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Progressives should never work within the mainstream macroeconomics straitjacket

There was an interesting article posted on Alternet (April 12, 2020) – Leftist policy didn’t lose. Marxist electoral theory did – in response to the dismal showing by Bernie Sanders in the current Democratic Primaries. I think it summarises the confusion that is now abundant on the progressive side of the political struggle. The arguments presented highlight the dilemma facing the progressive side of politics. Should Leftists compromise with centrists to get more traction? Compromise with what? If you read between the lines, there is no argument being made for Leftists to challenge the basic macroeconomic myths of neoliberalism that social democratic politicians around the world have adopted and straitjacket by. Rather, Leftists should accept these constraints and work at local levels to make small gains for better housing etc. It is a defeatist agenda – a surrender to the main game. I reject it.

The author, David Atkins, is a long-standing Democratic Party operator from California and regularly contributes to the political debate.

The substance of the argument being put by Atkins is that:

1. The Left is now despondent as a result of the “defeat of Bernie Sanders”.

2. This is the “fourth consecutive defeat for Sanders-style revolutionary leftist politics in the Anglosphere” – Sanders to Clinton 2016, Sanders-style losses in 2018 US mid-term election, British Labour loss in December 2019, and Sanders to Biden in 2020.

3. The Left should not, however, feel defeated – “leftist policy has never been more ascendant” – all the Democratic candidates advocated a “version” of Medicare for All, climate change responses, and student debt relief.

4. So why does Sanders keep losing? Well according to Atkins: “What lost unequivocally, was a certain brand of anti-partisan class revolutionary electoral politics rooted in industrial-era Marxist theory.”

The ‘workers of the world unite’ narrative (apparently) on the road to a “socialist utopia” which eschew “any cultural divisions within the working class that get in the way”.

The demagogues who push this crude Marxist (apparently), a “hostile to the political reality in which suburban middle-class professionals (regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the party of the “left” while blue-collar rurals (again regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the “right.”

5. So they are “hostile to the Democratic Party” and in their delusion think there is “a big mass of independent voters and non-voters to the left of base Democrats on economics and open to revolutionary politics” and try to “minimize cultural divisions” as they advance their socialist aspirations.

6. This approach “utterly failed” because votes “actually like the Democratic Party” and there are no Leftists out there independent of the Party that can be harnessed. Further, Sanders had his ‘Bernie Bros’ and claimed there was a mass of young people ready for revolution but “whatever the secret formula is for turning out voters under 45 in large numbers, the Sanders campaign didn’t find it”. Sanders also failed to attract “culturally conservative whites”.

7. “Marxist theory leftists have a range of excuses for all of this-all of them unpersuasive” – ranging from conspiracy theories within the Democratic Party, hostile media, etc. They also deny the reality that “white working class neighborhoods” care about too much immigration and cultural issues.

8. So what to do? Stop “testing industrial-era Marxist theories of social alignment”, and, instead, “meet voters where they are”.

9. Which means what? Leftists need to support the existing political machinery (that is, the Democratic Party). They should use “negative partisanship against the Republican Party” and stop seeing “partisanship as a false consciousness construct of an elite duopoly”. That means calling the working class out for what they are!

10. It means that Leftists have to work “with even centrist coalition partners” – which requires compromise.

11. Leftists should stop using political campaigns “as the key testing grounds for left-versus-liberal contests of will and start more local”. At the national level, there is little scope for differences between the Right and the Left because of “conservative structural impediments to policy”.

So it is better to fight for change at the local level “on issues like housing and criminal justice”. Forget the grand plan. Marxist leftists have more chance of engaging with the urban professional liberals and culturally conservative working class on these issues within the Democratic Party institutions.

12. Conclusion: “Let the industrial Marxist dream of working-class electoral realignment die” and instead work with the urban middle-class liberals to advance local policies.

I think that is a fair rendering of his thesis and it is one that is increasingly common across the political landscape among progressive activists who run the line that the policy agenda ‘won’ despite being slaughtered in the voting process.

It is also the line that was prominent among Remainers in the British debates about Brexit, post Referendum.

It is a very ‘middle class’ view and is consistent with the arguments I have been confronted with all my career which we might summarise, in part, by invoking the US President Lyndon Johnson’s comment about J. Edgar Hoover (quoted in the New York Times, October 31, 1971):

It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.

I recall as a younger academic being invited to discuss employment guarantees with the leading ACOSS (Australia Council of Social Services), which is the peak body in Australia representing the welfare sector.

Unemployment was even higher than it is today and underemployment had spiralled upwards.

The federal government was full-on neoliberal and pursuing what they called ‘full employability’, which was a training-based activation policy coupled with a punitive enforcement regime (work tests, etc) designed to make it hard to stay on income support despite the pronounced absence of work opportunities.

More or less, by the way, the regime that is still in place – it is the neoliberal approach after all.

The ACOSS meeting was very dispiriting and they claimed they rejected public job creation schemes as the solution for poverty and preferred to work within the training culture that pervaded the national political scene.

I was told that for them it was better being in the ‘tent’ seeking compromises with the neoliberals, working angles and edges, rather than be like me, always outside the tent without a seat at the table.

My view then, and now, is that all these institutions that play that game end up being co-opted by the dominant agenda because they never really challenge the essence of the power that perpetuates it.

A classic case in Australia was when the conservatives privatised the public employment service (the Labor Party had planned to do it anyway but were turfed out of office in 1996) and created a new industry – the management of unemployment.

This quasi-market saw all manner of church and welfare agencies (Mission Australia, Salvos, etc) bidding for contracts to manage the case loads of the unemployed.

Part of this process was to report work test failures to the Government – the activity hurdle for the unemployed was ridiculously high (going for jobs etc) given the paucity of jobs. The Government, in turn, would ‘breach’ the income support recipient, which was fancy lingo for taking their benefits away.

So you had church welfare agencies, who were meant to be delivering the mission of Christ, becoming tools in the cruelty and perniciousness of a sociopathological government regime.

