Against Austerity, For Independence

By Donald Adamson

The recent publication of Richard Seymour’s book, Against Austerity (1), is a welcome addition to the ever-growing response of the Left to the present crisis of capitalism. Although much of this book is directed largely, though not exclusively at the British socialist Left, it is difficult to avoid acknowledging, particularly at this critical moment in Scottish and British history, its relevance for the Scottish Left and the independence referendum (2). One of the impressive features of this book is its approach to ideology, and the independence referendum is, above all, an ideological struggle, a struggle that cannot be reduced simply to the ideology of nationalisms.

Before coming to these, and related questions – it should be noted that, in this book, Seymour has no interest in the referendum – I will provide a brief overview of the main themes in the book. Seymour sets out his stall in a short but entertaining preface. Our understanding of austerity is seriously flawed, he argues, and needs to be reappraised. The other key message in the preface will be more unpalatable for many on the Left. He doesn’t actually say here that the Left has been so preoccupied with its analyses of capitalist crises that it hasn’t noticed that it, too, is in crisis, but that is what he’s getting at , and it is difficult to disagree with his assessment that:

“There are a range of political styles on the Left, a set of discursive habits, and models of organisation, which were inherited from past failure. They need to be broken with. This is not a cause for resignation, but for reviewing and rethinking. It is a cause for breaking with consolatory ideology and convenient forgetting” (p vi).

Reading this book, which sits comfortably with other recent analyses (3), not least because it locates neo-liberalism in the history of capitalism, I’m reminded of a cartoon in a magazine from the late 1980’s that used to be issued with the journal Capital and Class. The cartoon had three drawings with accompanying captions. In the first drawing, a middle-aged leftie was sitting in an armchair scratching his head, and the caption read, ‘Socialism is in difficulty, so I have to think what to do’. The second drawing showed him reaching for a book from a bookcase next to his armchair, with the caption, ‘I know, I’ll read a book’. In the third drawing, he was scratching his head again, but this time with an open book on his lap, with the caption, ‘The more I read, the more I think we’re in difficulty’.

The Left’s problem has never been a shortage of ideas (or a shortage of books). The main problem, and this is another of Seymour’s themes, is one of practical agency. That is, the Left, in spite of its compelling critique of capitalism and the latent power of the working class, not to mention the periodic crises of capitalism itself, has failed to develop an effective means of transforming society, and this failure is nowhere more evident than in the advanced capitalist states. Much of this book addresses some of the reasons for this. For example, there is an impressive analysis here of how the Left has been ideologically out-manoeuvred by the Right since the 1970’s.

In what sense, then, has the Left’s response to austerity been inadequate? Seymour sets out his argument in his introductory chapter, subtitled “The Bad News Gospel” (the ‘Bad News Gospel’ is that capitalism has just experienced its most severe crisis since the 1930’s and, not least in Britain, neo-liberalism has come out of it with its ideological dominance intact). He uses Mark Blythe’s phrase, “a bait and switch job” (4) to characterise this. In other words, neo-liberalism has successfully turned a crisis in the banks into a sovereign debt crisis and the Left has responded by opposing the spending cuts that followed this ‘switch’. For Seymour, austerity is not just about spending cuts, rather:

“What we are witnessing, under the auspices of austerity, is not simply spending cuts. It is a shift in the entire civilisational edifice of capitalism” (p 3).

This might seem like an overblown claim, particularly as it is made so early on in his argument. But he itemises the main areas of this shift in the introduction, and it is a convincing list, which includes: the long-term shift away from wages and towards profits; financialisation and the spread of precarity; the recomposition of social classes; the corporatisation of the state; the reorganisation of the state, including the shift away from welfarism and towards increasing coercion; and a more intensive and extensive cultural emphasis on competitiveness and punishing the weakest in society. In the remainder of the introductory chapter, as well as in the three brief chapters that follow it – succinctly titled ‘Class’, ‘State’ and ‘Ideology’ – he attempts to justify this claim by mobilising an impressive range of empirical and theoretical sources. Here, he uses the theoretical work of important Marxist contributions to state theory and ideology, Gramsci, Poulantzas, Althusser, among others, to good effect, providing a helpful introduction to them and demonstrating how these theories are applicable to the current crisis. This, in itself, is no mean achievement in such a brief book.

For example, drawing on Gramsci, he argues that a capitalist crisis, or more specifically an ‘organic crisis’, isn’t just an economic crisis, it is also a political and ideological crisis. The ruling class is much better equipped to respond to these crises than the disorganised Left because:

“Its control over the dominant institutions, its loyal cadres of supporters in think-tanks and the media, its economic and political strength, all enable it to adapt better to the crisis and propose solutions which meet its interests” (p 5).

In other words, while the Left is busying itself opposing spending cuts, the ruling class is busy forging ‘common sense’, as Gramsci calls it. Here, the inflected (inflected, because they are adapted to the changed conditions) beliefs, values etc of the dominant ideology become normalised, naturalised in society, they become common sense. It is at this stage of his argument that Seymour introduces a term that he uses on a number of occasions in this book. He refers to the “exoteric ideology” of the ruling class. That is, the beliefs, values, discursive inflections etc which the dominant ideology projects into the public domain to legitimate its authority. These are the sources of its ‘common sense’, which the dominant ideology seeks ‘consent’ for, even if this ‘consent’, among a significant minority or even majority of a nation, may consist of little more than resigned tolerance or acquiescence. But this “exoteric ideology” may differ from the actual practices of the ruling class. As an example, Seymour cites the minimal state doctrine, historically, one of the most influential doctrines of the ruling class in Britain, and central also to the ‘common sense’ of neo-liberalism. But in practice, far from ‘minimising’ the state, the neo-liberal state, from Thatcherism (5) right up to the present, and Britain is an exemplar here, has not only increased the reach of the state but has expanded its scope by including business as part of the apparatus of the state. If the exoteric ideology of Thatcherism was summed up in Nigel Lawson’s phrase, “The government of business is not the business of government”, in practice, in the neo-liberal state, the business of government is, increasingly, the business of business (6).

There is, though, a problem with this emphasis on exoteric ideology, a problem which Seymour is aware of. It implies that capitalism can be seen as a conspiracy of capitalists. But no serious Marxist would suggest this, though the same cannot always be said of some on the Left. Not only does this ‘conspiracy theory’ betray a one-dimensional approach to ideology, it’s also important to remember that, for Marxists at any rate, capitalism alienates workers and capitalists. Of course, it isn’t just some on the Left who may give this impression. The idea of capitalism as a conspiracy can be dated back to Adam Smith (7). Indeed, the frequency with which Smith in his Wealth of Nations draws the reader’s attention to the questionable motives and objectives of his “merchants and traders” suggests something else, something which has persisted through the transition from classical political economy to modern economics. That is, the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ capitalism and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ capitalists. This distinction has not only been evident in modern mainstream economics but also in the schools of thought (Post-Keynesian, Neo-Austrian, Institutionalism etc) which challenge the mainstream, i.e. so-called ‘heterodox’ economics (8).

The development economist,. Ha-Joon Chang, who draws on the heterodox tradition, tells us that “95 per cent of economics is common sense” (9). Unfortunately, Chang isn’t using the term ‘common sense’ in the Gramscian sense. Had he done so, he might have reached a different conclusion. Something along the lines of: 95 per cent of both mainstream and heterodox economics can be read as a belief in a type of capitalism which should, but doesn’t exist. Similarly, the leading monetary economist, Charles Goodhart, makes a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speculators in capitalism, wherein the longer-term time horizons of the ‘good’ speculators moderate the excesses associated with the short-term time horizons of the ‘bad’ speculators. The exchange rate volatility in capitalism in recent decades is attributed, here, to the relative absence of ‘good’ speculators and the preponderance of ‘bad’ speculators (10).

But whether it is Adam Smith’s ‘conspirators’, or Charles Goodhart’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speculators, or both mainstream and heterodox economics’ distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ capitalism, the implication in these approaches is the same: capitalism would be wonderful if only we could rid ourselves of these pesky capitalists! Unfortunately for all these approaches, capitalism is not the product of the capitalist. On the contrary, the capitalist is the product of capitalism.

