Joe Guinan, Vice President at The Democracy Collaborative, Executive Director of the Next System Project, and a contributing editor at Renewal talks to Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite about the outcome of the US election, the unfolding crises of Covid19, the openings for a transformative political economy and what the strategies for the left of the Democratic party should be now.
Trumpism and deadlock
Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite (FSB): So how are you feeling about the result of the election?
Joe Guinan (JG): This week of uncertainty has reset everyone’s expectations. Going in, there was a lot of hope about a ‘Blue Wave’ that could deliver the House and the Senate, as well as the Presidency, and that would allow a new Democratic Administration to get things done. Then we were confronted with the awful prospect that Trump might hang on. If you factor in the pandemic, one of the biggest economic contractions since modern economic data-collection began, and 250,000 Americans dead, Trump should have been defeated in a landslide. But he really outperformed many people’s expectations
One of the things that shows us is that Trumpism – whether or not it morphs into a new form, with a new leadership or strategy – is something we still don’t understand properly. We need deeper analysis of its structural underpinnings and its origins. We need to understand how, even after the dumpster-fire of the past four years, Trump was able to increase his electoral performance with women, with minorities in certain areas – not just in Miami, which has its own dynamics stemming from Cuba and Venezuela, but also in places like the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where Hispanics have been voting for Trump in high numbers. We need to understand what’s driving this. The outcome of this election shows we have a lot more work to do to ensure the Trumpers don’t have a continuing path forward, one that is more racially and geographically diverse.
The Democrats have not had a good election – they’ve squeaked a ‘winning draw’, by just a handful of votes in a few places. Downballot, it wasn’t so good either. We’re probably going to face the two most expensive US Senate races in history, now, in Georgia, with the runoffs. If the Democrats win both of those, that, plus Kamala Harris’s tiebreaker vote, would give Democrats knife-edge control of the Senate – but that’s a big if. The loss of House seats has also really surprised people. And the Democrats haven’t done particularly well down-ballot, in local races, as many had hoped.
During the period of Obama’s dominance of the White House, the Republicans and their big donors like the Koch brothers pivoted their strategy to the state level and flipped many of the state legislatures, which has given them the ability to gerrymander political districts. That was something that I’d hoped was about to be unwound. The Texas legislature, for example, was supposed to be in play. The fact that the Democrats haven’t made big gains at the state level means that again, following this year’s US Census, redistricting will be done by Republicans – allowing them to continue to exercise power despite being a fundamentally minoritarian interest nationally. They’ll take more than their fair share of time in the White House, they’ll dominate or block Congress. They’ve also been very successful in stacking the Supreme Court. So there’s a sense that the antique US constitution is creaking into a period of real deadlock, just at the point when bold, breakout moves are needed – on climate, the Green New Deal, and so on.
So I’m feeling pretty gloomy. I’m also concerned about who’s going to have the upper hand within the Democratic Party, and whether the left will swiftly be thrown under the bus.
FSB: More on that later – but first, what do you think of the idea that Biden is, at least, the best-suited Democratic President we could have in the context of a very divided Congress, where bipartisan working – something Biden’s consistently emphasised in his career and his rhetoric – will be needed to achieve almost anything?
JG: There’s probably something to that – he’s a different political operator to Hillary Clinton, certainly. In ‘normal’ political times that might be a real advantage. But if you couple the pressure to work in a bipartisan way with Biden’s own centrist instincts, and put that in the context of a broken country that will be feeling the deep impact of Covid19 – which has only just begun to really hit, economically, and will get much worse – in what is basically a period of deep and overlapping crises, I don’t know that a careful managerialism able to stitch together bipartisan deals is enough. Can that way of working deliver solutions commensurate with the scale of the problems we face?
I would feel much more optimistic looking at a Biden Presidency that was facing pressure from a host of newly-elected Democrats from the DSA wing of the movement, energetic and committed to holding him to his promises on the Green New Deal and the $15 minimum wage, and pushing him on single-payer healthcare, more public investment, and so son.