Totally co-opted and justifying their actions by ‘being in the tent’ and ‘having a voice’ and pursuing ‘social entrepreneurship’. Welfare became an entrepreneurial mission and the losers were the poor, the disadvantaged, the frail, the weak and the vulnerable – millions of Australians.

So compromise with what?

This sort of message resonates with the themes we discussed in our 2017 – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).

One of the reasons the progressive side of politics has been an abject failure over many decades now is that they ‘compromised’, or better, adopted the neoliberal economic narratives that had been fed to them by the Right, who knew that they had to reconfigure the state and use it as a tool to further their own class interests.

Meanwhile, while mouthing off that globalisation had rendered the nation state irrelevant in terms of fiscal policy sovereignty etc, the progressives – David Atkins – ‘urban, middle-class professional liberals’ encouraged us to debate identity as a meaningful social location and abandon the economic class narrative.

The youth have been trained to say ‘we are all entrepreneurs now, not workers’ as they (formerly pre-crisis) buzzed around on scooters delivering pizzas for a pittance with zero security.

The urban, middle-class professional liberals in London, Oxford and Cambridge felt it was their right to call out lower-income workers, who had little left to lose after years of industrial hollowing out and fiscal austerity, as racists, idiots, and more, just because they voted to Leave the most advanced neoliberal institutional construct – the European Union.

We were told by the Europhile progressives that these working class neighbourhoods were so stupid and impulsive that they would immediately Bregret their wild choice and listen to reason if there was another vote.

Well, eventually there was another vote – the December 2019 election. And we saw what that delivered. The result had nothing at all to do with industrial Marxists dreams of working-class electoral realignment.

And when social democratic politicians embraced the idea that governments had to pursue fiscal surpluses, or, at least, balance the position over the course of the economic cycle, and largely rely on so-called ‘independent’ central banks to do the counter-stabilisation policy work, they created a straitjacket for themselves where they were always having to defend any progressive policy agendas.

As a result they had to invent ridiculous ‘funding’ plans, which they thought would resonate with the voters:

1. Robin Hood taxes on the finance sector because that sector was bad.

Well if it was so bad, why not use the legislative capacity of the government to fix it and if it cannot be fixed declare the ‘bad’ bits illegal?

They couldn’t do that because they received largesse from the financial sector in the form of campaign funding, rolling door safety nets when leaving office, and other material benefits.

The main party structures that David Atkins want the Left to work within and compromise with have been up to their necks in this sort of patronage.

So effective financial market reform was always impossible if we relied on the traditional political parties. They were so co-opted and bought that no meaningful action would be forthcoming.

2. ‘Tax the rich so we can fund Medicare for All’ or whatever service shortage or deficiency applies to the specific nation under discussion.

So the narrative makes it clear that the Government needs the cash of the rich to ensure it can provide services to the poor.

The narrative is wrong at the most elemental level but is core progressive policy. The sort that David Atkins wants the Left to compromise with.

The billions/trillions of public spending initiatives that have been announced by governments around the world demonstrate where the ‘money’ comes from!

3. ‘Fairer more gradual austerity’ – this is another of the narratives from progressives who perpetuate the public debt will need to be reduced and the fiscal position brought back into surplus but if people vote for progressives they will ‘consolidate’ or ‘repair’ the fiscal position more slowly and ensure the burden of the adjustment falls more on those who can afford it.

Meanwhile, they leave the metaphors of ‘repair’ and ‘debt burden’ and all the rest of it on the table, largely unchallenged – and the straitjacket remains.

So when David Atkins claims the Left has to compromise and work within traditional party structures, he is really saying that we need to work within the neoliberal macroeconomic narrative, which he claims is one of the “conservative structural impediments to policy” that prevent meaningful action at the national level.

Which, in my view, is a defeatist strategy.

We might end up winning a few local seats or positions because the local community is sick of the sociopaths in charge who can’t deliver clean water or whatever, but without address the macroeconomic constraints, we get nowhere.

The macro always dominates the micro.

A macro constraint overpowers anything.

I also don’t buy the claim by Atkins that the Left agenda is winning the public debate. This same angle has also surfaced among the wannabe progressive ‘insiders’ in Britain – the curious argument ‘we lost badly but actually we are winning’.

I discussed the logic of that approach in this blog post – You lost! Badly! Humility not hubris is needed in order for British Labour to regenerate (March 17, 2020).

If the stream of invective on social media over the last several months from Sanders’ supporters is anything to go by, especially after it was obvious that Joe Biden would be the nominee, then Biden is not singing off the same song sheet as the Leftists.

I have seen the most vituperative character and policy attacks against Biden from the Sanders’ supporters – relentless and divisive about his abandonment of the types of policies the Left were advancing.

I know that when we talk of America, hyperbole is never far from the action – but was this really “revolutionary leftist politics” that Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn was advocating?

It was more of a weak-kneed ‘tax the rich’ neoliberal macroeconomics from where I observed.

And it hasn’t taken Sanders long to seemingly, backing away from a full on Medicare for All, Climate Revolution stance as he ‘compromises’ with the Biden camp. But then he essentially advocated ‘sound finance’ anyway.


What the Left should prioritise is education aimed at dispelling the macroeconomic myths that force progressive politicians to take stupid policies to elections that are largely indefensible.

They should also realise the only way forward is to create new political structures that abandon all the ‘mates’ stuff with lobbyists and revolving-door type mechanisms.

And the middle class should realise that they are being whittled away by neoliberal austerity policies and should not adopt positions of cultural superiority viz the less-advantaged working class communities, who they currently show contempt for.

I am not hopeful.

I have written about what they should do about the ‘culture wars’ previously and won’t repeat those ideas here.

That is enough for today!

This Post Has 43 Comments

  1. Bill, could you send me the bank account details for a donation to your new MMT University. I can’t donate a lot but a little becomes a lot very quickly.

