James Foley

James Foley

Post-Lockdown Economic Recovery: Notes for a Fighting Left

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Responding to the Scottish Government commissioned report on re-opening the Scottish economy after lockdown, James Foley looks at the dilemmas for those looking to challenge the new stage of capitalist development.

1. The ruling class is abandoning neoliberalism as a hegemonic framework

While the report has emerged unfiltered from the Scottish establishment, it borrows language that, a few years ago, could have been confused with the radical left. “If the monumental scale and nature of this economic shock is not a catalyst to accelerate change and to find new bold, radical interventions that will transform Scotland’s economy, then nothing ever will be,” announces former Tesco Bank CEO Benny Higgins in the foreword. However, this simply formalises in Scottish terms what has already happened elsewhere, most notably in Conservative Westminster. Post-coronavirus, elites no longer legitimise their dominance in neoliberal terms. Instead, they speak the language of inclusion, harm reduction and national unity, themes that resonate throughout this document.

While illustrating incredulity towards market competition, the report also demonstrates the practical limits of compassion. There is no obvious call for reversing built-up inequalities. At best, it could be interpreted as calling for restraining any further Brazilification of the economy (the polarisation of classes and shrinking of middle strata). But there is little here beyond placatory gestures: faced with decades of class-based injuries, the Scottish elite has taken a knee.

There is talk of managing the settlement more harmoniously, with a better balance between the “four capitals”: people, businesses, community and environment. But here the substitution of “people” for workers is instructive, especially after the publicity surrounding the nurses, shop workers, bus drivers and other ranks of the low paid who got the world through the virus.

Any recognition, again, is gestural. Unions have at best a walk-on role, and there are no moves to democratic participation in workplaces (draconian industrial laws are simply deferred, a reflection of the devolution settlement’s underlying hypocrisy – see below). Real financial commitments are modest given what has already come from Westminster, and centre on bailouts for failing businesses. Responsibility for full employment, likewise, largely rests on the voluntary actions of business owners.

Under these circumstances there is every chance that, for all this symbolic empathy, the inequalities of neoliberalism will persist and even grow. Shifts will take place at the ideological level: any lingering talk of ‘greed is good’ will end, replaced by hand-wringing about inequality, with failings excused, according to a formula Sturgeon has pioneered, by unfortunate external contingencies.

Certainly, the new era could open opportunities for a left that (crucial caveat) is not supplicant to power. Whether in Scotland, Trump’s America or even the turbo-austere European Union, governments have smashed the ceiling on public spending and debt. The old excuses have lost their sway, because elite interests are themselves in need of some state socialism. Of course, as with 2008, this could simply inaugurate a new round of austerity, but public weariness and liability to look to ‘populist’ solutions makes this even trickier than before. A sufficiently readied left could raise the political horizons; but a docile left, happy to live on gestures, will rightly suffer the brunt of public anger.

2.  The left must move beyond an ‘anti-austerity’ framework and embrace class power, autonomy and democratic control

Some will undoubtedly acclaim this report, given its rejection of austerity and its reassuring jargon of wellbeing and resilience. While it largely recapitulates what has already begun in Westminster, Sturgeon will once again draw praise from much of the Scottish professional establishment for easing consciences with progressive mood music.

All this elite hand-wringing over austerity may at least have one positive function, in forcing a reckoning on what the left stands for. Austerity is ideologically over, insofar as, in the Cameron-Clegg era, it was endowed with positive moral characteristics (‘a strong nation tightening its belt’). Everyone, including Sunak, Johnson and most recently Sajid Javid, has distanced themselves from those outdated rationales. Deficit hawks have made themselves scarce. This, of course, is far from a guarantee of rising wages or saving services, but it does force leftism to rethink its economic role in public debate.

The biggest worry is that, absent the divide of austerity, the left may have lost its sense of historical purpose. For some time, anti-austerity politics has become a comfort zone. Moral opposition to the ‘nastiness’ of welfare reforms and Bedroom Taxes gave the left an easy seat at the table. It allowed Corbyn to best his Labour opponents and the Yes campaign to pummel the old Westminster elite. However, if the right has truly moved beyond the Cameron-Clegg era, the left risks being stuck in one of two traps: pretending that the neoliberal bugaboo is lurking behind every new round of public spending; or else naively praising the establishment simply for spending money.

Building unity around opposition to cuts was, at times, a useful tactic. But the historical debate has shifted, and simply to restore the deficits of the last decades, never mind progressing working-class interests beyond where we left off at 2008, we must radically raise ambitions. Austerity was merely the crushing blow of a long neoliberal era that smashed the power, autonomy and agency of working-class collectives. We need a deeper reckoning with the scale of these defeats so as to recover a higher sense of purpose.

Looking beyond public spending and wages, the left must begin a dialogue around working class power, autonomy and agency, especially in the realm of representative politics.

These concepts should become the ethical framework for rejecting precarious work, anti-union laws and the technocratic rhetoric of establishment politicians. Neoliberalism worked to narrow freedom and democracy into consumer choice, only for that bubble to collapse with the debt crisis of 2008. In that context, a fully formed leftist response must do more than negotiate payoffs – it must offer power and control.

3.  Despite its anti-austerity rhetoric, the report inherits the low ambitions of the austerity era.

The report shows that, even if rulers do move beyond the neoliberal era, the process will be slow and tortuous. While there are rhetorical gestures and promises of radical spending, the suite of recommendations largely draws on ideological frameworks of the old era.

Thus, for all the growing public awareness of the social importance of essential workers, the report largely recapitulates the established Scottish Government “Fair Work” model. As with most of the report’s recommendations, for all the anti-cuts rhetoric, Fair Work imposes few serious financial commitments. Moderately progressive for its time, it is now a remnant of an era where the left had to settle for low cost gesture politics.

