In the 7th Annual Wheelwright Lecture, in September 2014, Leo Panitch let forth against the likes of David Harvey and Wolfgang Streek — including many in the audience — and stated the following, available in the Journal of Australian Political Economy:
It is important we not get hysterical and start predicting the “end of capitalism” in the hope this will help get the left past “the stark choice between impossible reform and improbable revolution”. This overlaps with the kind of environmentalism that tells us we have only 5 or 10 years left to prevent ecological catastrophe, which is often in fact demobilising. And if a new fascism were really on the verge of closing the space that liberal democracy allows for freedom of association and free speech, then all forces on the left would be obliged to engage in popular-front style cross-class alliances to defend that space. This would severely restrain any new socialist strategy and mobilization until the threat was defeated. We should therefore be wary of unnecessarily frightening ourselves, while nevertheless carefully examining the nature, and monitoring the growing strength, of the radical right in the current conjuncture. We need time for long term mobilization, and for building the political organisations that are capable of putting the end of capitalism back on the human agenda.
I find it hard not to interpret this as saying, ‘We, the organised Left, decide what to do and how to do it. Rabble, get back in your place. Follow us: we will save you.’
Panitch’s position begs the question: how have most Left thinkers and activists over the last couple of centuries defined their economic and political project, strategies and agenda? It is hard to ignore that, even if our vision — ending capitalism — is radical, this kind of reformist approach has always seemed the most feasible option.
This reformist strategy is a ‘one step at a time along the long road and we will reach our destination’ approach. Typically it has meant national campaigns and broadening state management of key resources along socialist values of broader and more equal access, either directly or through redistributing incomes. So social democratic — Keynesian, nationalising and Third Way — governments have come to power with such promises and programs.
Sooner or later such social democrats fail because they operate within a market economy; a capitalist state working for the masses, for workers, runs counter to the smooth running of capitalism. There is class, even if it is a peculiarly open and mobile form of class. There is capitalism, and capitalism is a fragile beast.
Stronger and more enduring anti-capitalist models have centred on public ownership of the means of production, planned socialism framed as nationalist revolutions with complicated international positions, politically and economically. Managerial planning and forceful defence, internally as well as externally, has given all such experiments an authoritarian, even dictatorial and totalitarian character.
Without revolutionising the economy and polity by substituting monetary and market-based principles with direct control over production, community-based governance, the planned socialist (or communist) model has, sooner or later, disintegrated into state capitalism. Meanwhile counter-currents invariably fight politically for democracy of a market-based variety reintroducing liberal through to social democratic models.
It is not a matter of social democratic states balancing the books better or being more economically savvy, efficient or smart. The capitalist state cannot redistribute incomes without taking from the rich — from the owner–managers of the system — and/or by running up debts. Indeed private saving, investments and assets are implicit debts so of course they surround us. The system is the system is the system.
After decades resisting incorporating environmental concerns into the majority Left’s ‘materialist’ perception of reality, we now face a runaway decay of nature on a planetary scale. This seems like an ideal platform for the Left. If socialism once seemed like the only way of saving humanity, it is now the only way of saving the human species per se. Unlike Panitch & Co., the Right readily understands — in their rejection of climate change — our time has come.
And, just as the capitalist Right has lost the day, so has the right within the Left. The reformists have little to offer but more of the same failed ways ‘forward’. We must now let 100 flowers bloom without taking fright as to what is revealed, without cracking up, without cracking down. We are, after all, fighting for the future of our children and grandchildren, for our species. I put forward one key radical alternative to consider: non-market socialism. Please, defy Panitch, and respond with yours.
When I raise non-market socialism — a world beyond money where we collectively produce and exchange on the basis of social and environmental values — many agree that money and markets are bizarre and outdated institutions. But others assail me with a barrage of dismissals. The main one is: societies have always traded.
Logically, this argument is weak. Haven’t societies always involved violence, patriarchy and hierarchy? Does that stop us having a vision of, and struggling for, a society without violence, patriarchy and hierarchy?
Just as significantly, trading has had a subordinate — marginal rather than driving —role in all other, i.e. non-capitalist, societies. There principles ruling use-rights to the means of production and forms of exchange have generally been framed in political, cultural and religious ways. So societies might always have engaged somewhat in both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ exchanges but this is neither trade nor production for trade as we know it in capitalism, using money and prices as terms of exchange.
The question is: does trade and, in particular, production for trade, make sense? I will ignore all the illogicality around prices, which is enough to bury capitalism on its own. Instead, I simply point to another fatal flaw: becoming more sustainable will mean degrowing advanced economies. All economies based on production for trade involve a general equivalent, money as we know it. To the extent that its value or buying power is unstable, so is the economy. Therefore, capitalists, workers and dependents all derive security from a continuously growing economy. Any individual or collective producing for trade must account for a buffer, profit, again implying growth. Sustainability and capitalism are impossible. In fact, capitalism has bred unsustainability. Please, Panitch don’t tell us not to panic.
The next charge nonmarket socialists face is that people have always exchanged. Yes, they have, and people exchange under non-market socialism, just not on the basis of market principles and monetary values, prices. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with exchange. Exchange is not trade; trade is market-based exchange. Sure, exchange is minimised under non-market socialism in as much as moving stuff from one place to another is environmentally — and effort-wise — costly. Nor do we support exchange as a practice of exploitation.
Nonmarket socialists advocate producing for our collective selves and this involves exchanges, but on the basis of social and environmental values. Indeed owning the Earth, reclaiming it, and collectively governing it for simple reproduction of our basic needs according to environmental criteria for sustainability seems like the only way forward.
How will we continue to live otherwise?