To know where we are going we must know how we got here. A long-established online politics forum currently has a thread under the title ‘Creating Lexit: What is to be done?’ A reasonable enough question, and the ‘creating’ admits we are a long way from a left Brexit right now. What struck me strongly reading it however is that I am not sure whether the vexed question of what is to be done by the left has changed with Brexit. I have watched left thinkers struggle to create a positive way forward from Article 50, and little consensus emerges. That in itself helps answer the question: How did we get here?
‘Here’ is not a good place. Due to some unsavoury infighting within the unsavoury Tory party, the UK was presented with a referendum of two right wing options. Stay: in an institution committed to the neo-liberal consensus. Or go: and let the Tories manage the decline of our standard of living in their own way. Differing parts of the left tied themselves up in knots over this, and the Labour party was no exception. To me, neither option seemed to hold much hope for a revival of left wing politics in the UK (or perhaps I should say, in England). In the end I, along with many people I know, voted Remain, not because it seemed like a good option, but because in the face of two bad options we wanted to prioritise limiting damage to migrants, to people we knew and didn’t know. Desperate measures. Not the stuff that dreams are made of.
The road to our being offered two options we didn’t want was a long one. It travelled through the obvious places: Thatcher’s attacks on the unions, the Washington Consensus, the Blairisation of the Labour Party, and the effects of outsourcing to East Asia. The road also travelled through the 90s and 2000s anti-globalisation movement. All of us involved in those protests are able to hold our heads up and say that we fought the hollowing out of the UK’s economy, we fought corporate control of our laws, we fought this situation where banks can be bailed out but we can’t, we fought an EU more focussed on satisfying corporations than saving the people of Greece. But we lost. Not only did we lose, but recently the fairly-far-right have nipped in and claimed the crown of opposition to globalisation. How on earth did that happen?
We lost in part because our opponents were so strong, so well-resourced, so quick to use violence. But we lost too because we never did build a mass movement. It could sometimes feel like a mass movement was happening, travelling from summit to summit, hundreds of thousands on the streets. But many people travelled hundreds of miles, even between continents, to join the ‘summit circus’, as it was dubbed. It never was a mass movement, at least not in the rich countries. Most people I knew at the time beyond activist circles didn’t know what we were protesting against, or if they did, they wanted to know our alternative.
The alternatives to corporate globalisation were tricky to discuss in those days. NGOs would veer clear of political stances and suggest a bit more regulation. The radical left, much of it libertarian-leaning, would often say they didn’t have to offer alternatives, or they would say they were offering ‘One No, Many Yeses’. Which sounded lovely, but in practice rarely meant much except offering small scale projects: self-organised spaces, local currencies, urban food growing projects and the like. There was a reluctance to engage with the scale of our society. To do so would risk having to engage with the state, and that was out of fashion, having authoritarian connotations.
Meanwhile Labour and centre left parties across the richer parts of the world got on with doing deals with the devil of neo-liberalism, while maintaining the vestiges of social democracy on life support. Labour policy wonks were bemused by the anti-globalisation protesters. ‘What do they want us to do?’ they seemed to say, looking down their noses at those on the street, ‘We’ve got a state to run’.
The protestors owed no answer to the policy wonks, but I have come to realise that we did owe an answer to ordinary people. ‘But what should we be doing instead?’ was a frequent reaction to denunciations of globalisation. My parents asked it. My friends asked it. And they weren’t happy with an answer of ‘One No, Many Yeses’. Their livelihoods depended on the current system. Suggesting we dismantle that system without having something to put in its place didn’t go down well. So people continued asking the question: ‘What is your alternative?’
And so I suggest that Brexit has not changed the challenge facing the left. The same question echoes around us now. ‘What is to be done to create Lexit?’ is the same question as the question being asked during the anti-globalisation protests: what is our alternative way of organising economies and societies? Until we answer it, we will be offered only choices we do not want.
The answer, I have come to see, must engage with the state. I also lean towards the libertarian left and am screamingly suspicious of the state, of what it is capable of, of its history as a weapon. I’m not suggesting the answer is to simply take over the state in the old-fashioned way. Nor does a return to social democracy seem likely or even possible in de-industrialised countries with weak unions.
But the truth is, capitalism, that vast state-led enterprise, didn’t much mind our Many Yeses. The small scale alternatives never bothered it. Even the Zapatistas didn’t bother capitalism too much. We need large scale solutions for a large scale society, which means we need a lot of people to get behind the same ideas, and it means using some of the tools of the state. I am not suggesting we throw our weight behind one party – not Labour under Corbyn, nor any other party – to get to a more united ‘Yes’. But we must start proposing alternatives that make sense at scale, and that don’t look like a re-heated social democracy that the British public, also suspicious of the state, would view as a return to paternalism.
In the absence of concrete alternatives from the left, people without much employment or hope have been drawn to the practical proposals of the right. We’ll cut immigration, it stands to reason that will create more jobs for you. Let’s get rid of that pesky Working Time Directive that stifles entrepreneurs too. Let’s be honest and just admit nobody wants to pay for maternity leave. These are bad solutions, but they are practical proposals that it is possible to imagine being implemented. And more than imagine, it turns out.
Fortunately the left has a long history of developing practical ideas that are a true alternative to corporate globalisation, that move beyond both market and state, ideas that, against the propaganda of the right, aim to increase our liberties. Co-operatives and Community Land Trusts are seeing an upswing in interest, and the internet has reignited debate about commons-based organising. Participatory budgeting seems to have fallen out of fashion but may yet re-appear, particularly if people want to see more co-production of public services. Many are discussing a left-inflected version of Basic Income that could go some way towards de-marketising labour. A new campaign for a 4-day week began recently, addressing both under-employment and the love of leisure time. Scotland has revived for us the notion of localising democracy. Positive Money has brought to the fore the unfair and controlling nature of our money creation systems. Rent control is back in circulation as an idea, and unlike Brexit could actually make the poorer end of society richer.
What we lack so far is a vision to bring all these ideas together into some package that seems realistic – or could do so with a little persuasion – to, say, your uncle or brother who works in marketing and is exposed to only a narrow range of political views. What we lack is answers to the practical questions such as: how do we deliver food to 60 million people if Tesco is not the way? What is to be done with Tesco? This also is the same question as ‘What is to be done about Brexit?’ What is the plan for a better future?
Turn Tesco into a series of co-operatives owned by both workers and customers, chopped up along the vertical supply chains and geographically to create many smaller, more democratically manageable units. Reduce the working week to four days, offering the fifth day as time in which people could choose to engage with revived local democratic bodies and the economic democracies they are part of. Create citizens juries to place limits on key markets such as land and food, shaping systems for public goods rather than profit machines. Set minimum and maximum wages, and make money creation transparent and overseen by democratic bodies. Supply food and energy as locally as practical, and with democratic oversight.
Radical? Yes. Inconceivable? No. Does it amount to the end of capitalism? Perhaps not, but it could be a light at the end of the tunnel. I would not expect people to jump on board immediately with that particular list of proposals. A lot of collective work needs to be done on such ideas. But it is rare to see any proposals that look like this at all. Note a key feature of the ideas: they rely neither on strengthening of the state nor on ignoring the state. Brexit reminds us that the state can’t be ignored, and the Tories remind us the state shouldn’t be strengthened. Let’s start working on solutions that engage with the state without falling in love with it. Let’s start offering practical large-scale alternatives to corporate globalisation to our friends, colleagues, relatives. Many people are clearly massively out of love with the status quo. But without an alternative to offer, we will be in the hands of the right, not just for Brexit, but forever.