Biden’s a canny political operator. But if we’re not lucky in Georgia, we’re going to see a kind of co-presidency with Mitch McConnell. And even if we are lucky, the balance of power will be so fine that a couple of Blue-Dog Democrats will be able to exert a lot of power and influence – and potentially stymie the big moves that we’re really in need of at this time.
At The Democracy Collaborative we did some pre-election polling on democratic economy policies, and there are overwhelming supermajorities for government interventions to reshape the economy and the recovery. There’s an appetite for intervention so that we don’t get an Amazon recovery – an even deeper concentration of corporate power and wealth. So the big question is: which way does Biden tip?
One of the consequences of Trumpism is that the ‘Never-Trump’ Republicans – the Lincoln Project was awash with money; they raised something like $67m – are now pushing very vocally for Biden to govern from the centre. And that will drain the left energy – which is what led to incredible turnout in Detroit, and what led to the organising push that has delivered Georgia, and will be necessary if the Georgia runoffs are to be won.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), who is the post-Bernie standard-bearer of the left, has already come out swinging in the newspapers and on Twitter against this centrist narrative that it was the left that almost lost this election – she’s been making pretty detailed arguments about the fact that in swing states with House Democrats in really tough races the ones who won were the ones who were in favour of Medicare for all, not those who were against it.
That power struggle within the Democratic Party is on now, and we’ll see it playing out in Biden’s appointments. The real worry is that there is some decent managing and some small beer legislation gets passed through Congress in the next 2-4 years, but that the real pain continues. And there’s an angry half of the electorate, many of whom think the election was stolen, and an even more dangerous version of Trumpism is waiting to be formulated. A divided party and a divided Congress makes it hard to achieve much.
FSB: Though of course, last time the same could be said of Trump: he didn’t just narrowly win the Presidency, he won while losing the popular vote. Trumpism wasn’t and isn’t hegemonic. In fact, both parties are divided, which poses deep problems for each in a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all electoral system.
JG: Maybe it’s my economism, but I think the problem is that that divide plays out differently on the left and on the right. Last time Trump basically went for it – and delivered real red meat for his base – on his Supreme Court appointments, on his massive deregulatory push. He’s been willing to take up large parts of the wider Republican agenda, which is fundamentally corporatist and neoliberal in its economics. There’s very little of the old Rockefeller-style liberalism in the Republican party now; it’s a mash-up of the Conservative and proto-fascist nutjobs with the interests of corporations and high net worth individuals.
Class analysis is important here. We need to remember that Trump hasn’t just been carried forward on a tide of angry blue-collar workers – there’s some of that – but there’s also some classic symptoms of proto-fascism surfacing among the petit-bourgeoisie and the big bourgeoisie. $50,000-and-less income households go very handsomely for the Democrats, and then when you look at college-educated white women, as well as college-educated white men, wealthier Americans, there’s really significant support for Trump.
Deadlock works differently for the Republicans. There hasn’t been a whole wing of the Republican party that hasn’t been getting what it wants under Trump. We have such a skewed economic landscape – such a huge challenge on climate change – and the danger is that the left of the Democratic Party may get nothing of substance over the next four years, if the Democratic leadership finds it easier to make deals with the Republicans. We might see deals where for every $1 of income protection, there’s $10 of corporate welfare, if we don’t have the left exerting real pressure on Biden.
It’s the economy, stupid
FSB: On the economy, the thing about Trump’s first three years is that the economy was doing well in some – even many – ways. There was a continuation of trends begun under Obama: growth in GDP and in wages at the bottom, and declining unemployment. An op-ed in the Financial Times this weekend by Christopher Caldwell says that under Trump, real wages for the bottom 25% of the income distribution rose almost 5%. Does anyone on Democratic side have a viable sense of how you make the economy work better?