Limitations of space prevent a fuller consideration of Seymour’s next two chapters, on ‘Class’ and ‘State’, so I will only address a few salient points about the former here. Seymour’s starting point is that class is not a thing, class is relational:

“…classes only exist in relation to one another” (p 36).

In fact, it’s difficult to make sense of the concept of class without acknowledging this (11), otherwise class is reduced to a kind of balance sheet, an audit of individuals’ possession or non-possession of various attributes, (credits and debits), to determine which class an individual belongs to. In these individuated approaches to class, we really do need to resist the temptation to classify. As E. P. Thompson put it, class is not a patient who lies on the Adjustor’s table (12)

But it is when Seymour addresses the recomposition of class under neo-liberalism that his core argument – neo-liberalism as a shift in the civilisational edifice of capitalism – takes on added significance. Here, again, the British case is exemplary. Starting with Thatcherism in the 1980s – he rightly makes the point that Thatcherism denied class “any ontological validity whatsoever” (p 35), i.e. for Mrs Thatcher, classes didn’t exist – successive British governments over the last 35 years have attacked collectivism and reduced the opportunities, including the political and ideological spaces, for its expression in Britain. This has culminated in a situation where:

“Labour is increasingly stratified, from the least secure, lowest paid migrant worker to the reasonably well-organised skilled public sector workers. This is to say nothing of what happens when the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, nationality and so on are taken into account. It follows from the above that the unity of classes – in pursuit of political objectives or whatever – can in no way be assumed” (p 38).

The decline of collectivism in Britain was, of course, caused by a number of factors, not least the inherent weaknesses of the short-lived turn to Keynesian social democracy in Britain after 1945. One of the reasons that Keynesianism was such a novelty for the British after 1945 was that, unlike their major competitors at the time – France, Germany, the US and Japan – the British had less experience of economic management. And the associated historical absence of an industrial policy, has been the real ‘British disease’, before, during, and after Keynesianism.

But there were two broad institutional factors which ensured that Keynesian social democracy would be short-lived in Britain. One was Bretton Woods and the other was the post-war ‘consensus’ between the two main parties which survived until 1970. It was Bretton Woods that underpinned Keynesian social democracy in Britain rather than the other way round. Hence, when Bretton Woods collapsed in 1971, the days of Keynesian social democracy in Britain were numbered (13). From 1971, the long era of crisis-management began.
Keynesian social democracy in Britain also depended on a ‘consensus’ during the post-war settlement between the two main political parties in Britain. Given the two party system in Britain, not to mention its archaic, first-past-the-post electoral system, Keynesian social democracy simply wouldn’t have been possible unless the Tories had signed up to it. Indeed, the high-point of Keynesian social democracy in Britain – in terms of full employment, GDP growth, increases in living standards, stable industrial relations etc – was presided over by Conservative governments from 1951-64. Given this – and noting that the uniqueness of the ‘consensus’ was induced by the exigencies of recovery from war and the demands of post-war reconstruction – even if we do assume that some time in the future the Labour Party were to adopt a mildly progressive left-of-centre policy agenda, it would be destined to fail without the support of the Tories.

Importantly, since the late 1970’s, there has been little prospect of electoral support among voters, particularly in England, for such an agenda. In Scotland, of course, that electoral support does exist and it has been waiting for such a government since 1979. Meanwhile, neo-liberals in Britain have been busy fashioning their own ‘common sense’, including, among other things, deindustrialisation, privatisation (there is, today, little left for the British to privatise), anti-trade union laws, increasing home ownership, rising consumer debt, financialisation, individuated employment contracts, the decline of collective bargaining, the collapse of trade union membership as well as the number of trade unions, and a growth in the precariat (14). As Britain has moved from a social security state to a social insecurity state, so it has moved from an era of Keynesian full employment to an era of neoliberal structural underemployment. In this respect, the British have made little progress from the first half of the nineteenth century, when the young Marx quoted approvingly the words of Charles Pecquer:

“The misery that millions are forced to do work that is so physically and intellectually demoralising that they are even forced to regard the misfortune of finding such work as being fortunate”. (15).

