Ways Forward for the Left

The Left has lost much of its influence since the 1980s. Neoliberalism has taken over both theory and practice, and achieved many of its goals. Services that were previously public, such as health care, education and social services, have been privatized or market exposed, finance and labour markets have been deregulated, taxes have been cut, and inequality has reached absurd levels. International financial capital controls economies to an ever-increasing degree while national governments’ (perceived) room for manoeuvring, in terms of fiscal and monetary policies, are diminishing, and union membership reaches new record lows. Social Democratic parties across Europe have abandoned their earlier ambitions to steer the economy and society in more progressive and equitable directions, which has led to an electoral exodus from these parties.

It is time for the Left to raise the bar and aim higher.  A more ambitious Left, with the goal of creating a non-capitalist, democratic and fair economy, has to reverse the negative trend and start the journey towards a new economy.


Today many people accept Margaret Thatcher’s argument that there is no alternative (TINA) to the capitalist market economy, and in view of 20th century history people really have a right to be sceptical of talk about economic system change. We, who want a democratic and just  society, must become more adept at presenting and communicating our visions and, above all, at explaining how they differ from 20th century state socialism.

Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 most of the left has been reluctant to even discuss ambitious system change. For the libertarian Left, scepticism regarding detailed visions of a future society is even part of its ideology. Detailed visions are believed to increase the risk of sectarianism and elitism. To avoid this and secure future generations’ right to make their own decisions, our visions must be flexible and inclusive, and not be presented as ideological dogmas.

Concrete, thorough and serious visions have three important positive effects: (1) they create optimism and convey a sense that another economic system is possible, (2) they help us evaluate and assess alternative strategies and tactical decisions in our daily struggles and (3) they help create foundations for the design of alternative institutions when people do have the opportunity to experiment with different ways of organising our economic activities.

Disregarding visions that are based on local self-sufficiency (which have little to do with modern societies), discussions of non-capitalist visions that have taken place in the aftermath of the communist collapse can be grouped into two camps: Visions based on (1) some form of market socialism, or (2) democratic planning.Various proposals for market socialism and democratic planning have been developed and put forward. Models of democratic planning, in general, are less known. The most detailed proposal of this kind is participatory economics, which revolves around workers and consumers communicating to distribute society’s resources via a decentralised process.

A good example of the type of discussions that the Left must start to engage in can be found in the book Alternatives to Capitalism. Proposals for a Democratic Economy (Verso, 2016) in which political economist Robin Hahnel and sociologist Erik Olin Wright debate the pros and cons of planning versus markets. The Next System Project is another example of recent initiatives to discuss alternatives to capitalism. More information about the participatory economics model can be found at www.participatoryeconomics.info, and for an accessible and concise introduction to the model see Robin Hahnel’s book: Of the People, by the People (Distributed by AK Press).


It is important to inspire and convince people that alternatives to capitalism are possible by experimenting with real-world attempts to organise production and consumption in a more democratic, participatory and just way, for example by creating collectively managed commons, worker and consumer cooperatives and implementing participatory budgeting. Without successful experiments showing that alternatives are not only possible, but also work better than today’s capitalism, it will be difficult to convince people to support radical system change. Mondragon in Spain and Viome in Greece are often cited examples of worker-controlled enterprises, and ever more regions and municipalities in different parts of the world are starting to experiment with participatory budgeting where citizens have a greater say in the allocation of public resources.

Movements and organisations that work to promote initiatives of this kind exist in many countries and at different levels. But if these initiatives are to go beyond the logic of the market to challenge capitalism, it is necessary to build a strategy for cooperation and coordination among collectively administered commons, producer and consumer cooperatives and participatory planning initiatives in bigger self-managed networks.

Today these experiments exist in a hostile capitalist institutional environment and are forced to fight an uphill battle to preserve their “cooperative principles” succumb to market logic, authoritarian management practices and rising wage differentials. It is also clear that the (limited) success of these experiments so far has not been able to affect the overall development of society, which in recent decades has continued to go in a strongly neoliberal direction.

As long as cooperative and participatory initiatives are isolated occurrences, neoliberal elites and capitalist institutions are not threatened. Sometimes elites may even support cooperatives and increased employee ownership confident that isolated experiments will never be able to seriously challenge the neo-liberal market economic system.

Social movements

If a majority of the population is to be recruited to support major social change, both old reform and activist movements such as the labour and women’s liberation movements, and newer movements like Occupy Wall Street, “Los Indignados” and the climate justice movement must be vitalized and grow larger. The labour movement was relatively successful in the post-war era, but since the 1980s unions have lost much of their strength and membership.

