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September 27, 2019

Universal basic services


September 27, 2019

It was the rightwing conservative British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher and American rightwing Republican president Ronald Reagan who led the neoliberal onslaught on the welfare state and public-sector services and industries in the early 1980s.

These two introduced the policies of privatisation, deregulation, structural reforms and liberalisation of economy. The free market economy, globalisation and neoliberalism became the dominant global economic ideology in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Now the challenge to this rightwing ideology is also coming from Britain and the US. The Labour Party in Britain and Bernie Sanders’ movement of democratic socialism has emerged in recent years in opposition to the free market economy and neoliberalism. The new leftwing radical economic alternate narrative and programme is led by the Labour Party in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US. The Labour Party has taken a big step forward with the introduction of its Universal Basic Services programme.

Public services including railways, water, electricity, gas, housing and public transport were partially or completely privatised in Britain. The international financial institutions namely IMF and World Bank forced the developing economies of Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe not only to liberalise their economies but also privatise their industries, utilities and public services. Free market economy, neoliberalism and privatisation become the economic Bible of the international capitalist class.

Whoever tried to resist the neoliberal and market economic onslaught was treated as an enemy and imperialist powers did everything to destablise such regimes. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was one such example. Every effort to deviate from the free market economy and neoliberalism was met with fierce resistance from Western powers and multinational corporations. The capitalist media was also used to discredit the alternative policies, programmes and ideas. ‘Socialism has failed’ became the leading slogan of that massive propaganda campaign to justify the policies of the market economy and neoliberalism.

Conscious efforts were made in the last three decades to dismantle the welfare state through cuts on social spending and welfare benefits, and through austerity and privatisation and outsourcing of public services and utilities. Trade union rights were curtailed and new flexible labour laws were introduced to super exploit the workers.

The international capitalist class did everything to remove every hurdle for rapid globalisation of capital, economic expansion, outsourcing and growth. We were told that neoliberalism and the market economy would take capitalist development and growth to new heights. We were told that the cycle of boom and bust was a thing of past and there would be smooth sailing in the world economy. We were told that neoliberalism and the market economy was the only natural way to achieve prosperity, high economic growth and a stable economy with high incomes.

But then came the ‘great recession’ of 2008. The world economic crisis raised serious questions on the policies of free market economy and neoliberalism. The capitalist class responded to the crisis with more cuts, severe austerity and attacks on the welfare state. These attacks provoked strong reactions from layers of working class and the youth. These struggles to defend rights, the welfare state and social spending radicalised the layers of workers and youth.

Britain was at the centre of these struggles organised by students and the trade union movement. This radicalisation put pressure on the Labour Party. The election of leftwing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader transformed the situation.

Marxist economist and shadow chancellor John Macdonald came up with a radical economic programme as an alternate to the free market economy and neoliberalism. It is clear departure from decades-old Thatcherism. It is not surprising at all that opposition to privatisation, free market economy and neoliberalism came up from Britain as people in Britain had seen the effects of these policies longer than other European countries.

People have felt clearly the adverse effects of these policies on their lives. The rise of Bernie Sanders in the US is also a reflection of a similar phenomenon. His slogan of democratic socialism is clearly a departure from Reaganism. Bernie Sanders has posed a serious challenge to the neoliberal and free market economic ideas.

The new radical manifesto of the Labour Party is based on renationalisation of public services and utilities, public ownership and democratisation of the economy and to end the cuts and austerity programme and policies. Rightwing politicians and the media attacked Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party for presenting a radical programme. The fact is that the Labour Party has become the first social democratic party in Europe to completely break with the policies of the free market and neoliberal economic policies and programmes.

Now the Labour Party has come up with the slogan of Universal Basic Services. It is a programme to bring utilities like water, electricity and gas; and public services as railways, public transport, education and health under public ownership and democratic control. This programme aims to end the outsourcing and role of private companies in health and education services. It’s a programme to end the market domination to provide basic services.

The Labour Party programme says the following about this Universal Basic Services: “Some things in life are too important to be left to the market. When it comes to your health, the opportunity to acquire skills and learn about the world, or being looked after in your old age, a decent society does not allow people’s access to depend on their ability to pay.

“The labour movement has long upheld that many of the key things in life should be provided collectively, funded out of general taxation and free at the point of use for everyone. It is the idea that has underpinned our treasured public services ever since Beveridge argued for state provision of ‘national minimums’ for essentials in his report ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’. Beveridge was concerned with liberating people from the daily struggle for survival that comes with poverty and insecurity.

“But free, universal public services aren’t just about tackling poverty. They are about enabling us all to lead full lives and realising our potential. Collectively provided universal public services create shared experiences that bring us together as a society. They strengthen social bonds and contribute to our quality of life in ways economists struggle to measure, but that we know are vital to leading a rich and fulfilling life.

“Nor must free, universal public services be limited to the bare essentials we need to stay alive. Cultural experiences, pleasant surroundings and places and spaces to enjoy leisure time are human needs just as much as food and shelter are. “

The writer is a freelance journalist.