Republicanism in Europe

The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.

Karl Marx

Lea Ypi of the LSE has written a interesting blogpost arguing that the electoral left’s accommodation with the capitalist state, the movement’s left’s evaporation into the global ether, and the communist left’s condensation around Cold War nostalgia have all contributed to the collapse of civic republicanism and the rise of ethnic nationalism. The national route to socialism has failed, and only the European one remains.

There’s much to agree with in the piece. Ypi is absolutely right that the left needs ‘to rejoin its critique of the capitalist economy with a critique of the neoliberal state.’ And this is one of the central themes in Labour’s broader programme in the UK. The party is trying to begin a wide-ranging conversation about the constitution of the national state in which it finds itself. For different reasons both labourism and communism have been disastrously incurious about this structure, too quick to dismiss it as a shadow cast by business that will vanish with the abolition of private property, or to seize on it as an instrument that can be used for socialist ends. And of course, the left needs to think at once internationally and constitutionally – to replace the existing global institutions with structures for cooperation that bring international relations under review by national and transnational publics. National democracy cannot survive in a global system characterised by domination.

But I am not sure who the piece is arguing with. The Labour Party is committed to respecting the EU referendum result because it is – rightly – fearful of the electoral consequences of not doing so. A small number of people made a left-wing case for Brexit in 2016. More have tried to make the best of a bad situation since then. But there is little appetite for leaving. It will make things much more complicated for a future socialist government in the immediate term. (It is much safer to break state aid rules within the EU than outside, after all.) Labour’s responsibility right now is to survive as a nationally viable civic republican and socialist project.

[Update: I am not at all sure that civic republicanism will succeed in Europe without support from national governments who are committed to it. And anyway, I am not sure that the EU is the appropriate scale for international coordination. Surely our ambitions ought to be global?]

A Local Economic Strategy for Thanet

thriving thanetOn Friday 23rd Neil McInroy will be giving a talk on ‘Building a Thriving Thanet’. Neil is the chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, which has been at the forefront of an approach to economic planning called ‘community wealth building’.

‘Community wealth building’ sets out to use public and third sector cashflows to create positive feedback loops in local economies. Procurement policies favour local companies over large contractors, an activist council helps build capacity in the private sector where it is lacking, and promotes the co-operative sector where appropriate. There’s much more to be said about it, and Neil will be able to explain much better than I can the difference it has made.

Here I just want to make a few preliminary remarks about what a local economic strategy for Thanet might look like.

Local, Really Local

I am going to concentrate for now on Margate, because it is where I live and where I have thought most about the relevance of community wealth building. Getting Margate’s model right will have important spill-over effects for the rest of the district. But this is one piece of a puzzle that includes Ramsgate, Broadstairs and a mixed hinterland that includes high grade agricultural land and large scale retail at Westwood Cross.

It is important to remember that when we talk about Thanet we are talking about a built-up area and periphery that is home to more than 140,000 people, as large as many English cities. Given its distance, and difference from, Kent’s other main population centres, it is worth asking whether Thanet is best served by its current system of local government, or whether it would make more sense if it became a unitary authority.

The Curse of Beauty

Like many other seaside resort towns in England, Margate suffers from a particular variant on the ‘resource curse’. This was first proposed by economists who wondered why countries with massive oil and gas reserves were so often poor. The easy money from natural resources, the so-called resource rent, promotes economic inequality as revenues are captured by a relative handful of public and private elites. Behind a facade of respectability, rewards are distributed through corrupt patronage networks and their ability to move money offshore starves domestic sectors of investment and talent.

No one is suggesting that local government in Thanet is corrupt, of course. But in other respects Thanet is a bit like, say, Saudi Arabia. In its heyday as a resort, a small number of landlords captured the massive revenues generated by seasonal tourism and, rather than using the money to develop the rest of the economy in the region, they moved the money out of area. Their revenues were not dependent on the patient building of a productive base. People came for the sun, sea and sand. If the beer was expensive and the ice cream was made of pig fat, that was life. Or was until Benidorm beckoned.

