The Political Economy of Twenty-First Century Socialism

By Devine, Pat | Soundings, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Political Economy of Twenty-First Century Socialism


Devine, Pat, Soundings


Pat Devine makes the case for a model of socialism based on social ownership and participatory planning.

Historically, socialism was seen as an alternative to capitalism, a new way of organising society, not least economic activity, based on a new set of values - a vision of a good society based on freedom, equality and the planned use of society's commonly owned productive resources to meet human needs. The socialist movement was the movement working towards this end, overlapping with the labour movement but not coterminous with it. In right-wing social democracy, however, socialism became transformed into a set of values to be achieved through redistribution and equality of opportunity within capitalist society (see Anthony Crosland, The Future of Socialism 1956). And the rise of neo-liberalism and the historic failure of Soviet-style state planning have now resulted in much of left social democracy joining with the right in embracing private ownership and market forces as the principal means of organising economic activity. Finally, New Labour has extended market principles and values into the heart of the welfare state, deepening the social crisis or recession which has resulted in Feelbad Britain (www. hegemonics.co.uk).

The progressive, democratic left gathered around Compass and Soundings is understandably not happy with this. Hence, Compass's three programmatic statements - The Good Society, A New Political Economy, and Democracy and the Public Realm, and the three sessions at the Soundings 2007 conference - 'Countering the Social Recession', 'Financialisation and Globalisation', and 'New Political Strategies'. However, none of these addresses the central dilemma posed by Michael Kenny in his review of the Compass statements (Soundings 35, Spring 2007, p101): 'if not state planning, nor the market, then what can be the agent and embodiment of progressive economic governance and public management?'. This article offers a possible answer to Kenny's dilemma in the form of a model of socialism based on the concept of social ownership and a process of participatory planning through negotiated coordination.'

Of course, there are people who, while in some sense believing another world is possible, consider attempts to visualise what such a future world might look like as a waste of time, preferring instead to concentrate on understanding the present. However, movements of resistance to the effects of neo-liberalism, and attempts to create alternatives, are unlikely to cohere into an effective and enduring challenge to the existing capitalist system unless there develops at least a broad, pluralistic sense of what an alternative system might look like. Given the failure of the Soviet model - historically the only systemic attempt so far to build a society based on the principles of classical Marxist socialism - and the end of the era of the social democratic Keynesian welfare state - the apogee of the Polanyian counter-movement against the ravages of the free market - some idea of the architecture of a possible twenty-first century socialism, its principles, institutions and social processes, is urgently needed if the left is to recover its confidence and reclaim its rightful position as the standard bearer of freedom and progress.

A link between present discontents and struggles and a possible future socialism is not hard to find, whether we start from the traditional socialist concern with exploitation and oppression, or the green concern with ecology and the environment, which are of course closely connected. Corporate global business motivated by the relentless pursuit of profit and shareholder value tramples on human and non-human nature alike, destroying jobs, communities and the environment in one place after another as it continuously reshapes the world, driven by market forces in the face of constantly changing profitability opportunities. People, individually and collectively, are buffeted by forces beyond their control, with little if any say over the direction of development of the society in which they live. …

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