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Nye Bevan, the driving force behind the creation of the NHS, gave a succinct description of the process now destroying one of the greatest achievements of the Attlee government – indeed, of any Labour government. He declared that: ‘In practice it is impossible for the modern state to maintain an independent control over the decisions of big business. When the state extends its control over big business, big business moves in to control the state.’
While he could not have anticipated the extent to which private companies have moved in to control and profit from the steady destruction of the NHS ), he did show an appreciation, rare among politicians, of the asymmetric power of private business.
It is a power which has grown enormously over the past half century, both pressing for and gaining from the political creation of a deregulated and globalised capitalist economy.
It is vital here to distinguish between capitalist markets and markets more generally. Indeed the economic historian Fernando Braudel referred to capitalist markets as ‘anti-market’, because of their secrecy, and their predatory drive to accumulate partly through eliminating and taking over competitors.
The problem is that the ‘naturalisation’ of the capitalist market – the uncritical acceptance of ‘the free market’ and the idea that there are unavoidable ‘imperatives’ of globalisation – has elided this distinction. It has created the impression that we face ebbs and flows as unstoppable as the ocean when in fact we face institutions driven by power struggles and flawed human decision-making, legitimately open to challenge.
Our political institutions, meanwhile, have allowed themselves to be effectively occupied, or more accurately warrened-because half of the process has not been visible from the surface-by these anti-market (and anti-public) institutions.
The result has been a lethal gulf between parliamentary politics, where the growth of economic power is hardly debated – beyond one-off scandals – and people’s daily lives, where the opaque, unaccountable pressure of corporate power is pervasive: at work (or out of work), as service users, consumers and debtors, and as pensioners. This induces a feeling of powerlessness and lowers expectations of change.
A fatal problem with New Labour – now questioned by thoughtful Labour party members such as John Denham – was that its strategy of encouraging the capitalist market with the aim of redistributing some of the results treated private corporations as ‘wealth creators’ rather than as concentrations of power. This includes power over the workers who create the wealth pocketed or controlled by the shareholders.
Corporate power has grown as regulation has receded, so that most markets are now controlled by three or four companies whose assets dwarf those of many nation states. The outsourcing of public services has played a major part in this growth of private economic power.
Serco and Capita are two examples of companies who have been propelled into the FTSE 100 on the back of public contracts. In the process, they have become political players, not simply lobbying for contracts but influencing supposedly public policy.
When Nye Bevan first became an MP in the 1930s, he described parliament as ‘a sword pointed the heart of private property’. The last 30 years have seen the executive, first under Thatcher, then under Blair, allowing private companies to thrust a sword into the heart of public property.
Cameron is now finally trying finally to destroy the public hands that could seize it back.
Public power cannot be rebuilt through the parliamentary institutions that so beguiled Nye Bevan. Rebuilding public and social power requires new strategies at every level of society, including state institutions.
An experience such as Bolivia (see issue page 28), however distant from our own, indicates the importance of politicians seeing themselves as empowering social movements, internationally as well as locally. And, in a more ambiguous way, Brazil (page 25) points to spaces for challenging the US-dominated power of the global market.
Resistance to the cuts can simultaneously build the power to improve public services, even bringing them back into public ownership, as has happened in Germany and Norway. The movements for free culture, open access to knowledge and expansion of the digital commons is producing a new imaginary around the centrality of common goods and infrastructure that can spread beyond the digital world (see issue page 44).
In all these ways, and through intensive exposure and education, we must bring the concentrations of anti-democratic economic power to the centre of political struggle.
Apart from anything else, in age where people aspire to autonomy and democratic control, it is the way to turn the tables on Cameron. It is essential to an effective strategy to save and update the legacy of Nye Bevan.
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Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
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Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
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The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
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Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament