Pregnancy is one of life’s most untouchable, personal experiences. Photo: Tomer Neuberg/AFP/Getty
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The feminist history of surrogacy: should pregnancy give a woman rights over a baby?

Surrogacy rates are rising in the UK, and 95 per cent of these births are taking place overseas. Glosswitch looks at decades of feminist thinking on surrogacy to see how women’s labour and female lived experience can be incorporated in this complex ethical debate.

Surrogacy is not a new idea; indeed, there is a precedent in the book of Genesis, with the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, the slave who bears Abraham’s son Ishmael. There have always been people (usually men) who have sought to continue their bloodlines while circumventing the social structures and sexual taboos set up by others (again, usually men). Right now, however, a combination of factors – improvements in embryo transfer technology, changing family structures, the rise of global capitalism – have created expectations and possibilities the likes of which we simply have not seen before.

Surrogacy rates are rising in the UK, with over 2,000 babies born by surrogates on behalf of British couples each year, and 95 per cent of these births taking place overseas. International surrogacy is described as a booming business and restrictions on the use of eggs, embryos and wombs are facing legal challenges at home. We no longer live in biblical times. We can do things differently – better, faster, and with greater choice. While the story of Hagar and Sarah might have once served as a cautionary tale, it seems that now we have the technology and the moral sophistication to make surrogacy a part of how we transform contemporary family life.

For feminists it can be tempting to see these changes in wholly positive terms, as challenges to both social norms and reproductive determinism. Henceforth the continuation of the species need not be tied to compulsory heterosexuality and innate biological functions. But this only tells half the story. For the consumer, it seems, anything is achievable. For the supplier, on the other hand, pregnancy remains what pregnancy always has been: a risky, unpredictable, deeply personal experience. Embryos can be created in laboratories but human beings take shape – where? In wombs? In mothers? In families? Such distinctions matter but it takes more than scientific progress and legal reform to make them clear. 

Neither the physical reality nor the emotional aftermath of pregnancy fit into our neat little categories for how society is organised. It produces something of immeasurable value yet it has no immediate monetary worth. It is hard, dangerous work yet it involves no skill and can be endured by even the most reluctant of participants. Whether or not one can gestate is not decided by any moral or physical examination; we may talk of “blessings” but what we really mean is “luck”. Pregnancy creates something from one’s own flesh, with lasting physical aftershocks, yet one does not own it. A baby is not one’s own self. Yet in the twenty-first century we have started to behave as though something so complex can be traded on a market whose very foundations rest on global inequality and the unpaid labour of women.

Feminists first started to express concerns about the development of reproductive technologies and the associated commoditisation of pregnancy during the 1980s. It was in some ways a natural continuation of feminist critiques of the medicalisation of childbirth found in works such as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and Suzanne Arms’s Immaculate Deception. It was not, however, an anxiety shared by all. Indeed, perhaps to many such concerns sounded luddite and paranoid, the fearful imaginings of women unwilling to let go of outdated beliefs in maternity as women’s only source of power. Three decades on, much of what was feared has come to pass. Proof that feminist doom-mongers were right? Or that human beings can adjust to anything, including our brave new surrogacy-friendly world?

In her 1985 work The Mother Machine, Gena Corea foresaw a time when surrogacy by donor insemination (“straight” surrogacy) would be overtaken by IVF (“host” surrogacy):

Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid women.

Of course, Corea was being somewhat alarmist. Thirty years later, if you look at the website of Sensible Surrogacy, you’ll find it’s not a tenth, but a fifth. Meanwhile, in Right-Wing Women Andrea Dworkin argued that “the social control of women who reproduce— the sloppy, messy kind of control—is being replaced by medical control much more precise, much closer to the efficiency of the brothel model.” For anyone curious as to what a “reproductive brothel” might look like, Sensible Surrogacy provide photos of their “typical surrogate apartments” (which remind me of the YWCA I lived in during the 1990s, the difference being that the women were granted a hostel room without making any commitment to conceive for others). On such evidence it seems that we have indeed sleepwalked into the very reproductive dystopia predicted by the second-wave Cassandras, yet somehow we’re okay with this. There is, after all, a competing alternative narrative, one of progress and liberation, to which we can turn our attentions.

