Socialism beyond Corbyn: An Interview with Grace Blakeley

Alex Manzoor 3 July 2020

The defeat of the Corbyn-led Labour Party in the recent General Election, and his replacement by the more centrist Keir Starmer, has been viewed by some as the death of the left-wing of the Party for a generation. However, from 2015-19, a series of new ideas, polices and activists emerged onto the public scene. One such individual is the economist Grace Blakely. Blakely is currently a staff writer for the socialist magazine Tribune, where George Orwell once worked as Literary Editor, and late last year published her first book Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation. The book is a sweeping, but highly readable, critique of modern capitalism and an economic manifesto for the future.

Blakely is, not surprisingly sceptical about the ability of the Conservative government to deal with the upcoming economic crisis. Although she accepts that Sunak’s budget—with its more relaxed approach to state spending—signalled ‘a break with Osbornism’, she views the fiscal boost as being well short of the amount required ‘to offset the impact of the coming recession’. She dismisses the idea that the new Conservative government is really interested in a profound change from the past. Instead she believes that most of their actions will be ‘targeted at big businesses and the Conservative electoral constituency, predominantly older homeowners’. Regardless of her scepticism, the fact that Sunak’s budget was so widely praised makes it unlikely that the Conservatives will attempt to return to an economic approach that looks like the austerity of the Coalition years.

Blakeley’s criticisms are not confined to the Conservative Party. As someone on the socialist wing of Labour, and a supporter of Rebecca Long-Bailey during the leadership election, she is sceptical about the ability of Keir Starmer to meet the challenges that economic difficulties will force the Leader of the Opposition to confront. She reflects the dismay of many on the Left at the fact that Starmer, and his Shadow Secretary of State for Housing Thangam Debbonaire, refused to freeze rents during the coronavirus. Blakely believes that Starmer’s ‘don’t rock the boat’ style ‘is obviously not a trait you want in the midst of a national crisis when the governing party is blatantly failing in its responsibility to protect citizens’. This assessment is somewhat belied by the fact that Keir Starmer’s poll numbers have been continually increasing since he became leader and has even overtaken the Prime Minister in terms of his popularity with the public. However, whether this is due to his oft cited “forensic” approach or merely not interrupting the government whilst it is at its most self-destructive is still an open question.

Despite the resignation of Corbyn, Blakely clearly sees an opportunity for socialism in the present day arguing that ‘the ideological power of neoliberalism has been waning for some time’. However, a problem for all those who share her perspective is that neoliberal politics seem to be making way for the ‘economic nationalism’ that Trump periodically trumpets or Orban uses with great effectiveness in Hungary. Blakeley does not believe that the practice of economic nationalism has led to an abandonment of neoliberalism, rather she suggests that various right-wing parties around the world are simply ‘attempting to present themselves in different ways’. Regardless of the extent to which these governments truly subscribe to such ideas, there can be no doubt—as Blakeley accepts—that ‘they are often very adept at winning elections’. The current electoral success of such parties around the world implies that this way of governing might have some significant staying power.

‘The growing support for new socialist thinkers and politicians is a reflection of the profound crisis of global capitalism that has been evident since 2008’.

Blakely is one of many new socialist commentators in recent years, especially across the Atlantic. Able to support viable Left candidates from Sanders to Corbyn and supported by newly popular media outlets like Jacobin and Tribune, a staunchly left wing set of critiques and policy proposals are now more widely disseminated. These figures have been able to navigate both the “New Media” world of online podcasts and YouTube shows and the “Old Media” outlets like the radio and television studios. The cause for this new popularity is economic: ‘Wages have stagnated, private debt has ballooned, productivity has been woeful… people’s lives are not getting better’. Throughout Stolen, Blakeley effectively combines difficult economic analysis with powerful human stories in a way that makes the book far more appealing to general readers.

‘Wages have stagnated, private debt has ballooned, productivity has been woeful… people’s lives are not getting better’.

