The Question of Socialism (and Beyond!) Is About to Open Up in These United States

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We are clearly at the exploratory stage in connection with these matters, but the really important question is clearly whether a new model might inherently generate outcomes that do not require "after-the-fact" policy fixes or attempted fixes it is hoped the political system will supply. Especially since such "fixes" come out of a larger culture, the terms of reference of which are significantly set by the underlying economic institutions, and if these develop competitive and growth-oriented attitudes, the outcomes are likely to be different from those hoped for by progressive proponents. Lest we jump to any quick conclusions, it is again important to be clear that no one has as yet come up with a serious "model" that might both achieve efficiencies and self-directed management – and also work to create an equitable, ecologically sustainable larger culture and system. All have flaws.

Some of the problems and also some of the design features of alternatives, however, begin to suggest some possible directions for longer-term development:

For instance, a third model that has traditionally had some resonance is to locate primary ownership of significant scale capital in "communities" rather than either the state or specific groups of workers – i.e. in geographic communities and in political structures that are inclusive of all the people in the community. (By definition geographic communities inherently include not only the workers who at any moment in time may only include half the population, but also stay-at-home, child-rearing males or females, the elderly, the infirm, children and young people in school – in short the entire community.)

Community models also inherently "internalize externalities" – meaning that unlike private enterprise or even worker-owned companies that may have a financial interest in lowering costs by not cleaning up environmentally destructive practices, community-owned firms are in a different position: If the community chooses to continue such practices, it is polluting itself, a choice it can then examine from a comprehensive perspective – and in a framework that does not inherently pose the interests of the firm against community-wide interests.

Variations on this model include the "municipal socialism" that played so important a role in early 20th century American socialist politics – and is still evident in more than 2,000 municipally owned utilities, a good deal of new municipal land development and many other projects. "Social ecologist" Murray Bookchin gave primary emphasis to a municipal version of the community model in works like Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future, and Marxist geographer David Harvey has begun to explore this option as well. (As Harvey emphasizes, any "model" would likely also have to build up higher level supporting structures and could not function successfully were it left to simply float in the free market without some larger supporting system.)

Current suggestive practical developments in this direction include a complex or "mixed" model in Cleveland that involves worker co-ops that are linked together and subordinated to a community-wide, nonprofit structure – and supported by something of a quasi-planning system (directed procurement from hospitals and universities that depend in significant part on public financial support). An earlier model involving joint community and worker ownership was developed by steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, in the late 1970s.

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber also offered a community-oriented variation based on cooperative ownership of capital in one geographic community. He saw this "full cooperative" (and confederations of such communities) as an answer the problems both of corporate capitalism and of state socialism. Buber's primary practical experimental demonstration was the Israeli cooperative commune (kibbutz), but the principle might well be applied in other forms. Karl Marx's discussion of the Paris Commune (and of the Russian village commune or mir) is also suggestive of possibilities in this direction.

In the various community models there is also every reason to expect that specific communities will develop "interests" that may or may not be the same as those of the society as a whole. (Again think of communities located on top of important natural resources versus others not so favored.) The formula based on community ownership, however, may have a potential advantage that might under certain circumstances – and with clear intent – help at least partly offset the tendency for any structural form to produce narrow interest-group ideas and power. This is the simple fact that a fully inclusive structure that nurtures ideals of "community" – as opposed to ideas of individual ownership, on the one hand, or worker-group ownership of specific firms, on the other – may offer greater possibilities for building a common culture of community, one in which norms of equal treatment and common interest are inherently generated by the structural design itself (at least within communities and possibly beyond.)

To the extent this is so, or could be nurtured, a systemic design based on communities (or joint worker-community ownership) might both allow for decentralization and also for the generation of common values. A subset of issues also involves smaller scale geographic community ownership, in the form of neighborhoods. And such a model might also include a mix of smaller scale worker-owned and cooperative forms, and even (larger scale) state and nationally owned public enterprise as well – a structural form that is now far more common and efficient in many countries around the world than is widely understood.

Questions of Scalerecent essay for Jacobin, urges a worker-controlled model, but stresses the need for independent sources of publicly controlled investment capital. Other thinkers, like Michael Leobowitz in his book, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, have taken inspiration from Latin America's leftward movement, and especially from Venezuela, to articulate a participatory vision of socialism rooted in democratic and cooperative practices. Joel Kovel in The Enemy of Nature argues that the impending ecological crisis necessitates a fundamental change away from the private ownership of earth's resources.

And, of course, the question of planning versus markets needs to be put on the list of design challenges. Planning has its own long list of challenges – including, critically, who controls the planners and whether participatory forms of planning may be developed drawing on smaller scale emerging experience and also on a much more focused understanding of what needs to be planned and what ought to be independent of public direction. (Also how the market can be used to keep a planning system in check.)

As noted, there is also the question of enterprise scale – a consideration that suggests possible mixes of different forms of social ownership: where to locate the ownership and control of very large scale firms is one thing; very small another; and intermediate still another. Most "socialist" models these days also allow for an independent sector that includes small independent capitalist firms, especially in the innovative high-tech sector.

Related to all this is the question of function: The development and management of land, for instance, is commonly best done through a geographic institution – i.e. a neighborhood or municipal land trust. Public forms of banking and finance tend also to be best anchored in (though operated independently of) cities, states and nations. Though medical practices must be local, social or socialized health systems tend to work best in areas that include large populations – i.e. states or nations. In some cases, quite apart from efficiency considerations, ecological considerations make regions especially appropriate. (One of the rationales, originally, for the Tennessee Valley Administration had to do with managing a very challenging river system.)

On the Ground Nowa new direction in union-worker co-ops.

There are also thousands of "social enterprises" that use democratized ownership to make money and use both the money and the enterprise itself to achieve a broader social purpose. By far the most common social enterprise is the traditional Community Development Corporation, or CDC. Nearly 5,000 have long been in operation in almost every US city of significant size. For the most part, CDCs have served as low-income housing developers and incubators for small businesses. Early on in the 50-year history of the movement, however, a different, larger vision was in play – one that is still present in some of the more advanced CDC efforts and one that suggests additional possibilities for the future.

Still another form of democratized ownership involves growing numbers of "land trusts" – essentially neighborhood or municipal corporations that own housing and other property in ways that prevent gentrification and turn development profits into support of low- and moderate-income housing. One of the best known is the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont, which traces its modest beginnings to the early 1980s and now provides accommodation for more than 2,000 households. Hundreds of such collective ownership efforts now exist, and new land trusts are now being established on an expanding, ongoing basis in diverse contexts and cities all over the country.

Since 2010, twenty states have also considered legislation to establish public banks like that of North Dakota, which has operated with strong public support for more than nine decades. Approximately 20 states have considered legislation to establish single-payer health-care plans. Nor should we forget that the United States government de facto nationalized General Motors and AIG, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, during the recent crisis. It started selling them back once the profits began to roll, but in future crises, different outcomes might be ultimately achieved if practical experiments at the local and state level begin to create experiences that might be generalized to national models when the time is right – especially if the current system continues to decay and deteriorate. (Many of the national models that became the core programs of the New Deal were incubated in the state and local "laboratories of democracy" in the decades prior to the time national political possibilities opened up).

At this stage of development, there is every reason to experiment with many forms – a "community-sustaining" direction that I have suggested might be called a "Pluralist Commonwealth" to emphasize the plurality of common or democratized wealth-holding efforts.

Getting Serious