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.
These convictions demand left-wing answers to the challenges of the moment, and they encourage a good deal of intellectual looting from the best minds of bourgeois society. As mandarins to power, insightful mainstream economists may know the logic of the system and its development better than those on the left, even as they are crippled by a failure to envision its supersession. That was Marx’s presumption in a previous age of optimism about socialist ascent — but McDonnell is far from Marx and Marx’s moment. He will not speak of ending capitalism, and McDonnell’s attempt to rethink socialism follows from the rubble of a left that tried just that and failed. While the left in most of Europe and the Americas concentrates on dissecting its failures amid a resurgent right, in Britain, McDonnell is tasked with handling the frightening prospect of electoral success.
After enduring years of mockery — a young Tony Blair once quipped, “You really don’t have to worry about Jeremy Corbyn suddenly taking over” — the Labour left might now form the next government. What would they do with power? Much of the answer hangs on the challenges of Brexit and the ordinary traumas of state administration and class conflict, which threaten to derail any radical bid for power. But less attention has been paid to the shape of Labour’s vision. McDonnell talks as if the zeitgeist is at last with the socialists again. If he is right, his thinking tells us something of the world to come.
The British labor movement is not unique in having understood itself since the 1980s as a conservative force. In that decade, workers and unions fought bravely to save mining jobs and to resist automation in the print industry. These battles set the tone for the economic policy of the Labour left: existing communities of labor should be defended against the violent disruptions of deindustrialization. Corbyn’s brief suggestion that he might try to reopen closed coal mines, offered during his first campaign for Labour’s leadership, fits this pattern. The future is not always better than the past, and defensive conservatism was a way to oppose the acceleration of exploitation and alienation after the arrival of the International Monetary Fund in 1976. When that year a Labour government accepted an international bailout for Britain’s struggling economy, promising austerity in return, the chaos came retrospectively to mark the breakdown of the social-democratic project.
Some at the time thought this might be the radical left’s moment, its happy chance to take a great leap forward beyond capitalism. The corporatist compromise that militants had always opposed was finally dying, and powerful unions were helping to kill it. In the event, the left was pushed onto a defensive footing as Thatcherite radicalism tore chunks out of British society, smashing the workforce to extract more surplus value. Neither the labor movement nor the Labour Party could offer a competing vision of the future that went beyond defensive calls for deglobalization to develop the nation’s productive forces. The irony now is that a new left can emerge only on the basis of the defeats of the 1980s. Because the world of coal and the factory floor are gone, we are freed from defensive obligations and forced into creativity.
Marx’s savage treatment of nostalgic socialism in the Communist Manifesto, which established him as postcapitalist rather than anticapitalist, provides an instructive lesson. While 1848’s Manifesto shares much of the horror at capitalist degradations and depredations that marked the socialist tracts of his time and his own early work, Marx’s shrewd innovation was to claim that the productive virtues associated with capitalism would compel its demise, such that to critique it did not require a moral standpoint outside it. If such a futurist vision was rare on the left in Thatcher’s Britain, Marx’s warning is only firmer in our own times. “Let the dead bury their dead,” he wrote four years later, and let us take our “poetry [not] from the past but only from the future.”
These sentiments have not always been alien to the left. In the US, where to be “left-wing” has had especially dubious connotations since McCarthy, people call themselves “progressives” in an unconscious nod to this tradition. Lenin saw electrification as half the work of revolution. In Britain, Labour’s 1945 landslide election victory opened a new era by presenting nationalization as the image of the future: coordinated, efficient planning would overcome the anarchic backwardness of the free market. Two decades later another Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, pitted scientific advances against the archaic gentlemen’s clubs of Conservative ministers to hone an image of socialism as progress again.