  2. Totally agree. My experience as a senior labour official in a large industrial union in Canada and having sat on many “multi-stakeholder” venues was that “being at the table” would only accomplish something if you had considerable power. Being a powerless presence “at the table” and “speaking truth to power” is a waste of time and breath. Tables at which significant decisions are made are not debating societies. They are places where people with power decide how to best advance their interests within the constraints they face. If you give away your principles and power at the start the most you will accomplish is window dressing.
    I confess I have some sympathy for the tax-the-rich to pay for stuff tactic as a piece of propaganda. It does work intuitively. If a party achieves power with that slogan and of course fails to raise taxes on the rich by very much it can still pay for things people want through deficit spending, blame the rich for preventing fair taxation, and still fight the next election using the same slogan. I’ve become rather jaded over the years. Most elections I’ve witnessed have been won using simple slogans or ideas.
    With respect to Bernie Sanders, despite his rather radical rhetoric at times (“I will take on the billionaire class”, for instance), he was always part of the Democratic Party establishment, a fact he never hid. Sadly there was zero chance they would allow him to win because Sanders would have at least tried to rein in the power of “the billionaires” (“they are right to be afraid of me”, he once said) if only by raising their taxes and introducing universal social programs that would have made workers less reliant on their billionaire bosses. In the end it was a weak and disappointing attempt to change the course of the U.S. toward a somewhat more humane direction.

  3. Talking about myths. We are locking down our people and economies based on predictions of virus behaviour from the same model and modeller who predicted Armageddon from both foot and mouth, and swine flu in the recent past.

    I cannot believe you have failed to comment on these models and Ferguson himself when we has been allowed to advise governments on with policies that have brought economic disaster and misery of lockdown for millions.

    There is a nasty virus plaguing us at the minute but when you can have two diametrically opposed responses to fight it, eg UK/Sweden, one that crashes the economy and one that doesn’t, but both have similar health outcomes, it is incredible that an economist such as yourself as failed to examine the economic approach taken by many governments in response to advice drawn from such poor modelling. I am shocked.

  4. Frustrating in the extreme!
    Until MMT I had no understanding, or way of seeing how rotten the current paradigm is. I’m not sure if I should be grateful to you or not, (I don’t think I am; I’m losing sleep.)
    How you can still be sane knowing what you have known for 30+ years is beyond belief. You deserve some kind of medal.

  5. Great article, Bill but , in my view, you’ve misinterpreted the scene in the UK:

    ‘he urban, middle-class professional liberals in London, Oxford and Cambridge felt it was their right to call out lower-income workers, who had little left to lose after years of industrial hollowing out and fiscal austerity, as racists, idiots’

    There was nor real unity amongst lower income workers and Johnsons et al did, indeed exploit racist tropes with Johnson’s history of remarks about ‘bum boys’, ‘letter box burkas’, ‘picanninies’ .etc. Indeed, from 2017 on, the Tories appropriated that trash and gibberish spouted by Farage who eschewed ANY attempt to explain the real source of discontent (low pay, unaffordable housing, lack of social housing, and a social care crisis).

    Comedian, Stewart Lee sums up Johnson thus by subsuming many of his deliberately racist and liberal-mocking sound bites into middle names:

    ‘Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-the-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Girly-Swot Big-Girl’s-Blouse Chicken-frit Hulk-Smash Noseringed-Crusties Death-Humbug Technology-Lessons Surrender-Bullshit French-Turds Dog-Whistle Get-Stuffed FactcheckUK@CCHQ 88%-lies Get-Brexit-Done Bung-a-Bob-for-Big-Ben’s-Bongs Cocaine-Event Spiritual-Worth Three-Men-and-a-Dog Whatever-It-Takes I-Shook-Hands-With-Everyone Herd-Immunity Johnson’

    Many who voted Tory were subjected to falsified information, get-wrenchingly misdirected flag waving of the most banal sort and the sound bite of ‘take back control’ which was contentless and vacuous but had a useful serrotonin re-uptake inhibitor effect on a certain constituency.

    During the election there were about 5,962 social media ads from the Tories that were adjudged ‘indecent and untruthful’.

    So were those people that were duped by this garbage ‘racists and idiots’. I’d say some of the former without doubt but probably not the latter entirely in that there was no real educative vehicle that could stop them from being duped.

    Corbyn got it right at the 2019 Labour Conference: The Tories were the ‘establishment pretending to be anti-establishment.’ Corbyn was crucified, in the end, by the Remain dissonance in his own Party and as we now now, by many senior staff working against him from 2015-2019.

    Of course the faux progressive ‘liberal class’ had bought into neoliberalism and deserved the mockery but this mockery was manipulative and took the spotlight of the real issues.

    The Tory constituency amongst the poor is based on:

    1. Bogus manipulation of false nationalism
    2. A vacuous phrase about ‘taking back control’ whilst all the levers of debt peonage are still being pushed.
    3. Hostility to welfare claimants and the ill/vulnerable.
    4. A toadying attitude to the wealthy who are seen as ‘our betters’
    5. Finding Johnson ‘funny’ and entertaining (I can;t tell you how many times I heard that one!).

    The UK is now a One Party State, the divisions in Labour have utterly destroyed the Party-maybe a good thing in some ways BUT are we in one hell of a mess!

  6. @Tom,

    The virus appears to have arrived later to Sweden than to the UK.

    Despite Sweden’s blase approach, it was likely protected for a time by the actions of it’s neighbours (who locked down and locked down the borders) and by the international travel restrictions. This had the effect of turning Sweden into something of an “island”.

    The somewhat unusual Swedish demograph of 40% of the population living alone was also likely to have helped somewhat.

    However, reality has now caught up with Sweden and several days ago, it’s government passed legislation to allow for the same lockdown measures seen elsewhere – this is because Sweden has gone from poster boy for the “let it run it’s course and all will be fine” brigade to spiralling infection and death rates. A terrible mistake was made in failing to take the stronger measures seen elsewhere but it may now be too late.