As Margate’s fortunes as a resort recover, thanks in part to public investments via the Heritage Lottery Fund, it is important to grasp the extent to which the tourist sector is underpinned by the massive, unearned resource that is the town’s coastline and its capacity to generate heart-stopping skies. This should be understood as a public, commonly held asset, and the rents derived from it should be treated as source of public revenue, not as a windfall for private landlords. To put it another way, the value created by the location – the beauty resource – should be taxed and used for the purposes of general enrichment. (The value created by the ingenuity and effort of people is another matter.)

Sun, Sea, and the Socialisation of Resource Rents

The fortunes of the town depend on the distribution of revenues derived from its locational advantage. Both direct public ownership of land and taxation policy have a role to play in ensuring that the resource rent supports the local economy, instead of being lost ‘offshore’.

The public authority has an equally vital role to play in ensuring that resource rents are spent back into the local economy in ways that promote democratically agreed objectives.

Money kept in the area could be used to improve the town’s viability as a year-round resort, and to enhance the public realm. In sectors like public health it is possible to imagine a ‘sea-bathing spa’ approach to investment that both enhances its appeal as a destination and improves the quality of life of Thanet’s permanent residents. (The proximity of some of the best beaches in the South East to some of its most deprived communities is thought-provoking to say the least in this respect.) It could also be used as a source of start-up funding for local co-operatives, to strengthen local supply chains, and so on.

A spirited district council, backed by a public who understand what is at stake, could do some of this. To do more, it might be necessary to change both the structure of local government in Thanet in particular, and the tax-raising powers of coastal communities more generally. Coastal resorts are a particular kind of place and there is something to be said for an approach that takes this particularity seriously and develops a shared agenda from Margate and Great Yarmouth in the East to Blackpool and Weston-Super-Mare in the West.

Thanet, Jewel of the Thames Riviera

Margate ought to be a source of sustainable revenues for the rest of Thanet. Its needs as a visitor resort ought to be brought into harmony with the people who live in the area. Co-operative businesses created and sustained by the visitor economy ought to be able to expand and diversify from the visitor economy into other sectors as their collective capacities develop. But none of that will happen without a political fight, that will peel the small businesses away from rentiers and build a new coalition around a reformed and much more fully democratic public sector.

I’ll leave it there for now.



The Return of the Public Meeting & Pamphlet

08 Pettifor

A few weeks ago I arrived at The World Transformed festival with a hell of a lot of pamphlets – 14 boxes, each containing one of the titles that together form the New Thinking for the British Economy series. The series itself had been commissioned and edited by Laurie Macfarlane of openDemocracyUK over the summer, and the whole collection can be downloaded as a free ebook from the openDemocracy site here.

I knew that Laurie had put some inspiring writers to work on developing plans for a new way of doing economics in the UK . Each title stood alone, and together they formed a treasury of proposals for reforms to the UK political economy. So I found myself arguing some time in August, digital technology is all very well, but wouldn’t the pieces make more of an impact, have more of a presence, if they were also available in print? And  might people pay a little for such riches?

And so there I was, after some generous help from the Democracy Collaborative, with a carload of pamphlets, and a vague sense that people who go to speaker meetings might be willing to part with £1 to take away a pamphlet by the speaker, or another piece on a similar topic, or something else that looked interesting.

With help from Laurie Macfarlane himself, his colleague at openDemocracy, Adam Ramsay, and Sarah McKinley of the Democracy Collaborative, we sold the best part of a thousand pamphlets over the course of the festival. Given that we didn’t really get going until the Sunday, and we were all busy with other things, this was pretty good going.

When we were in place at the end of a talk with a pamphlet by the speaker, or speakers, we found that around 30-40% of the audience would buy a copy. Hardly anyone who wanted one was put off by the idea of paying a pound for it.

As Labour and The World Transformed ramps up their programme of political education, here is a tested way to help cover the costs of organizing a single public meeting, or of a festival. If you want to organize an event on the current shambles in banking and how to fix it, you can invite Christine Berry and Ann Pettifor to come and give a talk. At the end, you can leap out at the exiting crowds and sell them some pamphlets.

Or you can ask Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn Langton to make a presentation on platform capitalism, and the possibilities for socialist intervention in the tech sector. How about Johnna Montgomerie and Laurie Macfarlane on the rising tide of household debt, and what to do about it? Or Adam Ramsay on the need for a new constitution? Susan Himmelweit on creating a new economy of care?