JG: Trump benefitted, until Covid19, from very tight labour markets, which drove up wages for the lowest paid. But he also spoke in a way that pretended to hear the pain of left-behind communities – on jobs, on trade – and promised them a ‘great’ future. What’s the answer to that? There are big ideas on the left of the Democratic Party – like the Green New Deal – but they need to be translated into actionable, concrete plans on the ground. Importantly, the Green New Deal has the potential to head off the Trumpian attack that the Democrats are going to shut down oil, gas, coal, fracking, high-polluting industries, and industries relying on fossil fuels – an attack which has had a really big impact in communities which are built around those industries.
We have to figure out how to make real, material appeals in the same way – we have to disaggregate the Green New Deal and carbon transition plans in such a way that people really start to believe that it’s going to deliver tangible benefits to them. We almost need a congressional district by congressional district GND, rather than some big, abstract, overarching thing. We have the big answers – we need the medium and small component parts of those answers that are understandable and believable and can close the political support gap for these solutions.
FSB: There’s an interesting article from earlier this year by Noam Maggor and Stefan Link which tries to explain the second great divergence – why the US took off in the second great wave of industrialisation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and didn’t follow, say, the path of a similar economy like Argentina – and which looks to the idea of developmental states to explain this. They argue that though the US in those years wasn’t a ‘developmental state’ in the same mould as recent East Asian developmental states, there was a similar process going on: a highly political, contested and decentralised process whereby the state supported, nurtured, managed, and nudged markets was what led to a massive industrial transformation and huge economic growth. It went beyond even just protecting domestic industry: there was an array of efforts to actively construct markets that would help industry to develop in a particular directions. This suggests that the US today needs to jettison ideas that ‘free markets’ (always a fiction) and small government are the route forward, and create a developmental state appropriate to the challenges of the present.
JG: Yes, there’s a conventional account that’s almost backwards on this stuff – it’s actually US agriculture that often wanted free trade, look at the Open Door Notes – and by contrast industry has been heavily protected by the US government at key points in its development, as Michael Hudson has shown. The story of the most recent period in US history, since the 1980s, is the story of the repudiation of that, in favour of globalised corporations, which are nominally American, but actually global in their operations and profits. As I wrote a couple of years ago in ‘Trumpocalypse now’, at the start of the Trump years, Bannon was talking about a huge wave of protectionism, state investment in industry and infrastructure spending – things that could have added up to a new wave of Jacksonian Populism and really delivered for Trump’s rust-belt base in a profound way. They didn’t take that path, not until Covid19 at least, which has obviously led to a big increase in government spending – but that was something I was worried about at the start of the Trump era: that they were going to steal our clothes.
Now more than ever, as the Republican establishment may be about to reassert control of the party, the left needs to be proposing a thoroughgoing reconstruction.
The crises of Covid19
JG: This is where Covid comes in. In March, we started a Covid-tracker project in-house, in which we’ve been gathering the available data, media reports, and published analysis to maintain a database of sorts on what we think are going to be the cascading effects of the pandemic and accompanying economic crisis. And what we’re finding is, frankly, terrifying.
In March we believed that we were facing an economic crisis that was unprecedented in modern history. Now, more than six months on, we have a much clearer picture – although it is by no means a full picture and there is still considerable uncertainty. To begin with a small consolation, some of the economic effects have not been as bad as some had predicted. For instance, some economists were predicting an unemployment rate of around 32%, with 52.8 million Americans out of work in the second quarter. What actually happened is that the U.S. unemployment rate peaked at 14.7% in April and has since fallen back to 8.4%. However, at least part of the reason is that we prematurely exited lockdown and failed to control the spread of Covid. Policymakers essentially made a decision to prioritize the economy over public health. We’ve seen something similar in the UK.
And what makes things worse is that despite this decision, we are still, by almost every measure, in a deep economic crisis the likes of which has not been seen in America in generations. Here’s some data. First, GDP. I don’t love GDP as an indicator, but it’s broadly indicative of what’s happening in the economy. Back in March economists were predicting a decline in GDP of around 30% in the second quarter. That prediction was right on the money. In Quarter 2, GDP declined almost 10% on a quarterly basis (which represents an annualized rate of 32.9%). This is, quite simply, the largest decline since comparable records started to be collected after the Second World War – and likely only comparable to the Great Depression in its severity. And what took five years of major unemployment in the Great Depression has been achieved in five months. Despite the unemployment rate being lower than predicted, around 26 million people were still claiming unemployment benefits as of mid-August. Moreover, researchers are now predicting that anywhere from 32 to 42 percent of the jobs lost during the pandemic will be lost permanently. That is part of the reason why we have yet to see, and likely will not see, a full “V-shaped” recovery as hoped for by some.
