The New Socialism: Moving Beyond Concentrated State Power

(Photo: Susannah Kay / The New York Times)

This article originally appeared at

Capitalism as a system is now increasingly challenged. Critics proliferate and steadily deepen their opposition (alongside, of course, the persistence of capitalism's defenders). Yet capitalism's traditional "other" -- namely, socialism -- has also been widely devalued. It has lost its position as the goal (however variously interpreted) for anti-capitalist social movements. When not simply ignored, socialism (and even more its derivative "communism") is often treated as utterly passé. When taken seriously, it is mostly a vague rhetorical gesture expressing criticism of the capitalist status quo, not advocacy of a concrete alternative. Socialist parties now mainly support capitalism but with a human face -- i.e. with the social supports and safety nets that their "conservative" counterparts disdain. 

Sometimes the advocacy of socialism expresses a systemic rejection of, or opposition to, capitalism. But even then, the current use of the term "socialism" lacks a clear, concrete definition of what genuinely new economic system it entails. What exactly differentiates it from and renders it superior both to capitalism and to what "old" socialism used to mean?

To enrich and strengthen anti-capitalism by giving it such a new, definitive goal, we need to revision socialism. On the one hand that means shedding accumulated historical baggage that now undermines and prevents socialism from being a prominent goal of social change. On the other hand, a revised socialism requires new content that can inspire and motivate. That is now available. Old socialism's drawn-out demise since the 1970s helped give birth to a new 21st century socialism whose basic contours we can now contrast with old socialism.

The old socialism that evolved across the 19th and 20th centuries eventually settled its many, rich debates by largely agreeing on two basic ways to distinguish itself from capitalism. Capitalism entailed 1.) private enterprises to produce goods and services and 2.) markets as the means to distribute resources and products among enterprises and individuals (workers and consumers). In contrast, socialism entailed government-owned-and-operated enterprises and government central planning as the distribution system. Both devotees of capitalism and socialism accepted this set of differentiating definitions.

Debates and struggles over capitalism versus socialism then swirled around the relative virtues and flaws of private versus state enterprises and of markets versus planning. The practice of socialism combined criticism of private enterprise and markets with celebration of state enterprise and central planning. Once socialists had captured state power in the USSR, the People's Republic of China (PRC) and elsewhere, the demands of managing actual economies tilted socialism's focus ever further toward state enterprises and central planning mechanisms. In perfectly parallel fashion, attacks upon socialism from devotees of capitalism stressed the failures and excesses of state enterprises and planning.

Many of those debates and struggles seemed to be resolved by the collapse of the USSR in 1989 and subsequent changes in Eastern Europe, the PRC and elsewhere. History, the devotees of capitalism crowed, had "proven" the non-viability of socialism, the superiority of capitalism. They rarely grasped that what had failed was one version of socialism, an early experiment in what it might mean to construct a system beyond capitalism. Their eagerness to claim that "socialism/communism had failed" conveniently forgot the many similarly "failed" efforts, centuries earlier, to construct capitalism out of a declining European feudalism. Only after many such failures did changed social conditions enable a general system change to modern capitalism. Why would the same not apply to socialism qua successor to capitalism?

A major task for socialists has been honestly to admit and contend with the limits and failures of the old 19th and 20th century socialism: chiefly, excesses of over-concentrated state power and inadequately transformed production systems. Old socialism's achievements -- especially rapid industrial development and the remarkable provision of social safety nets -- might be preserved and built upon if its limits and failures were also recognized and overcome.

One emerging and promising new socialism for the 21st century focuses on worker co-ops. Socialism becomes the campaign to establish and build a sizable worker co-op sector within contemporary capitalism. In worker co-op enterprises, all workers are equal members of a democratically run production operation. They debate and decide what, how and where to produce and how to utilize the net revenues. Worker co-op enterprises exist alongside traditional capitalist enterprises. They are eligible for and must obtain tax considerations, subsidies and state supports comparable to what capitalist enterprises received throughout capitalism's history. Indeed, in their initial, emergent phase, worker co-ops deserve extra government support so that the worker co-op sector quickly achieves a significant role in the economy. Until that role is established, people will remain unable to evaluate, compare and weigh in on what mix of capitalist and worker co-op enterprises they wish for their society.

The worker co-op sector of an economy will have to decide what mix of market and planning mechanisms to utilize for the distribution of its resources and products (much as capitalist enterprises always did). The relationships -- both competitive and cooperative -- between the two sectors of each economy (capitalist and worker co-op) will have to be determined by negotiations between them. The third member of those negotiations will be the populace as a whole weighing in on what kind of economic system it wants as the partner for its political system.

With a significant worker co-op sector, the state's dependence on enterprises will no longer mean a dependence on a small minority: shareholders and boards of directors who control capitalist enterprises. Instead it will mean, at least in part, the state's dependence on masses of workers who democratically control worker co-ops. Under such a system, the prospects for genuine (as opposed to merely formal) political democracy are much enhanced over their sorry state today.

Mass working class support made 19th and 20th century socialism -- with its programs of revolutionary or evolutionary/parliamentary seizures of state power -- historically important. We cannot now expect to mobilize again any equivalent support for a revival of the old socialism. That is because of its limits and failures and also because of the massive, sustained campaigns against it by capitalism's supporters. However, a new socialism built upon the best achievements of the old plus a new focus on the democratic transformation of the workplace can mobilize mass support now. It is already doing so.

A new socialism for the 21st century would address as well all those in the population who are not in the workforce because of family, age, education, illness, disability or other comparable causes. Systematic supports for them -- qua relatives, friends and neighbors of workforce members -- are as central to a new and better society as is the democratization of the workplace. Indeed, the latter and the former can and would be mutually supportive.

Old socialist parties are mostly fading or imploding, yet at the same time capitalism's deepening difficulties, especially since the global crash of 2008, are everywhere increasing mass opposition to capitalism. What that opposition needs is a new socialism with attractive, basic transformative goals. What is not wanted is social change that gives power to some far-away government apparatus. The point is rather and finally to transfer power into the hands of the change-making workers themselves. Power here refers to more than politics. It refers to the social power at the economic base of society, in the workplaces producing the goods and services upon which social life depends.

The French Revolution's slogan -- liberty, equality, fraternity -- was linked to its economic project of displacing feudalism in favor of capitalism. While its economic project succeeded, it failed to realize that slogan. It turned out, as Marx noted, that capitalism's class division (between employer and employee) blocked that realization. Overcoming such class divisions -- something a worker co-op can do -- is required to take the next great historical step toward liberty, equality and fraternity.         

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  • Wayne Gazzola
    commented 2017-06-11 22:47:06 -0400
    When I cross the socialism campaigns on campus I just keep walking. It is easy to point out all the flaws of capitalism, especially when technology being introduced into it is helping create a culture of produce more, consume more, reuse nothing, throw it all away, then hit the mall to do it again. Consumption has gone unchecked and unquestioned. Excess production of non-essentials is consequently regarded as indispensable. This of course takes away workers leverage from property owners as those who own production equipment and land or resources only need to press the button and we the people lapp it all up. Workers and and citizens in general lose leverage in the process – leverage to dictate the direction and culture of their communities, and consequently their sense of belonging. Leverage to seek suitable employment instead of cutting their hair and doing customer service. Leverage to keep their rents from skyrocketing such that 80% of their check goes to keeping a roof over their heads, etc.

    I fail to see how socialism would change what is ultimately a cultural phenomena. It is leverage which is the problem. People as consumers who produce a culture of consumerism and alienation are in many ways their own worst enemy.

    True socialism can affect this, but it is not going to do so at a causal level, and it will likely not do so without introducing much of its own pitfalls. But I do agree that to get something right multiple endeavors need to be made, and people are quick to discount something long before any scientific rigor of trial and error has been met.

    Something has to change for sure, but it is possible that what we’re seeing is a period of adaptation in which people first get duped by technological/ social changes before learning to regain their leverage. Capitalism is only so bad when we have to operate in it with no leverage. Likewise I’d imagine socialism is only so bad when it acts to restrict self-determination, of individuals and groups.

    The more fundamental question then is what produces leverage for workers/ citizens in capitalism, and what allows individuals and groups in socialism to maintain self-determination.

