Economic Theory

Socialism – three years on


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It has been three years since the release of my book Socialism – The Failed Idea That Never Dies. Since the pandemic has messed up my sense of time, it feels, at the same time, a lot longer ago than that, and also a lot more recent.

It feels longer, because a lot has happened in the meantime. When the book came out, I – like most people – had never even heard the terms “Coronavirus”, “furlough”, “PCR test” or “R0”; I had never worn a facemask, and I had never been on either a Zoom or a Teams call. But it also feels a lot more recent, because over the past two years, a lot of our “normal” policy debates have been put on hold, with Covid crowding out almost everything else.

With the pandemic now, hopefully, fading into the background, and our old ideological divisions reasserting themselves: what’s new on the socialism front?

At the time the book came out, socialism was not just an abstract, disembodied idea, in the way that, say, woke progressivism, Doomsday-environmentalism or communitarianism are. It was also an ongoing electoral project, in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Leader of the Opposition. My book had very little to say about Corbyn’s candidacy: as is customary for IEA publications, it steered well clear of party politics. But there was, inevitably, a correlation. Almost all of the contemporary British socialists whose ideas I discussed in the book also had some connection to the Corbyn project. At the time, “Millennial Socialism” was almost synonymous with the movement that had sprung up around Jeremy Corbyn.

But how about now, in the post-Corbyn era? What does Millennial Socialism mean in the 2020s?

Millennial Socialism continues to be a movement in its own right. But it also doubles up as a “mothership movement”, a movement which absorbs other movements, and recruits them into its fold. Today, any vaguely left-wing social movement, even if its original purpose has nothing to do with socialism, will quickly acquire a strong socialist undertone.

Take Black Lives Matter (BLM). On the face of it, BLM are an anti-racist organisation, so an outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that the issues they are concerned about have nothing to do with the economic system. It is a socio-cultural issue, not an economic issue. Racism can exist under socialism, and progress against racism can be made under capitalism.

But that is clearly not the way BLM activists and their supporters see it. BLM very much see themselves as an anti-capitalist organisation. For example, just after the Grenfell tower tragedy, BLM UK tweeted:

“Austerity is terrorism. Capitalism is terrorism. State violence is terrorism. #GrenfellTower”

Or last year:

“[W]e will progress our vision for racial justice! A vision that is anti-capitalist”

On their GoFundMe page (through which they have raised over £1.2m, so this is not some minor offshoot of the movement), BLM UK outline their mission as follows:

“Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK) is a coalition of black activists and organisers across the UK. […]

We’re guided by a commitment to dismantle […] capitalism”

Zarah Sultana, the Continuity-Corbynite MP for Coventry South (who is also quite the social media celebrity), claims:

“[E]lements of the ruling class opted to […] appropriate those demands. […]

[S]hallow attempts to co-opt the movement […] fell flat. The people who took to the streets know that tweaking the system isn’t enough. The truth is, George Floyd’s brutal murder and racist policing is the sharp end of endemic racism […] This racism isn’t incidental. It’s central to capitalism […]

Racism in society isn’t a glitch, it’s a feature. It’s functional to the key driver of our economic system: the accumulation of capital. […]

It’s easy to spout platitudes about being anti-racist, but only a socialist analysis explains a system that breeds racism.”

Thus, Sultana and her fan club do not see themselves as a BLM supporters who also happen to be socialists, or as socialists who also happen to be BLM supporters. Rather, they believe that racism is a specifically capitalist problem, and that therefore, an anti-racist must also be a socialist. In this perspective, an anti-racism without socialism cannot be genuine: it cannot be more than “shallow attempt to co-opt the movement”.

Obviously, this does not mean that everyone who is sympathetic to BLM is a full-on Marxist. BLM are not, in their entirety, a socialist movement. But their more outspoken and prominent supporters clearly are, and they – not the disengaged fellow-travellers – are the ones who get to define the character of a movement.

Or take Extinction Rebellion. On the face of it, XR are an environmentalist movement, so an outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that the issues they are concerned about have little to do with the economic system. Environmental destruction can occur under socialism, and environmental progress can be made under capitalism.

But again, that is clearly not the way XR and their supporters see it. XR routinely tweet slogans such as “Solving the climate crisis requires the end of capitalism”, “Capitalism […] can largely f*** right off”, or “Hey hey! Ho ho! Capitalism has got to go!”.[1]

It is not just XR. Articles with titles such as “The only way to halt climate change is to challenge the logic of capitalism”, “Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism”,  “We Can’t Defeat Climate Change Without Defeating Capitalism” are a dime a dozen. Proponents of this style of thinking do not see themselves as environmentalists who also happen to be socialists, or as socialists who also happen to be environmentalists. Rather, they believe that environmental problems are specifically capitalist problems, and that therefore, an environmentalist must also be an anti-capitalist. In this perspective, an environmentalism without anti-capitalism cannot be genuine, a sentiment which is perhaps best captured in the fashionable slogan “Environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening”.

This, in a nutshell, is what Millennial Socialism has become in the post-Corbyn age: a mothership ideology, which captures small and medium-sized vehicles like anti-racism or environmentalism, and integrates them into its fleet. To misquote Robert Conquest: in the 2020s, any large-enough social movement that is not explicitly anti-socialist will sooner or later become socialist. This happens because once you have a socialist zeitgeist, any bad thing that happens in the world becomes the fault of capitalism, and just another symptom of capitalism.

Movements like BLM and XR may not spend a lot of time explicitly talking about economics, let alone outlining in detail what their non-capitalist economic system is supposed to look like. But that, as I explain in the book, has been the problem with Millennial Socialism right from the start. Millennial Socialists start with a broad-brush critique of capitalism, and then define their preferred alternative in terms of abstract aspirations, rather than by explaining how it is supposed to work. They are keen to distance themselves from all previous attempts to build non-capitalist economies, and brush aside comparisons with any of those, but they fail to explain what exactly they would do differently. It always boils down to “It will be somehow different, because we say so”.

I was not yet aware of either BLM or XR when I wrote the book, but this is nonetheless a pattern which my readers will recognise. In this sense, the book is, unfortunately, aging better than I was hoping it would.

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Recommended reading/watching/listening:

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[1] To be fair, XR also once tweeted “[W]e are not a socialist movement”, in order to distance themselves from a banner with the slogan “Socialism or Barbarism”, alongside the hammer-and-sickle logo, that was spotted at an XR march. But this was immediately followed by the clarification:

“[S]tating that we aren’t a socialist movement is not the same as saying we reject socialism. From the offset, […] we have been an “and” not an “or” movement. […] [W]e don’t hate socialism, we hate the assertion that socialism is the sole silver bullet”.

This is very far from a repudiation of socialism. It is merely a way of keeping the door open for more niche anti-capitalist ideologies for which “socialism” may not be quite the right word.

 

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).


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