Blue Planet 2 demonstrated the terrifyingly fragile state of nature’s ecosystem. One of the key messages from the BBC series was that a delicate balance exists in the oceans between predators and prey. If there are too many predators, the stocks of prey fall. The predators go hungry and their numbers dwindle, allowing the prey to recover. Balance is restored.
Humans have their equivalent of this predator-prey model. It is best demonstrated by the workings of the labour market, where there is a constant struggle between employers and employees over the proceeds of growth. Unlike the world of nature, though, there is no self-righting mechanism. One side can carry on devouring its prey until the system breaks down. Over the past 40 years, employers have been the predators, workers the prey.
Consider the facts. By almost any measure, the past decade has been a disaster for living standards. Unemployment has fallen from its post financial-crisis peaks across the developed world but workers have found it hard to make ends meet. Earnings growth has halved in the UK even though the latest set of unemployment figures show that the jobless rate is the lowest since 1975.
The reason is not hard to find. Unions are far less powerful; collective bargaining in most of the private sector is a thing of the past; part-time working has boomed; and people who were once employed by a company are now part of the gig economy.
These changes in the labour market are by no means confined to the UK or US. European countries that were at the sharp end of the financial crisis – Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus – found that the cost of help was a programme of wage cuts, austerity and privatisation.
Clearly, the financial crisis has been a factor. Earnings growth in the UK in the decade before the banking meltdown was 4% to 4.5%; since 2008 it has struggled to reach half that level. But it would be a mistake to see the financial crisis as representing a break with the past. Rather, it intensified a process that had been going on since the 1970s, a process that can only really be understood by use of the C-word: class.
Seen in the simplest terms, the story of political economy over the past four decades is a class war between capital and labour, which capital has won hands down. The battlefield is littered with evidence of labour’s defeat: nugatory pay awards, precarious work, the collapse of collective bargaining, and cuts in public spending.
And to the victors have gone the spoils: higher profits and dividends; lower personal tax rates; a higher share of national income. Life for those at the top has carried on much as before, even as the average worker has experienced the worst decade for wage growth since the 19th century. Unsurprisingly, it sticks in the craw for those whose living standards are going down to see the 1% whooping it up. Nobody likes to have their nose rubbed in it.
There was a time when parties of the centre-left would have been the beneficiaries of this resentment. Yet the German Social Democrats have just had their worst electoral result since the second world war; the French Socialist party has been reduced to a rump; the Greek socialist party Pasok has been wiped out; Hillary Clinton managed to lose the race for the White House to Donald Trump. In Spain and the Netherlands the story is the same. Everywhere there is palpable unhappiness about what is seen as a rigged system; but other than in the UK, it has not translated into support for parties of the mainstream left.
An explanation for this is provided by William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi in their book Reclaiming the State: the left has given up on the politics of class and concentrated on the politics of identity. And while this has led to some worthy victories, none of them has actually challenged turbo-charged capitalism, which has had the field to itself.
There are still one or two politicians around who are unembarrassed about espousing the politics of class. Bernie Sanders is one; Jeremy Corbyn is another. Neither has bought into the argument – increasingly prevalent on the left since the 1970s – that nation states are powerless in the face of global market forces. Rather, Sanders and Corbyn say the state can and should be used as aggressively by the left as it has been by the right. This runs counter to the whole third-way approach pursued by Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the UK, which stated that centre-left governments had to come to an accommodation with the markets, in which accommodation meant repealing Roosevelt’s curbs on Wall Street’s speculative activities and using taxpayers’ money to top up poverty wages through tax credits.
Labour’s current contortions over Brexit are evidence of the tension between these two worldviews. A chunk of the party – the bigger chunk – thinks the only way to counter the excesses of capitalism is at a supra-national EU level. Yet it is hard to square this belief with the 2007 Lisbon treaty, which commits member states to act in accordance with the principle of an open economy with free competition; frowns on state aid; and lays out disciplinary procedures for governments that run excessive deficits.
What’s more, neoliberal theory has been put into practice – which is why, when French and German banks lent recklessly to Greece, the imperative was to protect French and German bondholders rather than Greek workers.
It is a big – and debilitating – modern myth that the neoliberal revolution of the 1970s and the 1980s weakened the power of the state. What actually happened was that parties of the right refashioned and repurposed the state to undermine the power of labour and strengthen the power of capital. The enduring power of nation states was highlighted in the 2008 financial crisis, when it was only the willingness of governments to wade in with public money and taxpayer guarantees that prevented the entire global banking system from going bust.
So here are the options. Parties on the left can carry on believing that capitalism can be tamed at a transnational level, even though all the available evidence is that this is not going to happen. They can seek to use the power of the state for progressive ends, even though this will be strongly resisted. Or they can sit and watch as the predators munch their way through their prey. Even for the predators, this would be a disastrous outcome.