Build it in Britain: not the industrial strategy we need, but the one we deserve

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Industrial strategy. For Labour insiders, the sound of this wonkish phrase has been rolling like drum-taps in the distance for quite some time now, drawing closer and closer. It was only a matter of time before the Party leadership settled on an industrial strategy it felt ready to present to the electorate. Build it in Britain, announced yesterday, is that strategy. The spirit it is meant to capture is obvious. The Tories are friends of finance - Labour will be the friend of industry. Jobs have been allowed to travel overseas, and Labour will bring them back. The emotional chord meant to be struck is clear: blighted post-industrial towns will live again and workers will recover their long-lost “dignity”. Below is the announcement made by Jeremy Corbyn introducing the headlines of the policy. 

Build it in Britain is the leadership’s biggest move yet in the great game being played with the Government in which “trust with the levers of the economy” is the prize. For some time now, voters have declined to give Labour their confidence when it comes to the economy, even if many of them otherwise sympathise with the Party's socially-minded ethos. This discrepancy can be held to account for Labour’s so-close-and-yet-so-far showing at the last General Election, and it’s widely understood that until that gap is closed, Downing Street will remain out of reach, chaos in the Tory party notwithstanding. All of this is, of course, deeply bound up with anxiety about the future of the economy post-Brexit: the Independent even went so far as to couch Corbyn's announcement of the policy as some kind of cop-out on Brexit, as if this policy could not stand - or fall - on its own merits irrespective of the political climate surrounding it. An industrial strategy can and should at least be discussed regardless of Britain's relationship with the EU. I will therefore analyse Build it in Britain with Brexit set to one side for the moment.

Let me be clear: in July of 2018, it’s hard to imagine Labour doing anything other than make the claim that industrial strategy will save the nation. Labour needs to do something to recover trust on the economy, and right now there don’t seem to be any better ideas. It may indeed be a start. It doesn’t need to be controversial, at least in theory, that the government should have an industrial strategy of one kind or another. It’s obvious that the pernicious influence of finance is inextricably bound up with present economic difficulties, especially if you ask London renters. Build it in Britain ties into the overall Labour message of ‘ending austerity’, that is, ending a policy regime which explicitly tightens budgets for services on which society, especially its most vulnerable members, relies. Saying that austerity hasn’t worked as it was advertised – that it hasn’t restored growth or unleashed innovation – is hardly radical at this point. Nor is it radical to say that ending austerity would fail to make us better off. It would certainly be better than nothing. But critical thought must always expose and condemn the falseness of binary choices. We need an industrial strategy, yes, and we need to end austerity, yes; but if we are looking for radical critique, we should look for the limits of “ending austerity” or “bringing jobs back” as emancipatory social projects.

Where are these limits? If the new policy is part of the task of ending austerity, if austerity represents neoliberalism, and if the neoliberal legacies Build it in Britain seeks to redress are those of outsourcing, financialisation and de-industrialisation, then we should look for the limits of this industrial strategy where the limits of industrial civilisation themselves are presented. What Western economies have been suffering from for the last half-century is not a sickness caused by a few bad apples in government and business. It is a sickness caused by the system of commodity production itself, which demands of business owners that they apply more and more advanced techniques of mechanisation, optimisation and automation, in order to accumulate capital more and more efficiently, on a grander and grander scale. This has gone on to such an extent that, since the 1970s, the need for human labour has simply ceased, altogether, to grow apace with the level of productivity. The last forty years of flowering in the service industry, debt-driven consumption, Military Keynesianism, and overall welfare dependency have been the result of the collapse of growth, not the cause. All this is to say nothing of the limits to industrial growth imposed on us by an angry nature on a warming planet.

Build it in Britain reflects the widespread consensus on the Labour left that neoliberalism and the industrial decline that accompanied it were fundamentally choices made by successive pro-finance governments. In this view, sending jobs overseas was all part of a grand design – more or less conspiratorial or generational depending on who you ask – to break the back of trade unions and turn a nation of workers into a nation of heavily-indebted professional consumers. If kicking jobs out of Britain was a choice, then, presumably, the choice can be made to bring them back. The problem is that this is not really true. We are still a nation of workers, and neoliberalism as a political project quite famously pounced on the political opportunity opened up by the decade of disgrace Labour was made to suffer through in the 1970s. Neoliberal hegemony was not actually achieved until long after the crisis had made its deep nature manifest. Neoliberal policies certainly exacerbate the ongoing crisis and are no help, but industrial strategy as it is currently understood is only the bare beginnings of a beginning. We are going to need a lot more. The many voters still alive who remember the Winter of Discontent and remember how thoroughly welfare state capitalism failed to deliver on its promises are going to need a more convincing narrative.

If there was any doubt that the mainstream left today represents nationalism more than it represents socialism, Build it in Britain should be a helpful clarification. A brief reading of the historical facts which should be embedded in any discussion of jobs, productivity, economic growth or neoliberalism should suffice to illustrate the connection between left nationalism and right nationalism. The following TEDtalk by global supply chain expert Augie Picado explains, in no uncertain terms, how, despite protectionist and nationalist rhetoric, the majority of manufacturing jobs have been “lost” to automation, not outsourcing:

When economic crisis is treated as being the fault of other countries and not the fault of the dynamics of capital accumulation itself, what we are dealing with is nationalism, not socialism. The left and the right have often found themselves in each other’s company on these issues: long before Donald Trump, there was, to take one of many examples, the US Socialist Party’s 1904 adoption of a resolution demanding the exclusion of “backwards races” from the American workforce. This kind of bigotry is not limited to America – fear that immigrants “divide” the working class has been the animating spirit of exclusionary “left-wing” politics across the world for the better part of two centuries. It is for this reason that it is possible for the German left to take a “national social” stance as a way of peeling off support from the right-wing Alternative for Germany party.

