The improbable rise of Jeremy Corbyn

So far this week, Jeremy Corbyn has caused over 100,000 new members to join the UK Labour Party he leads, has apologized for a war he opposed from the beginning and appears to have survived a coup attempt on his leadership. And despite his backstabbing MPs, he’s one of the few party leaders left standing after the Brexit referendum.

Given all this mayhem on the British political scene, I figured it would be a good time to speak with the writer Richard Seymour, author of the recently-released Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics. Richard regularly publishes in major UK and international media; his  previous books include Against Austerity, Unhitched, and The Liberal Defense of Murder. He’s long been one of the best voices on British politics on the left.

Our conversation focused on the roots of Corbyn’s sudden rise to power, both within the Labour Party and politics in the UK more broadly, the failure of today’s Blairite coup plotters and the prospects of a long-term shift in ideology effected by Corbynism.

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Fiscal policy for the left, or Corbyn vs Mulcair on deficits

The question of deficits dominated a lot of the economic debate in Canada during the 2015 federal election and even today. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party introduced a new fiscal policy last week that, on surface, appears to mirror the NDP’s anti-deficit stance from the 2015 campaign. Looking closer, however, Labour’s policy diverges quite substantially and points to more honest and transformative economic policy for the left. (more…)

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Will Sanders’ rise be felt in Canada?

Co-written with Derrick O’Keefe and originally published at Ricochet.

Even if he’s really only offering a pragmatic form of social democracy, Sanders has created a political space in the mainstream left that’s sorely missing in Canada. His insurgent campaign for the Democratic Party nomination has put inequality and systemic injustice front and centre in the United States.

Policy proposals aside, merely having the word “socialism” back on the agenda in the United States signals a massive shift. Compare Sanders’ unabashed use of the term to recent NDP history.

Canada’s traditional social democratic party has spent recent years downplaying and scrubbing away the last vestiges of socialism from its public presentation. Under pressure from party leaders and bureaucrats, the NDP removed all but one reference to it from its constitution in 2013. The s-word is now only mentioned in passing in the party preamble.

It’s useful to take a broader view than just the recent botched campaign and the party itself. For years, the NDP’s leadership and top advisors have taken their cues from their counterparts in control of the Democratic Party — an electoral machine that has been effectively captured by a small coterie of the rich and powerful. (more…)

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Questions for the Canadian left

Harper is gone, but (as a friend only quarter-jokingly said) we got the second worst outcome sold as the best, so now what? That’s the 10 second version of this post. I want to throw up a few questions or, better yet, problems that I think the Canadian left will have to face together over the next few years. There are no easy answers here.

In 2015, the Liberals once again showed that they are masters at campaigning to the left. But as we now wait for them to show how equally apt they are at governing to the right, it’s clear that it won’t simply do to say “told you so!” in four years time. It is not by accident that the Liberals are Canada’s “natural governing party,” for if anything, they know how to govern. They are experts at balancing competing interests or, more accurately, giving the semblance of balancing interests all the while closely aligned with the interests of the elite, and the upper middle class.

Still, we have to recognize that things will be different and that this affects where people are and how they relate to politics. On the one hand, the Liberals do open up some space on the left by making symbolic gestures here and there; at the same time, they close off this space by drawing the limits of respectable progressive politics. They don’t fill the void left by a weak left as do the Conservatives with their exclusionary, pocketbook politics aimed at the working class. In fact, they speak to a broader cross-class progressive segment of the population in a way that can be disorienting. (more…)

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The economics of the possible and beyond

Last week, I wrote a short piece for Ricochet on the kind of simple but serious economic thinking missing from the Canadian election debate so far.  Here, I want to expand on the reasons why we might have trouble talking honestly about the barriers to significant economic reform without a real popular upsurge. If you want the short, populist argument, just read the Ricochet piece. If you want more, read on.

Here’s the main problem as articulated in the short piece:

As the gap between rich and poor has widened over the past few decades, the economic elite has grown in stature. Deficits and government spending sounds fine to them if it gets the economy going — even childcare will allow more women to go back to work and some may fill all those low-wage service jobs sitting empty because employers aren’t willing to pay more — but anything that genuinely threatens the slow upward trickle of wealth and strengthen workers too much in the workplace won’t be so happily tolerated.

This is the old tension between how much a left or centre-left economic program does to reboot economic growth and how much it also increases the expectations, capacity to organize and, ultimately, bargaining power of working people. A robust and sustained program of deficit spending, even if it is economically possible, is practically difficult in a small, open economy like Canada’s, not because our economy couldn’t benefit from it, but because businesses and money can, among other things, threaten to leave.

In other words, it is not enough to simply ask whether a program would be good “for society”. Expanding on the example above, a national childcare program can be a big help to regular, working people who have trouble otherwise affording care. At the same time, however, accessible childcare releases more women into the labour force, giving them more choice, but also providing employers with a new pool of workers. With all the crying about “labour shortages” across large chunks of the service sector (otherwise known as unwillingness to pay sufficiently high wages), this could be a boon for many industries, in particular low-wage services. In addition, if the childcare program is largely carried out through private providers, it creates a new source of government-sponsored demand for companies in the care services sector.

