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‘Socialism with an iPad’: Is John McDonnell a Corbo-Futurist?

On Friday, as George Osborne’s total failure to meet his own deficit reduction targets was made embarrassingly clear, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, laid out his vision of an economy of the future in a speech at Imperial College London. So, what did he say?

Fighting over the future: a postcapitalist chancellor?

Writing in the Guardian, McDonnell said: “The chancellor is stuck in the past. It’s time to look to the future: socialism with an iPad.”

This looks like McDonnell’s first steps towards a counterattack on Osbornomics on the terrain of the future. If Labour wants to win this conflict, then it has to be seen to make austerity – and by extension neoliberalism – look like regressive idiocy, and bring a socialist vision of the future back into mainstream UK politics. This is the task of Corbo-Futurism in opposition.

McDonnell seems to have listened to Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s request to have a read of their new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. In fact, probably the most striking thing about the speech is the fairly direct correlation between ideas being developed on a certain part of the intellectual left and the ideas being now popularised by the Labour party.

There is a real promise here for the development of Corbo-Futurism as something more than a amusing tagline. Whereas there were initial worries, like those raised on NovaraWire by Jeremy Gilbert, that Corbyn’s economic programme looked like social democracy 2.0, it now seems that a developing Corbo-Futurism could be genuinely responsive to current conditions and debates. Could ‘socialism with an iPad’ pave the way for fully automated luxury communism?

An analysis of the structural crisis of neoliberalism.

A popular analysis of neoliberalism was prominent in McDonnell’s speech. He laid out the familiar narrative of global deregulation, changes to monetary policy, privatisation, etc. – and then went a step further:

“It is time to change the rules of the game. Neoliberalism – the current rulebook – has outlived its time. The old rules are failing the majority. And they will not cope with the changes that are ahead of us.”

McDonnell went further than just asserting that neoliberalism is old school: he also gestured towards the idea that neoliberalism is in terminal crisis. Even Citibank reckons a global recession starting in the Global South seems likely to be the next development in neoliberalism’s slow demise. McDonnell’s strategy seems to be to leverage that recession, if it materialises, by pointing out that Osborne has “[left] the economy vulnerable to future economic shocks.”

In this context, one question we might ask of Corbo-Futurism is about the understanding of crisis in this economic framing. Are ongoing economic developments a crisis of the regime of accumulation: neoliberalism? Or are they elements of a structural crisis of the entire world-system? The relation of this newly socialist Labour party to a crisis of the dominant mode of production will need to be clarified before the next stage of the crisis hits if Corbo-Futurism really wants to make the most of the opportunities available.

The state of the future?

“The current government is blocking the path to our future. […] Osborne may be trying to close the fiscal deficit. But by failing to invest, he is opening up a massive deficit with the future.”

In Evan Davis’s embarrassing Newsnight clusterfuck McDonnell extended this point by using the few uninterrupted sentences of explanation he got to highlight the reliance of early Silicon Valley entrepreneurs on state support. Clearly, the vision of a state which emerges here is one which is actively engaged in furthering technological and economic development in a form that reflects a different balance of class forces.

The challenge of class composition.

As relationships within the economy change, so too do the relations that make up the working class produce new subjects with new antagonisms. This gives rise to the persistent political task of developing analysis and strategy that responds to these specifics – and it’s a task Corbo-Futurism cannot avoid.

The obsession dominant media and social actors have with labelling Corbynite Labour as a 1980s throwback is, in part, a burning desire to deny the relevance of left wing politics to new class forms and new shapes of society. But there is no danger of McDonnell failing to understand that a Labour party and a labour movement in a postindustrial economy has to take on different forms and press different demands. He referenced Uber, call centre workers on zero-hours contracts, and the growth of informal employment – and cited the necessity of new forms of response and settlement: “a new contract for a new workforce.”

The threat/promise of automation.

McDonnell recognises the contradictory potential of automation to either immiserate or liberate a workforce, depending on the social relationships that determine the process. The potential of post-work social relations is precisely what has provoked some of the most successfully utopian strains of postcapitalist thought – but rather than engaging with these directly, McDonnell played it safe by referring back to the famous Keynes passage on the 15-hour working week. The dominant imaginary of his automated future is Keynesian, rather than what Yanis Varoufakis might call ‘Star Trek’.

Workplace democracy and the spectre of Cybersyn.

McDonnell’s proposed mechanism for changing the productive relationships that determine automation seems to be an increase in workplace democracy, in a way that will inevitably start parts of the left thinking about Project Cybersyn – the futuristic economic support system piloted in Salvador Allende’s socialist Chile in the 1970s.

Despite not sounding that revolutionary, this proposal amounts to the direct inversion of every UK government’s policy since the 1980s. Against the class war from above of neoliberalism, any reassertion of the strength of collectively organised labour takes on real significance. The fact that this change will not just take the form of top-down reform is also promising. The question to put to Corbo-Futurism then becomes: which workers get to engage in democracy, and how? Would this democracy be determined by union bureaucracies, or the organised class power of the rank and file?

Ending an investment strike.

If the collision course of forcing capital to accommodate organised labour wasn’t enough, McDonnell also set his sights on the bank accounts of monopolistic multinationals. He aims to end an investment strike which is starving the UK economy of productive investment by taxing the retention of capital and – if that doesn’t prove enough – threatening to legislate to force the hands of corporations.

McDonnell also announced two key targets for public spending. Firstly, an aim to invest 3.5% of GDP on infrastructure, slightly above the OECD’s recommended minimum of 3% and more than double the Tories’ current 1.4%. Secondly, there would be a substantial increase in research and development funding, up to 3% of GDP.

This all seems in line with the ‘million green jobs’ promise made in Corbyn’s ‘Protecting our Planet’ report, produced during the Labour leadership campaign. Market mechanisms of organising investment are very unlikely to suddenly start producing environmentally and socially positive outcomes. This is where ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’ and a state investment bank comes in. As the Corbyn campaign laid out in ‘The Economy in 2020’: “A strategic state cannot leave our infrastructure to deregulated privatised markets.”

Into the Corbo-future?

In setting out their economic plans on the terrain of the future, McDonnell and Corbyn have further defined their position relative to the neoliberal hegemony. There is a basic consistency between this vision of socialism with an iPad and the leadership campaign, but with gratifyingly increased Corbo-Futurist inflection that seems to actually be tackling the challenges of a socialist programme for the 21st century. What remains to be seen is how far this vision actually appeals to Labour’s social base.

If it can connect to a popular mood, the future could look very different, very soon.

Photo: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

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Published 23rd November 2015

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