As Well as Votes, Labour Must Win the Argument

20/05/2016 14:45 | Updated 20 May 2016

The election in 2020 is an opportunity to settle a long running argument between left and right. It is not the usual political squabble, but a fundamental and momentous question about our history and our future. Forces of economic orthodoxy argue, insistent that there is no alternative explanation, that the correct historical interpretation of the 2008 economic crisis is to blame it on too much public spending by Labour.

Such accounts tend to focus almost exclusively upon public spending. It is a story that, depressingly, some in Labour have internalized and affirmed in public. I guess advocates of this view miss the irony of calling public spending reckless and irresponsible when, in truth, its role in the financial crisis is incommensurate to the toxic culture of impunity which led our banks to take truly reckless and irresponsible decisions with the global economy, condemning the masses to the pitfalls of recession whilst the architects of crisis stayed on the throne.

Thirty long years of unrestrained capitalism, of bonuses and risky trading, have begun to take their toll. I get hopping mad when, during a debate about how best to reorganise society in the wake of the collapse of jobs and livelihoods, almost all the politicians and the papers develop and defend the fiction that investment in public services is a radical economic threat, instead of wholesale privatization making further inroads to dismantling our social democracy. If David Cameron and George Osborne could sing half as well as they lie, they would be number one in the charts all year round. Thinking about this the other day it occurred to me that not only does their fiction about the problem of public spending just deceive the public, it undermines the entire foundations of our social democracy.

People who believe that public spending, nationalisation and progressive taxation are the foundations for social democracy are dismissed and ridiculed as irresponsible and extreme. We have said that Neoliberalism would entrench inequality and fail to provide the regulatory mechanisms to protect people and planet from the inevitable abuse that occurs with extreme concentrations of wealth and power. We have warned that the bloating of multinational corporations and their lobbying influence will elide democratic inputs and essentially sell our democracy and sovereignty down the river.

This was nonsense, we were told. But the Panama Papers reveal that Neoliberalism has gone too far. Inequality is as polarized as it could possibly get. Complex financial regimes protect grotesque accumulations of wealth from proper taxation. Global warming shows an economic system clearly at war with our planet. TTIP makes a dystopia of corporate domination seem very real. The ills are endless. And there seems to be, contrary to the myth of the end of history, a growing belief that the model of society triumphant after the Cold War is inconsistent with the public interest, rationalizing increasing benefits for elites amidst widening inequality, both within domestic economies and between different regions of the globe: There is No Alternative VS A World to Win.

The reason alternatives to Neoliberalism are maligned as extreme is not because that is true, but because the Neoliberal movement possesses very powerful means to frame public debate and define public opinion. It was a process forensically examined by Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent, where he revealed the role of mass media in engineering propaganda serviceable to the status quo powers. According to Chomsky, the media plays an active role in shutting down debate, a thesis consistent with the recent history of Neoliberalism, which has sought to enforce its flagship mantra 'There Is No Alternative' through the silencing and denigration of opponents in politics, academia and the media.

His line of argument about the totalitarian thrust of establishment ideology - its' ability to immunize itself against dissent - is developed by Owen Jones in The Establishment. Jones describes how the outposts of a nascent Neoliberalism - think tanks - became ideological nerve centres for a radical coup which would precipitate political counter-revolutions across the globe, setting a new Overton window (the range of policies the public find acceptable) which squeezed out the social democratic post-war consensus. The question remains: If political debate can't allow space for values which can't be validated by the status quo, then can it be said to be a democratic debate at all?

The result of the right-wing ascendancy was a Left that was forced to reason with Neoliberalism on its own terms. This found expression in the New Labour project, and Clinton's Democrats, both of which provided electoral results, but both of which proved too eager to play by the rules of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Diluting the constitution on which Labour was founded, Blair took it away from its collectivist, working-class roots and made it too focused on the hollow rhetoric of aspiration which is socio-economic code for affluence. Bastardizing the memory of FDR, Clinton repealed the Glass-Steagal act which appropriately regulated banking. The soul and substance of the left, it seemed, had been capitulated to the terms and conditions of the right.

In a world in which they won, and in which solidarity is mocked and derided, it can feel like we are paddling up s**t creek with no oars, but we can learn from our situation and be hopeful. Firstly, it has been a major accomplishment of the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns to garner massive public support for left-wing policies that for many decades have lied beyond the pale of 'acceptable' policy, and their plain, approachable style has to be thanked for helping endear people to a democratic socialist vision. It is a vision that is sensible, pragmatic, easily understood, in sharp contrast to the closed-shop policy-making of Neoliberalism, couched in jargon and euphemism. From Syriza to Podemos, from Occupy! to Global Debout protests in France, a seismic uprising is stoking prospects for rebellion against the abhorrent global order. The Overton Window has been smashed to let in the light of an alternative and the sunlight is reaching new roots.

In the coming months and years, the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns will develop, and the battle is not just for votes within the narrowly conceived calculus of electoral self-interest, but involves a broader battle to win the argument, to correct the terrible deceit of the right that social democracy is to blame for the dire economic circumstances in which we now find ourselves. The idea that dissent is pointless is dangerous only when we believe it, so there has never been a more important time to insist on arguing against the conventional wisdom. The more we find people who agree that we need a radical re-orientation of the economy to serve people over profit, the more there will be a desire for progressive Labour policies on the table in 2020.