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Two Cheers for Build it in Britain

by Graham Harrison on July 31, 2018
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This week, Jeremy Corbyn delivered a keynote speech to showcase Labour’s emerging electoral manifesto on industrial policy. Titled Build it in Britain, it sets out an industrial strategy based on three key policy directives: large-scale public investment in infrastructure, a revived and fit-for-purpose education and training programme, and a redirecting of subsidies towards job-creating and green manufacture. Taken together, the scenario offered by Corbyn is of a revived manufacturing sector that exports successfully, is embedded  within local supply chains, and is socially-uplifting by virtue of its employment and skill-enhancing effects.

Corbyn’s speech, read as a signalling of what a prospective government might do, is a potentially significant broadening of the politics of the possible. And goodness knows we need new thinking on the economy. We live in a situation in which working poverty is a widespread condition, in which precarious work is common, in which chronic debt and insecurity are pervasive, in which wages for all but those who hold portfolios of assets are stagnating. It is now clearly meaningless to celebrate IMF-endorsed projections of moderate GNP growth. The statistic has become largely irrelevant to a neoliberal Britain in which mass penury remains a structural feature of the political economy. Nor are slightly positive changes in unemployment statistics clinchers for economic performance when the nature of work has become so degrading, poorly-paid, and ‘flexible’. We need to re-think the values and politics around which economic discourse is oriented, and in this sense Corbyn’s speech is encouraging.

The great national developmental project and the absence of socialism

Reading Build it in Britain as someone who is familiar with the development strategies throughout the Developing World, I found myself getting quite a strong sense of déjà vu. For example, last year, the Government of Rwanda launched Made in Rwanda, a Ministry of Trade and Industry strategy to use government purchasing, external trading restrictions,  and partnerships between Rwandan and international firms to promote the domestic manufacturing base.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, Britain and Rwanda are very different indeed. But, the Rwandan government, like Labour is very concerned about its trade imbalance and wishes to promote local production for local consumption in order to deal with a large surplus of imported manufactured goods. Made in Rwanda is a strategy to promote a national manufacturing base to replace cheap imports. Not so much déjà vu as déjà voyant.

So, perhaps Labour is conforming to a broader global trend, of an active state supporting national industrial bases, something that some commentators have already argued. But, no one would describe Rwanda’s government as left-wing. Indeed, Rwanda has been a fascinating country to development economists and others because of its rather flexible recombination of economic liberalism with an equally robust economic nationalism. This does raise a crucial issue for Labour under Corbyn. The text of Build it in Britain does focus mainly on government support for capital. Yes, this support is conditioned on the latter’s performance in generating jobs, export success, and regional regeneration. But, that is pretty much what the South Korean military government did throughout the seventies.

South Korea industrialised through government control of credit, large-scale investments in education and training, and the allocation of resources and rights to accumulate to large companies that increased production, exported, and generated large, stable, and disciplined workforces.

The examples of Rwanda and South Korea could be accompanied by others pretty much from any part of the Developing World and indeed anywhere else, depending on the decade and the broader contingencies of regimes and party change. Specific practices vary – tariffs, subsidies, credit, infrastructure, investments in research and development, public purchases and contracts with private companies and many more – but the underlying political imperative is there: the deployment of the state to promote accelerated industrialisation. All of these strategies are varied in their success and heavily contextual. But, Corbyn’s Build it in Britain looks like an instantiation of this general tendency.

This means that the socialist possibilities of the strategy are unproven or open-ended. There are some references to the many and the few and ‘the people’ in the text, but these are clearly less emphasised than arguments about the potential of a well-supported business sector; indeed the interests, value, and agency of the working class receives less space than the criticisms of the Conservative Party.

Two cheers for the nation

What is more discernible in terms of ideology is not so much socialism as nationalism. Build it in Britain is at its core rebuilding Britain. The spatial schisms between North and South, the dominance of The City, and the footloose predations of foreign capital have collectively shattered the British nation. Build it in Britain can be seen as a case for a reimagined community of worker-citizens, all happily under the spirit level of an equitable reindustrialisation – safe from the price gouging effects of a neoliberal world.