Organizers can buy the titles at a very steep discount, and sell them at informal events beforehand as well as after the talks. You can use them to start conversations in the workplace and the pub. You can leave the ones you don’t sell on public transport, or give them to your friends and neighbours.

There’s a hunger for new thinking out there, and the BBC and the newspapers aren’t that good at sharing it. And while social media can help, these are platforms we don’t control and can’t rely on.

Download the free ebook and have a read. If you think a particular topic would make a good event in your area, get in touch with me on Twitter, or via the Commonwealth website. I will try my best to help make the event a success, put you in touch with authors, and make sure you have pamphlets to sell.

This is the full list of titles:

  1. Towards a People’s Banking System – Christine Berry
  2. Democratic Ownership – Andrew Cumbers and Thomas M. Hanna
  3. Building Digital Plenty – Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn Langton
  4. Building a Wellbeing Economy – Katherine Trebeck
  5. Transforming Care – Susan Himmelweit
  6. Industrial Policy – Craig Berry
  7. A Progressive Vision for Trade – Ruth Bergan
  8. Financial Globalisation and Capital Mobility – Ann Pettifor
  9. Curbing the Debt Economy – Johnna Montgomery
  10. Work and Free Time – Will Stronge
  11. Media Democracy – Dan Hind and Tom Mills
  12. ‘Race’ and Racism in the UK – Maya Goodfellow
  13. Trying to Milk a Vulture: A New Vision for the UK Constitution – Adam Ramsay
  14. Beyond the Property Owning Democracy – Laurie Macfarlane


‘Burke for Labour’ vs ‘The World Transformed’

This year I went to my first World Transformed festival. It was packed with engaged and creative audiences. There was a sense of purpose and serious intent. Labour is a party and a movement that is preparing for government.

But there is a worry, ably expressed by Adam Ramsay, that, as Labour approaches power, it will default to the Burkean conception of public life that is still predominates among the party’s MPs and in the circuits of centre-left publicity. ‘Burke for Labour’ insists that everything depends on ‘the prudence and uprightness of Ministers’. Labour MPs work harder, and are morally superior to, the current crop of Tories. If they can just get their hands on office, all will be well. Austerity will end and the railways and utilities will be nationalised and suddenly everyone will burst out singing. For five or even ten years, until the Tories get in again.

‘Burke for Labour’ is heard at its most wounded when MPs complain that they are elected by thousands of voters, not handfuls of activists, and that mandatory reselection would be  an insult to the, fortuitously unwritten, constitution.  Popular mobilisation is welcome, as long as it makes itself available as fuel for the electoral ambitions of the people’s tribunes. They insist that if the membership, and the citizenry beyond, start to ask questions about the hierarchical nature of the Party and about the anti-democratic nature of the state itself, then that same mobilisation becomes mob rule.

And the centrists have a point. To the extent that we have a constitution it organizes itself around the idea that public initiative is best kept under the close supervision of a handful of people. The judgement of oligarchy, rather than the power of a fully realised democracy, keeps undesirable elements away from power. The few decide who the extremists are, and who has the qualities needed for high office. It is a form of the state that is becoming increasingly contradictory and crisis-prone, and paranoid projection is becoming the signature style of its partisans. But it survives.

While need to be alive to the danger that a Labour government will be a moment of respite from Toryism, there are grounds for optimism. Corbyn and his allies have already been able to articulate a politics far more radical than that of the post-war settlement.

McDonnell’s proposals last week for worker representation on boards, and for ‘Inclusive Ownership Funds’ that secure for workers an equity stake in large companies, are attempts to bring democracy into the economy, and increase the numbers of those who exercise power in the workplace. The plans for nationalisation being developed by McDonnell  and Rebecca Long Bailey are informed by a desire to move away from the Morrisonian public corporation to develop institutional forms that give citizens meaningful opportunities to participate in public business. This participation will serve as an education in power that has been denied the majority of us since the late seventies.

The desire to go beyond social democracy in one country is core to the political tradition to which Corbyn and McDonnell belong. Bennism was acutely aware of, and to a considerable extent defined itself against, the limitations of the post-war welfare state. Last week at the World Transformed McDonnell spoke about the need to be ‘in and against the state’, a phrase taken from the influential pamphlet and book of the same name published in 1979-80. By then, socialists understood that the administration of benefits was not sufficient, and that the state itself, as enabler and defender of capitalism, would have to be brought to the attention of the reforming imagination.

