Chapter 16

 

 

A RECONCILIATION OF LEFT AND RIGHT

 

 

The reason I have drawn attention to a possible convergence between socialism and a market economy is that the intellectual odyssey here shouldn’t be limited to my friends among conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals. Socialists have made up by far the largest part of the world's intellectual culture for almost two centuries – and this has included the intellectual component of modern American liberalism.  It is imperative that those on the left share in a discussion of profound importance.

          What is needed is for science, a capitalistic market (with needed reforms) and egalitarian distribution to come together into a workable whole to address the onrushing realities.  This calls, too, for a consensus among the believers in all the earlier ideologies that the state's egalitarian role not be abused. 

 

When I speak of "socialism," I don't restrict it to “government ownership of the means of production.”  If I did, I couldn't speak of socialist thought's having a significant place in a society featuring a “shared market economy." Such an economy continues competitive capitalism.  

          The problem with the common definition of socialism as “government ownership of the means of production” is that it overlooks a vast amount of thinking in the history of socialism, particularly in the nineteenth century and since World War II. Driven primarily by the predominant intellectual subculture's rivalry with and antagonism toward the acting man of commerce and industry, the Left came into being in the nineteenth century in a variety of forms. Its ideology was fashioned out of its need to gain allies in that struggle.  Accordingly, its members came to share a common worldview that capitalism traps and exploits millions of people, and that the historic task is to liberate those millions. They differed bitterly among themselves, however, in several ways: about the institutional form this liberation should take, the methods that should be used in causing the change, and the theoretical framework for understanding the forces at work.  What is often overlooked is that much nineteenth century socialist thought either opposed calling a large central state into play or saw such a state as a temporary instrument. These formulations were, of course, overshadowed when the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 brought the Soviet system into existence.  Under the Soviet system, at least before the ideologically much-anticipated (and fanciful) "withering away of the state," the central state was the essence of socialism.  But after World War II the socialist parties of Western Europe moved sharply away from this model, even affirming the principle of private property (as the German socialists did in their Bad Godesberg program in 1959) and the idea of an economy in which the state would occupy "the commanding heights" but would otherwise encourage a competitive market.

          So we see that "government ownership and control" has not been the defining characteristic of socialism, even though that has been one of the forms of socialism.

 

Virtually all the literature so far on "downsizing," the "end of work," and the displacement from jobs has come from authors on the left.  It is not hard to see why.  Socialists have criticized the market economy for two hundred years, seeing (as Marx said) "contradictions" within it that would bring it to crisis.  In contrast, classical liberals have been on the defensive, manning the intellectual barricades in support of the market.  Given those orientations, it was to be expected that socialists, not classical liberals, would be the first to notice new grounds for a crisis of the market. 

          Supporters of a market economy should not allow this to prevent their grasping what is happening in the world. Even though I count myself among the more severe critics of socialism, I am not prepared to say that everything in its thinking has been wrong.  Jeremy Rifkin has pointed out that Marx predicted that automation would eventually eliminate workers altogether. In this, Marx was off by almost two centuries; but it has eventuated that he saw the long-term tendency accurately.  Does recognizing this amount to an acceptance of Marx's overall views, and of everything that has been done in pursuit of them?   By no means. 

          The authors I have read who have discussed the coming displacement have, consistently with their socialist orientation, called for various measures of "social democratic" state intervention. The concept of a “shared market economy” isn’t identical to their proposals, but contains echoes from social democracy, classical liberalism and cultural conservatism.