This was evident, for instance, following Dolce and Gabbana’s recent pronouncements on IVF, surrogacy and same-sex parenting. The designers were, without question, being both homophobic and bigoted towards children conceived by so-called artificial means when they issued their messianic directive: “No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.” Nonetheless, in the furore that followed it was striking how little attention was paid to the “rented uterus” question. The responses of gay men including Peter Tatchell, Elton John and Owen Jones focused on the parenting skills of same-sex couples, eliding ethical concerns related to how parenthood is achieved in the first place. Jones claimed that “because it is harder for same-sex couples to have children, there is a positive selection for what are more likely to be doting parents”. While such an argument contains its own prejudices (are we to conclude that children conceived accidentally – as is the case with one in six pregnancies in the UK – are any less doted on?) Jones is absolutely right that children raised by same-sex parents (and single parents) fare just as well as, and sometimes better than, those raised by heterosexual couples. But this only covers one half of the transaction. It is a narrative which, as Corea put it in 1985, “stresses a partial and inadequate element of the situation (the suffering of infertile couples) and obscures a clear vision of the actual social forces. Certain facts about surrogate motherhood are highlighted in media discussions while others are buried.” That surrogacy can bring enormous happiness to those who could not otherwise have children who are genetically their own is not in question; nor is the fact that the children themselve lead happy lives. Yet this does not resolve the issue of how we place their stories alongside the broader narrative of women’s reproductive rights and destinies.

The website of Surrogacy UK has the look and feel of a pregnancy magazine, all plump little poppets in multi-coloured sleepsuits: look! Look what you could make! They describe their ethos as “surrogacy through friendship,” arguing that surrogacy “can be a wonderfully rewarding experience for everyone involved”:

For Surrogate Mothers it is a chance to do something truly extraordinary.  For those who are unable to have children by any other means surrogacy can be a light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Scratch the surface, however, and the reality – that pregnancy is a physical process taking place in another person’s body, a body which one cannot wholly separate from the idea of a self – is never far away:

In the getting to know you stage take some time to talk through the details of surrogacy.  There may be certain things you want or expect from one another.  Would you be happy to have extra tests for abnormalities?  Are there circumstances in which you would consider terminating the pregnancy?  These topics can be difficult to talk about, but it is important to address them.

While such issues do need addressing, the idea that one might address them in advance is surely unrealistic. Pregnant with a baby I expect to raise myself, I’m not even sure how I’d deal with them until they actually arose. The thought of making decisions in advance and harnessing my own and the happiness of several other people to them seems impossible. It is not just raging hormones that make this difficult, but the shifting contexts of life itself (my family, other people’s families, money, security, relationships, health). And even then, hormones do matter.

It is notable that, as I am having my “own” baby, it is expected that rising levels of oxytocin will not only support my labour, but help me to bond with my child. Should this not happen (and for many women it does not) I will feel a “failure” as a mother. Yet were I a surrogate, such a “failure” would make me a success. Indidivual women are not in control of such things – if we were, conditions from the “baby blues” to postpartum psychosis would be things we could simply think our way out of – yet in a recent case involving a surrogate forced to hand over a baby to a couple who claimed this was what she had agreed to in advance, one got the impression that this woman had indeed been expected to manage her emotions more effectively. In wanting to keep full custody the baby she bore – and behaving defensively and aggressively as a result – she had done something wrong, yet, as Katha Pollitt wrote in 1987 regarding the Baby M case in the US, “when Mary Beth Whitehead signed her contract, she was promising something it is not in anyone's power to promise: not to fall in love with her baby”.

In disputes such as these, it is surely not simply a question of who would be the best parent or set of parents. There may be people in the world who could raise my own children more effectively and with just as much compassion as I am doing, but the love I have for my children is accepted as absolute unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. Is this something that could ever be signed away in advance? (According to Sensible Surrogacy, it depends on the country you go for. The UK might be a grey area but for surrogates in India, the answer is yes and there can be no turning back. Those in Thailand are permitted some legal leeway – some small loophole allowing for emotion – but thankfully “to ensure that the Thai surrogate maintains the terms of the agreement, all her compensation is withheld until she has given full rights to the Future Parents and they are on their way home”. Which, one presumes, sorts out the whole “love” issue to everyone’s satisfaction.)