Although I have already touched on ideology, before moving on to consider the relevance of this work for the independence referendum, it’s important to briefly address Seymour’s chapter on ideology. This provides an excellent introduction to the topic. It’s not the best general introduction to ideology that’s available – Terry Eagleton’s book on the same subject (16) still holds that title and, anyway, Eagleton’s jokes are better. In fairness, though, Seymour compresses his discussion into a brief chapter of 40 pages and it’s an impressive discussion.

Here, I will only make a few points about his understanding and definition of ideology (17). His discussion here is preceded by a neat (inverted) turn of phrase about ideology: “But some things have to be believed to be seen” (p 112). This is worth noting in his broader definition, which draws on Althusser:

“People are not simply deceived. We are all immersed in ideology, an imaginary relationship to lived experience, and what we ‘see’ is significantly determined by this. Concretely, it is unusual for this to consist of one coherent ideological worldview, but of many partial ideological perspectives and tendencies, imbibed from families, schools, media, workplaces, and so on. Ideology is characterised not by coherence but by disorder; not by stability but by turbulence. Nor is ideology simply a cynical conspiracy” (p 113).

The crucial point here is the phrase, “imaginary relationship to lived experience”. Seymour argues that there is a certain ‘correctness’ about key areas of neo-liberal ideology, and more broadly capitalism, their ‘common sense’. This is in the strict sense that they may connect (however tenuously, however incoherently) with certain aspects of people’s imagined relationship to lived experience. After all, two of capitalism’s notable successes, historically, have been in normalising and naturalising its social relations, and in compelling us to reproduce our subordination to capital. But it has only been able to do this because our lived experience is limited to capitalist social relations, and our subordination to it as a dominant ideology.

Secondly, this emphasis on our “imagined relationship to lived experience” allows us to better appreciate why the dominant ideology needs an exoteric ideology. This not only has a critical role to play in legitimating its authority, it has this role precisely because it does make these appeals to our imagined relationship to lived experience. If these things weren’t already seen, (again, however vaguely or incoherently), they would not be believed and couldn’t, therefore, resonate, to a greater or lesser extent, with our lived experience.

It is striking how relevant so many of Seymour’s themes are at this critical moment in Scottish and British history. Britishness has, for so long, been the dominant ideology in Scotland. But the exoteric ideology of Britishness, like neo-liberalism, takes numerous forms, and it has created an extensive ideological vocabulary, inflected to resonate with our changing imagined relationships to lived experience. In the formal political domain, this vocabulary is liberally parroted by a British army of sound bites in suits. Like neo-liberalism, however, Britishness, as the dominant ideology, has always faced resistance in Scotland. No more so than today.

As the dominant ideology, Britishness has its dominant narratives and, of course, the British Left cannot be exempted from this (18). One of the effects of this has been, at best, to marginalise the Scottish Left and the Scottish working class in these dominant British narratives. A typical example here is Keir Hardie’s biographer, the historian Kenneth O. Morgan (19). Summoning his most patronising and dismissive tone, Morgan contrasts the ‘cosmopolitan’ Hardie with what he calls the “parochialism of…Celtic communism” (p 284) in the early decades of the twentieth century. But a few pages later we are able to put Hardie in his own parochial context when Morgan tells us that Hardie had, “a gift for harmonising the Labour Party with the British political tradition…He enabled the Labour Party to merge into the gradualist, peaceful evolution of British society” (p 289). This ensured that, even in its origins, the Labour Party was destined to become one of the forces of conservatism in British society.

These dominant British narratives, and their numerous ideological inflections, have, in effect, denied ontological validity and historical agency to a Scottish working class, which has only been able to find vicarious expression when it has been authorised by its British manifestations. We might say, then, that, with respect to the Scottish working class, the dominant narratives of the mainstream British Left have succeeded where Thatcherism failed. But it’s not quite that straightforward. A more telling perspective is presented by the Marxist historian E.P Thompson. In explaining the eponymous title of his classic work, The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson writes:

“…a note of apology to Scottish and Welsh readers. I have neglected these histories, not out of chauvinism, but out of respect. It is because class is a cultural as much as an economic formation that I have been cautious as to generalization beyond English experience” (20).

