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Socialism After Communism: The New Market Socialism.

David Schweickart, Loyola University Chicago

Is there socialism after communism? Christopher Pierson, a reader in politics at the University of Stirling, centers his book on this question. Curiously, one puts down this on-the-whole careful and intelligent work not altogether certain as to his answer.

Pierson's basic theses may be summarized as follows: (1) Both the Soviet model of socialism and the social democratic model of the Keynesian welfare state are dead, but the generalization of the death certificate to all forms of socialism is unwarranted. (2) Market socialism may well be an economically viable, morally desirable alternative to capitalism. (3) Unfortunately, market socialism is not feasible. Well, then, is there some other model of socialism that is feasible? The reader expects Pierson to suggest such a model, or if not, to reconsider (1). Curiously, he does neither.

Before examining this conundrum, let me sketch more fully Pierson's three theses. Part I of his book takes up (1). Pierson accepts the standard criticisms of Soviet-style central planning. He also agrees that social democracy is in serious trouble, since changes in the global economy have made "Keynesianism in one country" impossible. But it is not true, he argues, that the working class is disappearing, that socialist and social democratic parties have been uniformly routed, or that the basic values associated with socialism have been overwhelmingly rejected. What the globalization of the economy and the demise of the Soviet Union have called into question, he thinks, is not so much the ideals of socialism as the ability of socialist or social democratic parties to deliver on these ideals.

Part II sets out a rather general model of the "new market socialism," drawing on the work of, among others, Alec Nove, John Roemer, David Miller, Robert Dahl, James Yunker, and Leland Stauber. During the past two decades there has developed a significant body of theoretical reflection concerning models of socialism that incorporate market mechanisms. Theorists of market socialism reject the traditional identification of capitalism with markets and socialism with planning. They maintain that, although it is not possible to have an economically viable modern economy without markets, it is possible to have an economically viable modern economy without capitalists. Their models, so they argue, promise to be not only economically efficient but also much superior to capitalism in terms of equality, democracy, and various other widely accepted ethical values.

Part III assesses the "feasibility" of this project. Pierson distinguishes two senses of feasibility: (1) If implemented, would market socialism work as its proponents claim? (2) Might such a socialism serve as a core element of successful socialist strategy for the transformation of a contemporary advanced industrial society? After a careful consideration of the first question, Pierson finds the case for market socialism "contested but defensible" (p. 190). He is particularly attracted to the form that gives workers in an enterprise the authority to manage the enterprise. He finds there to be "good grounds for endorsing the claim that, if feasible, workers' self-management would bring about a major extension of democracy" (p. 165).

But alas, according to Pierson, neither worker self-management nor any other form of market socialism is feasible in the second sense. Why not? In a word, it is too radical. As Pierson correctly observes, market socialism takes aim at the heart of the contemporary economic order. It aims to replace capitalist ownership of the means of production with some form of social ownership. Although most models allow some space for capitalist enterprises, for the most part the expropriators will be expropriated. This, says Pierson, is not going to happen. Any feasible strategy for social change, he argues, must take place incrementally and within the framework of liberal democratic political institutions. But market socialism as a political project will never command sufficient support among the electorate. It is too much tied to workers, at a time when nonworkers - students, retirees, welfare recipients - are increasing as a percentage of the electorate. Moreover, market socialism does not address the specific concerns of women, minorities, or ecologists, groups that would have to be mobilized in support of a socialist agenda.

Pierson clearly has a point. Market socialism is not, in itself, very "sexy." But why should it not be a part of a larger socialist project? At one point he seems to say as much: "Self-management under social ownership might be one plank in a revivified social democratic programme" (p. 208). Perhaps this is Pierson's considered view, but it is not repeated in the book's concluding chapter, which summarizes his reasons for believing that "market socialism cannot form the basis of a revised strategy of the left" (p. 213).

In fact, Pierson's concluding chapter seems to contradict the analysis that precedes it. "What makes market socialism seem feasible is its attachment to the market, but that which makes it socialist is the very thing that renders it infeasible" (p. 211). That is, market socialism is infeasible because it is too radical. But now market socialists are taken to task for being "insufficiently radical in their rethinking of the socialist idea" (p. 218). Pierson charges them with paying insufficient attention to ways in which both the state and civil society may be more thoroughly democratized and with not addressing the question of ownership in a radical enough way. (What this more radical questioning of ownership might be is left rather vague.)

The source of this logical muddle is easy to locate. Pierson cannot bring himself to say that the fundamental reason for the infeasibility of market socialism is the sheer power of the capitalist class. This class - the one percent or so of the population which, in the United States, owns one-third or more of all wealth - has rigged the electoral game so as to make certain there will be no effective challenge to its power, at least not in the foreseeable future. References to this class, to its lock on the mass media, campaign financing, and so forth, are virtually absent from Pierson's book. Instead, he blames the infeasibility on market socialism itself, on its excessive/insufficient radicalism.

It would have been better, I think, to have taken Plato's tack. In constructing his ideal Republic, Plato insists that it is worth knowing what a truly just society might look like, even though one cannot be sanguine about its coming into existence. Pierson's decent book would have been a better book if he had addressed the question of class power straight on.
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Author:Schweickart, David
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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