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What are the New Times? Why we're looking back to assess the future of the left

The world according to Martin Jacques, the return of the state, and why we're tackling the new “New Times”.

In the Eighties, if you were seriously ­interested in political ideas, you read Marxism Today – or, if you didn’t, you should have. For a journal owned and funded by the Communist Party of Great Britain, it was surprisingly well designed, like a cerebral version of the style magazine The Face. Politically unpredictable, it was, as its former editor Martin Jacques has written, a magazine “of profound political and intellectual substance” – just like today’s New Statesman, I hope.


Permanent transition

In October 1988, Marxism Today published its celebrated “New Times” issue. I bought a copy and still have it somewhere. It was both a kind of manifesto – for the postmodern, “post-Fordist” economic and cultural order that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were a response to but had also helped create – and an anatomy of a crisis: a crisis of the left and of the Labour Party, which failed to understand that Thatcherism was hegemonic and we had entered a new age.

The cultural theorist and Marxism Today contributor Stuart Hall called it a “permanently transitional age”. In his signature essay in the New Times issue, he analysed the changing nature of the state, globalisation, the shift to the new information technologies, outsourcing and more flexible forms of work, as well as identity and gender politics. “The question should always be,” he wrote, “where is the ‘leading edge’ [of change] and in what direction is it pointing?”


The state that binds

Where is the leading edge of change today? The Brexit vote, Jeremy Corbyn’s capture of Labour, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the US and the rise of populist movements across Europe are all, in their various ways, expressions of these new times. Theresa May, too, seems to understand that something fundamental has changed and her closest advisers – notably her joint chief of staff Nick Timothy – are articulate in the language of “post-liberal” conservatism.

I spoke to Jacques, now 70, at the weekend just as he was leaving for China, and asked what he thought was going on. “What I call the era of neoliberalism, from the mid- to late Seventies to the financial crash of 2007-2008, is over,” he said. “It crashed with the crash. Neoliberalism, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, became hegemonic. And social-democratic parties became leaders of this trend. This is why the left ended up being so discredited by New Labour.”

“Neoliberalism” is a convenient catch-all term, of course, for whatever the ills of Western capitalism are perceived to be. For Jacques, it encapsulates the dogma of the small state, market solutions, privatisation, the dominance of monetary policy, and so on. It was not the cause of globalisation, he said, “but it responded quicker to it than the left. It gave it a particular flavour and character.” The greatest beneficiaries of globalisation, he suggested, are the east Asian countries – especially China, which has lifted 700 million people out of poverty and still has a growth rate more than three times that of the US. “In this new era, the centre of gravity is moving remorselessly to the East.”

For Jacques, the significance of Trump is that he “grasps that this [the status quo] is unsustainable. He’s very much against neoliberalism – look at the free-trade agreements he opposes. And he knows how to talk to the people, like [Nigel] Farage does. But what’s really unstitching neoliberalism is inequality. And when an economy gets into crisis, the centre of gravity switches in a leftward direction.”

Jacques believes that there has been a revival of left-wing ideas and he cited the ­influence of Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman and Harvard’s Dani Rodrik. “These guys are making the running. Another phenomenon is that people on the right are moving left – just read Martin Wolf’s columns in the Financial Times.

“There’s a renewed interest in the state. The state binds society together. If the state becomes too weak, society fragments.”


Grave reservations

Jacques is not a Labour Party member but he said that he would have voted for Corbyn, who represents a “big shift”. “There’s a new generation looking for something different. Look at the young people who have joined Labour. To them, Corbyn is ­authentic. He’s candid and not like other politicians. He has strong, left-wing things to say. That he’s been saying them for so long is part of his appeal and also his problem.”

The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) should not have disrespected Corbyn’s mandate. “The frame of Labour politics has shifted markedly to the left. This seems to me to be permanent,” Jacques said. “These are the new co-ordinates. Many in the PLP don’t understand that it’s the end of New Labour. They didn’t understand the financial crisis. They didn’t understand what neoliberalism was.” Something interesting is happening. “There are lots of currents. Corbyn is enabling something that’s been long repressed. I don’t know where it’s going to lead. I have grave reservations about Corbyn. But this is a complicated situation. We’ve got to pick our way through it.”


Rowing back

Marxism Today closed in 1991, less than three years after its New Times special. It was absorbed by the New Statesman, which has a genius for survival and for merging with and subsuming other notable publications – New Society, the Nation, the Week-End Review. “We never had any money,” Jacques told me. “We didn’t have a sugar daddy, though we were subbed by the CP [Communist Party] . . . I did it for 14 years and, as you know, editing a magazine can be hard. It takes over your life. Yet we acquired a formidable reputation because we got things right. We understood the decline of the left. We got Thatcherism a few years before the rest, though the Thatcherites got it as they were doing it, of course. Now, there’s a new tide . . . Everyone is rowing back on that period [of neoliberal hegemony]. Even May understands that new winds are blowing.” 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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