The British go to the polls tomorrow. They have a clear choice: to stick with the failing system of austerity and racism or take up the challenge laid down by the Labour party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn to create a more equitable and just society, a society for “the many not the few”.
For the many not the few – this very simple statement of intent should be at the heart of any political, social, economic, philosophical and spiritual theory and practice that is working to build a decent and just society. Its essential sentiment is at the heart of the best of the socialist tradition and various attempts, whether Marxist or social democratic, to build societies that work in the interest of the majority. But despite the simplicity of the statement its modest goal seems far from our reach, both here in South Africa, and around the world.
Over the last 30 years there has been a steady attack on socialist and social democratic systems. Capital has effectively escaped democratic regulation with the result that, around the world, political and economic power has overwhelmingly shifted towards an ever smaller and richer elite. At the same time national working classes have been impoverished and many among the middle classes have been pushed into precarious and debt ridden lives. When consent for declining conditions of work, public institutions and standards of living can’t be sustained by ever more vacuous forms of consumerism, electorates have been intoxicated with increasingly poisonous forms of nationalism. “Fascism”, Vladimir Lenin argued, “is capitalism in decay.”
The first great moment in the attempt to overcome the rule of capital is often taken to be the Paris Commune of 1871. Lenin understood himself to be acting in fidelity to this event when he led the radical forces to victory in the Russian Revolution of 1917, the second great moment in the struggle against the rule of capital. The Russian Revolution inspired working-class and anti-colonial struggles around the world. In the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States inaugurated the first major social democratic comprise between labour and wider society on one side, and capital on the other.
After the Second World War the British, under the leadership of the Labour Party, a party rooted in the trade union movement, built a welfare system, including an effective state healthcare system. Famously successful social democratic societies were also built in countries like France, Germany and, of course, the Nordic countries. But the end of the Cold War strengthened the hand of capital with the result that the neoliberal project begun by Thatcher and Reagan in the ‘70s could be driven with new aggression.
At every turn the interests of the few were prioritised over the many. But the political response to this cannot be reduced to the horrors of Trump, Modi, May, Erdo?an and all the rest. In recent years there has also been renewed levels of organisation and struggle from below and new kinds of political initiatives.
In response to crippling austerity measures after the 2009 European debt crisis, Greeks turned to a new, far left political party, Syriza, which rapidly grew in popularity. Syriza’s socialist policies resonated with the Greeks who were toiling under the brutal austerity imposed by the European Union. In 2012 Syriza took state power. But while Syriza quickly compromised with the bankers, its tremendous popularity, and the enthusiasm it engendered in Greece and elsewhere, demonstrated the power of a new commitment to the interests of the many.
In Spain, Podemos, a far left wing party founded in 2014, grew to become the second largest party in Spain by December 2015. Podemos also won control of vital Spanish cities such a Barcelona and Madrid. This was no small feat. Again “the many” understood that the European debt crisis was not of their making but that, as usual, they were being made to pay for the greed and recklessness of the super rich. This vote against the subordination of Spanish society to predatory banking interests, and for the subordination of capital to society, was another marker of a resurgent left.
In the United States Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination galvanised the enthusiastic support of millions, especially young people. If the party had run Sanders rather than Clinton, an establishment candidate par excellence, against Trump’s toxic synthesis of racism and hyper-capitalism, we may have been living in a very different world.
In countries like the United States and Spain it has often been the youth that have driven the turn to radical politics. Young people often find that they are more educated than their parents but have far less possibilities for decent employment, and face much more difficult lives than their parents. For many of these young people the subordination of society to capital offers no solutions for them. It is clear to them that the interests of the few have been prioritised against those of the many. At the same time it is also clear to many young people that the rule of capital offers no solutions for the planet.
So while we do have to contend with the horrors of the likes of Trump, Modi and Erdo?an we must not forget that, at the same time, millions of people have turned against the rule of capital. Around the world over-indebted students, the precariously employed middle classes, the racially oppressed, and many others have begun to demand a new social order. The demand to put the interests of the many above those of the few has also arrived in Britain, where English colonial history has placed the City of London at the centre of the circuits of global finance capital.
Theresa May called tomorrow’s election in an attempt to secure her personal authority, and the authority of her conservative agenda. But this time around Labour has an anti-establishment candidate, a socialist, with a history of radical commitment, enthusiastic support, especially among the young, and a manifesto that commits to a real break with the neoliberal consensus. It seems that the pernicious influence of Tony Blair, a corrupt, warmongering and personally opportunistic man, a mediocre, smarmy and very little man, has been undone.
The Labour Party establishment, and its in house paper, The Guardian, were initially horrified by Corbyn. But a new generation of activists, mostly young people, were thrilled. Suddenly politics seemed to offer real possibility again. The Labour Party’s new manifesto, For the Many Not the Few, returns to many of the basics that make a society function in the interest of the majority. It calls for free education, and has a detailed and very workable plan on how to provide high quality education, with a “graduate-led” education workforce. It is also committed to building thousands of new homes and a major reinvestment into the National Healthcare System. And while this is urgent and much needed, perhaps the most important part of Labour’s vision is to do all of this through creating a self-sustaining system that is in the hands of, and controlled by, the many.
Labour’s new proposal’s titled “Alternative Models of Ownership” seeks to truly democratise the economy. This will be done by directly challenging private ownership. The proposal is not just to challenge private ownership of land or strategic minerals and resources, but, importantly, to challenge the very ownership of capital. Capital and its apparatus need to be democratised and the producers of capital, the workers, must actively participate in the decision-making processes.
Of course the naysayers will be brooding into their oversized cups of lactose-free cappuccino, muttering something about communist dinosaurs taking over. But Labour’s manifesto is not some relic dug up from a long forgotten cabinet of the Cold War archive. On the contrary, this document is an up-to-the-minute engagement with the very contemporary challenges we all face globally. It offers innovative thinking with positive outcomes for the majority of society. This economic policy has been endorsed by over 130 economists from leading institutions in the United Kingdom, from Oxford, the London School of Economics and SOAS to name a few.
The Labour manifesto doesn’t just aim to manage the effects of oppression and exploitation. It aims to begin to move away from the economic model we currently toil under which simply leads to short-term profit to enrich the elites based on an exploited, low producing, and low wage labour force. Rather than retreating from technological advancement, or simply denying it, it tackles it head-on, arguing that “the many should benefit from automation and technological advancement”. This could be done if the innovation and knowledge produced could be owned and managed in common.
There have been many radical global shifts in the last five years. Many of them have been thoroughly terrifying – like Trump and Modi coming into power, or our own spiralling into Guptastan. But the shift towards new forms of radical socialist commitment, and new political experiments, offers some encouragement. Here at home we need to take this Labour manifesto as an inspiration. And, of course, we must remember that having a progressive in 10 Downing Street will, given the influence in English capital on our own society, make any attempts of our own to build a more just society considerably easier. DM
Vashna Jagarnath is a senior lecturer in the Department of History. She writes and researches on Indian Cinema, the colonial public sphere and the History of Africana Intellectual Thought with specific focus on Marxist ideology within Pan Africanism. She is associated with Numsa – Movement for Socialism Task Team [MFS] and Numsa Research and Policy Institute [NuRPI].
Vashna Jagarnath is a senior lecturer in the Department of History. She writes and researches on Indian Cinema, the colonial public sphere and the History of Africana Intellectual Thought with specific focus on Marxist ideology within Pan Africanism. She is associated with Numsa Movement for Socialism Task Team [MFS] and Numsa Research and Policy Institute [NuRPI].
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall