Beyond Mont Pelerin: how does a movement prepare for power?

AuthorBerry, Christine

If the Labour Party wants to transform Britain's political economy, we need detailed strategic analyses of what needs to be done and who may stand in our way. We need a movement that does not default to tribalism or purism, but is capable of debating the merits of strategic compromise.

Since the 2008 crisis there has been a revival of interest in the question: what does it take to achieve systemic change? With a Labour leadership committed to such change now within touching distance of power, these questions have suddenly become much more immediate and vital for the UK left. Over the past six months, Joe Guinan and I have been looking at how radical governments of both the left and right have succeeded--and failed--in catalysing transformative shifts in the economy. We have been asking what lessons the Labour left in Britain today can draw from these precedents, and what this means for where the movement must go next. This work will be published in book form next year as People Get Ready. Here I set out a few of the things we have learned so far.

Many have tried to understand how it's possible to achieve systemic change by looking back at the shift towards neoliberalism, most frequently to the Mont Pelerin Society, which has become a byword for how the neoliberals achieved a paradigm shift in our political economy.

The Mont Pelerin Society was a secretive society set up by neoliberal economist Friedrich von Hayek in 1947 at a summit in the Swiss Alps. It went on to found a network of think tanks which spanned the globe, becoming one of the main ways the neoliberals kept their ideas alive and propagated them, so that when the crisis hit in the 1970s they were ready to take advantage. (1) The lesson the left took from the Mont Pelerin Society was, essentially, 'this is what we haven't been doing': we were not ready to take advantage when the 2008 crisis hit, because we had not been preparing and propagating visions for transformative change.

There is a huge amount of truth in that story, and the lesson was an important one at the time--but times have moved on. Ten years after the financial crisis, we need to look to new historical parallels to understand what we now need to achieve as a movement. We need to go beyond the Mont Pelerin Society: it is an imperfect analogy for the task that faces us now for three main reasons.

First, the neoliberal project was essentially an elite project as opposed to a democratic project, and the neoliberals' tactics and strategies were, therefore, elite tactics and strategies. Their project was about disseminating ideas amongst a very small group of powerful people, so that they were ready to parachute those people into power when the crisis hit. That is very different from Corbynism today. As John McDonnell wrote recently, 'when we go into government, we all go into government together'. (2) The transformation that Corbynism is seeking to achieve is fundamentally about the democratisation of the economy. And if the ends are democratic, then the means must also be democratic: we need a radical democratisation of society and of politics.

For the Labour leadership, this means that, should it get into power and take the reins of the state, its role will be not just to pull those levers in a different direction but to radically democratise the state itself: to use those levers to build new sources of power outside the state. And for the movement supporting them, it means that its role is not simply to provide the foot-soldiers that get Corbyn elected, but to become the drivers of democratic, transformative change. The movement is not the means to the end of a Corbyn government: it's the other way around.

The second reason that the Mont Pelerin Society is an imperfect analogy for what we need now is, quite...

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