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October 09, 2011


Luis Enrique

We have an economy where some "means of production" are owned by the state, some by limited liability firms, corporations etc. and some by partnerships, some by sole traders, and even a few by cooperatives. This is what our current version of capitalism looks like.

If the proportions changed - if what you call "non capitalist" forms or ownership become more prominent - at what point do we stop having capitalism and have something else?

I'd also like to know how you envisage this coming about. It could happen just because people decide to set up "non-capitalist" organizations and these flourish. It could happen with a bit of top-down encouragement (tax breaks, whatever). My guess is that these would leave us with a different mix of ownership structures, but still a capitalist economy.

Or, if you really want a non-capitalist economy, do you think the left should be thinking in terms of getting elected and then enacting some really heavy legislation that makes capitalist modes of organization illegal?

Luis Enrique

to be clear(er) ... this isn't just about semantics. Define capitalism as you wish, if you think we have capitalism now, I'm asking whether what you regard as "anti-capitalism" would involve ending capitalism.

Because somethings I think you are really a capitalist who just wants to see it evolve.


You're right - huge parts of the economy are not capitalist, and it's possible that we will gradually move towards a less capitalist economy. Just as in most countries there was no single capitalist revolution against feudalism, so there needn't be a socialist revolution.
My point is simply that the left isn't thinking about how to accelerate such a process, if indeed it is under way.

Tom Addison

Maybe they aren't offering many solutions or alternatives because the people that are protesting (or at least the ones I've seen) are those that have enough free time to be able to do so, i.e. students, who by their very definition have inchoate knowledge of such matters (I'm not saying I don't, but at least I can admit it!)

For the past week around a dozen or so students have "occupied" a patch of grass by St Peter's Square tram stop in Manchester. What do they want? What are they proposing? No idea, all they have is a few placards with four word slogans written on them. They could have at least made a pamphlet or something! Bloody students.


Workers' control and ownership is only part of a vision of socialism and arguably not the most important part. At least as important is the idea of production, distribution and exchange for need, not profit.

Now, I do agree the left - including me - is pretty weak on alternatives right now. But, hey, the entire 20th socialist tradition more or less collapsed twenty years ago, so all us Lefties over a certain age have had to painfully re-examine quite a lot of our previous assumptions.

I think what we're living through is a slow, organic re-birth of a Left of a different stripe, just as the modern Labour Movement only really came to live some 20 years after the collapse of the Chartist Movement. The left that is emerging will take something from older socialist traditions, though not uncritically by any means, but it will also take a lot from Green and feminist ones. It may not even call itself 'socialist'- the participatory economics people around Z mag don't.

So I'm not without hope, even whilst conceding the acuity of some of your specific points. &, hey, - its isn't *socialism* which is in global crisis at the moment is it?


It depends how you define capitalism

IMHO any place you have humans, and a surplus of anything, you get progress. the person who owns the new idea (we can do this with the leftovers)/ made the new thing (I made this with the leftovers)/ owns the surplus (I own the leftovers you want to do something with) gets more capital.

To be really anti-capitalist is pretty much to be anti-human. We just don't work like that most of the time.

In a more indirect manner I would argue that being anti-capitalist has the effect of being anti progress - if you get 'nothing' for the new idea/ thing / property , you are less likely to innovate / change.


Well yes, if you redefine capitalism to encompass any economic system ever, to be anti-capitalist is anti-human. But a bare minimum criteria for any sane definition of capitalism should be that it doesn't do such a thing, for the same reason we shouldn't define christianity so as to include the whole world or red so as to include the whole colour spectrum.

Because such a defintion would be useless.


Actually it is about semantics to some extent. I do not consider Britain or France a capitalist society; substantial portions of the population have 25 years of vacation and schooling on both ends of life bracketed by at best 30 years of work, with government owning or absolutely controlling virtually 50% of GDP. That is not capitalism. I'm not sure what to call it.

In the US, the Left does not talk about capitalist alternatives because socialism still has a bad name. The Progressive agenda is a stealth one, taking advantage of any perceived calamity or public issue to enlarge government and control production. And everyone knows it is virtually impossible for governments to devolve, which is why Thatcher and the Canadian devolution in the 90s are such outliers.

In this way USA is not comparable to Europe where socialism has been the head mistress for generations. Europe only flirts with markets when bankruptcy looms. Which of course is why every European country is structurally bankrupt in the long term.


"In this way USA is not comparable to Europe where socialism has been the head mistress for generations. Europe only flirts with markets when bankruptcy looms."

At the time of the events of 1989 in Europe, they were invariably presented - by self-styled defenders of capitalism - as the unequivocal triumph of capitalism over socialism. But now we suddenly hear about this "Europe where socialism has been the head mistress for generations". So for instance German reunification was not about socialist East Germany losing to capitalist West Germany, as we all had thought, but about one socialist country merely annexing another? That's an interesting view, to say the least.

