Corbyn against the nation

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Corbyn against the nation

There is hope now with a possible British government with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is a true internationalist. But how would his government break from the past when the global economy is organised to make money from the Global South? Barnaby Raine has four ideas to help.


In 1915 Nikolai Bukharin wrote Imperialism and World Economy and in 1920 The Economics of the Transition Period. They begin with one idea: if there is ‘the economy’, it is a global thing. All ‘national economies’ are involved together across borders. In the early years of the 20th century, these transnational ideas were important to the Left of European socialism. It was a picture of the future, which now belongs to the past.

Today we all usually think in little boxes, and we talk, for example, about the ‘British economy’. And people think of politics taking place in nations and not in global movements. In elections politics is usually about nationalism. To win, parties must persuade voters in one nation that they will represent their interests and not the interests of the whole world.

The nation or the world?

There is a problem when we think about economic policy. Should the job of a Left government be to save British jobs, and not jobs in Africa or Asia or South America? Should we support British companies when they rely on colonial privilege? The problem is that the world economy comes from colonialism, and that means its value is taken away from the Global South to help Europe. This is an important problem when we think about the nation and the world.

Take the example of De La Rue, a British printing company. Trade unions and the Labour Party joined in the anger when in 2018 De La Rue lost the contract for making British passports and a Franco-Dutch company won the contract. Jeremy Corbyn’s call to ‘Build it in Britain’ seemed to be against government decisions like that one. De La Rue started in the 19th century and built a global business with the help of the British Empire and printed money for colonies. After Britain and the US invaded Iraq in 2003, De La Rue celebrated a success as it got a big contract to print money for the new government there. This would transfer millions from Baghdad to Britain at gun point. This is the worst example of the economics of modern imperialism. And Labour supported De La Rue because of the fear of losing a contract and jobs in Britain.

Here, then, is the problem. Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s economic policy is about balancing inequalities around the world. But he has thought most of all only about inequalities in the nation. Paul Mason supports Corbyn and he talks of a ‘programme for growth and prosperity in the towns of Wigan, Newport, and Kirkcaldy in Britain and not for Shenzhen, Bombay, and Dubai’. This kind of thinking is the wrong choice for a rich nation to make. In Britain, people see Thatcher’s victories over the working class in national terms. But neoliberalism also moved to stop the Global South trying to end imperial economics and create a fairer system. The Non-Aligned Movement is the group of countries that found a way between the USSR and US and pushed for more equality between nations. Now, instead of India leading The Non-Aligned Movement, we have Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India. These changes make the meaning of internationalism and solidarity from Europe more difficult to understand. The community of global revolution seems lost.

Plans for power

There are a few things a Corbyn government could do immediately in this difficult situation. It is important to say that these suggestions do not support the idea that the only way to help British workers is through getting economic value from the Global South.

The first step would be to announce sanctions on the worst former allies. For example, Labour should now announce full trade sanctions against Israel. This is part of a plan to turn away from supporting crimes around the world. It is a plan to encourage other countries to follow in cases where killing is not punished and oppressed people are calling for action. Sanctions can also be useful against territories and nations that form the world’s tax havens, where Global South oligarchs hide money from their state treasuries.

Second, John McDonnell’s plan to move away from financial capitalism needs to be transnational. A lot of blood money from around the world passes to London, particularly through property. Labour could have an international conference to make plans across borders to find that money and tax it. The money can go to trade unions and community groups fighting against terrible inequalities in the poor nations, who pay for the UK’s riches. McDonnell has a programme for the state supporting investment in industry to produce a more stable prosperity. His programme should also include Britain finding out what skills and help to lend to other countries. Cuba exchanging its doctors for Venezuelan oil is a good example of this.

Third, Labour should have a different policy for Brexit. Brexit has divided patriotic Brexiteers from those who love the EU but often show little interest in how EU institutions work. Supporters of ‘Lexit’ (leftwing Brexit) usually see leaving the EU as a way of avoiding its neoliberal interference. Corbyn complains that EU rules would prevent some nationalization in Britain. He is right. But socialist internationalism must look beyond Britain. The EU makes nations around the edge of Europe poorer to make itself richer. The EU deports migrants to Turkey and Libya or lets thousands of them drown in the Mediterranean. The EU says it gives ‘social solidarity’ but it gives financial help or subsidies like the Common Agricultural Policy, which takes away from African farmers to build French butter mountains.

Labour should use the idea of internationalism against the establishment, against the EU, and the anti-migrant ideas of the EU and the British Right. That would mean a Brexit that brings back home the British ships from Greek harbours, where they are ready to defend Europe. British Prime Minister Theresa May wants them to stay after her Brexit, of course. Less imperial theft can mean fewer migrants, but Britain should also offer safe passage and union jobs to those who want them. Militant migrant cleaners joined unions in London universities and they have showed that solidarity can help everyone. At the same time the racist undercutting of migrant wages allows bosses to lower standards for everyone. Lexit should also mean Britain creating new trade deals, not like the Common Agricultural Policy, not to steal from poorer countries but to support workers’ rights and environmental protections, working with unions and others around the world.

Last, Britain should use its influence in the World Bank and the IMF to push for change. There are criticisms of its privatizing, marketeering international order of the 1990s since it has failed to bring wealth to the Global South. The British Left should not think that Great Britain can change the world from London. And it should not miss the opportunity of using the influence the British state has still.

The future

There are very few plans for global change now. The movement around Corbyn has made progress but replacing capitalism has not been its first priority. The challenge is to keep open the idea of an internationalist future even if the priority is only a slightly softer capitalism. A politics of hope and moving against growing nationalism is important. But a Labour government should think about a transnational economy or it would miss one of the biggest opportunities of power; it would lose possible allies around the world, and be just another force for ‘Empire 2.0’.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)