Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump. Photos: Wikimedia Commons Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Describing Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit strategy as “economic nationalism” is adopting neoliberal arguments that defend the status quo argues Kevin Ovenden

There’s plenty for the radical left to discuss, and critically, in the speech on economic and industrial policy given today by Jeremy Corbyn.

For me, the big things are that it does not go far enough. In order to deliver strategic investment and a national industrial (and agricultural) policy and planning I cannot see how you can avoid questions of ownership and control.

You can only go so far using a regulatory framework and state procurement policy – both of which are necessary and, at their most potent mean breaking both EU and WTO rules on tendering and state aid.

Neoliberal arguments

But I don’t think any of this debate is helped if parts of the left respond with a knee-jerk that sounds in some cases exactly like the neoliberal defence of the status quo.

The argument, for example, that building trains or trams in Britain, where they could be built, means inflicting unemployment on workers in other countries is, frankly, poppycock. It mistakes internationalism for capitalist economic globalisation – and economically it assumes there is a fixed number of such products that can be absorbed and manufacture must be apportioned via the market accordingly.

But the world needs more trams and trains – and fewer cars. It’s absolutely right to raise making things like that in Britain as part of a major shift to a sustainable future. Similarly renewables, cutting-edge biotechnology and much else.

If the left adopts essentially neoliberal capitalist arguments that even raising this is “economic nationalism”, then how can that same left say that we would favour a nationalised industry building mass transport infrastructure (we are in favour of rail nationalisation after all)? Is that “economic nationalism”?

The criticism is rather that if this is to be carried through, it would have to mean crowding out the private sector through democratically controlled and publicly owned industry – not just at a mini cooperative level – with investment decisions, pay and conditions taken according to public priorities, not profitability.

In other words, eating into capitalist relations. Labour should go much further over this in my view – so a national house building programme executed by nationally owned construction agencies, for example. At least that’s what some of us on the left argue.

Socialism vs Trumpism

But saying, as some are, that Corbyn is sounding like Trump’s “America First” is ridiculous.

And don’t forget that the US billionaire class is extremely happy with the corporate tax cuts Trump has brought in. They are not happy with his efforts, on a capitalist basis, to bring extended supply chains back into the borders or under the direct political control of the US – all according to an imperialist policy.

They are not happy either with his open attack on the “political independence” of the US Federal Reserve. But that does not mean that the left should follow the Democrats, and the dogma of 30 years, and champion the central bank being freed from direct political control.

We want the central bank and finance system brought under public control. That is not economic nationalism. It is socialist planning.

Essentially what Labour is proposing is a limited mixed economy with utilities and rail nationalised, investment collaboration between the state and industry (the National Investment Bank), and procurement policy used to boost domestic production and manufacture.

The argument is not that this is “Trumpist”, it is that it is likely to run into the same problems as the mixed economy of the 1960s and 1970s does. There is a productive discussion to be had with the Labour economics team about that, acknowledging that they have actually thought about it!

And in the face of calls from all sorts of quarters in the 1970s for capitalist protectionism, the left’s response was *not* to preach the virtues of the internationalisation of capital, “free trade” and what became known as globalisation. That was the position of the Thatcherite Tory party and the New Right.

The Labour policy is about trying to exit to some extent the resulting neoliberal organisation of the system and the machine it has produced for creating inequality and crisis.

The anti-capitalist left should engage in going further. It should not give the impression that the choice on offer is either the failed status quo or capitalist protectionism.

And it should have the firmest ideological line against the liberal centrists who claim that Corbyn is “similar to Trump” and that the radical left is basically just populist – like the far right but with a red veneer.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.