There are signs, too, that this democratising agenda is reaching beyond the economic sphere narrowly defined. Corbyn’s speech on media reform in Edinburgh in August was the first time that the leader of a major UK party had made a serious attempt to address the implications of the move away from a broad-and-print media regime to one in which digital platforms predominate. As Anthony Barnett notes, the BBC is part of the informal British constitution, and this is true of the wider communicative apparatus. The state is inseparable from the ways in which is generally understood and misunderstood. Meanwhile, Jon Trickett’s work on a constitutional convention shows that the leadership team understand the need to build out from the proposals for industrial democracy to a new conception of the state as a space for democratic deliberation and planning.

This brings us to a more gloomy reason for thinking that the next Labour administration won’t be able to make do with shifting the dial a little to the left for a few years. As Adam Ramsay himself has pointed out, the old state form that administered public services and presided over the economy between 1945 and 1979 has been all but gutted by successive waves of privatisation, marketisation and outsourcing. Modern mandarins move to and from the public sector every few years and are used to seeing large corporations as their partners and adjutants when they are not their employers. Rebuilding state capacity cannot be a matter of restoring Keynesian aristocrats of mind to their former eminence. The species is all but extinct. While the Labour left’s instincts mean that they want to democratise the state, the current reality leaves them few other options.

The completeness of Thatcher’s victory means that the state must be reformed quite profoundly so that an informed and confident public can push for, and defend, even a modest programme of social democratic amelioration. The creation of such a state is the necessary precondition for further advance, and a powerful defence against the revival of Toryism.

The leadership’s actions so far show that they mean it when they say they want to secure an “irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people.” They won’t succeed without deep reform of the state, and of the communicative apparatus it creates, and that in turn gives it form and substance.

It is time to push forward with a conversation about communications, the constitution, and the possibilities presented by new technology. Faced with climate change, endemic gangsterism, and manipulative elites, anything less than a politics of transformation is a dangerous distraction. We have known this for years, and the cramped horizons of the political mainstream left us feeling helpless.

The unlikely return of the Labour left gives us a chance to describe the future we want, and to create it together. They have few allies among the few. But if we grasp the opportunity they present, they will have us. And we are many.

[Adam’s essay on constitutional reform, Milking a Vulture, can be found free online here, along with a number of other important pieces edited by Laurie Macfarlane as part of the New Thinking for the British Economy series. If you would like to organise speaker meetings with the authors of those pieces, and order paper versions to sell to help cover costs, then come and find me on Twitter, or via the Commonwealth Publishing website.]



A Cooperative Commonwealth

Today the Democracy Collaborative publish my essay on constitutional reform, The Constitutional Turn: Liberty and the Cooperative State. It sets out a model of the state as the shared property of its citizens that mirrors and corroborates the proposals for economic democracy that are gaining traction on the left.

At the moment we have a corporate state, in the sense that the corporation is the state’s favoured partner. A cooperative state will look to the cooperative as the default form of human organization and will legislate and administer accordingly. I try to describe what that means in concrete terms in the piece.

I hope it will make some contribution to the conversation we are starting to have, about the way we live now, and the kind of future we want to build together.

Owen Jones vs the British Media

On Friday morning Owen Jones tweeted that:

The main thing I’ve learned from working in the British media is that much of it is a cult. Afflicted by a suffocating groupthink, intolerant of critics, hounds internal dissenters, full of people who made it because of connections and/or personal background rather than merit.

The response of the British media was illuminating. ‘Much of it’ presented potted autobiographies showing how they had made it despite coming from a comprehensive school, without connections or a helpful background. To say that they hadn’t addressed Jones’ point is to understate things. The British media is clearly dominated by people from privileged backgrounds. All the evidence supports this. It is not a closed system, however, and it is still possible to progress in it without family connections, despite increasing inequality.

Not only that, the frantically autobiographical nature of the responses distracts us from the wider point. There is a remarkable unanimity in the British media on subjects of vital concern to those who own the country and those who run the state. This is perhaps most consequential in the related matters of political economy and foreign policy. Setting aside foreign policy, most journalists default to an account of the economy derived from what we might call the City-Treasury-BoE view. Whatever its merits, this view is taken as uncontroversial and sensible. Politicians gain a reputation for gravitas to the extent that they can work within it. Any deviations from it are treated with intense suspicion.