    When you have around a thousand people per day dying from an extremely infectious disease in some countries, I would consider the probability of the economy to keep on chugging merrily away and the population to happily go about their business producing and consuming as though nothing were happening to be very low – the likely result of just letting it take it’s course unhampered as we do with the seasonal flu would be that the economy would collapse anyway……..but with the added feature of large numbers of unnecessary deaths.

    You can compare the cumulative total of Australia (which locked down – but I do suspect in time that it will be shown that a fair degree of luck was involved with the timing) with Sweden. Australia has currently 2.75 deaths per million as opposed to Sweden’s 152.49 – a stonking difference. Sweden did not “catch the bug” until after southern Europe and the UK but it is now jostling to get into that pack of unenviable frontrunners.

    It’s Nordic neighbours who locked down earlier also have a very much lower death rate, albeit not as good as Australia.

    I won’t link because that will slow down posting but it’s easy to find the stats – just be sure to check the date stamp, the situation has evolved so quickly that even three or four days shows a big difference.

    I would strongly disagree with any argument that there is nothing to be gained by the measures that have been put in place – the evidence begs to differ.

  7. In regards to Sanders:

    He simlly had no chance without the support of African American population.

    The writer Marcus H Johnson has written about this very clearly,he himself is opposed to Bernie.

    This community simply does not have the same antipathy towards the oligarchy/1%and the neoliberal economics they push.

    They also have no appetite for universal public goods which they feel may benefit groups they consider “other” – (low income whites).

    While it is right to say that sound finance framing should never be bought describe sanders faillings as a failure to attract white middle class conservatives misses the complete picture.the most important demographic in the party is the black voters are not interested in a politics framed around class or addressing structural economic issues
    But instead support framing around racial groups.

    This may seem very dismal but writers like Marcus H Johnson have been right about this eventuality in term of electoral political acience for while.

    Marcushjohnson has put it well himself when he describes how he as an African American man feels a sense of pride when he sees when sees an African American working in wall street even if he’s involved in something with a lot of negative externalities and the recieves a govt bailout.

    Marcus H Johnson has also written about how a US universal healthcare before reparations(to African reparations) is in his view is morally unjust and should be opposed.Marcus h Johnson is a representative of his they voted how he predicted.

    Personally it is clear to me that racial diversity is an obstruction to the sort of progressive economic policies that will benefit working people (as well as structurally improve macroeconomic stability).there’s no interest in these groups in structural changes but instead in politics which protects them as an ethnic and creates a space for them to attain wealth and power for only themselves and their community.

    Even the British elections were mired with nonsense about whether corbyn was anti semitic or whether johnson was islamophobic or racist.

    The quality of the debate was very low.

  8. “I confess I have some sympathy for the tax-the-rich to pay for stuff tactic as a piece of propaganda. ”

    I don’t. Why? Because the working class want to be rich and don’t like the idea of some smug self-centred do-gooders taking it off them when they get it. Hard work gets you to the top of the tree resonates far greater in normal people’s lives.

    The problem with Robin Hood types is that they have spent far too long prancing around sky clad in the middle of a forest disconnected from real life in the towns. They haven’t a clue what ordinary people slaving away in the fields actually want. Which is why the working class only ever show up in the last thirty seconds of any Robin Hood film – when the do gooders gallop through town throw gold from horseback. You’ll note they never stop to speak to anybody.

  9. “this is because Sweden has gone from poster boy for the “let it run it’s course and all will be fine” brigade to spiralling infection and death rates”

    That view isn’t supported by the data. Sweden is following the infection curve at precisely the same rates of change as everybody else. Somewhat lower than Belgium or Italy, and a little higher than Denmark and Norway. Roughly the same as Iceland.

    Out of everywhere only Japan has a fundamentally different disease progression curve to everywhere else.

    Importantly Sweden has not overloaded its healthcare system. It has ICU capacity and oxygen facilities to cope. Therefore it is managing the disease effectively and can let it run its course. It has taken powers to slow the curve down if it needs to, but hasn’t yet had to do that.

    Ultimately this thing has to run its course. Those that are susceptible to it will die. The only question is when they will die. What you want to avoid is those that could have been saved with oxygen or ventilators not having access to them. Other than that it is a war, and there will be casualties. Avoiding the casualties is not an option.

    We won’t know which approach was the best to this until well after the disease has been eliminated.

  10. @ Tom

    I know it’s off-topic, but in writing as you did :-
    – “There is a nasty virus plaguing us at the minute but when you can have two diametrically opposed responses to fight it, eg UK/Sweden, one that crashes the economy and one that doesn’t, but both have similar health outcomes…” –
    did you, I wonder, make any attempt to take into account any significant differences between the two societies?

    The key variable, surely, is how different populations can reasonably be expected to behave and – based upon what is (rightly or wrongly) assumed – what degree of control over people’s behaviour a government should try to exert towards minimising the spread of infection so far as possible for as long as possible.

    It’s an almost impossible call to get “right” because there are so many unknowns, and we shan’t know until it’s over (and maybe not even then, completely) who got it most “right”, and why (eg pure luck, better advice, good judgment – or any combination of those and other factors).

    We are for instance currently witnessing one extreme manifestation (it would be, since it’s in the USA) of resistance – inspired by polarised political partisanship encouraged by the arguably criminally-irresponsible occupant of the White House – against the measures introduced by state governors of the opposite party. We read also that among the first reactions to the pandemic among some sections of the American populace was a big spike in the sale of guns and ammunition; not something to encourage optimism about the outlook.

    On the other hand there’s the example of S. Korea, where the curve was very quickly flattened without any need for a lock-down but where (we are told), earlier epidemics – SARS, MERS – having acted as a dress-rehearsal for this one, the authorities already had plans and the necessary medical and other technologies well-prepared for reacting promptly to it.

