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Left Economics from Below? Defending the Programme after Corbyn

by Mary Robertson / August 25, 2020

Image: Sticker promoting a citizen’s budget campaign in Łódź, Sept 2016. Via Wikimedia.

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Only a participatory socialist approach can make good on the potential of the Corbyn-McDonnell economic programme. 11006 words / 43 min read

Introduction

Many have been surprised by how rapidly Keir Starmer has retreated from his commitment to “retain” and “build on” the economic programme developed under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. 1 But even less anticipated, is how much Starmer’s retreat has highlighted a lack of coherence or unity in what the Labour left is demanding: something evident in responses to the Covid crisis. While there has been widespread reactive agreement on calls for lockdown to be continued in schools until better safety measures are in place, for rents to be suspended for tenants who need it and for the NHS surcharge to be dropped for all migrants, when it comes to voicing a positive alternative the left has been disparate and, as a result, weakened. For example, while some, including Rebecca Long-Bailey as part of her leadership campaign, have coalesced around universal basic income, others, including John McDonnell, have favoured a minimum income guarantee. While some argue austerity is no longer where the fight is at, others caution against such complacency.

It is commonplace to observe that Corbynism was underpinned by a broad coalition of liberals, the soft left, and socialists of many colours. For as long as Jeremy was leader it was largely possible to paper over disagreements about priorities by giving everyone what they wanted. This is no longer the case. For the left to continue to have influence by defending and building on the programme developed under Corbyn and McDonnell, both inside and outside the Party, it will require more coherence than has hitherto been necessary. That will mean making difficult decisions about priorities and how we adapt them in response to changing circumstances (most notably, but not limited to, Covid-19).

There is, of course, some agreement. The Economist’s 2018 characterisation that Labour’s radicalism is not in its fiscal or monetary policy, which remain fairly conventional, but in its proposed structural reforms was widely accepted both inside and outside the project at the time, and has stuck insofar as attempts to recalibrate and reposition the Corbyn-McDonnell economic programme in response to the change in leadership have tended to foreground its structural components. Indeed, the common thread of post-election left interventions on the programme is their emphasis on the ‘bottom up’ elements of the programme. Such interventions see decentralised ownership and economic democracy as both the most important components of the Corbyn-McDonnell programme and those with widest appeal. They therefore argue for a re-emphasis on these aspects as a strategy for building support for a reconfigured version of the programme across the new front bench.

By deploying the language of ‘bottom up’ and ‘from below,’ these interventions frame widening ownership and economic democracy as the economic policy counterpart to the kind of radical, grassroots activism that Tom Blackburn dubbed “Corbynism from below” and convincingly argued would be essential for Corbynism to have any enduring success. Just as, for Blackburn, radical community organising was both a solution to “profound sentiments of isolation, frustration, alienation and political powerlessness so widespread in so many British towns and cities” and a strategy to overcome opposition from a hostile establishment inside and outside the Party, so alternative ownership and economic democracy are seen as a remedy for economic alienation and disempowerment that also confronts the power of big capital and the rentier class.

However, despite shared terminology and high-level agreement on some of the fundamental economic wrongs in need of redress – alienation, disempowerment, the concentration of ownership and wealth in an extractive economy – the substance of such contributions can be highly divergent. Further, their divergence mirrors and reproduces a more fundamental tension within the Corbyn-McDonnell economic programme, namely, that between policies that on the one hand favoured commodified and on the other decommodifed forms of ownership: approaches that can be thought of as forms of market socialism and participatory socialism respectively. While an uneasy coexistence was maintained between these two approaches while Jeremy was leader, their economic implications are quite different. Whereas market socialism appropriates the language of “Corbynism from below” to offer an interpretation of the Corbyn-McDonnell programme that neuters its transformative potential, participatory socialism not only provides a more compelling interpretation of the programme as a challenge to neoliberalism but, by integrating its economic policies with radical democratisation as a political agenda, helps to identify important gaps and start to fill them.

Before examining these post-Corbyn interpretations of the Corbynite economic programme, it is worth recapping the substance of that programme and what it meant against the backdrop of the neoliberalism in Britain. In doing so I draw on my experiences as Labour’s Head of Economic Policy between March 2017 and January 2020, supervising the policy development in those briefs and drafting the economics sections of both General Election manifestos, as well as on retrospective reflection. As such it does not cover areas outside my former remit, such as Brexit, immigration or justice policies.

The neoliberal backdrop

The development of neoliberalism in Britain can be broken down into two phases, which roughly correspond to the Thatcher and Blair eras respectively. In the first “roll back” stage, institutional counter-weights to the power of capital were rolled back through attacks on organised labour, planning agencies, and bureaucracies by way of funding cuts, downsizing, deregulation and privatization. The goal was the destruction of the post-war settlement and the institutions that underpinned it to make way for the unbridled expansion of finance capital.

Roll out neoliberalism facilitated financialisation, understood not simply as the expansion of financial or credit relations in general but as the expansion of the role of finance as (interest-bearing) capital.2 As financialisation, thus understood, extends its reach,

so grows the influence of finance over the control of resource allocation – including the flows of money, credit and foreign exchange and, correspondingly, the level and composition of output, employment, investment and trade, and the financing of the state.

Financialisation is disastrous for the wider economy because financial sector control of resource allocation “allows it to drain capital from production” and encourage short-term decision-making “not only through purely speculative activities but also through securitisable long-term investment, with pursuit of immediate profitability at the expense of productivity growth.” It also has strong negative implications for distribution – “neoliberalism systematically, if unevenly, favours large capital at the expense of small capital and the workers” – and economic stability: “accumulation in neoliberal economies tends to take the form of bubbles which eventually collapse with destructive implications.”

In the UK, Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ reforms of the financial sector, coupled with an enthusiastic attitude to offshoring, sowed the seeds for a sharp rebalancing of Britain’s economy: from industry to finance and real estate; and from the working class and small capital to big, and particularly finance, capital. She forced through privatisations by flogging valuable industries at well below market prices and making key utilities important terrains for expansion of finance capital. Through a succession of anti-trade union legislation – prohibiting secondary and political picketing and imposing cumbersome bureaucratic constraints – alongside political confrontation, most notably through the miners’ strike, Thatcher severely reduced unions’ political power.

In the second “roll out” phase, the agenda “gradually moved from one preoccupied with the active destruction and discreditation of Keynesian-welfarist and social-collectivist institutions (broadly defined) to one focused on the purposeful construction and consolidation of neoliberalized state forms, modes of governance, and regulatory relations.” In this phase, ongoing support for privatisation and the finance sector at the expense of the real economy were coupled with new discourses of ‘welfare reform’, choice and competition intended to entrench a neoliberal logic in public services. These reforms often came with the promise of increased investment, thereby seeking to mitigate some of the social and political fall out created by the “roll back” phase as a way of cementing neoliberalism’s political consolidation.

