Is there a Corbynism beyond McDonnell?

Economics for the Many, edited by John Mcdonnell. Verso, 2018.

People Get Ready!, by Christine Berry and Joe Guinan. OR Books, 2019.

When Jeremy Corbyn, a one hundred to one outsider, won the Labour Leadership contest in 2015, he faced a series of significant challenges: unifying Labour MPs who were overwhelmingly out of step with the trade unions and Labour members, opposing David Cameron’s victorious Conservative government, and planning for the upcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. But one of the more subtle challenges was how the Labour Left could build a coherent, socialist policy platform after decades as political outcasts. Where were the friendly think tanks, policy advisers and economists? Where were the journalists and researchers who could shape Corbyn’s policy agenda? Where were the ideas that could power the movement?

There was of course an intellectual heritage to draw on. Although small and often marginalised, the traditional ideas of Keynesianism didn’t disappear after the 1970s, and since the Financial Crash in 2008 there has been a resurgence in heterodox, ‘post-Crash’ economics. Ed Miliband, in his own way, made a small break with neoliberalism, offering greater state intervention and even price caps in certain sectors. This has served as the (often inadequate) foundation for the ecosystem of think tanks, academics, journalists and policy advisers which has started to emerge over the last four years, and particularly since the surprisingly successful 2017 General Election[1].

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Many of the essays in John McDonnell’s edited collection, Economics for the Many, have their roots in this emerging ecosystem. Compared to similar recent interventions, from the socially conservative Blue Labour to the Liberal Democrat’s Orange Book and the neo-Thatcherite Britannia Unchained, Economics for the Many is a remarkably wide ranging contribution covering everything from economics education to big data and fiscal responsibility. Nevertheless, the essays generally revolve around an idea which has become one of Corbynism’s central themes: the opposition between extractive, financialised neoliberalism and an economy which works for the many not the few. John McDonnell explicitly describes the former as neoliberalism, the idea that “markets are the best possible means to organise an economy, that wealth would automatically ‘trickle down’ from the top, and that impediments to corporate power – like regulation and trade unions – should be reduced to irrelevance”. McDonnell’s response this economic system is primarily a moral one, for him “the human costs of this economic failure are intolerable”. But there is also an analytic approach which draws on the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi, whose studies of the industrial revolution examined the ways in which the economy is embedded in social and cultural relations. McDonnell updates this for the 21st century, arguing that neoliberalism has “threatened the fabric of society” by sacrificing Britain’s social security system, hospitals and social care system in order to hand out “billions of pounds… in tax giveaways to corporations and the very richest in society”.

There is significant overlap between John McDonnell’s diagnoses and the picture of British capitalism pained by Joe Guinan and Christine Berry in People Get Ready![2]. What they call the ‘extractive economy’ is also  characterised by “concentrated private ownership, corporate dominance, the overweening might of London-based financial capital… [which] together form a powerful engine for the extraction of wealth and its distribution upwards”. This emphasis on the flow of money, wealth and resources upwards, gives it a different flavour to McDonnell’s searing morale critique. But more importantly, it sets up their focus on the ownership of capital as the fundamental economic question, one which guides their positive project to extend the “principles of popular sovereignty from the realm of politics into economics”.

As depictions of the various weaknesses of British capitalism, both accounts are surprisingly short on history. The dramatic events of the 2008 Great Financial Crash loom large. So too does Thatcher’s reshaping of the economy and financial services in the 1980s. But there is much less discussion of the complex entanglement of The City of London, the Treasury and the Bank of England. As Geoffrey Ingham pointed out in the 1980s, the City has always wielded immense power over economic decision-making, and this dates back to long before Thatcher’s Big Bang. Just as important is the fact that, while four decades of financialisation have definitely distorted investment decisions, Britain’s stagnant growth and productivity rates are not simply the result of having too many banks. A richer picture of the limits of British capitalism would, as the Bank of England’s Chief Economist Andrew Haldane has argued, also include changing demographics, the slowing rate of technological discovery and the long tail of small, low-productivity firms. Given the intended audience of both these books, perhaps it’s not surprising that they focus their critique on neoliberalism and the ghost of Thatcher, concentrating on the juicy political conflict rather than dense historical narrative. But a deeper reckoning with the contours of British capitalism surely has some part to play.

