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‘The New Economics’ in Norwich: a revival of radical left-wing economic thinking?

Alan Finlayson

18 April 2016

When Jeremy Corbyn came to Norwich, on 6th August 2015, more people turned up to see him than could be accommodated at the venue. He addressed those left outside before speaking to the 800 or more who filled the former Barclays Banking Hall in the heart of the city. Corbyn’s style is school teacher rather than radical preacher but the crowd turned the event into a revivalist meeting cheering every hint of the most gentle leftism.

That was a sunny Thursday evening in summer time. Six months later and the sunshine has been replaced by Norfolk fog. Instead of a central music venue the Corbynites are in a for-hire conference centre on an industrial estate in north Norwich. The crowd is smaller but at around 300 still impressive. The mood is more serious - ready for a lesson and not just a sermon.

This is the sixth in a series of public lectures and discussions under the title of “The New Economics” organised by the office of John McDonnell. The first featured Marianna Mazzuucato. A professor at Sussex University, and a successful TeD Talker, she is (sort-of) a Schumpeterian and her 2011 DEMOS pamphlet on The Entrepreneurial State, was enthusiastically introduced by Kitty Ussher (Economic Secretary to the Treasury in the Brown government). Another event featured Daniel Susskind (in the Downing Street Policy Unit under Blair and now an Economics lecturer at Balliol) alongside Nick Srnicek a leading radical theorist of ‘accelerationism’ and the post-work society. Big names in the series are Joseph Stiglitz, Danny Dorling, Ann Pettifor, Simon Wren-Lewis, Paul Mason and Yannis Varoufakis.

In Norwich the speakers are Ha-Joon Chang, the Cambridge based development Economist and author of two good and accessible explanatory critiques of our current economy (23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism and Economics: The User’s Guide), alongside Johnna Montgomerie, a political economist from Goldsmiths. Amongst other things she is the author of an excellent 2009 article in Renewal on household debt after the crash.

It’s a long time since Labour did anything quite so extensive and systematic as this. In the Blair and Brown years various high-profile experts were invited to give high-profile presentations to high-profile people as the party cycled through communitarianism, stakeholding and the third way en route to neuropsychology, nudge and imperial misadventure. But these New Economics lectures are not networking events or pep talks for aspirant and ideologically rootless SPADs. Nor are they pseudo-events intended only to launch a press release and policy announcement in time to make the morning headlines. They seem like something older - echoes of left-book club discussion groups or classes held by the WEA. But they may also be something newer.  

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In their important new book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams remind us of Paul Samuelson’s remark that ‘I don’t care who writes the nation’s laws, or crafts its advanced treatises, if I can write its economic textbooks’. They urge a revival of left-wing economic thinking allied to a campaign to enhance popular economic literacy. Worried – rightly – that the Left lacks capacity for original economic analysis they point to new developments such as modern monetary theory, complexity economics, ecological and participatory economics and commend the work of the New Economics Foundation in ‘creating models of the economy that can inform leftist political goals as well as fostering public literacy in economic matters’.

This is no marginal issue.

The group Rethinking Economics was founded by students frustrated at the narrowness and monomania of their Economics teachers and who committed themselves to promoting economic thinking beyond the confines of neoclassical calculation and to demystifying economics as a service for the rest of us. In March of 2016 they launched a rather good website for the promotion of the public understanding of economic life and announced the results of a YouGov poll which found that only 12% of the public think that the media and politicians talk about economics in an accessible way. One reason for that might be politicians’ own lack of economic understanding. Research conducted by Positive Money in 2014 found that only one in 10 MPs knew where money comes from. Most were under the illusion that only the government can create it. This is the kind of finding that might induce a wry shrug of resignation - followed by a shiver of horror.

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Ha-Joon speaks formally from the lectern. There are power-point slides, graphs and charts showing the balance of trade and current account deficits. He attacks the framing of the crisis by Tories as rooted only in government expenditure and outlines the gross sectoral imbalances which so disfigure the UK Economy. He is technical but accessible. He is also wry. He reminds us of Orson Welles' famous speech as Harry Lime in The Third Man in which the black marketeer extols the vices that gave the Italians Michelangelo, Da Vinci and the Renaissance and condemns the virtues of peace and brotherly love which gave the Swiss the Cuckoo Clock. Playing the pedant Chang points out Welles' historical inaccuracies as he builds up to his point: per capita Switzerland is first in the world for manufacturing value added; Singapore is second. The very places we think of as the post-industrial economies most dominated by finance are in fact world-class centres of manufacturing.

Johnna explores the scale and impact of debt on the contemporary economy. She is funny yet also, at times, justly angry. She shows us the scale of public bail outs of private banks alongside the weight of private debt which weighs down a public offered no such relief. Explaining how for years debt has covered over low wage growth while fuelling unsustainable growth in consumer spending she highlights the generational inequality which condemns the youngest victims of the crisis to ‘financial melancholia’. This is economics as human rather than dismal science and Johnna concludes by urging changes to bankruptcy laws, fiscal stimulus and above all the exploration of means of debt cancellation.

Questions come from a variety of people (from all over Norfolk). Some, it turns out, are involved in Green as well as Red politics; others explain that they work in financial services (not unusual in the birthplace of Norwich Union) or light industry. One explicitly asks for answers to the questions she knows she will get on the doorstep. These are not the mythical lefties of Lambeth – hard men haunting the troubled dreams of centrist MPs awaiting boundary review. The lone paper seller did not seem to be offloading many copies of Briefing. When the student in front of me politely declined a purchase on the grounds that she didn’t have a spare pound he gave her a copy for free. There may or may not be some truth to rumours of an eighties revival in some London constituencies but up here it is 2016.

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For some on the left meetings are what it’s all about. It gets us out of the house to spend time with those who share our hobby. And what makes a good meeting is an interesting speaker followed by lively discussion and debate. We can all go home feeling that we know more than we did before (and more than everyone else) and that whatever the newspapers may say we are both right and good. Many fringe left parties are really nothing other than such discussion groups. I am reminded of this when I hear Corbyn propose that the Party will resolve a policy impasse through plenty of good discussion and debate. The secret to a certain sort of leftie is that they are really a nineteenth-century liberals committed to self cultivation and ennobling engagement in the public sphere entirely untainted by mere interest or power let alone the formation and implementation of policy.

That is why the Labour Party ‘establishment’ came to see this kind of thing as an indulgence. And as the party ‘modernised’ discussion gave way to managed communication and the struggle for the hearts and minds of the public mutated into strategies for news management. In the Labour Party which had provided education to so many previously denied it the role of political education officer, at national and local levels, atrophied. The job of the grassroots member was neither to ask nor answer difficult questions but to go from door to door eschewing conversation in favour of establishing voting intention and moving on. For a time this appeared to work very well. But when the tide turns a house built on sand will disappear fast.  

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At the core of contemporary British Politics is a division between two different ways of thinking about politics. One sees politics as centred in Westminster and Whitehall from where it emanates out to the country. And because it thinks that this is where power is, it naturally concludes that you can’t do anything meaningful in politics until you are in Westminster and from there able to control things in Whitehall. To get there you have to adapt yourself to meet the selective pressures common to the natural environment of electoral competition.

An alternative position thinks of politics as lacking a stable centre. It looks across society and sees within it different and varied concentrations of power: the financial power of the City and the economic power of other major industrial or retail sectors; the physical power of the military, the law and the police force; the cultural and ideological powers of education, media and the arts; all sorts of minor powers which – be it UKIP, Greenpeace or the churches, temples and mosques – are sometimes able to organise specific social or interest groups so that they put pressure on others. From this perspective governmental power is important but without the support of some combination of the other powers is likely to lack capacity, have difficulty implementing a programme and fail to establish anything long-lasting. This position is characteristic of the Conservative Party.

On winning political power with the support of City interests and key parts of the mass media the Cameron government has immediately sought to weaken the sources of power that might organise against it. They have secured their governmental power through boundary review and changes to party funding but have gone further in reforming educational curricula, developing laws to limit the political activities of charities, cowing the BBC, further restricting trade unions. In so doing they build on decades of such hegemonic strategy which, in the cultural and ideological domain, has included the expulsion of anything but neoclassical economics from the Economics Departments and the cultivation of myths about the futility of government investment and the necessity of a state small in everything except powers of surveillance. 

The New Economics series suggests to me that at least some of the Corbynites understand this. The danger is that the old guard continues to be interested mostly in good meetings in which everyone congratulates everyone on stimulating and intelligent discussion of the sort you don’t get on Radio 4 these days. But for the new intake – those without job security, crippled by rent and paying off student debts, schooled in the realities of a politics using economics to change the soul – the means and the end are somewhat more important. Osborne’s economic policy is not intended to generate secure jobs and improved living standards for the many but to give the few enough time and resources to insulate themselves from the next and deeper crisis. The chance to fight a winning battle in ideological space has to be taken now. But the pieces are hardly in place, the distance to be covered is so very long. These New Economy events may be a part of getting somewhere. They might help cultivate a few of the key policy makers and opinion formers and one hopes they are accompanied by smaller, elite-focused and alliance building seminars with economics writers, think-tank members and key people in the larger trade unions, charities, pressure groups and churches. They might also be a basis on which to rebuild institutions of political education that enable Labour Party members and their allies not only to improve their own and each others’ understanding but also to speak to their neighbours and to those they canvass about what Osborne has got so wrong and what Labour will do to put it right.

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Those not fully aligned with the new Labour Party leadership ought to look closely at all this. The selection of speakers invited to give New Economics lectures is notably lacking in sectarianism. They are not quite at the centre of the establishment but that is because they are asking questions and establishing truths which much of the establishment, wedded as it is to outdated dogma, finds uncomfortable. It is a guest list drawn up on the basis of expertise rather than ideological compliance. And it is suggestive of a clear understanding from the McDonnell team that the question underlying the political and economic confusion of our time is not simply how to bring back social democracy and Keynesian industrial strategy. It is how to address the pressures - and make the most of the possibilities - of our continuing technological transformation. For its part the capitalist class is engaged in primitive accumulation, staking claims to hitherto uncharted continents of digital information awaiting monetisation, seizing patents (sometimes to use them and sometimes to prevent their use by others) and taking into its own hands the health and education services that used to belong to all of us. How to make digitisation, robotisation and gene technologies to public goods is a question much more important than who will be the leader of the Labour Party after Corbyn.

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At the end of a little over two hours my hunch is that the crowd is still confused yet  also enlightened. We do not have many more answers than we did at the start but the shape of the question is much clearer. Above all we have learned that there are alternatives and that the choice is not confined to ‘forward or back’ but concerns which way to move on from here. On a cold, wet night over three hundred people chose to go out of their way to attend challenging lectures on economics. They went because they want to understand. They went because they want to know what they can do. As we leave the fog is still there. The council street lights, in all their non-rivalrous goodness, light the way ahead.

- Alan Finlayson

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