Monday, 31 May 2010

Article: Social Governance in the NHS

Here is a link to an article by Chris Bem, friend of Taking Soundings, medical practitioner and writer, about the NHS and 'Social Governance': how the remit of our health service can be expanded for wider social benefit.

Just follow this link:

Event: The Steady State Economy Conference

The conference, to be held at Leeds Metropolitan University on Saturday 19th June from 10 AM to 6 PM, will explore the steady state economy as an alternative to economic growth. It offers a rare opportunity to hear a range of key progressive thinkers and participate in detailed workshop discussions to identify innovative policies for improving the economy.

Keynote presentations include:

Peter Victor, Professor in Environmental Studies, York University, Canada, on Managing Without Growth – Slower by Design not Disaster

Andrew Simms, Policy Director, New Economics Foundation, on The Great Transition

Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development, University of Surrey (by video), on Prosperity Without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet

Dan O'Neill, European Director, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, on What is a Steady State Economy and How Do We Achieve It?

In addition, critical issues will be addressed in ten workshops. Workshop speakers include Kate Pickett (co-author of The Spirit Level), Franny Armstrong (Director of The Age of Stupid), Roger Martin (Chair of the Optimum Population Trust), Molly Scott Cato (Economics Speaker for the Green Party), and Stephan Lutter (Researcher at the Sustainable Europe Research Institute), among others.

More information on the speakers, programme, and registration is available on the conference website:
Please direct any questions to the conference email address:
Yours sincerely,David Adshead, Lorna Arblaster, Claire Bastin, Nigel Jones - EJfADan O'Neill, Rob Dietz - CASSE

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Dark side of China's dream

Financial Times: David Pilling
The dark side of China's enduring dream
May 27 2010
"They were 16 years old, on the loose in one of China's most chaotic boomtowns, raising themselves with no adults in sight . . . They missed their mothers. But they were also having the time of their lives."
Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang

Not everybody is having the time of their life. This week, a 19-year-old worker at the Foxconn electronics plant near the sprawling factory city of Shenzhen in southern China became the fourth employee in two weeks, and the ninth this year, to leap to his death. Two more failed in the attempt. The spate of suicides, coupled with an undercover investigation into conditions at the Foxconn plant by Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou-based newspaper, has shone a spotlight into the darker crevices of China's factory system. Last week, nine professors of social science wrote an open letter to Foxconn in which they questioned the very sustainability of China's role as the workshop of the world.

Few people have heard of Foxconn, in spite of the fact that the Taiwanese company employs an army of 300,000 workers at the Longhua plant where the suicides occurred. But most have heard of Apple's iPad, just one of dozens of electronic devices churned out by Foxconn staff. They also know about Sony, Dell and Nokia, some of the companies whose game consoles, digital cameras, mobile phones and computers are assembled by the company under contract. Foxconn workers - who earn roughly $75 for a 60-hour week - are well acquainted with these brands, though few, if any, can afford them.

The Southern Weekly sent a 22-year-old reporter undercover to work at the Foxconn plant just north of Shenzhen, the city conjured into life by Deng Xiaoping, whose 1992 southern tour declared China open for international business. In addition to the factory floors, where many employees - wearing identical white coats and white caps - sit or stand at their workstations for 12-hour shifts, the city-sized complex has dormitories, shops, restaurants and even its own fire brigade. Now it has a suicide hotline. Southern Weekly's reporter found staff dulled by the monotony of repetitive tasks, even walking and eating to the rhythm of the rumbling machines.

Factory Girls, Leslie Chang's brilliantly reported book about female migrants, also makes grim reading at times. Many factories treat their employees as fodder, refusing to employ people because they are too short, too ugly, too old - 30 is over-the-hill - or simply come from the "wrong" province. They rush through orders, even if that means workers are not properly trained on machines that can - and sometimes do - slice off a finger. They demand employees work long hours, though most are only too happy to do so because of the overtime pay they receive. They often keep back a month of pay, lest their workers find a boyfriend, or a better job, in another factory.

But that is not the entire story. Some 200m migrants have left the countryside in search of a better life. They cannot all be deluded. In the specific case of Foxconn, it is true that the recent spate of suicides marks a sharp rise from last year. But given the plant employs 300,000 - and assuming reported numbers are accurate - suicide rates are significantly lower than outside the factory. China has a particularly high suicide rate for women.

More generally, average wages have been outstripping inflation for years and working conditions have been improving. In 2008, southern Guangdong province, of which Shenzhen is a special zone, began a campaign to weed out shoddier plants, forcing the closure of half its toy factories. (Many moved inland to poorer provinces.) In March, Guangdong became the latest to raise the minimum wage, by 20 per cent. In theory, though probably not in practice, that could alleviate the pressure to work endless overtime.

Labour activists would argue, with some justification, that these are incremental improvements from a Dickensian base. But one side of the migrant experience that emerges very strongly from Ms Chang's book is a sense of prevailing optimism in the possibility of upward mobility. Recent waves of migrants have grander ambitions than those who came before them. Many flit from job to job, continually searching for something better, or putting their savings into property and start-up ventures (or pyramid schemes).

To be sure, that sense of possibility is double-edged. Migrants often get cut by reality. Internet chat also suggests there is growing anger at the perception that much personal wealth is the fruit of corruption, not hard work. Nevertheless, research suggests that a belief in the Chinese dream of upward mobility is still alive. In Myth of the Social Volcano , a book based on extensive polling, Martin King Whyte, professor of sociology at Harvard University, found "an optimistic expectation that the rising tide of economic development is lifting all boats". Chinese people showed a faith in their ability to improve their own lives often surpassing respondents in capitalist countries, including the US. That sense of possibility - still generously lubricated with double-digit growth - suggests factories will retain their allure for some time yet.

David Blanchflower: cuts are are an even worse idea than before

New Statesman: Osborne’s cuts will nip growth in the bud
David Blanchflower
27 May 2010

At this critical point, the government needs to spend to make the banks lend.

And then it was Nick Clegg's turn to say something stupid about the economy. "I don't think anybody could have anticipated then quite how sharply the economic conditions in the eurozone would have deteriorated and that the need to show that we are trying to get to grips with this suddenly became much greater," he said in an interview on the BBC. "That is why we need to show at a more accelerated time­table than I had initially thought that we are going to get to grips with this great black hole in our public finances."
Not only was it an unconvincing explanation for why he has changed his views since his shotgun marriage to the Tories, but he couldn't have been more wrong. The deteriorating conditions in the eurozone have made it even more dangerous to cut spending now.
In any case, according to the Office for National Statistics, the Budget deficit now stands at £7bn lower than previously expected, which obviates cuts in 2010 - if, indeed, there was any need to cut in the first place. The improving public finances suggest that the stimulus package is working. But it needs more time and there needs to be more of it, especially when there are still few signs that the private sector is standing on its own two feet without government support behind the scenes.