Despite this, when they get round to discussing what should replace extractive neoliberalism, the intellectual energy and excitement is palpable, with long lists of ideas tumbling across the pages. Berry and Guinan describe the democratic economy as “already emerging all around us – a spontaneous response to social pain… Worker ownership, co-operatives, municipal enterprise, community land trusts, public banks, benefit corporations, social wealth funds”. Some of the policy suggestions in the individual chapters of Economics for the Many are equally exciting. Ann Pettifor presents a powerful case for a Green New Deal with extensive investment in high-tech, skilled, green jobs. Costas Lapavitsas makes a case for a system of national and regional public banks to boost investment (particularly outside of London). There are provocative contributions from Nick Srnicek and Francesca Bria about municipal ownership of data and the public control of giant digital platforms like Facebook and Google. Two chapters argue for cooperatives and public ownership as an alternative to shareholder capitalism, while another sets out the Cleveland/Preston model of local procurement.[3] But the Financial Times was right to point out that the various contributors do often contradict one another and that many of their suggestions are aspirations rather than clearly formulated policy proposals. Unlike the new right of the 1970s, the left hasn’t had decades to prepare the ground – and that’s often clear to see.

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This vision for a new democratic economy has become one of Corbynism’s central themes. And gradually, in publications like these as well as in a series of independent reports including Alternative Models of Ownership and Land for the Many, real, fleshed-out policies are starting to emerge. But, this flourishing of ideas about the future of the economy betrays the real weakness of Corbyn’s domestic agenda beyond McDonnell’s Shadow Treasury team.[4]

Where is Labour’s bold new vision for education? Schools and universities are at crisis point. There is huge loss of morale and skilled professionals are quitting at record rates. There is resistance from parents over too much testing and from teachers over deskilling and the loss of control over what they teach. But, Labour doesn’t seem to have any positive vision of a more democratic approach to teaching. The 2017 Manifesto had an admirable commitment to lifelong learning through a National Education Service. Angela Rayner, as Shadow Education Secretary, has been a strong opponent of cuts to school budgets and to early years provision. But, there have been no pledges to reverse the academisation programme, let alone put forward a blueprint for what modern, humane and democratic education might look like.

You could ask the same question about the arts and culture. Speaking at Glastonbury in 2017, Corbyn said that ‘In every child there is a poem, in every child there is a painting, in every child there is music’. But, Tom Watson’s Shadow Culture team have yet to put forward any serious proposals to reshape Britain’s elitist culture industry. Nor has Watson really engaged with the question of the Britain’s deeply unpopular media. In the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Report, it seemed that desperately needed reforms might be on the horizon. But, newspapers have now managed to shift focus onto the scandal of online ‘fake news’ and media reform has dropped off the agenda altogether. On drug policy and policing, Labour remain trapped in a desperate bid to appeal to the Tory-voting home counties. Their response to the recent spike in violent crime was to promise 10,000 new police officers, an offer which Boris Johnson promptly doubled. On questions of constitutional reform, Labour have also been depressingly quiet. This is despite the fairly wide recognition that Brexit has provoked a constitutional crisis and exacerbated long standing concerns about wasted votes, undue concentration of power in the executive and unresponsive government.

This lack of ideas is all the more depressing given the opportunities presented by the last few years. Since the 2016 referendum, Brexit has consumed all the energies of this faltering Conservative administration. There have been almost no serious policy proposals from the government in that time – something which MPs of all parties regularly complain about. Without much shadowing to do, this should have been the perfect opportunity for the Shadow Cabinet to develop a comprehensive series of policy platforms. Instead Corbynism seems to have been reduced, through the meat-grinder of Labour Party wrangling, to a narrow economism.