As workers have lost their jobs, they and their family members have also lost their health insurance in staggering numbers. From February to June alone, it’s estimated that 12 million people lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. In July, one study found that more than 5.4 million people who had lost their jobs currently had no form of health insurance – in the midst of a global pandemic. For comparison, this number was 3.9 million during the financial crisis and Great Recession a decade ago.
Related to job losses and pay cuts, housing insecurity has also increased dramatically. While homelessness and evictions have been mitigated for the past several months due to eviction moratoriums in many states, as these come to an end, we are likely to see a big jump in homelessness and displacement.
In terms of poverty, while we won’t have the official numbers for 2020 until this time next year, there are signs of a significant increase. For instance, in June, reports suggested that around 14 million children were living in food-insecure households. By comparison, at the peak of the Great Recession this number was 5.1 million. Related to this, over the past several months there have been increasing reports from many areas of the country about incredible lines outside foodbanks and other charitable institutions.
In March, one of the things we worried about was the potential of the pandemic and the economic crisis to have a devastating impact on small businesses and local public budgets and services; and the possibility that there would be a “disaster capitalist” response and an “Amazon recovery” where corporate and elite control of the economy is strengthened and inequality increases. Unfortunately, that appears to be very much the path we are currently on. Small business closures are significantly higher than at any point during the Great Recession, and many businesses will never re-open again. As the same time, many large corporations have been able to weather the crisis, taking advantage of their economic and political power to secure billions in loans, subsidies, and other public assistance. And, of course, private equity sharks are flush with cash and, along with corporations, waiting in the wings to start snapping up small and medium sized enterprises and other troubled businesses for cents on the dollar.
Linked to the loss of local businesses, state and local budgets are in absolute freefall. While the full extent of the impact is not yet known, it is becoming clear that state and local governments will be facing revenue shortages significantly greater than they faced during the Great Recession. Unless the Federal Government does more to come to their aid, we are likely going to be seeing a period of deep austerity where spending on social services is slashed, pension funds become insolvent, public sector employees are laid off, and public assets are sold off.
Anecdotally, we are already starting to see this, as municipality after municipality has announced budget cuts in recent months. Beyond this, there is the very real possibility of a slew of municipal bankruptcies, which will not only exacerbate all of these austerity measures, but will also remove all vestiges of local, democratic control over them.
Lastly, it is no surprise that the economic effects of this crisis are not being felt equally and are significantly exacerbating racial and economic inequality. We’ve seen the roll-back in just a few months of nearly a decade’s progress in narrowing the racial unemployment gap. The gap between the white unemployment rate and the Black unemployment rate is currently back up to 5.7 percentage points. And the gap between the white unemployment rate and the Hispanic unemployment rate is back up to 3.2 percentage points.
Finally just one more statistic. While tens of millions of people are suffering in this economy, there is one group who are doing quite well. Since the onset of the pandemic the total wealth of US billionaires has increased by a whopping $800 billion.
So, a pretty dire picture, all things considered!
There’s a significant chance that we’re going to see hardship escalate even further in the next three months, with Trump still in the White House, a second wave unfolding, and moratoriums on evictions coming to an end. Shopping as we know it has ended – the shopping malls were already dying, but now we’re seeing major retails chains lining up for bankruptcy. One of the things they’ll do is shed their pension obligations, with further ripple effects.
More real economy businesses will go under, under the weight of the second wave and further shutdowns, plus the maturation of debts they’ve taken on. That will have a major effect on local tax bases, which are much more important in the US than in the UK, and may well push some municipalities into bankruptcy. What will the federal government do there?
