Monday, 11 July 2016

Jeremy Corbyn is not particularly left-wing

A post-fact fact - that Trotskyist, hard left throwback, Jeremy Corbyn, is nothing of the kind.

The plot to oust him as Labour party leader has awakened memories of a past split in the Labour party – the one that created the SDP in 1981 when a ‘gang of four’ senior Labour politicians, accompanied by 27 MPs, broke away from Labour to form the ‘centre-left’ and ‘moderate’ SDP.

According to press reports, senior figures in both the Tory and Labour parties are considering founding a new centrist grouping “in the mould of the Social Democratic party (SDP)”, should Corbyn be re-elected as Labour leader.

The 172 Labour MPs who voted against Corbyn in the recent no confidence motion have been likened to the SDP’s gang of four. “It all hearkens back to 1981,” wrote one academic, “when four senior Labour Party figures broke away to found their own centrist party, the SDP.”

But the problem with ‘hearkening  back to 1981’ as justification for a new centrist grouping in British politics, is that the contemporary politician the SDP most resembles in its economic outlook is actually …  Jeremy Corbyn. The elite consensus that governs British politics has moved so far to the Right in the last three decades that the centrist SDP of the early ‘80s now appears in retrospect as a radical leftist project (which, needless to say, it was wasn’t).

The SDP’s high watermark was the general election of 1983 where it gained, in alliance with the Liberals, around a quarter of the vote. The SDP manifesto of that year is illuminating and comparisons with Corbyn abound:

The manifesto promised to increase public borrowing in order to reverse a ‘catastrophic’ reduction in public investment and policies ‘which will invest resources in the high-technology industries of the future’.

Corbyn wants to put ‘state investment centre stage’ and form a national investment bank to target investment high tech industries and the public interest. Public investment, which declined under New Labour, even turned negative for a year under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.

The SDP was opposed to the privatisation of BT and British Airways and pledged to make nationalised industries ‘properly responsible to their consumers’.

Corbyn wants to reverse a ‘generation of forced privatisation and outsourcing’ which has led to poorer quality services, ‘less transparency and less say for the public’.

The SDP thought the burden of the early ‘80s slump was ‘being borne quite disproportionately’ by the unemployed and the poor. The party promised to help the unemployed and the sick by increasing unemployment benefit, sickness benefit and sick pay by 5%. It wanted to ‘raise the living standards of the hardest-pressed families’.

Corbyn thinks the cost of George Osborne’s economic failure is ‘being borne by some of the most vulnerable in our society’. He has also said that benefit sanctions on the unemployed and disabled are ‘barbaric and must be abolished’. He opposed the welfare cap.

The SDP promised an ‘Industrial Democracy Act’ creating employee councils for all companies above 1,000 employees and directors jointly elected by employees and shareholders.

Corbyn wants a debate about ‘how wealth is created and how it should be shared’. He envisages a ‘genuinely mixed economy of public and social enterprise, alongside a private sector with a long-term private business commitment’.

The SDP’s priority was to reduce the gap between rich and poor. It wanted to raise the National Insurance upper limit and reverse increases in the higher tax bands. Corporation tax was, at the time, 50% (yes, really) and the party promised to reduce it only for profit-sharing and share ownership schemes.

Corbyn wants to tackle the UK’s ‘grotesque’ levels of inequality, crack down on tax avoidance and ‘ask those with income and wealth to spare to contribute a little more’. He advocates reducing corporate tax subsidies and not cutting corporation tax (it has been cut  from 28% in 2010 to 17% and George Osborne wants to slash it further to 15%)

In some ways, Corbyn is to the Right of the SDP. The SDP, for example, wanted ‘direct action’ to create 100,000 jobs in ‘labour intensive social services’ and promised with ‘great determination’ to establish a further 250,000 jobs in a state programme of housing and environmental improvement. Corbyn has said nothing about the government directly creating jobs.

If you think this is a hopelessly biased, cherry selecting exercise, consider the words of economist Robert Skidelsky, a founder member of the SDP. In a 2015 article, entitled Taking Corbynomics Seriously, Skidelsky, said Corbyn ‘should be praised, not castigated’ for economic policies such as a National Investment Bank and People’s quantitative easing. “Fiscal austerity has become such a staple of conventional wisdom in the United Kingdom that anyone in public life who challenges it is written off as a dangerous leftist. Jeremy Corbyn …. is the latest victim of this chorus of disparagement.” he pointed out.

Corbyn himself may be a Bennite, says Richard Seymour, author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, but Corbynism isn’t. “Nothing that Corbyn proposes, bar his opposition to Trident, should in principle be disagreeable to old right-wing social democrats,” he says. “For all that Labour MPs and pundits think they're staring at the abyss of Marxist-Leninism, or crypto-Trotskyism, anyone not trapped in those self-serving illusions can see that Corbyn is taking Labour gently and moderately toward a form of retooled social democracy.”