More worryingly, this narrow economism is not just a matter of vision and policy. It also appears in discussions of political strategy. In Grace Blakeley and Luke Raikes’s chapter from Economics for the Many, they discuss the need to devolve fiscal responsibility to local administrations, pointing out that the UK is the most regionally unequal country in Europe and also the one in which fiscal powers are most centralised. But, they make no mention of the fact that Britain’s local media is in free fall, with 245 local newspapers closed since 2005 and the number of regional journalists halved to around 6,500. Devolving power to local government, without any local media there to scrutinise it, means putting a lot of trust in the incorruptible good nature of local politicians.

This blindness to the world beyond the economy reappears in Berry and Guinan’s People Get Ready!, a primer on how Labour activists can prepare themselves for government. The centrepiece of their argument is their analysis of several historical examples of radical movements which were defeated, from the Labour governments of the 1960s and early 1970s, to the French socialists of the 1980s and Syriza in 2015. The common thread linking these different cases is that they were all defeated by capital flight, a currency run and economic crisis, which pushed them to reverse their radicalism and enact austerity. Although this diagnosis is useful, it is also remarkably narrow. What about the many other forms of attack to which a Corbyn government might be subjected? Continual assault by the media? A mass defection of Labour MPs the day after an election? The military coup that an unnamed, serving general threatened Corbyn with in 2015? What about the international dimension, in particular how would Donald Trump react to a socialist government in Britain? Apart from an incisive chapter on the challenges posed by the civil service[5], they seem strangely unmoved by these non-economic threats.

Those same limits colour their discussion of the Labour’s possible responses. If there’s capital flight, use helicopter money and capital controls (both of which have recently been ruled out by McDonnell) to build a ‘siege economy’. If people don’t know why they should support the transition to a democratic economy, have a clever policy which, like Right-to-Buy did for Thatcher, encapsulates your ideas and links people’s material interests to a new economic system. These are all interesting suggestions. But, Guinan and Berry  (along with much of the Corbyn movement), seem to have little interest in the broader dimensions of hegemony necessary to make them work. Right-to-Buy was originally proposed in the 1959 Labour manifesto. It only came to stand in for Thatcherism as a political ideology because it was presented through the media (and Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers) in a very particular way. When Thatcher said ‘economics are the method: the object is to change the soul’, she was only being partially serious. She also depended heavily on Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising agency, and during the miners strike of 1984, she seconded her chief PR adviser, Tim Bell, later the founder of Bell Pottinger, to work for the National Coal Board setting the terms of the negotiations and coordinating their strategy.

This isn’t a call for a return to the politics of the spin-doctor, but, we do need a proper theory of ideology. Without it, we will struggle to build a coherent strategy or to interpret earlier experiments in radical government. We need it to make sense of the fact that people born under Blair tend to be even more right wing and authoritarian in their political views, than those born under Thatcher. More immediately, we also need it to explain many of Guinan and Berry’s historical cases. For example, they praise the Attlee government’s many achievements, particularly the way his administration embedded Keynesian economics so deeply into government circles that even the Tory governments of the 1950s and 1960s couldn’t change tack. But they don’t explain how he achieved that crucial victory. The closest we get is an old Fabian insight, later borrowed by Milton Friedman: “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”.

These non-economic elements of hegemony are complex, but they are essential to any serious political strategy. Clever pieces of economic policy will only ever be one part of that. But Corbynism, as it currently stands, seems to have neither a vision for socialism beyond the workplace, nor a long term strategy for how to get there.

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It’s worth pausing to consider where this narrow economism comes from. Part of its recent appeal seems to come from the quest to appear ‘serious’ and ‘credible’, to look like ‘a party of government not a party of protest’. The desire to focus on the economy now that we are near to power is an understandable impulse. So too is the implicit critique of identity politics for focussing too much on issues of representation and culture. However, this has come at the cost of a broader reckoning with the world outside of the economic sphere.

