Rediscovering left-wing agency

17 August 2020

In the third of a four-part series, Ben Hunter and Chris Carlon imagine the potential future of the British state

To read the previous part in this series, click here.

When imagining the potential future of the British state, the two overly simplistic poles of ‘big’ and ‘small’ become merely rhetoric on behalf or against their respective camps.  Boris Johnson’s referral to Jeremy Corbyn’s free broadband proposal as a ‘crazed communist scheme‘ is a case in point. State intervention is seen as either inherently desirable or inherently flawed. Boris Johnson even deemed it necessary to reiterate that he ‘is not a communist‘ when revealing his new plans for the economy – which is a prime example of this. With this in mind, how does the British public debate move forward?

To begin thinking about the future we need a foundation to build upon. One can argue that works from Chantal Mouffe, Enesto Laclau and Alain Supiot provide useful, and complementary starting points. In their book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Mouffe and Laclau argue against inefficacious attempts at compromise between the centre-left and centre-right – embodied in flimsy Third Wayism. They assert that a clear distinction between left and right must be maintained, new political frontiers must be drawn and, inevitably, there must be a certain level of exclusion. This perspective mirrors the empirical reality that true changes to the form of the state haven’t come from the centre, but from the right or left.

Similarly, in Homo Juridicus: On the Anthropological Function of the Law, Alain Supiot argues against the current tendency for law to be but a mere procedural tool for the expansion of international financial capital. Supiot argues that positive law – that is to say, human-made law – is being continually subsumed into a framework that is dictated by what are considered as ‘scientific economic laws’. In light of this, Supiot asserts that we must recognise the force of positive law and reclaim it as a tool to humanise our surroundings, and in turn provides a fine analysis of how positive law has been essential in humanising the potential excesses of technology. For example, given that new technologies effectively remove the distinction between home and office, Supiot claims that positive law will be crucial in restricting the possibility of ‘ubiquitous availability’ which new communication technologies unavoidably create. To be clear, Supiot argues that the possibility for people to be online 24/7 doesn’t necessarily entail an obligation to do so. The French government’s decision to provide legislation that seeks to limit the pressures of excessive email checking outside of working hours, by providing a ‘right to disconnect ’, is a prime example of Supiot’s argument in practice – that is to say, using the law to proactively shape the social world and not as a mere mediator of forces seen as natural inevitabilities, such as the primacy of the market or the expansion of neo-liberal globalisation. Supiot’s argument provides an insightful ideational basis for thinking about the purpose of the state going forward, especially as we contend that the UK state should now be seeking to actively reorient the UK’s political and economic environment, and to not merely uncritically prop up the existing one.

Overall, both bodies of work encourage us to move beyond a fatalistic interpretation of neo-liberal globalisation as some form of natural immutable law or, to ironically borrow a concept from Marxism, a historical necessity. Both Thatcher’s famous ‘TINA’ (there is no alternative) and Blair’s ‘we’re all Internationalists now, whether we like it or not’ embody this fatalistic inevitability, stifling any suggestion for change. In light of this, one could argue that the current nature of the UK government’s intervention since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic continues along this line, and is yet to take any serious steps to challenge the status quo, with its interventions amounting to nothing more than a defensive neo-liberal posture.

In contrast to this defensive approach, we believe that an honest, and purposeful rearticulation of the UK state in the post COVID-19 era should take decisive action in three key areas, namely: an expansion of democracy; embracing economic statecraft; and adopting a non-belligerent conception of national sovereignty.

An Expansion of Democracy 

Contrary to popular belief, the purpose or aim of democracy, if such a thing exists, cannot be said to reside in a representative centralised parliament elected by universal suffrage in a first past the post system. One only has to look at the variety of democratic frameworks and electoral systems across the world, and examine the alternative forms of electoral setup, for example the single transferable vote, as outlined by the likes of the UK’s Electoral Reform Society.

Despite devolution in the UK, our current democratic setup is persistently marred by over-centralisation and a restrictive conception of the institutions and political spaces suitable for democratic activity. Indeed, people can have a voice through, for example, joining political parties or manifesting discontent in the streets. However such voices are almost always diluted in public discourse by the voices of political representatives. There is simply no reason why a further expansion of certain legislative and executive powers to regions, cities and workers cannot be envisaged – unless one holds the belief that normal people cannot be trusted with political responsibility beyond that of voting. Rory Stewart, former Conservative MP, was vocal in his desire for a ‘Citizens Assembly’ to develop a Brexit compromise, showing he is well aware of the need and potential for greater levels of direct democracy in the UK.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the 19th century French philosopher and politician, who was critical of both representative democracy and universal suffrage, was firm in his belief that people should be given more political responsibility – that social justice was not a question of redistributing capital more evenly, or of forcing an equality of outcome, but should be primarily motivated by giving people the political autonomy to shape their own lives, especially in their places of work. Proudhon, whose work is explored in depth in Iain Mckay’s Property is Theft!: A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology, a key inspiration for a lot of left wing thought to date, although without the limelight of Karl Marx, offers an array of feasible ideas to achieve a fairer and more equal society, including national investment banks, the mutualisation of businesses, and the decentralisation of power, to name three brief examples.

In light of the problems we highlighted in the government’s centralised response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as those relating to the furlough scheme, our current moment should be taken as an opportunity to rearticulate our democratic foundations. This can allow us to: provide regions and cities with greater political autonomy to safeguard against future pandemics and crises; to provide people with more direct involvement in the future of the UK, and to address economic and political areas of concern by, for example, facilitating a large scale public debate on what jobs we will need in the future.

