Alternatives to Capitalism: Introduction

by Ed Lewis

The introduction to our new e-book, Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy

First published: 28 November, 2014 | Category: 

Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy is the new e-book from New Left Project. We will be publishing excerpts from the book over the coming weeks. Here we start with the introduction by NLP editor Ed Lewis. 

To download or buy Alternatives to Capitalism see here. And if you can make it, come to our free launch event in London on 3 December, where both authors will be in discussion. 

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Poverty, exploitation, instability, hierarchy, subordination, environmental exhaustion, radical inequalities of wealth and power—it is not difficult to list capitalism’s myriad injustices. But is there a preferable and workable alternative? What would a viable free and democratic free society look like?

Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy presents a debate between two such possibilities: Robin Hahnel’s “participatory economics” and Erik Olin Wright’s “real utopian” socialism. It is a detailed and at times technical discussion that rewards careful engagement. Those who put the effort in will, we hope, find that it illuminates a range of issues and dilemmas of crucial importance to any serious effort to build a better world.

Is it worth devoting energy to thinking about alternatives to capitalism? There is a tradition within anti-capitalist politics which thinks not. It is argued that idle speculation distracts from what really matters: the struggles emerging in the here and now, which are the soil from which any emancipatory future will spring. Moreover, if participation in those struggles is done on the basis of a preconceived vision, their creativity and experimentation may be inhibited.

However, a compelling case can be made that engaging with the visionary approach could invigorate and strengthen radical politics. The most powerful movements of the left in the twentieth century failed to produce a desirable alternative to capitalism, leading instead to the authoritarian, statist forms of “really existing socialism” in the USSR and its satellites, on the one hand, and the “humanised capitalism” of social democracy, on the other. This has led to a widespread lack of conviction in the possibility of transcending capitalism and, indeed, a difficulty in even imagining such a task. This anxiety is pervasive even among radical movements and their sympathisers. By contrast, a left animated by a shared vision, resting on the kind of credible intellectual foundations that Robin and Erik seek to supply, could act with a confidence and strategic direction that is so conspicuously absent today. Not only would this strengthen the prospects of the creation of a desirable post-capitalist future, a left that genuinely threatened the ruling order would also be able to win important reforms to ameliorate the harms of capitalism in the immediate term.

In this dialogue New Left Project brings together two writers who, motivated by such considerations, have devoted substantial efforts to thinking systematically about alternative models of social order. Both Robin and Erik began this process in a focused way in the 1990s, when the collapse of the USSR heralded a new era of capitalist triumphalism. Robin and his collaborator Michael Albert built on ideas that had emerged within the libertarian socialist tradition in the twentieth century—including from council communists, anarcho-syndicalists and elements of the New Left—to develop a plausible and robustly anti-capitalist economic model known as “participatory economics”. This system dispenses with the defining features of a capitalist economy - markets, private ownership and a hierarchical division of labour - proposing instead a system of participatory planning, worker control and an egalitarian division of labour. His latest book on the subject is Of the People, By the People: The Case for a Participatory Economy (AK Press, 2012), where he sets out a comprehensive, accessible and refined account of the model.

In the 1990s Erik initiated the Real Utopias Project, editing a series of books canvassing and assessing a range of proposals for emancipatory institutional arrangements. This eventually led to the publication of his own work, Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010). By far the most ambitious book in the series, developed in part through a speaking tour of 18 countries over four years, it outlines a novel conception of socialism, anchored in the concept of “social empowerment”, a variety of general institutional configurations that could facilitate its realisation, and a detailed discussion of strategy for social transformation.

In Alternatives to Capitalism Erik and Robin bring to bear the ideas developed in Of the People, By the People and Envisioning Real Utopias. Its two parts focus on participatory economics and real utopian socialism, respectively, each opening with a lead essay that summarises the key ideas of the approach in question. The distinctive nature of this text is the depth of the dialogue that emerges. Although new arguments and ideas surface in each of the six contributions, key issues are also revisited throughout and subjected to sustained critical evaluation. The result is a work that, even as it covers a range of issues in economics, social theory and history, achieves a rare degree of depth and thoroughness of debate. 

Important points of disagreement emerge. These concern, among other things, the level of detail to which post-capitalist visions should aspire, the future of markets, and whether a revolutionary strategy has a credible role to play in anti-capitalist politics. Readers will have to make their own judgements about the competing arguments on these issues – a task made easier by the constructive spirit with which Erik and Robin pursue their disagreements, with no time wasted on straw-manning or point scoring. This reflects the genuine political desire, shared by the authors and New Left Project, that motivates Alternatives to Capitalism: to strengthen the intellectual resources of anti-capitalist politics. We hope it makes a worthwhile contribution to this most vital of tasks. 

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