Making any given vision look like the future is inherently ideological work, and it takes dexterity as well as favorable conditions to pull it off. In the early 1980s, Labour tried to depict monetarism as a clumsy return to the 1930s, but they were outdone by the Thatcherites’ successful recasting of state control as clunking, unresponsive, and cartelized. Markets, by contrast, were dynamic, slick, and empowering. Although Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were often derided on the left as neo-Thatcherites, it would be truer to say that Blair, Brown, and the whole New Labour project lacked the confidence Thatcher shared with Clement Attlee. New Labour was committed to the view that political change was possible only through offering huge concessions to the right. In economic policy, limited redistribution could take place by stealth as long as one acquiesced to the Thatcherite veneration of markets. In social policy, a grand narrative of tolerance could replace Thatcher’s Victorian values because — and this is the key point usually forgotten in Britain — a deep nastiness pervaded New Labour’s hostility toward fifth columns, from refugees to British Muslims. Some government ministers attacked asylum lawyers and said refugees were crafty economic migrants in disguise, while others called for Muslim children to spy on their parents and boasted that they would refuse to talk to Muslim women donning the niqab.
Like Labour’s fawning over Bush, that all looks like the drunken depravity of another world now. After New Labour came Ed Miliband, a Labour leader whose cautious moves leftward are sometimes seen as the bridge to Corbyn and McDonnell, but he too embraced a view of politics governed by fundamental tradeoffs: one could talk of inequality only while promising to continue austerity. For Miliband, as for Blair and Brown, claiming the future for the left seemed unrealistic.
In style if not substance, McDonnell represents a reversion to long-lost norms. He has enthusiastically embraced Labour’s history of futurism. His speech to Labour’s 2017 annual conference heralded Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson in exactly these terms and proclaimed:
If you study the history of our party, you will see that it’s always been the role of Labour governments to lead our country into each new era. . . . So as we now enter the next new era, the era of the fourth industrial revolution, I tell you it is a Corbyn Labour government that will. . . . lay the foundations of the new world that awaits us. That new world is being shaped already by the beginnings of the fourth industrial revolution. Huge changes are underway in our society and economy. Technological change is accelerating. This year, Chinese scientists used quantum mechanics to teleport data to a satellite. We can match that: we’ve got a Tory government teleported from the 18th century. We are determined that Britain embraces the possibilities of technological change — scary though that may be.
It is a claim repeated ad nauseam in McDonnell’s speeches, though too rarely noticed. We “must find new and better ways of working and living — not hanker after a mythical past,” he says in a coded attack on much recent left-wing thinking. Three intertwined principles provide an outline of his approach.
First, he wants to paint the state as the future again. McDonnell has consistently pinpointed a crisis of “chronic underinvestment” whose solution involves the participation of the “entrepreneurial state” admired by McDonnell’s adviser, the economist Mariana Mazzucato. Mazzucato sees the reflex to downplay the role of nation-states in directing long-term investment as a major flaw in the neoliberal worldview, insofar as it discourages states from making the investments necessary to ensure future prosperity. McDonnell often identifies several areas where private finance has failed to support lasting, sustainable growth: developing infrastructure, such as improved transport links to address regional problems of uneven development; supporting small and medium-size businesses, especially outside London and the southeast; and decarbonizing the economy, not least by investing in renewables. Climate change is a key case study in McDonnell’s argument for the necessity of long-term state planning. It’s an apparent externality that eventually becomes internal and detrimental to the market (which is partly how he conceives of low investment in infrastructure and skills, too).
McDonnell wants to portray state negligence as an incubator of disaster. Here, then, is McDonnell as capitalism’s would-be savior, repurposing for far less radical ends an old argument about the complex codependence of states and capital. According to Marx’s Capital, states secure the reproduction of capital writ large by sometimes setting themselves against individual bosses, who in their pursuit of accumulation and short-term returns fail to safeguard durable prosperity. Capitalists will immiserate their workers to the point of provoking political revolts and crises of underconsumption, and left to their own devices, capitalists also create supply-side underinvestment in both infrastructure and labor productivity — all of which have drastic spatial effects as wealth and poverty cluster at geographical nodes, whether in London and Blackpool or San Francisco and Flint. Fordist Keynesianism after 1945 was one governmental project designed to avert some of these risks. McDonnell’s claim is that the sustained backlash against Keynesianism in recent decades has returned us to the anemic position it once sought to cure. This is the first and least original step in his argument.