Under New Labour, increased spending on public services brought with it reforms that would radically expand the role of the private sector in public service provision. The Private Finance Initiative, Public Private Partnerships, the academisation of schools, NHS foundation hospitals and outsourcing all served to: facilitate the channelling of public money into private profit, take essential services outside of democratic accountability and weaken the workforce. The selective empowerment of the charity and voluntary sector as (flexible, low-cost, non-state) service providers often served as the acceptable face of this wave of privatisation. Those parts of the public sector that were shielded from privatisation were subjected to new forms of technocratic governance that sought to emulate market behaviour, such as performance related pay, tuition fees, hospital waiting lists, or school league tables, across the public sector, centrally-set targets and league tables.3

The roll out of neoliberal modes of governance across public services helped to instil neoliberal subjectivities. By redefining the relationship between the economy, the state, society and individuals, neoliberalism:

has constrained the latter to give their lives an entrepreneurial form, subordinated social intercourse to economic criteria, and neutered the previous structures and institutions of political representation. The ideology of self-responsibility has been especially significant since it deprives the citizens of their collective capacities, agency and culture, values consumption above all else, places the merit of success and the burden of failure on isolated individuals.

In this way the New Labour era helped to reconstitute individual subjectivities in the image of the ideal neoliberal agent, albeit not without resistance and reflexivity.

In the wider economy, New Labour fully embraced the dominance and growing exuberance of the financial sector, and this meant accepting the structural and geographical imbalances that came with it. But it softened the edges by doing a degree of redistribution through public spending and subsidising low wage work with tax credits, albeit on the aforementioned conditions that this money was spent in a way that consolidated neoliberal forms of governance and channelled into private profit, and to a degree constrained by a commitment to freeze income tax.

While neoliberal reforms are invariably presented as ‘liberalisation’ and ‘deregulation’ they are far better understood as ‘reregulation.’ New forms of financial activity, such as securitisation and trading of derivatives, could only emerge and expand in the context of new institutional and regulatory frameworks created by the state. The privatisation of utilities relied on the state to establish regulatory frameworks and agencies that sought to artificially create the conditions of a competitive market – not to mention the subsidies, debt write-offs and other sweeteners used by successive governments to attract investment to newly privatised industries and ongoing regular interventions to sustain the privatised business model (most notably in rail where government support is provided on a seemingly daily basis). The weakening of trade unions required active confrontation both through legislative change and repressive, political attack (most notably through the miners’ strike). Thus while, neoliberalism purport to be about ‘small government’, in actuality, the state has consistently been deployed to extend and reproduce neoliberalism.

The state played a similarly active and essential role in the “roll out” stage of neoliberalism by creating new opportunities for private capital in the provision of public services and restructuring said services in line with neoliberal principles of individualism, choice and competition. As in the “roll back” stage, the image of the state retreating from the economic arena to make way for the more efficient market provided an ideological justification that served to conceal that “state intervention has been transformed rather than simply ‘reduced’ under neoliberalism,” and in ways that created and shaped economic reproduction in the interests of finance capital.

This understanding of the Blair Government as spearheading “roll out” neoliberalism can integrate both sides in an often polarised debate over how the Labour Party should relate to the legacy of that Government. It centres, rather than overlooks, the achievements of New Labour in the form of increased spending on public services and a renewed commitment to redistribution after the brutality of the Thatcher years. However, it also situates these achievements in the context of the wider role they played in entrenching neoliberal institutions: bolstering the power of finance capital and strengthening financialisation; perpetuating dysfunctional forms of accumulation; commodifying public services; and hollowing out collective and democratic institutions.

All these patterns not only persisted but were consolidated and advanced under Blair. The Third Way was a powerful settlement in the boom years of the early 2000s, but it fell apart when the 2008 Financial Crisis dramatically reduced the size of the pie for that increased spending and redistribution. In the context of global devaluation, neoliberal consolidation could no longer rely on financial largesse and, given the weakened condition of institutions for resistance, nor did it need to. Hence the Coalition Government doubled down on public sector reforms while removing the sweetener of increased public spending, as preserving financial resilience became number one priority for finance capital in the wake of the Crisis.

Labour’s economic programme as a challenge to neoliberalism

In this context, the significance of the Corbyn-McDonnell economic programme is that it sought to transform the Labour Party from agent to enemy of neoliberalism, albeit with the realisation of this task carried out haphazardly at times. The initial focus was on austerity where, following an early commitment to Osbourne’s spending plans, Labour adopted a Fiscal Credibility Rule (FCR) that, while accepting both debt reduction and balancing the books on current spending as constraints, allowed a significant increase in public investment and significantly more day-to-day spending providing it was matched by tax increases. In the GE2017 the Party committed to £250 billion direct public investment through a National Transformation Fund coupled with £48.6 billion additional day-to-day spending.

The switch to outright, principled opposition to austerity came so easily to Corbyn and McDonnell that it is often taken for granted. But these pledges, coming, as they did, after five years and two election defeats in which austerity was the central political issue and which Labour had shied away from opposing, should not be underestimated. Nor should the extent to which the Overton window on spending has shifted since 2015.

The FCR set Labour’s fiscal policy from Autumn 2015 until the 2019 General Election when the debt reduction target was replaced with a whole balance sheet approach that committed Labour to improving public sector net worth over the course of the parliament. The commitment not to borrow for day-to-day spend was maintained, but the total value of day-to-day spending commitments – and corresponding revenue raisers – increased to £82.9 billion and the National Transformation Fund to £400 billion. While the scale of public spending commitments attracted more attention, the switch to a whole balance sheet approach was a more significant break with ‘conventional’ fiscal policy. Most notably, including public assets in the national accounts alongside liabilities would help to legitimise the state as an economic actor and remove arbitrary constraints on state spending. .

The Party remained more conventional on monetary policy. Some innovative thinking was done, for example, in the Turner Report. But Labour committed to maintain the independence of the Bank of England and ruled out both capital controls and monetary financing of public spending.

The most distinctive and radical components of Labour’s policy programme were its commitments on structural change. Labour’s commitment to an interventionist industrial strategy and significantly expanding and redistributing direct state investment in infrastructure and industry was a challenge to the asset-based, speculative capitalism that had developed in Britain since the 1980s. It also sought to address the social fall out of the “trickle down/redistribute” economic model that was prefaced on the idea that a deregulated finance sector in London could sustain the whole economy and was used to justify the managed decline of post-industrial areas.

