Market Socialism

John Rentoul

I describe myself as a market socialist in an article for tomorrow’s Independent about the Royal Mail flotation. So this seems a good time to rescue a post from the old Independent Minds Blog from four years ago, which is somewhere in cyberspace but no longer Googleable.

photo 6 e1381436626344 225x300 Market SocialismMarket Socialism
Posted by John Rentoul
Tuesday, 28 July 2009 at 03:24 pm

As one of the small number* of people who have read Market Socialism, edited by Julian Le Grand and Saul Estrin (1989) and as one of the smaller number proud to call himself a market socialist, I feel qualified to enter this debate.

James Purnell, who resigned from the Cabinet last month telling Gordon Brown what is only a simple fact, that “your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less, likely”,** mentioned the book in an interview recently.

Neal Lawson, the chair of Compass, the leftish Labour faction, took exception both to the phrase and the book. He says markets and socialism are “contradictory” (a view possibly shared by the designer of the book’s cover: square, circle, geddit?). Suddenly I feel old.

I thought that was the whole point of defeating Tony Benn for the deputy leadership in 1981, of expelling Militant, of Neil Kinnock, even of Roy Hattersley, of John Smith, of rewriting Clause IV. All that was about purging the delusion that there was some form of economic system that defied the laws of supply and demand. Market Socialism was its intellectual textbook. (A more historical treatment was an elegant, neglected classic by Tony Wright, the Great Moderniser of the House of Commons, called Socialisms, 1986: out of print; I think this is a revised version.)

But no, all that is old hat. Lawson wants less market and more “socialism”, defined thus:

The task of the left is to show that democracy in more and more instances; in public services, communities and workplaces is … the means to achieve the good society – a world in which we take back control over our lives.

This is pure Meacherism. Michael Meacher, Benn’s former vicar on earth, said on BBC Radio 4 The Westminster Hour on 21 June:

If we do lose in a year’s time I think the Labour Party will recover much of its old self because I tend to see – I know this is not necessarily a popular view – the Blairite period being something of an interregnum with regard to the nature of the Labour Party as it has been over this last century.

That’s it, then. The Blairite “interregnum” over. Thirteen years in government: one long departure from the path of truth and light. Which is markets bad; unelectability good. Back to Labour’s “old self”.

I do hope not.

*Mind you, my copy has been a set text for a university course, judging by its inscription, and I bought it because I’ve lent my original copy to someone, so perhaps we are more numerous than I fear.
**The truly observant among you will have noticed that I have corrected Purnell’s punctuation by adding a comma after “not less”, although the sentence would be improved further by leaving out the words altogether.

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  • JohnJustice

    Can’t see much of a contradiction between the concept of market socialism and Lawson’s view that there should be less market and more socialism so that we can take control over our lives. Market socialism accepts the market but only on the basis that it should be regulated to serve society not vice versa. Indeed that seems to be the direction in which we seem to be moving, now that the failings of the market have been so starkly exposed. A case of some of Old Labour actually making us electable

  • Pacificweather

    Labour had an opportunity to make itself more electable in May 2011 but it blew it. The lads and lasses feared democracy. Better to sit it out and wait for the wheel to turn, get some rest, recharge the batteries and on with the fray.

    1945 and 2015 – great years for socialism. I look forward to 2085 with relish. Electability is all about post codes. Are you one of those who gets to decide or are you one of the 48% who don’t.

  • Pacificweather

    I read an interesting article the other day that put forward the proposition that swing voters don’t think, they just feel. What they feel and why they feel it is a mystery that the Labour Party, more than any other, tries to discover. If they get the feeling right then they win and if they don’t they lose. It is an interesting and attractive idea but I couldn’t say if there is any truth in it.

  • Pacificweather

    Many Conservatives now accept this according to my mini survey of acquaintances but they are not going to change their vote. They are just going to hope that Cameron feels their mood.

  • greggf

    Perhaps Pacific, what they feel is that there’s too much socialism and not enough market. You can’t expect the Labour party socialists to work that out let alone admit it.

  • greggf

    “… that the failings of the market have been so starkly exposed.”

    I feel there’s a non sequitur in your thinking John, but I can’t my finger on it . Suffice to say that after 13 years of Labour rule and mostly Blairite market socialism followed by Brownite socialist markets, you don’t think the failings are anything to do with socialism or even market socialism?

  • JohnJustice

    13 years of Labour rule based on an element of social control of the market gave us economic prosperity and vastly improved public services. It all went wrong when the element of social control proved to be inadequate to deal with the failings of the market that swept in from the other side of the Atlantic.

    It was only greater social control ( in the form of the massive public funding of the banks and the money supply) that saved us and maybe the rest of the world from absolute disaster.

    The obvious lesson is that we all need more socialism ( or social control as I would prefer to call it) and less market freedom, particularly in a world where the problems are not just economic or social but are also environmental in a way that could put an end to the whole human story if the markets are allowed to hold sway.

  • greggf

    I think it’s well established John, that the excessive accumulation of debt, everywhere, is at the root of the recent and current crises. An excess which became exposed when its collateral, mostly property, started to fall in value.The same mistakes in this respect were made everywhere in the West because more or less the same politic applies; and in fact it started in Japan not America.
    Markets, usually, simply cast a verdict on economic reality – in
    this case too much uncovered debt!

    No doubt more taxation…. er, sorry, “social control” is coming
    but whether this will mean less freedom for markets and save the planet remains to be seen.

  • Pacificweather

    I am afraid I agree with JJ that there is too much market and too little social control with one exception, banks, that should have been allowed to fail but were the recipients of the worst kind of social control – bailout.

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