capitalism, keynes, socialism

by Nathan Coombs

In reaction to the global economic crisis, in his cover story for the current issue of Prospect magazine Geoff Mulgan tantalisingly holds out the promise of what life would look like ‘After Capitalism’[i]. The only problem is that his hodgepodge of possible routes beyond capitalism – foremost the vague vision of “servant capitalism” – not only do not transcend capitalism, are not only being articulated by those with the greatest stake in promulgating capitalism (he even cites David Cameron as playing a part), but are even aspects of capitalism with us today: the same aspects to have played their part in inducing the global crisis that supposedly marks the beginning of a new epoch.

Amongst his suggestions of routes beyond capitalism he includes Keynesian investment in green industries, the pluralisation of company governance and the introduction of “personal welfare counts” (previously called the welfare state?) It does not take a whole lot of nous to work out that this is hardly a portrait of a world ‘after capitalism,’ but simply an extrapolation of contemporary trends within capitalism: precisely those trends that have historically prevented the possibility of any ‘after’.

Keynesian economics – the answer to the global economic crisis?

In other words, is it really so difficult to imagine that green entrepreneurs will become the new tycoons of the 21st century; backed by government decrees enforcing the adoption of their technologies and authorisation of their patents? Has the welfare state historically achieved more than rounding off the sharp edges of capitalism and exculpating the middle class’s guilt about the presence of massive underclasses in phenomenally wealthy countries? Will these purported servile tendencies do anything to end the unstoppable global progression towards soaring inequalities and the collapse of social mobility?

Mulgan is not the only one, however, to see in a revived Keynesian spirit a route beyond capitalism; that despite the fact Keynes’ theory from the start was intended to halt the spread of communism throughout Europe. Darling of the liberal-left, Joseph Stiglitz, has called for “a new kind of public-private partnership” and “a new balance between market and government.”[ii] Those on the left of the Labour party have also apparently been pressing for a Keynesian fiscal stimulus package; and we are told that finally we now have a clear demarcation between the Conservatives and Labour over the issue of national debt and counter-cyclical spending.

Yet if this is Keynesianism, it is an odd one. With U.K. national debt reaching unprecedented levels and most of that having been squandered on propping up the crumbling edifice of the banking system and tax cuts to boost consumption, there is little left to adopt even minimal investment programs. Rumour has it that the international bond markets are likewise getting uneasy with the UK and United States’ prolificacy with their national debts and might, at some point, no longer wish to keep buying.

It is thus a bizarre spectacle to see the liberal-left flock to resuscitate Keynes at this particular global political-economic conjuncture. The lack of objective analysis of whether Keynesian economics has any relevance to the current situation – nevermind its desirability or not – signals a true lack of ideas and head in the sand mentality. That the ultimate source of credit and the sustainment of artificially high standards of living vis-à-vis value creation in the West, comes from high savings in the East; on this point no debate within the realm of mainstream politics or economics has anything to say. It is, quite simply, political economy; and politicians don’t do political economy nowadays.

That is also not to say though that the Left is doing much better in the ideas department. At the start of his article Mulgan cites Marx and quite correctly observes: “much contemporary anti-capitalist literature (from David Korten, Wendell Berry, Alain Lipietz or Michael Albert) is that they offer little account of how their visions might be realised and how powerfully entrenched interests would be overcome.” At the same time, however, he ignores the key lesson of Marx; the source of problems within capitalism does not come from its form (polluting vs. non-polluting, regulated vs. unregulated etc.) but from the logic of capital itself. Where the mechanisms of capital are at work, it can never be the ‘servant’ of any, except for those who stand to benefit and profit from its workings. Keynesian economics was supposed to take the edge off the hardship of workers, but only so that they would not rise up and topple the system itself.

Still, let us leave aside the poignant subject of agency Mulgan raises, because it is undoubtedly true that all mooted anti-capitalist cries of ‘there is an alternative’ do not contain with them the necessary forces to achieve their, albeit limited, goals. No – the question is rather whether in fact the opposite of Mulgan’s supposed plethora of alternatives to capitalism currently defines our contemporary predicament?

Recently in Comment is Free Eric Hobsbawm argued “socialism has failed”[iii] – cue the cries of those who believe that 20th century socialism was never really tested, that communism wasn’t given a chance once it was driven off the rails by Stalin. The Trotskyite thesis that true workers power was suppressed by bureaucracy falls a little flat though when we consider that across the world all socialist and communist states ended by falling into the same pattern: centralized state-run economies that ultimately lagged behind their capitalist rivals. The answer by some, reiterated again in Mulgan’s piece, is the only answer lies in reducing consumption and the pace of modern life within capitalism. This all seems a bit rich when we still are afflicted with a housing crisis, inadequate medical science and the shackles of wage labour; all set within a global context in which the impoverished of the world are crying out for development and their slice of an enlarged pie.