Acknowledging the harmful consequences of finance-driven growth for economic justice and stability represented a challenge to the form taken by neoliberalism in Britain and a notable break from the approach taken by the most powerful left figure in the Labour Party before Corbyn, Ken Livingstone who, as Mayor of London 2000-8, ‘showed a strong commitment to combating inequality’ even while ‘the main economic axiom that underlies it all is to support the continuation of the existing growth in financial and business services.’4 However, there is nothing inherently socialist or transformative about an interventionist industrial strategy, which in itself would simply bolster industrial capital at the expense of finance capital. What made the Corbyn-McDonnell economic programme more than that was, first, by 2019, their industrial strategy had concretised into a commitment to kickstart a Green Industrial Revolution through a major expansion of state planning and ownership in industry, thereby subordinating the operation of the market to social objectives (in this case tackling climate change and starting to address the huge regional economic inequalities structured by neoliberalism).

Second, the emphasis placed on redistributing economic power through widening ownership and extending economic democracy. Widening ownership sought to challenge the speculative wealth extraction characteristic of neoliberalism by reattaching ownership of capital to its use, and thereby disrupting the conversion of private capital into tradeable financial assets on which such speculative wealth extraction is based. More fundamentally, alternative forms of ownership sought to end the alienation of the worker from the product and process of their labour on which all capitalist social relations are based.

Extending economic democracy challenged neoliberalism’s hollowing out of democracy through increasing reliance on technocratic governance and, at a deeper level, contained within it the potential for the allocation of society’s collective resources to be governed by society as a whole rather than by anonymous market forces.

The Alternative Models of Ownership Report, initially conceived as a tentative nudge towards an agenda that went beyond opposing austerity, wholeheartedly made the case for ownership reforms in a way that Miliband’s “predistribution” failed to, not least by asserting the importance of ownership to economic questions beyond distributional ones. However, it was ecumenical on specifics, spanning public ownership, coops, community wealth building, and, as a result, embodied the tension between market-based and participatory socialism that ran through the heart of the Corbyn-McDonnell economic programme.

To understand this tension, it is helpful to divide the alternative models of ownership report and subsequent work into ‘commodified’ and ‘decommodified’ forms. The first, which included Inclusive Ownership Funds, doubling the size of the cooperative sector and community wealth building in some aspects (namely, those focused on using public procurement to support local small businesses and coops), amounted to “within market” transfers of ownership. These would create more diffuse ownership structures and redistribute power towards workers without directly challenging production for profit and/or market exchange.

Decommodified forms of ownership reform view collective ownership as a means of removing key areas of social and economic reproduction from the system of production for profit and market allocation. In 2017, public ownership of water, transport, energy and Royal Mail was presented as both a way to protect both worker and service users from financial extraction and give them more democratic control over their economic lives. This strand of the programme became more developed after the 2017 General Election as Corbyn and McDonnell became more willing to directly challenge the Blairite “roll out” settlement, leading to new policy to take back PFI contracts, make insourcing the default for public service delivery, end the academy and free school system and, crucially, a report on Universal Basic Services that systematically made the case for decommodifying consumption by expanding universal public services.

While not inherently incompatible, these two approaches to alternative ownership models embody different attitudes towards the state (commodified approaches seek to bypass the state while decommodified approaches see the state as one channel through which alternative models of ownership can be pursued), different theories of change (with commodified approaches more inclined towards gradual, incremental change) and different conceptualisations of the relationship between ownership and democracy (see next paragraph), which creates tensions between them, as we shall see below. They also differ in scope and potential, with commodified alternative ownership forms focused on reforms at the level of the firm and thereby severely limited in their ability to address the severe inequalities that neoliberalism creates between sectors and regions compared to commodified alternative ownership forms, which are national in scope.

To see how this contour is relevant to Labour’s various proposals on economic democracy, it is crucial to understand that economic democracy is related to but not synonymous with ownership. Worker share ownership and mutualisation, for example, will widen ownership without meaningfully increasing democracy, while things like sectoral collective bargaining or participatory budgeting will increase economic democracy without challenging ownership. The commodified/decommodified distinction is also relevant here insofar as democratisation within commodified structures, for example, in the form of worker coops or putting workers on boards, limits the extension of democratic control to the particular firm which continues to operate within a market logic. Democratisation within decommodified structures, by contrast, is coterminous with the population as a whole.

By end of 2017 campaign, we were internally talking about the programme as “not just more radical forms of redistribution – though that is needed - but the restructuring of production and the democratisation of ownership and control.” From 2017 on, the programme developed in both depth (with detailed delivery plans developed for major policy areas, particularly, as with public ownership, the National Investment Bank, and industrial interventions, where they went against the grain of prevalent policy thinking)5 and breadth (with eye-catching new policies) but the fundamental approach did not change.

Corbynism from below as challenge to neoliberal economic orthodoxy

The tension between commodified and decommodified approaches to ownership and democracy therefore emerged fairly early on in the programme and did not go away. This tension is resurfacing in debates about how the left should adapt its programme to the new leadership. As noted above, calls to reinterpret the Corbyn-McDonnell economic programme to give pre-eminence to its “bottom up” components have gained traction in the post-election defeat wash up. However, despite similarities in terminology and in the emphasis they place on ownership and democracy, there is an important divide between those which favour commodified forms of ownership and democracy and end up advocating a form of market socialism and those which favour decommodified forms of ownership and democracy and make the case for participatory socialism. In the remaining sections I evaluate each strand by examining some recent articles from each.

Socialism and the Market

The commodified interpretation of Corbynism’s economic programme as “socialism from below” predominantly focuses on the private sector, in particular, firms. For example, James Meadway argues for worker ownership of business as a way of changing the locus of decision-making in firms to achieve more desirable outcomes: “The evidence is clear that companies with even relatively limited worker ownership schemes behave differently, and generally focus more towards social and longer-term goals.” Christine Berry6 argues that Labour’s approach to democratising the private sector ‘can be summed up in three flagship policies,’ namely, the IOF, the Cooperative Development Agency to double the size of the cooperative sector and Community Wealth Building. In doing so she is emphasising firm-level reform over other policies that would’ve played a crucial role in democratising the private sector but do not sit at the level of the firm, including strengthening trade unions and rolling out sectoral collective bargaining; and an interventionist industrial strategy to deliver a Green Industrial Revolution.

Pursuing radical change through reforms introduced at the level of businesses rather than the state is firmly in the tradition of market socialism. Market socialists seek to socialise ownership of capital while retaining the market mechanism, with the socialisation of capital therefore occurring at the level of the firm rather than on any wider social base in order to be compatible with market exchange. Relatively little emphasis is placed on wider structural changes as the incentive and reward structures of the market are accepted and changes at the level of the firm used to improve social outcomes.