Down like dominoes
In a letter to the Observer on 23 May, four police authority chiefs signalled the strength of opposition to the government's plan to introduce directly elected police commissioners across England and Wales. The quartet said that they "fear that the public is unaware of the turmoil that may be unleashed by these fresh proposals". Ditto on the economy. Trade union leaders are preparing to fight against these cuts, as they will be disastrous for working people (see the guest column by the TUC leader, Brendan Barber, on page 19 of this magazine).
The outgoing Labour government's plans were based on pretty bullish growth forecasts, which look very unlikely to be fulfilled - not least because growth in the eurozone, Britain's major trading partner, will probably be much lower than anticipated, judging by the events of the past few weeks. The rescue package agreed on 10 May, which came on top of the inadequate one announced just three days earlier, seems unlikely to solve the crisis; there is still a risk that Greece will default on its debt. I suspect this is just the start of a series of rescue packages that will be demanded as other dominoes begin to fall.
Worryingly, on 22 May, the Bank of Spain had to step in to rescue CajaSur, one of that country's largest regional lenders. And Germany's move to ban "naked" short-selling may backfire, leading markets to suspect that there is more to be concerned about in the German banking sector than previously thought, which suggests there will be ongoing downward pressure on the euro.
If the pound thus appreciates against the euro, the progress that the stimulus achieved in the UK would be thrown into reverse and growth would be even lower.
Bank stocks in the UK and Europe have been hit especially hard by the recent crisis. The share prices of many European banks are down roughly 20 per cent since the beginning of May, including the British banks Lloyds and RBS, Spain's Santander, France's BNP Paribas and Germany's Deutsche Bank. This is not an environment in which spending cuts should be made - and this is the view taken in most of our major competitor nations, including the US, which has a similar deficit-to-GDP ratio (at roughly 12 per cent) to the UK.
My analysis is consistent with that of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which is responsible for setting interest rates at the US Federal Reserve. In contrast to the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee - which has been, and continues to be, asleep at the wheel - the FOMC has handled the recession in exemplary fashion, cutting rates early and making it clear that it is in wait-and-watch mode. All credit to the Federal Reserve chairman and pre-eminent scholar of the Great Depression, Ben Bernanke.
The UK could learn from the minutes of the FOCM meeting of 27-28 April. They record that "Participants expected the economic recovery to continue, but, consistent with experience following previous financial crises, most anticipated that the pick-up in output would be rather slow relative to past recoveries from deep recessions. A moderate pace of expansion, in turn, would imply only a modest improvement in the labour market this year, with the unemployment rate declining gradually."
The minutes of the meeting also note that "nearly all members judged that it was appropriate to reiterate the expectation that econo­mic conditions . . . were likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period".
Lend or spend
I was struck this past week by an insightful article on a similar theme by the economist James Galbraith, son of J K Galbraith. In the Nation on 22 March, he argued that cutting deficits without first rebuilding the banking system would inevitably lead to a double-dip recession, or even to a second Great Depression.
“To focus obsessively on cutting future deficits," he wrote, "is also a path that will obstruct, not assist, what we need to do to re-establish strong growth and high employment."
He went on:
To put things crudely, there are two ways to get the increase in total spending that we call "economic growth". One way is for government to spend. The other is for banks to lend. Leaving aside short-term adjustments like increased net exports or financial innovation, that's basically all there is. Governments and banks are the two entities with the power to create something from nothing. If total spending power is to grow, one or the other of these two great financial motors - public deficits or private loans - has to be in action.

Banks are not lending, so governments need to spend: it's as simple as that.
And then Slasher Osborne and his ex-City flunkey David Laws slashed by £6.2bn. That's no trivial sum. Even these initial cuts will lower GDP by at least half a per cent. Bad idea.

David Blanchflower is Bruce V Rauner Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.

Leeds Salon events

Ahead of the next Leeds Salon on 12 July, when we have Manjit Kumar discussing his book Quantum: Einstein Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality, you may be interested in the following 'Question Time' style debate being held at Leeds University on 18 June being organised by the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied – A Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Paul Thomas
Leeds Salon

Public Event on Privacy and Public Policy
Friday 18 June 2010 from 5:00 pm to 6:50 pm, followed by a drinks reception, in Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.
“How much importance should be given to Privacy considerations when making Public Policy?”
Main webpage for the Public Event
· Matthew Taylor Chief Executive, RSA; formerly Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and head of the 10 Downing Street Policy Unit
· David Leigh Journalist and Investigations Executive Editor, The Guardian; famously exposed Jonathan Aitken
· Pauline Neville-Jones Security Minister; former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee
· Onora O’Neill Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge; 2002 Reith Lecturer (’A Question of Trust’); 2001 Gifford Lecturer (’Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics’)
About the event
Privacy is central to some of the most important issues facing our parliamentary democracy today. And yet the public response to these issues seems inconsistent. Attempts to defend the privacy interests of MPs over their expenses claims are met with suspicion. But there is also great resistance to sacrificing individuals’ privacy for the sake of security. We are hostile to journalistic intrusion, and yet place a high value placed on investigative journalism which arguably would be undermined by stringent privacy laws.
What is needed is greater public engagement with issues of privacy, and with the complexity of forming consistent, principled public policy. This public event seeks to address this need. To this end, we have engaged high-profile speakers with relevant expertise, for an event of speeches and panel questions. This event is part of a conference on the ethics of Privacy and Confidentiality, hosted by the IDEA CETL, University of Leeds, 17-19 June, 2010. For more information, contact Jim Baxter at the IDEA CETL on , or Jamie Dow
This is not a ticketed event , all are welcome, but it will help our organisation and catering plans if you could let us know if you are planning to attend, by registering your interest at (click on “Public Event”), including any special dietary or other requirements you may have.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Mind Association, the Society for Applied Philosophy and software company Temenos.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The war for American minds

OpenDemocracy: The war for American minds
Godfrey Hodgson, 25 May 2010

The great contest of the United States in 2010, the one that will decide the fate of Barack Obama’s vision of national renewal, is not at heart about politics. It is a clash about the moral nature of American society, says Godfrey Hodgson.

About the author: Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that he was foreign editor of the Independent.

The United States witnessed another “super Tuesday” on 18 May 2010, in which four states - Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Oregon - held primary elections to select the lead candidates for the mid-term elections on 2 November. The results were so diverse and confusing that the overwhelming view of political analysts and commentators was - that the voters’ instincts are diverse and confused. Next, on 8 June, even more primaries - a “super-super Tuesday” - will follow. It is safe to predict an even more messy set of results, compounding further the febrile political and media atmosphere in Washington.

But behind the swirling cross-currents of an extraordinary political season, it is possible to discern the shape of an emerging national debate on a subject that transcends even the furious partisanship of the moment: nothing less than a political duel over the fundamentals of the American system. The divide is between those who accept that something has gone badly wrong with American capitalism and American government, and those who are scandalised by what they perceive as such disloyal calumny and who see salvation in a rediscovery of core American values.

The political moment
What makes the present situation harder to diagnose is the change in the political weather surrounding Barack Obama. Even around and beyond the the anniversary of his inauguration, in January 2010, the president had no great achievements to his name that began to match the expectations raised by his election in November 2008 (see “Barack Obama and America”, 12 March 2010). But from the moment of the House of Representatives’ approval of the Senate’s health-insurance reform bill on 21 March 2010 - albeit by an unusual if legitimate procedural dodge, and by the narrow margin of 219-212 votes - the president has it seems begun to score significant domestic (and, after the nuclear-weapons agreement with Russia on 8 April, international) successes.

The health-reform measure, which could mark a real advance towards universal health-insurance coverage, has now been followed by the Senate’s passageon 20 May 2010 of a major reform of financial regulation; this establishes (inter alia) a consumer-protection section inside the federal reserve, oversight powers over the huge derivatives market, a new regulatory mechanism to monitor systemic financial risks, and governmental authority to dissolve failing finance companies.

The bill will have to be reconciled with a substantially different measure passed by the House of Representatives, but the White House and its congressional allies express confidence that this can be done by the 4 July holiday. Christopher Dodd, chair of the Senate’s banking committee - who together with his House equivalent Barney Frank will play an important role in the reconciliation process - says that “the two bills really are very close to each other”. The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reed - himself at risk in his own state of Nevada - echoes this confidence in saying that “when this bill becomes law, the joyride on Wall Street will come to a screeching halt."

The confidence remains to be tested. What can be said at present is that both the administration’s and Congress’s efforts to persuade the financial sector to resumed lending money to citizens and businesses have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Such companies as Citigroup, the AIG insurance group and General Motors have already repaid a large proportion of the money theyreceived from government under the largest of the rescue plans (the Troubled Assets Relief Program [Tarp]); banking executives have returned to paying themselves astronomical salaries and bonuses; Wall Street in general has exerted enormous pressure on the politicians to limit the effects of proposed legislation and recreate the space for “business-as-usual”.

The improvement in President Obama’s political outlook is real, but the immense political capital it has had to discharge in securing progress in these areas also indicates the scale of resistance to the change the president seeks. For both these major domestic achievements of March-May 2010 are intensely controversial.

The surprising unpopularity of the health-insurance measure reflects the way it is seen as exorbitantly expensive and unwarranted government interference, but is owed too to the shameless campaign of denigration launched against it by the health-industry lobbies. The policy of bailouts implemented at the start of the financial crisis in 2008 by George W Bush, and continued in Obama’s own fiscal-stimulus package of February 2009, has become deeply resented, principally because it is viewed as rewarding those who were responsible for the economic crisis.

The electoral mash-up
The mid-term elections in November 2010 affect thirty-six of the 100 senators and all 435 members of the House - though the only impact on the president himself is indirect. In this period the president’s approval ratings are hovering just below the 50% mark, which is historically worrying but not disastrous (see “Barack Obama: a market report”, 6 May 2010). By contrast, public approval of the Congress is catastrophically low, one poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports on 20-21 April finds that only 11% of the electorate think Congress is doing an “excellent” or even “good” job.

The polls in general suggest that the American electorate overall remains disillusioned with government, contemptuous of Washington and especially suspicious of Congress. That may sound familiar. But what is new is that disillusion, contempt and suspicion are more acute than ever.

A closer look at what the results on 18 May reveal sheds light on this current political atmosphere. In Pennsylvania, the 80-year-old Arlen Specter was defeated by Joe Sestak, a Republican former admiral. Specter had served in the Senate as a a Republican for thirty years, but had switched to the Democrats because he knew he faced defeat in the autumn; Sestak ran, if anything, to Specter’s left in policy terms.

There is little in “national” terms that can be read into that, nor indeed in other results such as Oregon’s. In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln - generally a very conservative Democrat, though the author of a stringent proposal in the Senate bill to make the banks separate commercial banking from derivatives trading - ended a tiny margin ahead of a Democratic rival who ran to her left. Lincoln now faces a run-off election which will be tough to win.

A higher-profile result than all of these is the victory in Kentucky of Rand Paul, the son of the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul. He has the endorsement of the Tea Party group of anti-government extremists and of their one-time figurehead Sarah Palin. Rand Paul has already sent mixed political signals on issues of race and discrimination (by arguing that the government should not challenge businesses which showed racial favouritism, then hastily declaring support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964). But the main reason for the national interest in Rand Paul is that everyone in American politics is now fascinated by - and many are terrified of - the Tea Party.

The fear and the fury
Almost all analysts and practitioners of politics in the United States are agreed that it is being buffeted by potent and turbulent currents. An enduring factor in these, which complicates the more straightforward political factors, is a rarely acknowledged prejudice against the president that is rooted in deep-seated racial and ideological hostility (see "The great American refusal", 23 March 2010).

President Obama incarnates many resentments. He seems to many the epitome of a Washington that is thought to be elitist, and indifferent to the problems and fears of “ordinary folks”. He is seen as foreign at a time when there is resentment against foreign governments, foreign companies (most vividly at present BP, accused over the major oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico), and foreign immigrants. He is also, with even less logic than the rest, charged with responsibility for the loss of American power and prestige in the world (a view impervious to such expositions on the new international order and the need for multilateralism as his address at the West Point military academy on 22 May). He is in addition seen as an extremist of the left, all the more remarkable given his tactical and temperamental centrism. To many Americans, he seems - in a word - anti-American. And this may be the key underlying element of the coming explosion of 2010.

At the best of times, an incumbent president’s party would expect to lose some seats in Congress at the mid-term. The current predictions of the Democrats’ losses in November 2010 vary from the dire to the catastrophic. Some hope that the president will lose only a few seats, leaving him able to command a reduced majority in each legislative assembly and giving him a foundation for re-election in 2012; others believe that 2010 will be a year of drastic party realignment.
My own hunch is that the unease and turmoil that are reported from every corner of the country, and from both ends of an increasingly polarised nation, reflects the cumulative shocks of an electorate adjusting to the discovery that many of its core beliefs have been exposed as false.
American people across this vast country have been brought up to believe that they were exceptionally prosperous and powerful - but also exceptionally virtuous; that their society was uniquely equal; and that their political system was peerlessly democratic and incomparably noble.

For a full generation and more, a series of shuddering blows, both single events and broader trends, has shaken this deeply ingrained confidence. They include defeat in Vietnam, the Watergate crisis, and the longer-term shift from producing two-thirds of the world’s oil and gas to becoming dependent on imported energy; the agonising revelation of vulnerability to terrorists on 9/11, followed by a decade of war that produced and revealed a vein of loathing for the country around the world; and the crumbling of the former glittering icons of American capitalism in Wall Street and Detroit, the shock of which was reinforced by a growing awareness that America’s leaders had no idea how to restore the economy.

In the years of the financial crash and economic crisis since 2007 especially, the pace and scale of dissolution of once unchallenged verities have been accelerating. So painful and disorientating has been the overall change been, it is bound to produce a collective, political-psychological response that transcends everyday issues and disputes. And this seems to be it.

The coming trial of strength
The implication is that the great contest of the politics of 2010, the one that will decide the fate of Barack Obama’s exciting vision of national renewal, is less any traditional clash (left vs right, private enterprise vs public initiative). It is a clash about the moral nature of American society.
It will be a historic trial of strength between two kinds of Americans: those (predominantly concentrated on the east and west coasts) who acknowledge the failures, evasions and complacency of now discredited beliefs, against those (many living in what are insultingly called the “flyover states” of the south and west) who are shocked by the retreat from the classic verities of individualism, unregulated market capitalism, and messianic American exceptionalism.

