Pick of the Quarter

Issue: 179

Joseph Choonara and Richard Donnelly

An interesting debate has been taking place within and around the journal New Left Review. This was provoked by a piece in the November-December issue, by Robert Brenner and Dylan Riley, entitled “Seven theses on American politics” (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii138/articles/dylan-riley-robert-brenner-seven-theses-on-american-politics).

While making some interesting points about the failure of the Republicans to make an anticipated breakthrough in the 2022 midterm elections, this introduced a rather dubious concept of “political capitalism”. According to Riley and Brenner, this involves political mechanisms (tax breaks, privatisations, quantitative easing and state subsidies) becoming the main driver of the rate of return on invested capital. They argue that “raw political power, rather than productive investment, is a key determinant of the rate of return”.

A reply by Tim Barker in the most recent March-June issue challenges this analysis (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii140/articles/tim-barker-some-questions-about-political-capitalism). Barker points out that most of the mechanisms supposedly constitutive of “political capitalism” existed in earlier eras, ­including during capitalism’s long post-war boom. In this sense, as we have argued in International Socialism, state intervention should be seen both as a ­long-standing element of capitalist accumulation and something that has ­intensified in recent years as part of the crisis management of capitalism (see, for instance, “Vast ­impersonal forces: Biden, state and capital”, in International Socialism 171).

However, Barker also risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater by taking up cudgels against Brenner’s “long downturn” thesis, which links the problems of contemporary capitalism in the United States to a decline in profitability. In the same issue, Aaron Benanav defends a version of Brenner’s downturn thesis from Barker, and also from left-wing Keynesians such as J W Mason who have made similar criticisms, without endorsing Brenner and Riley’s concept of “political capitalism” (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii140/articles/aaron-benanav-a-dissipating-glut).

Another important thinker about the nature of capitalist development was Mike Kidron, a former editor of this journal who died in 2003. John Rudge has been looking through Kidron’s archive and has disinterred a previously unpublished paper from 1970, “Pearson on private foreign investment”. This challenged the assumptions made by Lester Pearson, head of a commission on development initiated by the World Bank. Kidron explained that the kind of investment endorsed by the World Bank would not automatically generate development and exposed the problematic assumptions made by Pearson. The paper, together with an introduction by Rudge, is now available on the International Socialism website (https://isj.org.uk/kidron-on-pearson).

The latest issue of the Race & Class journal features a thought-provoking piece of research by Rima Saini, Michael Bankole and Neema Begum about the role of ethnic minority candidates in the summer 2020 Conservative leadership election, which Liz Truss won before beginning her short, disastrous term in office. The authors note that among the ethnic minority leadership candidates—Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi, Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Rishi Sunak—are some of the leading ideologues of the hard right within the modern Tory Party. In particular, Braverman, as home secretary, has pursued a merciless war against refugees and used her speech at the recent National Conservativism Conference to suggest that the left believes white people “exist in a special state of sin or collective guilt”.

The authors chart the recent history of ethnic minority representation in the ­parliamentary Tory Party, which increased rapidly after 2010. This ­process has, nonetheless, taken place amid a growing turn towards the right and racism by successive Tory administrations.

The article analyses the discursive strategies deployed by the ethnic minority candidates in ­interviews and television debates during the leadership campaign, uncovering some of the patterns in how they speak about race and racism. One notable feature of this is how institutional forms of anti-racism are increasingly presented as an ­“orthodoxy” that is supposedly holding back those they are intended to protect. For instance, talking about Tony Sewell, author of the government’s discredited Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, Badenoch claimed, “Sewell had an honorary degree removed from Nottingham University because he said the issues in this country are less to do with race and more to do with deprivation”. The authors argue that comments such as this form part of an attempt to construct a narrative that can claim some identity between conservative interests and those of black people.

JC & RD.