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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Socialism as Regulation: Is it Enough? A Response to Adam Ford

 
 

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

Dr Tristan Ewins
 
Veteran Australian Labor Party activist and blogger Adam Ford has put forward a critique of socialist metanarratives insofar as they retain a commitment to what I would personally define as a ‘democratic mixed economy’.  Specifically, by this I infer a mixed economy including a very robust public sector, but also a broader ‘democratic sector’ including various co-operative models, as well as co-determination, democratic collective capital mobilisation and so on.   Partly in response to my own consideration of the substance of modern socialism, instead Adam Ford proposes a reformed socialist project; one which breaks away from prior emphases on Marx, and prior emphases on public ownership.  Ford reserves the right to define socialism however he chooses, and not necessarily follow in the footsteps of Marx, or anyone else really.  Though in a Bernsteinian fashion (ie: after Eduard Bernstein)  he argues that socialism is a premise from which we depart rather than an ‘end destination’.  

Specifically at his blog 'The Bloodied Wombat'
he argues:

The light on the hill is as a beacon, not a point of arrival. It guides us forward, rather than telling us where to stop.”  

So in its emerging incarnation Adam sees the concrete form of modern socialism as comprising the quite vigorous and indeed aggressive regulation of capitalism.   Though he is not very specific in detailing what form this regulation would take.  Nonetheless, perhaps he has something in common with the Swedish theorist Nils Karleby  - who saw regulation like a peeling away of an onion – where the prerogatives of capital were progressively removed ‘until nothing is left’.  For example: I would speculate that this could take the form of legislated provisions for co-determination, or industrial rights including minimum wages and conditions. (though to be honest this is against the grain of so-called ‘reform of the labour market’ under successive governments, Labor and Liberal)   Karleby was critical of narrow interpretations of socialism which focused only on nationalisation.

For Adam Ford ‘socialist outcomes’ do not adhere to “pre-determined” and “known” “socialist structures”.  And rather than comprising an enduring beacon for socialists, the figure of Karl Marx is seen as imposing a “straight-jacket” on socialist thought.

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.

What follows is a response to Adam Ford’s arguments.

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:


“The fall of the profit rate is a fact, the advent of over-production and crises is a fact, periodic diminution of capital is a fact, the concentration and centralisation of industrial capital is a fact, the increase of the rate of surplus value is a fact.”   (Bernstein, Pp 41-42)   

Ford is right to suggest that in Marxism we do not have the meaning of ‘life, the universe and everything’.  Ethics, for instance, was a blind spot for Marx and many who followed in his tradition and in his name.  As was the tendency of Marxists – not least of all Lenin – to pose socialism and liberalism practically as polar opposites.  (Whereas for Bernstein socialism comprised ‘liberalism’s spiritual successor’) 
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.

As already observed: Nils Karleby shared similar notions to Ford in the sense of emphasising regulation as the substance of socialisation; the means of negating ‘capitalist prerogatives’. Though Karleby himself had also argued:

“How can one imagine a social transformation other than by the growth of collective property at the expense of private property, and through legislative changes together with social and cultural policy measures, and through changes in property rights brought about by the influence of free organisations?” 

 

And further Karleby anticipates a

 

“grinding away of capitalist society in the true sense, a steady progressive growth of new social forms.”  (Karleby in Tilton, p 82)


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.

Still - any role for the state is really the rare exception for Ford.  But is a truly robust mixed economy really “stupid”?

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?

Then there’s also a case for strategic government intervention in support of ‘multi-stakeholder-co-operative enterprise’. Government has a potentially progressive role to play in helping to finance co-operative enterprise large and small.  Especially in the case of large co-operative enterprise large injections of capital may be necessary to attain the economies of scale necessary to remain competitive on global markets. This is where government can help.  And not only State and Federal government – but regions as well.

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. 

But ‘autarky’ is not the answer.  As I have argued elsewhere: transnational enterprises from Samsung to Apple respond to ‘the intricacies of consumer demand’. And they innovate under pressure in the context of competitive markets where massive economies of scale are necessary.

Nor should we aspire to ‘nationalise the corner store’.  This has always gone without saying.  Though small-scale co-operatives could also potentially respond to those ‘intricacies’ at the local level as well; while addressing the alienation many workers experience where they have little creative control over their workplaces and their labours.

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’. 

