The Alternative, An Alternative Approach

On Monday I posted about on the TUC’s ‘March for the Alternative’. In it I made the case that organized labour now faces a choice. It can either accept gradual extinction in a political settlement that privileges finance over both industrial production and the commonwealth, or it can provide a venue for a discussion about the country’s options that leads in turn to an altogether new political settlement.

The three major political parties are committed to the Thatcher/Blair accommodation of the City. As long as they continue to do so they are intellectually bankrupt. Labour and the Conservatives together devised the tilt towards finance. They both still insist that there is no alternative. The Liberals threw away whatever reservations they may have had the moment they caught a whiff of ministerial power. The government is now adopting the penny wise, pound foolish policies that did so much damage to Britain in the 1930s. Liberals then at least had the sense to champion Keynes’s ideas. Labour is playing for time, as far as I can tell. It is confident that it will reap the benefits of the Coalition’s unpopularity and romp to power in 2015 on a tide of vague talk about change and a new something or other.

The trade unions, not the Labour party, are the only serious obstacle to the Coalition’s plans. At the moment some of their leaders are talking about strikes. I would urge all those who are involved in the trade union movement – from the leadership of individual unions, to the TUC, to the millions of ordinary members like me – to begin organizing unofficial meetings to discuss the current economic and political situation and to formulate a comprehensive alternative to the current, finance-dominated system.

This will require that we all acknowledge the difficulties. A program that will deliver the common wealth will not serve everyone’s immediate self-interest. A smaller financial sector will impact on some trade unions, for example. Public sector workers are both the last outpost of trade union power and the people best placed to develop at alternative to the Coalition’s privatization-by-stealth. But their representatives have not embraced the challenge of reform that is also a process of democratization.

[For an interesting perspective on the possible role of the trade unions a venues for discovering the common good, see Hilary Wainwright’s work. Hilary edits Red Pepper magazine. Here she writes about how public sector workers in Newcastle fended off privatization by establishing closer ties to the wider public. If you haven’t heard about their achievement, you might ask yourself why that is. You might also wonder about its relevance in the current climate.]

More generally, a shift to industrial democracy will force the trade union movement to look beyond its traditional role as the representative of labour in its negotiations with capital. Trade unions will have to learn to support and assist workers who own the businesses they work in – employee-owned companies will still need collective institutions but their purpose will, in some ways, evolve. In other words, the political potential of trade unionism can no longer be delegated to the Parliamentary process. The membership of unions need now to assemble the knowledge they need if they are to democratize the workplace, even if this pushes some of their leaders out of their comfort zone.

[David Erdal has recently published a great book about the possibilities of industrial democracy, Beyond the Corporation. I should say at this point, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, that I commissioned it when I was working as an editor at Random House.]

The move away from finance will require a crash course in demystification. Our current arrangements depend on our not fully understanding how credit is created, or how the state and the private banking sector collaborate. The democratization of the workplace needs to run parallel with the steady democratization of decisions about investment. The traditional banking model hasn’t worked. Modern technology means that we can try something new – credit institutions that are accountable to the public and that are subject to meaningful and informed oversight. Rather than property bubbles we can channel investment into areas that hold out prospects of long-term growth. The profits generated by these institutions would be shared by those who own and guarantee them, the population as a whole. Of course we would be free to mismanage this new financial sector but we can hardly do a worse job than those who are currently in control of credit.

[The single best, and most prescient writer on reform of the financial sector is Ann Pettifor. In 20o6 she published a book called The Coming First World Debt Crisis. The title tells you most of what you need to know about her and all the prominent experts who failed to publish a book in 2006 called The Coming First World Debt Crisis. She now writes at Prime Economics. I recommend you look at her piece on the budget. The UK Uncut movement has mounted the most serious challenge so far to unreformed finance. If you want to understand the size and significance of what they are up against, check out Nick Shaxson’s book about the offshore system, Treasure Islands. I also commissioned Nick’s book when I was at Random House.]

Finally, we need to reform our communications institutions. The current crisis came as a complete surprise to most people in positions of power because the information on which we rely had become hopelessly unsafe. Both the state and private media have demonstrated their inability to state simple facts when doing so threatens the interests of those who benefit from current distribution of resources, opportunities and prestige. Organization at the workplace level needs to be networked nationally in a federal structure of free inquiry and discussion, as a prelude to a more formal round of media reform.

[I write about the crucial role of the media in sustaining an intellectually indefensible account of the world as the basis for political decision-making in The Return of the Public. If you’ve never heard that media reform is the most important single step we can take to escape from our current predicament, ask yourself this: who do you think was going to tell you? Someone who works in the media?]

A network of discussion groups that can figure out an alternative approach to political economy is a lot like a political party, when you think about it. Some groups of groups might conclude that they want to support their Labour MP, right or wrong. That is their prerogative, of course. Others might feel the need to exert gentle pressure on their constituency MP to adopt an rationally justifiable approach to matters of general concern – they might, say, invite them to a lecture on the basics of economic management. Some might even think it an idea to work with other groups to unseat MPs from all parties who are beyond redemption and replace them with candidates whose actions they will then closely monitor.

There are tools being created that help people exert pressure and to organize at the constituency level. If, as some argue, the country is run by shifty careerists who only care about keeping their seats, then a spot of highly targeted tough love might be in order.

If you are interested in organizing with colleagues, fellow church-goers or with your Facebook friends, then drop me a line and I will do what I can to help you get started. I am no kind of organizer, but I am happy to do what I can to help individual groups succeed and to make connections with other groups. If you already belong to a group somewhat like this, then do drop me a line and let me know. The people I mention above might be able to come and talk about their ideas, and to debate with you. There’s certainly no harm in asking, I would have thought.

I tweet at @danhind. You can find me on Facebook at Feel free to follow or friend me.

Or you can wait for Ed Miliband to rescue you from the wicked Coalition. Like when President Obama saved America from the evil Republicans.

The aim in all this is not to do away with the ruling class. The aim is to expand its numbers, until it includes everyone.


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