    We’ve read comments from epidemiological spokespeople in various western countries that they never imagined it could be realistic to factor-into their own governments’ contingency-plans anything even close to the restrictions which those governments have in fact since introduced – which only a matter of a few weeks ago were judged to be inconceivable!

    Honestly – would any of us (without hindsight) have judged otherwise?

    For all I know your diatribe aimed at Ferguson and colleagues may be warranted: as we already know there are other epidemiologists who dispute those models. Who are we supposed to believe: you or them?

  11. “So were those people that were duped by this garbage ‘racists and idiots’. I’d say some of the former without doubt but probably not the latter entirely in that there was no real educative vehicle that could stop them from being duped”.

    The only possible conclusion from that remarkable piece of “analysis” is:- that *everyone* who didn’t vote Labour in the last election was a dupe.

    Thanks very much for insulting my intelligence, from the vantage-point of your own – superior of course – intelligence!

  12. Hi Bill
    I’ve just been chatting to Chris Williamson. I phoned him to ask whether he had been able to deliver that signed copy of ‘Reclaiming’ to Jeremy. The answer was not yet, but hardly matters anymore.
    Anyway the conversation was mostly about this blogpost’s subject and I commended it to Chris. I’m still an old cockeyed optimist and staying in the Labour Party unless/until they kick me out. I think that’s less likely to happen now, following leaking of ‘The Report’.
    You are right: “What the Left should prioritise is education aimed at dispelling the macroeconomic myths…” I’ve been trying to write an article for the Morning Star for about a year as a follow-up to your interview and Chris’s article early last year. It has been disappointing that many articles, letters, and even editorials, displayed ignorance of MMT, which was why it was great to see a letter last week, from someone I’d never heard of, saying exactly that.
    I have been in correspondence for some time with British MMT activists about the possibility of offering a regular economics column to Ben Chacko. My ex used to write one – I think the last ones he did were on Global Warming.
    We’re also trying to arrange talks at local groups, especially Labour Parties, on MMT.

  13. What’s wrong with the George Soros’ idea? I would only like to amend it slightly. Why do they need to pay interests if the official short-term interest rate is zero? Germany sold 30-years bonds at a negative rate. I would offer perpetual zero coupon bonds sold with zero discount. Oh wait… how is this instrument called?

  14. “I’ve been trying to write an article for the Morning Star for about a year”

    Wrong audience. As is Chris Williamson.

    The gap in the political market is the social conservatism of the average pit village coupled with a contained capitalism modelled around getting on by working hard. Social libertarianism in other words. The very bottom left of the Political Compass.

    Nobody who matters is going to be persuaded by articles in the Morning Star any more than they are by trying valiantly to explain the original concepts of Anarchism. The brands are damaged and need to be abandoned by anybody looking to obtain power.

    Those on the Left really need to stop repeating the same mistakes and expecting a different outcome. Boris won because his narrative and his delivery were superior and he resonated with ordinary people. He told a better story using words that people wanted to hear. Just like Trump. And funnily enough Blair.

    Either learn from that, or give up now.

  15. @ Neil W,


    But, practically speaking, through which channels, and with what tactics, would you now attempt to inform and educate that bottom left of the (UK) Political Compass?

    And how exactly would you recommend pitching the “taxes don’t fund public spending”, “public ‘debt’ is not neccessarily a bad thing, and usually a good one”, and “a government is not the same as a household” to a demographic which is debt-averse, anti-intellectual, and tends to value and follow received “common sense”?

    Post-Thatcherite handbag economics, I’m not sure how, or where, you would begin, but I would genuinely like to know what strategies you think would be effective.

    Best, Mr S.

  16. “Personally it is clear to me that racial diversity is an obstruction to the sort of progressive economic policies that will benefit working people (as well as structurally improve macroeconomic stability).there’s no interest in these groups in structural changes but instead in politics which protects them as an ethnic and creates a space for them to attain wealth and power for only themselves and their community”.

    That seems to me to describe very well why “identity politics” is such a menace to progressive politics.

    Although Bill himself often strongly deprecates identity politics, as just a refuge for (white middle-class urbanite, mainly) faux-progressives bereft of any identification with fundamental class-based socialist aims and aspirations such as their parents and grandparents had, using identity-politics as a bogus substitute for, and an excuse for refusing to engage with, *real* flesh-and-blood political issues, it’s not often that view is expressed in the Comments. All the more refreshing therefore, especially coming from someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about.

    I could never lay claim to any such insight as Jake has, and so I implicitly accept his analysis as correct.

    I’ve long been of the opinion though that multiculturalism was an insidious piece of self-indulgent – self-punishing even – fantasising. What’s the connection? Well to my mind identity politics are another off-shoot from the same root. The basic premise is that the self-identified “tribe” – be it founded on gender, sexual orientation, skin-colour, allegiance to some other country than our own, faith (other than – in Britain – the Christian faith), whatever, anything goes! name your poison – defines each person’s identity. Not what they think, or how they behave, or what they achieve (or fail to), or what are their ideals, what they believe to be “the good”. No. just whether they’re gay, or trans, or black, or muslim, or othodox jewish, etc, etc.

    “They also have no appetite for universal public goods which they feel may benefit groups they consider “other” – (low income whites)
    …black voters are not interested in a politics framed around class or addressing structural economic issues But instead support framing around racial groups”

    – captures it perfectly.

    How can there be any consciousness of civil society based on such a cacophony of self-serving self-promotion? How can we purport to espouse “public purpose” (as MMT does, constantly) if there is no such thing as a public. only an ever-shifting atomised kaleidoscope of self-nominated “victims”? The plutocracy need only sit back, divide, and – as always – rule, unperturbed.

  17. I think there were a number of overlapping dynamics at play in both the US and UK politics on the progressive left, electorally and economically. Every election is different with its own dynamic, but there are of course some structural issues that seemingly recur every time as well.

    Any candidate from the left has to first overcome the neoliberal establishment in their own party, tame the vast majority of the media (or at least not be swamped by it), and then finally beat the opposition too. Its a steep challenge to begin with.

