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Corbyn vs the nation

United Kingdom

In another world, when the spectre of global revolution loomed, a brilliant Bolshevik leader produced two under-appreciated classics. Nikolai Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy, written in 1915, and The Economics of the Transition Period, penned five years later, both begin by making the case for a single principle: if there is such a thing as ‘the economy’, it is a global thing. All ‘national economies’ are entangled in processes that span borders. In the early years of the 20th century, such transnational thinking was important to the Left flank of European socialism. Rosa Luxemburg criticized Marx for his failure to practise it sufficiently. This was a world of empires, where transnational links were the norm. Those links were blood-soaked, born of domineering violence, but, in that interconnected world, revolutionaries could envision common fights against common enemies from Dundee to Delhi, replacing empires with a new world order. It was a vision of the future now consigned to the past.

In the event, empires gave way instead to a world of nation-states. Today we all tend to think in little bordered boxes, talking freely of the, say, ‘British economy’ against the better advice of Bukharin and Luxemburg. Politics has been transformed too, since people usually think of it taking place within nations rather than being enacted by global movements. Electoral politics has a structural tendency towards nationalism – to win, parties have to persuade voters in one nation that they will represent their interests – and so a tension arises for those whose constituency ought to be the exploited and oppressed of the whole world.

Dual loyalties

This tension is present in thinking about economic policy: should the job of a Left government be to save British jobs, even at the cost of jobs in Africa or Asia or South America? Should British companies be defended when they rely on colonial privilege? Given that the structure of the world economy – inherited from colonialism – ensures value is sucked from the Global South to benefit Europe, this is a pressing problem of dual loyalties.

Take De La Rue, a British printing company. Trade unions and the Labour Party joined in the furore when De La Rue lost the contract for making British passports to a Franco-Dutch rival last year; Jeremy Corbyn’s call to ‘Build it in Britain’ seemed pitted against government decisions like that one. Established in the 19th century, De La Rue built a global business at the hip of the British Empire, printing money for colonies and semi-colonies. After the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the company celebrated a big windfall as it was handed a vast contract to print money for the new government there: transferring millions from Baghdad to Britain at the barrel of a gun. This is the economics of contemporary imperialism at its crudest. And this is a company that Labour found itself championing – understandably, given the fear that their loss of a contract would put jobs at risk in Britain.

Should the job of a Left government be to save British jobs, even at the cost of jobs in Africa or Asia or South America?

Here, then, is the challenge. Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s economic policy is centrally concerned with evening out geographical inequalities, but he has concentrated mostly on inequalities within the nation. Prominent Corbyn-supporting analyst Paul Mason talks of a ‘programme to deliver growth and prosperity in Wigan, Newport and Kirkcaldy – if necessary, at the price of not delivering them to Shenzhen, Bombay and Dubai’. Such thinking is not only the traitorous choice of a wealthy nation, it reflects difficult realities. In Britain, Thatcher’s victories over the working class are narrated in narrow, national terms, but neoliberalism also marked the vanquishing of the Global South’s attempt to put an end to imperial economic hierarchies and create a fairer system. Now, instead of India at the helm of the Non-Aligned Movement, the grouping of countries that charted a way between the USSR and US and pushed for more egalitarian relations between nations, we have India run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These changes complicate the meaning of internationalism and solidarity from Europe. The community of global revolution seems lost.

A blueprint for power

There are a few things a Corbyn government could do straight away in these tough conditions. Importantly, none of these proposals give ground to the miserable zero-sum game in which the only way to benefit British workers is through extracting economic value from the Global South. The first step would be to use economic levers to reorient Britain in the world by announcing sanctions on the worst former allies. For example, Labour should certainly commit now to full trade sanctions against Israel – as part of a strategy of turning away from facilitating crimes around the world and encouraging other powers to follow suit in cases where slaughter has met with impunity and the oppressed are calling for action. Sanctions can be equally useful in targeting the territories and nations that form the world’s network of tax havens – through which Global South oligarchs hide money from their state treasuries.