It is important that these movements in their struggles act in ways consistent with the values of the kind of society we fight for. They must practice participatory democratic decision-making and pay employees fairly to avoid hypocrisy and to provide inspiration.

Struggles for reforms that improve ordinary people’s daily lives in a capitalist economy should always and constantly be carried as far as possible. But while participating wholeheartedly in these campaigns the Left should always be willing to explain why system change ultimately is needed, if we want to achieve economic democracy, economic justice, and environmental sustainability.

Successful reform campaigns can sometimes lead to more radical demands. Occupy Wall Street managed for a short period of time to get its message out about the absurdly unequal distribution of income and wealth, and the need of a different society, to the public and get these issues on the political agenda. Another interesting example of reform work that created a potentially radicalising dynamic occured in Sweden in the 1970s.

By that time the Social Democrats in Sweden had been in power for decades. Workers’ wages were negotiated through collective bargaining and about 80% of all workers belonged to a union. Ambitious reform work had given workers and their unions a relatively large influence over everyday decisions in companies. High taxes and ambitious transfers of income made Sweden one of the most equitable countries in the western world. In short, the reform strategy had been successful in terms of creating greater equality and more opportunities for workers to influence decisions in the workplace and in society in general, but had not challenged capitalist ownership of enterprises. At the same time there were troublesome indications of concentration of power and hierarchies within the unions.

In 1976 part of the union movement decided to present and work for a proposal in which the ownership of the companies would gradually be transferred from private shareholders to the workers and their unions through the annual allocation of part of profits in the form of new shares to union-controlled wage-earner funds. The proposal was potentially very radical and if it had been implemented, would have completely changed the ownership structure of Swedish industry in a few decades. Private ownership of businesses would have been replaced by collective workers’ ownership through their unions.

The original proposal was eventually defeated by a massive mobilisation of the business community combined with hesitation from within the Social Democratic Party. And even had the proposal been adopted it might have been co opted by the union hierarchy as some on the left argued at the time. Yet, the “Meidner plan” still stands as an example that reform work by trade unions and other social movements can lay the ground for more radical and system changing proposals.

Electoral politics

The Swedish Social Democratic Party’s hesitation to support wage-earner funds, the sharp turn to the right by many European Social Democratic parties in general in recent decades and the U-turn by the Greek Left party SYRIZA after the referendum on the Troika’s austerity package are all examples of the dangers of relying solely on parliamentary work. Everyday work in a Parliament is focused on positioning, concessions and compromises which tend to move focus off of structural change.

Nevertheless, election campaigns represent opportunities to reach people who are normally not interested in political issues, with arguments for reforms and changes towards a more equal and democratic society. An ambitious and radical left cannot afford to pass up these occasions to spread political messages to the body politic despite the flaws and shortcomings of party politics.

Moreover, elections do have consequences. There is a difference between a parliament in which the majority is trying to reduce inequality, create a more robust and responsive public sector, and feels compelled to be responsive to the demands of progressive social movements, compared to a parliament where the majority is openly hostile to progressive reforms and movements and loyal to their corporate and wealthy benefactors.Political election campaigns may also mobilize the populace, and radicalise large numbers of people, even if only temporarily. Examples of this are the recent electoral campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the United States. When combined with a clear discussion of visions, active examples of alternative institutions and strong and vital social movements, political parties and parliamentary work can be an important part of a strategy to achieve a post-capitalist system.

None of these strategies – system-change visions, experimentation, social movements and electoral politics – alone will be sufficient to transcend the capitalist system. But evidence suggests that it is likely that all four roads will be necessary. There is no point in spending time and effort on internal fighting about which of these activities is the most important. If an ambitious and radical Left is to succeed, it must overcome its internal strife, work together, coordinate campaigns and support each other’s initiatives, both within the left community nationally and internationally. This does not mean that everyone must agree on everything, as long as a few basic values are shared by all – justice, equality, solidarity, diversity and democracy in all of society’s arenas.

Anders Sandström lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and is a trained accountant with a degree from Uppsala University. He is the cofounder of Parecon Sverige, an advocacy group for the economic model of participatory economics in Sweden and the author of “Anarchist Accounting: Accounting Principles for a Participatory Economy.”

Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen lives in Helsinki. He is a co-director of Parecon Finland, an economic think tank, and co-author of a book “Hyvinvointivaltion vastaisku” (The Welfare State Strikes Back). His writing has been published in The New York Times and Yle News.

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