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The Policy Ask with Mathew Lawrence: “If Marx were alive today he’d be glued to a Bloomberg terminal”

The director of Common Wealth on slow starts, "securonomics", and transforming capitalism.

Mathew Lawrence is the founder and director of Common Wealth, a think tank researching and campaigning for more democratic, participatory and egalitarian structures of ownership. Along with Adrienne Buller, he is the co-author of Owning the Future, arguing for a radical restructuring of the economy that goes hand in hand with the green transition and wealth redistribution. In 2021 he co-authored Planet on Fire, an explicitly “eco-socialist” work on the climate crisis. He formerly held a senior researcher position at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

How do you start your working day?   

To borrow from Ernest Hemingway: slowly, then all at once. We recently welcomed our first US-based team member, so it usually begins with coffee while catching up on any overnight messages to the radio’s background drone, a check-in on WhatsApp groups, and a skim of the Financial Times and Twitter before embarking fully on the day.

What has been your career high?     

Co-authoring both Planet on Fire and Owning the Future were hugely satisfying experiences, as was being part of the team that delivered IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice. But the high is now: working with a brilliant and committed team on the defining issues of our time, from making the case for an energy democracy to charting the contours of asset manager capitalism, all in the cause of building a democratic, decommodified, decarbonised economy. Though of course, reaching a peak usually only confirms how far ahead the summit really is. So, onward and upward.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?  

To go from registering Common Wealth in a café in Stoke Newington to becoming a transatlantic organisation of almost a dozen people within a few years has involved many challenges, almost all of them solved through the collective wisdom and effort of the team. Perhaps the hardest ongoing challenge is balancing working on day-to-day interventions, particularly in the whirlpool of Westminster politics, against the need to undertake deeper, more programmatic work.

Looking ahead, an exciting challenge over the next 18 months will be expanding our US-based work while setting out a robust but transformative agenda on jobs, climate and justice for the general election.

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[See also: Adrienne Buller: “Green capitalism is its own form of denial”]

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?    

First, keep enjoying those lunch time table tennis sessions! Many hours at IPPR were passed with a previous New Statesman interviewee, Alfie Stirling, and invaluable lessons were learned, some of them even relating to table tennis.

Second, integrate Refinitiv analysis into your work! Using the financial database to get under the bonnet of contemporary capitalism – the investment flows, the coordination challenges, the corporate strategies – helps shine a forensic spotlight on the system’s immense productive capacity and adaptive quality, its inefficiencies and its injustices. By better understanding the dynamics of “actually existing capitalism”, we are better equipped to transform and transcend its limits – if Marx were alive today he would surely be found glued to a Bloomberg terminal (when not arguing on Twitter).

Which political figures inspire you?   

Bram Fischer, Nelson Mandela’s defence lawyer, underground leader of the South African Communist Party, and an Afrikaner who refused a life of privilege for one marked by moral and physical courage in the struggle against apartheid and for human freedom; and Jayaben Desai, for her commitment to that most enduring cause and hope of the world: labour.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?   

The AI Foundation Model Taskforce, led by the fantastic Ian Hogarth, is an exciting initiative that I’m looking forward to seeing grow. But for now, I’d go with the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (Aria), an important new institution that reflects the ambition we need. The UK’s existing venture capital/tech startup ecosystem has strengths but produces a monocultural business model: asset-light, high-growth to exit, and short-termist. Aria has the potential to create a world-class resourcing ecosystem for high-impact, high-risk ideas in frontier science in a more diverse range of enterprise forms, helping to both accelerate and better share the benefits of technological breakthroughs. The recent commitment to funding public compute is of a similar vein, and is a welcome sign of forward-thinking, ambitious policy.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?   

The UK’s evident malaise is inseparable from over a decade of deeply damaging policy choices. While we might see individual policies in isolation, they are in fact an entangled wreckage, the piled-up testament to a failed economic agenda.

If there was one thing I would scrap though, it would be the £21bn of further cuts to public services by 2027-8 announced in the Spring Budget. The evidence of this fiscal self-flagellation is all around us, from a stretched public realm to living standards grinding downward. Continuing the experiment would be cruel and counter-productive. By reversing course we can begin to disentangle ourselves from the wreck and begin the hard road to renewal.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?  

The recently announced AI summit. If it can avoid excessive boosterism – or too-cautious doomerism – it can mark a useful step forward in the regulation of artificial intelligence and its future development and use. It is of particular interest as we are currently working with partners like the Collective Intelligence Project on how frontier technologies can be governed for the public good, balancing risk with the many potential benefits, in ways that can overcome what the brilliant political economist Divya Siddarth has called the transformative technology trilemma: the potential trade-off between progress, participation and safety.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?   

There are many, from recent Spanish legislation that makes access to decent housing a genuine right, to Chile’s efforts to regain sovereignty over their mineral wealth, to the continuing success of publicly owned European renewable energy companies, and Finland’s egalitarian, highly effective education system. All share the insight that our collective challenges are best solved through common effort and ingenuity. But we now live inescapably in the shadow of the Inflation Reduction Act. Unlike the Chancellor’s approach to decarbonisation, which is missing a major shift in the governance of capitalism, the UK should learn from an agenda that moves from a market-based approach to one guided by public coordination and investment.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?   

The law is vital to the construction of politics and the economy alike. Laws of cruelty and poor design have recently been added to our statute books which will powerfully shape society in their image, making it all the more important that they are reversed.

But to propose something new and positive: the introduction of a Living Income Act, which would guarantee no one fell beneath a socially acceptable minimum income standard, all at a significantly lower cost than a universal basic income. It’s an idea that has gathered support from organisations across the political spectrum, and the time is now. What’s more, if “securonomics” is to have teeth, it must surely mean not just deepening national economic resilience but ensuring we all have the resources and security to be authors of our own lives in thriving communities. In doing so, a Living Income law can begin the long movement toward a genuinely secure, free society.

[See also: “The meteor has already struck”: Mathew Lawrence on how ecosocialism can save Earth]

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