Conceptually, the report is leaden with the limited ambitions of the Third Way era of social democracy. “There is growing evidence that delivering sustainable growth and addressing long-standing inequalities are reinforcing – and not competing – objectives,” it argues.

Such formulas, inoffensive for the nineties, become backward-looking in the current world context of Covid and climate change. These bland couplets have persisted in public policy for decades, in the rhetoric of Tony Blair and Labour’s sister parties across the world. Their dominance in discourse has never once proved a barrier to an economic model that persistently produces rising inequalities, alienation and socio-political fragmentation.

While leftists should defend growth insofar as it contributes to technological progress, we should also insist on democracy, including a full and decisive break with the overweening power of elite economic interests in representative institutions. This report, commissioned to the Scottish ruling class (with, at best, tokenistic gestures to workers) by a democratically elected centre-left government, is symptomatic of persistent problems.

Perhaps the biggest worry is how little attention this has drawn from the Scottish left. This illustrates their own low ambitions, and a growing complacency towards traditional sociological questions of power – agenda setting, issue framing, hegemony – far less class analysis. Even those Labourists who express kneejerk outrage at every Scottish Government move have remained silent on the fact that ‘economic recovery’ agendas have been handed to the bourgeoisie.

4. Devolution is part of the problem

Sturgeon, in many respects, has found the ideal formula for managing the emerging era of politics. Scotland’s growing injustices, and the collapse of public faith in public services, are blamed on the evils of Westminster; similarly, she talks of remedies (including UBI) that only become possible under independence, which, sadly, has been thwarted by…the evils of Westminster. This is no less a national myth for being grounded in partial truths. Her success, built on hand-wringing about inequalities while blaming them on an external aggressor, is a formula which will inspire others and become the general mode of post-neoliberal ideology.

Devolution has all-but collapsed in much of the UK, and paradoxically Scotland, with its entrenched nationalist government, remains its most successful outpost. However, the system has incubated rival nationalisms that now ensure that devolution will never deliver accountability. SNP blames problems on Westminster; Conservatives blame the SNP. Both narratives have an element of truth (doubtless, Sturgeon the greater part), but the result is that the buck never stops. The fragmented sovereignty of devolution was a product of the neoliberal era, and it has proved an enormously effective mechanism for rationalising austerity.

This report encapsulates much of the conservatism of devolution. It allows the Scottish elite to defer judgement on such matters as labour market reforms and anti-union laws. Scottish Labour’s non-response is characteristic. The party is stuck between the conservatism of the devolved status quo, with all its glaring democratic deficit and accountability problems, and the call for more powers, with little basis for assuming that such Fabian increments of ‘reform’ will have any impact whatsoever on underlying problems.

5.  We must critique “nationalism” properly – and independence is part of the answer

The problem with nationalism, in today’s standard, liberal-left critique, is that it divides a globalised world. While formally progressive, this framing increasingly amounts to a conservative defence of the politics of the nineties and noughties, which has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. It licenses a nebulous internationalism that defends market globalisation and NATO militarism in the guise of a heroic moral stance. It supports the vanity of upper layers of professionals who have little care or concern for the viewpoints of their populations.

Worse, in the particular case of the Sturgeon government, this critique ironically empowers the nationalist ruling party, allowing them to contrast their open, ‘civic’ nationalism against the ugly, ‘ethnic’ nationalism of Brexit, ensuring that Scotland’s one party state rumbles on without challenge, with the full complicity of the left.

This report illustrates all the characteristic dangers of an unexamined, soft nationalism. It is stacked with references to “the true wealth of the nation” and various paternalist discourses. While clearly originating from Scotland’s ruling class, there is a framing of national unity in Team Scotland, as embodied in the doctrine of the four (presumably harmonious) types of capital.

Socialists must, in these circumstances, strengthen their own critique of nationalism. Rather than saying, in ethical liberal terms, that nationalism is too narrow to account for the global village of today, a materialist perspective would stress that nationalism is too broad to account for Scotland’s conflicts and divisions. Its vision of the nation is not too exclusive, as liberal critiques may imagine, but too inclusive: all the subordinate classes are incorporated under a vision defined by what can be termed, without risk of exaggeration, the Scottish bourgeoisie. It is not too hard, erecting divisive borders and so on, but rather too soft in its denial of underlying conflicts. So often in history, the danger is not that nationalism is a slippery slope to xenophobia and even fascism, but rather that it diverts attention from the reality of conflict-ridden societies.

Sturgeon was so thoroughly confident in hegemonic persistence that she nominated a (more or less) full complement of ruling class authorities to redesign the Scottish economy. In response, leftists should insist that no amount of paternalist platitudes will buy off Scotland’s workers. With the crisis having proved the inadequacy of the meritocratic and ‘entrepreneurial’ ruling class, far less inherited wealth, and having shown our dependence on the most dreary and low paid forms of ‘essential work’, we must reject any return to the deferential mode of class politics.

The independence movement of 2014 was perhaps the biggest shock to the Scottish establishment in generations; the political outcome, by contrast, was a yet more entrenched Scottish establishment. However, far from being Sturgeon’s ‘obsession’, as narrowminded opposition commentators claim, independence remains her biggest fear, the most glaring intrusion into her day-to-day managerial agenda. In this sense, the paradox remains that independence could yet prove the biggest threat to nationalist hegemony in Scotland. The left’s task is to promote a vision of independence that restores agency, autonomy and democracy to the working class, and offers a decisive break with both neoliberalism and paternalism.

Image: First Minister of Scotland

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