In some ways this is actually a good thing.  The old command economies produced a ‘dictatorship over needs’ (Fehr, Heller, Markus) where ‘needs’ were defined ‘from above’ and consumers did not enjoy the freedom to determine their own needs-structures via markets.  Markets can be appropriate to the extent to which they enhance responsiveness to consumer demand, and reasonably enhance personal determination of needs structures.

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.

 

Bibliography 

Bernstein, Eduard  “Evolutionary Socialism”, Shocken Books, NewYork, 1961

Tilton, Timothy; “The Political Theory of Swedish Social Democracy – Through the Welfare State to Socialism”; Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Letter to the Prime-Minister Elect, Malcolm Turnbull


 
 Above:  Australia's new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.  Will we see a shift in the Liberal Party towards small 'l' liberalism?  This is a letter to the new PM, expressing the hopes, I believe, of many progressives.

Tristan Ewins

Dear Malcolm Turnbull: Prime Minister in-waiting;

The Abbott Prime Ministership is over.  Gone now perhaps are the scepticism about climate change; the bullying of the ABC; the broken promises and blatant breaches of mandate.  The night the change in Prime Ministership was announced the ABC coverage suggested that you and Julie Bishop would bring a ‘small ‘l’ liberal’ perspective to the Government. 

Certainly under Liberal governments across the country there has been cause to fear the withdrawal of civil liberties.  In Victoria freedom of assembly was compromised.  Now, though, can we hope that a Turnbull Liberal Government will recommit to civil liberties; and maybe even industrial liberties – as a genuine, philosophically-liberal outlook would demand?

Pluralism is also core to a robust democracy.  Tony Abbott attacked the independence of the ABC; and the independence and/or existence of various human rights commissioners. And he attacked the independence of charities who took positions contrary to his agenda.  Hopefully this ends now.  But further: what about a reformed National Curriculum that fosters political literacy and active citizenship?  Not ‘one sided indoctrination’ – but exposure to the whole gamut of political opinion ; preparing students to make informed choices as active citizens?

Hopefully under your leadership the Liberals will now remain within their mandate.  No cuts to education, no changes to pensions, no cuts to the ABC and SBS. 

But some of us will be hoping for more as well. The austerity of the 2014 Budget was obviously  ‘a bridge too far’.  Yet austerity needs to be questioned more broadly as well.  We already have ‘small government’ in this country by OECD standards.  We don’t need to venture further down that path.  We don’t need to bludgeon the poor and vulnerable any further.   Neither do we need to venture further down the path of privatising infrastructure.  A non-Ideological view would be open to a mixed economy – letting the public sector do what it does best.  Though of course as a liberal you want the private sector to do what it does best as well.

What is more we don’t need to dilute the progressive nature of our overall tax mix further. Towards the end of his Prime Ministership John Howard made it clear he believed in the principle of progressive taxation.  Mr Turnbull: there is a chance now ‘to break the consensus’ of ‘broadening the base’ in a regressive way.  And if balancing the Budget is a priority, withdrawing superannuation concessions for the most privileged needs to be considered first before hitting vulnerable or average Australians. There is an opportunity to genuinely occupy the centre-ground with a position of small ‘l’ liberalism. 

On climate change I understand you are committed against an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) or a Carbon Tax as a condition of many of your colleagues’ support.  But what about much more robust ‘direct action’?  What about ‘direct action’ in the form of a multi-billion dollar investment in renewables research and renewables infrastructure?  This can be done without a breach of mandate, and without a breach of trust with your colleagues.

Malcolm; On the rights of refugees, Australia can do more.  We can do more for Syrian and Iraqi refugees especially: whose plight has arisen partly as a consequence of earlier interventions which we contributed towards.  The wars in Iraq destabilised the region; they weakened Iraq, leaving it with a sectarian Shia government; and this emboldened the Iranians with their nuclear program. This was the background to the Syrian civil war. Sectarian government in Iraq was also a contributing factor to the Sunni ISIL movement – which was fuelled by Sunni resentment.

Now minorities and oppressed groups are suffering in a region torn apart by war, with maybe over 300,000 dead.  We can do more and we should do more. And we can use our diplomatic leverage with the United States and other countries in the Pacific region to do more as well.  On QandA American folk-singer and progressive activist, Joan Baez pointed out that if the United States accepted refugees on the same proportionate scale as Germany that this would mean support for some 3 million humanitarian migrants.  For Australia’s part we can also radically increase foreign aid – such as to assist Syria’s neighbours to provide for literally millions of refugees.

