McDonnell has a burning task on his hands
John McDonnell is cagey when an interviewer asks, “Capitalism — inherently wrong? Or are you just the man to fix it?” It says something that the question is even posed. Just a decade ago McDonnell was the parliamentary spokesperson for picket lines and antiwar meetings, the champion of antique causes in Blair’s Britain. He was the Labour MP who welcomed the financial crash with the words, “I’m a Marxist. . . . I’ve been waiting for this for a generation.” In Who’s Who he listed his hobby as “fomenting the overthrow of capitalism.” Elsewhere he named Lenin and Trotsky among his heroes.
Now he is shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, the Labour Party’s candidate to control Britain’s money, and — even more than his old friend Jeremy Corbyn — a symbol of Labour’s leftward shift. He won exhilarated applause from many long-suffering party members when he described his economic vision to their annual conference in 2016: “You no longer have to whisper its name; it’s called socialism.” Pressed on what this means, though, his evangelism is tempered:
I don’t believe capitalism serves the interest of our country at the moment . I want to transform our economic system. That means transforming capitalism. That means working through institutions like the European Union to make sure they are more open and democratic so we can break the neoliberal straitjacket there is on economic policy within Europe.
McDonnell has broken a pre-2008 taboo by naming the system and calling it a problem, but transforming capitalism doesn’t sound the same as overthrowing it. Especially since the Brexit vote and the anxiety it generated, McDonnell has positioned himself as the “long-term” planner to end the rickety years of capitalist fundamentalism. Years of divesting from the state has paid poor dividends: failing infrastructure, an undereducated workforce, and measly aggregate demand. “Jeremy Corbyn and I are the stabilizers of capitalism,” he has proclaimed, echoing the claim Yanis Varoufakis once made for the role of the left in our moment.
He behaves like a man who believes that history is not over, even if established ways of picturing historical change on the radical left might be.Tweet
The crudest conclusion is that McDonnell has moved from smash-and-burn anticapitalism to “saving capitalism from itself.” The Tory Sunday Times agrees, albeit approvingly: “McDonnell has softened his antibusiness rhetoric as he begins his transformation from left-wing firebrand to chancellor-in-waiting.” One cannot be a firebrand in office, apparently — a certainty shared by historical determinists in the mainstream and on the radical left — since to be a government minister necessarily means to manage the status quo. Most commentators have managed to miss even this misreading. The Financial Times acknowledged the success of “Labour’s intellectual revolution” after the party’s strong electoral showing last year, but detected little besides the sudden reappearance of socialist orthodoxies. The Economist admits to being baffled by McDonnell, and concludes only that he has a confusing array of faces: “It is almost as if the true face is the Marxist who spent 35 years on the fringes of his party, whereas the other three are simply masks, put on to fool the voters.”
Two narratives thus predominate about John McDonnell. To most he is an unreconstructed “Marxist.” A few detect a conversion to moderation. In truth, something more interesting is afoot. On his appointment as Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, McDonnell immediately set about selecting a council of economic advisers that includes the mainstream economists Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. In speeches, he makes admiring references to the Bank of England’s thoughtful chief economist Andy Haldane. He has organized conferences on economic policy, noting with some pride that politicians in his job rarely do such things, and given a series of lectures outlining his thought. At the same time, he infuriates Labour’s “moderates” by maintaining a coterie of close advisers from the radical left.
Is he facing two ways? Perhaps, but the answer might also be that McDonnell is bringing an unusual confidence to the left. He behaves like a man who believes that history is not over, even if established ways of picturing historical change on the radical left might be. He thinks the case for dramatic change is strong. Even more remarkably, he thinks he now has a shot at implementing it.