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The coronavirus crisis shows that another world is possible

While the Corbyn era is now over, he must be content with the knowledge that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: the right are on the back foot — and the practical necessities of socialism are now accepted, argues NICK WRIGHT

YESTERDAY’S party of fiscal rectitude and unrelieved austerity is today’s party of unlimited spending, unbounded subsidy and near-universal wage supplements.

The party which spent the last decade or more consumed with an internal division over Britain’s trading relationships and our entanglement with the federalising European Union found itself improbably reunited under “il buffone.”

With former prime minister Theresa May marooned on the back benches and railing against the evisceration of her economic policy and her predecessor, David Cameron, scribbling his recriminations in a designer shed, it took only the nod from Boris Johnson’s consigliere to despatch the fiscally orthodox Sajid Javid and replace him with a new, compliant and flexible friend as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It is a remarkable turnabout for the newly elected Rishi Sunak to usher in a package of economic measures so sweeping and comprehensive as to invite rueful complaints from opposition figures that there is little to oppose.

Consider how much has changed in a very short time.

Barely a month ago Martin Wolf of the Financial Times — the most perceptive and level-headed among that corps of commentators who still take the capitalist mode of production to be beyond challenge — asked what the neophyte Chancellor should do with his first budget.

“The answer” said Wolf, “is as little as he can.”

Now Wolf is no dogmatic austerian. He thinks tax revenues should rise and the tax regime be purged of perverse incentives, that economic activity should be more carefully regulated, and the government take advantage of historically low interest rates to allow a rise in the ratio of government debt to gross domestic product.

By last week Wolf was arguing that maintaining incomes and minimising the long-term costs of collapsing businesses were essential.

“Salus rei publicae suprema lex (the safety of the republic is the supreme law). In war governments spend freely. Now too, they must mobilise their resources to prevent a disaster. Think big. Act now. Together.”

In this “the republic” stands for the state and the system of power that it serves. That ours is a monarchy and that both government and opposition are “Her Majesty’s advisors and Privy Councillors” is simply the backstop institutional form which government assumes in normal times.

When the system itself is in crisis we can expect these mechanisms of class collaboration to be supplemented with new regulations and an even more sustained propaganda offensive.

In Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, set in Italy’s tumultuous century of revolutionary change and rebellious people, the main protagonist, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, faces the dilemma of openly defending established privilege or effecting change to preserve power.

The conclusion: “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come e, bisogno che tutto cambi” — if we want that everything remains the way it is, everything must change.

So, what is the role of a Labour opposition in this crisis? Jeremy Corbyn bows out as party leader with the government on a 72 per cent approval rating, largely due to it implementing a vastly more ambitious public-spending programme than that which Labour presented to the electorate.

This was an approach which the Tories — and the entire media, from the outright reactionary and neoliberal to the ostensibly reasonable, as well as the insufferably liberal — condemned as unaffordable.

It is an unjust world, and while Corbyn should be accorded a triumphal procession in the manner of a Roman battlefield hero returning to the adulation of the republic, he must be content with the knowledge that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and that the recognition of necessity is its motto.

Accordingly the party in power has adopted an ambitious interventionist policy of massive public expenditure — not in recognition of the necessity to repair the damage done by decades of austerity — but to stave off the collapse of their system and its capacity to generate profits in the future.

It is also highly conscious that the political credibility of the system was deeply damaged by the 2008 financial crisis and the publicly funded bailout of the banks.

For them it is a calculated risk and there are signs that sections of reactionary opinion are alive to these new threats to conservative ideology.

May stood up in Parliament to warn about the government about-turn, The Times carries think-pieces worrying that right-wing ideology is on the back foot.

One tendency among Tories is to double-down on measures they deem necessary to protect the profit system.

The self-appointed hard man of Tory opinion, Grant Shapps, obsesses that the cure might be “worse” than the disease if Labour’s arguments were to be heeded and the lockdown strengthened.

Meanwhile the Tory outrider Toby Young wants even more to weaken the bonds of family and kinship. He argues that: “spending £350 billion to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayer’s money.”

The dangers of failing to maintain demand lie not just in the well-grounded fear of what will happen if incomes are not secured but in worries about the sustainability of the present-day consumption model of capitalism as a whole.

In an increasingly integrated global economy with the main developed capitalist states characterised by heavily financialised domestic economies, market mechanisms — just-in time delivery, highly monetised transactions for every service utility and extravagant consumer choice — are stymied by the lock-down regimes which the Covid-19 crisis makes necessary.

There are profound ideological consequences to the shift in consciousness that is becoming apparent from the more visible dependency of modern societies on huge armies of hitherto little-regarded waged labour.

In contrast to the daily tasks of our new heroes which the coronavirus emergency has valorised, much of the labour temporarily carried out in our homes rather than offices is productive in one way or another but, in the short term, not all of it is necessary.

And some of it, activity in the bloated and parasitic finance sector for example, is positively harmful.

The working class proper, so to speak – the people who make things, generate and distribute power, service our utilities, store, transport and deliver everything necessary for production, social life and commerce, keep us housed and healthy, our children educated and our old people secure – is suddenly visible.

The crisis has generalised the idea that despite workers doing a vast variety of different jobs — highly stratified and distinguished by an infinite variety of pay and conditions, contractural obligations and rights — we all exist and work as indispensable parts of the “collective labourer.”

This is reflected today in the spontaneous solidarity that is offered, firstly to health workers but, by extension, to everyone whose work is seen as indispensable.

Labour’s special responsibility in all this is to give political expression to this great consolidation of class consciousness and mobilise it to generate a new political consciousness.

In two days’ time we will know who among the contenders for Labour’s leadership is gifted this great responsibility.

Put simply, the job of the Labour and working-class movement is to give political and ideological leadership to the entire working class and working people as a whole.

This is so that the understanding, now strengthening in crisis conditions, that the vast social distinctions in pay and living conditions, life chances and status, wealth and security which characterise British society can no longer be tolerated becomes the guiding principle of government.

In the short term Labour needs to be more active in the national debate. It would be a great mistake to narrow this down to parliamentary activity or media initiatives, important as these are.

Labour’s principal resources are its membership and its organisation.

These great reserves need to be reoriented towards public initiative and capacity-building at local level.

Labour-led local authorities need to be especially active, but with the trade-union and Labour Party apparatus the most deeply rooted social and organisational networks in British society we have a vast machinery that can help reconnect politics to the lives of working people in a situation in which they are desperate for practical on-the-ground leadership.

In Lampedusa’s original text the warning offered to the imperilled elite is one that must occupy the thinking part of our present-day ruling class: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Our job is to make that change more profound than that they will willingly concede

Nick Wright blogs at 21centurymanifesto.wordpress.com.

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