Finally, here: I don’t often find myself agreeing with Conservative commentator, Rowan Dean.  And I have a history of supporting non-discrimination in Australia’s humanitarian migration program.  But maybe the argument that Christians in these war-torn countries don’t have many places to turn within their region deserves to be considered with an open mind.  I’m not saying Rowan Dean is right.  I am saying his claims deserve to be assessed critically, rigorously and honestly.

Malcolm: I hope this doesn’t cause you to discount all that I have to say – but certainly I consider myself as being on the left-wing side of the political spectrum. So for instance I would believe in a more extensive public sector than you would as an economic liberal. Yet listening to John Hewson speaking regularly on QandA it is evident that the Liberal Party has made a quantum leap to the Right over the past few decades.  Amidst this, Hewson’s politics have remained steady. For progressives, the hope will be that a revivification of the Liberals ‘Wets’ faction will see a shift of the relative centre towards something more compassionate, generous and just. As well as an outlook which is more tolerant of pluralism, debate and dissent.  Egalitarianism was long part of this country’s culture, and of our identity.  Let’s celebrate that; and let’s not emulate the American ‘Tea Party’ movement with its extreme social Darwinist Ideology.  Instead let’s see some policies aimed at our most vulnerable Australians: those who experience the most intense human suffering.  Get the National Disability Insurance Scheme done. But what about a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme as well? 

With many others no doubt, I am hoping with your ascent to the ‘top job’ we can look forward to a new tri-partisan consensus around human dignity and human rights; and around compassion and respect for the rights of the poor and vulnerable.  Please do not crush that hope.
(nb: the author is still Labor to his bootstraps ; but consensus in areas of progressive public policy should be what we're hoping for as well - a shift in the relative centre)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

QandA's Virtues and Vices - and the self-censoring of the Left

 
 
Above:  Tony Jones  is the most talented candidate for hosting QandA ; But he has appeared obviously uncomfortable in the wake of Conservative pressures to exclude Left-wing and other critical opinions
 
Despite the continual carping on by the Conservatives in this country – to the effect that the ABC harbours ‘an ‘obvious’ left-wing bias’ – I have come to fear that rather the opposite is becoming true.  Programs like ‘The Drum’ seem increasingly slanted towards having Conservative or right-libertarian viewpoints at the core of their programs.  Pluralism is certainly no bad thing. But the impression I get is that radical-Left viewpoints are often excluded.  (though I am relieved when I see figures like Australia Institute spokesperson Richard Denniss included on the ABC) 
The most recent example of the QandA broadcast from the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” was perhaps an exception to the trend of silencing radical perspectives – and one that had host Tony Jones appearing very nervous and uncomfortable. Naomi Klein’s confident and powerful presentation of genuinely radical viewpoints – including opposition to the detention of refugees, and her arguments for Western responsibility in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis – certainly would not have pleased Abbott.  Nor would have her fluent, articulate and effective critique of capitalism.  Jones’ absence from recent QandA programs perhaps hammers home the point that ‘the show might go on without him’.  Though he is arguably still be most talented and competent candidate for the job.

‘QandA’ especially has been ‘under siege’ for years now; with the assault picking up substantially over recent months.  QandA has a long history of supporting pluralism in the sense of including left-of-centre viewpoints neglected in much of the monopoly mass media.  This is what Abbott cannot stand.  We have a Government which doesn’t really believe in democracy and pluralism at all.  It wants to shut-down and silence opposition where-ever possible.  Not just the media, but for instance charities who dare to engage in political criticism as well.   And of course the age-old aim of ‘smashing’ the trade union movement and leaving all working people vulnerable to the whims and agendas of employers.  A country without an effective labour movement probably would not have identified the threat of ‘WorkChoices’ until it was too late.  WorkChoices is not 'buried and cremated'.  It has been locked away to be redeployed some day when peoples' memories have faded; and the labour movement has become too organisationally weak to mobilise public opinion effectively.


