Where Paul Mason goes wrong.

By Farcaster – http://heymancenter.org/files/events/milanovic.pdf, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49781915

Paul Mason’s 2018 article What kind of capitalism is it possible for the left to build? while dated in its optimistic presumption that left governments were on the cards in the UK, USA, France and Spain in short order, is, as he puts it “brutally honest” in its rejection of any notion that the working class in the richer countries has any obligations towards, or prospects of an alliance with, the working classes and oppressed of the developing world.

As he puts it in his conclusion,

“Is this strategy designed to allow the populations of the developed world to capture more of the growth projected over the next 5-15 years, if necessary at the cost of China, India and Brazil having to find new ways to break out of the middle income trap? Would it, in other words, flatten out and reverse the trends captured in Branko Milanovic’s famous “elephant graph” over the next two decades?

For me the answer is yes. This is a programme to save democracy, democratic institutions and values in the developed world by reversing the 30-year policy of enriching the bottom 60% and the top 1% of the world’s population.

It is a programme to deliver growth and prosperity in Wigan, Newport and Kirkcaldy – if necessary at the price of not delivering them to Shenzhen, Bombay and Dubai.

Lets examine this more closely. Delivering growth and prosperity to “Wigan, Newport and Kirkaldy” – if necessary at the price of not delivering them to Shenzen, Bombay (sic – its been called Mumbai for years) and Dubai” might be more simply summarised as “Britain First”, despite Mason’s insistence that he is against “ethno-nationalism”.

Letting Shenzen and Mumbai go hang alongside Dubai means that he is not solely concerned with the “Global South elite” – a term that appears in his Tweets quite a lot as a way to imply that the Global South is so much more full of elites than the Global North – but with the labouring masses of the entire Global South; the overwhelming majority of humanity. For Mason, if they stay poor as the price of “prosperity to Wigan”, so be it. But, in reality, the “bottom 60%” are far from being “enriched”. They are barely getting by. Under the impact of Covid and now the Ukraine war, they are being impoverished very quickly.

Presumably Mason thinks that’s ok because they’re used to it, and should find “other ways” to get better off; and its their problem to do it, nothing to do with us. These are, after all, far away countries of which we know little.

In this sentence is the abandonment of any basic solidarity between working people in the wealthy countries and those who are far worse of than we are – probably because they are far worse of than we are.

The “elephant graph is misleading in some respects in that, while it notes increases in wealth, it does not take into account the starting points for those increases, and gives the impression that the working class in the developed/advanced/imperialist countries (delete according to ideological preference, but we all know who we’re talking about) are relatively hard done by compared with those in the Global South. This graphic from Visual Capitalist (!) shows what the actual distribution of global wealth is – and points to rather different conclusions from Mason’s.

The full article from Visual Capitalist can be seen here.

The “logic” of Mason’s position is that working class people in the Global North, most of whom are in the 32.8% above earning between $10,000 and $100,000 a year and hold 11.1% of the world’s wealth, should be fighting simultaneously with the top 11% – those earning over $100,000 a year holding 85% of the world’s wealth – and the bottom 55% – those earning less than $10,000 a year owning just 1.3% of the world’s wealth.

In his failure to recognise the necessity of an alliance between workers in the Global North with those in the Global South – the majority of humanity – Mason’s position can’t help but collapse into the “ethno-nationalism” he claims to be seeking to avoid.

The logic of “ethno-nationalism” is for workers in the wealthier countries to bloc with the top 11% – who are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Global North – against the Global South. “Send them back!” Build that wall!” This is most extremely expressed by Fascists. But Fascists, in emphasising white racial solidarity as their motivating drive, create division and run the risk of civil war in multi ethnic Global North countries. So, at the moment, this is usually expressed more “inclusively” in terms of “national unity” or “Western Values” or “democracy in our continent” (Keir Starmer, my emphasis).

And, looking at this more closely, Mason avoids a key point. Part of the Global South has found another way forward, but not one that Mason likes.

If you look at the link to the elephant graph in the quote above, it has a very revealing caption. The sharp differentiation between the working class in the developed countries and the top 1% is very clear. The growth in income and well being in the Global South is helpfully qualified to point out that most of this has happened in China.

And so it has. From an average per capita income of around $300 a year in 1980 to over $10,000 a year now. This has been described in a Labour Foreign Policy Group document that is primarily hostile to China as “perhaps the most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history”.

You might think that such a development might merit a positive engagement from someone who describes himself as a Socialist; given that the elimination of extreme poverty in China and the lifting up of 850 million people to relatively decent living standards has taken place under the government of a Communist Party with 90 million members in a country that sees itself as building “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

But not a bit of it. Mason counterposes this to “prosperity in Wigan etc”. His “30 year policy” remark implies that the growth and development in China – which is of a different order and different scale to any part of the Global South still labouring under the Washington consensus – is part of the same process that has led to extreme income differentiation in the Global North, not, as it is, part of a challenge to it.

