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Caught at a crossroads: it's time to build an alternative to neoliberalism

After four decades, the economic consensus is crumbling. What can politicians do next?

Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative party conference in early October seemed to mark a clear turn in economic policy. It was condemned by the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs as “an alarming attack on free markets” and by the Adam Smith Institute as “the opposite of pragmatic”. The Institute of Directors felt compelled to point out that “business leaders are not pantomime villains”.

Here was the Conservative Party, the historic party of British capitalism, picking a fight with British capitalism. The agenda of recent years – City-friendly, in thrall to fiscal tightening, with an active monetary policy  is being challenged, in rhetoric at least. The prospect of a “hard Brexit”, with potentially terrible consequences for jobs and living standards, is causing great concern in the world of business.

More fundamentally, the whole political and economic settlement of the past 40 years is potentially under threat. As the new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, told Bloomberg TV on 6 October: “We have a problem – and it’s not just a British problem, it’s a developed-world problem – in keeping our populations engaged and supportive of our market capitalism, our economic model.”

Students of recent history would generally agree that the economic model of Western democracies changed fundamentally from the 1970s onwards. The crises of that decade gave way to a great shift in the balance of power towards capital and away from labour. The rules of the game were rewritten to favour a rhetoric of free markets and small states, and the reality was corporate power and wealth inequality.

For some, this created opportunities. For others, it led to decline or even post-industrial devastation. On balance, there were enough winners, over successive decades, to tilt parliamentary democracies towards acceptance of the new order. Social-democratic parties accepted the new economic rules, even if they insisted on smoothing off the rougher edges.

It is becoming clear that neoliberalism – as these rules have become known – has run its course and cannot deliver the rising living standards that were supposed to be the hallmark of modern economies.

Since the global financial crisis in 2008, ultra-loose monetary policy has been needed across the developed economies. In the UK in particular, stagnant wages for the lower-paid sectors have been supported by in-work benefits, whose costs to the Exchequer have been rising.

Now, the political and financial limits of this course are being reached. The Brexit vote sounded a death knell for our economic and political settlement of the past few decades. On the left, the temptation for some may be to celebrate. After all, we have called insistently for more public investment and economic intervention, alongside policies such as worker representation in boardrooms and clamping down on tax avoidance.

The change in rhetoric by the government has been portrayed as “Conservative tanks on Labour lawns”. But this cliché gets it wrong: it is when your opponents start using your arguments that you know you are winning – as Margaret Thatcher recognised when she claimed New Labour as her greatest achievement.

The breach between the Conservatives and capital does not necessarily herald an improvement in the fortunes of the left. If it is replaced instead by an inward-looking, xenophobic autarky, prepared to sacrifice the living standards of its citizens in the desire to please the most virulent anti-immigrant tendencies of the right, the organised left and the people we exist to represent will be worse off, as will all those who favour a free and open society. If Ukip wins, we lose.

It is only 18 months since David Cameron’s re-election as prime minister. So how has this shift in thinking come about so quickly? Central bankers are understandably reluctant to concede that they are running out of tools to support the economy, but many others have been prepared to say it for them. With interest rates across the West at record lows, some of the brightest minds have been discussing ideas that would have been deemed cranky a generation ago: “helicopter money”, negative interest rates and digital currencies.

The obvious alternative – expansionary fiscal policy – has been out of political favour. But the challenges we face are far greater than those which could be addressed by government spending, even ignoring any Budget constraint. Countries that have undertaken less austerity face many of the same problems as we do.

Over the decade since the global financial crisis, living standards for most people have barely recovered. In the UK, real hourly wages have declined by more than 10 per cent since 2007. Precarious jobs and zero-hours contracts have become the norm in huge sectors of our labour market.

The system of tax credits and other in-work benefits has helped cushion the blow for many. But if wages are not rising, increased spending on tax credits needs to be paid for from tax revenues: Osborne’s attempted tax-credit cuts last autumn were a warning sign. This in turn will require levels of growth not seen since the crash. The same could be said for our NHS, which is facing an urgent funding crisis, as are many other public services.

As the labour market has hollowed out, with a few well-paid jobs at the top, overwhelmed by large numbers of poorly paid, insecure jobs at the bottom, our tax base has narrowed. There are limits to asking those who have experienced falling real wages to pay more, and the global super-rich have found it all too easy to treat taxes as an optional extra.

But responding to the politics of the recent past is not a viable option. We must acknowledge that the model that New Labour relied on to fund public spending increases is broken.