For many on the Left, developments in Latin America have signaled a source of inspiration and hope: foremost the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The problem is that even in these supposedly ‘radical’ regimes, thumbing their nose to global capitalism and U.S. imperialism, there are persistent doubts as to the novelty and efficacy of the new socialism. As Jon Beasley-Murray surmises the findings of a new book on the Latin American Leftist governments:

“It turns out that the two most salient characteristics of the ‘new Latin American left’ are that it is neither new, nor particularly left, and that we are a long way from seeing ‘utopia reborn’. Hence in Venezuela, it is not until 2007 that chavismo defines its goal as ‘twenty-first century socialism,’ and even ‘Chavez did not explain … in what respect [it]  should differ from the Soviet experience of the twentieth century.'”[iv]

The same sentiments are expressed in a pamphlet by The Commune on ‘the revolution delayed’ in Venezuela, which for all the rhetoric of a new form of socialism being pioneered, the reality on the ground is state corporatism and the co-option and stagnation of all autonomous political activity outside the Party-state[v].

The problem then to any conception of moving beyond capitalism, or moving beyond Keynes, must lie in the lack of ideas of what and how such a society should work. Marx himself was almost certainly deserves his fair share of guilt for this; maneuvering the 19th century communist movement away from one of considering actual alternative social organizations to warning against writing the ‘cookbooks of the future’. There is a certain logic to his argument; in that societies are organic creations that arise from the forces within them, not utopias to just be decided upon and grafted onto reality. Nevertheless, the deliberate shying away from such issues are no longer tenable in the context of the risk aversion with which people now look upon any attempts at radical change.

This means that we have to fundamentally revisit the question of how else society could be run that would not suffer the irrational developments within capitalism? Although it is tempting at this point to start invoking all sort of management speak, like the need ‘to think outside the box,’ we have to face a number of stark facts. First, any alternative to capitalism must, as a matter of course, be based on economics and power relations. Second, there are only really two historical models that present themselves as alternatives to capitalism: anarcho-syndicalism and the state-run economy.

Is it therefore the case that at present the only viable route is the theoretical renovation of the anarcho-syndicalist route? I think both historically and theoretically the answer has to be no. Despite communism’s failures, it did at least have a model that was historically tested and could count some achievements, whereas anarchism has never succeeded in become a reality at all. In Hegel’s words “What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational”[vi] – unless the Left is to slip into impotent utopianism, it would do well to keep these words in mind. It has never been clear how anarcho-syndicalism would remove capitalism or deal with the state and international state power. Unlike communism – ‘nice idea, but doesn’t work in practice’ – anarchism must count as not a great idea and one that has never worked in practice.

Does all this take us back to the state-run economy as the only viable alternative? Depressingly, maybe it does. But perhaps a new route of thought beyond capitalism should not involve a simple resuscitation of discredited Stalinist models, but the re-questioning of the state in the state-run economy. Or, to put it another way, as the state plays an ever-increasing role in the economies of all major countries, perhaps moving beyond capitalism lies in challenging the particular state form we have at present. Perhaps it means pushing for widespread nationalisation, but only on the terms of a massive rethink of how state power operates and governs. As the gathering movement for civil liberties shows us, more are now willing to question the state than ever. What if that questioning could be made truly radical?

In any case, these are the sorts of economic and political questions which need to be addressed. The Left has so far failed to raise any substantial challenge in response to the economic crisis. Unless we do so, we will not be entering the new epoch Mulgan forebodes, nor basking in the warm glow of a Keynesian economic politics, but welcoming more of the same, or worse.

Nathan Coombs is a PhD student in political philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research project is titled ‘Evental Hermeneutics’. He is also co-editor of the ‘Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies’: inaugural edition forthcoming September 2009.

 [i] Geoff Mulgan, “After Capitalism,” Prospect 157 (April, 2009) http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10680

[ii] Jospeh Stiglitz cited in Yutaka Nagahura, “The politics of the long run,” Radical Philosophy 155 (May/June 2009), 11.

[iii] Eric Hobsbawm, “Socialism has failed: now capitalism in bankrupt,” Guardian Online (10th April, 2009) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/10/financial-crisis-capitalism-socialism-alternatives

[iv] Jon Beasley-Murray, “Laboratory Latin America,” Radical Philosophy 155 (May/June 2009), 48.

[v] The Commune, “The revolution delayed: a decade of Hugo Chavez,” The Commune (16th February, 2009) https://thecommune.wordpress.com/2009/02/16/new-pamphlet-on-chavezs-venezuela/

[vi] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 20.