That is why the raucous Tea Party movement, the hysterical radio demagogues and the gauche followers of Sarah Palin should not be dismissed - as they too often are, especially in Europe - as morons or mountebanks. They may vent sentiments and propositions that are no longer true, if they ever were. But they also express a tough core of beliefs that are passionately held by serious people who have behind them a formidable record of success. The result of the unfolding American contest - electoral, but even more emotional and moral - is far from certain.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Mike Marqusee on cuts to come

Make the spending cuts--or else
Greece is only the first place in Europe where politicians will push cuts in spending as a way to bail business out of the financial crisis, writes Mike Marqusee.
May 20, 2010 Socialist Worker (US - paper of the International Socialist Organization)

IN THE wake of Britain's inconclusive general election, there is much talk of the "national interest." It's said that politicians of all parties have to pull together to address the crisis caused by the country's enlarged fiscal deficit. Specifically, they must agree to a package of deep cuts in public spending. Nothing, it is said, is more urgent, more unavoidable.

In contrast, climate change, it seems, can be left perpetually on the back burner, though there is a far greater expert consensus about the dangers of the latter than the former.

It's simply not the case that all Britons have the same economic interests, and this was plain on Election Day. The poor and working class in the cities turned out in unexpected numbers to vote Labour in order to stop a Tory government making them pay for the crisis in service and job cuts. In the shires and suburbs, middle-class and rich voters turned out to vote Tory to make sure they didn't have to pay for it in higher taxes.

The media is full of dire warnings of the disaster that will befall the country should it fail to make the severe cuts "the markets" demand.

Greece is held up as a dark mirror of our future.

The rest is here.

Mike Rustin on the beginning of the end of neo-liberalism

Michael Rustin on OpenDemocracy
From the beginning to the end of Neo-Liberalism in Britain
19 May 2010

The financial crash that brought the era of neo-liberalism to an end has now led to the formation of a novel coalition in Britain after 65 years of single-party government. This essay argues that it is important to understand what is special about the underlying economic and social crisis - and how the balance of forces is very different from those that wracked Britain in the 1970s and opened the way to Margaret Thatcher.

Anthony Barnett argues in The End of Thatcherism that the election has brought an end to an entire era of British politics. He also notes, while cautioning on the gap between word and deed, that the Coalition promises in its agreement some more progressive policies than we saw under the New Labour governments from 1997 to 2010, and under the previous Thatcher – Major governments. I agree that a very significant change has taken place, although it is unclear how progressive its overall outcome will be. I shall argue that the formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition represents a bold political response to a crisis – the ‘credit crunch’ of 2008-9 and all that went with it – which is comparable in its severity to the crisis of the 1970s that brought Thatcherism into being. I propose that we can only understand the politics of this situation, and the risks and opportunities it brings, if we understand the societal nature of the crises themselves.

My argument, initially set out on the day after the election for the Raymond Williams Foundation draws upon the analysis of political regimes and their conjunctures formulated by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in The Modern Prince, following a method of analysis developed by Marx, particularly in his analysis of the class struggles of nineteenth century France. The relations and balance of powers between class formations – historical ‘blocs’ – is a critical dimension of what happens politically, according to this way of thinking, though political decisions also have significance, and in some contexts decisive significance. There are ‘conjunctures’, or in terms of modern complexity theory ‘tipping points’, when a previously stable social formation enter conditions of instability. These may create opportunities for decisive political action, leading to radical changes in a social system. Classically, these are moments in which revolutions, or counter-revolutions, occur - 1789, 1933, 1917, or the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.

These conjunctures have their milder equivalents in democratic societies, occurring at moments when systems previously in a state of relative equilibrium or stability become unstable and enter periods of crisis. One such crisis occurred in the 1970s, as the ‘welfare settlement’ which had underpinned broadly consensual politics in Britain after 1945, exploded in industrial and other conflicts. This political moment, perceived as threatening to the dominant order, was seized by Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and by Ronald Reagan in America, and they initiated a new era which we have come to think of as that of the new right, of neo-conservatism, or neo-liberalism. I suggest that the financial crisis of 2008 to the present is another such conjuncture, and has similarly given rise to the opportunity, and necessity, for radical changes.

The two crises compared
And the rest is here.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Leeds Salon May 20th

Freedom of Expression and the University
Thursday 20 May 2010
Leeds University Union
ARC Conference Room, 7:45pm (for an 8pm start) to 9:30pm

A joint event with Liberty@Leeds

In May 2010 Leeds University Union banned an issue of the Leeds Student newspaper containing a Palestinian activist’s allegedly anti-Semitic comment. Earlier in the year, a student society, the Palestinian Solidarity Group, was banned because its members disturbed a speech by an Israeli diplomat. A debate by Liberty at Leeds was prevented from going ahead as it featured a former member of the banned group Islam 4 UK. The Atheist Society were prevented from holding an event on freedom of speech that planned to show controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ anti-Islamic film Fitna.

Leeds University’s Protocol on Freedom of Expression states that an event can be banned if it ‘is likely to give rise to an environment in which people will experience - or could reasonably fear - harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse or violence.’

On Academic Freedom Day, a panel of university students will debate the pros and cons of academic freedom in light of recent controversies. Should speech be regulated and if so, by whom, to what extent and on what grounds? Is censorship sometimes necessary to protect ‘vulnerable’ groups, or should there be no protection from offence?

Does the university as a public institution and a place of free inquiry have a duty to promote the free expression of opinions, no matter how unpopular? Or are these lofty and old-fashioned ideals which interfere with the main business of the modern university of providing workplace skills for its customers and the know-how Britain needs to compete in the global economy?
Can free speech be institutionally protected, or is it up to students and lecturers, as free adult citizens and constituent members of the university, to speak out and challenge rules and regulations that restrain freedom of expression? Is free speech a private or a public right – an individual’s right of free expression, or the right of the public to hear all opinions free of censorship and make up their own minds?
Come and join the debate!

Jak Codd, Communications and Internal Affairs Officer, Leeds University Union
Sophia James, Equality and Diversity Officer, Leeds University Union
Marco Schneebalg, Chair of Manchester Israel-Palestine Forum; Politics, Philosophy and Economics student, Manchester University
James Wood, Liberty@Leeds member, Politics Student, Leeds University

Background readings:

Leeds University: campus conflict in microcosm
by Henrietta Foster, with podcast interview to Jak Codd and Virginia Newman, editor of Leeds Student newspaper

Pulled: LS removed from the shelves
Leeds Student editorial on attempted censure

Not about censorship
By Jak Codd, on why Leeds Student was censored:

The press has exaggerated anti-Israel protests in Manchester
By Marco Schneebalg, Alarmist reporting of an attack on Israel's deputy ambassador eclipsed growing dialogue between Jewish and pro-Palestinian students.

Fear and Loathing in Leeds
By Phil Dickinson, on No Platform at Leeds University:

Free speech on campus rightly has limits
By Geoffrey Alderman

Defend the Freedom Campaign
By Gayan Samarasinghe on Defend the Freedom campaign:

Leeds University Protocol on Freedom of Expression:

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Tinwolf 'visioning event'

Also coming up in Leeds is a Re-Inventing Our City: Creating Community Solutions for a Sustainable Leeds visioning event on Saturday, May 22nd at Left Bank Paris (the former St Margaret of Antioch church on Cardigan Road, LS6), running from 10-5. The event is free but they want advance notification via or 0113 2307127 is yoiu do go. There will be speakers, workshops, live artists, food and drink.

This event is part of the Transition town movement - go to or locally find Tinwolf (Transition Inner North-West of Leeds) at for more information.