Though a suspicion of or hostility to state intervention is not necessarily inherent to market socialism, they often run together – as they do here - with part of the appeal of market socialism being ‘the added bonus of sidestepping the messy complexities involved with confronting the state.’ This begs the question of what is the theory of change that endows this market socialism with transformative power. This isn’t to question whether firms with a degree of worker ownership behave better – they do. Its rather to ask how an expansion of worker ownership is to be achieved on a scale that is transformative, given that this would require a significant – and successful – challenge to the power of capital.

The irony here is that recent interventions in this tradition are highly, if implicitly, reliant on top down state intervention. For example, delivering Labour’s commitment to double the size of the cooperative sector – itself extremely modest from the point of view of systemic change – was understood to depend on state support delivered through a Cooperative Development Agency. Similarly, the IOF – which Meadway sees as a key “decentralising element” – was entirely reliant on utilising the power of the state to compel capital to introduce worker ownership.7 Indeed, behind the scenes it was this element of compulsion that was most objectionable to business organisations, who lobbied strongly to make the policy optional. This was resisted by the Party on the grounds that, without this element of compulsion, the policy would not achieve its objective of widening ownership. The IOF was a fundamentally and necessarily ‘top down’ policy.

Market socialism’s surprising reliance on the state is reinforced by Meadway’s explicit statement that he doesn’t think trade unions can be relied on to rebalance power in the workplace, saying both that rebuilding trade unions “will be a long struggle” (the implication being that expanding worker ownership can be achieved in a way that is quicker and easier than via trade unions) and that “union membership and recognition alone does not guarantee the sorts of shifts in economic decision-making we want to see.” Trade unions are thereby side-lined, and replaced with state diktat rather than some other form of worker self-organisation or spontaneous grassroots initiatives.

The conflation of commodified ownership forms with decentralised/democratic political forms seems to stem from a reproduction of the market-state dualism found in neoliberal ideology.

The conflation of commodified ownership forms with decentralised/democratic political forms seems to stem from a reproduction of the market-state dualism found in neoliberal ideology. The characterisation of markets and the state as separable and distinct, and of the relationship between them in terms of a pendulum swinging back and forth, underpins the neoliberal dogma that “state=bad/market=good.” It also tends to reduce state intervention to direct redistribution – i.e. tax and spend - and cover over the diverse ways in which the state shapes markets and accumulation. A dismissive attitude towards the state’s redistributive role is seen, for example, in Meadway’s hostility to the IOF’s dividend cap on the grounds that is “centralising and state centric”8 and in the way Berry marginalises the importance of expanding public services, saying “the era of austerity, when the left/right debate was about whether the government should spend money or not” is ‘dangerously outdated’ and that “this is not really where the action is (albeit higher levels of state spending are essential).”

To side-line state spending in this way is overly complacent with regard to austerity as a defensive battle and far too dismissive of decommodification as an offensive battle. While the March 2020 budget’s relative fiscal loosening was welcomed by some as having shown that Labour had won the argument, it left the NHS – the public service by far the most protected from austerity – with barely enough to stand still and other public services at different degrees of desperate. There is zero indication that the government will cover the additional costs of Covid in anything but the very short-term, and some of the mood music points to a doubling down on austerity.

Furthermore, seeing the state mainly as an agent of redistribution overlooks the way in which neoliberal reregulation has left no part of the public sector protected from the expanding, if often insidious, role of private companies. Spending more on public services under these circumstances is like pouring money into a leaky bucket. Privatisation – whether internal, external, hidden, or flagrant – has also been a driver of other systemic changes, including casualisation, competition, fragmentation, and stratified service delivery, all of which severely impede the resilience and quality of public service delivery, as the Covid-19 crisis has starkly demonstrated. Rebuilding high quality, inclusive public services underpinned by a public service ethos will require extensive restructuring and reform. Far from being “not really where the action is” this must be one of, if not the, overriding priorities of a left programme.

In short, the neoliberal obsession with the size of the state distracts from the multiple and crucial ways in which the state has created, constituted and sustained neoliberal social forms. Instead of asking what size the state should be, we should be asking what the state is like – the answer to which is not some intrinsic feature but rather a reflection of the how the state is structured, contested and situated in a particular epoch. As Fine and Saad-Filho put it:

the roles of ‘the state’ and ‘the market’ (unduly undifferentiated) cannot be usefully identified through their simplistic opposition. Instead, the relevant patterns of accumulation, restructuring and social and economic reproduction can be understood only through relatively concrete and historically specific analyses. These must include the interaction, contestation and co-operation among specific institutions within, across and beyond that putative [state-market] divide. Those processes are themselves heavily influenced by, but not reducible to, the underlying economic, political and ideological (class) interests that act upon and through such institutions.

Market socialism from below?

By failing to carry out these kinds of ‘concrete and specific analyses’ in order to develop an understanding of the reconfiguration of state structures, market socialism is left with no plausible account of how the policies that it advocates will achieve transformative change.

A market socialist approach would favour community-owned energy over nationalisation. But to rely on the spontaneous creation and expansion of community ownership from below is implausible given the financialised structures that have been built on private monopolies of utilities and the concomitant weakness of the regulator, as a result of which:

[community-owned companies struggle to compete with, and meaningfully ‘disrupt’, the Big Six companies. The troubles of Nottingham Council-owned Robin Hood Energy reveal the pitfalls of establishing individual municipal companies without altering the privatised system within which they operate.]

It was because we understood both the ongoing role of the state in enabling profiteering from utilities and the barriers thereby created to establishing alternative forms of provision, that Corbyn’s Labour viewed nationalisation as a pre-condition rather than an alternative to community-owned and run utilities. An adherence to an artificial and ideological state-market dichotomy leaves one unable to address this.

Another revealing example is given by community wealth building. It is no accident that the Preston Model was inspired by community wealth building strategies in the USA, where there is a case to be made that federalist and decentralised political structures give community wealth building genuinely transformative potential regardless of the national political context. In the highly centralised UK, however, the successes of the Preston Model so far have de facto consisted in it being a survival strategy against austerity. For community wealth building to be more than this – for it to interrupt the circulation of capital and democratise the economy in a systematic rather than a piecemeal way, which it certainly has the potential to do – will require a new settlement between central and local government.

