Thursday, 2 July 2009

A Radical Programme for the Left

There has been a lot of talk about where the left goes next. In spite of the credit crunch left wing and progressive groups appear to have no coherent alternative programme to free market capitalism.

I've posted about these issues before and suggested some alternatives but here I want to explore what an alternative programme might look like. Firstly its essential to understand that the core of any alternative programme must be an economic strategy. It is essential because the economy is at the heart of our society. The economy is embedded in our society as Polanyi observed. This is historically where the left have failed to deliver. The focus thus far has been on nationalisation and delivery by the state. Thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union this approach has lost much of its credibility. And its not just in the Soviet Union that state control of the economy has run into trouble. In the UK the Labour Party used to believe in a 'mixed economy' (in the 1960s and 70s) with utilities and public services owned and run by the state with the rest in the private sector. That also failed for reasons which are too complex to debate fully here but a large part was played by the fact that the Labour government's commitment to state control was weak and lacking in any kind of dynamism or innovation. However, when we talk of these failures we must never lose sight of the effective propaganda and financial war waged by the free-market right to undermine alternatives to capitalism.

Its important to understand why the alternative economy is crucial. As long as we rely on the 'free' market - i.e. capitalism - to deliver our economic needs we will continue to have great inequalities and mass poverty globally. That can never change because that is how capitalism works. It was Marx who first explained this process. By acquiring the surplus value of worker's labour capitalists are able to cream off the wealth from society for themselves - leaving the rest of us with the crumbs from the cake. This can't change unless we create wealth for ourselves instead of wealth for capitalists. They need us but we don't need them. You can't have capitalism and social and economic justice - they don't go together. Its essential to at least understand this basic bit of Marxism. You don't have to be a Marxist but you need to understand how capitalism works and Marx has the answers.

It is important to also understand that by capitalists I don't mean the person who runs your local corner shop, restaurant, farm, or small business. these people are not capitalists. Capitalists are the people who own the means of production i.e. Olag Deripaksa, Lakshmi Mittal, Rupert Murdoch et al. It is the multinational corporations which are the root of the problem - not your local newsagent.

So how can an alternative economy work? How can we deliver all the goods and services which we need without the 'free' market? The answer is a mixture of nationalisation and mutualism. There are some obvious things which the market cannot deliver - the railways and universal post are examples. So we nationalise the railways and keep Royal Mail in public ownership. We also need to nationalise the banks and utilities. The banks have far too much power as we have seen and essential services such as energy and water need to be available to all - not on the basis of what people can afford to pay. Also included would be healthcare, education, social services and welfare.

By nationalisation I do not necessarily mean straightforward ownership and control by the state. These nationalised industries could be not for profit companies or social enterprises where the employees are the stakeholders. We need to look for more dynamic models in order to make sure that the nationalised services do not stagnate. They must be able to pay their way, and to develop and innovate. The workers in them must be moivated to make them successful. In any case there must be no shareholders - unless that is, all UK adults are made 'shareholders' with 'shares' that cannot be sold or otherwise traded. There is no reason why public services such as health, for example, could not be delivered by mutual organisations supported by the state. We need to come up with new models because we do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past.

What about goods? there is no reason why goods can't be delivered by co-operatives as I've ready proposed in 'How to Beat Capitalism'. There are plenty of successful examples. What we need is a government which is committed to actively promoting and supporting mutualism as a viable alternative to capitalism. There are organisations such as Co-operatives UK which promote the setting up of co-operatives and these need to be encouraged and supported by the government. The Mondragonco-operatives provide a good example of how co-operatives can successfully deliver a range of goods. In the short to medium term we also need the kind of Green New Deal which is being supported by the Green Party to provide thousands of jobs and investment to help to combat climate change.

If an alternative economy is the first priority, the second priority must be democratic reform. We need a written constitution - with a removal of all royal perogatives from the government, an elected second chamber to provide checks and balances, electoral reform with proportional representation and the revival of local government. Local councils must be able to deliver services in-house, be able to provide social housing and have democratic control of local services including health and education. People, local and democratically, must be able to determine whether they want a new store in the heart of their town - not the corporations.

A programme for the left needs to begin urgent steps to move to a low carbon economy. I've already mentioned the Green New Deal But we need to much more particularly in the area of public transport. Climate change is the biggest threat to our society.

There are many other issues but these are the key ones. The left will have to work hard to persuade voters that these changes are necessary given the evident pro-market bias in the media, and left groups will have to learn to work together instead of the eternal infighting which has cursed socialist politics for the past century or so. A left government will have many obstacles to contend with. Capitalists are likely to stage an investment strike, starving the UK of capital and creating unemployment. European legislation, which enshrines neoliberal values, will have to be reformed. But all this can be done. Franklin D Roosevelt did much of this in the USA - the world heartland of capitalism - and we can do it here.

And finally a word about trade unions. There is a crying need to free up trade unions from the repressive Thatcherite legislation designed to hobble them, This must also be part of a radical left wing programme. But trade unions need to change also. In the UK they have always had very limited horizons - recruit, negotiate, collective bargaining... and er .. that's it. Trade unions did set up the Labour Party but now it has turned against them they must grab the opportunity for change by refusing to support New Labour financially and if necessary setting up a new party of the left. Their role in bringing about an alternative economy will be crucial.

None of this can be done overnight - its a long hard road. But it must and can be done. Capitalists changed the rules to suit their purposes. We must democratically change the rules to suit ours.

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