Depoliticizing economic questions ignores the implicit tension between the interests of growth and higher profits versus the interests of keeping a lid on the power of regular people to see their incomes and income share grow. (more…)

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The challenge of Sanders and Corbyn to the extreme centre

Over the past year, unlikely challengers have emerged to the dominant politics of the center-left in both the US and the UK. Jeremy Corbyn is looking increasingly poised to win the leadership of the UK Labour Party next month. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders keeps rising in the polls, drawing large crowds and making Hillary Clinton’s coronation as Democratic presidential candidate a bit uncertain. Both Sanders and Corbyn are silver-haired, decades-long parliamentarians identified with a marginalized left and would have been at home in pre-1970s social democracy. After years of rightward drift from both Labour and the Democrats towards the “extreme centre”, social democracy is making one more stand. Both Sanders and Corbyn have set their sights on economic inequality and economic stagnation for the majority as defining issues. Sanders, in particular, has also made talked widely about reclaiming the political system from under the influence of big money.

This week’s guests joined me to talk about what the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns: where they’re coming from, what they mean and what we an expect from them. First, I speak with Bhaskar Sunkara about Bernie Sanders and his qualified support for Bernie’s campaign. Bhaskar is the editor of the excellent Jacobin Magazine from the New York, which has quickly become an important venue on the US left. My second guest is James Meadway, an economist and activist from the UK. James recently signed a letter in support of Corbyn and has been following his campaign closely.

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Three planks for a possible anti-austerity

What would anti-austerity in Canada look like? There are really two types of questions here. There are those of analysis: what has Canada’s austerity looked like, what makes it distinctive and how does it appear in people’s everyday experience? The others are those of political strategy. These are questions that will have to wait for a social, political force ready to meaningfully take up the cause of anti-austerity. With none on the immediate horizon, I don’t intend to pontificate on what Syriza can teach Canada; best look first at what we can learn of our own situation.

When I interviewed him last week, Yanis Varousfakis, now the Finance Minister of Greece, laid out three very general planks of Syriza’s anti-austerity program. Of course, Greece is the unenviable victim of the cruelest austerity experiment in the North, but simplified to their most basic form the three planks articulated by Yanis have broad applicability. To paraphrase, they are

  1. dealing with debt;
  2. increasing social spending;
  3. generating public revenue.

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Beyond social democracy: new institutions, new subjects

So many of the debates on the contemporary left come back to the legacy of social democracy. The Swedish experience came closest to fulfilling social democratic ideals in the post-war era and so speaks to these debates in a unique way. Earlier this year, I talked to Petter Nilsson of Sweden’s Left Party about the legacy of social democracy in his country and its broader meaning. This was one of my favourite interviews of the year and one that stuck with me for a long time. I’ve transcribed it here for it to be shared more widely. It’s been edited for length and clarity.

Michal Rozworski: Sweden is still seen by many around the world as a model for the welfare state but it has changed dramatically over the past couple decades. Can you give a quick summary of what it means to look at Sweden, as you’ve put it, “without illusions”?

Petter Nilsson: There’s this joke on the Swedish left that everyone would want the Swedish model and the Swedes would want it perhaps more than anyone. What’s considered to be the Swedish model peaked in maybe the late 70s, early 80s and has since gone through quite the same developments as the rest of Europe with the neoliberal wave. Because Sweden started at a high level of wage compression and equality terms of gender, it is still very equal compared to other European countries. Yet, at the same time, we have the fastest growth in class differences within the OECD.

When the Social Democrats turned rightwards in 1986 or so, a lot of the developments that had taken place in other European countries came to Sweden in a few swift blows. In just a few years we had huge increases in class differences and this affected our universal welfare system. This system was always based on the high wage compression, which included the middle class in same welfare system as the rest. Its members felt that since the quality of welfare programs was so high, they were prepared to pay taxes to finance them. But as soon as financing for the welfare sector is cut, then quality drops and the middle class opts out for private solutions. (more…)

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Some thoughts on social democracy starting from a Fraser Institute graph

I’ve been meaning to post something on a chart from a Fraser Institute report for a while but slept on it. The chart comes from Fraser’s annual Consumer Tax Report and is supposed to show the different paths taken by how much households pay in taxes and how much they spend on basic goods like food and housing. 141209 fraser chart

In one way, this chart represents a good news story for the right. Capitalism is fulfilling one of its major promises: the cost of the basic goods is decreasing relative to household budgets – in the aggregate, which given an increasingly unequal distribution of income means that many budgets feel this very differently. Not only that, but the welfare state is slowly shrinking. Looking closely at the chart (showing the Fraser Institute’s version of the data), we see that the relative tax take is falling since about the turn of the millennium. Of course, the chart is riddled with errors (in short, the Fraser Institute either uses too many taxes or too little income in its measures) but better OECD data shows roughly the same trend, at least for taxes.

141209 canada tax-gdp

Ironically, while a story about lower spending on necessities could be a success story (capitalism works!), of course, that’s not the point of the exercise. Instead, the chart is intended to incite anger about taxes. The big caveat being to ignore the services these taxes actually pay for: the much-lower tax bill from 50 or 60 years ago is before universal healthcare, the Canada Pension Plan and other major elements of Canada’s welfare state. Yet in its ideological fervour, the Institute might be on the right track, because what the chart shows is in fact not just a success story but the changing nature of consumption. It illustrates how what economists once called the “subsistence wage” – where subsistence is not like a fixed number of calories, square feet and so on but culturally-relative and so varies according to time and place – has changed: most strikingly, what part of consumption is privately-provided and what part is socialized and provided by the state. (more…)

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