It took about six months, but last week I finally got to a Momentum meeting.
Momentum’s a left-wing campaign group – the boisterous, PLP-spooking successor to the grassroots uprising that made Jeremy Corbyn Labour leader, and about the most promising vehicle for non-sectarian radical politics currently out there.
It’s far from perfect. Already, there are things I don’t like about it. I think (even as a Corbyn supporter) there’s a danger it could become a bit too pro-Corbyn – fawningly pro-Corbyn, to the extent that it risks degenerating into some sort of Church of St Jeremy personality cult.
And I hate that it’s followed Corbyn and the unions into the politics-as-usual obsession with economic growth (a subject I’ve written about extensively elsewhere). Western economies are grotesquely oversized. Providing the consumption-crazed Western lifestyle to the West has ravaged the ecosystem to the point of near-collapse – and we’d need four planets to provide that lifestyle to everyone alive.
We urgently need degrowth – not just carbon output but the major economies themselves to shrink, in a planned, staged drive towards in-built equality and sustainability. Without a radical shift away from growth economics, I think the collapse of civilisation, bringing with it the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, is all but inevitable in the next few hundred years.
That small diversion aside, I think we’re at too important a juncture in British political history for me to sit this one out, and it’s been my intention from the start to get as involved in Momentum as I can.
There’s been a Bristol branch for a while – but an annoying maelstrom of work, public transport fuck-ups, the flu, and general incompetence mean it’s taken ‘til now for me to actually make the jaunt up to Temple Meads. Thankfully, I chose a very good first meeting to go to.
Marxist historian Neil Faulkner was in town to talk about radical economics and the Corbyn phenomenon. I’d never heard of him before, and the ‘Marxist historian’ tag left me expecting a tedious Old Left indoctrination session, full of inscrutable jargon and bad old economic determinism – but, as it happened, I needn’t have worried.
By the time I turned up at Tony Benn House on Victoria Street – Unite’s Bristol HQ, loaned out for the occasion – there were already fifty or so people sat in a great big very un-Old Left circle. There was mercifully little faffing about, unlike a lot of these sorts of meetings – and after a quick introduction, Neil was off.
He opened, brassily for a man completely encircled by hardcore Corbynistas, with an implicit criticism of Jez and co. Labour has no alternative economic strategy, he said. It should be talking about democratising the economy – taking over the banks, nationalising money creation. Instead, he implied Corbyn was conceding too much to ‘the corporate geeks’ who’ve monopolised parliamentary Labour for a generation – that Corbyn’s victory has provided us with an opening to take it back from them, and we need to use it.
Neil then launched into a brisk critical history of capitalism. Look at how the system’s changed over the past few hundred years, he said. The size of the average corporation has grown massively. Once, the economy was dominated by local, often family-owned businesses employing less than a hundred people. In 2014, Wal-Mart, then the world’s biggest corporation, was worth half a trillion dollars and boasted bigger economic output than Greece. If it was a country, it would’ve been the 25th richest, ahead of 157 others.
The biggest corporations have now burst out of the national framework. They dictate to governments. And they’ve become adept at controlling the market, rigging the whole economy in their favour at the expense of everyone and everything else.
Contrary to all the market-fundamentalist propaganda we’ve been bombarded with for decades, these aren’t customer-focused entities, locked in furious competition to bring us the best prices and best quality products and services. At the very top of the capitalist economy, there’s remarkable little competition at all. A few giant firms dominate each market – a few banks control the financial system, a few big manufacturers control the automotive industry, a few energy companies control the energy market, and so on.
And that’s the way big capitalism likes it. Competition means risk – capitalists losing money, possibly even going bankrupt, if the corporate horse they’ve bet on gets pasted by the competition. Above all else, they want stability. And so big corporations co-operate, rather than compete, allowing them all to collectively focus on leeching ever-bigger profits out of the general population.
As corporations have grown and governments have weakened, Neil explained, exploitation has skyrocketed, and real wages, job security and unionisation have substantially fallen.
Exploitation doesn’t just mean wage-labour any more. We’re exploited as consumers – effectively brainwashed into buying things we don’t need, at ever-steepening prices. And we’re exploited through debt.
There’s been a big problem with capitalism since the beginning. Capitalism needs profit, more of it, all the time – that’s why you can never have growthless capitalism. To try and achieve that, the system pays people as little as possible for the work they do, so as much money as possible can be hoovered up to the top. But the system also needs people to buy the goods and services it produces.