There is an array of policy ideas on the subject of democratic reform but many popular ones include reviewing the electoral system; reforming the House of Lords; introducing news forms of democracy in the workplace; expanding devolution to regions and cities and creating democratic citizen bodies on key issues. Space does not allow us to go into great detail regarding the positives of each of these options, but regarding the last point, as already stated, Rory Stewart has been a vocal advocate for the potential benefits of founding a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ to arrive at a compromise concerning Brexit. Recently, France has also made use of this idea by creating a ‘convention citoyenne pour le climat‘ (Citizen convention for the climate) – with 150 citizens being given a political mandate to form legislative proposals which will all be subjected to either referendums, parliamentary debate, or adopted directly. Similarly, it is worth noting that Ireland also serves as a useful example for the potential benefits of citizen assemblies. We believe that a citizens’ assembly could be implemented for a post-COVID UK, in order to address the political and economic issues discussed in this article.

For now, following the government’s COVID-19 response, we are yet to see any form of sustained challenge against the political practices that obscure our democracy – practices which have arguably weakened our response to the crisis. With the UK government now making every promise imaginable, for economic recovery, we unfortunately expect the post-COVID world to be just as centralised as before. One obstacle to change is what Francis Dupuis-Déri highlights as ‘l’agoraphobie politique– which can loosely be defined as a fear of direct democracy. This red thread runs through most of Francis Dupuis-Déri’s work, as he seeks to highlight the disdain the founders of our democratic institutions had for the very notion of direct democracy – and the consequent idea that ‘normal people’ could ever be capable of governing themselves, or of participating in government beyond electing a representative. The many scornful reactions from both the left and the right regarding how people voted during the Brexit referendum, support this view, reinforcing the idea that the ‘people’ never know what is good for them.

Embracing Economic Statecraft

In their article, Linda Weiss and Elizabeth Thurbon coin the term ‘economic statecraft’ – a useful conceptual lens through which to view state intervention in the economy. Weiss and Thurbon seek to move away from the tendency to equate any state with an industrial policy as a potential developmental state. The authors add nuance to the debate through their desire to differentiate between types of intervention. Economic statecraft is unique in that it focuses on the way states orchestrate society-state/government-business relations within the economy to overcome specific, external geopolitical or geo-economic threats. This is different than just merely adopting an industrial strategy to increase, for example, the supply of certain goods for GDP purposes.

For instance, Weiss and Thurbon give the example of South Korea whose contemporary interventions in its economy can be placed within the context of a geo-economic threats from China and North Korea. The USA is also used as an example where the primary driver for state intervention in the economy has arguably national security – with Weiss and Thurbson arguing that technological innovation in the US would never have been as advanced if it were not for geopolitical drivers, such as the Cold War. Concerning the UK, with Brexit on the horizon and the possibility of future pandemics amid a growing crisis of the existing international order, it would seem that the geopolitical and geo-economic conditions are ripe for change to occur in the UK – exemplified by the UK government now beginning to review its dependency on China. We believe that the UK government should continue to highlight clear external threats and should seek to orchestrate responses to them – although it must be stressed that such responses are by no means predestined to be belligerent.

If the UK is to mount effective responses to external threats then the current nature of UK employment will require sustained and profound renewal. Clearly, we argue, the government’s response to COVID does not do this, thus far at least. Our recovery should not be measured in quantitative terms alone either – by rising employment levels or increased consumer spending. The very nature of work in the UK must be refashioned. Boris Johson’s new post-COVID slogan currently amounts to ‘build, build, build’ – with some critics rightly arguing that we in fact need ‘builders, builders, builders‘ if we are to do this. However, you could in fact take this one step further, as to build you need builders, and for builders you need to train skilled workers. Consequently, perhaps the government’s new strategy, especially given the nature of UK employment highlighted in our furlough critique, should in fact be ‘retrain, retrain, retrain’. IPPR – when commenting on industrial strategy – has often argued, although not explicitly using an economic statecraft analysis, for policies which would lead the UK in this direction, by for instance, diversifying UK exports, supporting frontier firms, raising productivity in the everyday economy, investing in research and development and creating national investment banks. The IPPR also calls for the UK to create new demand within the UK economy and to support existing UK firms to find a place within it.

To give an example, when Labour passed their 2008 Climate Change Act, government policy put a large emphasis on areas such as offshore wind power – the UK’s low carbon industrial strategy was created and later retained by the coalition government. In this new context, the product of conscious political action, demand was stimulated for wind turbines and the goods and services linked to them. Thanks to this strategy, the UK now has 9 offshore wind turbine manufacturing and assembly plants, with the supply side employing around 13,000 people and expanding into Europe. This is despite the UK possessing no offshore wind turbine manufacturing or assembly plants to begin with. This a prime example of the state intervening with a purpose to build the economy in the face of an external threat – in this case, climate change.

Around 4.9 million people work in wholesale and retail services in the UK, whereas around only 90,000 people work in aerospace manufacturing industries, an emblem of the UK’s low-productivity issue . With jobs being lost to coronavirus, our dependence on globalised supply chains becoming more and more apparent, and the uncertainties of Brexit, a reimagined connection between the UK economy and the state could act as an anchor, providing a new strategic direction for the country. In order to do so, the government must fully embrace a sovereignty that, whilst imbued with a sense of national renewal, seeks that renewal in the form of social and economic justice rather than through identity-based nationalism. Pursuit of the latter has led to a conception of national sovereignty as purely belligerent and antagonistic. It’s become an object of the culture war, associated more closely with the English Defence League than progressive interventionist policies, an especially curious observation considering the proposed nationalisation of key industries within the Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto. Taking sovereignty away from the far-right and reclaiming it for the progressive left therefore seems a timely move, at once legitimising a purposeful state whilst also dulling the far-right’s harsher edges.