    Just as laws are not what is written, but rather are the interpretation of what is written, you can create any system you want, but without leverage to interpret what freedoms I have to pursue my ends or what leverage I have against those who would seek to encroach upon such freedoms, then it is all just a detraction and reshuffling of the same shitty cards. Big-wig board directors will be replaced by local factions which come to control the worker co-ops. The leverage of workers themselves would no more change than would the underlying culture of mass consumption and social alienation.

    I’ll give the worker co-op thing this though; it is shared spaces in which culture is born, ideas spread, social capitol grows, resources get distributed, and leverage is gained. If it acts to provide local shared spaces, and if it gives incentive for people to actually engage in such spaces then its got my vote. But make no mistake, it is the shared spaces, not the governmental structure which will have produced change.

    We are suffering an epidemic of a depletion of shared space in this increasingly developed society. Tribalism is alive and kicking in our DNA but is dying on our streets. This is why I advocate for large scale bunk-housing to be introduced on the free rental market. Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘mediating institutions’ won’t be enough to save people as such spaces will simply be outnumbered and surrounded by un-shared domestic space.
  • Павел Каналиев
    commented 2017-05-31 04:25:23 -0400
    Нециклична демокрация, е изборен процес, който има начало, но е безкраен във времето. Тя дава възможност хората да гласуват във всеки желан от тях момент, без ограничение на броя гласувания. Явен вот, е правото на хората, при желание, да излязат от своята анонимност като гласоподаватели в непрекъснатия изборен процес, в нецикличната демокрация. Корекционен вот, е утвърждаващ или отхвърлящ явен вот, във всеки желан от хората момент, от непрекъснатия изборен процес в нецикличната демокрация. В нецикличната демокрация, броят на мандатите е променлив. Той се определя от сбора на гласувалите с анонимен цикличен вот, явен вот, и корекционен вот във всеки един момент от непрекъснатия изборен процес. Праг на доверие, на избран с гласуване, кандидат за изборна длъжност, е половината от гласувалите за него, минус един глас. В нецикличната демокрация, продължителността на мандата, на избрания с гласуване, се изчерпва с изтичането на отреденото за мандата време или с достигане прага на доверие. Листа с кандидати за изборна длъжност, е информационен масив със свободен обществен достъп, с информация за всеки кандидат за изборна длъжност. В него, във всеки момент, всеки избирател и всяка обществена организация, могат да прибавят или оттеглят своя избор на кандидати за избираема длъжност . Гласувалите с явен вот, имат право на корекционен вот във всеки момент от непрекъснатия избирателен процес, на нецикличната демокрация. Корекционният вот е:

    1. Вот, срещу собствения избор, приближавайки избрания до прага на доверие.

    2. Вот, за друг кандидат от листата с кандидати, приближавайки избрания до прага на доверие.

    3. Вот, за избран от други избиратели, приближавайки избрания до прага на доверие, отдалечавайки новоизбрания от прага на доверие. Translated from a Bulgarian with a Google translator. Non-cyclical democracy is an election process that has a beginning but is endless in time. It allows people to vote at any time they want, without any limitation on the number of votes. An obvious vote is the right of people, if they wish, to get out of their anonymity as voters in the continuous election process, in non-cyclical democracy. A correction vote is a valid or rejecting clear vote, in every moment that people want, from the ongoing election process in non-cyclical democracy. In non-cyclical democracy, the number of mandates is variable. It is determined by the sum of the voters with an anonymous circular vote, a clear vote, and a correction vote at any moment in the continuous election process. A threshold of confidence, of a voter elected by vote, is half the vote for him, minus one vote. In non-cyclical democracy, the duration of the mandate of the elected member is exhausted by the expiration of the mandate or the threshold of confidence. The list of candidates for elective office is an open-access information file with information on each candidate for election. In it, at every moment, each voter and each public organization can add or withdraw their choice of candidates for elective office. Voted votes have the right to a correction vote at any moment in the ongoing electoral process, non-cyclical democracy. The correction vote is:

    1. A vote against your own choice, bringing the selected person to the threshold of confidence.

    2. Vote for another candidate from the Candidate List, approaching the selected to the confidence threshold.

    3. A vote chosen by other voters, approaching the chosen one to the confidence threshold, diverting the newly elected from the threshold of confidence.