That’s where debt comes in. Nowadays, it’s fundamental to how the economic system works. People borrow money to buy the things they need – or that the system’s brainwashed them into thinking they need – because otherwise they couldn’t afford them. Debt, particularly mortgage debt in a society irrationally obsessed with home ownership (Neil didn’t say that, that’s my prejudice seeping in), sees wealth hoovered up to the very top of society.
Skyrocketing debt has coincided with the meteoric rise of finance. At the beginning of the industrial era, there was colossal growth – whole industries, roads, railways factories, towns and cities had to be built from scratch. But by the 1970s, it had become increasingly difficult for capitalism to milk huge profit and growth from the old-style industrial economy. And that’s largely where neoliberalism and the grand shift from the industrial to the financial economy came in.
At its most basic, finance is just making money out of money. What’s often given the more respectable-sounding label of speculation is really just economic gambling. Will the price of thing X – food, raw materials, property, invisible ‘financial assets’ – go up or down? You buy some when you think it’s going to go up, and sell it when you think it’s about to go down. All in all, it’s utterly socially useless – and particularly if thing X is the maize, the corn or the rice that keeps millions of people on the brink of starvation alive, often catastrophically immoral.
That’s the fundamental principle – but the neoliberal era has seen finance become staggeringly, mind-frazzlingly complex, and completely insane. On the eve of the 2008 crash, Neil explained, the total value of the trade in financial assets was $500trn. That’s ten times the value of every good and service produced in the real, non-financial economy in the world that year.
It’s just another mechanism that sucks wealth out of the pockets of the general population – wealth that could be used for useful, desperately needed things like housing, jobs, green infrastructure, the sort of radical socioeconomic overhaul we need to survive the next century or so etc – and into the hands of the richest. That’s how you end up with 63 people, or the occupants of a single double-decker bus, as Neil memorably put it, having more wealth than half the human population combined. Austerity is just the acceleration of that process – even more upwards wealth redistribution, restructuring society even more radically in favour of a ‘parasitic class with no social function’.
Momentum might have jumped on the growth-is-good bandwagon, but Neil thankfully hasn’t. He ended by basically calling for a growth-free socialist economy, and an unapologetically radical Labour Party to help us get there. The corporate-dominated status quo is wreaking environmental devastation, he said – and ‘uncontrolled, unplanned growth’ is ‘hardwired’ in the capitalist economy. Labour, and the sort of radical mass movement Momentum needs to become, should be demanding public ownership of the banking system and the democratisation of the economy.
Then he went and sat down, and, in participatory, everyone-welcome New Politics fashion, the meeting split up into little groups to discuss the issues he’d raised. I had quite an interesting chat about market fundamentalism and how elite-serving jargon bamboozles people into thinking economics is much more complicated and counter-intuitive than it is – whereas in actual fact, we need more houses and jobs, and the solution is for the public sector to build more houses and create more jobs. And then, anyone who wanted to come back and ask Neil anything was given the chance to do so.
Unsurprisingly for a room of informed, articulate Corbynistas, there were lots of very interesting questions, and nowhere near enough time for Neil to answer them all. Notably, he endorsed staying in the EU, despite it having ‘financialisation, austerity, and privatisation’ hardwired into it – arguing that the referendum’s not really about practical politics, but a sort of vague internationalism versus Little England soft racism. He said that Labour had ‘massive problems’ – and that at a time when the Labour Right’s favoured term for party democracy is ‘deselection’, there was still a very real chance the party could tear itself apart. And, in his final remarks before everyone went home, argued that Momentum, and meetings like this one, just represent the very beginnings of an attempt to rebuild a viable political Left.
I think he’s probably right, and to help that effort along, I’m going to try and get a lot more involved in Momentum in the months ahead. Having seen it in action, it’s clearly not some shallow Jeremy Fan Club – and Neil’s anti-growthism and similar-minded comments from others there show there’s a lot more ideological diversity at work than statements from the group ‘leadership’ suggest.
It’s already got its critics on the Left as well as the Right – on the way out, I was handed a Socialist Party leaflet attacking it for pandering to the Blairites, and I think there’s an element of truth in that. But if you’re set on waiting round for the spontaneous eruption of grassroots enthusiasm that exactly matches your views in every way, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Meanwhile, people are suffering.
Annoyingly, I already know of a work commitment away that means I can’t make the next general meeting this coming Thursday (6.30, Tony Benn House, Victoria Street), but I’ll be doing my utmost to get to others further down the line.