We’ve heard some concerning suggestions from some people wanting to style themselves as economic advisors to Biden that a lot of money has been spent on Covid and now is the time for belt-tightening. What our data shows is that with an economic event of the magnitude of the Great Depression, you at least need interventions of a comparable scale to the New Deals. (Which of course didn’t really end the Depression – that was the war!)
A Democratic economy?
JG: Here’s where some creative stuff might become possible. Through our anchor work, we’ve been hearing from a lot of the big nonprofit healthcare institutions. Over recent years, they’ve been involved in a race to the bottom to seek out the lowest unit cost for things like PPE. That meant it was basically all made in China. All the marginal savings they’ve been making for decades suddenly got wiped out when all that wasn’t available and had to be bought in a rush at a much higher cost. So now big hospital systems are saying that they can’t be in that position again: the world is going to remain unstable, and they need to on-shore; they can’t rely on fragile global supply chains. So we could see the beginnings of a decentralised industrial strategy that could start to create millions of new, well-paid manufacturing jobs, and re-localise the economy.
That’s not even being seen as radical democratic political economy, but just as a practical response to an era where resilience will be much more important than marginal cost savings.
FSB: Will those manufacturing jobs be done by people, though, or robots?
JG: We’ll see, but PPE supply chains seem much more like medium-sized manufacturing organisations which do still exist in developed economies, and not so much like, say, electronics manufacturing which is much more high-tech and mechanised. And these sorts of firms are also the heart of employee-ownership in the US economy. We have a report coming out on this from my Democracy Collaborative colleagues Thomas Hanna and Dana Brown for our Healthcare Anchor Network.
FSB: It’s interesting that in America there’s still a big focus on manufacturing as the basis of the economy, and the thing that’s going to save the left. In Britain, by contrast, both right and left converged far more, in the 1990s, on the idea that a modern, developed economy was a service-sector economy, and that investment in human capital, rather than in industrial strategy, was important. Does that focus detract attention to some extent in the US from parts of the Foundational Economy – in care, health, education, and so on – that are much less likely to be mechanised out of existence than manufacturing?
JG: For me, the question is where do you split the economy and what alliances do you create? This actually maps onto the political dilemmas of the Democratic Party in a crude but meaningful way. One idea of how you build a Democratic governing coalition is to stitch together the high-tech and financialised sections of the economy with the caring economy. That maps onto the Silicon Valley plus rainbow coalition base version of the Democratic electoral base. What you don’t have in there is the white working class – manufacturing. Of course this is a crude model, but what you get there, broadly speaking, is that in good times you have a neoliberal economic model which produces a surplus to skim off and spend in the caring sectors of the economy. But you get continuing pain in the manufacturing sector and in rust belt communities.
What would be more interesting – and what the progressive wing of the party should be looking to – is an alliance of manufacturing and the Foundational Economy, particularly the caring sectors of the economy. That’s an alliance which is opposed to financialised, high-tech, corporate capital.
Covid opened up some of this in a very vivid way, because it showed what is really essential – and valorised a lot of the low-paid, so-called ‘unskilled’ work which we all rely on. It becomes possible to see our way to a de-globalising, de-financialising economic model, with more planning – because we had planning systems put in place for a brief moment just now, though they weren’t democratic and weren’t called ‘planning’ systems. Not much has been made of that politically.
The green transition is also where the manufacturing and construction jobs will be – we need to retrofit, to build; this country’s infrastructure is literally falling apart: that needs to be tackled.
We need to think, too, about whether Covid requires a rethink of our public space, because we don’t know how long the impacts of Covid will last or whether we’ll face more pandemics.
Coming back to where we started, it’s hard to see that we’ll get to these big conversations in the context of a knife-edge Congress, and a very divided politics and country.
FSB: One idea that’s surfaced in the pandemic is the idea that tech companies are really utilities, and have to be regulated as such. Do you think that idea has a future?
