The last year should have been a happy one for the left. The great global lab experiment in unfettered finance capitalism has blown up. Bankers have become pariahs. Taxes on the rich have gone up. The pages of the financial press have had a frequent air of panic. New Labour has fallen out of love with the free market. Above all, the rightwing economic and political ideas first popularised by Margaret Thatcher in the 70s have, finally, lost their air of impregnability.
Yet in the MEP elections, which a few exceptions, the left (and I don't mean Neo-Labour) did very badly. The ideas of the left, to some extent, won the argument but lost the battle. Why is that? I think the argument made in the article about economics is the key;
Until well into the Thatcher era, the left in Britain was a complete and vigorous political world. It had a mass membership through the unions and the Labour party. It had credibility and charismatic figures: even establishment papers such as the Times feared and sometimes respected Tony Benn or the National Union of Mineworkers. And it had potent ideas from the likes of Gramsci and Marx and Keynes. All of these elements have decayed since the 80s; but none so damagingly, especially in the light of the financial crisis, as the left's thinking about the economy.
"The left just gave up on economics," says the economist Paul Ormerod, who retains sympathy for the cause. "Marx and Keynes cast such long shadows. There was too much of the left saying, 'It's all there in the old masters.'" Marx died in 1883 and Keynes in 1946; by the 80s – some would say much earlier – the world economy had changed sufficiently to invalidate some of their ideas. Yet the left was more interested by then, Ormerod argues, in other issues such as race and gender and sexuality. Lawson agrees: "We've had a hollowed-out generation of economic thinkers."
Since the 80s, Ormerod says, rightwing economists "have taken over in treasuries and central banks all over the world". Western universities, too, have become production lines for rightwing economics graduates – and for graduates who do not even consider a complete faith in the free market to be a political position at all.
I agree. The left (and I use the term broadly from anarchism to democratic socialism) have fought the personal-political battles (equality) and they were battles to be fought, but in the process we ceeded economic to the right. This is not a new point - Naomi Klein makes it in 'No Logo' and while the anti-capitalist movements were great at pointing out where the system went wrong, I think we've not really looked deep enough at alternatives or indeed where the market might have got things right - heresy to say it, I know - but when is comes to ecnomics - and I use the term broady, not just about money and the FSTE, but about wealth, resources, distribution, povery and quality of life - we have some serious thinking and doing to evolve the next generation of ideas and projects.
There is some hopeful shoots - the cross-fertilisation of green and labour movements will produce interesting results provided we are all prepared to not be dogmatic and listen a bit more and projects like the p2p foundation are doing great work getting into the deep thinking that we need to do.