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Socialism or barbarism: a review of 'Stolen' by Grace Blakeley

The leading voice of the left provides a convincing critique of modern capitalism for socialists and skeptics alike.

Michael Galant
Michael Galant
9 October 2019
Image: NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

This, in essence, is the thesis of ‘Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation’. It’s a story as old as Marx. But researcher, political commentator, and leading voice of democratic socialism Grace Blakeley situates it in the specificities of the current political moment. In Blakeley’s hands, the history of the modern capitalist economy – where we are, how we got here, and what’s next – is told with renewed clarity, novel insight, and a stirring sense of the urgency of our times.

Stolen ’s history of class struggle begins in the aftermath of World War II. The labor movement emerged from the early 20th century with sufficient power to bend capital, but not enough to break it. The great class compromise of modern social democracy was born. For a time, the arrangement succeeded, but in the 1970’s crisis hit, laying bare the conflicting class interests that had remained beneath the surface.

In the resulting moment of political plasticity, it was the capitalist class that emerged victorious, overhauling the economy to its own benefit and birthing what we would now call neoliberalism. The new system – though always ruinous for the masses – was stable in the short-term. But another crisis was inevitable, and it came in 2008. Once again, the power of capital was stronger. Rather than enacting systemic change, the problems were band-aided over. Today, wages stagnate, inequality deepens, and climate collapse looms. Liberals have no answer to the questions of the moment. The right-wing reaction defends the existing distribution of power by scapegoating the “other.” The left, and the left alone, offers a path forward.

This is the familiar tale, which Blakeley tells well. Stolen ’s novelty comes in its centering of finance as the main character. Financialisation, Blakeley convincingly argues, is the unique way in which capital responded to the crisis of the 1970’s, and the order on which its power has been built ever since. By increasing the “role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions,” capital reengineered the economic system to run on a bubble of debt. Restraints on banking, lending, and capital mobility were lifted. Corporate structures were reoriented from production to the service of shareholders. And middle-class consumers were transformed into mini-capitalists through such Thatcherite reforms as the privatization of pensions and the incentivization of home ownership.

Under the new finance-led order, the capitalist class squeezed out ever-increasing profits without an equivalent increase in productivity. It managed to do so without fomenting revolution because debt-fuelled growth in asset prices appeased the mini-capitalists, and the true costs of the system were postponed. Until 2008.

For the socialist reader, this is Stolen ’s essential contribution. The well-trod general history of class conflict is correct, but the specific way in which that conflict manifests in the modern economy is more than superficial detail. Financialisation is the terrain on which today’s class war will be fought. The path forward must account for this terrain, and Blakeley lays out that path – a step-by-step socialization of finance – with care.

But those who have the most to gain from Stolen are not the converted. This is a tale for the unconvinced: Marxist historiography for dummies, albeit dummies familiar enough with economic jargon to dive undeterred into pages upon pages about asset-backed securities and the effects of quantitative easing (Blakeley explains complex concepts well, but the nature of the subject puts an upper limit on accessibility).

It is far from mass agitprop. Righteous indignation at injustice, the lived experience of oppression, and hopeful renderings of a liberated future, though valid, are only occasionally invoked here. Socialism is justified not by appealing to abstract values, but because a clear-eyed analysis of economic history reveals the inherent contradictions of capitalism, even in its more humane forms. There is simply no future in a return to social democracy. “The centre”, as Blakeley explains, “cannot hold”. It is socialism or barbarism.

This may limit Stolen ’s audience. Though no single group has a monopoly on the ability to understand such an analysis, it is a relatively small segment of society best inspired to socialism by a technical history of modern finance. Stolen ’s target reader can be analogized to that of the Warren supporter – the professional-class progressive who is aware that the wealthy and powerful are too wealthy and powerful, but has yet to appreciate the nature of class struggle, the inevitability of crisis, or the insufficiency of attempting a return to mid-20th century social democracy. This is a limit, but not a flaw. At its not unimportant target, Stolen is well-aimed.

Of Blakeley’s considerable strengths as a writer, her greatest is the ability to effectively bridge seemingly conflicting themes without whiplash. Stolen is at once a broad analysis of the class competition that defines our world, and a fine-brushed detailing of the specific ways that that competition has manifested in the past century. Materialism coexists with human agency; history is propelled by structural forces beyond our control, but social movements are capable of building the power to seize on moments of structural crisis and change its course. While brimming with technical details, all are ultimately in service of an emotionally resonant call to action.

Stolen ’s one notable misstep is its relative lack of engagement with the greater world system. Though Blakeley is convincing in her case that finance undergirded the relative stability from the birth of neoliberalism until 2008, others have argued, equally convincingly, that extractive neocolonial relationships did the same.

Overlapping with the global class struggle between capital and labor is an imperial struggle between North and South. It is the North’s exploitation of the South – and the share of extracted value that has made its way to the Northern working class through labor concessions, a tempered welfare state, and low consumer prices – that keeps Northern labor quiescent. To the extent that this is the case, Blakeley’s position that capital is out of room to maneuver and an open confrontation is imminent may require reassessment; capital may instead restabilize its relationship with Northern labor by deepening its exploitation of Southern.

Though anti-imperialism is briefly cited toward the book’s end, and Blakeley’s personal sympathies are doubtless, the relative omission from the broader analysis has considerable implications for Stolen ’s conclusions: for the source of capital’s current power, for the possibility of democratic socialism in one country, and, ultimately, for the way forward.

This, however, is far from fatal. All told, Stolen is a success on two fronts. As an analysis of the unique role of finance in the modern economy, it is novel and convincing. As a broader case for understanding history as a “history of class struggles,” and the resultant necessity of socialism, it is a story that has been told before – but when nothing less than the future of our world rests on understanding that story, that is a strength, not a weakness.

Stolen tells a story that demands to be told over and over again, as many times as possible, until it is heard. The resurgent movement for democratic socialism is fortunate to have Blakeley’s voice to tell it.

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