Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Still Obsessing on Modes: Towards a New Socialism Part 2

A response to Tristan Ewins, proprietor of the ALP Socialist Left Forum blog.

I thank Mr, in fact 'Dr' now, it seems ... Tristan Ewins for his reply to my last blog, delivered with considerably more timeliness than I was able to muster. You can read his fulsome  reply HERE. Ewins takes issue with many of my prescriptions for a new socialism.

Ewins wonders why there is any sort of need for a 'new' project at all. To which I would answer there is the need to create a division with an 'old' socialism, very much in the minds of those people we seek to influence.

Let's remember that every socialist state turned into an authoritarian nightmare, and that today many notionally Communist/Socialist states (and that's not a nexus most people have the sophistication to break) are in fact just single-party state Capitalist economies, and those that aren't are basket cases.

Because that's the narrative 'truth' that we need to get beyond in order to render the idea presentable to the Cold War generation.

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?

Why not? Because you need a rationale for doing so. The idea that the Commonwealth Bank, Telecom Australia or Medibank provide/d some kind of market tempering force for equity within their respective markets is ludicrous. And not borne out by evidence.

The boundaries of government responsibility are what we're talking about, and Ewins rightly questions a number of the definitional boundaries raised by a new socialism. What I would say here is that the mode of analysis is still unnecessarily bound up in binary ideas of public versus private ownership, ie we're focused on the modalities, not the outcomes.

A new socialism should be wholly outcomes-focused. It should NOT see pursuing specific modalities for, say the provision of government services as any sort of inherently socialist project.

The examples Ewins raises include education - where we have mixed funding model, but with public funds often going to private bodies. Neoliberals should be screaming blue murder as much about this situation as they do about rigidities elsewhere in our political system. The new socialist case here would be to ask private schools and education providers to fend for themselves.

Similarly the public subsidy of private health insurance is a complete market perversion. The new socialism should have in mind what could be done with the billion dollar boost axing this would provide the public purse.

Aged Care - similar to education, we have a mixed model. You could argue equity and other outcomes would be improved by wholly public provision, you could argue the private sector is failing to deliver social outcomes completely. 

I wouldn't see government provision of aged care services to be in any way beyond the ambit of a new socialism. In fact, Government provision of services to the community which the market does not of itself adequately provide is a key tenet of the new socialism.

Ewans also raises the question of the mining super-profits tax - and indeed almost says it himself - this is a perfect example of socialisation through regulation rather than through direct ownership. In its original guise, it was the perfect new socialist policy vehicle.

Ewins also raises a number of issues around government support of Co-operative enterprises. I will start by saying that I think this is a very interesting area of activity for socialists IN THEORY. I think workplace democracy and community co-operative models are some of the more interesting tools in the toolbox that we, as socialists haven't properly played with yet.

But I will also say that people have been writing about this stuff since the sixties. And it really never seems to go anywhere. Co-operative enterprises aren't really a real world thing of any consequence right now. I'll set this aside, and say government finding ways to explore new corporate models is a potentially MARKET-LIBERATING activity, if you accept that current corporate structures are detrimentally rigid. Australian innovation in this area has been basically zero, so arguably an example of market failure. Once again, this is how an economist would put it, but she'd be saying fundamentally the same thing as the socialist.

I keep coming back to the point that the language and concepts we use as socialists would actually not be at all alien to a neoliberal. Neoliberalism at its heart makes the same claim as socialism - the maximisation of collective welfare. It's neoliberalism's MODALITIES that are deeply offensive to the socialist instinct.

I actually think the rationalists who want us all to prosper collectively are in the majority in public debate. We simply haven't had the language to talk to each other properly. Finding that language means finding socialism's spirit inherent in all areas of public debate, it means rediscovering socialism not as a revolutionary movement at all, but as a core principle inherent to the democratic instinct.

Ewins then says "Underlying rejections of a larger role for government is the notion that private ownership is “natural”. And on this point I need to be clear - I am NOT advocating a smaller role for government at all. I am advocating a better defined but greatly expanded one.

Ewins is right to say that we shouldn't "fetishise markets", but we need to be equally certain not to pointlessly demonise them either. The line that "neo-liberalism and the impact of market forces on areas of the economy they never had influence on before is the great evil that the modern Left needs to rail against" is lazy in the extreme.

I ask anyone with that analysis to make a list of the actual outcomes they are trying to oppose in one column and their policy prescription for it in the next. I guarantee whatever you map out, it will look nothing like a prescription that "markets are the problem", and "reducing the power of markets is the solution". Instead you'll have a complex set of interacting forces that are crying out for a body to address them. You have a need and a role for government. You don't have a program to "push back neoliberalism", you have a program to work with it to deliver specific agreed outcomes.

And for Ewins, as for myself, it's the definition of these outcomes that becomes crucial to agreeing what the entire socialist project is. And here, we really don't disagree at all.  Equal association, redistribution of wealth, and the creation of a "good society" are all good places to start. But I want something more fundamental, more defining.

Socialism's aim is the delivery of optimal SOCIAL outcomes. That means socialist analysis always occurs at the collective level - anything to do with the advancement of SOCIETY is, or should be its stuff.

What I'm trying to create is a dichotomy between a new socialism, which accepts a defined but expanded role for government, which accepts capitalism as a fundamental and untransgressible force and a revolutionary or utopian socialism that believes in some sort of "post-capitalist" system as if it has any clue what that would remotely even look like.

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