But I am not just attempting to counter this kind of left populism on now overly-familiar “anti-populist” grounds – that is, the grounds of anti-racism. The commitment to anti-racism should go without saying, not that it ever does. Of course, a critique of imperialism has to underpin any critique of the welfare state which would have been unthinkable without colonial wealth. But Build it in Britain is not a racist manifesto: it is possible to hold the position that Britain should be an open and tolerant society while also holding to the nationalist position that Britain should somehow protect and encourage its industrial workforce. The problem is not that Build it in Britain is a recipe for xenophobic violence, the problem is that the left cannot outflank the right when it comes to nationalism, and nationalism doesn’t work. We will be digging our own graves trying to sell someone a defective idea, especially when we’re not even the best salespeople for that idea. Build it in Britain has been branded as left-wing protectionism by some - that may be alarmist, because "protectionism" in 2018 has strong connotations of xenophobia(it did in 1933 as well, really), but if this industrial strategy fails to impress with its results, it will show that even a kinder, gentler protectionism is insufficient to tackle our deep economic contradictions.

The Fabian Society, in its pamphlet Raising the Bar: How Household Incomes Can Grow the Way They Used To, recently threw its own hat into the industrial strategy ring in a way that prefigures Build it in Britain. Summarising heavily, the gist of this Fabian tract was that restored economic growth, reduced inequality and real wage increases are all within the reach of an aggressive industrial strategy, with the crucial proviso that this strategy needs to be geared towards re-creating a mass manufacturing economy. Raising the Bar goes on to elaborate how this manufacturing economy, in order to be competitive with manufacturers around the globe, would need to be “innovative”. As usual, this weighty, all-important term exits the stage as soon as it enters: we are never told exactly how industrial strategy is meant to square the circle between innovation and mass employment. Those industries which are innovative are precisely those which have learned to automate and mechanise. Innovation is, in a very real sense, a synonym for excusing as many human beings as possible from the labour process. This is why, historically, the most innovative devices were referred to as “labour-saving”, before that phrase took on its recent menace. This has been true not just since 1973 but since the dawn of the Industrial Era itself, which put an end to the labour-intensive “putting-out system” through the introduction of machinery.

It is difficult, therefore, to imagine what is meant by innovation in this context. Any pioneering British manufacturing does is unlikely to be pioneering in a way that requires millions of industrial labourers. And yet this is precisely what Raising the Bar explicitly names as necessary for Britain’s economy to grow “like it used to”. Unlike the Tories, Labour is incapable of fooling itself into believing finance, the service industry, and startup culture will save us. Unfortunately we have our own illusions about manufacturing. Build it in Britain reflects those assumptions as much as the Fabian pamphlet.

The fact is we have to face up to the reality that most British voters came to grips with decades ago: the industrial working class isn’t coming back, because industry didn’t go to China – it left the realm of the human altogether. The “fully automated luxury communism” discourse notwithstanding, the Labour left has largely failed to learn the real lessons offered by history in the economic domain, despite it being plain to see in the testimony of experts like Picado. The Srnicek-Bastani-Sarkar tendency within Labour treats the possibilities of technology as real, but it's not always clear how they relate to our present or to our economic past. Automation, platform systems, and machine learning are often invoked not for the sake of what we can really learn from these developments but for the sake of separating, in optical terms, the new new left from the old New Left with its primitivist, anti-technology baggage. This is worthwhile, but not enough. The halo of technological newness can accomplish that and nothing more. It is only on a somewhat contradictory basis, then, that Novara Media editor Aaron Bastani can square his support of Build it in Britain with his otherwise iconoclastic technopolitics.

Anyone who can grasp how fundamentally our economies have changed since the 1970s will be able to grasp that it is not enough to say that automation and mechanisation are interesting: they must also irreversibly leave behind the idea that an economy like the one we had in the days of High Fordism, the so-called “golden age of capitalism” which corresponds to Labour’s greatest achievements can be restored with an industrial strategy. 

Larry Eliott, in The Guardian, points out the absurdity of calling Build it in Britain "radical", which, in a sense, tells you all you need to know. He takes it for granted that we will be comforted by the idea that "other countries do it". He is, of course, right, but considering many other developed countries are not only possessed of good, sensible industrial strategies but also severe economic problems and political anxieties, we should caution against getting too excited about what everyone else is doing. It may be helpful, but it can't be that helpful or the world wouldn't be entering another consecutive decade of stagnant wage growth.

None of this should be taken to imply that rather than an industrial strategy, industrial anarchy is needed. Socialist critique of the Labour Party obviously does not mean re-heating stale neoliberal talking points. Manifold economic strategies, including the industrial, are and will remain essential. The government, by supporting some sectors of the economy to the extent that it can, could certainly be doing more to ease the burden on British workers, industrial and otherwise - especially if it becomes more effective at tax enforcement. If Build it in Britain represents a step towards consciousness of the need to take economic problems more seriously, and if it does anything to normalise the idea that representative bodies – public and, hopefully, cooperative as well – have the right to intervene in economic affairs, then it will be a victory. However, we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing this is anything more than the start of a long, probing conversation about how our economy is going to function as we continue to leave the old world of the 20th century behind.

We may want to do right by British workers, and Build it in Britain may be able to do that for a handful in the short term, but in the long run we won't be performing any favours for anyone if we don't get real about the ongoing tendency towards superfluousness of human labour. There are plenty of worthwhile things humans can do other than manufacture pointless widgets - industrial strategies of the future ought to be more creative with the kind of productivity and knowledge-building they subsidise.