    Its easy to see why Sanders and Corbyn both reached for the comfort blanket of tax & spend given the forces arrayed against them, and for similar reasons neither displayed a ruthlessness when it came to party politics, instead they wanted everyone to be friends hoping the bullies would be nice to them eventually, even the bullies from their own side sticking knives in their back. The response should not have been about lying or dirty tricks, its about having the common sense to identify who your enemies are, call them out and then fight them to the end without fear or favour.
    What the left also fails to understand is that the ‘lets stay on friendly terms’ tactic doesn’t result in success ‘next time’. History shows that candidates of all factions both in the Labour Party and Democratic party don’t win the top job unless they win their very first Primary or Leadership election. Brown is the exception, to the rule, albeit he acceded to the throne rather than win a GE.
    Corbyn and Sanders both had a go and lost, and both it turns out had party establishment hacks making sure they were defeated, Sanders in primary 2016, Corbyn in the GE in 2017. At that point, they should have stood aside for others, but given the intellectual hollowing out of both parties in the neoliberal era, the bench was bare, and they both had to go again. Familiarity bred contempt and indifference, hence the recent GE in the UK and Sanders failure in the US (amongst other overlapping issues, i.e. Brexit etc)
    I’ve come to the conclusion that MMT is a litmus test for any progressive, the left cannot win on tax & spend anymore, it has to change the subject and describe the reality or it will lose. And stop talking about ID politics and stay as far as possible from unresolvable foreign policy issues. Focus on two or three domestic policies, without resorting to neoliberal framing. A JG, a GND and pick another out of a hat.
    When i look at MP’s and possible Dem runners in 2024, the cupboard still looks pretty bare – the long term aim must be to target younger PPC’s and MP’s, i can’t see any other way at this moment in time.

  18. “Post-Thatcherite handbag economics”.


    But – credit where credit’s due – post-Merkelite too. Angela is after all what the Scots would dub “a daughter of the manse”. I don’t believe for one moment she needed any tutelage from Thatcher to preach her “Swabian housewife” sermon. She probably got in from *her* dad too (or with her mother’s milk).

  19. @ Adam K

    I assume that you’re cracking a joke, which would probably be hilarious if only I could understand it.

    Would you kindly help this backward pupil by explaining it?

    (Soros’s idea seems pretty good to me: what am I missing which you are not?)

  20. “So you had church welfare agencies, who were meant to be delivering the mission of Christ, becoming tools in the cruelty and perniciousness of a sociopathological government regime.” I was struck by this theological observation in the midst of a rather incisive political commentary. Although I made my living as a lawyer, I attended seminary before law school and became an ordained minister in a liberal protestant denomination, so I’m naturally attuned to theological/spiritual/religious issues. Bill’s assessment of the church welfare agencies’ involvement/partnership with neoliberalist policies is theologically acute and touches upon a broader and deeper understanding of neoliberalism itself. At its core, neoliberalism is not merely a pernicious socioeconomic system but the manifestation/culmination of a spiritual malaise, a fundamental distortion of the human spirit in its relationship to (in order to remain appropriately humble and inclusive) what we may call “higher things.” This pandemic/panic has thrust us into the position of having to confront such things in both their personal and social impacts. It has brought home the eschatological/apocalyptic element found in many of the world’s great religious traditions, along with the imperative, seemingly built into the very structure of reality, that we either increase in love and wisdom or perish. For those who wish to explore such ideas without doctrinal baggage, I strongly recommend going to YouTube and pulling up Charles Eisenstein’s recent interview on the “Rebel Wisdom” show, a video entitled “An Epidemic of Control.” Much truth here IMHO, some hard but necessary.

  21. Atkins and middle class in general have been dominated by the education system for so long that slaves themselves are now advocating for slavery.

    Goes back to Tolstoy doesn’t it? A privileged person will never advocate for a new fairer social order that puts him/herself in the back seat.

    Sanders lost because he was weak but also because people are uninformed and watch too much mainstream junk news.

  22. … as Eric Hobsbawm noted… “The political project of the Left is universalist: it is for all human beings. However we interpret the words, it isn’t liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody. It isn’t equal- ity for all members of the Garrick Club or the handicapped, but for everybody. It is not fraternity only for old Etonians or gays, but for every- body. And identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for the members of a specific group only. This is perfectly evident in the case of ethnic or nationalist movements. Zionist Jewish nationalism, whether we sympathize with it or not, is exclusively about Jews, and hang-or rather bomb-the rest. All nationalisms are. The nationalist claim that they are for everyone’s right to self-determination is bogus.”…

    [Bill note: deleted link]

  23. Dear Robert H,

    There is no way to distinguish perpetual zero coupon bonds sold with zero discount and the currency, except for the fact that the “market” can set a distinct price on these bonds.

    From fiscal policy point of view, issuing these bonds (with zero coupon value) for financing the coronavirus response does not differ from financing the expenditure by issuing the currency. Does Soros understand this? I bet he does but he will not admit it. Also I would not be surprised if 0.5% is below the CPI inflation rate in the long run so Soros’ proposal is much more benign than one may think but I still think that we should not pay rich people for the privilege of hoarding wealth.

    I believe that there is no need for paying any interests on this hypothetical product when GTDEM30Y:GOV (Germany Bund 30 year maturity) costs 102.23 (yield is -0.08%) . NB the reason why the yield is negative is that some investors (or rather their trading algorithms) “think” they can make capital gains, when the interest rate turns even more negative. Also I don’t know to what extent the ECB hasn’t already “fixed” the yield curve.

  24. So David Atkins, the long standing Democratic Party operator from California, wrote an opinion piece about how the left in the USA needs to compromise to have influence in politics. Well, maybe he actually knows something about American politics- maybe he is a sort of ‘expert’ on that subject. I don’t agree with his conclusions much though- in 2016 what we saw in the Democratic primaries was most of the only rather small block of ‘class based politics’ in the US- the labor unions- compromising tremendously to support Hilary Clinton rather than Sanders. We know how that went.

