Can the Labour party create a new socialism of the 21st century?

Among all the noise about Brest and Donald trump, there is a remarkable sound: many free-market ideas, ideas of non-interference that have dominated the last four decades, are criticized and challenged, perhaps more than ever before. In the US, the aftermath of the 2016 election fueled the first tremors of a new, confidently Radical democratic policy; in the UK, the labour party may still be locked in endless agony and internal tension, but it has definitely pulled the policy to the left. On a bad day, political darkness can still seem overwhelming, but even in the most unexpected places, sometimes teasing signs of light appear.

A panicked Tory prime minister is now rhapsodising about public housing. The Economist last week published an essay about the revival of liberalism built around such ideas as land taxation and a guaranteed income. For sure, continuing austerity and the polarised state of politics may bring to mind the hoary old quote from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” History doesn’t glide; it wildly lurches. But the idea that neoliberalism is on the back foot is surely beyond doubt.

So far, the Labour party has had depressingly little to say about the decayed British state
What kind of capitalism we have, then, is now open to debate. But what cannot be argued with is the technology that sits under it, and the extent to which it defines how we live. Some people might think 2018’s disruptions hold out the prospect of our economy and society somehow being rewound to the era before Margaret Thatcher – but in a world of working lives that endlessly change, information on tap and a public more assertive than ever, there is no going back. To use a term that evokes a lost time of deference, mass production, standardised everything and change handed down from the top, the post-1945 era was Fordist. This one is anything but.

As Labour meets this week in Liverpool, the need for left politics to finally adapt to these new conditions will intrude on the debates. At The World Transformed, the Momentum-led alternative conference that has enlivened proceedings since 2016, the blurb for one session baldly reminds its readers that “1970s state socialism is dead”, and there are fascinatingly energised sessions about reinventing politics from the ground up. By way of a nod to the same idea, the party has served notice that one of the big official themes will be the need to “empower communities”.

On the eve of a policy splurge that confirmed him as a source of increasingly creative thinking, a profile of John McDonnell in the New Statesman included an observation from one of the shadow chancellor’s close associates: “He came out of a statist tradition, which he has come to see as elitist. He’s now interested in co-operatives, mutuals, in creating the conditions for people to run their own lives.”

The problem is that these ideas have yet to be turned into the kind of stories and messages that might decisively push Labour somewhere new. The party has been transformed, but it has a split personality – to quote the academic Jeremy Gilbert, Labour continues to be divided between a “decentralised political movement that would like to build a more democratic and cooperative economy” and “a top-down project focused entirely on maintaining Corbyn’s leadership, which is largely proposing a return to the statist social democracy of the postwar era”. The former demands deep thought, and the willingness to surrender old orthodoxies; the latter is a comfort blanket to which much of the party still instinctively clings.

There will be a lot of talk in Liverpool about nationalising things, and much applause in response. The party’s opponents will have no trouble claiming that its proposed cure for the grimness of the modern job market is a return to the labour relations of the 1970s; its response to the underfunding and privatisation of the NHS will look like a planned return to some imagined golden age in which people pulled levers in Whitehall and goodwill made everything OK.

Left politics has always had a susceptibility to conservatism: this is its modern manifestation, made worse by a delusion that (whatever Labour’s current contortions over a second EU referendum) still seems to grip some very important people at the top – the idea that Brexit will somehow create the conditions for an autarkic, parochial, sepia-tinted utopia we should think of as “socialism in one country”.

To make those criticisms is not to dream of the 1990s and yearn after a lost era of “centrism”. At the start of a new political season, it feels like an opportune moment to make a point too often overlooked: that some people are sceptical and stand-offish about Corbynism not because of its supposed radicalism, but because it is not nearly radical enough.

So far, the new Labour party has had depressingly little to say about the decayed British state and the dysfunctional nature of its power. There is still no meaningful discussion of the stupid voting system that renders millions of us powerless, and thereby played its part in the Brexit vote. Most Labour people seem lamentably uninterested in a system of local and city government that is completely broken, or tensions within the UK that plainly point towards the necessity of a new federal settlement. The fact that huge chunks of the work done ineptly in Whitehall could be pushed down to the regional and local level is barely recognised.

In that sense, the imperative should not be nationalisation, but the need to localise and democratise. Labour could free the health service from targets and central diktats, and break it up into democratically accountable units. It could embrace the idea of getting rid of such useless central ministries as the Departments for Work and Pensions, Housing, and Communities and Local Government, and passing their powers to the most local level possible. Perhaps most urgently, Labour policy cries out to be pushed beyond a lost world of secure jobs for all, and into the fabric of how people actually live – as consumers, home-makers, carers, parents. If that sounds abstract, consider two unanswered questions: what does Labour really want to do with England’s outmoded schools system, and our centralised, authoritarian and hateful benefits regime?

Every week at the moment, I seem to find myself standing outside an Amazon fulfilment centre: those leviathans that seem to embody their age as much as pits and steelworks symbolised our industrial past. The way they crash-land in communities and extract labour and resources with precious little payback speaks to people’s sense of local powerlessness; the fact that they are owned and run by a company whose power crosses borders underlines that Jeff Bezos will only be brought to heel when people and governments from an array of countries jointly agree to act; the sense that the jobs they offer will soon be automated away is obvious.

So increasingly, I wonder: What is the socialism of the Amazon age? How will it be expressed? And can it be shaped into something that might credibly take power? Put another way, while proudly hanging on to immovable ideas of equality and solidarity, are Labour and the left finally ready to leave the 20th century?