The core of the book is an analysis of financialisaton, the process whereby the private financial sector becomes dominant within the economy. She describes the way in which the financial sector has become more and more powerful within the state and for individuals and corporations. When it comes to the corporation, she argues that they have ‘become highly financialised’ which has meant that ‘ownership of firms is now more separated from corporate control, meaning that shareholders delegate the task of running the company to managers’. This has skewed the motivations of firms to focus more on benefiting shareholders than improving the effectiveness or even profitability of the company itself. Due to this, managers have ‘set about using corporate earnings to buy back shares, merge with or acquire other corporations, or increase dividends payments – all of which tend to benefit shareholders’. The problems with firms using their excess capital to perform stock buy backs was illustrated clearly when the Coronavirus hit and many companies did not have the reserve capital to tide them over, leading to some firms even asking for state bailouts. It also means that excess capital is not going towards benefiting the economy, for instance by employing new workers or even increasing wages.

Certain corporations and their leaders, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, have been able to accumulate the kind of wealth and political power not even known during the so-called “Gilded Age”. Bezos is set to become a trillionaire, whilst many of his workers complain of gruelling and dehumanising conditions, which recently include not being provided with PPE even as employees contracted the Coronavirus. Blakeley points out that ‘as wealth inequality has risen, an ever-smaller number of people have gained ever greater amounts of economic power’. One of the most powerful passages in the book is the description of how courier Jerome Rogers was driven to commit suicide due to the aggressive actions of private debt providers and collectors.

Although many people on the centre-left argue that the solution to the economic problems we face is to return to the social democracy before Thatcher and Regan, Blakeley is adamantly opposed to such thinking. Although ‘wages increased, growth rose and public services and social security were greatly extended’ in these years, the economic benefits of this period relied upon ‘the massive increase in growth resulting from reconstruction after the war’ and ‘direct colonisation, or neo-colonialism, in the global South’. The latter point is especially relevant to Blakeley who has a Masters in African Studies from Oxford. Whilst social democracy dominated in Europe, African leaders like Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso sought to provide economic independence from what he saw as the predatory policies of the IMF.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book appears later and consists of outlining policy proposals that could help improve the economy for the majority of the populace. However, she is not the only one who has noticed that the system is in need of change. Blakeley is largely dismissive of the attempts of corporations to rebrand themselves as practicing “inclusive” or “stakeholder” capitalism. She suggests that ‘such initiatives tend to come to nothing’ and that the companies lack the incentive to follow such an approach in the long term because the fundamental rule of capitalism is: ‘the law of the jungle – compete or die’.

Corporations are not the only people proposing models other than socialism for the future, including the celebrated economist Thomas Piketty. In Stolen, Blakeley criticises Piketty for what she describes as ‘solutionism’, which is the narrow focus on policy alone to the exclusion of politics. Although she accepts that Piketty is ‘a brilliant economist’, she also argues that he ‘doesn’t pay enough attention to power’. For instance, his ‘wealth tax bears the obvious criticism that those who currently control the global economy have no incentive to implement it’. Blakeley’s chapter of policy solutions by contrast adopts a more holistic approach that connects the different policy ideas to one another and outlines, in practice, how they could be effectively implemented bearing in mind the political reality. It many ways her book is a work of political economy, in the vein of Marx. Blakely is adamant however to distinguish her philosophy of ‘democratic socialism’ from the kind of authoritarian state socialist model of the Soviet Union or the autocratic state capitalism of contemporary China. She argues that what makes democratic socialism different is the desire to ‘democratise the economy and the state’. Although the Labour Party’s desire to have a second referendum on Brexit suggests they did not share her approach when it came to the state, Blakeley was one of those on the left of the Labour Party who argued that a left wing Brexit was possible and that Brexit itself was not necessarily a negative.

She argues that what makes democratic socialism different is the desire to ‘democratise the economy and the state’.

‘Gramsci famously said that in the interregnum between the death of the old model and the birth of the new, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Trump, Boris, Bolsanaro, Orban and so many other right-wing men currently dominating our politics are precisely those morbid symptoms’. Blakely argues that a broad coalition of workers can be mobilised into a movement to challenge this politics. This may be unlikely to happen in the next few years, but the experience of 2016 shows that certainties can collapse with remarkable speed.

Whilst the tides look to be against the Left at the moment, the revival of socialism across the Atlantic—coupled with economic stagnation—means that their ideas cannot be ignored by anyone interested in the future of politics.