There are also much deeper reasons why Corbyn seems to be trapped by economism[6]. As Ralph Miliband famously argued, historically Labour has been shaped by a particular way of thinking, by the ideology of labourism. There are many ways of characterising this legacy, but one of the most important is the influence of the trade unions, who founded the Labour Party and have largely funded it since then. Trade unions are not constrained to bread and butter politics and have often led the way on issues from nuclear disarmament to LGBT rights. But they have also been concerned to steer the party away from what are perceived as ‘minority concerns’ in order to concentrate on economic issues. The fact that the unions (and Unite in particular) were Corbyn’s only allies within the Labour Party when he won the leadership in 2015, has gifted them a particularly significant role over the last four years.

Another important aspect of labourism is the insulation of MPs from Labour members, an issue which resurfaced during the recent rows around open selections. Labour MPs have always maintained that they are elected by constituents and shouldn’t be accountable to local members, while Labour governments have repeatedly and explicitly ignored policy decisions made at conference (supposedly the sovereign body within the party). One of the principal effects of this has been that MPs are easily absorbed into the Westminster bubble, where the reigning dogma is still Bill Clinton’s 1992 slogan ‘it’s the economy stupid’.

Labourism is also characterised by a suspicion of anything which might seem overly theoretical. When Angela Rayner said ‘ideology never put food on my table’, she wasn’t just committing herself to a pragmatic approach to politics, but also echoing a long running suspicion of intellectualism. Unfortunately, this has ceded the discussion to the right, who feel much more comfortable discussing big concepts like freedom and human nature and who use them to attack the left. This is particularly true of the alt-right, whose social media fluency has drawn huge audiences for reactionary and essentialist depictions of gender identity and the ‘natural social order’. But Thatcher’s critique of the post-war consensus was also built on philosophical themes: the importance of freedom from regulation and the overbearing state, humans as individualistic consumers unattached to class or collective identity. Again, when Michael Gove reformed the national curriculum in 2014, he did so in explicitly ideological terms, emphasising the importance of knowledge, the classical cannon and patriotism. If we want to think seriously about the future of education, then we need to think about human nature and ask what kinds of people we want our schools to produce: entrepreneurs, employees, critical citizens, cultured aesthetes, socialists? Unfortunately, Labour has too often backed away from those discussions.

Underlying all of this is particular electoral strategy. Since the 1980s, much of the Labour movement has been terrified of being labeled as part of the ‘loony left’. Embedded in this media buzz word was the spectacle of ‘militant, Labour-run, inner-city councils’ where children were told that ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ was racist and that gay rights were human rights. In an infamous letter from 1987, Labour’s press secretary, Patricia Hewitt, summed up this attitude saying that the ‘”Loony Labour Left” is now taking its toll; the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst the pensioners’. The assumption that working class people are naturally socially conservative persists to this day. You can see it in Labour’s attitude to migration under Blair, Brown and Miliband, as well as in recent debates around a Second Referendum. These assumptions lead to an electoral strategy where it is assumed that Labour can only win on the economy and will lose votes if they push too hard in other areas. This prioritisation also seems to have shaped Corbynism, with the party backsliding considerably on migration compared to Corbyn’s own platform in 2015.

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A recent event organised by The World Transformed, an off-shoot of Momentum which organises political education events, saw people piling into a church hall in south London for a ‘festival of ideas and debate on some of the most important issues of our time’. The headline panel discussion (and so far the only one to be available online) was on ‘Reshaping the economy: power, wealth and ownership’. Media reform, education and the hostile environment were relegated to the basement. A huge amount of work is needed if Corbynism is to have a distinctive vision for the kind of society we want to live in. The economy has a central place in that, but we need much broader ambitions. Socialism will never flourish in the workplace alone, anymore than it can flourish in one country alone. And if a culture war really is coming, then Corbynism will need to fight it on more than one front. Whether or not this can be remedied before the Tory Party adopts an anti-austerity message remains to be seen.