Wolfgang Münchau wrote recently in the Financial Times about the decline of European social-democratic parties, partly as a result of their failure to offer alternatives. It could be added that the assumptions that they were built on for 20 years are crumbling.

We do not have the option of relying on steady growth, driven by services and, in particular, finance. One of the sharpest shifts within the productivity figures is how the financial sector has gone from being a key contributor to productivity growth to a drag on it since the crisis.

At the same time, a nostalgic return to the postwar consensus is similarly impossible. Infrastructure rebuilding, the remnants of the British empire, a dramatically different political context and rapidly rising productivity drove wage and tax increases that transformed our society, thanks to the Attlee and Wilson governments.

Now, trend productivity is lower in the UK than in most G7 countries. According to researchers at the Bank of England and elsewhere, underlying growth has been in decline for some time: at least since the start of the 2000s, well before the crash. By some measures, it has been in slow decline since the 1960s. Government investment can – and should – help address this, but state investment cannot compensate fully for sluggish private investment demand.

The underlying reasons are uncertain. Talk of “secular stagnation” has come back into fashion, thanks to the US economist Larry Summers. This is where increased savings and a decreased desire for investment drive “neutral” real interest rates to impossibly low levels.

Politicians who correctly identify the problems often miss the target by placing the blame on central banks. Research from the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco suggests that global real interest rates haven’t just been low since the financial crisis, but have declined significantly over decades, and are likely to remain low thanks to factors such as demographic change.

If true, this poses significant challenges for an economic model that has increasingly relied on monetary policy for macroeconomic stability. It also puts into context the complaints of politicians who seek to blame central bankers for the consequences of low interest rates, while refusing to take responsibility with fiscal policy.

There are several potential explanations for the long-term difficulties we face. The economist Robert Gordon of Northwestern University has written about “the end of growth”, as the stream of productivity-enhancing innovations of the past century and a half – world-changing inventions such as the internal combustion engine, better plumbing, the internet – dries up. Alternatively or additionally, the IMF has recently pointed to the overhang of debt that built up after the global financial crisis. This has refused to come down, a situation not helped by persistently low inflation. Janet Yellen, the chair of the board of governors at the Federal Reserve, recently hinted at the possibility that insufficient demand could harm potential supply-side growth.

Beyond the mainstream, post-Keynesians have spoken of the need for wage-led growth: one of the contradictions of resurgent capital has been to push down the purchasing power of the working population, limiting the scope for consumption growth. Meanwhile, Marxian economists blame the increasing role of capital in production for persistently low rates of profit in the real economy, resulting in lower investment and slower growth.

***

What can politicians do, if economists can’t agree what the problem is? I have said that we need to offer answers soon, and I tentatively suggest that these need to be in three areas.

The increasing automation of jobs, reduced dependence on carbon fuels, artificial intelligence and the so-called gig economy have provoked understandable anger among many workers whose jobs are under threat. More generally, concerns about the effect on the labour market are widespread: either threatening mass unemployment or a significant shift towards low-productivity, low-paid jobs.

This need not be the case. In a society where the benefits of technological advancement are shared, productivity gains can be made to work for the benefit of all. It requires original thinking – one possibility is a universal basic income – to suggest how we can make a society with less demand for medium-skilled labour become wealthier and less polarised.

Future automation is likely to hit service-sector jobs, while the fusion of digital technology with manufacturing in the “fourth industrial revolution” is creating new demand for highly skilled labour. This will demand a major policy response if we are to harness the potential of this.

Second, if we are to meet the needs of those who need health care, pensions and social security, we will need to find ways to tax wealth more effectively. Not just because it is fairer than taxing labour, but because our tax base has shrunk. And as more of the economy now goes to capital owners, taxing a fair share of this is essential to affording the public services that we want.

Finally, none of this is sustainable in the long bterm unless we change the ownership of this capital. Through new forms of democratic and small-scale ownership, such as employee-owned firms, and by sharing the ownership of society’s assets more broadly, we can reduce the need for redistributive intervention, while increasing society’s power to choose the future direction of our economy and address the urgent demands of climate change.

These issues are confronting left-wing political parties across the West. In the UK, we are now at a crossroads. We cannot afford to let out a sigh of relief at the end of Osbornomics. There is no guarantee that what comes next will not be worse.

We cannot allow our politics to degenerate into a fight between an inward-looking, regressive xenophobia and the failed economic liberalism of recent history.

