After the cataclysm: why we must build a new economics from the ground up

After decades in retreat, the left must urgently begin to build a mass programme of economics education, tied to a broad political movement.

James Meadway
15 March 2019, 12.01am
Image: Sophie Brown, CC BY-SA 4.0

There is a wonderful metaphor in Alastair Macintyre’s After Virtue, in which the philosopher asks us to imagine a world hit by some terrible calamity that caused scientific and technical knowledge to be almost destroyed. What was left was smashed into thousands upon thousands of disconnected pieces, and the inhabitants of this world had to piece together their understanding of science and technology from what was lost, trying to line up the remnants of the earlier age as best they could.

Scrabbling, ignorant, and in the darkness, they would sometimes get things right. More often, however, they would get things seriously wrong. Most of all, they had lost any sense of science as a system, depriving them not only of the existing knowledge, but how to generate new ideas and make new discoveries.

It’s an image that haunts me, repeatedly, when surveying the state of the left today. We don’t live in quite such desperate straits – clearly, we’ve inherited an enormous amount from our own past, and, in particular, the major institutions of the left retain some of their capacities to shape and influence society and ideas. But it seems we have lost something that the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm highlighted forty years ago in his much-maligned essay The Forward March of Labour Halted?. This is the loss (or radical diminution) of what we can think of as a continuous movement, whose many parts may be separate but whose parts have some clear articulation and engagement with each other.

This shared movement, as a powerful and meaningful force in society, helped in turn frame and articulate the ways in which it was possible to think about the world and how to change it. It mattered a great deal that in 1979 half the entire workforce was in a trade union, and 70% were covered by a collective bargaining agreement. And it matters a great deal if, conversely, today only 17% of under 30 year olds are in a TUC-affiliated union, and only 12-14% of private-sector workplaces have even a single trade union member present. It means, other things being equal, there will be enormous numbers of people who will live, day after day, without ever knowingly meeting a union member or coming across any union activity. It means that the ways in which trade unionism and the labour movement more generally could be woven into the fabric of working class life have frayed – in some places to the point of non-existence.

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It isn’t necessary to follow Hobsbawm’s rather rigid economic determinism in this. Clearly, there is no reason to suppose, as he did, that a working class movement as such can only exist when the working class is dominated by its “traditional” occupations of manual (male) work. It’s perfectly obvious that, far from producing widespread transition into the middle class, the spectacular shift to service sector employment in the last few decades has remade the working class in a different image: more female, and more diverse, but also less secure and less well-paid than the archetype that still exercises such an extraordinary grip on our collective imagination. Nor is it necessary to think, as Ian Jack recently invited us to in a nicely observed, elegiac piece on the loss of the traditional working class, that we will remain trapped with a politics of negativity and sullen refusal as a result of this loss. But it is simply not possible, either, to deny the reality of what has happened.

This Great Movement of Ours does not exist in the way it used to. The form of it is still there; we still have large trade unions – membership remains around 6 million – but the content has been evacuated. To take a crude but meaningful indicator, strike days lost are now at the lowest level since records began. In Phil Burton-Coleridge’s phrase, “Unions were still able to make their presence felt bureaucratically, but less so politically.”

Two poles

What we have today is a series of partial and disparate movements, spread across society, with a circulation amongst them as to which appears dominant at any point in time, dependent usually on external events. For the period at least since the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, or, less obviously, the early 1990s when strike levels collapsed and never recovered, the record of the left in Britain can be written as a series of singular movements, each one of which could coexist with each other, and one of which would, for a time, become the dominant form of political activity for those on the left. The brief flaring of the pit closures campaign in 1992; the Criminal Justice Act protests; the road protest movement; anti-globalisation; the anti-war protests; the student movement; protests against austerity – the last three decades or more on the left can be transcribed as a series of flashes in the darkness, of greater or lesser intensity and duration, leaving behind only traces.

Intellectually this pattern, which is familiar across the global North, has largely formed two responses, between which everyone distributed themselves. The first has been to retreat to a mid-70s comfort zone and pretend that, but for a lack of “confidence” or some other subjective factor, the working class in Britain was about to throw off its shackles and come rallying to the scarlet banner once more, in a reassuringly familiar pattern. The ENV shop stewards’ committee would rise from their graves and come marching down Holloway Road, whilst London dockers would once more picket Fleet Street to demand solidarity from the press, overcoming the mere happenstances that no papers are now produced on Fleet Street, and that they themselves no longer exist. Perhaps, it would be admitted that although call-centre workers or Deliveroo riders are doing different things to coal miners or steelworkers, they would – eventually, sometime soon – adopt the same familiar tactics and forms of organisation. In 1974, Hiroo Onoda was found in the Philippines, still fighting the Second World War. In 2019, certain Trotskyists can be found, still fighting 1974.