Second, McDonnell’s entrepreneurial state would seek to harness and redirect transformations associated with technology, particularly the ascent of “platform capitalism,” in which huge profits flow to a tiny club of inventors and owners while technology undermines the job security of workers. If Marx thought that past industrial revolutions created capitalism’s gravedigger, the threat of the fourth industrial revolution is that the gravedigger will be a robot.1 McDonnell and his team see big changes on the horizon. State and collective ownership of profitable platforms is crucial to preventing gaping inequalities from worsening into postwork dystopias. McDonnell gives the following mission to his entrepreneurial state:
The new National Investment Bank and network of regional development banks will be tasked with supplying the funding to help support a new generation of cooperatively owned Ubers and Airbnbs.
In the medium term, automation offers a basis to question socialism’s long and deep investment in utopias of work, and we are already beginning to see a vision of left-wing politics as a struggle over the distribution of time. In recent months, McDonnell has floated a four-day working week and a universal basic income. These represent the most significant signs of originality since Labour’s 2017 manifesto, and suggest a willingness to have socialist politics remake its constituency and not just protect labor against the ravages of capital. As Italian autonomists had it in the 1970s, the proletariat should be a class “against itself,” seeking the abolition of its own abject condition of possibility: toil. In McDonnell’s emerging vision, collective ownership of new technologies can ensure that prosperity flows from automation to everyone, replacing labor with leisure. The fact that in 2017 McDonnell could tell the Labour conference — an organization whose very name denotes a fidelity to work — that “by the middle of this century, it is possible that up to half of all the jobs we do now could be automated away” and not mean simply to terrify his audience hints at the considerable ideological ructions underway.
The third feature of McDonnell’s approach is perhaps the most surprising. In a speech at the London School of Economics in 2016, McDonnell conjured Friedrich von Hayek to offer a critique of postwar social democracy. “Top-down nationalization,” McDonnell said, failed to recognize that “centralized bureaucracies can be overwhelmed by the information-processing demands of complex, modern societies.” Hayek’s error, McDonnell went on, lay in his failure to accept that this was true of public and private bureaucracies. Against the despotism of corporate governance, McDonnell championed the “decentralized socialism” of cooperatives. He depicts as an extension of Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme — for transforming tenants of state housing into property owners — a new Right to Own scheme that would open businesses to their workers. He stresses that cooperatives can make better, more productive and profitable businesses. In the futurist frame, this means presenting socialist politics as healthy progress rather than a defense of what is under attack. It echoes Marx’s understanding of the move from capitalism to socialism as the full flowering of the achievements of bourgeois society rather than their reversal. If Thatcher presented her politics as empowering ordinary people against unresponsive bureaucracies, McDonnell’s clever move is to make that the language of socialism again: this is empowerment shorn of Thatcher’s atomistic individualism and pitted against the corporate bosses Thatcher adored. McDonnell has also stressed that the neo-Hayekian view has dramatic implications for state institutions, which he wants to reorganize to make less centralized and less preoccupied with short-term targets.
This last point might sound borrowed from the 1990s, when “market socialists” and others joined the chorus condemning the state. Such condemnations feel outmoded after 2008, when the long-derided nation-state saved global capitalism with coordinated potency. What McDonnell intends is not to abandon the left’s commitment to the state but to modify it. He still seeks the nationalization of railways and utilities and the return of unabashed economic planning. The modification is crucial, insofar as it quietly reframes a late 19th-century socialist norm hardly retained after 1945 except by Trotskyists: that nationalization does not truly break with capitalism if bourgeois technocrats continue to run services that have passed into the nominal control of the taxpayer. The key demand for socialists is direct workers’ control, not only de jure ownership of the economy. Now that view is back in McDonnell’s “institutional turn” (the approving characterization of two academics, Martin O’Neill and Joe Guinan), and it has begun to attract some belated media attention in Britain. Finding license for this position in Hayek might seem mischievous, but McDonnell is right to stress the historically broad political appeal of arguments against centralized bureaucracies. John Maynard Keynes struck a remarkably similar note in 1925:
I believe that in the future the Government will have to take on many duties which it has avoided in the past. For these purposes Ministers and Parliament will be unserviceable. Our task must be to decentralize and devolve wherever we can, and in particular to establish semi-independent corporations and organs of administration to which duties of government, new and old, will be entrusted.