Footnotes

[1] A more detailed list of the leading intellectuals and organisations in the Corbyn movement is provided in Robin Blackburn’s article for the New Left Review, ‘The Corbyn Project’. It’s also worth noting that, in terms of resources, this rudimentary infrastructure compares pretty favourably with the think tanks that powered neoliberalism. As Berry and Guinan point out “The IEA started out with a “part-time staff of one” and a “cramped office scarcely able to accommodate a visitor”. At its peak in the 1980s, it employed 15 people. The Centre for Policy Studies made do with seven. At this time it had a budget of around £150,000. NEF and IPPR currently outgun this considerably in terms of people and resources: both currently have annual expenditures in excess of £3 million (although this funding comes with strings attached, and only a fraction is available for truly radical policy innovation, for which it is true that funding is harder to come by)” (People Get Ready, p. 172)

[2] In fact, this is a common theme in a whole host of new left publications from Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism to Paul Mason’s Meltdown.

[3] There are already several interesting assessments of Corbyn’s economic policy: from Barnaby Raine in n+1, from Robin Blackburn in the New Left Review, and from Martin O’Neil and Joe Guinan in Renewal.

[4] Foreign policy occupies a slightly different place within the Labour Party and has always represented the fundamental gap between party’s left and right wings. Corbyn’s approach to international questions has consistently outraged many of his MPs and offers a clear alternative to previous Labour leaders.

[5] Elements within the Civil Service’s opposition to Corbyn was made clear in the unprecedented recent leaks by senior civil servants to the Sunday Times. A wider discussion can be found in a recent exchange published in Tribune.

[6] In the 1950s and 1960s, a version of this critique was put forward by the New Left, particularly by writers like Raymond Williams, Ralph Miliband, William Norman and others affiliated with the New Left Review.

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The future is cyborgs

It’s March 2017 and the robot apocalypse is definitely coming. We’ve been warned about the “Automation Invasion: Robots Are Coming for YOUR Job”. Nationalists worry that “Robots will take a third of BRITISH JOBS by 2030”, although there’s some relief that “The U.S. will be HIT WORSE by job automation”. The numbers involved are growing larger and larger: apparently “TEN MILLION jobs could be replaced by robots in next 15 years”. The conclusion: “TECHNOLOGY is killing jobs, and only technology can save them”. By now the panic is really setting in. What about the moral value of hard work? Will we all become lazy benefit scroungers? How will we eat? Where will the money come from? What will we do all day? How will we live? Will society collapse in a drug fuelled orgy or feckless boredom?

But against this general backdrop of panic and crisis there are some who are more positive about a world where all our needs will be met by automated production. For a large part of human history work was seen as a necessity which should be avoided at all costs. Going back nearly 2400 years, Aristotle argued that the highest human good was philosophic contemplation, something which mere ‘work’ would get in the way of. He was very clear about what this meant: a privileged elite who were free to contemplate the mysteries of the world because production was taken care of by slaves. The aristocrats of Europe replaced slaves with feudal serfs or the working class and, by the 19th century, some socialists were dreaming of substituting them for automated (or infinitely more efficient) production.

People on the left of politics who celebrate contemporary automation tend to claim that, unlike previous technological revolutions, this time technology will emancipate everyone. But so far the geopolitical dimension remains significant. The rise of the knowledge economy is, at least partially, a myth. We still live in a world of manufacturing and heavy industry, it’s just that that work is now done out-of-sight and out-of-mind in the Global South. And even in the UK it’s not clear that technology will necessarily be needed to replace workers. As Amazon and Sports Direct have proved, when you can make enormous profits by exploiting cheap labour you don’t need expensive machines. But despite all of these caveats, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there is something different this time round.

Even those most strongly in favour of automation recognise that this is a dangerous moment. The fact that Allen Greenspan, the man who chaired the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, dictating a neoliberal agenda from an unelected position, also speaks excitedly of full automation should be a warning in itself. Four years ago, he wrote of a future where “all we have left is a small handful of especially talented people who can create and operate the newer technology”. As Stephen Holmes points out in his review for the LRB, this ‘we’ is worth considering. The future he imagines is one in which the rich elite are liberated from the challenge of employing anyone. A basic income guarantees that there is still a market for goods; meanwhile a narrow band of people work on the complex algorithms that manage production and an even narrower band of people own that automated capital. This is a serious political and economic challenge but, ultimately, it is nothing new. Just like at the turn of the last century, the fundamental issue is who owns the means of production and automation will do little to change that.