What Do Want? Fair Votes

When Do Want It? Now!

The chant of the purple-coloured ranks of the Fair Votes campaign as they set off on an impromptu march round Leeds Millennium Square and neighbouring streets this afternoon. About 60 of us, so not much smaller than the May Day March two weeks ago. Quite a lot of people in purple. Short speeches from a Liberal Democrat and ex-Liberal MP Michael Meadowcroft, and from the Labour Party organiser of the protest, and a Green from Calder Valley (only one to get welcoming cheers), before a final speaker brought the voice of extreme eccentricity to us. Basially a gathering of political herbivores, keen to see a new politics around coalitions. The left (as I understand was absent) and there was no connection between social and economic issues and the demand for a more proportionate voting system.

Go to for more information about the campaign. And look closely at people in purple.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Steady State Economy Conference

On a greenish theme, the nef are promoting this conference, right here in Leeds, right close to home in the Rose Bowl at Leeds Metropolitan University. The presence of the Optimum Population Trust provokes some controversial questions about the direction of thought and policy here.

The Steady State Economy Conference
Saturday, 19 June, 2010 - 09:00 - 17:00
Never-ending economic growth is not possible on a finite planet; nor is it improving well-being. This conference will bring together NGOs, academics, businesses, politicians, the media, and the general public to explore an ecologically and socially responsible alternative to economic growth: the steady state economy.
By Alex E Proimos
Speakers include: Peter Victor, Professor in Environmental Studies, York University, Canada
Andrew Simms, Policy Director and Head of Climate Change and Energy, nef
Dan O’Neill, European Director, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development, University of Surrey (by video)

In addition, critical issues will be addressed in ten interactive workshops. Workshop speakers include Kate Pickett (co-author of The Spirit Level),
Molly Scott Cato (Economics Speaker for the Green Party),
Roger Martin (Chair of the Optimum Population Trust),
David Fell (Director at Brook Lyndhurst),
Stephan Lutter (Researcher at the Sustainable Europe Research Institute), among others.

Tickets are £30 for registration by 31st May 2010, or £50 after this date. Advance online registration is required.

nef May 2010 e-letter

Leeds Taking Soundings has discussed and even attempted to invite the New Economics Foundation to come and talk to us, but they haven't managed to get themselves together enough to actually get round to it.

Here's their May e-letter to give an idea of what they are about.

nef urges politicians to tackle broken banking system
Take Back Parliament campaign for electoral reform gathers momentum
Fantasy Cabinet creates dream team for tough times
Recent publications
Upcoming events
Connect with us

nef urges politicians to tackle broken banking system
Despite the fact that the UK is still reeling from the effects of the most severe financial crisis since the Wall Street Crash, party leaders didn't really address the big question of financial reform in the run up to the General Election. nef believes that our broken banking system is still the elephant in the room for politicians. The new coalition government must take measures to ensure that we avoid future crises.Our new manifesto, Better Banking, draws on years of policy research about how to create a financial system which is fair, resilient and adaptable, and which brings credit and financial services to disadvantaged communities and to the small businesses who are at the heart of the British economy and job market. The manifesto outlines ten actions, including the creation of a Post Bank, curbs on bonuses and channels for green investment, which we believe are vital first steps for the incoming administration.>> Read Better Banking>> Deborah Hargreaves: Election is ignoring the dysfunctional banking system>> Madeleine Bunting: Finance is responsible for this savage new era. But it's off the electoral agenda

Take Back Parliament campaign for electoral reform gathers momentum
Last month, nef launched the Voter Power Index website which revealed the unfairness at the heart of the UK's archaic First-Past-the-Post electoral system. The site was viewed over 300,000 times since its launch, including 65,000 times on election day itself. Now, having had a hung parliament and seeing the Liberal Democrats gaining seats in government, the opportunity for electoral reform is greater than ever before. nef has joined forces with democratic campaign groups, environmental NGOs and think-tanks to campaign for a fair voting system. Last weekend, a thousand demonstrators rallied in Trafalgar Square before marching to Liberal Democrat head offices to demand that electoral reform remains on their agenda as they enter a coalition with the Conservatives. More demonstrations are planned across the UK in the next few weeks.>> Take Back Parliament>> Sign the Avaaz petition for fair votes

Fantasy Cabinet creates dream team for tough times
Seventy years ago this week, Winston Churchill first formed his cross-party war cabinet to deal with an era of exceptional challenges. It was in that spirit that nef celebrated Election Night, with our "fantasy cabinet" fink club special. We asked guests to come up with an unusual suggestion for both ministerial positions and appointments – to steer the nation on the Great Transition to a new economy.In our election, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, won a landslide victory as Prime Minister. Other successes included Indian physicist Vandana Shiva as Minister for Food, and renegade-artist Bansky as Minister for Culture. There were also a range of radical proposals for new Ministerial posts: could we follow the example of Hungary and set up an Ombudsman for Future Generations? Or how about a Ministry for Common Sense comprised of a jury of randomly selected citizens to observe the cabinet process?As we make our way through a deeply unusual time in politics, we'd very much like to hear your suggestions for cabinet members up to the task in hand.

Gerry Hassan on Scotland

Again from OpenDemocracy a controversial piece about Scotland. Leeds Taking Soundings has discussed having a speaker about Scottish politics for a while (we fancied Christopher Harvie, without getting so far as invite him) and we certainly need to factor Scotland into our discussions.
Hassan makes the point that the Tories have an overall English majority of 61 over all other parties and 106 over Labour. What does this mean for our political future?

The Perilous Politics of ‘No Mandate’ and Genuine Scottish Self-Determination
Gerry Hassan, 13 May 2010

As British politics enters uncharted waters, Scottish politics seems strangely familar and returning to the parameters of the 1980s and the politics of 'no mandate', as Labour and SNP out do each other in the oppositionalist opportunism. How can we demand and expect more from our politicians than this?

British politics has just entered absolutely uncharted territory – with the establishment of ‘the Liberal Democrat-Conservative administration’ as David Cameron calls it. This is the first British coalition government – along with the first time the Liberals have been in office – since Churchill’s wartime administration – the anniversary of which was funnily enough on Monday (May 10th 1940).

Yet, Scottish politics seem to be settling into a pattern and set of positions which feels strangely familiar. The Labour and SNP can hardly contain themselves and seem to think the Con-Lib Dem alliance gives them permission to treat the Lib Dems as Tories in all but name, and vie for who can be the most opportunist, oppositional and inane. These are two supposed serious parties: one in government and one aspiring to office, both trying to out do each other in what looks like a politics of simplicity and childishness. Can we not expect more from our politicians than this?

I was just on ‘Newsnight Scotland’ with Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem MP for Orkney and Shetlands, and Alistair Allan, SNP MSP for Western Isles, and it was a revealing occasion in the paucity of thought from the SNP (1). Allan trundled out the ‘no mandate’ argument about the Con-Lib Dems – arguing that the Lib Dems had got into bed with the fourth party of Scotland and one which only has one MP out of Scotland’s 59.

We really need to explore this argument of the ‘no mandate’ a bit further. In the 1980s this arose as Thatcher’s Tories saw their vote fall – from 31% in 1979 to 24% in 1987 – and their parliamentary representation fall by more than half from 22 in 1979 to 10 in 1987 (2). At the same time the anti-Tory parties began to define themselves as such and coalesce around a shared centre-left agenda.