As the Dolce and Gabbana responses showed, the sexual, racial and economic disempowerment of surrogates can be effectively played off against the disempowerment of those who do not conform to so-called “traditional” family structures. In much the same way that the sex trade can be positioned not as a marker of women’s subordination, but as one in the eye for bigoted puritans, surrogacy can be positioned as a challenge to those who see the “natural” family as Mummy, Daddy, missionary positioned-conceived baby. Yet legally things are not so straightforward. It is not just that access to paid surrogacy is contingent on economic advantage. In the UK, the law regarding surrogacy ultimately favours couples, particularly heterosexual and all-male ones. The legal solution of a parental order following the birth of a child by a surrogate is not available to single people (despite the fact that single people are permitted to adopt). While lesbian couples can apply for parental orders, this is made more difficult by the fact that at least one person must be a genetic parent (meaning “straight” surrogacy, bypassing egg donation, cannot be an option).  It is for this reason, one presumes, that Surrogacy UK only provide prospective parent application packs to heterosexual and male same-sex couples. I doubt it is intentional in some deep, conspiracy theorist way (indeed, I doubt that much to do with patriarchy is), but the structural implications of this are that yet again, the exploitation of female reproductive labour is directed towards the continuation of male family lines and two-parent families. Looked at from this perspective, surrogacy is not as much of a challenge to traditional family values as one might have thought.

The current legal structure also, inevitably, reinforces the age-old tradition of downplaying women’s contribution to the creation of life while exagerrating men’s. As female academics from various disciplines, such as the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling and the anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy have pointed out, narratives of human reproduction are not based purely on objective scientific observation. They interact with cultural beliefs and can be gendered in such a way as to bolster ideas of male agency and dominance versus female passivity and subordination. Aristotle believed that women merely supplied matter that the active male principle formed into a human being. Women might have been the ones who gestated and gave birth, but they were merely potting soil for the male seed.

In Mother Nature, Blaffer Hrdy describes how seventeenth-century scientists “thought they saw a miniature man, a little ‘homunculus,’ through their microscopes, folder up inside a human sperm, waiting to be deposited inside the womb […] Even though mothers contributed egg cells, they were viewed as passive vessels, awaiting the life force conveyed by males.” We may scoff at such things today, but in 2015 Nick Loeb, the ex-partner of Sofia Vergara, still describes the frozen embryos formed from his sperm and Vergara’s ova as “the two lives I have already created”. Taking things a step further, Loeb argues that “a man who is willing to take on all parental responsibilities” should be “entitled to bring his embryos to term even if the woman [meaning the supplier of the eggs] objects”. Entitlement is one thing, but capability is quite another. By “bring his embryos to term” Loeb means “pay someone with a womb to perform the magic that transforms embryo to living, breathing child”. However rich a man is, he cannot purchase that capability in its own right. Yet female reproductive agency, once rendered invisible by patriachal quackery, is now undermined by the belief that everything can be bought by the highest bidder (and as ever, those with the most to bid tend to be male). 

Those who provide sperm make an obvious contribution to the creation of new life. Theirs is not, however, an equal one. Those who gestate, birth and suckle babies do far, far more. Yet ironically, providing sperm is all it takes to be said to have fathered a child. Meanwhile, the verb “to mother” encompasses a far broader range of activities than “just” supplying an egg. Pregnancy could almost kill you but still you won’t have proven you’re a “proper” mother. Alas, it has long been the case that under patriarchy, if one wants female reproductive labour to be recognised at all, such recognition will take the form of discrimination against women as a class.

For women, reproductive difference has long been tied to economic dependency, sexual exploitation and social exclusion. Male scientists used to argue that women’s reproductive role made them unfit for anything else. As Blaffer Hrdy puts it, the assumption was that “because females were especially equipped to nurture, males excelled at everything else.” More recently, the neurosexism of the late 90s and early noughties has pushed an insidious “different but equal” line, with popular works such as Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference suggesting that women’s reproductive history has led to a situation in which most female people – regardless of whether or not they ever become mothers themselves – are “hardwired” for empathy (and lower-paid care work) in a way that most male people are not. It doesn’t take a genius (nor indeed the possession of a “male brain”) to see how this works to perpetuate longstanding inequalities between men and women, not just in economic terms but also through all the ways in which women are expected to perform the emotional donkeywork in informal relationships extending far beyond those between mother and child. No wonder, to quote Blaffer Hrdy, “biology itself came to be viewed by women as a field sown with mines, best avoided altogether,” or, as the feminist legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman writes, “the idea of mother as a specifically gendered concept is cast by some feminists as particularly threatening to women’s sense of individuality […] discussions about motherhood are likely to be labelled ‘pronatalism’ and condemned as harbouring the subtext that all women must mother.” As new mother Ari puts it in Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth, “Heaven forbid it might be true that female bodies are different”:

Heaven forbid we admit that living in these female bodies is different. More terrible and more wonderful. Because, what? We might lose the vote? Because we might get veiled, imprisoned? Best deny it, deny it, make it to the Oval office, win, win, win.

