We are all learning from the crisis of the British economy, not only about how the economy itself works but also about the links between this and the politics of our society. We certainly need to learn if we are to make an effective political response. For the hard test of political results is one which strategies of the left usually, if understandably, fail.
The Labour Left and the Communist Party have responded to the crisis by putting forward a frankly nationalistic Alternative Economic Strategy whereby a future British government would impose controls on trade, finance and investment in order to make possible an immediate Keynesian reflation in Britain and a start on the reconstruction of British industry. For its supporters the Alternative Strategy represents a departure not merely from the monetarism which has dominated government policy since the mid-1970s but also and more particularly from the social-democratic consensus of the first three postwar decades. A government which sought to carry out the Alternative Strategy would be asserting the interests of the British people against those of the City and multinational companies. To succeed it would need massive popular support and would have to overthrow the Establishment of top civil servants, managers and professionals who have become closely allied with their counterparts in international institutions and governments and companies throughout the Western Alliance.
The Alternative Strategy seeks to counterpose democratic national self-government against the anarchic pressures of a global market system. It renounces the possibilities both of democratic control at the international level and of effective resistance to market pressures at the local level. At the same time it accepts majority popular support within Britain as a pre-requisite. The targets of the Strategy are those which might win widespread assent and its instruments are those which can most readily be shown to be essential if the targets are to be achieved.
The Alternative Strategy is criticized both from the left and the right on rather similar grounds. First, it is not internationalist and therefore by implication not a valid response to a crisis which is in crucial respects a global one. Second, the Strategy would not work if its instruments were as limited as its supporters make out. It would meet international retaliation, internal political opposition and non-cooperation from companies on such a scale as to render it impossible to carry through. Critics on the left and right therefore largely agree that
The Alternative Strategy, implanted in a capitalist body, must either destroy capitalism or fail. This criticism is a fundamental one. If it is right, the Labour Left and the Communist Party are up a blind alley. If it is wrong, the Strategy could represent a major step in the historical evolution of our society. The mere fact that the Strategy is national in its scope is not sufficient to condemn it out of hand. Indeed, if successful, it would provide a progressive model for other countries with similar social and political institutions.
The recent paperback by Glynn and Harrisonfootnote2 articulates criticisms which derive from a traditional Marxist view of the nature of capitalism itself. They disagree with the Labour Left as much in their perception of the nature of Western society and the causes of its crisis as in the political programme which they believe the left should now follow.
There is nowadays a certain coalescence of Marxist and right-wing thought which insists on describing modern capitalism in the West as if it was essentially the competitive, market-dominated system which it used to be in the 19th century. On this model trade unions, parliamentary government and the welfare state are disposable adjuncts to the main frame. Wages, employment, profits and prices are essentially determined by laws of competition. A reserve army of labour is the essential guarantee of profits, profits are the essential mechanism of accumulation, capital is the essential source of productive power.