The reason most Labour MPs cannot see this is that they are not old fashioned right-wing social democrats. New Labour, to which most of them still offer allegiance, transcended old school Labour right-wingers such as John Smith and Roy Hattersley to become an entirely new political current – one significantly to the right of Old Labour’s moderate wing. And the support of Labour’s soft left (what used to be called the Tribune group) was essential to this process. Policies such as conflating the interests of business with what business wants, cutting corporate taxation, punishing the unemployed and the sick for their condition, supporting privatisation and an unerring fondness for expeditionary wars, were breaks with Labour’s right-wing as much as its left. They comprised a new political formation, the extreme centre.

New Labour cannot countenance any backtracking for the same reason it cannot provide the elusive ‘effective opposition’ to the Conservatives. It is complicit in many of the injustices being perpetrated today. Thus Blairism is a peculiarly barren political philosophy. Old right-wing social democracy at least had some intellectual energy. ‘Moderate’ trade union leaders like Bill Jordan supported basic income. Skidelsky, a former SDP member, is a contemporary supporter of basic income. It’s no accident that Labour, under Corbyn, is open to the idea of basic income. With occasional exceptions, New Labour just offers re-treads and clings to a failed orthodoxy for dear life.

There are, it should be pointed out, many things wrong with a 21st century reformulation of the old SDP. Not least a reliance on public investment when near-zero interest rates show there is scant appetite for any kind of investment when the rewards are so meagre. A reformed capitalism may prove to be just as much a failure as the economic orthodoxy. But ditching Corbyn, by hook or by crook, will just see a blanket of mind-numbing conformity descend over British politics. And last thing we need now is mind-numbing conformity.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The EU and the permanent over-supply of labour

Regardless of the result of Thursday’s EU Referendum, I would suggest that politics in the UK and Europe won’t be able to drag itself out of the racist and murderous cesspool it is descending deeper into until one issue is honestly faced – the now permanent over-supply of labour.

As is obvious, the vast majority of people require a paid job or jobs to physically survive and make sure their retirement is barely tolerable. Government policy has in the last two decades, and especially since the Great Recession, made entering the labour market under any terms inescapable. Sanctions, workfare, the compulsion applied to sick and disabled people to seek work and the new “in-work conditionality” of Universal Credit, represent an iron cage of labour coercion from it is impossible to escape. All that is impeding an utterly Dickensian race to the bottom is minimum wage legislation.

Meanwhile, retirement ages have been increased across Europe, increasing the ‘pool’ of available labour, and ‘structural reforms’ hawked by economic ‘experts’, like the OECD and the IMF, advocate increasing labour market ‘participation’ by reducing ‘generous’ welfare benefits, and thus, theoretically, trimming government deficits.

At the same technological change will make, and is making, labour far more dispensable and insecure. Research from the US indicates that for the bottom fifth of society a greater than 30% month on month change in total income is already the norm. In the UK, the charity Citizens Advice estimates that 4.5 million workers are in insecure work, defined as zero hours, variable hours and temporary or agency work. This figures does not include the 15% of the UK workforce in self-employment, by nature an insecure form of work, and whose income has plummeted by a quarter since 2008. The self-employed are not the digital whizz-kids of folklore but more likely to be freelance dog walkers and gardeners – pseudo-jobs whose owners are living with income precarity and poverty.

This structural over-supply of labour has been aggravated by the EU’s single market. The proportion of foreign-born workers in the UK working age population is now around 20%, compared to a steady 8% between 1984 and 1995.

The effects of an over-supply of labour has exacerbated by other changes in UK society. The secure tenancies and controlled rents of council housing have become a utopian dream for most people. The private rented sector, with tenancies that can be ended at a moments’ notice and rents that may eat up 60% of pay, has become the only alternative for millions, while lifetime tenancies for new council house tenants are being abolished.

“Human beings do not thrive in an atmosphere of relentless change over which they have little control,” says Anthony Painter of the RSA.

Internationally, the over-supply of labour has been a boon for multi-national corporations who scour the globe looking for the cheapest source of labour (a process misleading called ‘globalisation’). Between 1980 and 2007, the global labour force (people whose livelihood depends on working for pay) increased by 63%, from 1.9 billion to 3.1 billion.

“Not only has the growth of the global capitalist labour force (including the available reserve army) radically altered the position of third world labour, it has also had an effect on labour in the rich economies, where wage levels and stagnant or declining for this and other reasons,” say the Marxist economists, John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney. “Everywhere multinational corporations have been able to apply a divide-and-rule policy, altering the relative positions of capital and labour worldwide.”

The effect of this process on countries like the US, has been devastating. According to the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, US manufacturing and middle class jobs have been decimated in recent decades. “There are places where real incomes have dropped 30% over the last thirty years,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “There used to be a concept that if you do your job, and live your life properly, things will be fine. People don't think that anymore.” These places provide Donald Trump with his core constituency.

But the political consensus, the centre-left as well as the Right, is in purposeful denial about these developments. The resolution of governments has been to push people into any kind of work, while eulogising the benefits of free trade, immigration, deregulation and lower tax for corporations. “Public institutions should push against a dangerous tide rather than accentuate it,” says Painter. “We’ve done precisely the opposite.