Things are very different now. The Con-Lib Dem alliance has a base of 36% support in Scotland, nearly twice the support of the SNP (20%) and not that far behind Labour (42%). Yet something much more fundamental than number crunching is at work here.

And the rest is here.

Anthony Barnett sees the end of Thatcherism

Anthony Barnett (with background history as a long-ago editor of New Left Review, author of a very good and critical book about the Falklands War, key figure in Charter '88, founder and key figure in OpenDemocracy, leading advocate of the HangEm strategy in the New Statesman) has written a very controversial article for Open Democracy entitled 'The End of Thatcherism'.

No endorsement here, but a contribution to the debate we need to be having.

Anthony Barnett, The End of Thatcherism, 13 May 2010
This week's creation of a Conservative led coalition with the Liberal Democrats has brought the period associated with Margaret Thatcher after her election in 1979 to an end. The UK will continue to play its part in global capitalism but a new kind of domestic politics is on offer. One way of describing it, uncomfortable as it may be for me to report, is that the transition from New Labour to a Tory led coalition promises a distinctly more progressive government in the UK. If indeed the Coalition agreement is carried out, then the new government will be to the left of its predecessor by being:
tougher on the bankers
more focused on helping the very poor
more democratic
ending New Labour’s assault on liberty
Europeanising Westminster politics
implementing greener policies
reintroducing cabinet government

This is relative praise. It remains a Tory government. The new coalition says it is planning to stuff the House of Lords with 200 cronies to secure its majority there, who will stay for their lifetimes; it will not investigate our use of torture; it says it will ask the British people to decide on how we vote yet, despite language about “grown-up” politics, it will treat us like infants and not permit us to consider a proportional system. And, of course there is the famous chasm between words and deeds.

However, for those of us involved with the Convention on Modern Liberty, especially my Co-Director Henry Porter who led the way in campaigning against New Labour’s transforming the British state into an instrument of hi-tech despotism, the coalition’s programme is a triumph, as he has rightly claimed. First for what it delivers, in rolling back ID cards, the National Information Register and the promise of a Great Repeal Bill. Second, for prevailing not least thanks to the Guardian/Observer, over the Murdoch press and the BBC - which refused to report on civil liberties as a serious issue and still doesn’t. Third, in terms of political culture that the Convention plugged into - the latent energy of collaboration and constructive discussion of differences, as against tribalism. The first press conference of Prime Minister Cameron and his Deputy displayed an embrace of this culture proclaiming it as a different and better way of doing things.

The rest is here.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Take Back Parliament

There are going to be gatherings around the country organised by Take Back Parliament on Saturday May 15th. In Leeds it will be in Millennium Square outside the Civic Hall from 12.00PM to 1.00PM. You can view the details of this event at any time by going to:

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

There are going to be a lot of events assessing the outcome of the General Election and suggesting ways forward for the rest of the left. Leeds Taking Soundings will be making its own modest contribution with our usual monthly meeting on Weds, May 26th with interesting local speakers. We hope you can make this and contribute.

On a national scale there are a number of conferences from across the leftwing political spectrum that might be of interest.

To start with what might be called the 'class-struggle' left there is an emergency conference called by the Right to Work Campaign in London on May 22nd focussed on resisting the cuts we know are coming. This is essentially organised by the SWP, but the line-up of speakers comes from a left-wing spectrum of trade unionists and includes speakers from Greece and Portugal.

The SWP will also be hosting their Marxism 2010 event in London from Thursday July 1st to Monday July 5th on the theme of 'Ideas to Change the World'. As usual there is an impressive line-up of speakers from a variety of radical corners and movements, including Slavoj Žižek, Sheila Rowbotham, Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, Gary Younge, Ben Fine, Alfredo Saad-Filho, Guglielmo Carchedi, Costas Lapavitsas, Graham Turner, John Holloway, Istvan Mészáros, Gerry Conlon, Moazzam Begg, Gareth Peirce, Ghada Karmi, Sami Ramadani, Mark Serwotka, Jeremy Dear. Jeremy Corbyn MP, Danny Dorling, Steven Rose, David Edgar, and Nina Power (who should be speaking to Leeds Taking Soundings in September). The line-up makes it worthwhile, despite the constant invites to join the SWP.

On a smaller scale the Alliance for Workers Liberty is hosting its annual Ideas for Freedom on July 11th-12th. This is focussed on 'Trotskyism and the Capitalist Crisis', but includes other invited speakers such as Neal Lawson from Compass and Philip Blond (author of Red Toryism).

Moving towards the leftwing mainstream there is a short day conference organised by the Labour Representation Committee on May 15th in London: After the Election . . . Join the Resistance!
Here's their blurb: "Whatever the outcome, the forthcoming General Election will be a watershed for the labour movement. With all the major parties threatening massive cuts in public spending, there is clearly a need for the Left to discuss how it can cooperate on this and many other issues. There will be plenary sessions with contributions from John McDonnell MP, Sarah Evans (Labour PPC in NW Hampshire), Billy Hayes (CWU General Secretary) and Mark Serwotka (PCS General Secretary)
This event is co-sponsored by the LRC, CLPD, Convention of the Left, CWU, Labour Briefing, NUJ, Save the Labour Party, Right to Work and the Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists.
One point - this seems to represent the current of left-wing social democracy exemplified by John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn - and they did well in the election.

The Fabian Society are not to be neglected. Also on May 15th is their 'Next Left: The First Post-Election Conference', also in London. Keynote speaker is Ed Miliband but also with David Lammy MP, John Denham MP, Steve Richards (The Independent), Sunder Katwala (Fabian Society), Gaby Hinsliff (former political editor of the Observer), Mary Riddell (Daily Telegraph), Ellie Gellard (Stilettoed Socialist), Chuka Umunna MP, Mark Pack (Co-Editor, Liberal Democrat Voice), Ellie Levenson (Journalist & Author, The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism) and more.

There is also the big conference organised by Compass: A New Hope, The Robin Cook Memorial Conference, Saturday 12 June 2010. again in London. Compass' enthusiasm for a Lab-Lib coalition spearheading a new politics of progressive forces has proved rather controversial, but you've got to respect an organisation that references Star Wars.

