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A New Deal of the mind

The government's job creation plans are inspired by FDR's New Deal. But ministers have ignored its m

Just before the Second World War, the Works Progress Administration, one of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes, published a series of statistics about what it had done to get America back to work. In the previous three years the WPA had built 17,562 public buildings, 279,804 miles of roads, 29,084 bridges, 357 airports, more than 30,000 dams and 15,000 parks.

Although nothing on this scale has been considered for Britain as we head towards the second decade of the 21st century, the rhetoric of Lab our's interventionist approach to the crisis is pure FDR. Ministers seem to be wavering between calling it a "Green" New Deal or a "Hi-Tech" New Deal, but the centrally funded work-creation schemes take their inspiration from Depression-era America. That much is certain.

The verdict of history on the New Deal is often harsh. Right-wing commentators in the United States are already warning President Obama that FDR's approach made the Depression worse. There is certainly a case to be made that the war was a more effective work-creation scheme than the New Deal. Even those sympathetic to the fiscal stimulus approach of Obama and Brown are sceptical of the New Deal's immediate impact on the US economy.

Out of this far-sighted programme emerged a whole generation of talent

Writing in the New York Times, the economist Paul Krugman said: "Barack Obama should learn from FDR's failures as well as from his achievements: the truth is that the New Deal wasn't as successful in the short run as it was in the long run." Krugman goes so far as to argue that New Deal decisions to insure bank deposits and maintain social security have helped cushion Americans from today's economic collapse. His advice to the incoming president should also be taken to heart by those working with Gordon Brown today: "The reason for FDR's limited short-run success, which almost undid his whole programme, was the fact that his economic policies were too cautious."

Thus far, ministers have been surprisingly unimaginative in their approach to work creation. While the government is mining the New Deal for ideas for credit-crunch Britain, it should take a look at the less cautious elements of the programmes. Take, for example, the answer in the 1939 WPA pamphlet to the question: "What has the WPA done in the fields of education, the arts, and public recreation service?" The answers are impressive (even making allowances for the propaganda purposes of the document): library workers established more than 3,500 branch libraries and 1,100 travelling libraries, catalogued more than 27 million books and repaired more than 56 million; recreational workers operated nearly 15,000 community centres; educational workers conducted 100,000 classes a month, including those in US citizenship for recently arrived immigrants.

Meanwhile, the Federal Art Project conducted classes attended by 60,000 people a week and produced 234,000 works of art; the Federal Music Project gave 4,400 musical performances a month, with an average monthly attendance of three million people, and the Federal Theatre put on 1,813 plays. The Federal Writers' Project produced guidebooks to the American states and nearly 200 books and pamphlets. It also collated a collection of oral histories including the narratives of the last living slaves. Britain's leading expert on the New Deal, Professor Anthony Badger of Cambridge University, said: "The WPA was based on the principle that there was no point in putting unemployed writers to work digging roads. They were ridiculed at the time, and there were some ludicrous projects, but there were also some remarkable achievements."

The Prime Minister recommended Badger's most recent work, FDR: the First Hundred Days, as one of his books of the year, but there is a section in the professor's previous work, The New Deal: the Depression Years (1933-40), that should be required reading in Downing Street. The results of the various projects were inevitably mixed. Many on the right in the US also suspected the WPA of subsidising political radicals, and Robert Reynolds, a senator from North Carolina, denounced the "putrid plays" of the Federal Theatre that "spewed from the gutters of the Kremlin". Yet, out of this far-sighted programme emerged a generation of American artistic talent, including the painters Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and writers such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Ralph Ellison.

There is no sign, as yet, that the government is prepared to launch a New Deal for intellectuals and artists who find themselves on the dole. It could also be argued that Britain has a long tradition of state subsidy in the arts. But there is just a whiff of complacency about the feeling within the government that the arts will survive a recession, and possibly even thrive on it.

At a Whitehall reception over Christmas, I bumped into a cabinet minister closely involved with the government's plans to buck the economic downturn. I asked him what would be done for middle-class people who found themselves out of work. What would happen, for example, to the first graduates in a generation who were leaving university with no jobs to go to? I suggested that the legions of unemployed IT workers, media workers and bankers were unlikely to apply for work-creation schemes already announced by the government, such as lagging roofs or laying broadband (or be very good at it). He answered with a shrug: "Well, they can always become teachers or go back to college."

The announcement by John Denham, the Universities and Skills Secretary, of a programme of internships for recent graduates with companies such as Microsoft and Barclays shows that at least one person in government is thinking about the potential loss of intellectual capital which the recession could entail. But if this turns out to be as deep and long as some now suspect it will be, there will need to be some seriously creative thinking, a "New Deal of the Mind" to equip people who work with their brains or in the creative industries for the challenges ahead. Clearly, this would not be cost-free, but if ministers have decided to go down the route of work creation backed by borrowing, they should at least do it with some imagination and flair.

In the spirit of national solidarity as the storm clouds gather, I list my suggestions for the New Deal of the Mind in the panel on the right, borrowing from the best of FDR and adapting this for the new era. Politicians need to begin thinking now about the world after the downturn, and whether we can put some institutional structures in place that will have the historical longevity of the Works Progress Administration. Oh, and if there's a minister out there prepared to take up some of these ideas, do bear me in mind. There are some hard times ahead, not least for those in my own profession.

Bright’s five-point plan

Brains Trust

FDR surrounded himself with academics, initially a group of Columbia law professors but later a wider group of thinkers. There is a growing fear that Gordon Brown's approach to the crisis is too narrowly focused on hard economics through the National Economic Council. He should set up a Brains Trust for the 21st century, a more or less formal group of the country's best intellectuals, to give him a broader cultural and historical perspective.

National Oral History Task Force

Borrowing from the Federal Writers' Project, young graduates should be employed to collate the oral history of Britain's recent past. This would include narratives with a direct relationship to the current crisis, including stories from previous economic crises. But it could also include narratives of recent conflicts such as the Falklands War and the first Iraq War and a comprehensive oral history of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

National Family History Project

The government should restore funding for the National Archive's online censuses to take advantage of the boom in interest in family history. This would have the advantage of "pump-priming" a growing industry. A parallel Local History Project would feed into a similar growth in interest in local and regional history.

New Deal for Music and Drama

An expansion of the teaching of singing, music and drama in schools, including the restoration of the right in primary schools to subsidised lessons. This would create work for musicians, but also transform access to music for children from ordinary backgrounds. The composer Howard Goodall is already doing great work in this area and should be appointed to oversee the project.

A geeks and Hobbyists Charter

Britain is a nation of garden-shed inventors and special-interest obsessives. Their energy should be harnessed during the downturn. The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts is already helping transform the ideas of the country's amateur innovators into businesses. The New Deal of the Mind could turn the private obsessions of the nation's amateur archaeologists and birdwatchers to the advantage of the country. A start could be made by commissioning a national audit of the effects of global warming on Britain's natural environment.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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