hand, there is a rational need for radical change; first, in terms of the disastrous effects that a “rigged system” is having on the lives of ordinary people; second, in order to solve the climate crisis - along with that of the environment itself - including the threat of mass extinctions. On the other hand, once again, this cannot be done under capitalism.
Shrimsley also fails to point out that Corbyn has reneged on his previous commitment to scrap the Trident ‘nuclear deterrent’ - he has fallen back on Labour’s old position: the stalemate of multilateral disarmament. Similarly he has reneged on Labour’s pledge to take private schools into the state sector. The manifesto also dilutes a party conference vote for “an extension of free movement”, referring instead only to granting European Union nationals the right to continue living and working here after Brexit. The manifesto merely talks about the benefits of freedom of movement: “our public services and our industry have benefitted from workers coming here”.
To reiterate an earlier point: The FT does realise that there is an existential crisis. But, like the Corbyn team which produced Labour’s latest manifesto, it is even less capable of providing leadership to its readers, let alone the masses. After all, its own class interests are based on instrumental reason, whose primary interest is to exploit human labour in order to make a profit; and that will always prevail over the rational need for radical change in the interests of humanity as a whole. As Theodor Adorno noted, increasingly for the ruling class, there is an “ambivalent relationship with the enlightenment tradition which both permits the domination of nature and induces alienation born of that very domination”.2
So the FT is even less able than social democracy, vis-à-vis the need to grasp the true content of the Marx-Engels famous statement: “All that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.”3 Yet time is of the essence. But Labour’s call for ‘Keynesianism-heavy’ is as far as it is able to go, given the history and ideology of social democracy. Corbyn and his team (which includes ex-members of the old CPGB) fail to understand that, whilst a massive fiscal stimulus and a semblance of an economic plan for recovery was seen as necessary by all sections of society in 1945, in order to rebuild a jaded and war-torn British economy, today the more sober sections of the ruling class draw the line at what they call “a return to socialism in one country” - note the deliberate comparison with Stalin’s terror state, in order to scare off its readers - even though the stakes could not be higher. When it comes down to it, the FT wants to reassure its readers that ‘responsible’ capitalists are not prepared to sanction Corbyn’s latest manifesto, because they know that this would lead to a more combative working class somewhere down the line. This presents an even bigger danger to their interests than an existential crisis for civilisation as we know it.
Closer to home, although British capital is in a deep crisis vis-à-vis its competitors, for the Boris Johnson-led Tory Party the only way to go is a race to the bottom. This is literally a good thing for a large section of the cabinet, with their connections to hedge funds in the City, whilst it is bad for British capital - in particular, those who invest in manufacturing. If the Conservatives were once the undisputed party of choice for the ruling class, when it comes to the question of a government which can be trusted to look after its interests, now the party has been taken over by those who have a vested interest in short-termism or increasingly reckless speculative capital, along with a willingness to sell Britain off to US and Chinese capitalism.
On the other hand, as I have already pointed out, in the light of Labour’s 2019 manifesto, this principal representative of mainstream British capital has taken fright and done another volte face: it has returned to its traditional mistrust of the Labour Party, all within the space of a week!
This is clear when we come to Labour’s promise of a “massive increase in the size of the state”. The FT’s economics editor, Chris Giles, reminds us that Labour’s proposal to expand by more than 6% in terms of gross domestic product is “the biggest in living memory”. In the past, “the state has taken that share of the economy with state spending only in time of crisis or world war”. So, for Giles, the climate crisis, along with the threat to our whole ecosystem, is less important than the great depression or World War II!4
Yet Giles’s own instrumental reason allows him to admit that
it is perfectly possible to run a successful economy with state spending amounting to about 45% of GDP. Under a Corbyn-led government spending would be lower than in France, about the same as in Germany and a little higher than the Netherlands. All are successful capitalist economies ... [But] It is the speed of transition that worries economists.
Bank of England governor Mark Carney reminds FT readers about “how difficult it is for the UK economy to adjust to change that Brexit could bring. Labour’s plan would involve a bigger adjustment, as the state displaces private-sector activity”. This is how capitalists rationalise the situation!
Still the most enlightened paper of the bourgeoisie reveals that the ruling class is in a bind. It does not want a Johnson-led government, which represents the narrow interests of hedge-fund managers, because that would be just as disruptive as Corbyn’s latest manifesto. This would lead to a hard Brexit and a deregulated economy dominated by American and Chinese capital; which would mark the end of British manufacturing (even if the latter is dominated by multinationals). And Johnson’s Brexit could easily lead to a no-deal scenario, which might trigger another financial crash. On the other hand, the CBI/FT have been stunned by the 2019 manifesto, given that “Labour seeks huge jump in borrowing, tax and spending”.