At the same time decidedly Left-wing participants have sometimes appeared quite uncomfortable.  (well, that is my strong impression)  And I would suggest that this is because such participants have been under pressure ‘not to come across as being overtly radical’ lest they ‘play into Abbott’s hands’.   For example I remember noticing how with Billy Bragg’s appearance there was very little in the way of discussing socialist politics.  I hold Billy Bragg in the highest regard and cannot understand why else he may have come to sidestep the question with his appearance at QandA.  Yet if we hold our tongues for fear of a Conservative fear-campaign we largely concede the field to our enemies.” 
Yes QandA should be ‘balanced’.  In the sense that it should include Left, Centre-Left, Centrist, Conservative, liberal, and even libertarian viewpoints.  Even if the ideal of a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ (Habermas) is impossible to realise perfectly – that’s not to say we shouldn’t quest after that ideal.  But once we understand that Abbott’s agenda is not about ‘balance’ – but rather about SILENCING opposition – we should appreciate how futile it is to adopt a policy of appeasing him.

Furthermore on this theme: The ‘Zaky Mallah’ incident was blown grossly out of proportion.  It was run with as a weapon with which to bludgeon the program into compliance.  While his (Mallah’s) sympathies may not be ours, nonetheless the observation that anti-Islamic rhetoric was contributing to ‘radicalisation’ was not far off the mark.  The fear campaign  - a ‘moral panic’ that was whipped up in the aftermath of his comments - was ridiculous. 


We have a government who are basically pursuing the aim of transforming the ABC into a State propaganda mouthpiece.  No longer about facilitating a diverse and participatory public sphere, the government wants an ABC which proclaims the position of ‘Team Australia’ – so-called. 


Here dissidents are considered traitors – and considered guilty of some ‘treason’.  Pluralism is to be ‘stamped out’.  In reality the dissidents who defend rights and liberties against the reactionary push to stigmatise and delegitimise them  could be seen as the real ‘patriots’.  We see it in the mass media all the time now: consistently unfavourable coverage of protests, strikes etc.  And I don’t mean that the dissidents are ‘patriots in some jingoistic sense.’   But in the sense of defending that which perhaps is most worth celebrating and defending in this country.

Finally, the recent Tweet on QandA that subjected Abbott to vile innuendo did nothing for the cause of defending free and inclusive speech, as well as genuine pluralism – through the platform of the ABC.  We cannot ‘vacate  the field’ when it comes to values, legitimate interests and policy.   But we must not allow blatant ‘provocations’ that will probably just ‘blow up in our collective faces’.

Perhaps the Left would be stronger, here, were we less ambiguous when it comes to free speech.  The Conservatives talk about liberty when it comes to Andrew Bolt’s speech.   But they want to delegitimise industrial liberties as well as free assembly and civil disobedience -  with an eye to crushing the social forces they oppose themselves to.   Yet when George Brandis talks about ‘peoples’ right to be bigots’ – as anti-intuitive as this may be ; and as dangerous it is to ‘let that Genie out of the bottle’ – there are real questions about the boundaries of free speech.  The tighter we limit free speech the more likely it is that our enemies will apply those standards to us as well one day.  The Americans turned free speech into an absolute by making it a foundational element in their very Constitution ; and the associated ‘foundational myths’.  This can create a free-for all for bigots on the one hand.  But it can provide a shield for civil liberties and expression as well. 

Perhaps we need to be more reserved when it comes to limiting speech.  True hate speech and morally vile examples such as Holocaust denial – which one day could result in history repeating itself – are exceptions.  Let Andrew Bolt have his rights.  But remind him that we do not all have the platforms that he enjoys.  Remind him that genuine pluralism demands a more diverse array of viewpoints in the mass media.  Including the Murdoch Press.  Remind him that progressive viewpoints are systematically excluded in so much of the monopoly mass media – and especially the Murdoch Press which dominates the highly-influential tabloid market.  

For freedom of speech to be more meaningful it needs to be accompanied by OPPORTUNITY for speech.  That must mean a participatory public sphere.  But also it should mean reform of our educational curriculum with the aim of developing peoples critical faculties – including political literacy.  That is:  Not some one-sided indoctrination process; but rather encouraging people to be active and informed citizens ; empowered to make informed choices in keeping with the interests – but also their values.


Let’s defend a pluralist and critical agenda for QandA – serving as a platform for an inclusive participatory democracy.  But let’s not get in the habit of self-censoring ourselves in instances when there are important opinions of substance which deserve to be tested in the public sphere.

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