We now have an official opposition that challenges this account in important ways. This doesn’t seem unreasonable, given that the City, the central bank and the finance ministry have delivered crisis and stagnation for more than a decade. But much of the media can only process Labour’s defection from the status quo as grounds for its disqualification from serious consideration. The rump of the old Labour establishment, on the other hand, remains faithful to it and is therefore worth quoting, even though they do not control the Party and are unlikely to for the foreseeable future.

The key question is this: how do we introduce a true plurality of views in coverage of political economy? I don’t mean simply broadening the spectrum of commentators. A true plurality would allow the public to decide for itself whether the current consensual account is adequate, or whether it needs to be revised or replaced. Different approaches would be given resources to make their case. Over months and years the terrain of political debate would be changed by this reconstitution of publicly accessible speech.

We could wait for the senior managers in print and broadcast to accept that their world-view needs to be exposed to the potentially terminal experience of informed challenge, or we could create a media system in which democratic participation is the starting point. Such a system is described in outline by Tom Mills’ working paper on BBC reform for the Media Reform Coalition, here.

Democratic media would allow journalists working in their communities to build support for their reporting and analysis. It would be possible to build a career by serving the public directly and accountably. Trade union members and political activists could commission journalists and researchers to develop bodies of knowledge and understanding that could then take their chances in a wider field of debate. Professions could break the strangleholds of gerontocracy and the money power. Academics could take time off from teaching and research in universities to bring important news to the public in forms that are comprehensible and relevant.

The advantages enjoyed by people from wealthy backgrounds wouldn’t disappear. But success would depend much more than it does now on making a demonstrable contribution to the general understanding. Plutocrats could continue to fund loss-making newspapers but the claims of their sponsored commentators would be open to refutation from a wider system where professional success doesn’t depend on wealthy patrons or bureaucratic guile.

Much of the British media is as Owen Jones describes. We cannot wait for someone to save us. It is up to us to devise a new model in which we all achieve some degree of control. This is not a matter of making the media repeat things we like the sound of. This is about convening a debate about matters of consequence to which we can contribute in defined ways as civic equals, and from which we can derive an improved understanding of the world.

We have a chance with the current Labour Party to put a reforming administration in power. If they use that power to establish equality in speech, the change will be profound. But the need is not self-evident. It requires steady thought from thousands  of people, in the face of hysterical distractions from those who are committed to, and profit from, the existing order of things.

If you don’t want Facebook, what do you want?

Facebook is once again in the news. Last month a joint investigation by the Observer, the New York Times and Channel 4 revealed that a UK company, Cambridge Analytica, had used information about Facebook’s users to target voters during Donald Trump’s successful campaign to become president in 2016. But the threat that the data giants’ business model poses to individual autonomy and to democratic process is not news.
In 2013 a US government contractor called Edward Snowden leaked documents showing how Facebook and the other digital platforms had been effectively integrated with the NSA’s global intelligence apparatus. The US-UK secret state was hoovering data from Facebook and Google’s servers and could use it for anything from population-wide analysis to the stalking of individuals. Somehow the moment passed without substantial reform.

This time things look a little different. Right-wing outliers have now used social media to frustrate the agenda of the broad centre of political and economic power in both the US and the UK. Trump and Brexit were not supposed to happen. These upsets followed the surprisingly strong performance of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing transformation from obscure backbencher to plausible future Prime Minister. The same technology that permits right-wing billionaires to refine their propaganda has also given the left the means to discover itself as a political constituency. In other words, the platforms are now a problem to people who matter.
It is important to grasp that their problem is not ours. The mainstream of economic and political power in the US and elsewhere would like to see Facebook and Google more fully integrated with the state apparatus. The platforms will play much the same role as the television networks. They will be venues in which professionally produced and corporately managed journalism is systematically favoured and the impact of ‘fake news’ is minimised. Facebook and Google will remain dominant but they will be subject to regulation that aligns them with the needs of the rest of the propertied class. (Property here includes political office.) We can already see how Google is trying to accommodate itself to this regulatory agenda. If this weakens the democratic left at the same time as it marginalises the disreputable right, then this is, from their point of view, a price worth paying. Let’s be honest, most of them, including those who think that they are on the left, will see it as a bonus.