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9 thoughts on “capitalism, keynes, socialism

  1. Right, I don’t mean to go on about this, since I’m not particularly bothered about anarchist theory at all, and I’m much more of a Marx fan. But I think it’s worth making sure we are rigorous on this. There’s no point giving a series of off-hand dismissals and pretending this is dealing with something.

    Is it therefore the case that at present the only viable route is the theoretical renovation of the anarcho-syndicalist route? I think both historically and theoretically the answer has to be no. Despite communism’s failures, it did at least have a model that was historically tested and could count some achievements, whereas anarchism has never succeeded in become a reality at all.

    – Which anarcho-syndicalist texts have you read?
    – When has communism ‘succeeded in becoming a reality’?
    – When else has it been ‘historically tested’?
    – Wouldn’t you agree that anarcho-syndicalism is a species of anarcho-communism, and that therefore anarcho-syndicalism cannot be counterposed to ‘communism’?

    It has never been clear how anarcho-syndicalism would remove capitalism or deal with the state and international state power.

    Do you mean that you think that anarcho-syndicalists have never articulated an answer this question? (I guarantee that they have.) Or do you mean that the answers are unusccessful? If the latter, what do you understand of their answers, and why do you disagree?

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  2. This is refreshing analysis indeed. Keynesianism has permeated left thinking so much that it is reminiscent of what Lenin said about Marx’s theory in his classic State and Revolution that:
    “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”
    In the case of Keynes it’s the other way round, a prize fighter for capital he has been turned into an anti-capitalist, a socialist. This has fitted well with previous state-socialist conceptions in the labour movement and with the emergence of state-capitalism in its myriad forms in response to the Great Depression.
    Its interesting that very few pundits are discussing the failure of Keynesianism when the post-war boom went bust, the Wilson-Callaghan government did respond with Keynesian policies as did many others, with the full expectation they would work. After all they were convinced Keynesians as was the White House at the time. Of course the policies failed miserably and capital has never really recovered since.
    As regards Mr.Hobsbawm that “socialism has failed” this is not new, the miserable Stalinist guru of Euro-Communism was saying this in the early 1980s with the onset of Thatcher along with the disappearance of the working class. He was Kinnocks big mate and a forerunner of New Labour in many ways. What is worth noting is how Hobsbawm’s ideas which flowed directly from the CPGB British Road to Socialism, ‘broad democratic alliance’ etc, are back on the scene in the labour movement.
    The question of the direction of the various revolutions since Stalins ascendancy is a complex question but Trotsky is not entirely wrong on the negative consequences of Stalinism on the world communist movement, even if his own opposition was inadequate. An important question which I don’t have an adequate answer not have I seen one, is how the world communist movement failed to act more independently in defence of its original goals – some did and accepted the discipline of Moscow including their own disbandment as in Poland and West Ukraine.
    The fact that the national revolutions in various countries in the post-war era followed the pull of statism is a complex one, in which we should not ignore the fact they were never actually launched as communist revolutions as in China or Cuba, this came later. Similarly the lack of an independent third camp of significance strengthened the lure of the USSR as a source of support against American imperialism. It is however the case in many of the upsurges efforts at true workers and peasants power was indeed suppressed by the ascendant bureaucracies, Vietnam and its Trotskyists being an example, Poland another. I don’t think however we can underestimate either the immense crisis of ideas in the era after the defeat of the world revolution either, pull of retrogression and immediacy of facing fascism.
    The above article is spot on in raising the question of the key to the conception of moving beyond capital, (I say this as uprooting capital which is a social-relationship really the key). I don’t agree however as regards the reference to Marx, this point about cookbooks has been misquoted on in numerous occasions as a justification for intellectual sloth to avoid addressing working out what happens after the revolution, before it, as the energizing and motivating idea of communist revolution. This is a point made very well by Andrew Kliman, Marx rejected the utopian schemes and in the often cited statement he rejected a specific kind of conceptualising a new society not the task itself. ( see Alternatives to Capitalism http://akliman.squarespace.com/writings/ )
    Nathan is absolutely correct avoiding conceptualizing a new society is not acceptable for our generation of communists. As Raya Dunayevskaya used to argued this is the task of every generation of Marxists to renew it for their time. I also agree on learning from actual history, in that case communists have engaged in actual revolutionary efforts at constructing a new society – not only the first – the Paris Commune of 1871 – but also the infant USSR, and the Hungarian Republic of Councils of 1919 which had many interesting contrasts as regards primacy of the soviets and not the party.
    I agree, on anarcho-syndicalism, however industrial unionism as developed by the Marxists Connolly, De Leon etc, which posed this industrial self-organisation in a coupled with a political organisation, in a similar manner as the soviets is an under studied experience in developed capitalist countries. Echoes we find in Poland in 1980 in the self-management model of the early Solidarnosc when it was ten-million strong workers movement. Something which was also influenced by the dissident communist Marxist-Humanist currents in Eastern Europe.

