There’s more to the economy than tax and spend
There’s more to the economy than fiscal policy. This government’s destruction is about much more than cuts. We, the left, need to get better at challenging their economic vision, and articulating ours.
In the last week or so, the Banking Commission has reported. Three years since the collapse of the primary institutions of western neo-liberal capitalism, we have the most significant policy intervention on how we run our banks, and so, as a country, how we generate much of our GDP. The commission has done exactly what we would expect – it has done all it can to ensure our banks continue to be under regulated. De-regulation is, after all, one of the three horseman of the neo-liberal apocalypse. It marches hand in hand with cuts and privatisation.
But despite the predictable outcome of this process, what was the reaction of the left? Did I get emails from 38 degrees slamming the banks? No. What did Labour say? I am genuinely not at all sure, so presumably they didn’t say it very loud. Did any major institution of the left slam Sir John Vickers for failing to re-instate a Glass-Steagall? For failing to propose the re-mutualisation of Northern Rock? For fumbling the opportunity to start a process of re-structuring the British economy in a way that would avoid a credit crunch mark 2?
Mabe, but not that I saw. And even if they did, the media would have ignored it. Because we have failed, collectively, to create that narrative. We have failed to build any popular pressure to address the systemic problems in our economy.
The best thing happening on banking at the moment is the Robin Hood campaign for a Tobin style financial transaction tax – a campaign to redistribute the crumbs from the table of the poisonous feast of derivatives. Well done to those running this campaign – they may well win, and this will be a significant achievement. Securing the support of 1000 leading economists is genuinely impressive, and all power to them.
But if I had said, as the banks collapsed in 2008 – as capitalism fell to its knees and begged forgiveness – if I had said that this would lead to the fastest round of privatisation and deregulation that we’ve seen in generations in this country, and that all the left would get is minimal controls on banks and a small tax redistributing a few tiny crumbs from the table of derivatives trading, then you would surely say that this would mean that the left has failed.
And I think a part of that failure is that we have focussed almost entirely on cuts. Cuts will kill people. Cuts will destroy our economy. The government’s cuts are absolutely disastrous and they must be opposed with every ounce of strength we have. But cuts are only 1/3 of the government’s troika of destruction. They are about that section of the economy that is currently publicly owned.
And what is happening in the private sector – or what is not happening in the private sector – is also key. It was, after all, the monopolisation of banks that led to their collapse in 2008 bringing down our whole economy. And this isn’t just a problem with our banks. Our corporatist economy is sick to the core. Wages for most have barely risen above inflation for years. If you care about GDP growth rates, then they have halved since the neo-liberal revolution of the mid-1970s. Unemployment has not only been high since the banks collapsed – for the last quarter of the 20th century, we had structural unemployment designed to keep wages and conditions low for most people in this country. These are economic decisions, and they are bad ones. We must continue to talk about cuts, yes. But the great failure of European Social Democracy – the social democratic parties that have been routed from the Russian border to the French Atlantic – the great failure was surely the belief that you can capture the wealth created through privatised, freed and footloose capital and re-distribute it through the welfare state. And as we campaign to defend the gains of social democracy – the welfare states on which we all depend, surely we must also recognise this failure. And we must build a new vision for our countries, and for Europe.
And that means we need to look at how we would run those areas of the economy that are currently privatised. And that means we should see the failure of the banking commission to be as big a disaster as the dismantlement of the NHS. And so far, we have failed to articulate that.