Above: An image of Nils Karleby: Adam Ford's account of 'Socialism as Regulation' has some things in common with the thinking of this important Swedish Social Democrat
Specifically at his blog 'The Bloodied Wombat' he argues:
Finally, Adam Ford condemns not only ‘command economies’ as ‘stupid’; but he applies the same judgement to mixed economies where the public sector extends beyond “natural public monopolies”, and certain essential services and infrastructure which the market would not provide via its own devices.
The hinting of a Bernsteinian angle is appreciated. Bernstein had a lot of relevant things to say about socialism and ethics, socialism and liberalism, and the notion there no absolutely-final ‘end point’ for socialism.
Though Bernstein had also insisted of Marx’s theory:
Certainly it is fashionable in this day and age to decry the ‘old’ socialism. The neo-liberal Ideology remains largely hegemonic throughout much of the world. Public ownership is seen as an anachronism. ‘The market’ is revered; ‘command economies’ are reviled. And indeed – even for those proposing a democratic mixed economy, the spectre of the ‘command economy’ hangs over all debate as if there really is no ‘middle path’ or otherwise diverging paths from those of neo-liberalism and so-called ‘state socialism’. Though to be fair to Adam Ford he personally diverges significantly from neo-liberalism in proposing a thorough regime of regulation. And his allowance for natural public monopoly puts him at odds with the likes of Mises or Hayek.
Hence despite his emphasis on regulation-as-socialism Karleby does not deny the mixed economy. Though perhaps his position is also suggestive of strategies such as democratic collective capital formation for example.
Again: Ford rejects “predetermined” “socialist structures”. Most particularly this appears to relate to state ownership ; but perhaps it also applies to collective forms of property posed in opposition to exploitative labour-capital relations. Though Ford also suggests “democratic markets”. What could this mean?
In truth I have considered “democratic markets” myself. But here I conceive of a wide variety of producer and consumer co-operative forms, as well as collective capital formation and so on. I think of workers and consumers organising collectively and co-operatively in the very midst of markets. And I envisage of the state playing an enabling role here: via state aid, including cheap credit, tax breaks and so on.
True: Ford and I agree on the need for “natural public monopolies”. Ford is not specific, but for me here I think of energy, water, communications and transport infrastructure. I also think of near-monopolies in education. But why not extend strategic socialisation beyond these strictly conceived boundaries? Government business enterprises can enhance competition in areas as diverse as banking and health insurance; also providing progressive cross-subsidisation where that makes sense. Dividends can potentially be socialised into the tens of billions empowering the extension of welfare and the social wage. In areas such as mining partial socialisation via some ‘super profits tax’ made sense ; but opposition to a direct public stake here could be seen as Ideological. In any case - even a public sector mining company would operate in a global and competitive market. As could other competitive state enterprises.
Furthermore: ‘the market’ could no-doubt ‘find a way’ to intrude upon just about every facet of our existence. But should we allow for it to do so? Are ‘markets’ and the profit motive appropriate in Aged Care for example? The public sector needs to intervene where the market fails. And market failure takes many forms. This includes the lack of democratic forms; the exploitation of vulnerable people; as well as ‘Planned obsolescence’ and the creation of oligopolies and monopolies which fleece consumers. Also there is the potential for neglect of consumer minorities whose ‘market power’ is not sufficient to ensure the provision of the highest quality goods and services at competitive prices. Perhaps Ford allows for this final case in his model, however. Though the question remains: how would that work?
Underlying rejections of a larger role for government is the notion that private ownership is “natural”. It is considered the ‘default” form of property compared with which the public sector is but a rare exception.
I reject this notion. But I do suppose a large role for competitive private sector markets into the foreseeable future. A ‘democratic mixed economy’ is realisable in the foreseeable future in a relatively modest form. To illustrate: I personally envisage an increase in public revenues and associated outlays by 5 per cent of GDP – achieved perhaps over a decade, and flowing in to social wage and welfare provisions. As well as public borrowings for ‘nation-building’ infrastructure.
Australian consumers don’t want to be isolated from the innovations that go on in competitive global markets. And Australian workers also stand to benefit from jobs-creating foreign investment. I accept this. No-one (or at least almost no-one) wants ‘socialism in one country, Stalinist-style’. We can gradually build up to a robust democratic mixed economy. But the ‘traditional socialist society’ as epitomised by the old Soviet and Eastern bloc is ‘lost to us’.
But we should not adopt an Ideological perspective which closes off the strategic extension of the public sector. Nor should we fetishize markets – especially where they fail. And we should not just jettison the Marxist tradition in its entirety – when there is such a rich and diverse range of viewpoints and insights even still. Even though in today’s more plural Left there is greater tolerance towards the pursuit of ‘ethical’ or even ‘liberal’ socialism. (a good thing)
We probably can define socialism ‘however we choose’. But we should also ask ourselves what is reasonable when we return to ‘first principles’. Socialism began with notions of economic equality; notions of ‘equal association’. There was also the communist notion of ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’. And that notion still retains its force today. Though quite rightly the modern Left has also considered that economic equality alone is not enough to achieve ‘The Good Society’. A ‘good society’ and a ‘strong democracy’ needs to include a participatory and authentic public sphere. It must encompass mutual respect and free enquiry. It must support peoples’ need for economic security; but also peoples’ search for meaning in many-varied ways. Whereas the Left once focused its attentions on nationalisation too-narrowly, however, the opposite tendency to reject public ownership as a strategy is itself ‘Ideological’. Democratic socialists are learning from past errors. But it is not a ‘clean break’. Our efforts today should still be informed to a significant extent by past insights, and past tradition.