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  3. I agree with c0mmunard, you can’t write piece in which you dismiss anarchism out of hand as ‘well it will never work’ and then conclude that ‘everything that’s been tried has worked, let’s come up with some vague new idea’.

    “It has never been clear how anarcho-syndicalism would remove capitalism or deal with the state and international state power.”

    I know it’s a cliche little shopping-list, but – CNT-controlled Spain and Black Army-controlled Ukraine both saw anarchists fighting capitalist armies with a fair amount of success. They didn’t win, but there are a lot of reasons for that (e.g. the state-socialists stabbed in the back), and it’s not like this idea has ‘never’ been put into practice.

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  4. Absolute fantasy. The ‘Black Army’, which it was never known as anyway, did not control Ukraine at any time. The army of Nestor Makhno, one of many in 1919, controlled an area of South-East Ukraine around Katerynoslav, but never the city or its soviet. Furthermore Makhno never claimed that he controlled Ukraine either. The majority of the pro-Soviet independent left in Ukraine did not support Makhno but an independent Ukrainian Soviet Republic with a coalition government of the revolutionary left parties.

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  5. Ok, sure. I apologise for the ambiguity of ‘Black Army-controlled Ukraine’ – I meant ‘that bit of Ukraine controlled by (the group sometimes referred to as) the Black Army’, not that Ukraine as a whole controlled by them.

    Makhno and his group were still a force on the ground – the point is that if someone wants to say that anarchism has no model for abolishing capitalism or anything, it would make sense to take examples like this and show why they can’t provide models.

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  6. Communard:

    I will admit that I am not the best read in anarchist literature, but this is mostly because I am not particularly interested in it, can perceive the logical contradictions from the start and can see that history has shown its ineptitude in establishing itself. It is a utopian philosophy, not one of serious social change.

    Communism succeeded in becoming reality in many states: Russia, China, Cuba etc. They certainly did not become paradises and were/are repressive; but to say they were not communist (at any point) is frankly absurd.

    Chris: Thanks very much for your comments and additions to my argument. I also agree with what you write here. I will check out Kliman’s work.

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  7. I will admit that I am not the best read in anarchist literature, but this is mostly because I am not particularly interested in it, can perceive the logical contradictions from the start and can see that history has shown its ineptitude in establishing itself. It is a utopian philosophy, not one of serious social change.

    You don’t have to be the ‘best read’, but having read anything would be a start. Try Berkman, Guerin, or Rocker – or even the online Anarchist FAQ. The fact is, you can’t credibly dismiss something without understanding it on its own terms. Why would you expect anyone to take your claims seriously? It’s self evidently poor method – you wouldn’t use that approach in your academic work, I’m sure. It’s as bad as anarchists who dismiss Marx without having read his writings, relying on caricature presentations from within their only hermeticly sealed schooled.

    Communism succeeded in becoming reality in many states: Russia, China, Cuba etc. They certainly did not become paradises and were/are repressive; but to say they were not communist (at any point) is frankly absurd.

    At what point do you think Cuba was communist? I accept that Russia was briefly communist; I don’t know enough about China to comment either way. Wouldn’t you agree that Catalonia was briefly communist during 1936?

    As discussed on the other recent thread, the counterposition of communism and anarchism is not credible.

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  8. “Communism succeeded in becoming reality in many states: Russia, China, Cuba etc. They certainly did not become paradises and were/are repressive; but to say they were not communist (at any point) is frankly absurd.”

    “At what point do you think Cuba was communist? I accept that Russia was briefly communist; I don’t know enough about China to comment either way. Wouldn’t you agree that Catalonia was briefly communist during 1936?”

    I don’t know enough about China either. So I ask: Did China ever even claim to have achieved “communism”? New Democracy doesn’t seem like a self described communist program to me. And wasn’t the whole point of the Cultural Revolution to crush the liberals in order to put the movement towards “real socialism” back on track?

    Either way I don’t see much difference between Anarchism and Communism beyond the theoretical means used to achieve the post-capitalist society. And if anarchism has failed then “communism” has failed as well since the Stalinist states have either collapsed or reintegrated themselves with the “capitalist” nations. I dont see any of this is as even remotely close to a model of “achievements,” certainly not for workers or peasant power.

    I also don’t understand how you reconcile your point about how the source of problems within capitalism is the logic of capitalism itself with the proposition about how we need to challenge and change the “particular state form we have at present” in order to rethink “how state power operates and governs”. This doesn’t address the existence of class society and the role of the state as a protector of private property and as the framework in which capital accumulation takes place. Perhaps I misinterpreted you but it does seem reminiscent of the defeatist strategies of the Negri and the like with their “citizen empowerment” stuff.

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