In short, Labour is demanding a three-pronged, state-led change in market patterns of production. The party wants to establish the infrastructure and capital for business growth in deprived regions, to pour money into technological innovation, and to alter norms of economic ownership by doubling the cooperative sector. That last point is perhaps the most significant. Like Marx, McDonnell knows that changes in modes of production, not distribution, mark epochal transitions: “We’re not just a party that thinks how to spend money,” he says. “We need to be a party that thinks how to earn money.” He gestures toward a future that marries democratic ownership and automation as a wholesale alternative to private control over the drudgery of wage work.
McDonnellism means to reclaim from neoliberals the imagery of the future, replacing its antibureaucratism with a desire for grand design from above in harmony with dynamism from below. Colossal state investment could unleash technology cooperatives across the land, tapping potential once left languishing by an absent state. Finland, McDonnell says, saw its lumber-exporting economy transformed into a technology-exporting economy by careful and bold state direction. Japan invests in a robotics strategy. Germany in the “industrial internet.” McDonnell notes it all. He goes further than the textbook Keynesian claim that markets require state efforts to boost effective demand: McDonnell adds a deep, radical interest in patterns of ownership and a historically situated argument about postindustrial technology and its connection to futurist politics. And he moves beyond the postwar social-democratic inheritance by placing a desire for popular control alongside material comfort in the left’s toolbox.
Two caveats about McDonnell’s futurism. First, he flits between portraying Conservative ministers as delivering a nightmarish future and as impeding the future by failing to promote high-tech growth. He warns of two divergent paths opened up by automation: a postwork utopia and a postwork dystopia, in which the difference is determined by the ownership of technologies. This is not naive futurism. Progress can be the “catastrophe” depicted in one brand of 20th-century Marxism, such that the task of radicals is not simply to advance to history’s next station but to switch our train to a wholly different track, and to use levers of collective agency (the state, say) to veer away from the destination our current course makes most likely.
Second, like most brands of futurism, McDonnell’s has some recuperative content, seeking to salvage aspects of a lost past or dying present in superior form. McDonnell quotes Carlo Levi: “The future has an ancient heart.” Miliband edged far more cautiously and haphazardly toward a re-imagined political economy — he spoke of distinguishing “productive” from “predatory” capitalists, and of “predistribution” to complement redistribution — but it is striking that he leaned more aggressively on the traditional claims of the left to rally his base (poverty, employment insecurity) than McDonnell does now. McDonnell does mention the gamut of Miliband concerns, including rising homelessness, food-bank use, and insecure, precarious work, and adds to them traditional territories Miliband desperately avoided, above all support for strikes. His biggest headline shift was to brand Labour an anti-austerity party, freeing him to support public spending increases that Miliband’s commitment to deficit reduction ruled out.
But McDonnell’s objection to Conservative politics is not suspended at the level of moral protest, which is why he sounds more upbeat than Miliband and more optimistic than the radical left has long been. To understand why, we must draw an important distinction between rival ways of thinking about politics: one in which politics is understood as a competition between normative claims alone, and another in which those norms — opposition to wide inequalities, say — are presented as the corollaries of a technical plan rooted in a theory of history. Such a theory claims to explain how social relations are mutating, so that the task of politics is to work out how a given moment makes it possible to enact particular iterations of much more general normative commitments. But the dissident norms remain. If futurism is the ideological offspring of capitalist society, with its need for endless dynamism as the only alternative to death, then McDonnell’s recuperative futurism is not uncritical. It is, rather, closer to an immanent critique of capitalist futurism, combining futurist foundations with concerns for the experiences of the poor that capitalist futurism sometimes scorns. As Labour plans billions in infrastructure spending while committing much less to reversing Conservative welfare cuts, however, the dangers of this particular futurist configuration are worth highlighting. Grand, gleaming construction excites more than a safety net for the disabled, but to make railways and new technologies the image of the future is to think like a 19th-century bourgeois.
