Dispossessing the thieving class

Stolen: How to save the world from financialisation

By Grace Blakeley

Published by Repeater Books, 2019, £10-99

Reviewed by Paul Kershaw

For a long time it has been easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, according to Grace Blakely’s best seller. But, as she shows, capitalism has not always existed and “the technological, economic, and political preconditions for the establishment of socialist societies exist today in ways that they never have in history”.

The current period is marked by huge capitalist monopolies, often several times the size of nation states, that organise themselves based on top down planning. Technological development means that unparalleled data is now produced about needs and production to inform planning. Currently this is used by a tiny elite for profit but why not plan production for people with democratic control?

Grace Blakeley argues that it is not enough to imagine a new world; we must develop a strategy to get there, and to do that we must analyse the current situation. We are given an account of the post-world war two period culminating in the latest phase of neoliberalism and economic ‘financialisation’. Rightly, she argues that this has reached its limits and is now in deep crisis: “Today, after the extended period of stagnation that followed the crash, we inhabit a revolutionary moment. We live in the shadow of a great event that will come to define the thinking of a generation”. Strictly speaking it is going too far to suggest we are in a revolutionary situation, but the basic thought here is right.

The economic crisis, along with climate change, lays the basis and urgent need for fundamental socialist change as Blakeley argues. The effects of coronavirus over recent months have only intensified the crisis and the need for change. It is easy to see how this book has captured the imagination of many of those drawn into the orbit of Corbynism in Britain and the ideas, strategy and programme it contains continue to be important.

Grace Blakeley accepts that Corbynism had limits. She writes that “the Labour Party’s manifesto reads like a return to the post-war consensus… we cannot afford to be so defensive today. We must fight for something more radical… because the capitalist model is running out of road. If we fail to replace it, there is no telling what destruction its collapse might bring”.

The book was written before the 2019 election campaign but the questions posed in it deserve serious debate as we enter a disturbed historical period in which formerly ‘extreme’ ideas come centre stage. Do its policy proposals rise to the ‘revolutionary moment’ she has identified?

There is a call for existing banks to be ‘constrained’ while setting up a public retail bank or postal banks in competition along with a new National Investment Bank. But the long history of attempts to regulate the financial system point to the capitalists’ ability to find their way around each new attempt to bring them to heal.

The big five UK banks had to be effectively nationalised and bailed out at huge expense to the government after the 2007-2008 crash. Clearly it was possible to take them over to save capitalism; why not take them over to save us from the disaster so eloquently described in this book?

The other key proposal is to establish a ‘Peoples Asset Manager’ tasked with gradually buying up shares of multinationals, incrementally socialising sections of the economy and then pressurising companies to support socially useful investment. A left government’s “control over the state” would be used over time to “dissolve the distinction between capital and labour”.

The possibility of a socialist programme of nationalising the banks and financial system along with the commanding heights of the economy and a state monopoly of foreign trade is not seriously considered. The technological and economic conditions for socialism may, as the book explains, exist today in ways never seen before in history, but we are presented with a programme of limited reforms and the prospect of further gradual change over time while crucial levers of economic power are left in the hands of the capitalist class.

This gradual process is not presented as a means of avoiding conflict. Blakeley draws an analogy with the way Thatcher used the Ridley report – which set out how the Tories would weaken the trade unions. Where they demonised the unions, support for the banks would be undermined. An “ecology of organisations committed to disrupting capitalist power relations” would hold a left government to account.

Perhaps the belief is that a gradual approach is more practical? But what would the response of the capitalists be? There is a lesson from the experience of Corbyn’s period as Labour leader. Even when his demands were relatively limited and made in opposition, they met with implacable hostility from the capitalist establishment including their representatives within the Labour Party. The capitalist class could sense a long-term mortal threat, not only from Corbyn but from what any success for Corbyn could have led to. They understood that the very factors that this book describes as leading to a revolutionary moment meant that a radical opposition could not be tolerated. How much more ferocious would the opposition to a government with such a programme be?

As a minimum, it would be faced with an investment strike. That would pose the question of whether to retreat, or to move to a more comprehensive programme. To leave the levers of the economy in the hands of capital for an extended period opens the road to catastrophe.

There is no real attempt to analyse state power in the book, despite several quotes from Lenin, whose writings on the state are a vital part of the arsenal of Marxism. To base a strategy on the assumption that an elected government would have ‘control of state power’, as this book does, flies in the face of bitterly learnt historical lessons. Stolen does ask “why would a state beholden to the interests of the asset owners act in a way that would lead to capital losses for its key constituency?” But then it goes on to speak of opportunities to “rebalance power away from capital to labour” drawing lessons from the rise of Thatcher.

Unfortunately, the international history of the workers movement has many examples of radical governments coming to power but failing to move decisively against capital. The democratically elected Popular Unity government in Chile was held up as an example internationally. Unlike in other Latin American countries, it was argued, the army had a strong tradition of political neutrality and respect for the constitution. By building cross class alliances progress would be made. Unfortunately, the capitalists worked to destabilise the Popular Unity government and, at the right time for them, moved against it with a bloody coup. Being the elected government is not the same as holding state power.

Who would argue that the British capitalists would be inclined to accept the result of a general election like losing a game of cricket? During Corbyn’s period as Labour leader it became known that senior generals warned that they would not be loyal to a Corbyn government.

The book’s description of contemporary financialised capitalism will strike a chord with workers and young people faced with cuts, rising rents, and house prices along with the longest pay squeeze since Napoleonic times. If Thatcherism established a certain social basis by, for example, making homeowners feel wealthy because of rising prices, that period is now long past. This has also undermined the position of the Blairites and similar trends internationally.

Blakeley notes the fate of PASOK, a former mass workers party in Greece that all but disappeared from the scene having implemented austerity. Social democratic parties internationally have faced comparable problems. The British Labour Party did not follow the same path under Corbyn but under Sir Keir Starmer it is now moving in that direction.

Stolen reflects an awakening radicalisation but not yet an analysis or strategy adequate to the fundamental tasks posed by the period. Ideas and programmes will be tested in the unstable period ahead with the opportunity to win people drawn into politics in the Corbyn period to a programme for socialist transformation.