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Alternatives to Capitalism

Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a democratic economy, by Robin Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright, reviewed by Heather Blakey

August 25, 2015
4 min read

alternatives-capitalismIt is said that capitalism believes in competition but hates competitors. With this thoughtful book, Robin Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright aim to strengthen the resources of anti-capitalist politics against the charge that ‘there is no alternative’. While there is a debate on the left over the value of engaging in utopian planning of the kind represented by this book, Hahnel and Wright present their approach as supporting radical politics, building confidence rather than distracting from current struggles. The thinking and action inspired by real-world examples (such as participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre) underlines the point. We need concrete inspiration; we need to believe that ‘another world is possible’. In Erik Wright’s words, ‘We need … utopian longing melded to realist thinking about the dilemmas and constraints of building viable alternatives to the world as it is.’

The book sets out two approaches to anti-capitalist utopian thinking, taking the form of a dialogue between the two authors (embedded in a shared commitment to radical conceptions of equality and democracy). Each sets out a position and provides a constructive and reflective commentary on the other’s contribution, and a response to the points raised about their own.

Hahnel’s proposal is for a system of participatory economics, originally developed with the US activist and radical economist Michael Albert. This is essentially a bottom-up method of production and consumption planning. In this book, he focuses on the mechanisms by which individual producers and consumers would collectively elaborate an agreed annual plan, without the need for markets or hierarchical central control. A little more detail on the content of the proposed system at the outset of his dialogue with Wright would have been helpful, although he does provide useful references to his extensive writing on participatory economics elsewhere.

Wright’s approach is rather different. His thoughts on socialism and real utopias outline values and principles rather than a single institutional design. He aims to ‘take the social in socialism seriously’, wishing to rescue it from association with the authoritarian use of state power. Thus, he distinguishes economic, state and social power, and focuses on the task of deepening the social(ist) component of hybrid systems.

His analysis leads to a proposal for socialism rooted in empowerment, with a commitment to diverse institutional forms such as ‘worker-cooperatives and local social economy projects, state-run banks and enterprises, social democratic regulation of private corporations, solidarity finance and participatory budgeting’. These all increase social power but do not amount to an integrated, comprehensive system.

Wright suggests thinking about society as an ecosystem, rather than a single organism, giving rise to a wonderful metaphor of real utopias as ‘alien species’, which find a niche and gradually increase. Accordingly, he pays more attention to transition strategies than Hahnel, generating an interesting discussion on ‘ruptural, interstitial and symbiotic’ approaches.

Given the extent of their agreement over principles, much of the discussion focuses on their major point of disagreement, the innate value of markets. Wright defends socially regulated hybrid systems, while Hahnel characterises markets as ‘a cancer that undermines efforts to build and deepen participatory, equitable cooperation’.

Somewhat frustratingly, Wright and Hahnel accept the nation-state as the unit of analysis, although we know this to be historically and ideologically intertwined with capitalism. Their utopian alternatives would arguably benefit from challenging this area of mainstream economic doctrine.

Additionally, their alternative understanding of efficiency assumes scarcity rather than abundance, and so tends to overlook the need for redundancy and resilience in the allocation of resources. Would resource scarcity be inevitable in a utopian, democratic, egalitarian society?

Unlike Wright’s ecosystem, Kahnel’s participatory planning seems to try to create ‘perfect knowledge’, to be too optimistic about the possibility (and desirability) of human control. Likewise, Wright critiques the possibility of what we might call ‘monetising’ effort, and I felt that this could be applied to the planning model as a whole. What about the gift economy? What about a society in which ‘thicker’ social relationships are not governed primarily by economics, however participatory, but by solidarity?

In raising these points, I am only joining the dialogue; if you read the book, you will doubtless add your own different voice – this, in the end, is its value. Erik Wright suggests that ‘pessimism is intellectually easy, perhaps even intellectually lazy’. Though our utopian visions are always a response to our own context, and may ultimately bear no relationship to what is considered possible by a future society, the effort to expand our imagination of the possible helps free us from the impoverished ideological straitjacket of capitalism, and spurs us on.


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