Election 2019: Transatlantic socialism rising

As Sanders and Corbyn head to the polls, Peter Gowan describes a new spirit of international collaboration on the left

November 30, 2019 · 4 min read
Medicare for All rally in San Francisco. Photo by Molly Adams (used under CC license).

The ‘green new deal’ (GND) can appear an odd frame for climate justice organisers in the UK. After all, the UK never had an original New Deal. This was presumably the thinking behind Labour’s attempt to rebrand it as a ’green industrial revolution’, capturing the historic resonance of an important period of economic and social development for a project of rapid national mobilisation on the interlinked issues of climate change and economic transformation.

The energy among the Labour grassroots, however, has stuck with the notion of a GND, which in Labour’s conference policy includes a 2030 decarbonisation target and a just transition for affected workers. The frame has cachet not because British voters have developed an overnight affection for Franklin D Roosevelt, but because the GND today connotes something different – a movement and policy connection with the most progressive elements of the US left, typified by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders.

This connection is not imaginary. Indeed the connections between the US and British socialist movements have become deeper and the fruits of their cooperation increasingly concrete. Sanders now speaks of public ownership of utilities and renewable power generation – a concept foreign to his 2016 campaign – while Labour has committed to deeper and faster decarbonisation than in 2017.

Ownership funds

The Democracy Collaborative has facilitated some of these exchanges, particularly on the issue of worker ownership and control. This includes the proposal to mandate worker-controlled ownership funds in major companies. These would be asset-locked and risk-free for workers. They would pay an annual dividend but otherwise be non-tradeable, giving workers an incentive to use their ownership stake to increase wages and agitate for better conditions and control rather than maximising share values and selling to the highest bidder.

Just as financial deregulation and the ‘right to buy’ council homes gave many British workers a direct stake in the individualised capitalism of the 1980s onwards, ownership funds would be a direct and tangible link between economic democracy and workers’ pockets – and a model for further democratisation later. The strategic dimension is important here. Labour’s economic programme needs to provide immediate and tangible benefits to maintain consent for the deepening of a democratic socialist programme.

The Sanders proposal echoes many elements of Labour’s ideas. Instead of mandating a transfer of 10 per cent of shares over 10 years, it doubles the ambition to require a 20 per cent stake. Labour proposes that one third of board seats be elected by workers, Sanders 45 per cent. Both propose a ‘right to own’ to give workers the chance to buy a company before it is sold or closed and establish new priorities, products and practices. The similarity of these proposals is no accident – many of the same policy experts worked on both.

International collaboration

The emergence of a transatlantic left public sphere has also seen exchanges between organisers and communications professionals. Staff from the Sanders campaign spoke at Labour fringe events this year, and organisers from adjacent organisations such as Momentum, Democratic Socialists of America, Justice Democrats and the New Economy Organisers Network are in regular conversation.

The relationship between the US and the UK has often been the driving force of developments in global political economy. We should welcome the international solidarity, as well as seeking to assist and learn from left projects in other countries.

The Corbyn and Sanders projects have been enriched immensely by deepening ties between movements – and this should continue. But we should also ask ourselves what we can learn from other movements. The Mitterrand and Syriza experiences should loom large in our heads, as should Pinochet’s coup in Chile. We would be wise to seek out advice from those who have participated in advanced left projects that failed to learn their lessons about how to make sure that political-economic change is successful, permanent and truly empowering.

Peter Gowan is a resident fellow at the Democracy Collaborative’s Next System Project

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