Secondly, John McDonnell’s bid to move beyond dependence on financial capitalism needs a transnational dimension. A good deal of blood money from all continents is laundered and hoarded in London, particularly through property. Labour could call an international conference to develop cross-border mechanisms for tracing that money and taxing it aggressively, setting those revenues aside to fund trade unions and community groups fighting against grotesque inequalities in the nations whose immiseration funds the UK’s prosperity. McDonnell’s programme of state-backed industrial investment, designed to produce a more stable prosperity, should be coupled with Britain simply finding out what skills and resources can be beneficially lent to other countries (think of Cuba exchanging its doctors for Venezuelan oil).

Thirdly, Labour should have approached Brexit differently. The debate on Britain’s EU membership has been deeply parochial, dividing patriotic Brexiteers from faux cosmopolitans who love the EU but frequently show little interest in the actual workings of EU institutions. ‘Lexit’ (the call for Brexit on leftwing terms) is usually defended as a way of liberating Britain from the EU’s neoliberal meddling; Corbyn complains that EU state-aid rules would prevent some nationalization in Britain. He is right. But socialist internationalism must look beyond the cliffs of Dover. The EU impoverishes Europe’s periphery to enrich its core; deports migrants to Turkey and Libya or lets them drown in their thousands in the Mediterranean; offers a trusty junior partner for NATO militarism in Eastern Europe; and gives an extra lease of life to the old European Empires by pooling their strength. This Europe of so-called ‘social solidarity’ engages in subsidies like the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which deprive African farmers to build French butter mountains. European integration on these terms is a thing to be opposed.

Labour should have used – and still could, given the government’s unstable position at time of writing – the language of internationalism to forge a genuinely anti-establishment insurgency, pitted both against the EU and the nativist, anti-migrant miseries that the EU and the British Right breed. That would mean a Brexit that entailed withdrawing the British ships that now sit in Greek harbours, ready to defend ‘Fortress Europe’. (British Prime Minister Theresa May wants them to stay after her Brexit, of course.) Less imperial plunder can make for fewer migrants, but Britain should also offer safe passage and union jobs to those who want them. As militant migrant cleaners unionizing in London universities have demonstrated, solidarity can raise the bar for all as surely as the racist undercutting of precarious migrant wages allows bosses to lower standards for everyone. Lexit should also mean Britain creating new trade deals, unlike CAP, designed not to plunder poorer countries but to bolster workers’ rights and environmental protections, working with unions and others across continents.

Lastly, Britain should use its leverage in the World Bank and the IMF to push for change. The privatizing, marketeering international order of the 1990s has been called into question even in those hallowed halls of late, since its failure to spread wealth across the Global South is evident now (not that it was ever really designed to do that). It is worth recalling that it took a US Treasury Secretary, Harry Dexter White, to fight off Keynes’s initial proposals at the Bretton-Woods Conference in 1944 for a World Bank genuinely designed to redistribute imbalances from richer to poorer countries. The British Left should avoid internalizing Britain’s delusions of continuing imperial grandeur by thinking that the whole world can be changed from Downing Street – but nor should it miss the opportunity of exercising what influence the British state has left.

The horizon

I began in another world and I’ll finish in this one. Before he accepted austerity under immense pressure, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Germany’s Die Linke party were united in calling for a ‘Marshall Plan for Greece’ as an alternative to the country’s slow asphyxiation in the Eurozone crisis. Rather than challenge the economic and ideological system that allowed French and German banks to indebt Greece, such a plan would have simply provided new liquidity for Greek markets. It was a sign of how far we had sunk – the first Marshall Plan was opposed as an extension of US power and influence by much of the Left, confident that the existing order could be upended and not just used to lend a limp hand of marketized charity (see Greek historian Kostis Karpozilos).

Roadmaps for global transformation are in shorter supply now. For all the advances made by the movement around Corbyn, superseding capitalism has not been the headline demand. The challenge in such modest times is to keep open an internationalist horizon even when the immediate objective is only a slightly less savage capitalism. A politics of hope matters, as does countering the nativist tide. But without thinking through the transnational character of ‘the economy’, a Labour government would miss one of the biggest opportunities of power, lose possible allies the world over, and become just another managerial force for the administration of what government officials have termed ‘Empire 2.0’.

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