The point is stronger than that devolution in the context of austerity just means passing on cuts to councils – though that is important. It is that there is no simplistic opposition between central and local government any more than there is between state and market. Local authorities, like markets, are constituted and dependent on the state. In Britain, at the hands of successive governments over the last forty years, this relationship has played out through recurrent measures to “reduce the discretion of local authorities as much as possible,”9 including a three way squeeze on their spending power through controls on central government funding, statutory obligations and limits on authorities own tax-raising powers as well as hollowing out local authorities’ capacities through coercive “incentives” to outsource and privatise. The potential for community wealth building to drive change “from below” is therefore currently impeded thanks to decades of neoliberal reforms imposed by central government. Starting from neoliberal Britain, there is no systematic path to a genuine municipal renaissance that can bypass state power.

Starting from neoliberal Britain, there is no systematic path to a genuine municipal renaissance that can bypass state power
.

A final example concerns those who appeal to the Meidner Plan to argue that the IOF has the potential to be more than a profit sharing scheme by gradually socialising the ownership of capital over time. The original Meidner Plan was proposed in Sweden in the context of “an exceptionally strong social-democratic movement and a global economic order that afforded national governments significant flexibility in setting policy” which included capital controls and considerable trade union coverage and power and still failed to deliver its goal of disinheriting capital in slow motion. By contrast, Labour’s version of the policy did not address the wider configuration of state and other institutions, nor the relationships and balance of power between them, that would be needed for the IOF to be a plausible driver of systemic change. Without this kind of concrete, contextual theorisation of the policy, appeal to the Meidner Plan as evidence of the transformative potential is merely a shibboleth.10

In summary an understanding of the state primarily in terms of centralised tax and spend redistribution, tends towards an understanding of ‘decentralisation’ in terms of the market. Yet this, obscures the fact that markets are always constituted through state action, and, as such, a convincing theory of radical change will also need a convincing understanding of the state’s role therein.

This is neatly captured by Meadway’s mistaken understanding that, in heeding McDonnell’s call to be ‘in and against the state’ “fundamentally, you would end up doing more of one or the other.” Being in and being against are not in zero sum opposition to each other, they are integrally related. State power cannot be bypassed in achieving transformative economic change; the challenge for socialists is to capture it without being captured by it. In economic terms, this means, for example, making sure that nationalisation is a precursor to decentralisation and democratisation, that national funding enables and supports meaningful devolution, that collective organisations, such as trade unions, are strengthened at the expense of the state.

Beyond the firm

Lacking a consistent theory of its own implementation isn’t the only problem with the market socialist interpretation of Corbynite economic programme. A deeper one is that, even if such a programme were implemented, it would only “reshape the balance of interests around how production and work is organised” at the level of the firm and therefore leave the wider system of commodified production and exchange untouched. At a societal level what goods are produced and how they are distributed continue to be determined by the imperative of profitability and market exchange mediated by income. This presents three major problems for a transformative left programme.

First, there are inherent constraints on how much companies can “focus more towards social and longer-term goals than those without” because individual firms continue to be governed by solvency and vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. The case for employee-ownership and worker-owned coops is often made in terms of the benefits it can bring to company performance. But framing the argument in this way reduces social objectives to a by-product of company performance and obscures the fact that social objectives will be secondary should the two come into tension. This is necessarily the case because the survival of any private company depends on its solvency, regardless of its ownership structure.

Take pay, for example. If worker-owners choose to pay themselves more than can be justified by their company’s performance, their company will become uncompetitive and eventually go out of business. The need to remain profitable and the ultimate threat of unemployment thereby exercises downward constraint on wages in worker-owned companies in the same way it does for other companies. Worker-owned coops may be slightly better equipped to manage that pressure, but it is again a difference of degree rather than kind. To coin a phrase, worker-owners may set their own wages but they do so in circumstances not of their own choosing. The same is true for other potential benefits from worker ownership – the extent to which worker-owned coops are more likely to retain employees in a recession is limited by the risk they face of going out of business.

The second problem with failing to challenge the commodified system of production and exchange is that one ends up neglecting those whose needs are left unmet by that system. Firm level reforms, by their nature, only benefit workers employed in affected companies. Insofar as worker-owned cooperatives bring benefits such as higher pay, greater job security and more agency over working lives, the benefits only extend to those lucky enough to be employed in such a cooperative. The same goes for other forms of profit-sharing, cooperative and shared ownership schemes – none of them do anything for those who work for employers that aren’t affected, are unemployed or unable to work at all. Even for those workers who do benefit, the benefits will be highly stratified, reproducing uneven distributions of profitability and dividends payments across different companies, sectors and regions. The latter two are particularly important given the severe sectoral and regional imbalances created by neoliberalism. Indeed, it was the severity of these kinds of stratification that was the original motivation for the IOF dividends cap.

Of course, doing firm level reform does not preclude doing state level redistribution as well, but to the extent that such redistribution needs to be funded from profits that would otherwise be redistributed to workers at the level of the firm (whether through corporation tax, dividends or income tax) the two rub against each other in practice. For example, Meadway’s hostility to the state using the dividends from the IOF over the £500 cap to fund climate apprenticeships is based on concern that it would impede the ability of the policy to redistribute dividends away from corporate shareholders to company employees.

If firm-based reforms do nothing for those who are most in need, the market socialist reading of Labour’s economic programme offers little of substance to the unemployed, low paid, disabled, carers, long-term ill and others – people’s whose needs should be paramount in any left programme. Such people “ha(ve) to rely on the noncapitalist institutions that exist in capitalist societies: the family or the welfare system … [or] … try and cope with their needs being unsatisfied,” which makes the nature of these institutions fundamental to understanding – and dealing with – manifestations of poverty, discrimination and other inequities. Market socialism’s neglect of non-market institutions in favour of firm-level reforms leads it to ignore these questions and thereby overlook some of neoliberalism’s most acute injustices.

The fundamental cause of these injustices lies in the commodification of labour power. When labour is treated as a commodity, access to the means of subsistence are dependent on a person’s ability to sell one’s labour. Those who can’t are treated as valueless - as a surplus population, entitled to nothing more than survival. Any firm-level approach is ill-equipped to address the needs of this surplus population because it takes commodification as a given.11

It is not just in relation to the surplus portion of the population that commodification distorts value. The crisis created by Covid-19 is highlighting the disjunction between the social value of essential work and how it is valued economically. The commodification of nature means valuing it in monetary terms rather than in terms of what it means to us as a species, and has resulted in overexploitation of natural resources and widespread environmental devastation. Unhealthy and alienating needs are manufactured by companies compelled to relentlessly pursue market advantage. Whole industries have been built around the art of creating needs and selling us their solution, regardless of the waste created or the way it irrationally allocates resources.