Here is some of their blurb:
Ideas, campaigns and coalitions needed to create a progressive consensus for the 21st centuryOver 90 speakers including: Neal Lawson, Chair, Compass; Jon Cruddas MP; Andrea Nahles MP, General Secretary, SPD; Baroness Helena Kennedy QC; Chuka Umunna; Polly Toynbee, The Guardian; Mehdi Hassan, New Statesman; John Harris, The Guardian; John Kampfner, Index on Censorship; Pam Giddy, Power 2010; Jonathan Rutherford, Soundings; Hilary Wainwright, Red Pepper; Gavin Hayes, Compass; Jon Trickett MP; Sam Tarry, Young Labour; Andrew Simms, nef; Anna Coote, nef; Prof Stephen Haseler, Global Policy Institute; Prof David Blanchflower, University of Stirling; Paul Mason, author & broadcaster; Kevin Courtney, NUT; Fiona Millar; Kat Banyard, UK Feminista; Ruth Davis, Greenpeace UK; Tim Baster, Climate Outreach Information Network; Robert Falkner, LSE; Will Straw, Left Foot Forward; Alex Smith, LabourList; Ceri Goddard, Fawcett Society; Belinda Calaguas, ActionAid UK; Colin Meech, UNISON; Louise Rouse, Fair Pensions; Erin Van Der Maas, Carnegie UK Trust; Nick Dearden, Jubilee Debt Campaign; Deborah Doane, World Development Movement; Kate Hudson, CND; Seamus Milne, The Guardian; Paul Hackett, The Smith Institute; Nick Johnson, Institute of Community Cohesion; Noel Hatch, Compass Youth; Aaron Porter, NUS; Laurie Penny, Liberal Conspiracy; Ken Macdonald QC; Prof Alan Johnson, Dissent Magazine; Carolina Amador Pérez, Cuban Womens Federation; Alvaro Sanchez, Venezuelan Embassy; Louise Christian; Clifford Singer, The Other Tax Payers' Alliance - who'll be joined by other leading figures from across the progressive community
Hosting over 40 sessions organised by the leading think tanks, pressure groups, NGOS and publications all at the one event including: Action Aid, Child Poverty Action Group; Citizens UK, CND, Compass Youth, The Co-Operative Party, Carnegie UK Trust, The Electoral Reform Society, The Equality Trust, The Fabian Society, Fawcett Society, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Index on Censorship, Jubilee Debt Campaign, LabourList, Lawrence & Wishart, Left Foot Forward, New Political Economy Network, nef, NUT, NUS, One Society, Oxfam, Power 2010, Philosophy Football, Progress, Red Pepper, RENEWAL, Republic, Shelter, The Smith Institute, Social Liberal Forum, Socialist Health Association, Soundings, Tribune, UCU, UK Feminista, Vote for a Change, War On Want, World Development Movement.

Finally, Soundings is also holding its annual event (also in London) on Saturday, July 3rd. I think I've seen an email about this, but there doesn't seem to be anything on the web about it yet.

There must be other events coming up and further information would be welcome, especially anything comparable with a Green hue. But note how everything is in London - the centralising political bias of Londoncentrism remains. Can the provinces strike back?

Levellers Association

Call for sponsors of a Levellers Association
We are currently organising the launch of a Levellers Association which would aim to popularise the history and heritage of the Levellers and other radicals in the English Revolution. It would seek to involve students, researchers and academics with amateur historians, 17th century re-enactors, publishers, artists, battlefield preservation societies, trade unionists, and campaigners who want to deepen our knowledge of the English Revolution.

The project is at an early stage but current sponsors include: Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Geoffrey Robertson QC, author of The Tyrannicide Brief, Jim Holstun, author of Ehud's Dagger, Ann Hughes, Professor of Early Modern History at Keele University, Neil Faulkner, editor of Military Times, Andrew Murray, Director of Communications for Unite the Union. Dr John Gurney, Visiting Fellow Newcastle University, Caryl Churchill, playwright. Rev. Hammer, songwriter, Dr Rachel Foxley, University of Reading, Philip Baker, Senior Research Officer at the Centre for Metropolitan History, Dr Ariel Hessayon, Goldsmiths, University of London, Mike Simons, John Westmoreland, Head of History, York College, Jane Shallice, Lindsey German, national convenor, Stop the War Coalition, Dr Geoff Kennedy, University of Ulster, Marcus Rediker, University of Pittsburgh, co-author (with Peter Linebaugh), The Many-Headed Hydra, Joel Kovel, Editor in Chief, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Dr Pete Woodcock, University of Huddersfield, Norah Carlin, author of The Causes of the English Revolution, The Socialist History Society, Dominic Alexander, books editor, Counterfire magazine, Rowan Wilson, Sales and Marketing Director, Verso Books, Clare Solomon, President-elect, University of London Union, Seumas Milne, Guardian columnist, Syd Fogarty, Jon France, Nottingham University,
Matthew Caygill, Leeds Metropolitan University, Dr Keith Flett, London Socialist Historians Group, Andrew Milner, Monash University, author of John Milton and the English Revolution
Kate Connolly, University of Paris.

This letter is being circulated on history, academic, trade union and activists lists in the hope of widening he sponsorship base of the project. Please do let us know if you would like to become a sponsor of the Levellers Association. We are aiming to hold an initial organising meeting on Saturday 22nd May, at 1pm in Room B104, the School of Oriental and African Studies Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG (nearest tube Russell Square). If you would like to attend or if you have any ideas that you would like discussed at the meeting please do let us know. Please respond to this email address:

We hope that people can help us establish a website, newsletter, conferences, education packs, publications, artistic events and so on...but there is absolutely no obligation on individual sponsors to do any of this.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Event: Readers' Forum

Wednesday June 2, 6-7pm

in The Boardroom (AG10) - Broadcasting Place - Leeds Metropolitan University

An informal meeting to discuss the recent economic crisis, based on a reading of Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey's article "Interpreting the Crisis" (from the Soundings journal Vol. 44) - here is a link to the article:

on the same topic, there's also an interesting discussion of the economic crisis with David Harvey, which was recently broadcast on Radio 4's Thinking Allowed programme, you can hear it here: (titled 'Capitalism and Development')

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


By Hugo Radice

28 April 2010

This week’s major intervention in the election campaign has surely been the call by the Institute for Fiscal Studies for the major parties to ‘come clean’ about their strategies for reducing the public sector debt, if elected. The IFS report has chimed strongly with the overall public attitude in this campaign, which is that politicians are all devious and untrustworthy. The media response to the report has therefore been to pander to this attitude by unthinkingly echoing the IFS position. The Guardian asserts that the IFS is “the leading economics think-tank” in the country, clearly implying that its views must be accepted without question.

But why should the IFS be beyond criticism? Is cutting the public debt really an objective economic necessity, or is it actually a deeply political stance, reflecting the interests of the business and financial élites?

To answer this question, we have to look closely at the history of debates about the public finances over the last forty years. During that time, the theory and practice of economic policy has shifted markedly from mainstream Keynesianism of the early 1970s, to the unchallenged hegemony of free-market neoliberalism since the early 1990s. Although there have been many elements in this overall shift – notably privatisation of state enterprises, deregulation of financial markets and attacks on trade union rights – the public finances have consistently played a critical role.

There were two key campaigns in particular that have affected the UK: the first during the ‘stagflation’ crisis of the mid-1970s, and the second during the sharp recession of the early 1990s. Both were paralleled by related shifts in policy prescriptions all across the world economy.

In the mid-1970s, Britain suffered especially sharply from an unprecedented combination of high inflation and the return of mass unemployment. Attempts by successive governments to address these problems started under the 1964-70 Wilson administrations, and continued through the Heath years to the return of Labour in 1974. In the decade from 1964, restricting public spending might be necessitated when sterling was under pressure, but was not seen as the key to macroeconomic stability. Instead, the predominantly Keynesian policy mainstream favoured state initiatives in the form of incomes policies and indicative planning, aiming to reconcile the conflicting interests of employers and unions through the good offices of the state.