Much of the discussion of robots and automation revolves around a binary opposition of humans vs machines. This is history in the mould of The Terminator and Matrix films. But rather than an either/or, may be we’re actually heading towards a fusion of the two; part human, part machine, all cyborg. For those of us with hearing aids, prosthetic limbs or pace-makers this is already a real part of our lives. But going beyond using machines in a curative, medical context takes us into the brave new world of trans-humanism. Working in the intersection of plastic surgery, nano-bio-technologies and robotics, trans-humanists dream of using technology to overcome our biological limitations: implanting electrodes in brains, modifying eyes to see in ultraviolet, editing genetic sequences, and eliminating ageing.

There are many different parts of the trans-humanist movement. Genesis P. Orrige and Lady Jaye’s ‘pandrogyne project’ saw them both undergo huge amounts of plastic surgery so that they came to resemble each other. They were attempting to transform themselves into a third being (the ‘pandrogyne’) which united them both. After Lady Jaye’s death Genesis continues to refer to themselves in the plural and has said that “Genesis continues to represent the amalgam Breyer P-Orridge in the material ‘world’ and Lady Jaye represents the amalgam Breyer P-Orridge in the immaterial ‘world’ creating an ongoing interdimensional collaboration”. This fusion of queer theory, spirituality and performance art is a long way from the Silicon Valley side of the movement. There the geographic proximity between Los Angeles and San Francisco has led to a combination of science fiction technology with healthy living and self-improvement. Regular exercise, raw-vegan smoothies, smart study drugs and a job at Facebook. This is trans-humanism not as a spiritual quest to test the boundaries of gender and love, but as a way of improving human capabilities.

But, for some, even this is too limited an attack on the opposition of human and machine. Even if I coated my bones with aluminium compounds and rewired my nervous system to improve my reaction speed, I would still be modifying my body. The next step is to completely dissolve the notion of spatially bound consciousness. That is what is so scary about HAL 9000, the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey (or HAL’s modern equivalent: AUTO from WALL-E): a consciousness that is distributed across an entire computer system with no fixed physical form. For many trans-humanists ‘mind uploading’ is our final destiny. Imagine uploading your conscious mind onto a machine where it would live for ever as a ghost, drifting around the internet and constructing whatever form it fancied: cyborg, electric kettle, iPhone, etc.

These ideas throw up all sorts of philosophical questions about personal identity and what we mean by consciousness. These are not entirely new. We already know that outside forces can shape our most inner consciousness. About 50% of people globally may be infected by a parasite which lives in cat poo (toxoplasma gondii) and which has profound neurological effects, including increased risk taking and various affective disorders. We also know that our identity is not fixed in uniquely human flesh. Each humans is an ecosystem which includes organisms from many different species in continuous interaction. But at the moment the philosophical implications of these scientific discoveries remain distant from our working lives and rarely trouble the common sense notion that “I am who I am”. However, as we increasingly collapse the boundaries between human and machine, these issues will become part of everyday existence in unpredictable ways. So if the economic questions raised by automation are nothing new, may be these philosophical ones will be its real legacy.

In the 1950s, philosopher and committed Nazi, Martin Heidegger, argued that modern technology (based on modern physics) was dangerous because it would lead us to see the natural world and other humans as a standing reserve of materials waiting to be used. Today’s technology (based instead on algorithms and networks) will transform us again, but this time its most profound impact will be on our sense of self. Abstract philosophical discussions about what counts as ‘human’, who counts as ‘consciousness’ and whether I am the same person that I was yesterday will become part of real life. Artificial thought experiments will become everyday interactions.

