Politics as action research? Corbyn, People’s QE, and Syriza.
These brief thoughts have been triggered by the Jeremy Corbyn campaign to be Labour Party leader, and by Syriza’s negotiations with the Troika.
First Labour. There is a lot being written about the Corbyn campaign. On the one side there is horror (from the political commentariat and Labour’s establishment) that he is doing so well. They can’t see that an authentic and honest politician might have some appeal, and speak to the interests of many of the 99%. They recall the Michael Foot moment, when Labour did fail to convince. Yet there is little to connect the Foot style of windbaggery, honed in the Commons debating chamber, with Corbyn’s impressive abilities as a communicator. These commentators suggest that the public isn’t eager for a socialist alternative to vote for. But this misses the first important point – that political support is built by a process of dialogue between political activists and the public, wherein the activists learn more about people’s realities and ideologies, while educating the public about the nature of the social and economic system and entrenched power, so that it might be changed. Labour has ignored that process, engaging either in a “weather-vane” practice, based on focus groups and reading the popular press, to adapt its message to the dominant propaganda and ideology. Or they have engaged in a patronising one-way process of telling people what’s what. In the kind of process that I mentioned earlier, an effective, galvanising ideology can emerge that unites diverse sectors. This is broadly what happened in 1945 with Labour’s landslide that ushered in the “post war settlement”; it happened in Greece with Syriza’s election, and also where Left governments have been elected in Latin America. It might yet happen in Spain.
Now, is Corbyn articulating that new, counter-hegemonic ideology? I think to some extent. It has elements of that, and could evolve into that, with the kind of genuine interactive process I envisage. An example is the way he is talking about public ownership: not a Statist, bureaucratic model, but one with popular participation (but I think State strategic direction). Could the party support that? I don’t know, but maybe if 140,00 new activists were to join or (better?) ally themselves with a renovated Labour leadership, then maybe. That would mean countering UKIP’s nationalist populism, while allying with progressive elements in the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, and non-party elements. It probably means working with the SNP in Scotland, but finding ways help them to live up to their left rhetoric rather than retreating to the neoliberal comfort zone, as they have just done following an EU ruling that pushes back their investment policy to something akin to the Private Finance Initiative.
Of the four leadership candidates, Corbyn has by far the most coherent economic story. His common-sense policies could be something on which a broad progressive1 coalition could agree on. But, there is a flaw, our old “friend” economic growth. He uses the concept of Green Quantitative Easing (QE) (explained here by one of its main advocates, Richard Murphy), developed by a number of broadly neo-Keynesian economists, and OK’ed as feasible by the Bank of England. But Corbyn renames it People’s QE. The idea is that, without creating more public or private sector debt, the money is generated for investments in socially and environmentally needed projects (improving railways, insulating homes, installing solar panels on schools, etc etc.). This creates employment and the improved incomes feed into the boosting of demand in the economy, which in turn means increased tax revenue. It is an elegant plan, and one that avoids what existing QE does, which is to give money to private banks which then tend to invest it in speculative things (hence the property bubble here). It also gets out from the austerity trap that Labour has fallen into: no money is not a problem. But the big flaw, is that despite funding environmentally good things like public transport, renewable energy and energy conservation, by boosting the economy it will also boost other activities that will, because they rely on the rest of the economy (extraction, production, distribution and waste disposal), create additional carbon emissions. We know that economic growth is not decoupling from greenhouse gas emissions, (even the optimistic New Climate Economy effectively admit this now), so we have a problem. The only way to resolve this is by combining some kind of Green QE with annually diminishing carbon caps – limiting the introduction of further hydrocarbons into the system. This is exactly what degrowth activists and thinkers have proposed in response to Spain’s Podemos version of Keynesian demand re-inflation. Now this isn’t fatal for Corbyn, but it is an area of policy that can be refined and strengthened over the coming months. Allied to a proposal such as cap and share, it could provide a means for further redistribution too.
But is the struggle worth it? Won’t the progressives be defeated, yet again. Hasn’t that happened just now in Greece where the Troika has imposed the austerity that Syriza was elected to end? I’ve begun to think about events like this through the lens of action research. Kurt Lewin suggested that if you want to understand a social reality, then try to change it. In our concept of prefigurative action research, we argue that relatively delimited and parochial projects can help build understanding of three things, in addition to the immediate learning within the confines of the project itself. Firstly they tell us about what is possible within the current system – through their (relative) success. Secondly they tell us what is not presently possible – that is to say, from their (relative) failure, they reveal much about the nature of the forces and structures that oppose principled social change. Thirdly, where they realise a change in social arrangements locally, and in people’s understanding, energy and commitment, then they tell us more about the kind of society that we are working to achieve. Its partial, and fragmentary realisation helps deepen our understanding of what social justice, community, socialism, or right living actually might be. It was Raymond Williams who pointed out that a key contribution of the Labour movement was in its creation of social institutions (unions, co-operatives – but also social institutions like the Workers Education Association, mutual support arrangements, like the forerunners of the NHS in Welsh mining communities, etc, etc) that prefigured a different and more just society. In this he was on the same wavelength as Antonio Gramsci, who in talking about “prefigurative struggle” suggested (like some on the libertarian left) that the process of fighting for social and economic justice creates the embyonic forms of the alternative society that the socialist movement is trying to create.
Where does this leave Syriza? Specifically in relation to the negottiations with the Troika, Syriza politicians have learned that rational argument counts for nothing, that economics is not what the imposition of austerity on the Eurozone’s periphery is about, and also, arguably, they have or should have learned that it will not be possible to make the single currency work for the deficit countries like Greece. But they have also learned about the power of popular mobilisation, about the support for an alternative, and about the difficulties of leading a heterogenous movement. But, most important, the people, and their organisations have also learned these things, and that’s partly a result of Syriza’s openness, their communication of what has been going on behind the closed doors.
As Paul Tyson put it in an article on Open Democracy, reproduced on Yanis Varoufakis’s blog:
The complete lack of impact which Varoufakis’ economic arguments achieved leads one to fear that when it comes to economics and politics, we are being conned: the main purpose of economic speak in politics is obfuscation. If that is indeed the case, then having someone point out the obvious elephant in the room – the economic impossibility of the prevailing dogmas governing high finance and domestic politics – is just too much. It looks like our ruling elites do not want a real economist meddling with power.
Another thing Varoufakis points out is that financial power is now dangerously politically and socially unaccountable. That is, we have political institutions, parties and politicians that are meant to govern by representing the political choices of citizens, thus making power accountable to the people. However, in reality the typical manner in which political power is internally disciplined and externally controlled is a sad mockery of keeping power accountable to the people.
The outcome is far from certain, but huge gains will have been made in consciousness, building on those that have already come from the experiments, the action research studies, based on dire need, to make an alternative economy and society based on mutual aid and cooperation.
That spirit of prefigurative action research could also inform a renewed progressive movement in the UK. We know that the economy will crash again. We know that there will be another crisis of hegemony (to again use a Gramscian term) and an attitude of learning together, and integrating that learning in new collective understandings of system and power, of action and ideology, will eventually ensure success. Can Corbyn, and his allies, within and outside Labour work in this different way?
1 I use this word “progressive” knowing that it has unfortunate overtones of a supposed linear process to ever greater civilisation. That’s obviously not what happens, but it is hard to find another word for the liberatory goals of principled social movements.