Boris Johnson has today confirmed his project: not to satisfy business above all else as Thatcher did, but to direct the economy and mould it as he wishes – including picking winners with state aid – as Churchill did. The Internal Market Bill and its related breach of international law signal a return to the international politics of power, and a continued decline of the rule of law generally and international law in particular. Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings plots a British ARPA – an agency that can dole out cash on blue sky projects that can create our own breed of global corporations that can compete with the best of Silicon Valley, and the giants of China. The theory behind this is that countries who don’t possess such companies will in the future be subject to domination by those who do. This is a tacit acknowledgement of the imperial nature of the venture capital project in the US and its cousins elsewhere.
This paints a bleak picture of the world: we will either dominate or be dominated. By implication, we will dominate other countries as we once did, this time through technology companies rather than colonisation. It is imperative that the left generates a vision to meet this one. This is my attempt.
First, we have to recognise that international cooperation is vital to peace, stability, and the rule of law. This means we must conceive of concrete examples of how this might work.
I have previously written about the idea of a global non-profit pharmaceuticals company established by treaty, where signatories would contribute a fixed percentage of GDP in exchange for access to a patent pool. The idea is that by gaining access to this pool, countries can produce cheap, generic drugs that they would never be able to fund or commercialise for themselves. A proportional payment in exchange for equal benefits fits the idea of “from each according to their ability to each according to their need”, and works well as an initiative from Britain in light of the fact we already have a substantial pharmaceuticals sector. By creating a scheme such as this, we demonstrate a material benefit to lawfulness and cooperation. It would be my hope that such an enterprise would be habit forming among the publics of the various signatories, as well as issuing a stern challenge to the business models of existing pharmaceuticals companies.
Other examples must be found, though, and not all ought to be established by treaties. There is a gap in particular among co-operatives: there are none with global scale. We must address the whys: education is lacking as many do not understand what co-operatives are, access to capital is lacking as the ability to trade equity for cash is not present in a conventional way, and, I suspect, ambition is lacking as co-operatives tend towards catering for their own once they reach a certain stage in their lives. These problems are not easy to solve, and this list is by no means complete.
The benefits of co-operatives with global reach will mirror the terrors of the largest multinationals: democratic corporations – perhaps one day the largest democracies in the world – would have to accrue political and market power, but it is difficult to conceive of them wielding it in the same way. Being beholden to an international membership would make it almost inconceivable that they would be used as political tools in the way Cummings believes other global firms will be. Global scale co-operatives would offer a way to not dominate or be dominated.
A Labour government in the UK could accelerate the creation of such companies, especially if it inherited the state aid apparatus created by Johnson and Cummings in the years between now and the next election. The Competition and Markets Authority be given the responsibility to maintain a register of companies with excessive market power and add to its arsenal the ability to incubate co-operative startups in strategic sectors if it is unable to find legal recourse against them. A facility of this kind would bring something that has been lacking in most democracies to date: the ability to exercise market power on a global scale. By offering statutory guarantees such as asset locks and a strong legal system, Britain could establish itself as a trustee of the world, rather than a former imperial power trying to get back into the game.
Pitfalls await, though: co-operatives require engagement, and may end up construed as parastatal if they are insufficiently independent. This is common historically, where they have been used as development vehicles by overweening governments. Ensuring engagement means mass education. Schools, universities, TV programmes, social media campaigns and much more would be required. Similarly, consultative assemblies along the lines of constitutional conventions can help keep chaos at bay, and limit the difficulties of generating mass engagement.
In the mean time, we – being the vanquished Corbynites, among others – can act without parliament. A Co-operative business school to produce a generation of potential leaders at home and a Credit Union to lend to co-operatives. We can see it as a sign of success when there is a market of legal firms competing to help people establish co-operatives, and when regular banks have products specifically designed for them. If we are ignored by regular businesses and the market, it is not a sign of our ethics, it is a sign of our insignificance. By establishing institutions now we can create co-operative jobs and services which can begin to carve out niches before we reach the mainstream of society and the market at home.
This is my attempt at outlining a vision that runs counter to the grim imperialism that is taking hold of the Tory party. Their retreat from Thatcherism has taken them back to Churchill, war and empire. Without a vision equally ambitious we can’t win. It is not beyond us.