Nearly 40 years on from Eric Hobsbawm’s warnings about the future of the labour movement, we have the opportunity to put an end to neoliberalism with a modern, inspiring, collective economic alternative. If we don’t offer a credible alternative, someone else will, and the results will be ugly.

Of course our immediate priority is to hold the government to account during the negotiations over Brexit, but at the same time we must be looking ahead to rethink how our economy works. I want the Labour Party to be at the centre of that, and I want as many people to be part of that conversation as possible: through our policymaking structures and at our forthcoming public national and regional economic conferences.

To coin a phrase: change must come. But what type of change, and for whose benefit, is up to us to determine.

John McDonnell is the Labour shadow chancellor and MP for Hayes and Harlington


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind

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White supremacists are embracing genetic testing – but they aren't always that keen on the results

Users of far-right site Stormfront are resorting to pseudo science and conspiracy theories when DNA tests show they aren't as “pure” as they hoped.

The field of genomics and genetics have undergone almost exponential growth in recent years. Ventures like the Human Genome Project have enabled t humanity to get a closer look at our building blocks. This has led to an explosion in genetic ancestry testingand as of 6 April 2017 23AndMe, one of the most popular commercial DNA testing websites, has genotyped roughly 2 million customers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the markets for genetic testing can be found among white suprmacists desperate to prove their racial purity. But it turns out that many they may not be getting the results they want. 

Stormfront, the most prominent white nationalist website, has its own definition of those who are allowed to count themselves as white - “non-Jewish people of 100 per cent European ancestry.” But many supremacists who take genetic tests are finding out that rather than bearing "not a drop" of non-white blood, they are - like most of us a conglomerate of various kinds of DNA from all over the world including percentages from places such as sub Saharan Africa and Asia. Few are taking it well.

Dr. Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and the research institute Data and Society respectively, presented a research study (currently under peer review for publication) at the American Sociological Association a week ago, analysing discussion of GAT on Stormfront forums. Panofsky, Donovan and a team of researchers narrowed down the relevant threads to about 700, with 153 users who had chosen to publish their results online. While Panofsky emphasised that it is not possible to draw many quantitative inferences, the findings of their study offer a glimpse into the white nationalist movement's response to science that doesn't their self perception. 

“The bulk of the discussion was repair talk”, says Panofsky. “Though sometimes folks who posted a problematic result were told to leave Stormfront or “drink cyanide” or whatever else, 'don’t breed', most of the talk was discussion about how to interpret the results to make the bad news go away”.

Overwhelmingly, there were two main categories of reinterpretation. Many responses dismissed GAT as flimsy science – with statements such as a “person with true white nationalist consciousness can 'see race', even if their tests indicate 'impurity'".

Other commentators employed pseudo-scientific arguments. “They often resemble the critiques that professional geneticists, biological anthropologists and social scientists, make of GAT, but through a white nationalist lens", says Panofsky. 

For instance, some commentators would look at percentages of non-European DNA and put it down to the rape of white women by non-white men in the past, or a result of conquests by Vikings of savage lands (what the rest of us might call colonialism). Panofsky likens this to the responses from “many science opponents like climate deniers or anti-vaxxers, who are actually very informed about the science, even if they interpret and critique it in idiosyncratic and motivated ways".

Some white nationalists even looked at the GAT results and suggested that discussion of 100 per cent racial purity and the "one drop" rule might even be outdated – that it might be better to look for specific genetic markets that are “reliably European”, even though geneticists might call them by a different name.

Of course, in another not totally surprising development, many of the Stormfront commentators also insisted that GAT is part of a Jewish conspiracy, “to confuse whites by sprinkling false diversity into test results".

Many of the experts in the field have admitted to queasiness about the test themselves; both how they come to their results and what they imply. There are several technical issues with GAT, such as its use of contemporary populations to make inferences about those who previously lived in different places around the world, and concerns that the diversity of reference samples used to make inferences is not fully representative of the real world. 

There are other specific complications when it comes to the supramacist enthusiasm for GAT. Some already make a tortous argument that white people are the “true people of color" by dint of greater variation in hair and eye color. By breaking up DNA into percentages (e.g. 30 per cent Danish, 20 per cent German), Panofsky says GAT can provide a further opportunity to “appropriate and colonise the discourse of diversity and multiculturalism for their own purposes". There's is also, says Panofsky, the simple issue that “we can’t rely on genetic information to turn white nationalists away from their views."

“While I think it would be nice if the lesson people would take from GAT is that white nationalism is incoherent and wrong. I think white nationalists themselves often take the exact opposite conclusion."