The question is, if the ‘relative positions of capital and labour’ have been altered, how do you redress the balance in favour of labour? As Painter and many others have pointed out, Basic Income could imbue labour with a measure of bargaining power that it currently sorely lacks. People who now can’t say no because anything is better than nothing, would be empowered to refuse low paid, insecure work. This change would also give a shot in the arm to automation if armies of desperate people were no longer available on tap. It would spell the end for an economy feeding off cheap labour.

An expansion, not a contraction, of social housing, together with secure tenancies, would also take some of the bite out of the structural over-supply of labour.

This, however, is only half the equation. Do you need a global basic income to really make a difference to the over-supply of labour? Is that remotely feasible? In its absence, there are things you can do, such as reducing low-wage EU migration into private sector jobs. The danger is that countries lapse into isolated, regulated national economies, or worse. But forgetting the fact that you live in an exploitative, capitalist economy, and that an international free market in labour is no more conducive to human welfare than a free market in capital is, is not a safe haven. Neoliberalism, inside or outside the EU, does not work.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The magic wand and biological determinism. The two faces of neoliberalism

According to Belgian psychologist Paul Verhaeghe, the psychiatric world is riven by two warring factions. On the one side there is the medical or illness model, which assumes that all mental illness stems from biological or genetic defects. Think of low serotonin levels ‘causing’ depression. Treatment involves taking pills, often indefinitely, to relieve the symptoms. Mental disorders are frequently viewed as lifelong afflictions a person must adjust to. The medical model is the dominant approach, adhered to by the majority of clinicians and doctors.

On the opposite terrain is what is known as the ‘biopsychosocial’ model. Under this way of thinking biology or genetics is relegated to a secondary position. Diagnosis focuses on the broader social context facing the individual and treatment is tailored to a person’s circumstances. This model is also far more open to a person making a recovery from mental illness.

Verhaeghe is resolutely on the minority side of the argument. “The vast majority of mental disorders are not illnesses,” he asserts, “but biopsychosocial manifestations in individuals of broader social problems.”

I believe the biopsychosocial model is essential to understanding how our capitalist, neoliberal society is at the root of many mental and physical illnesses. There is overwhelming evidence of the crucial role factors like childhood poverty, inequality, economic insecurity, loneliness, migration and bullying in increasing the risk of mental illness. According to one UK psychology professor, Richard Bentall, the link between childhood trauma and future psychiatric problems is a strong as that between smoking and lung cancer. In contrast, the medical model of mental illness just presents a closed mind.

But the biopsychosocial model also has a sinister side. It is being used to bully disabled people out of social security benefits by insisting they can make miraculous recoveries from their conditions. Disability, here, is regarded as partially caused by the attitude of the sick or disabled person. Welcome to the world-view of ‘welfare reform’ in the UK.

In defending the government’s transformation of the Disability Living Allowance into Personal Independence Payments, Conservative minister Lord Freud (the same one who believes food banks have mushroomed because they offer a free good) told the House of Lords that ‘we have gone for the biopsychosocial model’.

According to a report from the Centre for Welfare Reform, “the biopsychosocial model has been used to create new obligations for those suffering from common health problems, such as the responsibility to ‘recognise that the sick role is temporary, in the expectation of recovery’”.

In one case, the Department for Work & Pensions funded a medical trial for people with ME which was presented as an exciting success for biopsychosocial intervention. But the standard for ‘recovery’ was lowered after the research began meaning that a person’s condition could have worsened and they were still counted as having ‘recovered’.

Here is 'Biopsychosocial Man' in action: 

The DWP has incrementally re-classified the work related activity group of Employment and Support Allowance claimants (people judged unfit for work) as not really disabled. Before, the government only asserted that people in the WRAG group might be able to work at some point in the future and that full-time work could damage their health. Now, they are subject to a ‘shocking’ level of sanctions and, for new claimants, paid the same in benefits as ordinary JSA claimants, as an incentive, ministers say, to find work.

At the same time the government is trying to re-package unemployment as a personal failing or mental illness, as opposed to a social problem beyond the power of the individual to rectify. There are now psychologists in job centres and job coaches in GP surgeries.

This indicates a fatal flaw in the biopsychosocial model. When it applied to the individual alone and their ‘wrong attitudes’, it becomes coercive, tyrannical and vindictive. Applied to society at large, it is liberating.

Under neoliberalism, an unsuccessful person is either lazy or sick. If they are sick, they need pharmaceutical assistance (which creates a steady stream of profits for pharmaceutical companies). If they are lazy, their misguided attitudes need to be corrected by enlightened experts. Two sides of the same battered coin, which, sadly, is still legal tender. The social and economic organisation of society is taken as a given, and not worthy of consideration.

The medical model strikes me as a dead end, like trying to argue with someone who has their fingers lodged firmly in their ears. But the biopsychosocial model can be both oppressive and illuminating. Perhaps we need to drop the ‘psycho’. A biosocial model of illness has great explanatory power and it can’t be manipulated to scapegoat people and cloak the interests of the powerful.