Moreover, this philosophical impact will be structured by politics in a way that Heidegger would never have recognised. At a material level, the technology that trans-humanists dream of is extraordinarily expensive and so will work to exacerbate existing health inequalities. And, as health shapes so much of the rest of our lives, this growing inequality will soon spread to other areas. At an ideological level, that same elite will also be able to control how we frame and navigate these crucial questions about consciousness and identity. There is precedent for this. In the 19th century, Darwin’s scientific revolution was seized upon to develop theories of ‘scientific racism’ which quickly spread across a society where black and brown people were largely excluded from the magazines and publications which dominated the public sphere. Today, as we struggle to articulate a new sense of self made in confrontation and synthesis with computer intelligence, the conversation is already largely dominated by wealthy men from Silicon Valley. And they seem totally unaware of these political dimensions. Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, multibillionaire and member of Trump’s transition team was asked a few years ago about the effect of these technologies on inequality in life-expectancy. He dismissed it entirely, saying that “the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead”.

Unless we can find some way of democratising those discussions, then the liberatory potential that cyborg feminists, socialists and others see in trans-humanism will be lost. Niche performance art and lefty think-pieces aren’t an answer to that problem. And given the current state of science journalism, it’s not clear the mainstream press is either. One possibility is that the Internet might provide access to information and a space for discussion which can help to undermine existing inequalities and enable all of us to shape the coming fusion of human and machine. There are many reasons to think that this is implausible, but it makes for a nice conclusion.

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Political aspects of decent housing

In Britain, there is a broad consensus that we are facing a housing crisis. But beyond that, there’s precious little agreement. On the right, the culprit is planning restrictions and, in particular, the notorious ‘green belts’ around major cities. Meanwhile on the left, especially in the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party, the crisis is generally blamed on foreign investors and profit hungry developers. The problem with both of these assessments is that they are largely economic and insufficiently political. A sustainable, socialist housing programme can’t be built on the simple drive to ‘build more homes’. Understanding how we ended up in this mess requires patient analysis of the different factions involved and their various interests. And so does designing a long term socialist response, which won’t just be reversed by the next Tory government.

There are some important historical lessons we can draw on here. In 1943, the Polish economist Michał Kalecki asked why, given that everyone would benefit, business leaders were so strongly opposed to Keynesian policies of full employment. Full employment would be good for workers, giving them jobs and an income. And it would also be good for businesses, providing bigger markets for their products and smoothing out the shocks caused by recessions. But, despite those potential economic gains, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, business leaders were almost unanimously opposed to full employment. Kalecki tries to unpick this paradox by examining the political consequences of those policies. It was obvious to business leaders that full employment policies would reduce their political power and their class instincts served them well. Keynesian responses to the Great Depression are a long way from 21st century housing policy. But, the lesson from Kalecki is that people’s interests are not always self-evident and that political control can be at least as important as material factors.

A cast of thousands

There are many players involved in British housing policy, each with their own divergent interests: private renters, social renters, Right-to-Buy homeowners, wealthier homeowners and landlords, Local Authorities, central Government, developers and landowners. Some of these have already been the focus of political attention, but others seem to have slipped under the radar. Forging a coalition across these different factions is important, not just for getting reforms enacted, but also for defending those gains into the future. If the goal is affordable, high-quality housing for all, then there are some groups that will never be brought on board. But, understanding the particular interests of our potential allies is going to be essential to building any sustainable coalition.

Let’s start with the various arms of the state. Historically, Local Authorities have been a crucial part of house building in Britain. The legacies of municipal socialism and the various drives to build council homes have also made them the focus for most of the political commentary on today’s crisis. Much of this has concentrated on corruption and the revolving door between developers and councils. Southwark Council in south London has become a metonym for some of the more egregious examples of this kind of behaviour. Out of 11,000 new homes being built in the area, many on the sites of recently demolished council estates, less than 4% are socially rented, far less than their target of 35%. In the meantime, council leaders have accepted expensive gifts from developers and many former councillors and council employees now work for developers. While these are serious issues, they mask two wider structural issues

First, councils depend on the votes of people already living in the areas. The new residents a Local Authority might want to house can’t vote yet. This doesn’t have to be an insurmountable barrier, but it forces us to think about where the drive for future house building needs to come from and what institutions need to be built to give those potential future residents political influence. Second, councils tend to want to keep control of the houses they build. This means that, as the political climate changes, the fate of those homes can hang in the balance. The ease with which Britain’s councils have flogged off entire estates (what’s known as ‘stock transfers’), displacing thousands of families without even a local ballot, is breathtaking. Had those homes been given to local communities, through cooperative models or community land trusts, it would have been far harder to engineer that level of social cleansing and easier to defend what councils had already invested in building. But, a desire for political control often prevented councils from protecting their achievements through different ownership models. This is something the left urgently needs to revisit – especially given the current rhetorical focus on ‘council housing’.

