Under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, a space was created for left thinkers and activists to advance a detailed and intellectually coherent alternative to our plutocratic, extractive and environmentally devastating economic model. After Labour's defeat, we need to hold our nerve and build a broader, more durable movement for radical change.
December's general election result was the first major setback for the fledgling political movement that sprang unexpectedly into being as a result of Jeremy Corbyn's successful campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. The devastating scale of the defeat has dealt this movement a decapitating blow, forcing Corbyn's resignation and potentially severing the vital link between a radical party leadership and the mass membership it created. The question now is whether the magnitude of this loss proves fatal for the underlying political project that defined Corbynism. Can Corbynism the movement - however reformulated and rebranded for a next phase of development - survive beyond the now greatly diminished political fortunes of Corbyn the person?
Much will turn upon the answer to this question. At stake is the enormous progress, intellectually and in policy terms, that has been achieved over the past few years. During this time the left, for the first time in decades, began to chart a viable political-economic path forward through and beyond the multiple crises - eco nomic, political, social and ecological - of our decaying neoliberal order. This programme has been dubbed 'Corbynomics' - something of a misnomer in that, while the Labour Party's recent platform has certainly been developed in substantial part by a small group of key advisors, policy wonks and political allies closely arrayed around the leadership (the offices of both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell), it has also been the culmination of years - even decades - of thinking about a new left political economy, both in the United Kingdom and overseas.
Corbyn and McDonnell were so important because they provided both the leadership and the political space in which this programme could be articulated and advanced at the national political level. 'Corbynomics' matters because it represents not just the political platform of a particular wing of the UK Labour Party but also the most advanced version yet to appear internationally of a deep strategic response to our overlapping crises, and a powerfully progressive vision of what can and must come next. It remains incomplete - important gaps are yet to be filled on issues ranging from international trade to big data and the digital monopolies - and many technical and practical details of implementation are still to be worked out. Nevertheless, it stands as an impressive body of work. Taken as a whole, 'the new economics' (as John McDonnell has styled it) aims to bring about a radical egalitarian rebalancing of power through a reordering and democratisation of the basic institutions of Britain's economy - a breathtakingly ambitious agenda, but one commensurate with the scale of the crisis. (1) Nowhere else in the advanced industrial world has such a programme been developed in such detail, and with a realistic prospect of actually being implemented. This is what now hangs in the balance.
A democratic economy?
The core insight of Corbynomics is its recognition that our deepening crises are not accidental, or merely the result of poor policy choices, but the predictable outcome of the basic organisation of the economy. Addressing the crises would thus require more than reforms that tinker around the edges, or correct outcomes after they have already occurred: what was needed was the delivery of fundamental structural change in our economic system.
Over the course of four decades, the institutions and relations of our economy have facilitated a flow of wealth and power upwards to economic elites - a narrow propertied class whose ownership of the lion's share of productive assets in an increasingly financialised economy has allowed them to capture almost all of its gains through a process of extraction. Land is controlled by landlords and property developers, the money supply by banks, our natural resources by the big energy companies, and so on. Instead of producing new wealth, this economy functions by extracting wealth from others, whether through rip-off utility bills, usurious interest charges, sky-high rents, or share buybacks that bid up existing asset values. The same goes for the unsustainable extraction of natural resources that is pushing us ever further towards ecological ruin.
Against this, the new economics posits the possibility of a democratic economy in opposition to the extractive, unjust and unsustainable economy of neoliberal corporate capitalism. The argument for a democratic economy proceeds from the recognition that a society half plutocratic and half democratic cannot long endure. One half must - will - eventually supersede the other. This has been occurring all around the world over the past decade, as the plutocratic economy consumes our democratic polity. If this dangerous development is to be halted, if a rapid descent into neo-fascism and ecocide is to be avoided, then this order of things must be reversed. Democracy must be suffused into the economy. Only in this way can we see a rebirth of our failing democracy.
The good news is that this future is in fact already here - it's just...