The Kilburn Manifesto - Framing Statement

The Kilburn Manifesto from Soundings is an ambitious 12 month project that looks to map out alternatives for the post-08 world. This is Mike Rustin on the Framing Statement.

The Killburn Manifesto is a statement being made in twelve monthly instalments, issued free on-line, about the nature of the neoliberal system which now dominates Britain and most of the Western world, and about the need to develop coherent alternatives to it. Last week we published Doreen Massey's Introduction. Here is Mike Rustin discussing the Framing Statement.


The Aim of the Killburn Manifesto

The main argument we are making through this initiative is that we now all face a total system which has since the crisis of the 1970s and the elections of Thatcher and Reagan been transforming – in many ways reversing - the compromise social democratic settlement. This settlement, with its various formulations including the New Deal or Christian Democracy, had been set in place after the defeat of fascism by the democracies in 1945.

We write in our Framing Statement and in the first instalment of the Manifesto  (‘Vocabularies of the Economy’) about the new ‘common sense’ of individualism, consumerism and markets, which has been used to drive other conceptions of well- being and the social good to the margins of both public and private thinking. These  transformations now  pervade nearly every sphere of life, for example universities, where students have to treat their education as an expensive financial investment in their own futures, and where universities are becoming ever more stratified, regimented, and business-oriented. Or consider the school system, where  the intention is to destroy the democratic dream of a unified, democratic ‘comprehensive’ system which would be good enough for all children. Instead selectiveness is being reintroduced de facto and opportunities will become even more unequal than they are already. Take the NHS, where the effect of its invasion by corporate providers will eventually, if it is not stopped, be the creation of a multi-tier service in which the most needy will be allocated to a poor, residual public provision, as has been the case in the United States.

The neo-liberal system likes to describe itself in terms of ‘free markets’. But in fact, as Colin Crouch has pointed out in The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism  (2012), it is nothing of the kind. ‘Free markets’ of producers with roughly equal powers, selling to informed consumers – such as your ‘farmer’s market’ – barely exist so far as the large-scale corporate economy is concerned. Instead, our economy is dominated by large, semi-monopolistic corporations who are often able to rig prices (e.g. the energy companies, the Libor rate); condone corporate malpractice (the big four accountancy firms); avoid paying taxes (Amazon, Barclays Bank, Google), even through the use of tax havens owned by the British Crown. They ceaselessly influence governments to do their bidding. The close interface between the corporate world and government - illustrated by the move of the head of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to Deloitte, to advise clients on ‘tax matters - is far more significant than the corruption or malpractice of individual MPs. 

There is now a fundamental disjunction between the interests of shareholders holding financial assets which thanks to deregulation and globalisation are essentially mobile and liquid, and the interests of employees and citizens in companies’ long- term productive activities. The British economy is being hollowed out of real productive capacities, such that if this continues there are doubts that present standards of living can be maintained in the medium term. Much of the private sector depends on the state to ensure its profits. Think of the artificial markets of the privatised utilities, or the insolvent banks bailed out with public money. Plenty of the much-hailed growth in private sector employment in recent years has simply been a reallocation of formerly public sector jobs.

There are massive market failures in our economy. For example, the corporate producers of coal, gas and oil, and their ideological allies, are able to prevent effective action being taken to prevent disastrous climate change. A new market failure has just been revealed in regard to the development of antibiotics. It appears not to be in the financial interests of the pharmaceutical companies to research these drugs, so there is a risk that growing bacterial immunity to them will plunge the world back into the days when most infections could not be cured. Plainly active government is vital to prevent and remedy such failures and to protect the public good. . 

The Kilburn Manifesto authors believe that an analysis is necessary which connects up the different elements of the neo-liberal world if we are to find a way of challenging or indeed even containing what is becoming a totally dominant system, a system which tolerates no alternatives to itself. If we cannot see it for what it is then we can’t challenge it, or develop alternative ways of thinking, feeling and acting within it.

Ideas and ideologies are only one element of a system such as this, though it is the element which we intellectuals are best able to engage with, and which our Manifesto will at first be mainly addressing. But we also have to recognise that changes in the balance of institutional and social forces have taken place, and have indeed been deliberately engineered, in order to enforce this changing world-order. The weakening of trade unions, the subordination of elected local government to Westminster, the hollowing out of the democratic mechanisms of the Labour Party, the removal of the relatively ‘neutral’ space represented by public enterprises, the weakening of social protection for citizens (eg in the housing market, and in the attack on social benefits), all have the effect and purpose of weakening the material base of social, democratic  and egalitarian ways of thinking.

The main purpose of the Coalition’s ‘deficit reduction’ priority is not to avoid Britain suffering the economic fate of Greece. Britain was never at this risk, having low short-term debt and with a much more diverse economy. Deficit reduction has instead been used as the justification for the uprooting of the welfare state in an irreversible way. The government will go on with this project until the day it loses office, since it understands the long strategic game it is playing much better than its opponents.

Indeed one of our problems is that, when it was in office, Labour colluded so much in this post-Thatcher world view that it now finds it difficult to find any firm ground on which to stand against it. The task is now to identify the shape and dynamics of this now dominant system in order to clarify potential developments alternative to it. No-one is likely to get anywhere on a journey of this kind without a good map.

We have no illusions that our Manifesto, even with its twelve instalments and we hope additional contributions alongside, can do this work alone. The history of such moments of transition - the ‘Road to 1945’, the emergence of the New Left in the 1950s, even the rise of the New Right  in the 1980s – shows us that when large changes in political thinking and practice occur they have many complementary origins. When a difference is made, it is not usually from single interventions but from the emergence of many, from different and sometimes unexpected sources. If things go well, these elements then find themselves in dialogue with each other and become joined up.

We hope that we are at a moment when we can help to encourage such new thinking, and that we will find ourselves to be one part of a larger attempt to understand both where we now are, and where we might come to be.