If the second problem with failing to challenge the commodified system of production and exchange was that it overlooks those whose needs are left unmet by that system, the third is that it is unable to address the way in which commodification creates and satisfies wants in ways that distort values and alienate us from our real needs.

These questions get to the core of capitalist injustice and raise fundamental questions about what is needed for a good life, or, indeed, what a good life looks like. They are fundamental to any left programme, but they cannot be answered without looking beyond firm-level reforms to confront the system of commodified production and exchange. This is because the creation of artificial need for an endless supply of new products through aggressive advertising and planned obsolescence – irrespective of its damaging consequences for our mental and physical health and for the environment - is the inevitable result of competition between private companies.

Worker-ownership alone cannot break this damaging cycle because individual worker-owned firms continue to be governed by solvency, forced to maintain a competitive edge in the market just to survive, and the perversion of human need is the result of this competition at a collective level.

In summary, the market socialist brand of socialism from below – which foregrounds the commodified forms of alternative ownership in Corbynism’s economic programme - is neither ‘socialist’ nor ‘from below.’ Its claim to the latter is based on the idea that the market is the antithesis of a centralising state, as a result of which it either relies on the state to be the agent of change in place of a self-organised movement or lacks a theory of change entirely. Its claim to be socialist derives from its support for worker-ownership, which is elaborated only in terms of firm-level reforms and therefore fails to challenge commodified production and exchange and the alienation, inequality, and economic and social volatilities that go with it.

Participatory socialism

The alternative approach to interpreting Labour’s economic programme as socialism from below, which I call participatory socialism, differs from market socialism in two crucial respects, namely, the emphasis it places on decommodified forms of ownership and its approach to the state.

First, it retains Labour’s commitments to decommodified alternative forms of ownership, recognising the structural limitations production for market exchange imposes on attempts to subordinate profit to social objectives in allocating society’s resources. Thus firm-level reform to democratise the private sector is rightly understood as a component of a wider programme, which also includes policies to “restrict the reach of the market economy by expanding our ability to meet our needs outside it” and state-led nationalisation is seen not in opposition to community control but as a precondition to it, without which local control would be piecemeal, fragmented and inequitable if it occurs at all. For example, Berry emphasises that Labour’s policies on public ownership sought “a pluralist ecosystem of democratic ownership, with assets owned by different publics at different scales. This includes public, community, co-operative and commons ownership models, at national, municipal and local community level” and explains that larger scales are needed “where the big players are so entrenched that they cannot feasibly be displaced by bottom-up competition on any reasonable timeframe.”

Second, participatory socialism doesn’t shy away from the necessity of using the state to challenge the power of capital and implement radical policies. But it reconciles this reliance on the state with its commitment to extending economic democracy by centring the democratisation of the state and the movement as well. Hence, the democratisation “agenda is not at odds with reclaiming a strong role for the state … rather this is about transforming the state itself so that this power can be wielded in a more genuinely progressive and democratic way”.12 This approach to the state is in line with Blackburn’s reminder) that change from below should not be counterposed to top down change but understood as in symbiotic relation to it:

For any ‘Corbynism from below’ to take hold and develop into a permanent feature of Labour Party life, the careful and patient encouragement of a corresponding ‘Corbynism from above’ is a necessary complement to it. But by the same token, a ‘Corbynism from above’ without an active and assertive ‘Corbynism from below’ is likely to degenerate into manipulative manoeuvring, technocracy, stage management and, in all likelihood, eventual indifference, decline and dissipation.

Applying the imperative of Corbynism from below means making sure that the economic programme is coupled with radical commitments to economic and political democratisation.

This insight is key. Applying the imperative of Corbynism from below to the economic programme doesn’t mean doing away with elements of the programme in an attempt to bypass the state entirely (which, as we have seen, is impossible). It means making sure that the economic programme is coupled with radical commitments to economic and political democratisation. This is what participatory socialism does and, in doing so, not only offers an interpretation of Corbynism’s economic programme that retains its transformative potential, but also advances that programme in important areas.

Why we need participatory socialism

Whereas market socialism simply wishes the state away and ends up doomed to failure because “the state stands at the center of property relations and capitalist power,” participatory socialism confronts the left’s ambivalent relationship with the state head on. It understands that the state cannot be bypassed in achieving transformative economic change and that the challenge for socialists is to exercise state power without being captured by it – to be in and against the state. And, with its emphasis on democratisation of politics as well as the economy and on democratisation as a means as well as an end, offers vital insights into what is needed to rise to this challenge.

There are two ways in which the state had an essential role to play in delivering Labour’s transformative programme. One concerns the technical aspects of policy. We need the state to challenge the entrenched power of big capital and expand the scope of democratic decision-making in the economy in a way the bottom up competition can’t, for example, by imposing policies such as the IOF and nationalisation. State-level coordination is also essential to coordinate economic activity to address social objectives such as climate change and to achieve the redistribution of resources that is an essential pre-condition of democratic participation for all. As Berry, whose work, despite being cited above to illustrate the market socialism approach, more often contains some of the most thoughtful and developed understanding of the economics of participatory socialism puts it:

We need its ability to coordinate at scale – essential for infrastructure networks like energy and water, and critical for rapid action to decarbonise the economy. We need its ability to secure universal access to basic goods and services on equitable terms, which a patchwork of community solutions cannot do. And we need its ability to manage decentralisation in a way that reduces, rather than exacerbating, regional inequalities.

The other main role for the state stems from the way in which it has been transformed under neoliberalism. Just as neoliberalism has been strengthened through state power so state power is needed to challenge it. Neoliberalism has seen the rise of technocratic governance and the hollowing out of collective and democratic institutions. Thus the state is needed not just to implement radical policies but to dismantle neoliberal practices and institutions in ways that forge solidarity and expand the scope of democracy.

One aspect of this, namely, using state power to create and strengthen collective institutions outside of the state can be found in the programme in the form of legislative and economic reforms that help to strengthen trade unions, rehabilitate local government and other devolved administrations, remove constraints on social movements and establish decentralised public ownership of utilities. However, another aspect, namely, constitutional reform to change the ideological character of the state and redistribute power within it, was neglected in both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos (which in my view explains why it became the meatiest policy area discussed in the leadership election).

But even if we had given more attention to constitutional reform, being ‘in and against the state’ requires more. The insight provided by participatory socialism is that state power cannot be wielded against neoliberalism simply by taking control of the machine. However well-developed and well-intentioned its policy programme, a radical government will face major political barriers to implementing it, including but not limited to: the co-option of individuals put in positions of power; an obstructionist civil service; capital flight or an investment strike; internal opposition within a Labour Party (as the leaked report starkly demonstrated) which operates as an extension of the state.

These political barriers to implementing its programme — and the need for a strategy to overcome them - were given far less attention by Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell than the details of the programme itself. A serious attempt to start developing such a strategy was made in People Get Ready, co-authored by Berry and Joe Guinan, which also provides a compelling account of the challenges a Corbyn-led government would face. But though warmly received by senior politicians and officials within the Party, its lessons were not taken seriously enough. A Preparing for Government programme was established after the 2017 general election, and was intended to prepare the shadow cabinet to navigate parliament and the civil service in order to implement large and, by recent UK standards, complex policy programme. In practice this programme barely got off the ground and, to the extent that it did, its focus was almost entirely procedural and bureaucratic rather than political or strategic.

What was needed instead, Berry and Guinan argue, was a strategy focused on democratising and strengthening the movement as an independent power base, both inside and outside the Party. A strong, independent grassroots movement would “help resist the inevitable backlash from vested interests”13 while holding the leadership “to its promises and push[ing] the boundaries of the possible.”14 It is likely had Labour won in 2019, the lack of such a strategy would have been a major impediment to its success. But the consequences extended beyond weakening a hypothetical future left government; that “Corbynites never squarely confronted the fact that you cannot democratise the economy without democratising politics” was a major factor in their failure to get into government in the first place.

Tactically speaking, a large and empowered movement was the only weapon Corbynism had against a highly hostile establishment that extended to the traditionally centre-left Guardian and a majority of Labour Members of Parliament. A strong, popular grassroots mobilisation was needed to cut through negative national representations of Corbynism and build on the ground support by demonstrat[ing] practical solidarity with working, oppressed and marginalised people. The failure to mobilise Corbyn’s broad base of support within the Party beyond door knocking around election times “to do the vital work of reaching out and building broad social bases of support for a new politics”15 was fatal to the success of the project and risks continuing to be so if the left continues to wage wars of position at the expense of reaching out to wider society.

But this tactical necessity had deeper roots in the way that neoliberalism stifles opposition:

the institutional shifts, the changes in the structures of political representation, and the social and economic transformations wrought by neoliberalism systematically reduce the scope for the expression of collective interests, the emergence of transformative programmes, and even the aspiration to change society beyond neoliberalism.

Corbyn’s Labour bucked the trend by putting forward a transformative programme. But simply presenting more popular policies, without at the same time forging and strengthening collective political identities founded on hope for something better, was never going to be enough. Bluntly put, the picture of radical democratic participation at the heart of the economic programme doesn’t correspond to the lived experience of activists let alone the electorate. On the contrary, for forty years we have been encouraged to remake ourselves in the image of the ideal of the self-reliant, self-interested, competitive individual, to make life decisions on the basis of calculations of rates of return — whether by seeing our homes as not simply somewhere to live but as a potential source of speculative returns, or treating education not as a way of broadening our knowledge, skills and understanding but as a way of investing in our own human capital.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the discussion of neoliberalism above is that neoliberalism isn’t simply a rival policy programme to be weighed up by voters in an election campaign. It is a system of social and economic reproduction whose influence extends, not just to how we organise economic matters but to our individual and collective identities, and must be confronted as such. If we are to challenge neoliberalism it is not enough to be equipped with the right policies. For those policies to be both credible as aspirations and viable as alternatives, our movement needs to reconstitute people as political agents by building collective identity and democratic sensibility through everyday experiences of empowerment and solidarity. It needs to give people real world experiences of non-capitalist and decommodified forms so that instead of seeming dubious or fantastical, offers of “free stuff” are seen and understood as an alternative way of doing things.

Hence radical community organising was not just tactically important in order to demonstrate practical solidarity with people on the receiving end of cuts and hardship, and hopefully to begin winning back their trust after decades of neglect. It also served a longer-term purpose … that of building up new capacities and self-belief, both of which will be indispensable in creating a movement which is genuinely capable of radically democratising society and the state. Putting democracy at the heart of our economic programme without putting it at the heart of our organisational strategy was always doomed to fail.

Participatory socialism therefore has the potential to fill important gaps in the Corbynite programme by highlighting the importance of political democratisation – of the state and of the movement – both to getting into to government and to overcoming the barriers they would face if they did.

Another way in which participatory socialism helps to identify and fill a gap in the programme is by reminding us that public services should be central to the democratisation agenda. I’m the first to put my hands up and admit that this is an area we seldom got beyond signalling intent. For example, while Labour committed to scrap the academy and free school system and replace it with a system that gave parents, teachers and communities a stronger role in the running of schools and the design of the curriculum and assessment, a detailed alternative was never articulated. Ditto internal privatisation of the NHS – we committed to reversing the Lansley reforms but not to going further. In general, there was an asymmetry between our commitment to new forms of democratic public ownership in newly nationalised utilities such as water and energy and relative lack of ambition in existing areas of public provision.

But the role of democracy in public services goes beyond how particular services are delivered to more fundamental questions about how needs can be identified and met without relying on market imperatives. We saw above that commodified production and exchange creates artificial, alienating needs that have perverse effects on our mental and physical health, our environment and our quality of life and that decommodification promises to end the distortion of values by the imperatives of capitalist competition and create a society in which everyone has the chance to lead a healthy and fulfilling life by having their real needs met. This, of course, begs the question of how real needs are to be determined. Labour’s report on Universal Basic Services provided the beginnings of an answer, saying that real needs should be decided democratically:

just as the question of what is ‘basic’ to citizenship or essential to the good life is a social question, so what goods and services are most suited to universal public provision is something that must be decided democratically

However, the report offers no more detail on how society as a whole can decide what is essential to a good life or what institutions would be needed to facilitate this kind of collective decision-making. In practice, our radical aspiration to the democratic determination of real needs was reduced to electoral offers to expand universal, free at the point of use provision of certain goods and services at elections (including broadband, personal care, dental check-ups, prescriptions) – derided as ‘too much free stuff’ in some quarters.

Participatory democracy, by contrast, has the potential to enable experimentation, innovation and emotional involvement. This is essential because:

Defining needs is not only a matter of rational deliberation. It also has to do with experimenting — with discovering, through practice, fulfilling individual and collective needs. Needs have a strong emotional component — one often feels the need rather than infers it.

Only by democratising all parts of the state and society is there space for people’s individual and collective needs to emerge and grow over time. Of course, there is no easy path from this understanding to a workable system for defining needs democratically and much work remains to be done to develop such a system. But “with its emphasis on mobilisation “from below,” direct democracy is the only political regime that factors in this experimental dimension” and is hence the necessary starting point for this work.

