Rethinking market socialism.
Posted on 20:15, March 28th, 2009 by Pablo
The crisis of the latest incarnation of market -driven economics, particularly in its financial sector, has raised the possibility of political-economic alternatives not so much as remedies but as significantly different approaches to the structuring of national economies in a global system of production and exchange. One of these is a revamped–as opposed to resurrected–market socialism. For those who are not familiar with the concept, a quick synopsis is found here. Although current conditions are different from those that led to the original formulation, some basic tenets can be discerned and elaborated upon. Basically, within a market system of supply and demand, the state operates as a macroeconomic manager (not just a toothless regulator) by obtaining majority stakes in strategic assets (be they primary good or value added). In parallel, at a mircroeconomic level it moves to promote significant (be it as a majority or as part of a tripartite arrangement with the state and capitalists) worker ownership in strategic industries (such as through employee stock option programmes (ESOPs) or by encouraging the formation of cooperatives) in exchange for wage restraint and greater productivity. The logic is that with workers as co-owners of the industries in which they are employed, they will understand managerial rationales as well as the conditions on the production line, thereby promoting what could be called “equitable efficiency” in production. Non-strategic components of the economy can be encouraged to follow suit but will not be forced to engage in such “socialising” programmes, but will be taxed at a higher rate if worker participation schemes are not incorporated. All sectors will follow the laws of economic efficiency followed by private firms–that is, the market logics of supply, demand and prices. Hence, the object is to prevent rent seeking behaviours usually associated with state ownership of the means of production–to wit, no “make work” or ghost worker schemes, no padding of employee roles, no patronage or clientalistic networks etc. Needless to say, unions may see a threat in this, but their self-interest as agents should not detract from the potential benefits of ownership accrued by workers as a class as well as principals of unions (where they are organised). Union shareholding schemes might be one way to reconcile the interests of agents and principals in such an event.
Under such a market socialist approach a restrained individual taxation rate that increases the amount of discretionary income to wage-owners as well as as capitalists can be complemented by a differential corporate rate that rewards worker ownership with lower rates while maintaining a higher rate for “traditional” firms–i.e. those that appropriate the surplus generated by workers in the form of profits that are in the majority distributed to non-workers (be they shareholders or managers).
With a greater State macroeconomic presence as a stakeholder in strategic industries and manager of microfoundational (the orientation of specific industry) policy, coupled with active promotion of worker participation in ownership of the industries in which they are employed, backed by a taxation policy that rewards those who see the wisdom of making workers co-owners and understand that the State, as representative of all sectoral interests, is better suited for macroeconomic management than individual capitalists or their associations, a new market socialist project can be advanced that will filter global market dynamics into a more nuanced, and fairer, distribution of wealth and income in society. In a small island trade-dependent state, socio-economic stability depends on this.
There is actually a model for such a system, although it has yet to incorporate worker ownership schemes as part of its developmental project. That model is Singapore and the only reason it does not incorporate policies of worker ownership into what is otherwise a state-dominated export-oriented economy that is successful is that it is a)authoritarian and thus can impose its will without worrying about the filter of mass consent; b) foreign investors resist worker participation as a condition for investment; and c) as a result of the previous two factors, foreign workers on temporary visas unprotected by labor laws reserved for Singaporean citizens are used to structurally undermine any moves in that direction.
As a liberal democracy NZ can not emulate everything that Singapore does, but what it can do is note the commanding position of the State in its macroeconomic affairs, to include its use of State holding companies as channels for public investment in a range of “private” industries as well as its use of taxation as an incentive for corporate investment and production, on the one hand, and household consumption on the other. Admittedly, the argument presented here is just a simplified sketch of the possibilities of market socialism in the present conjuncture, but the intention is to raise the point rather than fully elaborate upon it. The latter task is left to the readers.