That Theresa May should feel it necessary to use a speech at the Bank of England today to ‘defend capitalism’ is remarkable in the context of the history of the past 30-odd years. It shows how dramatically the political climate in Britain has changed more recently.
In one way it may be thought surprising that it has come so late. The financial crisis of 2007-8 ought, it seemed to many of us, to have turned people against capitalism right then. (Shortly after it, my son bought me a wonderful t-shirt, with a picture of Karl Marx, saying ‘I told you so’.) Instead, of course, it simply turned the capitalist screws even tighter, with ordinary people being made to pay for the banker-induced catastrophe, while the bankers themselves returned to their ill-gotten remuneration – and still dodging their taxes – within a few months. On a more popular front, many people reacted not leftwards, but by turning to the anti-immigrant and sometimes even proto-fascist Right. It’s the impact of all that, together with stories of nurses needing to use foodbanks, rising homelessness, well-publicised corruption in some large businesses, and the Grenfell Tower fire – widely interpreted as the outcome of a market-driven system – that seems to have finally driven the anti-capitalist message home. Plus, of course, the startling rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and his major re-casting of the Labour project, returning it to its socialist roots, which were celebrated so enthusiastically and joyfully in this week’s Labour Party conference in Brighton, ending with an inspirational ‘Leader’s speech’ yesterday afternoon. And, last of these causal factors, there is the egregious mess Theresa May and the Conservative government are currently making of everything. That must be a sign of a certain lack of confidence on the traditional pro-capitalist Right.
All of which would appear to bear out Corbyn’s bold claim in his Brighton speech that the ‘centre ground’ of British politics has now shifted to the Left. This would not be a new phenomenon. Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries we can see similar seismic shifts in public opinion and the terms of the contemporary political debates. In the 1900s they were turned Leftwards: just look at the newspapers and journals of the time, where ‘socialism’ was debated far more rationally, intelligently and sympathetically than today. That continued during the interwar period and after, where it transmuted into a widespread acceptance, even by the Tory Party, of social democracy and the welfare state. That was the ‘centre ground’ then; until Thatcher came along, determined to erase this, and re-situate the ‘centre’ where she thought (mistakenly) it had stood in Victorian times: unrestrained capitalism overriding all. Remember ‘TINA” – ‘there is no alternative’? We believed it for a while, even some of us on the Left, cowed by the seeming inexorability of the impersonal, material forces that were driving international capitalism, and which lay behind Thatcher, Reagan and then later Blair. (I’m reluctant to give them any personal credit, even for evil. But that’s the Marxist in me.)
The government’s response to the financial crisis – banks unreformed, more privatisation, austerity for the poor innocent proles – seemed to indicate that Thatcher’s capitalist ‘TINA’ could weather all that. And that the juggernaut would lumber on, undiverted, until, probably, finally collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions; just as Marx had predicted, but without the proletarian revolution he had hoped for, and so too late to save the world. (Because climate change is a result of capitalism, too.)
However, if Corbyn is right about the centre’s shifting – and May’s desperation to defend the old capitalist centre may be a symptom of this – we may be in for a pleasant surprise. It will be interesting to read her speech. (As I write, it has still not been delivered.) I imagine it won’t go the whole Thatcherite hog, but will accept the need for pragmatism when it comes to ‘privatisation’, for example; and some restraints on market forces. We’ll see.
Which is, let us be clear, no more than Corbyn is proposing. No-one on the British Left, so far as I’m aware, wants to put everything in the hands of the State. We all recognise the innovative and dynamic role of ‘market forces’, properly regulated. The difference between Labour and more moderate Conservatives is mainly one of degree. Which would return us to the 1950s and ’60s again; which is the ‘centre ground’ that I was brought up on.