JG: I think it has to. From Amazon to Apple to Facebook, these companies are making huge amounts of money in the pandemic. It’s been projected that Bezos is on track to becoming the world’s first trillionnaire by 2026 if his income continues to grow at the rate it has this year; that won’t happen, of course, but it’s indicative of the way things are going. The importance of social media for politics is huge and growing. Channel 4’s analysis of the Trump campaign’s micro-targeting of voters in 2016 was astonishing: it shows how successful the campaign was in mobilising voters, and also demobilising those they didn’t want voting. That power is so dangerous. We have a twentieth-century regulatory environment that’s not fit for the twenty-first century.
The strategy for the left
FSB: What’s the strategy for the left, then?
JG: The first thing we have to do is tell the story of what we’ve already done. Biden’s going to be in the White House because of the mobilisations in places like Georgia and Michigan; because of social movements working to achieve things that no amount of money can buy. That’s the future.
And as AOC has said, we need to get beyond electoralism. We need to be in touch with people and communities throughout the electoral cycle, doing the political education and community organising work that’s needed. It’s not rocket science – that’s where our early movements came from. But that political education has been hollowed out, and the result is things like conspiracy theories, because people know that our economy is profoundly broken, but don’t see a convincing explanation for why and how that is on TV or in the newspapers or through mainstream business-as-usual politics.
Rebuilding our networks is hard, long-haul work but it has to be started sometime. The far right has been eating our lunch on social media and on the internet, on YouTube. We need left-wing versions of what they’re doing that re-forge community and political solidarity.
But we also face a political conundrum. For a long time the left has had to work with the centre-left as the junior partner in that alliance: expected to toe the line and work to deliver for centre-left leaders like Blair, Clinton, and now again for Biden. But recently the Corbyn and Sanders projects have shown that that does not work the other way around, that the shoe doesn’t fit on the other foot. Large chunks of the liberal, centrist camp are simply not willing to work as junior partners in a left alliance. They are not willing to give up their control of the party machines to the left, even if the cost of that is losing to the neo-populist right.
So what’s the path forward to implement the essential programme that the left has developed – on political economy and climate crisis – which is really the only agenda in town? This programme is not just the property of a section of the left, it is a deeply thought-out response to the deep structural crises we are facing, and we have a very limited time to get it enacted in some form – whether by us or by the centrists. The climate clock is ticking.
We tried to pole-vault over the need for decades of organising work, and take control of the Labour and Democratic parties in the hope that we could then take control of the state in the US and UK. If we’d managed to do that, it would, in fact, have been in tension with the long-haul theory we’d developed. In the end, it proved impossible to take those short-cuts. It was like Gramsci’s argument about the ‘revolution against Capital’ in Russia – if it had succeeded, it would have disproved our theories. But it didn’t succeed. We have been defeated. So one way forward for the left is to do that long-term organising, movement building work.
But it may be that we need to take some other routes forward, too – maybe the political economy and climate crisis agenda we’ve developed is bigger than us on the left: it’s the agenda that’s needed to respond to climate change, to the vast inequality that capitalism is generating and which is throwing up so many morbid symptoms.
What we might need is a communications strategy around this programme that builds out broad public understanding so that the centre has no choice but to steal our ideas and enact their own versions of them. That’s not a theory of change that’s going to be very popular with many on the left, but I don’t see another route forward in the timeframe that we have available: if the centre-left is not willing to take a lead from us on this, how else can we get this programme – which is vital to the future of the planet and democracy – enacted? That’s the dilemma I’m struggling with at the moment.
FSB: That’s something like the strategy that the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice, which reported in 2018, tried to adopt – framing the measures they recommended not as radical, but as common-sense, cross-party, and a response to the scale of the problems we face.
JG: At this point, we’re looking at something like the innovation curve, which has a small number of crackpot visionaries, a larger – but still small – number of early innovators, and then the people in the middle who get on board when it’s mainstream. That’s where enactment at scale occurs. Personally, I’m trying to think about where I am on that curve – I think I’m not a crackpot visionary, but I might be an early translator of some of the important political economy stuff; at the same time, I’m not necessarily the right person to carry some of it into the mainstream. And all those bits of the curve are necessary for innovation to occur. Maybe something like the RSA will be the think-tank of what’s ultimately enacted, rather than The Democracy Collaborative.