McDonnell is — usually — better than that. Far more than most politicians charged with money management, McDonnell has made climate change central. He refers to dire warnings from critical scholarship about the Anthropocene. He talks always of developing an “economically and environmentally sustainable” economic model. Environmentalism provides an excellent analogy for his whole thinking. One claim of environmentalism is that drastic changes in our way of life might be necessary to save our lives. That is the logic of McDonnell’s recuperative futurism, and for all their differences it hints at what unites Marx and Keynes — the figures between whom McDonnell seems poised. Both saw apocalypses on the horizon: for Marx it was proletarian immiseration, falling rates of profit, and the grisly end of class struggle in “the common ruin of the contending classes”; for Keynes, poverty, revolution, and above all, war. Both thought it was possible to avoid catastrophe, and that the radical changes necessary to do so could dramatically improve the human condition. They touted defensive mechanisms that would also conquer new ground. In their traditions, McDonnell hopes to marry the fear of a possible apocalypse, a belief in political contingency, and an optimistic futurism to forge a robust orientation to politics.
In his immediate interest in improving the management of capitalist production, McDonnell echoes Keynes more than Marx, and his affinities with Keynes extend to his account of why capitalism has become so damaging in the hands of a particular social group. He is concerned less with the bourgeoisie in general than with rentiers in particular. In a past moment of capitalist crisis in the 1930s, a particular understanding arose among everyone from liberals to fascists of debts and rents as political categories. Keynes was one articulate exponent of this politics, where the problem of rents was understood above all as a problem of control over the future.
Keynes’s central interest in his 1936 masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, is not at all in effective demand, as later readers frequently thought, but rather and more radically in capital. Near the end of the text he hails a “brave army of heretics” who stood outside the development of professional economics, whose sums often failed to add up, but whose praiseworthy skepticism toward invisible hands saw them each highlight in different ways the existence and dangers of underconsumption as an organic symptom of capitalism. Keynes then underscored the lack of democratic oversight of the future, as capitalists’ investment decisions instead shaped the world and led to the disastrous inequalities and wars of his age. Problems including underconsumption had their root in the uneven distribution of wealth and power synonymous with the existence of a permanent capitalist class of owners and rentiers, whose wealth derives (as Marx might have put it) from their ability to command labor power through their control over wealth-producing wealth. From ownership stems an ability to charge others for the conditions of their existence — to hold power over them by charging them long into the future.
Keynes thought the desire for accumulation presented grave moral hazards — the wealthy, he observed, lived in the leisure he hoped would soon be possible for all, and yet they lived viciously — and it was a severe practical problem, too. Where his political program had once been deliberately open and uncertain, heavily characterized by the veneration of experimentation, Keynes was by 1936 a postcapitalist in the sense that Thorstein Veblen, Joseph Schumpeter, and later Fernand Braudel distinguished “markets” from “capitalism.” He sought not to abolish market exchange or the law of value as the predominant principle of distribution, but ultimately to abolish capitalists as personal stores of great wealth whose investment decisions could shake millions of lives. This was to redefine capitalism as a crisis-ridden system of circulation, not production — to isolate the hoarding of cash by the wealthy as its constitutive feature, and the inhibition of the free flow of money to the people and businesses who needed it as its inbuilt harm.
“The ultimate foundation of capitalism,” Keynes had already written in 1919, was the “relations between debtors and creditors.” The last of his heretics in The General Theory is Silvio Gesell, the finance minister in a soviet government dominated by anarchists during Germany’s abortive 1918 revolution, who proposed time-stamped money that would decrease in value every day it was not spent.2 Keynes praised him lavishly, and David Harvey has recently recruited him as a crucial inspiration; both surely found in Gesell the end of capitalism, the near impossibility of accumulation and hoarding. For his part, Keynes advocated that ownership of capital should be democratized by ending incentives to hoard, by slashing interest rates first of all, so that capital would flow more freely. As in Schumpeter’s monetary analysis and Gesell’s claim that Marx had poorly defined “capital” by concentrating too little on money, this is a view that makes the circulation of money the key metric of where control over the future lies.