For some feminists there is much appeal in insisting that all things are equal in human reproduction. The truth, however, is that they are not, and never will be until we take the physical, emotional and social context of women’s lives as seriously as we take those of men.

In her 1995 work The Neutered Mother Albertson Fineman explores ways in which liberal feminist calls for gender neutrality in parenting play into the hands of fathers’ and men’s rights groups, creating a theoretical equality which, due to its failure to account for women’s “material and psychological circumstances,” ends up reinforcing male control of families and marginalising single mothers in particular. Although in general fathers do not spend as much time caring for children (and those who do have been shown to spend more time on play while Mummy still deals with the less glamorous side of things), the idea that they could has been used, not to make men more responsible, but to downplay the specificity of what women are actually doing in practical and biological terms.

The idea that biology has historically led to women being granted more rights over children is, as feminists have long pointed out, a myth. Until the mid-nineteenth century fathers were automatically assumed to have possession over their children. It was not a corresponding assertion of maternal rights, but a move towards favouring “the best interests of the child” which led to more mothers being awarded custody. As Susan Maushart comments, “ironically and inaccurately, we now describe as ‘traditional’ those judges who persist in reflexively granting custody to mothers”. To assume that mothers should have rights relating to childrearing based on the contribution they make – as opposed to “naturally” ordained responsibilities – is not traditional, but revolutionary.

This is relevant to surrogacy because, as Pollitt pointed out in relation to Baby M, “it is a means by which women sign away rights that, until the twentieth century, they rarely had: the right to legal custody of their children, and the right not to be bought, sold, lent, rented or given away.” One could of course argue that to have a right and sign it away is different to never having had it at all. Nonetheless, the conditions under which women sign away their assumed “rights” – which, in the broader context of reproductive justice, are on shaky ground to begin with – cannot be ignored.

I do not think the surrogates who apply to Surrogacy UK are all victims of false consciousness. I don’t necessarily disbelieve them when they argue that being a surrogate can be an positive, empowering experience. While the word “empowering” itself may have fallen out of favour in feminist circles, it seems to me that such an act of physical creativity and emotional generosity could, in another world, fall within feminist definitions of maternal power – the power not to dominate, but to nurture and share. Perhaps some interactions between intended parents and surrogates already come within touching distance of this. Nevertheless, the world we live in is one in which for the majority of women, gender-based economic and reproductive coercion are the norm. One witnesses this at the extreme end in the pregnancies of schoolgirls kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram, but even in places where women are considered economically and physically secure, abortion is rarely considered a basic right. A woman’s positive choice to reproduce is treated as public property. She will be judged and found wanting – for being too young, too old, too independent, too poor, for being employed or unemployed, for belonging to the wrong ethnic group, for having the wrong partner or no partner at all. For a minority of women, a combination of the availability of contraception, changes to employment legislation and class privilege have made reproductive choice a meaningful reality. These women are the exceptions to the rule. We cannot claim individual women can choose to be generous with their reproductive capacities until such a time when, in reproductive terms, all women are truly free.

How much of a right should pregnancy give a woman over a baby? What does it count for? I am not sure but I can’t help feeling that our current thinking, with its impulse towards gender neutrality and the insistence that female reproduction is neither inherently different to nor more costly than its male counterpart, is flawed. Having the ability to gestate new life does not make you a perfect parent. It does not impart some great, mystic wisdom. It doesn’t even make you a nicer person. Nonetheless, going through pregnancy and giving birth are, like being born and dying, essential, untouchable, personal experiences. As Ari puts it, “there’s before and there’s after. To live in your body before is one thing. To live in your body after is another”. It ought to be possible to state that biology is not destiny, insofar as women are varied human beings and not carers by default, without erasing vast swathes of female lived experience and the needs that arise from it. But where should we go after that? Wherever it is, we must do so listening to all sides of every story, thinking beyond artificial separations of the world of the mind and the creations of the flesh.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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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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