A very social economist

Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

September 14, 2017 · 7 min read

Robin Murray was an extraordinarily imaginative, radical and humane economist. His wide range of influences included Marxism, Gandhi and the living experiments around the world that inspired him daily – one of the sources of his tremendous, and infectious, optimism and hope. His ideas provide us with the basis not only for the next Labour government’s industrial and economic policies but for what we as activists, in trade unions, social movements, co-operatives and the public sector, can do to build the productive and creative power needed to support a transformative government and the alternatives here and now.

Robin’s vision was always grounded in what exists. It starts from a radical move away from the conventional classification of the economy as the market, state and ‘third sector’. He argued instead that the key divide is between those parts of the economy that are driven by social goals (the social economy) and those that are subject to the imperatives of capital accumulation.

The social economy is a hybrid of several sub-economies, all distinct in how they are financed, who has access to output and on what terms, what kinds of social relations are involved, how surplus is distributed and what kind of economic discipline is exerted to achieve their social goals. They consist of the household, governed by relations of reciprocity; the state, funded by taxes and governed in theory by democratically-decided social goals; and that section of the market that involves the exchange of equivalents (between small social or co-operative businesses) and not yet dominated by capitalist enterprises.

They are all in different ways in conflict with the profit-driven economy and vulnerable to its imperatives. But there is nothing intrinsic to the state, grant or household economies that drives them towards capital accumulation. As economies they are oriented to their own social goals. Each can operate in the market (or, as Robin would say, ‘in and against the market’ – just as when we worked together at the Greater London Council we were, in Robin’s view, working ‘in and against’ the state) in pursuit of their goals without being drawn into the vortex of accumulation.

The cell is key

How different civil economic initiatives work to pursue their social goals was his interest, and how to strengthen them was his political passion. ‘It’s the cell that’s the most important and what we must study,’ he said when I last saw him, moving a discussion from systems of planning to the micro-detail of the highly successful Japanese consumer co-ops. For him the conditions of success of the cell was key: ‘If the cell is flourishing, that’s the thing.’

He was also concerned to explain the patterns of emergence of many cells. He pointed to the importance of the marginalised responding to globalisation, and of responses to the challenges of climate change to which neither market nor state had solutions. He highlighted the importance of ICT and the ways it enables complex distributed initiatives to connect, makes it possible for people to collaborate across production and consumption, and facilitates platforms for co-operation and the infrastructure for a massive increase in the civil economy.

One trend that particularly excited him was the rise of fair trade as a counterpoint to neoliberalism. He would have fought hard against the serious threat it now faces from major UK supermarkets, led by Sainsbury’s, who are planning to replace the Fairtrade mark, with their own ‘Fairly Traded’ label undermining decades of hard-won rights for hundreds of thousands of co-operative producers.

The term was first used in 1988 to refer to the surge of solidarity trading networks. Though they take different forms, reflecting different struggles, they are all part of an attempt to socialise the market and remake the relationships, rules and purposes of international trade. The idea works on several different levels, which can be in tension – but tension was never a problem for Robin.

On one level it involves the various kinds of fair trade shops, such as Altromercato in Italy, 300 ‘world’ shops with an annual turnover of $48 million. Shops that for Robin carried ‘within them the political economy of the world in one hundred objects’. On another level there are brands, such as Cafedirect, established between producer co-operatives. Twin Trading, which Robin helped to found, had become the sixth largest coffee brand in the UK by 2005. It used its brand profits to provide an extensive programme of technical support for producers. It extended the model to cocoa through Divine chocolate, fresh fruit (Agrofair UK) and nuts (Liberation) – all of them, including Twin Trading itself, co-owned by the producers. The next level involved the formation of an international body, the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, to operate an international trademark and ensure consistency. Finally, via ALBA, an alliance of progressive Latin American countries, fair trade extended into government policy.

Transforming the state

It is this final challenge of how to integrate the state and civil economy that especially intrigued Robin. It was in just such an experiment in public-civil collaboration that I worked closely with him for five years at the GLC. He was the ‘chief economic advisor’ – titles meant little to him; I was his deputy and co‑ordinator of the Popular Planning Unit. We were, in his words, showing ‘how to heal that conceptual split introduced by 19th-century liberal theory: the forced separation of the economic and the political’.

Our work involved transforming the state, so that it was more supportive of the creative capacities and associational power of the civil economy and more intransigent in resisting the imperatives of private capital. Two principles of Robin’s were important. First, ‘productive democracy’: the idea that the state and civil economy, especially through the organised capacities of labour – household labour and precarious labour as well as waged labour – was productive, breaking the dependence of democratic politics on private capital. Second, the role of the state in supporting – not substituting – the realisation and development of the capacities of civil economic associations.

[related]This support took many forms, with Robin and the GLC leadership always encouraging a bold, experimental approach. Sometimes it was a matter of using the GLC’s powers to block financial speculators – for example, supporting the community development plans of the people of Coin Street, Waterloo, against office developers from the City. Sometimes it involved using the GLC’s high public profile to support workers organising in multinationals such as Ford and Kodak with public inquires that questioned capital’s sacrifice of jobs and communities in the constant search for profit. At other times, it involved encouraging civil organisations to produce positive plans for socially-useful jobs, whether by negotiating research support for trade unions to develop alternative plans for rundown industries, or working with women’s groups across London on proposals for childcare that the GLC would then fund.

It was an experiment made possible by Robin’s ability to draw on a wealth of historical experience of associational/co-operative socialism and combine it with modern ideas of participatory democracy or ‘popular planning’. The memory of his generative and supportive leadership will continue to animate many people engaged in productive democracy of all kinds, whether in reversing power relations in the food chain, developing peer-to-peer production with the digital commons, or spreading models of decentralised and co-produced health care, personal care for the elderly and childcare. His arguments and ideas will live on and will animate our lives as we seek out our path away from neoliberalism.

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