Conclusion

While a number of interpretations of Corbynism’s economic programme have laid claim to be the economic counterpart to Blackburn’s “Corbynism from below,” only participatory socialism, which envisions the radical democratisation of the economy and society through the extension of decommodified forms of ownership and the transformation of the nature of the state, does so consistently and compellingly.

The commodified and decommodified strands of Corbynism’s economic programme could maintain a peaceful coexistence for only as long as Jeremy was leader.

The commodified and decommodified strands of Corbynism’s economic programme could maintain a peaceful coexistence for only as long as Jeremy was leader. Insofar as cooperatives and other forms of worker-ownership bring improvements in long-termism, distribution and worker voice, there is no reason why they should not alongside policies that represent a more fundamental challenge to neoliberalism. However, our failure to be clearer about the tensions between them earlier on did do damage. It helped to create confusion, as is manifest in the way that two very different propositions (market socialism and participatory socialism respectively) can both be presented as the economic counterpart of “Corbynism from below.” And it contributed to a lack of coherence or unity on the question of what demands the left should be prioritising under the new leadership.

It also meant we were at times too willing to indulge a lazy anti-statism, which in turn meant we didn’t spend nearly enough time developing plans to democratise the state and didn’t take seriously enough the need to democratise the movement. Indeed, the great failure of Corbynism wasn’t that by 2019 the economic programme lent too heavily towards being ‘in’ rather than ‘against’ the state (it had to be and was both), it’s that it failed to be sufficiently ‘in and against’ the Party.

It is too late to rectify these particular mistakes, though there are important lessons to learn from them. The immediate danger is that the market socialist interpretation of Corbynism’s economic programme will be used by the current front bench to give left cover to the watering down or full abandonment of its anti-neoliberal ambition – and that parts of the left, in a desperate attempt to continue to feel relevant, will applaud them as they dance on Corbynism’s grave. This would be a mistake not just because of the inherent limitations of market socialist reforms, but also because, for those of us who hope to influence the frontbench, market socialism is far from the only game in town. The multiple failures in Britain’s Covid-19 response, for example, raise serious questions about the role of the private sector in public services and the policy programme developed under Corbyn offers compelling answers to these questions. Similarly, with jobs and unemployment likely to remain on the political agenda for some time, there is a real opportunity for the Party in rediscovering the serious and detailed work on job creation done under the guise of the Green Industrial Revolution and set out in the regional manifestos.

The left’s reaction to the new leadership has so far polarised around fixed attitudes of either compromise or despair. But with all indications suggesting that the new leadership will not make any firm decisions on policy positions until much nearer to an election period, when it comes to economic policy, at least, both approaches are premature. And of course, when the willingness of some to compromise becomes so absolute it collapses into knee jerk attempts to defend anything the leadership does as a “win,” it is not surprising that despair and disillusion results in the wider movement. There is an alternative, which is to be clear, firm and principled about what a socialist agenda looks like and tactical in identifying opportunities to advance it whenever possible.

Crucially, however, this is not all or even the main thing we should do. The other main lesson is that the political orientation of the Party leader is less important than the strength of the wider movement: “there is simply no shortcut, or royal road, to the democratic economy. Instead, we need to double down on support for local demonstration projects and on-the- ground models.” If lack of attention to grassroots organising was a major weakness of the Corbyn project, it is even more important now, when there are fewer voices with a national platform to make the case for transformative change and when communities face five more years of Tory devastation. Under these circumstances,

Above all we must practice solidarity in all forms, especially with the most vulnerable, those on the frontlines, who will be ravaged by the Tories’ ongoing destruction of the social safety net and dismantling of the state.


  1. Grateful thanks to Rob Knox, Max Harris, Rory Macqueen and Ben Fine for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts. All errors are mine. 

  2. To illustrate the distinction, Fine and Saad-Filho use the example of a mortgage, which, in itself “remains a simple (transhistoric) credit relation between borrower and lender” but “becomes embroiled in financialisation once that mortgage obligation is sold on as part of some other asset, which becomes routinised only under neoliberalism.” 

  3. These reforms have failed to deliver the promised improvements in efficacy and efficiency, see Christopher Hood & Ruth Dixon. 2015. A Government that worked better and cost less?: Evaluating three decades of reform and change in UK central Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

  4. Doreen Massey. 2007. World City. Cambridge: Polity. pp. 79–81. See also Owen Hatherley’s “The Government of London”. 

  5. It is worth addressing directly the argument by some that the work put into detailed delivery plans was misplaced and “not such a priority if you are not in government.” To argue that Labour should have stood on a platform of an ambitious policy agenda without having worked up the detail is ludicrous. We knew that our policies would face unprecedented levels of scrutiny and that we would need answers to inevitable questions and challenges they would face. We also knew that we would face even greater obstacles in implementing our policies if we were to win – and that being ready to hit the ground running would be essential to avoid getting bogged down in the inertias of government. Nor is it clear what this detail supposedly came at the expense of – as the author acknowledges, working up detail did not come at the price of volume of policies. 

  6. Elements of both participatory and market socialism can be found in Berry’s work, hence her writing is used to illustrate both approaches. 

  7. Rightly, given that most actually existing companies with a degree of worker ownership owe their existence to a socially-minded capitalist sees the business sense in doing so

  8. This (mis)understanding of the role of the state in social and economic reproduction appears again in Meadway’s characterisation that, until the advent of Big Tech, we have seen the ‘whittling away of the state’ under neoliberalism. As we saw above, from privatisation to creating the legal and institutional framework needed to enable new and ever more complex financial products to be traded, the state has played an essential role in constituting new markets and intervening in the interests of capital throughout the neoliberal period. 

  9. Rob Knox. “Neoliberalism, Labour Law and New Labour’s Turn to Constitutionalism”. In Michael Gordon and Adam Tucker eds. The New Labour Constitution Twenty Years On. Oxford: Hart Publishing. (forthcoming). 

  10. A similar argument applies to UBI, see

  11. UBI is often put forward as a way of solving this problem that doesn’t rely on decommodified ownership and provision but such arguments tend to underestimate the scale of social transformation that would be needed to deliver a UBI that was high enough and overestimate the benefits compared to collective, decommodified provision (see reference in footnote 10). 

  12. Christine Berry and Joe Guinan. 2019. People Get Ready: Preparing for a Corbyn Government. London: OR Books. pp. 139-40 

  13. Berry and Guinan. People Get Ready. p. 145 

  14. Berry and Guinan. People Get Ready. p. 146 

  15. Berry and Guinan. People Get Ready. p. 160 


Author:

Mary Robertson (@lizzieirvine84)

Mary Robertson was the Labour Party’s Head of Economic Policy from March 2017-January 2020.