    So we have Professor Mitchell, the long standing MMT economist from Australia, also writing an opinion piece about what the class conscious left in the USA needs to do to have influence in politics. It isn’t clear where his expertise in American politics comes from- but I am more sympathetic to his argument than Atkins’s. But that could be wishful thinking. It is pretty clear to me, who has actually worked on quite a few political campaigns here in the US, that there is not all that much of class consciousness even in the Democratic party base- and zero tolerance for it in the Democrat establishment except on the rare occasions they think they need our support.

    Atkins is right about one thing though- the despondency on the left now. And Bill Mitchell is correct that many such as myself can barely even think of voting for Biden without puking. So I am not hopeful either. But Trump’s botching of the covid19 Federal government response may just end up bailing out the Democrats in November- I guess we will see how bad it gets and who gets more of the blame for all the death and economic damage by then.

    Last thing- until such time that most people understand MMT then ‘Robin Hood’ take from the rich to give to the poor does happen to be a viable promise to found a campaign on. You may not understand the deep anger that many poorly paid workers feel at their wealthy bosses. Many a union election campaign is won in part because of that. And in the case of a private company it is clear that redistributing some of the profits and executive pay towards worker pay is a necessary strategy to increase worker pay.

  25. @Neil Wilson – hi Neil, I think you might have overlooked the points I was making.

    The virus appears to have arrived later to the far north of Europe compared to more southerly parts and it appears that by the time authorities there realised what was happening and took action, it was essentially too late – the virus was already well-entrenched. Under this scenario, lockdown measures can ultimately slow the spread and allow health systems to cope with the influx, but leaving it late means that the results we have been seeing are already “baked in” and a surge of infections and deaths are already inevitable before beginning to slow – but letting it run it’s course unhindered will very likely create a rolling crisis of very unpleasant proportions until it is finally spent. That would be a very bad outcome.

    You will see a sharp difference in the curve between Sweden and it’s two adjoining neighbours who locked down much earlier and more thoroughly – Norway currently has less than one-fifth of the deaths per capita than Sweden and Finland has significantly less again. This is important because the Nordic countries share more similarities with each other than they do with other countries, which makes for better comparison.

    While it’s still too early for final conclusions, it appears that the Swedish governments policy choices in response to the outbreak were very much the wrong ones.

    The other thing is that under the very realistic scenario of thousands of people dying each day in the event it was allowed to simply run it’s course – what would lead us to conclude that the country’s economy would simply keep functioning as normal and that everybody would continue producing and consuming completely unfazed? I consider that to be highly unlikely at best.

    Fear and a sharp loss of consumer confidence would feed into a downward economic spiral and government would face a growing chorus of louder and more frantic calls to do something – so in most places I think that the measures put in place to date were always going to be inevitable.

  26. incredibly rash judgement to guess that covid sars 2 spread is unstoppable .
    That might prove to be the case but current death rates vary significantly and a year or 2 down
    the line there will be a grim death per capita inter national league table and i think the east are
    gonna do a lot better than the west .

  27. Bill, My experience has been similar to yours, the more you compromise the more you lose.

  28. “You may not understand the deep anger that many poorly paid workers feel at their wealthy bosses”

    Exactly! And as a matter of fact felt also (albeit with a lot less skin in the game) by some who – like me – are retired ex-members of the “boss-class” (more like “senior corporate bureaucrat” actually).

    It had started before I retired but it took-off like a rocket soon after and hasn’t stopped since. Senior executives (so-called “company servants” to use the archaic terminology, which now comes across as cynical mockery) began engaging in systematic plunder of their companies’ wealth – piracy, to be blunt. “Bonuses” were the principle weapon.

    Anyone who knew anything about corporate remuneration-policy (and was honest enough to say it) could have told anyone willing to listen – but no one was – that “executive bonus schemes” were a racket plain and simple and an invitation to corruption; they ought never to have been tolerated. Instead they mushroomed – everywhere.

    I wonder why…?

  29. @ Adam K

    “I am” (to quote the judge presiding over a trial in which defending council the famous advocate and acerbic wit F.E. Smith had just advanced a learned argument) “none the wiser”.

    To which Smith replied (as will you, in the present instance):- “No, m’lud – but you *are* better-informed”.

    I’m afraid I’m a hopeless dunce when it comes to these financial technicalities, alas. But thanks all the same for trying to make me a better-informed one!

  30. robert

    A £50 note is a government issued on demand bearer bond with a peculiar variable coupon arrangement. The coupon is only paid, at the current base rate, to Financial institutions that are members of the Sterling framework and then only when the note is held by that Bank as a “Note with potential to enter circulation”.

    Even then the prospectus, were it to be written, would be shorter than the one for an index linked bond – which incidentally are only issued by governments to cover off the liabilities of pension funds looking after defined benefit pensions.

    Or more simply a £50 note is already a government bond when held by anybody who doesn’t have a UK tax liability and that floats against their local currency already. So why issue a different bond class that does the same thing?

  31. “You will see a sharp difference in the curve between Sweden and it’s two adjoining neighbours who locked down much earlier and more thoroughly”

    Only if you are curve fitting to prove your beliefs. The virus doesn’t care if you are Swedish or Sudanese. It spreads the same between any set of humans.

    What Sweden has proved is that the blow out in cases requiring hospitalisation hasn’t happened as predicted, which lends credence to the notion that most cases are asymptomatic. A conclusion supported by the data from Iceland which is still the only area to have done true random sampling of their population. I found it interesting that you didn’t include Iceland in your list of Nordic countries.

    The conclusion from Icelandic data – the only real unbiased sample we have – is that 96% of people will get Covid-19 and transmit it without developing serious symptoms. And that explains why the curve seem to follow the same path in most countries no matter what they do. Sweden appears to be following the same path as the UK, France and Italy – but without shutting its economy down anywhere near as much.