This focus on capital and rents continues to inspire. Where Keynes long ago sought “the euthanasia of the rentier,” McDonnell now defines the present as “the rentier economy, where wealth is secured not by what you produce, but by the amount of rent you can charge.” That perspective frames everything for McDonnell. As rates of profit have slumped and opportunities for profitable investment have dwindled, he highlights corporate “hoarding” as a central challenge. Companies sit on cash or funnel it into assets rather than investing in businesses. Keynes’s two anxieties thus reappear: first, that capitalist hoarding drains the circulation of money to grow businesses seeking credit. McDonnell emphasizes the geography of the problem and proposes moving the Bank of England to Birmingham as the symbolic summit of a strategy to draw money out of London, a strategy funded by a network of state-funded regional investment banks. He entertains Gesell-like ideas of negative interest rates (now mainstream), and Corbyn’s enthusiasm for People’s Quantitative Easing is now expressed in McDonnell’s desire to borrow freely for everything defined as “investment.”
Keynes’s second anxiety was that scarce capital produces a class of rentiers who invest in ownership rather than productivity. McDonnell uses this insight to argue for rent controls and tenants’ rights to dramatically alter the balance of power in housing; he seeks limits on the debt that credit card companies can extract and the abolition of higher education fees. All this means abolishing Maurizio Lazzarato’s “indebted man” as a subject-position of our times: disempowered, afraid of the future, alien to the confidence of struggle. McDonnell ended 2017 with a warning about escalating personal debt. Household debt is first of all a symbol of the failure to secure rising productivity and pay, but it is also a class question, since it generates individual and corporate creditors whose accumulation relies not on producing use values, not even on producing exchange values, but only on perpetuating a generally deleterious status quo in which life’s goods — housing, education, money itself — are kept as scarce and pricey as possible.3 And so the futurist development of the productive forces and the achievement of abundance require confronting this social class. A focus on rents completes McDonnellism by locating its class politics. Rentiers are the enemy of the future, those who profit from present stagnation. Thus class is expressed in part as age, where older voters are more likely to be property owners and the young are burdened with debts, so that Britain’s new age-based political binaries do not represent the death of class politics as is sometimes supposed.
But the young are not the only losers in contemporary Britain. McDonnell’s demands for decentralized nationalization — local co-ops as opposed to the rule of London — make good on his antirentier politics by concentrating on natural monopolies like utilities, in which profits flow in large part from ownership over assets: railways, water pipes, and the electricity grid. His emphasis on the potentially cost-neutral, long-term reality of nationalization stems from confidence that assets that benefit from public subsidies currently send wealth flowing to small numbers of owners, sometimes in tax havens, such that private ownership funnels profits away from the communities that use them. It is a leak in the economic water cycle, which McDonnell hopes to fix.
Concern about rents, then, is connected to McDonnell’s technocratic political economy of geography. Distant rentiers evoke the problem of parasitism, in which prosperity is held back when surplus value produced in Britain’s North (for example) is realized in London. Wealth is sucked away and concentrated elsewhere, and a developmentalist strategy would be to relocalize the realization of surplus value — to use nationalization under regionally devolved control to plug that geographical leak provided by remote rentiers. This is the model employed locally by Preston City Council, to McDonnell’s considerable admiration. Antirentier politics signal McDonnell’s recovery of the radical Keynes, the figure of the crisis-ridden 1930s and not the stable ’50s.
Keynes’s conservatism inhered more in his means than in his ends. The supreme virtue of his aspirations, he boasted in closing The General Theory, was that they could overcome rentier capitalism without the need for revolution or class confrontation. He was explicit about his loyalties: his mission was to ensure that wise, inclusive politics would soothe class tensions and prevent the need for open battles between groups, but “the Class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie.” Proletarians in general and organized labor in particular he saw as an oppressive vested interest. Keynes trusted the technical expertise of elites to reorder society a good deal more than he trusted political struggle from those with a world to win.
McDonnell knows better. In one speech, he highlighted a paper from the IMF’s chief economist that sees in austerity not poor or stupid thinking, but rather a structurally necessary program to sustain an economy dominated by finance, where state revenues must be kept available for bailouts and not tied up in public services — class interests and not just bad ideas, in McDonnell’s presentation. Keynes failed to see the need for a fight to depose rentier interests.