The second intellectual response has been to celebrate the diversity of movements as such, and to pretend that the fragmented parts added up to more than their sum, or even that fragmentation itself was a step towards a higher goal. What self-respecting would-be intellectual in the early 2000s had not read Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s ringing celebrations of Multitude against Empire? Who had not thrilled at the thought that even though we were manifestly and obviously losing, we were, in fact, secretly and subtly winning everything?

Even if most fell somewhere between the two poles, what was lacking for all was the sense of a meaningful connection to a continuous, permanent movement – because that continuous, permanent movement did not exist. Something had to be conjured up in its place: whether a celebration of what exists, or a nostalgia for what had passed, reheated. In both cases the future is something to be ignored. Similarly, the vast distance that has – until very recently – existed between the left and any serious prospect of political power has warped its intellectual life. It has meant that academia has provided a warm home for a generation or more of those on the left, with all the distortions that brings. For the social sciences most concerned with the questions of power in society, this has had the most dramatic effects. And chief among these is economics: squeezed to the margins of the academy, those economists opposing the dominant paradigm and its broadly centrist political conclusions have been reduced too often to the status of squabbling sects, indulging in esoteric debates thousands of miles from the questions of power and therefore policy.

A new movement and new economics

But the impact of this dispersion and retreat on the wider movement has been more significant. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015 offered the chance to make a break with what Jeremy Gilbert has called the “Long 1990s” – flashes and bursts of activity followed by quiescence. It has posed, and given an institutional shape to, the question of building not only a permanent movement, but of challenging for political power in the near future. Elected by a rejection of centrist politics that supported austerity, economic questions were always going to end up centre-stage under his leadership.

The capacity of the movement to respond and meet the challenge, however, has been limited by the decades of retreat from core economic questions. The numbers with a formal training in economics are limited, and in any case an academic background in economics would have taught only the neoclassical mainstream – good enough for challenging austerity; less obviously useful if the necessity is to transform the economy, whether that means reversing rising inequality or dealing with climate change. The number of academics or others trained in economics who engage with any part of the movement remains small. It is many years since a significant cadre of labour movement-oriented economists could be sustained.

As a result, this nascent movement has had to look to its own resources. John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor has promoted a wider discussion, but clearly the centre can only do so much. Efforts outside of Westminster have pulled together whatever is to hand from the materials available, notably from the now fragmentary and partial knowledge of the economy, and economics, that is the legacy of the older labour movement. Some parts are half-remembered, and then placed together in peculiar (and often largely useless) new ways, like “Modern Monetary Theory” – a reconstruction of post-war Keynesianism minus the mass workers’ movements and international political economy that helped deliver it.

Where any semblance of connection to the labour movement – let alone the tiny political institutions of the left – has crumbled, many have pulled together what they can, with the internet playing a crucial role. But the knowledge assembled is necessarily fragmentary and isolated, and its relationship to the central strategic question of political power may be indirect, at best. We are, like the victims of Macintyre’s cataclysm, left picking through the rubble, unable to assemble a coherent whole from the parts.

But the great danger here is not that we won’t be able to provide answers to current questions. The danger is that, if we do not have a functioning economics of our own, aligned to the movement, we will fail to answer the questions we don’t yet know exist. As Macintyre warned, we will lack the trained imagination needed to think not only about today’s problems, but tomorrow’s – and where tomorrow’s solutions might lie.

There is an urgent, pressing need to develop that imagination. We can know the rough shape of at least some of the problems bearing down on us (climate change, digitisation) and some of the answers (working time reductions; common ownership). But we have far more work to do in developing those answers, on one side, and in winning a wider understanding in the movement of the tools needed to answer them.

A mass, popular programme of education in economics (or, perhaps better, call it political economy) is called for. We need Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals”, tied to and part of the movement, on a mass basis. We need the disciplined imaginations and sense of possibility that a mass movement can give to all its participants. We need reading groups and dayschools in every town and city; websites like ourEconomy to host and help shape the arguments; and events like The World Transformed up and down the country.

Time, now, to stop picking through the rubble.

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