The left is developing a new socialist political economy built out of new institutions. But the centralisation or decentralisation written into those institutions will determine whether this 'institutional turn' will extend freedom and empower individuals and communities, or tend towards bureaucracy and paternalism.
Towards the end of the economy chapter in Labour's 2017 manifesto, 'For the Many, Not the Few', there appears a section on democratic ownership. It makes the simple and plain point that 'the distribution of ownership of the country's economy means that decisions about our economy are often made by a narrow elite'. The 'often' was an unnecessary qualification; 'almost always' is the reality.
It is in this line, more than any other in the manifesto, that the shoots of a genuinely different socialist political economy can be seen. And in what is far and away the most successful attempt to consolidate and expound the political economy of the current Labour Party, Joe Guinan and Martin O'Neill took this theme of economic democracy and ran with it in the previous issue of Renewal (26.2).
Labour's commitment to economic democracy is not just contained within a few lines of the election manifesto. A further document has been published by the Labour Party, 'Alternative Models of Ownership', which deepens and develops the arguments for and methods of promoting economic democracy as one organising principle for a socialist political economy. (1) Several other organising principles run alongside wider distribution of ownership--greater progressivity in taxation (including wealth, income, and corporate taxes), industrial democracy, increased public ownership, and widening provision of public services. Taken together, there can be little doubt that these principles mark a point of departure from 'neoliberal' principles, where the state saw its role as expanding the market sphere throughout all aspects of economic life.
And this programme does not just place neoliberal statecraft into reverse. It offers something new, not just a revision to a past settlement. Yet, without a strong economic democracy strand, the programme would risk doing just that. That is why an 'institutional turn' towards a wider civic economy, in which ownership is dispersed and shared, is so important. Without an ethos of democracy, the programme could feel like one of reversal rather than progress. This is important, given that the structure of the UK's economy and...