Labour's New Economics Conference: Part Seven, Jeremy Corbyn's Speech

This is the seventh (and final) part of our write-up and analysis of Labour's New Economics Conference on alternative models of ownership.

This is the seventh (and final) part of our write-up and analysis of Labour’s New Economics Conference on alternative models of ownership. The “Alternative Models of Ownership” report is available here, and our analysis of the report here. This part focuses on Jeremy Corbyn’s closing address. You can find our recap of the introductory session here, the digital breakout session here the housing session here, the Co-op session here, the local democratic economic strategies session here and the plenary session here

You can read Jeremy Corbyn’s speech here

Corbyn’s closing speech began with thanks to all the staff involved in making the event possible. This, as well as being absolutely correct in general, fitted nicely with the general themes of the conference around the collective character of the production of anything useful.

Corbyn continued, again echoing themes, arguing that it is not only vital that plans are participatory now, but that “when we’ve won an election we won’t stop consultation and mobilisation, it has to step up.” This commitment is crucial not only because it is right, but also because ensuring wide ownership of the project and developing forms of popular power across society is an absolute precondition to facing down the likely considerable opposition from capital to the programme. Corbyn then briefly—perhaps too briefly—addressed some of the international context for implementing and developing a left programme, in the context of the Brexit outcome and the necessity of not signing up to trade treaties like TTIP. There are, however, other major international questions that need to be addressed, both in terms of building internationalist alliances against the power of global capital but also in terms of how far the alternative models of ownership programme could play a role in undoing the exploitation of the Global South by the UK, especially in terms of what happens to finance capital. How does the domestic agenda relate to Corbyn’s argument from his excellent United Nations Research Institute for Social Development speech, that “the dominant global economic system is broken”? Can the economic transformation of the UK go beyond the fairer sharing and more democratic control of the spoils of imperialism? Can we go beyond Raymond Williams’s observation in his more positive assessment of the ethical-political power of the institutionalised culture of the labour movement in Culture and Society of the limits imposed by how “England’s position as an imperial power has tended to limit the sense of community to national (and, in this context, imperialist) lines.”1 Here, in a different way from the critique McDonnell quoted from The Long Revolution, Williams critiques the limits on ethical generalisation stemming from how a degree of privilege or achievement within the existing system limits the working class to its allocated place, here the place is national rather than sectoral (co-ops trading organisations, unions industrial organisations, the party, merely Parliamentary).

Following Wainwright, and referring to having donated his copy of the London Industrial Strategy to Islington archives, Corbyn insisted on the creative capacity of ordinary people and its squandering by social relations- “creativity is there but lost by society,” and we need to “unleash the creativity in all of us”. Again, as with the GLC notion of efficiency and monetarism/neoliberalism’s tremendous waste of human and financial resources (one should add of nature, too) in the face of unmet human need, the claim here is both moral and pragmatic- “when the history of Britain’s experiment with monetarism comes to be written, the contrast between unmet needs and vast human and financial waste will be the theme”2. Social organisation limits the use of popular expertise in ensuring both the satisfaction of needs and full social development of human capacities, as Corbyn argued: “services will be more efficient and better run when controlled by the knowledge of those responsible for them”.

As with McDonnell and others, it is clear that Corbyn is operating within what we would call a long revolutionary horizon. The question is not only the next election and addressing what Tory policies since 2010 have done to health, education and welfare, but the formulation and implementing “plans and policies rooted in the experiences and ingenuity of our movement…to define a whole era”. This horizon beyond a politics of relief and electoralism, most cheeringly, involves a very significant concern with and beginning to develop concrete proposals against global warming. For Corbyn, the need to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels (and it is worth noting that this is the more radical demand of the Paris Agreements) demands a radical shift in how we organise our economy, and this, moreover, entails more radicalism than in 1945.

It has been a concern for some of us at New Socialist that ecological themes have been marginalised in the Corbyn project, so the assertion both of their centrality and the beginnings of a wider framework for concrete proposals was cheering. On the more radical wing of the project, ecological concerns have been marginalised by drawing the wrong conclusions from the correct argument that the accumulation of capital necessarily means the accumulation of ecological catastrophe. This argument cannot be simply reversed into, “anti-capitalist policies necessarily address climate change”. On the other hand, for the more conformist part of Corbynism, it appears that attention to climate change is a middle class indulgence, not proper class politics, and the assertion of alternative values, in this case ecological (though similar arguments have been deployed against asserting anti-imperialism) will distance us from our electoral base and imperil the election victory that is necessary for the desperately needed politics of relief.

Alongside the ecological policies of the manifesto, Corbyn particularly emphasised the need for a green energy system that is, on the one hand, decentralised, diverse and flexible, but which also, with a publicly owned grid, is integrated and organised to allow for the necessary long-term investment and planning. Again, drawing on notions of popular expertise, Corbyn insisted that energy transition is dependent on the initiative, skills and knowledge of many people. However, this stress on decentralisation and non-state initiatives absolutely does not mean that the solution lies in the privileged, environmentally conscious in a narrow sort of way, installing roof-top solar panels, what Corbyn described as a “Thatcherite prosumer model”. Nevertheless, and this is not a question restricted to energy, it would, for example, particularly bear on how to organise a national railway network, it still remains to be worked through how the relation between maximum decentralisation and local and workers’ control and autonomy relates to the need for nationally (even globally) integrated coordination.

