Conversations with Alumni: Grace Blakeley

Image Description: a headshot of Grace Blakeley against the backdrop of a drawing of Oxford’s skyline and the text ‘Grace Blakeley: Alumni Series’

To start off our Alumni series, I was very excited to speak to Grace Blakeley, a former PPE student at my own college, St Peter’s. A prominent figure on the left in the British media landscape – I’ll allow you to read on to understand how she describes the work she does – I was curious to hear her thoughts about the economic and political effects of the pandemic, a post-mortem of Brexit, her thoughts on Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party and (of course) her fond memories of the Peter’s bar.

So, to start off, what are the overriding memories of your time at Oxford? Did you always have this particular ideological persuasion?

To be honest, my overriding memories of Oxford are of bops and balls and the Peter’s bar – I definitely remember my three years as an undergrad really fondly, and I’m still very close with most of my friends from those days. I was always a pretty fervent anti-capitalist – and a strong opponent of austerity – but, like a lot of people, I didn’t really see those views reflected in a political party at the time, so wasn’t particularly engaged in politics. I was also very focused on the international – I went on to do a masters in African Studies as a stepping stone to a PhD, and even ended up being interviewed for the Kennedy and Fulbright scholarships, but eventually decided that the academic route wasn’t for me. The closest I came to politics at Oxford was campaigning for the Greens in the 2015 election! It was after that election, which took place while I was doing my masters, that I really began to get involved in the Labour Party and politics more broadly. The way the Corbyn project aligned anti-austerity politics with a wider vision for combatting imperialism at the level of the global economy made it particularly exciting for me, given my interests.

You studied PPE – did you feel frustrated by the limitations of the course curriculum at all?

Yes, absolutely. When I signed up for PPE, I thought I was going to be studying ‘political economy’, which is the tradition within which Marx, but also liberals like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, wrote. A political economic approach to the study of capitalism doesn’t treat ‘politics’ and ‘the economy’ as separate spheres, but instead looks at the interrelationships between the two, and the philosophical issues thrown up by that relationship.

PPE was a degree constructed with the aim of training apparatchiks for the British state – it’s basically teaches you the contours of ruling class ideology

What I ended up getting instead was three separate courses in each subject, all from a highly orthodox perspective. This is no coincidence – neoclassical economists have sought to construct rigid boundaries between politics as the realm of state power, and economics as the realm of market interactions, in order to analyse the latter from an ahistorical, mathematical perspective that elides the political foundations of the market, and the power that is exercised within it. In other words, the separation of politics, philosophy and economics has inherently conservative implications. The most ‘radical’ elements of the course were the modules that traversed these boundaries – from sociological theory (the only place I read about Marx, but also other critical theorists like Foucault), through to the area studies modules that brought various different methodologies to bear on the analysis of a particular place.

Then again, there’s an obvious reason for this: PPE was a degree constructed with the aim of training apparatchiks for the British state – it’s basically teaches you the contours of ruling class ideology – and that hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

And how would you describe the work you do now?

A lot of people ask whether I’m an economist, a journalist, an activist, or any number of other things – but I don’t really see my work in any of these terms. I don’t really think you can separate out economics from politics, or journalism from campaigning – if you’re writing about the economy, you’re relying on assumptions about the world which are inherently political, and in doing so you’re lending support – consciously or unconsciously – to a particular set of interests.

Most ‘economists’ and ‘journalists’ are what Gramsci would call organic intellectuals of the ruling class. They promote a particular way of looking at the world – and one that tends to reinforce the status quo. Just look at the way most journalists reported on austerity – they were constantly reaffirming the idea that the government is like a household, that has to spend as much as it earns, even though this is completely nonsensical way to understand how government spending works in an economy with control over its own monetary policy. I see my work as exposing these hidden ideologies and arguing for a different way to organise society – to be honest, if you asked me what I do, I’d probably just say ‘I’m a socialist’.

The pandemic has led to renewed calls for the introduction of universal basic income – do you think that those on the left ought to embrace this policy, or should they be advised to have a degree of scepticism?

When it comes to any economic policy, the main question the left should be asking is: would it increase the power of organised labour relative to capital? There are ways in which UBI could do this: having an assured income could constrain the power of bosses relative to workers by ensuring the latter always had access to enough income to survive. But it all hinges on the size of the income – lots of proposals are pretty meagre and would be unlikely to provide enough income for someone to survive without working. If anything, such proposals provide a way to keep the system stable in the context of stagnant wages and rising household debt. Lots of people I know in the disabled peoples movement also raise very legitimate concerns about some forms of UBI, which advocate the dismantling of the entire welfare state and its replacement with a single flat payment for everyone – but this doesn’t account for the fact that some groups (e.g. single parents, the chronically ill, the disabled) have higher living expenses than others.

Because the pandemic is being associated with an increase in state spending, it heralds the end of neoliberalism

When we’re thinking about how to design a welfare and public services system that actually increases the power of labour relative to capital, we need to be considering options that decommodify the means of subsistence: policies that ensure everything the average person needs to survive is either free or very cheap at the point of use. For this reason, I’m more on board with the idea of universal basic services. Pumping more money into a fundamentally unfair system isn’t going to challenge the social relationships upon which that system depends for its reproduction; but taking entire aspects of economic and political life out of the terrain of market exchange just might.

Your book Corona Crash came out last Autumn. For those who are yet to give it a read, give us a flavour of what it’s about. 

The book challenges the idea that, because the pandemic is being associated with an increase in state spending, it heralds the end of neoliberalism. I argue that neoliberalism was never really about shrinking the state, it represented a reorientation of state power away from a corporatist model, in which the interests of workers were balanced with those of capital, towards a financialised model, in which the interests of capital – and financial capital in particular – are placed at the centre of economic policy.

The reason we’re now seeing higher levels of state intervention isn’t because Boris Johnson has suddenly become a socialist; its that the needs of capital have changed. We’re living through an acute crisis, which comes after a decade of deep stagnation. Individual firms are becoming much more reliant on states to support their activities in this context – and capitalist states are only too happy to oblige. The result of the pandemic is therefore going to be a much more centralised economy – one in which a small number of firms, financial institutions and states survive from the carnage created by this pandemic, giving them a great deal more power over society. Rather than a free market economy, we’re living in a system of ‘planned capitalism’, in which a small number of very powerful institutions control who gets what.

We’re quite a few months into Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party now – how successfully do you think he’s managed to build trust in both the grassroots left and the more moderate factions of the party as a unifier?

It’s no secret that I’m not one of Starmer’s biggest fans – I campaigned for Rebecca Long-Bailey in the 2020 leadership election, and I was adamant that, despite Starmer’s positive gestures towards the left during the campaign, his leadership would be about reversing any of the gains that were made by the left during the Corbyn years. This prediction wasn’t based primarily on an assessment of Starmer’s character, but on the nature of political power. One of the first things any new leader will do is work to consolidate their position by undermining the power of their opponents: for Starmer, the right of the Party supported whose campaign, that was always going to be the left.

Ironically, given all the uproar about Corbyn’s approach to party management, socialists within the Labour Party left themselves completely open to this reversal by failing to democratise the Party machinery and push through measures like open selection. The Parliamentary Labour Party will always be a conservative force within the Party, and will generally seek to undermine the influence of members and the labour movement – ultimately, and Tony Benn knew this well, socialists will never have any real influence in the Labour Party until its structures are democratised. So I’m less worried about Keir the man than I am the left’s failure to build a party in which the members can properly hold the leadership to account.

You were arguably one of the most prominent champions of Lexit, although amongst the pro-EU liberalism and the hard right Brexiteerism, it was often difficult for its case to be heard. Now that we’re out, do you think its a realistic dream that the benefits of Lexit can be realised?

The argument for Lexit was always based on the fundamental truth that leaving the EU was not an isolated event, but a long-term political process, whose character would be influenced by the wider balance of forces within society as a whole. There are lots of good reasons for socialists to oppose the European Union, but ultimately these were far less important than the central imperative, which was to achieve a Labour government. It was obvious from the start based on the distribution of Labour leave votes that losing even a few Labour leavers at the margins in seats in the regions would be far more damaging for the Party than losing a few Labour remainers in cities where the Party’s vote share was much more concentrated – and this was proved disastrously true in 2019, when the Party opted to campaign for a second referendum and was punished accordingly.

The Conservatives aren’t going to use Brexit to make a sharp break with the neoliberal economic policies of the EU, they’re going to use it to try to outcompete other EU states in a race to the bottom

Without a Labour government, or the hope of one in the near future, the Brexit process is going to be dominated by the most reactionary interests in the Conservative Party and will therefore obviously not be progressive. The Conservatives aren’t going to use Brexit to make a sharp break with the neoliberal economic policies of the EU, they’re going to use it to try to outcompete other EU states in a race to the bottom on issues like workers’ rights.

For me, like a lot of people who ended up advocating leaving despite having voted remain, Lexit was about recognising that Brexit was happening, on terms inherently unfavourable to the left, and trying to contest how that process would play out. This stance was based on a recognition that the meaning of political events like the vote to leave is constructed through debate and struggle – this is what it means to say that history is written by the victors – so when the left abandoned any attempt to contest the meaning of Brexit, they handed victory to the right.

And a final question – do you have anything in particular that you would like the readers of the OxStu to read / watch / listen to / do?

Join a movement! Whether that’s the labour movement, the tenants’ movement, the environmental movement, or whatever – just find a way to engage in real forms of struggle. Doing so isn’t simply important for achieving short-term victories, it’s a critical element in the formation of a person’s political consciousness. Separated from institutions that would give them a sense of their own power and agency, most people simply accept that the way the world is is the way it is always going to be. Joining groups or institutions in which you can work with others to understand – and ultimately change – the world is critical for escaping that mentality, and for realising that there is life beyond capitalism.

Image credit: Background by Tian Chen, photo supplied by Grace Blakeley