Socialism in the 21st Century

The meaning of Socialism in modern Britain

What is socialism in the 21st century? A few years ago the question would have seemed an uninteresting one, but now it is the talk about town. Whatever your associations with that word, there seems to be agreement that following decades of decline, on both sides of the Atlantic it is making a comeback. What is odd, this time round, is the meaning of the term is far from clear. 

In the mid 20th Century, the definition was fairly straight forward. Socialism was the commitment to the nationalisation of the means of production and distribution, with the aim of widespread improvements in living standards and conditions in the workplace, as well as a reorientation of economic activity towards the some notion of human needs. There were all sorts of disputes about the details of what this would mean. Would socialism entail a centrally planned economy on a national level, or could there be some measure of decentralisation and local autonomy? What role would trade unions or workers play in administration? Could there be such a thing as ‘market socialism’, where administrators of nationalised industries responded to price mechanisms, rather than targets, essentially operating as in a capitalist economy but with profits nationalised? These debates plagued both socialist parties in the democratic world and the communist parties of the Eastern block in times of relative liberalisation.

But no longer. Almost nobody is seriously proposing any form of wholesale nationalisation of the economy, or any form of bringing the economy into ‘collective ownership’ (e.g syndicalism) for that matter. Questions of the meaning of socialism are not primarily about the question of the broad picture of economic organisation. To the extent they are, in the mass media that is limited to people like Paul Mason or Arron Bastani talking about a future without scarcity due to automation. There is a long history of this idea. Marx talked of a future where we could fish in the morning and write poetry in the evening, Oscar Wilde suggested much the same in The Spirit of Man Under Socialism, and even Keynes made similar remarks in his Economic Prospects for Our Grandchildren. Whether or not something like that will eventually come to pass, the point is that what we are really talking about is not the question of how to organize a society economically, but a (hopefully) possible future in which such organization is more or less superfluous anyway, as we have everything we need without really needing to work (in the 21st Century we imagine this would involve robots and AI; in 19th Century it was mechanical machines).

This is not to say that left wingers aren’t proposing the nationalisation of certain industries. In Britain, renationalisation of the rail network is something of a rallying call of the left; a move which is politically astute as it is quite popular. Rather, unless a very long game is being played, nobody seems to be that interested in the old question of economic organisation. Not that there is anything wrong this. Planned economies probably aren’t a great idea, for reasons fairly well understood and broadly accepted. Tinkering around the edges, through redistributive tax systems, nationalisation of certain natural monopolies or things deemed to be public utilities has a lot going for it. But at least ostensibly, this isn’t all that different to what mainstream social democratic, or even left liberal parties subscribed to for most of the 20th Century. This would represent a major organizational change in the economy if it weren’t for the fact that that is already how the economy works, what is in discussion is largely one of extent and degree. This does matter, of course, but it is not the same kind of debate as the one which was played out the last time round. 

The strange death of Liberal Keynesianism

Why does this now come under the rubric of “socialism”, rather than anything else? Partly it’s about who is leading the charge. In the UK this means former backbench MPs who once upon a time really did stand for socialism as it used to be defined, at least some of the time. Partly it’s a to draw a distinction between themselves and is perceived to have come before, be it neoliberalism , Blairism, the Third Way, or even simply the Labour Party before Corbyn. To some extent, therefore, the term ‘socialist’ in the UK may be seen as an identity marker- it is about who you identify with and which side you come down on in internal disputes within the labour party. That the term also seems like a plausible description of political beliefs owes more than anything else to the strange death of liberal Keynesianism in the UK.

In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, a debate raged on both sides of the atlantic over the proper response of fiscal policy to the recession. This played out not just in the academic field, but in politics as well. On both sides of the Atlantic there was a broad (albeit likely inadequate) move towards fiscal stimulus as the appropriate response, with the Obama stimulus package in United States, VAT cuts in the UK and state funded employment subsidies in Germany. In the British context, this meant that Gordon Brown’s Labour party went into the 2010 election taking the Keynesian line on deficits.

Following Labour’s defeat, it became received wisdom within the Labour party that Keynesianism was an electoral nonstarter. While there was some resistance to this from Ed Balls, ultimately Labour would go into the 2015 general election accepting the basic premises of the Conservative line on government spending (Labour profligacy pre-crash caused the deficits, austerity was necessary and growth neutral to positive). This lead to the rather curious situation. The only people of political clout actually making the mainstream Keynesian arguments about the need for stimulus and folly of austerity were old leftists, many of whom actually had little interest in such arguments previously (John McDonnell had at the time of the crisis welcomed the destruction of the crisis as a means of destroying the existing economic order, a number of other left wingers were initially suspicious of Keynesianism as too much in league with business interests).

This meant that, for better or worse, the argument about austerity became essentially an argument about the size of the state, rather than deficits. Anti-austerity advocates are quite rightly concerned primarily with the effect of austerity on the public sphere, and austerity proponents are essentially interested reducing the size of the state in the economy. In a different world the anti-austerity position might well have found representation by centre-left social democrats, who were concerned both by the erosion of public services and of growth, and saw these as interrelated, but distinct. But that is not the world we live in.

It is in this context that Corbynism offered the appearance of something radical and distinct, without actually having to commit to anything more than bog-standard, textbook social democracy. It could claim what social democracy for its own and call it socialism, largely because the social democrats weren’t offering social democracy anymore. And the historical connotations of the word, to its supporters, offers a kind of gravitas, a sense of association with something bigger and different.

Does this matter? Doesn’t the meaning of words change? This is certainly true, but the old connotations die slowly, and for many, they aren’t positive. This certainly isn’t helped by the fact that part of the appeal of the word socialism is precisely its associations with historical developments that can rightly be criticised. It goes hand in hand with claims of radical critiques of capitalism, with often only a vague notion of what, precisely, is being critiqued (Finance? Private ownership of the means of production? Markets? Neoliberal overreach?) And in the British context, it also goes hand in hand with quite questionable measures to buy off sections of the comparatively affluent middle classes (tuition fees). Perhaps over time the connotations and meanings will change. Or perhaps if Labour does form a government, those in the front bench who have more traditional, 20th Century ideas of socialism, like John McDonnell, will become more dominant. Until then, we will have to wonder.

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