Lenin mounted a similar and compelling critique of Keynes in 1920 after the publication of Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace. Keynes’s diagnoses and prescriptions were all absolutely right, Lenin told the Comintern in 1920, but his hope in eventual Allied “generosity” as a vehicle for realizing them was bound to disappoint. Keynes was “agitating for Bolshevism,” Lenin thought, since others would see the “madness” he highlighted and seek out more reliable antagonists to battle against it. As Keynes had it in a revealing 1925 lecture, “Am I A Liberal?”, “It is necessary for a successful Labour leader to be, or at least to appear, a little savage. It is not enough that he should love his fellow-men; he must hate them too.” Keynes thought that a bad thing; we might depart from him there.
This is a bid to find new things, to insist that our condition is not (as it may be) constitutively tragic for socialists.Tweet
Keynesian thinking is not entirely absent, though, from McDonnell’s political strategy. McDonnell now calls not for “insurrection” (as he has before) but for an alliance of proletarians, debtors, and sectors of capital to overthrow the outmoded institutions and rentier interests blocking his technofuturism. He heaps praise on businesses and bosses who invest in renewables and high-tech innovation, and promises to mirror Finland, Germany, China, and Japan in offering them state support. He presents himself as the bringer of much-needed liquidity and growth to Britain’s poorer regions, and therefore suggests that entrepreneurs in those regions ally with him against finance capital and its Conservative friends. He hopes that cooperative ownership of new firms will decrease hoarding without the need for immediate demands to expropriate existing capitalists. Here he echoes not Keynes, but 19th-century utopian socialists like Louis Blanc, who thought the French state could fund cooperative production to whittle away at capitalist norms until eventually they faded from history. Now McDonnell hopes the promise of supply-side investment can wean some capitalists from their temporary loyalties to neoliberalism, and that putting workers on company boards and investing in automation and cooperatives can begin to transform the structure of capitalism.
This is, at least, a strategy. It comprises a willingness to face bad new times rather than live as if in the good old days — acknowledging the absence of any subaltern agent ready to man barricades in Britain today — and a refusal to lapse into fatalism. The lack of a vanguard and (more importantly) a rearguard for insurrection need not mean that nothing good is possible, or that capitalist crises and fetters must end in chaotic disintegration. After the neoliberal revolution destroyed the agents and voided much of the content of past visions of social transformation, this is a bid to find new things, to insist that our condition is not (as it may be) constitutively tragic for socialists.
Yet McDonnell has no intention of abandoning the British proletariat as a radical political subject. On the contrary: unlike Keynes and those postwar social democrats for whom boosting effective demand was an end in itself — returning large populations to well-paid, stable jobs and thus, perhaps, to docility — it seems to me that McDonnell wants the return of good jobs for a quite different reason: they might grant the working class the footing to rise out of docility. McDonnell wants to create the conditions of possibility for a new working class that can agitate and advocate for itself, empowered and emboldened by the novel experience of running firms democratically. He wants to make the state a lever from above for reigniting industrial politics from below, which has long been dormant. He wants to free trade unions from the legal shackles imposed by Conservative governments, and then flood them with members in jobs created by a National Investment Bank and its network of regional outposts. There is a covert conservatism here: solar-panel makers are not miners, but they are still producers, and thus the traditional subjects of emancipatory politics. This suggests a certain nostalgia, and dreams of reindustrializing Britain must face the reality that mass capitalist production now takes place more cheaply in the Global South. But this is no mere Fordist reenactment, as the emphases on democratic control and automation demonstrate. McDonnell seeks the popular administration of leisure as an embryo of life after capitalism. He makes rentiers the first enemy of that project.
This “stagist” approach produces a conflicted politics, however, and raises the question of in what sense McDonnell’s policies are really socialist at all. McDonnell champions parts of the bourgeoisie for now — and for how long? His immediate plans to take on finance capital involve summoning a national bloc of debtors, workers, and industrial capitalists to support him; less clear is what will happen when his target shifts to those very industrial capitalists he needs now. If workers strike at Ecotricity, a company whose boss McDonnell praises as exemplifying the sustainable model he wants to build, what would McDonnellism say?