I feel that the programme we’ve developed on the left has the right analysis, and has the right response – it’s big enough for the scale of the problems we face, the deep structural challenges. We don’t have all the answers, but we have a lot more than anyone else. So what’s now needed is conversations about strategy and division of labour to try to move this stuff to where it’s seen as common sense. Just as how at the start of the 1930s, economic planning was seen as unrealistic, but then depression and war came along and transformed how planning was seen. We need to do the same for some of the core ideas of the democratic economy.
Building muscle and flesh
FSB: There’s a difference in the sort of political education that the right does, and what the left needs to do. The right can gain strength by stimulating fear, isolation and division – and has been successfully using the possibilities offered by the Internet to do just that. What the left needs to do is qualitatively different – we need to build a sense that solidarity, community and working together can actually change our economies and societies for the better. That’s much harder, and it requires us to actually do things together, to show how that works in practice. It’s not something that I think can be done through YouTube videos so successfully.
JG: I agree, and in fact, the political education projects I’m working on with colleagues have several components. I do think theory and history are important, and we shouldn’t neglect them. We have sorely needed historical understanding that has been absent from some of the dilemmas we have faced recently. But the learning-through-doing piece of work is really important. In fact, I think we can learn from some of the mutual aid work and the campaigning work that’s been going on during the pandemic – like the free school meals in the holidays campaign in the UK – and use it to demonstrate, for example, the cooperative rather than simply competitive nature of our species and our society.
The Community Wealth Building work that we’ve been doing with partners in Cleveland, Preston and elsewhere has been, so far, demonstration work – it’s been done in a top-down way, marrying political leadership with technical expertise to make things happen. We’ve been doing the building, and the wealth, but what we need to do next is the community part of Community Wealth Building. And that’s the political part and the education part.
The neoliberals got us all to internalise some very powerful – but completely wrong – ideas that were at the core of their paradigm. Markets know best, a rising tide lifts all boats, and so on. Powerfully resonant, but actually deeply counterintuitive. We need to challenge these dangerous ideas – through talking about our own ideas, and through demonstrating them in practice. The idea of a local multiplier, for example, makes a lot of sense to people. Buy local and the money stays locally. We don’t need anyone to come to save us, and they aren’t anyway. Make local public spending do double or triple duty. Build an economy in which we take in each others’ wash.
The right repeats their core message over and over, and we need to do that too. We need to be giving trade unionists and activists and community organisers the tools and the concepts to understand the economy, for example. It has to be an ‘each one teach one’ approach. As you say, all the right has to do is to keep people atomised and fearful; it is harder for the left, because we have to find a way to bring people together, and get them beyond fear – but what else can we do?
FSB: It seems so hard!
JG: It does, but people are doing it, and that’s where I see hope: Stacey Abrams, for example – she lost the race for Governor of Georgia two years ago because of low turnout due to voter suppression, and she didn’t just sit back, she worked to change that. It doesn’t necessarily have to take decades – which is lucky, because we don’t have decades. But we do have some years, and we need to use them.
Over the past five years, we developed the programme. Now I think, the programme can develop itself – there’s ongoing expertise there to develop the programme. It does need development, in areas like trade, and it needs to be adapted to take account of Covid. But the ideas system is in place – the nervous system is there. Now we have to build muscle and flesh, and that’s both more boring, but it’s what is needed. We have a gap between what we know needs to be done, and what’s communicable and saleable electorally, and we need to close that gap. That gap killed Corbyn. It killed Sanders. And it will kill us all if we don’t figure out how to close it and how to deliver the Green New Deal and a far-reaching transformation of our economic system. That is the work ahead.
Joe Guinan is vice president at The Democracy Collaborative, Executive Director of the Next System Project, and a contributing editor at Renewal
Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is associate professor of twentieth-century British history at UCL, and a co-editor of Renewal