LED street light

Where there is crackdown there is resistance, where only to permanent peace and harmony.


And Another Thing Dept:

Chris, you not quite alone in worrying away at models of worker control and ownership - Will Davies over at Potlatch has done useful and interesting work on this front from a non Marxist (as far as I can tell) perspective. I do agree that more people need be to engaged in this discussion, and I mourn the passing of the heydays of Ken Coates and the IWC.


Let's take a brief glance at the banks and financial sector - in what sense can it be argued that the problem is a lack of workers control? An equally plausible view might be that it is the customers (households, small businesses requiring funding etc) and shareholders (well, shareholding pension funds anyway) who, to a first approximation, might be labelled 'the People', whilst it is the *employees*, or at least the upper echelons of them, who systematically extract what economists call a rent from their central position in the financial sector in the form of astronomical wages, bonuses and stock options at the expense of 'the People'.

It is not clear to me that in the specific case of the industry in which you used to work that more "worker control" (sic)is the answer - in fact a left position might be to argue for less, and more state direction.

Lee T

“Smash capitalism and replace it with something nicer”

I'm rather tempted to have that put on t-shirt.. and then maybe wear it to a UK Uncut 'event' to see if anyone gets the point.

Richard Seymour

The Left doesn't discuss the merits of alternatives to capitalism? No one seems to have told Erik Olin Wright, Michael Albert, David Harvey, or Michael Lebowitz, to name but a few. It is odd, to say the least, to claim a lack of interest in such possibilities at just the time when such interest is being renewed after a long quietus. To claim that you are a lone voice advocating workers' democracy is bordering on solipsism. Nor is the case helped by focusing on the demands of OWS/UK Uncut/etc. These are open-ended, as yet indeterminate political interventions from the Left. There are nonetheless outright anticapitalists among them, and those whose implicit politics are anticapitalist. It is true that a movement consisting solely of anticapitalists with a clear view of what should replace capitalism would include only a small number of revolutionary socialists and anarchists. Nonetheless, I doubt you'd find most of the people organised by such events hostile to, or uninterested in, discussions of the alternatives to capitalism.

I see no need to trouble over Geras' non-question. One can always ask why a subject or cause doesn't get 'more' support or interest. But it can only be fruitful if we know what the appropriate level of support is, and what that support would entail in practise. It's not obvious what the Left in the UK can do about the Iranian Green movement. It's also quite indiscriminate. There may be a minority of leftists who sympathise with, say, the Iranian regime, despite its evident hostility to left-wing goals, believing that it constitutes a redoubt of historical progress outside of the chain of imperialist states. There may be others who simply don't want to encourage any potential imperialist intervention, and worry that their de-legitimising the regime will simply harm those who they would be trying to help. There may be others still who know little of Iran and don't have the confidence to situate themselves in relation to it one way or another. One doesn't have to endorse any of these positions to see that they each have profoundly different political implications. For the question to be useful, therefore, it would have to be re-phrased in a less indiscriminate and more concrete manner. I suspect that underlying this is a very different question: why don't many on the Left support the Eustonite politics of Norman Geras?


@ Richard - of course, some leftists are interested in alternatives to capitalism. My point is that their ideas aren't getting the attention they should.
I focused on OWS/UK Uncut precisely because these are the nearest we have to large popular left movements. The fact that its supporters, generally, aren't motivated by the ideas of Wright, Harvey etc is surely significant - and, I think we'll agree, disappointing.


This discussion has missed the original issue surely?

The reason why people do not protest about Iran is they do not live in Iran. They are pissed off about economic policy at home. I am sure some left wing people do protest about the barbaric practices of the Fascist Iranian clique. And see Socialism as fundamentally opposed to such practices. But it is hard to see what practically to do about Iran. The USA has not shown much skill at ruling Countries in the Middle east they occupy e.g. Iraq. It is not clear military interventionism can work at transforming the internal politics of large foreign countries with a radically different culture and language. The Neo conservatives who think it can work should be asked to prove they could pull it off in Iran before that is tried.

Being opposed to existing Capitalism does not imply a belief in a Socialistic programme of transformation. You could be opposed to the status quo and want any number of reforms instead and those might not be any form of socialism. MMT ers want a radical restructuring of Banking to abolish credit creation and maturity transformation; is that Socialism? Or is it radical Monetarism?

In Europe and the USA it is more correct to say the system is welfare state Capitalism. Market relations and private property combined with public goods and social transfer systems. Workers ownership could fit in to this system as a development of it. So it is not clear that a move to such a result would contradict the mixed economy tradition. Unlike Jim I do not think that welfare state capitalism is unsustainable on economic grounds but this is a lie people like him wish to spread to undermine our social achievements. I urge you to resist that siren voice of reaction.


I agree with most of your points, but some need to be discussed further.

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