Targeting finance capital is a mission that can unfold on an antineoliberal horizon. Expropriating all capital requires a longer socialist one. This is where things get hazy. Keynes’s stated hope to deliver “peace in the short run” feels like a statement of McDonnell’s mission now; he says he wants to replicate Clement Atlee, who dragged Britain’s center leftward in 1945, though McDonnell knows that Attlee’s achievement did not last. McDonnell has Keynes’s temporality, and not Marx’s: his is a fix to improve things until the next crisis more than a proposal to end cycles of crisis for good. In dismal days for the left, McDonnell is a socialist concerned with reviving one precondition for socialism — its actors. His plan would enlist the support of sections of industry to rebuild their own gravedigger. But the really tough challenge, as the 1970s left discovered, then becomes what to do with those actors, how they might enact the deferred break from capitalist society. Worse, even the frail, temporary social-democratic settlement possible in Atlee’s time is far less achievable now, given the uneven balance of power between the British state and the international lenders McDonnell will need if his National Investment Bank is to get off the ground. McDonnell knows this too; he echoes the grandeur of Keynes’s vision in calling for a new Bretton Woods agreement and stressing that our challenges are global. But his domestic political economy still smacks of national developmentalism in the postwar vein, and in Corbyn’s “Build it in Britain” strategy the left’s classic problem of dual loyalties is manifest. How to champion internationalist principles and a domestic electorate at the same time? Labour’s new thinking faces a host of old problems. Grand successes remain unlikely.
It is tempting to forget that now, since McDonnell has a burning task on his hands. His immediate mission is to shatter a national political map dominated by cultural binaries only heightened by Brexit, where social sadism reigns. Labour’s future rests on its ability to align voters on economic issues — to talk of debts and rents and jobs and so to reconstitute class politics. In practice that means assembling a counterhegemonic bloc to unite older white voters in postindustrial towns with younger city dwellers, and this is a tough task today.
If McDonnell’s recuperative futurism can revive local communities with new technologies rather than with nostalgia for closed coal mines, he will have succeeded in articulating the submerged common interests of the low-waged and the unemployed from Brixton to Bolsover. Labour has already had some success in this regard, providing a popular left-wing language of anti-elitism that’s spared Britain from the European norm in which far-right parties attract the discontented and prosper. Amid liberal fears about Brexit, this is often missed, though it really is our only hope. Still liberals cling to Keynes’s hope for salvation in the “educated bourgeoisie,” now imagined in Britain as cultured, cosmopolitan Europhiles, the symbol of all things good.4 Progress is thus coded as the enemy not only of aristocrats but more aggressively of many proletarians. Implicitly or explicitly, this is the vision of anti-Brexit “Remoaners,” and it has been the assumption of postindustrial “modernizers” in all political parties over recent decades too. It has only produced the bitter democratic impasse from which McDonnellism now hopes to save us.
Platform Capitalism is the title of a 2016 book by Nick Srnicek, a futurist whose previous book raised the slogan “demand full automation” for the left, and whom McDonnell invited to Parliament to address his New Economics seminar series. An autonomist previously critical of parliamentary politics, Srnicek’s involvement represents a trend in Labour’s new thinking, in which it draws heavily from radicals outside its own tradition. Corbyn and McDonnell are valuably distinctive for their long involvement in social struggles that put them in dialogue with people to Labour’s left. ↩
It is worth noting the charge leveled by Keynes’s Marxist student Maurice Dobb, who saw in Gesell’s conscious move away from Marx’s architecture of social relations to a more singular focus on money the shadow of anti-Semitic political economy, where “money power” is a coded reference to Jews. Keynes was an anti-Semite, less out of a special concern with Jewish conspiracies and more as a general cultural essentialist who thought Jews naturally “avaricious” and so worried about their influence in Bolshevik Russia. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that to Keynes attacking money lust, as he recommends, presumptively meant making the world less Jewish. ↩
The general point about problematically private control over money is perhaps best exemplified by an example McDonnell has not yet used, which is huge profits flowing to private banks from seigniorage. McDonnell has not borrowed Martin Wolf’s suggestion that control over the production of money ought to be renationalized. ↩
One liberal response is now to abandon democracy, having seen that championing the liberal bourgeoisie makes for a poor democratic strategy. David Runciman was ahead of the curve, arguing in 2015, a year before Britain’s EU referendum, in the London Review of Books, “It pains me to say it, but if ever an election needed a bit of fixing it was this one.” He was referring to the impending likelihood that Jeremy Corbyn would be elected Labour leader. ↩