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22 September 2016

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”.

By Jason Cowley

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?”


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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.

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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.” 

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times