The key point here, is that the very notion of a ‘British’ working class is, historically, a recent phenomenon. And here, Hardie and the British Labour Party were instrumental. Having said that, there’s no question that, as Seymour writes:

“…during most of the twentieth century, the Labour Party in the UK ‘spoke for’ and ‘led’ the majority of the British working class, even though its organised core represented only a minority of that class” (p 38).

But an important point here, which Seymour makes, is that the British Labour Party had to construct, negotiate, reconstruct, and renegotiate the unity of the British working class, including, critically, its ontological status as ‘British’. It was these constructions which have had the effect of denying the ontological validity and historical agency of the Scottish working class. But that leadership role, and the ontological status of a ‘British’ working class have less traction today, though they still have a (weakened) residual legacy in all the nations of the UK. This decline started before the official launch of New Labour in 1994. Indeed, as we’ve already seen, the origins of the British Labour Party ensured that it would develop into one of the forces of conservatism in British society. But it was under New Labour that this decline became transparent. It would be difficult to improve on Seymour’s verdict on New Labour in this respect:

“…what New Labour represented was a form of politics known on the continent as ‘social liberalism’. In this mix, two strands are combined: a dominant neoliberal politics, and a subordinate social democracy. The latter is continually being assimilated to the former through a process Gramsci described as ‘transformism’ – the absorption of elements of popular-radical goals and ideologies into the strategy and language of the power bloc, the neutralisation of their oppositional content, and their rearticulation as part of a pro-capitalist politics” ( p 137).

The fatal difference between New Labour and Blue Labour is that, unlike New Labour, Blue Labour today is attempting to defeat not a demoralised Tory party, but a resurgent right-wing Tory party in England, and it is trying to do this with the weakest, least effective, and least charismatic leader that Labour has had in its post-war history. But, as indicated earlier, even in the unlikely event that sometime in the future British Labour should advance a mildly progressive left-of-centre agenda, it would be destined to fail without the support of the Tories, at least in Britain.

An important part of the vocabulary of the dominant ideology of Britishness has been to characterise the independence movement in Scotland as ‘nationalist’. At times, this has been an effective part of its exoteric ideology. But while it is true that there are nationalist elements within the independence movement, the idea that the entire movement can be reduced to ‘nationalism’ doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The defining feature of the independence movement is its diversity and its capture of radical aspirations in contemporary Scotland (21). Moreover, and crucially, there is a centre-left consensus in Scotland, as well as a growing anti-austerity coalition.. This is small consolation for socialists, it is true, but it is a much more promising point of departure for an independent Scotland than would be available were Scotland to remain in the UK, however much the silver-tongued Scottish Tory leader may try to persuade Scottish Labour voters otherwise. Things have come to a pretty pass, when a Scottish Tory leader so publicly makes a virtue out of her putative political suicide! But these are desperate times for British nationalists and neoliberal ideologues.

If the independence movement is seen, as it ought to be, as a social movement rather than a crude ‘nationalist’ movement, we can better understand its nature and relevance, not least because much of the impetus of this movement comes from its opposition to the historical and contemporary manifestations of British nationalism. But much more importantly, the democratic pulse of much of the independence movement, as with all social movements, comes not from ‘nationalism’ but from a variety of geographical sources – local, national, global – and from various domains – social, political, economic, ideological, historic, cultural and so on.

We have no way of determining the extent to which the independence movement has been directly or indirectly influenced by the numerous events and experiences – historic and contemporary – that have emerged from these locations and domains. There is no means available to us to measure the impact of, for example, the Arab Spring, Occupy, the decadence of Westminster, the No Mandate argument, the financial crisis, the Iraq war, the resurgence of the right in English politics, not to mention a multitude of other possible influences, on the independence movement. But given the national and global significance of these and numerous other experiences, amplified in an age of 24/7 rolling news and the explosion of social media, it isn’t plausible to suggest that, in any appraisal of this critical moment in Scottish and British history, all of this can be ignored and, instead, we can collapse the independence movement into vulgar ‘nationalism’.