He therefore gets his alliances all wrong. While he posits the possibility of taking on both the bottom 60% and the top 1%, the logic of his position is a Global North class bloc against the Global South in general, and those countries within it that see themselves as Socialist in particular.

His title spells this out. “What kind of capitalism is it possible for the left to build?” This is the Left in the developed countries. Ourselves alone. Which he presumes can take on our own ruling classes – not only without global allies but actively repudiating them – while leaving the 1% he is supposedly targeting in control of their own system; hoping that – under challenge -they will stay within the bounds of “democratic institutions”; despite all our historical experience of what they do whenever their interests are threatened.

This is both wrong and impossible.

And the proof of this pudding has already been in the eating. Since he wrote his article in 2018, the vehicles for such a prospect have been seriously smashed up by the ruling class. No one now expects the Sanders current in the US, the sort of left Social Democracy represented by Corbynism in the UK, or La France Insoumise to get into government. At all. The scale of defeat varies, but the bottom line is that no variant of left social democracy is going to be let anywhere near government in any country in the Global North that has any heft; so Mason’s nostrums are a dead letter before they start. In the UK, the Starmer project flirts overtly with and encourages exactly the sort of ethno-nationalism Mason claims he opposes.

We live in the best democracies money can buy. The “democratic institutions” in our countries are the facade through which the rule of the 1% is mediated. This operates on a whole series of sophisticated levels which, under the impact of economic and political crises are becoming more evident. The attacks on “democracy, democratic institutions and values in the developed world” – from naked gerrymandering to voter suppression to racist notions that citizenship in wealthy countries is a privilege that carries a price tag of political loyalty- are all home grown. These “democratic institutions” are not a natural part of Global North society but a space to organise won in struggle that is now under increasing attack with – paradoxically – the slogans of a Cold War between “Democracy” and “authoritarianism” as part of the cover for it.

Economic Nationalism and Nuclear Energy

The problem with drinking patriotic Kool Aid is that it can’t help but lead to hallucinations. And it doesn’t matter if the beverage concerned is traditional true blue vintage or a home brew knock off tribute version.

Surreal is not usually a word I would associate with the General, Municipal and Boilermakers Union, but their comment on the government decision to try to cut out Chinese involvement in UK Nuclear power plant construction – that this is a huge opportunity to regain the UK’s position as the world leader in new nuclear (1) – is bizarre for a number of reasons.

  • The UK has not been a world leader in new nuclear since about 1957.
  • In 2019 the countries installing the most new nuclear power plants were China and Russia. (2)
  • Since 1990, Japan and France have dominated global nuclear R&D, with 64% of expenditure between them. (3)

The UKs proposed £250 million investment in developing Small Modular Reactors as part of the government’s 10 point Plan is such a tiny fraction of this that it might be more accurately categorised as a token gesture.

Nevertheless, SMR plants, based on a souped up version of Rolls Royce’s nuclear motors for submarines – will – if they go ahead – produce electricity that is a third more expensive even than that produced by large reactors at the moment; in a context in which the costs of renewables are constantly falling. Why the industry projects that these expensive baby white elephants would create a viable export industry is a mystery – especially after somewhat larger funding to kick start a similar project in the USA was pulled in 2017 (4).

Promises of a nuclear new dawn larded down with bunting are hardy perennials. In 2015, George Osborne promised that that at least £250m would be spent by 2020 on an “ambitious” programme to “position the UK as a global leader in innovative nuclear technologies”.(5) Same old figure. Same old patriotic bluster. Welcome to the new announcement. Same as the old announcement.

Plans for 6 new large power stations have now been cut to 3. Cost overruns and delays are built in, as is a high price for the electricity eventually generated. The price for electricity generated by Hinckley C is £92.50 per megawatt hour; twice the wholesale price. This plant, being constructed by EDF, was supposed to be built by 2017, but is now not expected until 2026. It will cost £23bn, not the original £16bn in the contract. Sizewell C is projected to cost another £20 billion, with the costs falling on bill payers even before its up and running.

There are many reasons not to go down the nuclear route. Chinese involvement is not one of them.

Workers at Fukushima showing how safe nuclear power is.  IAEA Imagebank is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The argument to break the contract with China’s “state owned nuclear energy company”, as the GMB puts it, is on “security” grounds. This is only an issue if the government is projecting a future of increasing hostility. This is not something being generated by the Chinese. We are sending an aircraft carrier to their backyard. They are not sending one to ours. The whole labour movement should see this new Cold War atmosphere as a threat, not dress it up as an opportunity.

  1. Chinese nuclear block ‘staggering U-turn’ from Conservatives | GMB

2. Nuclear Power – Analysis – IEA

3. Energy Subsidies – World Nuclear Association (world-nuclear.org)

4. UK: Power from SMRs 30% more expensive than large reactors | Wise International

5. UK government to release funding for mini nuclear power stations | Energy industry | The Guardian