But by 1976 these efforts had ended apparently in abject failure, although Keynesians could argue that inflation was significantly the result of factors outside British government control – notably the breakdown of the dollar-gold link in 1971 and the oil shock of 1973. The result was the emergence of two policy platforms standing to left and right of the mainstream. On the left, Labour and the unions flirted with an Alternative Economic Strategy which centred on a radical extension of state intervention in the modernisation of British industry. On the right, the monetarists led by Milton Friedman offered an equally radical alternative diagnosis of stagflation, blaming it on the fiscal and monetary indiscipline of the government.

Following a sudden dip in Britain’s trade balance in 1976, a run on the pound forced Chancellor Healey to turn to the IMF for help. The public spending cuts that followed signalled an early victory for the monetarist right, and the end of the road for both mainstream Keynesianism and the leftist Alternative Economic Strategy. Mrs Thatcher’s election success in 1979, followed by Reagan’s in the USA, heralded the return of pre-Keynesian economic and social conservatism. In Britain, the fierce monetary and fiscal squeeze that ensued put manufacturing to the sword, while the abolition of exchange controls allowed the burgeoning wealth from North Sea oil to be invested largely abroad. Subsequently, while the Third World was devastated by the debt crisis of the 1980s, the UK and US financial sectors pressed forward with deregulation at home and expansion abroad, laying the basis for their joint dominance of global financial markets.

Breakneck expansion eventually led, as it always does, to unsustainable credit growth, overheated markets and a new round of inflation. When the bust came in 1990-91, coinciding with the fall of communist regimes across the Soviet bloc, the free-market right once again blamed excessive public spending. The result within the European Union was the strictures of the Maastricht Treaty, first negotiated in 1991 and finally enacted, after some resistance, in 1993. In relation to public finance, from now on all EU member states were enjoined to limit their fiscal deficits to 3% of GDP, and their aggregate public debts to 60% of GDP. Limits along similar lines had, by then, become a central feature of Third World aid packages from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; they were also imposed upon the post-communist ‘transition’ countries. The hegemony of neoliberalism was now complete.

What is most striking, and highly relevant to the assessment of this week’s IFS intervention, is that at no point did the monetarist economists - or their neoliberal successors – explain why any particular limit to public deficits and debt was economically necessary. Instead we are offered, then as now, an entirely circular argument. We are told that deficit cuts are necessary because international bond markets require them. So why do international bond markets require them? Because they think that cuts are necessary. And why is that? Because the economic experts say so!

Now it is certainly the case that any individual government which accumulates debts that are very high compared to those of other governments will find itself subject to special scrutiny by the bond markets, as the Greeks now know only too well, and as many Third World governments found out already back in the 1980s. We should of course make allowance for the pernicious effects of speculators, for instance the role of George Soros in our own 1992 crisis that forced us out of the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism, or the flight of hot money from East Asia in 1997. But a reasonable case can still be made that governments should, in normal times, avoid excessive reliance on borrowing, especially to fund current expenditure as opposed to capital investments.

However, from the standpoint of macroeconomic stability, and especially that of maintaining full or near-full employment, our overriding concern today should remain that of Keynes: the need for governments to sustain economic activity at a time when savings in the private sector greatly exceed investments. This need is met by absorbing excess savings through the sale of government securities, the proceeds of which are then spent.

And because we now live in an integrated global economy, this Keynesian precept should be applied at the global level, not at the level of an individual country. Thus, the continued growth and prosperity of countries with chronic trade surpluses, like Germany and China, depends in conditions of global recession on the willingness of other countries like the USA and Britain to continue to run trade deficits. As a corollary – and this is really an economic fact – there will be matching outflows of capital from the former countries, and inflows into the latter. Given the current reluctance of businesses and households in the trade-deficit countries to borrow and spend, it is their government borrowing that keeps the world economy going.

We can see, therefore, that the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England, and Chancellor Darling and Shadow Chancellor Cable, are right to urge that government deficits should not be cut prematurely, because that would risk a ‘double-dip’ recession. As long as global savings continue to exceed global private sector investments, governments must continue to absorb that excess.

But still, why this obsession with restoring the deficit and debt ratios to ‘normal’ levels, once the global recovery has reached the point where private sector investment has recovered fully and cyclical unemployment has disappeared? There is, after all, no economic ‘law’ that dictates the 3% and 60% levels, or any other numerical values. The level of aggregate economic activity is entirely unaffected by the proportion of demand that flows through the public rather than the private sector.

The answer to this question, now as in the 1970s, lies not in economics, but in politics, or more specifically, in class warfare. It concerns the privileged position of private wealth within our restricted form of democracy. After 1945 the propertyless in most parts of the world, West, East and South, made remarkable gains in their well-being and in the strength of their political voice. By the mid-1970s, the propertied classes, whether capitalists, usurers, merchants or landlords, or indeed the Soviet-bloc bureaucratic élite, found themselves on the defensive on many fronts.

Many radical nationalist governments in the Third World continued to press for reforms in the governance of the world economy, challenging the new forms of economic colonialism that followed independence. In the Soviet bloc, the Prague Spring and the first stirrings of the Polish workers’ movement threatened the bureaucrats’ highly centralised power. And in the West, not only had new social movements challenged the elites on issues of gender, race and the environment, but workers were also advancing new claims to workplace democracy and economic security that seriously threatened the power of big business and high finance.

The neoliberal counter-revolution was the concerted response. For more than thirty years, the ideologists of neoliberalism, with economists to the fore, worked assiduously to construct a new common-sense about the economy based on the old liberal mantra: property rights, individualism and the residual state. By the time the sequence of localised crises that began in Britain on Black Wednesday in 1992 culminated in the global credit crunch of 2007, that work of construction was very largely complete.

Faced in September 2008 by an imminent total meltdown of global finance, the business and financial élites had no choice but to sanction a massive and collective rescue programme by the governments of the leading economies. There followed a period during which neoliberalism appeared to be in disarray, and in both academia and the media, alternative voices could once again be heard.

But within about six months, the neoliberals had regrouped. In Britain, as the debate over Darling’s 2009 Budget already showed, their ownership of the economic common sense allowed them to steadily shift the focus of debate from exacting retribution and repayment from the banks, to blaming governments for assuming the vast fiscal deficits that have kept capitalism afloat. Meanwhile. those who spoke up for real alternatives – for Green New Deals, for radical reform of the banks, for a new international financial architecture – have been pushed back to the margins of public attention. All that matters now, apparently, is to make sure that the state is cut back.

And to make absolutely sure that this happens, the IFS message comes with a chorus of attacks on the competence, work effort and dignity of public sector employees. The accompanying relentless demands for ‘efficiency gains’ have a double purpose. On the one hand, they are a euphemism for cuts in public sector jobs and pay, heralding an assault on the last redoubts of organised labour while undermining continued citizen support for nurses, teachers and soldiers alike. On the other hand, they undermine our confidence in the provision of public goods, encouraging a resumption of the shift to private sector providers initiated under Mrs Thatcher.

Given these attacks on working people and their communities, it is surely time to summon up our collective courage and reject the lies and misrepresentations that are being foisted upon us in this phoniest of all elections. For at present, it really doesn’t matter what combination of Libs, Labs and Cons cobble together a majority at Westminster. The Institute for Fiscal Studies are sadly right about one thing: the government that emerges will impose massive cuts in public spending. But they are not, repeat not, economically necessary.
28 April 2010

Hugo Radice is a Life Fellow of the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. His recent columns on the crisis in the Yorkshire Post are available via his webpage,