There can’t be anyone on the Scottish Left unaware of the sheer magnitude of the task ahead of an independent Scotland, no more so than for socialists. But should anyone still be in doubt, we need look no further than the orchestrated squeals of protest from the British state and big business in Scotland when faced with the prospect of independence. If this is how they respond to the prospect of independence, imagine the lengths they would go to if faced with the prospect of socialism. Here, it’s worth noting an important point made by Seymour about austerity:

“…to the extent that debt-reduction is a rational priority, it is not universally so. It is only rational if one accepts that capitalism, and specifically neoliberal capitalism, is the only game in town. And, if one accepts that the interests of elites – businesses and banks – are the most important interests in any national economy” (p 33).

You don’t start a journey from your destination. This is surely the least we need to understand when considering any social transformation. We can only start from where we are now. And where the Left is now, and what the British state has delivered to us, in Scotland as well as in the other nations of the UK, is accurately, if bleakly, summed up by Seymour in his conclusion:

“When a majority of workers have never had anything to do with a trade union, will tell pollsters they never talk about politics, support the most draconian cuts to welfare, and are passive or acquiesce in the face of reactionary policies they don’t agree with, there is a deep problem of class subjectivity which cannot be overcome by ‘walking it off’ or having a ‘nice day out’ on a demo” (p 188).

The task of the Left in Scotland, as well as elsewhere, is not to create ab initio a post-capitalist society, but to create the conditions for the transition to a post-capitalist society in their own nations. It isn’t the SNP that the British state and big business fears. What they fear are the consequences of democracy in Scotland and what may follow the SNP – a government that institutes a progressive policy agenda. With independence, new political and ideological spaces would open up in Scotland for the Left to operate in. Freed from Westminster’s archaic first-past-the-post electoral system, with its electoral demographics which effectively disenfranchises the majority of Scotland’s voters at most British general elections, there is every prospect that the Left, in an independent Scotland, would fill those spaces. Further, after independence, big business in Scotland would, crucially, lose the ideological support of the British state that buttresses its position in Scotland, and which strengthens the capacity of both the British state and big business to disseminate neo-liberal common sense in Scotland. The British state would lose its capacity to coerce and discipline the Scottish working class. Everything from its anti-trade union laws to its punitive welfare reforms, not to mention its weapons of mass destruction and its criminalisation of immigrants, would be threatened by an independent Scotland. But what the British state and big business fear most of all is that an independent Scotland may be successful in these terms. For, among other things, that would demonstrate to the rest of the UK that there is an alternative to the suffocating embrace of neo-liberalism.

The future of socialism in the different nations of the UK does not depend on Scotland’s continued membership of the UK. And it is just as well that this is the case. For, were it not the case, socialism would, indeed, be in difficulty. And, in that event, the difficulties of socialism in the UK would be much more serious than even someone like Richard Seymour thinks, in this excellent book.

(1) R.Seymour, Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, Pluto Press, 2014.

(2) It’s worth noting here Seymour’s discussion of the reasons why the British have, largely, escaped a (Gramscian) ‘crisis of authority’: “The British capitalist state has rarely had to fight for its life. It has not suffered revolution, invasion, occupation or defeat to a militarily superior rival for centuries. Its colonial losses were considerable, and the source of much axe-grinding on the Right, but were managed without much disrupting the continuity of the state” (p 78). It is certainly facing that existential threat now, and from, until recently (in historical terms), an unexpected source.

(3) A small but representative sample here includes: A. Callinicos, Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World, Polity 2010; D. Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, OUP 2007; L. Panitch and S. Gilpin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso 2013; E.O. Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, Verso 2010.

(4) M. Blythe, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, OUP 2013, p 5.

(5) Note here, Andrew Gamble’s verdict on the Thatcherite mantra of ‘rolling back the state’, viz, “The idea of rolling back the state involved a contradiction. The state was to be simultaneously rolled back and rolled forward”, A. Gamble The Free Economy and the Strong State, Palgrave 1994.