Again, overlapping with elements of McDonnell’s stress on participation as part of securing the irreversibility of transformation, Corbyn insisted on the need to build, through popular involvement, broad support for the transformation. This creation of broad support is certainly an aspect of heading off the critique that ecological values are anti-worker, by ensuring that all benefit, all have control through democratic planning and the ecological transition does not force communities to pay the price. In addition to the role of democratic planning, Corbyn committed to workers being guaranteed jobs on equivalent terms.

As a necessary extension of these themes it might be worth raising, although only raising at this point, questions around what a wider “eco-Corbynism”, beyond what was argued for around energy here. This would also bear on the international context, both in terms of what pressures from international capital there are and will be on the project and in terms of how the project relates to Britain’s continued imperialist position. What might a Corbynite contribution to socialist world ecology look like?3

A crucial area of eco-Corbynism will have to be around food, an often ignored but today timely site of struggle, particularly in the UK which will see the convergence of a long, structural crisis of capitalist world ecology with the impact of Brexit on worker conditions in agriculture, possible import duties and, at least with a Tory Brexit, a potential race to the bottom in the regulatory environment imposing major costs of human and, particularly, non-human natures. Certain strands in other sessions at the conference suggest what could be the beginnings of a practice around food, whether the fact that the first co-op was established to sell unadulterated food or Preston’s support for farmer co-ops. It is vital, however, that the question of food be rooted in class struggle, there is, always, following Thompson a “dietary class warfare”4. However, questions of dietary class warfare cannot be limited to a narrow understanding of class, they are, for example, very strongly mediated and organised through the oppression of women, through who does the shopping (and here significant questions in local economies around public transport and locations of shops are also key) or cooking and under what conditions. These questions are always formed through capital’s contradictory demands to have women’s work appropriated in the household for reproduction and its need to free women for wage work outside the household.

Two observations from Jason W. Moore are particularly valuable. The first is his working through of precisely how food is a site of class struggle and the global, world-ecological character of this struggle, the second the potential, precisely because of their class struggle, even if this is only latent, of movements for “food justice”. This also introduces some quite vital questions around prefiguration and state power, which bear on the whole of the alternative models agenda.

The alternative path can, of course, be only followed through class struggle but…this is a class struggle as the relation of production and reproduction, of power and wealth in the web of life….we can say with some confidence that food - not just land - has become a central site of the world class struggle in a way that is entirely unprecedented…To be sure the struggle over food is more than a class struggle, and many forms of food justice appear quite modest: calls for supporting organic agriculture, local farmer’s markets, Transition Towns and so forth. But if neoliberal subjectivities persist..we appear to be witnessing an important shift since the mid-2000s…The class struggle of the 21st century will turn in no small measure upon how one answers the questions; What is food? What is nature? What is valuable?5

Here then is the argument both of food in class struggle and an account of the challenge to neoliberalism in forms that may appear modest, marginal or merely aesthetic. What is at least beginning now though is potentially the basis of something more encompassing and radical, and this introduces the question of prefiguration, Moore continues,

What would a socialist valuation of humans and the rest of nature look like? This can only be answered through practical activity and reflective theorization. But provisional answers, taken as guiding threads can be offered In my view the elements of socialist world-ecology are all around us.6

Examples of these elements, include, Moore here quotes Rebecca Solnit, “organic urban, community assisted and guerrilla agriculture…a revolt against what transnational corporate food and capitalism generally produce [and are] blows against alienation, poor health, hunger and other woes”. Moore’s admiration and the hope he finds in this is one, crucial pole, but the other, equally crucial one, is his refusal to wish away out of a utopian socialist desire for simplification serious questions around the limits, as we stand of these sort of projects, “even allowing for some measure of exaggeration in this statement- it is clear for instance, state power will be needed…to re-orient agriculture towards sustainable and democratic practices.”7 Whilst there is a great deal the movement and local government could do around food justice, now, with Labour out of national government, this does not mean problems of state power and co-ordination, including when questions of how a Corbynism stands within a socialist world ecology can be wished away. Of course a Corbynite contribution to socialist world ecology would not be limited to food and energy, it necessarily includes questions around transport, production and distribution of goods and re-orienting technology away from military uses towards human and sustainable ones, but food is likely to be a vital focus and something where movement activity can begin now.

In conclusion, Corbyn briefly mentioned the extension of universalism across basic services and, finally, how the doctrinal rejection of collective action had been exposed, and that collective goals must be put at the heart of what we do- “we are going to build the future together.” The point here, is that collective, participatory action is both a means and end in (Williams), furthering the idea of, “society…as the positive means for all kinds of development, including individual development. Development and advantage are not individually but commonly interpreted” 8 and here the gap between pragmatic and moral claims breaks down, full human development in common is both means and end.

  1. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961), p. 312. 

  2. The London Industrial Strategy, (London, The GLC: 1985), p. vii. 

  3. The conceptual framework of this question, including world ecology and human and non-human natures is substantially derived from Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, (London, Verso, 2015). 

  4. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Pelican, 1968), p. 315. 

  5. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, p. 287. 

  6. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, p. 288. 

  7. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, p. 288. 

  8. Williams, Culture and Society, p. 312.