    The data from Iceland suggests that the pandemic will take about 75 days to run its course – longer in those nations with suppression in place – and the final mortality rate will be about the same as flu, 0.1% or so. Given a bad flu year kills 650,000 people worldwide and Covid-19 has currently claimed about 180,000 that seems like a reasonable bet at the moment.

    Unfortunately we won’t know for sure until it is all over.

    You can’t prevent deaths by locking down any harder than your ICU capacity limits. You only delay them once you avoid overload. So in that sense the Swedish approach has worked. They don’t have people drowning on trolleys. Something that almost certainly would have happened in the UK given how close to the bone the NHS is run.

  32. It seems, and perhaps it is always so, that economics has been reduced to class warfare. Its always neoliberals (the enemy) v MMT (the hero). Such simple dualism. Who cares about the academic niceties when you can put on your colour t shirt and be part of your tribe against some opposition straw man. Instead of the useful debate about how to make the pie bigger, its a constant fight about how to divide it. Personally I feel this insistence on class warfare lens, on labelling the current orthodoxy as neo liberal ends up negatively impacting the power of MMT. MMT it seems to me has some useful contributions to make, but the message gets lost in the polemic. Not only that but more fundamentally by overly focussing on the macro side of things the bigger debate about “the invisible hand” compared to the role of govt gets lost. And by the way both sides of that latter debate have things to contribute.

  33. Neil Wilson, it seems to have been considerably worse than the flu in Italy, Spain, and NYC. Already. It isn’t the flu. You don’t know it will subside in summer. You don’t have any basis to say 0.1% case mortality rate. You don’t even know if people who get it and recover won’t get it again. We are just four months into this thing and nowhere is good data yet. You are going to cite Iceland- what a country in the middle of the ocean that has what, 300,000 people total? Even they don’t say 96% of people are going to get this- no one says 96% of people will get this.

  34. “I found it interesting that you didn’t include Iceland in your list of Nordic countries”. (Neil Wilson)

    A complete list of Nordic countries (as defined by membership in the inter-parliamentary Nordic Council) would have to include Iceland, in addition to Sweden’s immediate neighbours Norway, Finland and Denmark (as well as dependent but autonomous territories Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands.

    So the omission of Iceland is in no way of greater significance than that of the others – especially Denmark.

    In Finland (I can’t speak for Norway) it seems to be customary to think first and foremost (probably for historical reasons) in terms of the trio Norway-Sweden-Finland as “nordics” with the others as a sort of outer circle (albeit part of the same group culturally and – to a limited extent – geopolitically).

    I think you may be seeing significance where there wasn’t any.

  35. @Neil Wilson

    Well Sweden has just “won the world championship”, dare I use that term for something so grave – it’s daily death toll per head of population has just become the highest of any country in the world. More than double all of it’s Nordic neighbours including Iceland (whom if you re-read, you will see I initially left out because I was comparing physically-adjoining nations where all bar one – Sweden of course – took relatively strong measures relatively quickly).

    It’s cumulative death toll is also moving further ahead of it’s Nordic neighbours.

    “The virus doesn’t care if you are Swedish or Sudanese. It spreads the same between any set of humans.”

    Agree 100% with the first sentence – caveats apply to the second. The virus is just a destructive little free-floating package of genetic material doing what it’s programmed to do – infect people wherever the opportunity presents itself. So no amount of bellowing nationalist slogans at it, ie “Swedish are grown-up enough to make their own individual choices” or “I’m an American Goddammit!!” or “Aussies are free to do whatever the fuck we like!”….will have so much as the slightest effect at preventing infection. An important part of what determines the rate at which it spreads between sets of humans is how much opportunity it has been provided – social distancing reduces that opportunity. Unfortunately, it appears that it was already widespread in a number of European countries before they realised it, meaning a certain impact was always going to occur regardless – letting it simply run it’s course would almost certainly have magnified that impact.

    Again, the virus appears to have arrived later to the far north of Europe so we need to wait a while and see if the differential between Sweden and it’s neighbours continues to increase.

    But in other places – certainly here in Australia at least – the mounting death toll would be seeing urgent calls on government to act.

  36. The quasi-market system is here in New Zealand also. NGOs and church groups compete and tender for “welfare” contracts. The NZ welfare system is also very pernicious, and is becoming more pernicious with our lovely smiling prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

  37. Re Neil Wilson’s disagreement with my “sympathy for the tax-the-rich to pay for stuff tactic as a piece of propaganda. ”
    Neil you disagree “because the working class want to be rich and don’t like the idea of some smug self-centred do-gooders taking it off them when they get it”. Of course there are people that just want to be rich, in all classes I might add, and would do almost anything to achieve it. But my experience is that by far the greatest number of people of modest means want a decent, secure, usually modest, life for themselves and their family and some time to enjoy it.
    It sounds like you have been disappointed when working class people you know have not met your expectations. All classes of people include greedy, grasping, self-centred opportunists – and their opposite as well. If you expect otherwise you will be disappointed.

  38. A final word on the different approaches to coronavirus.

    Yesterday, more than 2.5 times as many people died from COVID-19 in Sweden in a SINGLE DAY than have died from it in Australia FOR THE ENTIRE TIME THAT WE HAVE KNOWN OF THE EXISTENCE OF THE VIRUS.

    This is despite Sweden having FAR LESS THAN HALF OF AUSTRALIA’S POPULATION.

    It was more than double the daily rate per capital then Italy on the same day and well ahead of it’s Nordic neighbours.

    If the above facts do not scream “policy failure!!!!” to a person in regards to Sweden then I can only assume that person places less value on human life than most others do.

  39. UK Labour’s new shadow chancellor has been telling us all that the lockdown means there is ‘less tax revenue going into the government coffers’ and that we’ll need the richest members of society to ‘bear the burden’ of supporting the rest of us. So, exactly as Bill says, reinforcing the idea that the Government and society as a whole are reliant on rich individuals and corporations to fund public spending. Hopeless.

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