What then does the emerging majority that began to assemble around the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns do at this moment? Certainly, we can disengage from Facebook and seek to develop alternatives. Facebook is itself creature of the US universities. Students are well placed to try out alternatives. They are much more concerned with the networks they are building in real life than with the billions of profiles already in the Facebook fold – let them use their own platforms to plan their parties and whatnot. Besides, it seems increasingly odd that young people are graduating without learning about the network technology that increasingly determines their life chances. Linux was created by young people with too much time on their hands. It isn’t unrealistic to imagine that a cross-disciplinary project at one or more universities could do something much less technically challenging. The existing institutions of the left, perhaps especially the UK’s reviving labour movement, could also play an important part in a project like this. If we really are preparing for transformative administrations in first the UK and then the US, then we need to understand the possibilities of technology, and figure out what the hell technically competent people are talking about when they talk about algorithms and encryption.

But the main thrust of our response must be political. The state is where the fate of network media will be decided. Experimental alternatives to Facebook can have an important demonstration effect. But they will not break through unless our governments are compelled to support them and to help them reach scale. In this respect each national context is different. In what follows I discuss the situation in the UK, although some of what I propose might be relevant elsewhere.

In Britain the BBC remains the dominant source of politically significant speech. So far it hasn’t embraced the emancipatory potential of new technology, hampered as it is by both its risk-averse and top-heavy management culture and by a wider political context in which private interests were listened to when they complained about ‘crowding out’. It is time we rejected this flat out and insisted on the creation of a ‘public option’ in social media. A reforming administration would be well advised to create a British Digital Corporation (BDC) to develop, along with much else besides, this public option in partnership with the BBC.

A public network would have communicative equality and privacy built into its basic infrastructure. Wherever possible, communication would bypass central aggregation and data would be stored on the users’ own devices. The members of this BDC network could choose how they related to others and what kinds of data they shared. They could also decide how they engaged with institutions, including the BBC. The BBC’s output, of course, would be a compelling reason for individuals to engage with the BDC platform.
In such a system, the BBC would remain central to setting the news agenda but with this important change; at the moment the corporation uses newspapers as proxies for public opinion, in this new model the public will participate directly in the production of news and analysis through the exercise of defined powers to commission and promote content. At the same time, the BBC’s governing structures would be reformed so that we are able to maintain effective oversight of the country’s key communicative resource.
In the exercise of these powers the public becomes conversant with itself, in the sense that each user can understand something of the preferences and assumptions of others. Mediating institutions remain, of course, indeed proliferate. But the body politic ceases to be a collection of more or less isolated individuals and becomes instead articulate and legible as a whole and as a collection of collectivities.

This British Digital Corporation could develop this public option as part of a suite of resources designed to eliminate price-gouging and rent-seeking by private monopolies. Wendy Liu has made a number of proposals in this regard. For example, a publicly owned payments system combined with a renationalised Royal Mail could provide the backbone of a co-operatively owned e-commerce platform to compete with Amazon. We might also want to create and license a Linux-derived operating system for use in computers and mobile phones that don’t spy on us. By challenging the Windows/IOS/Android oligopoly this would reduce the cost of computing and, in conjunction with public social media, reduce our exposure to data harvesting.

An e-commerce platform could also, combined with the BDC’s social network, become a space where collective aspirations are discovered and met. It is becoming increasingly obvious that much that we prize, from beautiful housing in thriving communities to mental and physical health, can only be secured by the majority if we are able to pool resources and co-produce them. Money currently spent to alleviate distress would then be used to increase the total stock of happiness. You could call this democratic socialist planning or a simple expansion of republican self-government, according to taste.

This public option for tech is an important way in which the new, nationally oriented left can transcend the limitations of postwar social democracy and begin grappling with the transnational problems created by climate change, financialised capitalism and militarism. The resources developed by the British Development Corporation could be shared with those who want to develop a democratic and egalitarian alternative to oligarchic surveillance in other countries. If the right want a Global Britain, then perhaps the left should give it to them.