Giles then switches to playing devil’s advocate, saying that there are loopholes in Labour’s tax-raising plans: For example, “The proposed rise in capital gains tax would be easy to avoid, because people would time asset sales to minimise their bills.” As for “taxes on corporate income” - ie, “levied on companies and people holding securities”, as one commentator is quoted as saying, “you shouldn’t think these are all taxes on the rich, as they will be passed on to customers and employees”.
Another article on the same page pursues the same tactic. It attacks Labour’s plan for a windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas as a means to pay for a greener Britain, arguing that this will be counterproductive: Corbyn has “promised a £250 billion ‘green transformation fund’ - financed with borrowing - to pay for policies including electric car loans, a mass household insulation programme and a fleet of state-controlled offshore wind farms”. The party has pledged that “almost 90% of electricity would be renewable or low-carbon in 10 years and ... to deliver 50% of home heating from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030, reflecting the difficulty of replacing millions of household gas boilers”. Cue a Greenpeace statement, which argued that Labour’s plans “did not go far enough to tackle emissions from aviation”, and so on.
The lesson to be drawn here is that it is impossible to fulfil the promise of a Green New Deal under capitalism.
The FT had been hoping for a “reset” of capitalism. But in the cold light of day, once the implications of Labour’s 2019 manifesto had sunk in, it was a case of reverting to its previous position: ie, giving way to Brexit tribalism. The latter was resurrected again in the BBC’s November 20 Question Time special, which featured a debate between the leaders of the four main parties. While Johnson stuck to his mantra of “Let’s get Brexit done!”, Corbyn was exposed as a fence-sitter once again, although this time he was forced to break cover: he stated that, under his leadership (!) a future Labour government would renegotiate Brexit, which would be put to the people in a second referendum, who would have a choice between a Labour soft Brexit and ‘remain’. But Corbyn himself would remain “neutral”. For this he was rightly criticised by QT chair Fiona Bruce, who stated that “the definition of leadership is that the leader has to lead” - especially in a situation which is going to determine the future of British capitalism. Once again, Corbyn’s character is being called into question. More important, this could stymie support for Labour’s manifesto, despite the fact that it offers ‘hope’ to millions of British workers via a radical programme of reform “not seen since the second world war”.
What does all this really mean? For me, the elephant in the room is the fact that we are stuck in the epoch of decline and transition, which neither Marx nor Engels envisaged, given their own rational optimism vis-à-vis the emergence of the working class as the agency of the social revolution (despite Marx’s own recognition that the bourgeois hierarchal division of labour depresses the worker “both intellectually and physically to the level of a machine”5). At the same time, for them the acquisition of adequate or communist consciousness is indispensable for such a transition; ie, it is the only alternative to the current situation, where “the productive forces receive under the system of private property a one-sided development only, and for the majority they become destructive forces”.6
Some comrades may scoff at Trotsky’s own manifesto, which became the founding document of the Fourth International in 1938, The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International. But on what grounds? Is it because his observation was premature in relation to the “crisis of leadership”, whilst the world situation has become “somewhat rotten” - despite the betrayal of social democracy in 1914, followed by the Stalinist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, which then usurped the leadership of the Comintern? If so, then the price which humanity had to pay for Trotsky’s - let alone Marx’s and Engel’s - premature observations, was two world wars, the great depression and the holocaust. (Or is it because Trotsky’s call for a “transitional programme” represents a retreat into economism? Surely that is debatable at the very least.) Certainly, things have become a lot worse since 1945, given the fact that humanity is now confronted with an existential crisis.
Rather than Labour allowing itself to be coopted by the ruling class, for a brief moment, it assumed the leadership of a ruling class in disarray, which needed a lifeline, on this occasion from the main party of the class enemy (for better or worse). Not only did we have an alignment which appeared to offer a rational and radical solution to a real and developing existential crisis for humanity as a whole: it also offered the possibility of a government committed to alleviating the worst effects of Brexit on the British economy (although the atomisation of the working class and the impact of rightwing populism may yet prove to be too strong for both the FT and Labour).
But, to everyone’s surprise, Labour’s 2019 manifesto - in reality - is too rational and radical for the FT et al to go along with - even if it cannot be achieved under capitalism! Therefore, in less than a week, when “all fixed relations” appeared to be “swept away”, this uneasy alignment of the most sober representatives of the ruling class and the Labour Party was broken. Thus we return to the status quo once again.
Finally, this brings me to the vexed question of how the left should vote on December 12. Given the exceptional circumstances that we find ourselves in, I agree with the slogan, ‘Vote Labour without illusions’. At the same time, we must continue to criticise the shortcomings of Corbynism from the standpoint of Marxism and the need for a Marxist party. But, in the unlikely event that Corbyn is able to form a majority government, this would mean that the working class, as well as everyone else, would be better off, at least in the short term. At the same time, many workers would be emboldened to take the struggle forward.
1. Financial Times November 22.
3. K Marx and F Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf.
4. Financial Times November 22.
5. K Marx Economic and philosophical manuscripts London 1974, p285.
6. K Marx and F Engels MECW Vol 5, London 1975, p73.