Central government also plays a significant role in housing. As Brett Christophers has recently explained, the pressure to privatise public land and change regulation has largely come from Whitehall. And the financial links between landowners, property firms and the Tory Party make it clear what the real source of that pressure is. But, again, there is a wider structural issue here, which is that homeowners are far more likely to be registered to vote and to actually bother walking down to the polling station to vote. This creates a certain set of incentives for politicians and shapes who they listen to, even for parties on the left.

Different groups of individuals also have very different interests when it comes to housing. Private renters want lower rents, higher standards and are generally happy for the government to fund this (for example by subsidising home improvements or boiler replacements for landlords). Social renters have similar interests but also additional concerns, often worrying about the social mix of the estates they live in or wanting means-tested rent subsidies to continue, even though that seems to have driven up rents for others who don’t meet the threshold. Those who own their homes, even relatively low-income families who bought homes under Right-to-Buy, often have opposing interests. Most obviously, they have a fundamental interest in raising house prices, even if that comes through gentrification of an area and higher rents. Easy access to cheap mortgages is also essential, even though this has been a huge part of the inflation of the financial sector over the last twenty years. For many families, particularly those with low-incomes, rising house prices have been an unexpected, and probably never to be repeated, windfall. Buying a house thirty years ago in the right area of London could literally have changed your life. And people will be reluctant to let those gains go or be forced to give some of it away in inheritance tax. Building a popular coalition out of these disparate groups will be difficult. Over the last eight years there has been a dramatic swing with 55% of people now supporting building in their local area compared to just 23% in 2010. But, relying on ideology alone without thinking about how to shape people’s long term material interests might be a risky strategy.

A socialist future?

Whatever socialist housing policy the Labour Party puts together, we need to think about what the long term political implications will be. Right-to-Buy changed the face of British homeownership and was wildly popular, creating a constituency with a material interest in defending it. Simply relying on state-led building programmes won’t be enough if the population keeps on growing, because the next government could easily decide to redirect funds to other projects. This was a fundamental problem with the last Labour government’s better policies. Funding early years interventions was a great idea, but, given that local communities didn’t own them and that the funding was centralised, it was at the whim of the next government to cancel it. Which they did. The only properly political strategy available within the Blairite model of politics was to keep winning elections forever, an unrealistic and ultimately dangerous approach. 

In the context of housing, a socialist programme needs to do two things. The first is backwards looking: protect existing assets through communal, localised ownership models like Community Land Trusts, while taking advantage of current opinion to build more homes and ensure that they are also protected. There’s little point in building homes only for them to be later privatised in another wave of appropriation. But, we also need to build a constituency with an interest in forward-looking programmes. Revolutionary reforms are those that create the space for further reforms, that create an energy and momentum. As populations continue to rise, and the need for specialised housing for an aging population grows, we need to imagine socialist housing policies that will be self-propelling. Building homes for local people is generally popular and, although it can freeze out new arrivals, could be a useful impulse if it was institutionalised in some form (renters unions or community unions are some possible models). But, we should also think about tying housing and town planning to a broader attempt to reinvigorate Britain’s small towns and rebalance the national economy. We should be looking at Italy, where there have been various programmes to repopulate deserted towns, renovate old homes and build dynamic local economies, sometimes by welcoming new migrants.

None of these are the solution, but hopefully they point towards the kind of analysis that we need to formulate that solution. Without that, we’ll end up boxed into a corner, creating opposing interest groups, reactionary tendencies and a self-defeating politics.

And we still won’t have enough homes.

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