(6) Indeed, in the British case, business is now determining many of its own regulatory reforms. The New Economics Foundation cites the recent example of the Tories’ one-in, two-out regulation as more evidence of the corporate capture of the state, available at

(7) ”Men of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but their conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public”, Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume 1, Liberty Fund, Book 1, ch 10. Although Smith, here, is referring to guild workers, it is clear that he is equally suspicious of those with the greatest bargaining strength in capitalism. And this, in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, almost a century before capitalism had developed into a world system.

(8) For an introduction to heterodox economics, see Tony Lawson’s paper, ‘The Nature of Heterodox Economics’ available at:
Lawson expands on the methodological areas of this discussion in the companion volumes Economics and Reality, Routledge 1997 and Reorienting Economics, Routledge 2003. The substance of his argument, if not the elaboration of it, is straightforward enough. He argues that mainstream economics has lost touch with reality. It can re-connect with reality, he believes, with the potential to become a ‘science’, but only if it makes what he calls an “ontological turn”.

(9) H-J Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Penguin 2011, p xviii.

(10) Charles Goodhart, ‘Whither Central Banking’ in David E. Altig and Bruce D. Smith (eds) Evolution and Procedures in Central Banking, CUP 2003, p 70.

(11) It’s worth noting here that Marx makes a related point about capital: “capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons which is mediated through things”, K. Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Penguin, p 922.

(12) E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, p 10.

(13) Seymour rightly says, although it isn’t as explicit as it ought to be, that the dollar-gold standard was the (currency) anchor of Bretton Woods (p 51). But the real ‘anchor’ of Bretton Woods was written into the founding Articles of Agreement of the IMF (Articles I and VI). These provided, among other things, for the stability and growth paths in this period. They included, limited (narrow margin) adjustable pegs, effectively ‘fixed’ exchange rates, to inhibit individual member states from engaging in competitive devaluation; regulation of capital flows, including effective capital controls to deter capital flight and limit the ability of capital markets to weaken national economies; and a payments mechanism for countries in balance of payments difficulty to discourage local (i.e. national) deflationary policies, to limit the danger of their possible contagion effects. In practice, this latter mechanism was provided not by the IMF but by the US, as a consequence of the surpluses it had accumulated in the period up to the mid-1960s. It was this collective ‘anchor’ which was unmoored with the collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971. The result was the liberalisation of the capital account and exchange rates and it was these, in turn, which created the conditions for the aggressive development of capital markets, the volatility of exchange rates and, ultimately, the financialisation that we associate with neo-liberalism.

(14) Seymour does use this term regularly in his book. Contrast this with the distinctions Marx makes within his three main categories of a ‘reserve army of labour’, viz floating, latent, and stagnant (Capital, Volume 1, p 794-76). The demarcations here, though, are analytically more useful than that of a lumpen ‘precariat’. At any rate, it is a truism – derived from our experience of capitalism’s history – to say that, as work becomes more precarious in capitalism, so more workers are forced to resort to increasingly desperate measures in order to scratch a living.

(15) K. Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)’.

(16) T. Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction, Verso, 1991.

(17) This might be an appropriate point to note that Eagleton provides a dozen different definitions and usages of the term.

(18) For example, see Seymour’s discussion of the British Left’s ‘Austerity Nostalgia and the Spirit of 1945’ (pp 148-50).

(19) Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist, Phoenix Giant, 1997.

(20) Thompson, p 12.

(21) Note here, Seymour’s discussion of social movements, pp 180-81.

Categories: Commentary


3 replies

  1. From what I can understand from the review, then we really do seem to be at the end of history. Marxists (self-described) have given up the idea of removing private ownership (and along with it, the idea that there is no private life without private property) in favour of improved managerialism.

    Adam Smith cautioned against the tendency of the specialists of any trade – and I’d include politics in that – to favour one another over their customers. Hence the need for continual scrutiny and debate.

    But then as he also said of the market mechanism:

    “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages”

    • don’t think so ! if you want contemporary scottish marxism in more readily understandable language look up u tube or google for tommy sheridan.
      maybe stay clear of confusing legal battles involving accusations of infidelity and a vendetta by murdoch press

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