One critique of Corbyn’s speech is, then, that it reproduces the notion of competition between workers in different national spaces. Corbyn was not attacking immigrant labour but non-immigrant labour, domiciled largely in the western seaboard of China. Not coming over here, taking our manufacturing base with their exports. But, how convincing is this intellectual argument? The logic is in one sense pretty solid: capital benefits when workforces compete amongst themselves for jobs or better conditions of work because it levels down in favour of transnational companies. But, politically, this argument does not get us very far. There is no possibility of a global labour movement any time soon. Institutionally and politically, labour forces are still substantially nationally organised. As a result, it is not at all clear what the corollary of a critique of nationalistic approaches to labour is.

Secondly, it remains the case that national sovereignty provides a relatively amenable way to generate actions by governments that are oriented towards the interests of the working class (broadly defined) and accountable to those constituencies. One of the most obvious failings of those liberal-globalisation and cosmopolitan flourishes in the post-Soviet world was to speculate about a connection between the emergence of higher levels of international political power and a revived democratic life. National political communities – housed within nation-states and embedded in electoral procedures of accountability that are connected to publically-declared policy ambitions – remain the shell within which democratic practices are enacted. This is not to celebrate the kind of politics we have in reality. It is to say that there is a set of core properties in this currently rather denuded and embattled system that remain the most proximate way to speak about a democratic politics of workers’ interests.

In this sense, Corbyn is right to make a nationalist case. Of course, for Corbyn, this is not a nationalism based in cultural/racial essentialism or some kind of romantic desire for a mythical pre-lapsarian time of Ye Olde Englande. It is, in fact, a simple expression of something Corbyn has always held close to his heart and which makes him to my mind not a raging radical but rather a traditional politician who genuinely believes in the democratic history of parliament as a Commons. I would imagine Corbyn’s Islington bookshelf to host well-thumbed copies of E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill rather than Giddens and Stiglitz.

But, if we can warm to a redistributive and productionist nationalism that reorients a focus onto the clearly-ignored and casually derided mass poor, we also need to ask some closely-related questions. One (as motioned earlier but it bears repeating) is how little the poor, indebted, and overworked figure in themselves rather than as a means to boost productivity through re-skilled work. Surely this is an issue for a party called, well, Labour.

Secondly, there is an odd stress on the manufacture of war machines. I noticed this when researching the current Shadow Secretary for International Development who tweeted in May about saving shipbuilding jobs by lobbing the Ministry of Defence to allocate its contracts to British shipyards. The hashtag was, presciently, ‘Build them in Britain’. Bearing in mind the long-standing antipathy between left-of-centre approaches to international development and military exports, this seemed rather worrying. Now what David Edgerton calls the warfare/welfare state is part of a more central aspect of the Labour manifesto.

Finally, of course, there is Brexit. What can Corbyn say about that? The radically unpredictable denouement of Brexit plays havoc with any project to revitalise a national- popular politics. Corbyn leads a largely Remain party but is personally resigned to leaving. Build it in Britain sutures Labour’s own Euro-crisis by asserting a desire to be part of a European free trade agreement to secure the continued success of exporting businesses. This soft Brexit route might have considerable impacts on the bandwidth of the British government’s economic policy and inasmuch as this is the case, the possibilities for a revitalised popular democracy might be stymied by the conditionalities of a non- participatory peripheral neoliberal regionalism.

It’s the socialism, stupid!

What is missing from Corbyn’s text was a distinct, innovative, and exciting socialist politics. This is especially striking when one thinks of how Corbyn’s team have boldly reclaimed socialism as a publically-speakable ideology. Both Corbyn and McDonnell have consulted seriously with a range of left-inclined intellectuals. If Labour is to move beyond the seductions of a top-down industrial plan, it will have to speak a great deal more about what makes it different from South Korea or Rwanda. British parliamentary socialism has fallen under the wheels of a national-developmentalist project before. It is important to insist that it does not do so again.

This post first appeared on Politics: Real & Radical

Graham Harrison
Graham Harrison is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. His core research interest is the political economy of capitalist development in Africa.

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