Who's afraid of public ownership? Reclaiming Public Ownership: Making Space for Economic Democracy.

Author:Cumbers, Andrew
Position:Review essay

Return of the repressed

Of all the shibboleths of neo-liberalism, the most insistent - and insisted upon - has been the superiority of the private over the public. Never is this more the case than when it comes to the ownership of capital. The wave of nationalisation following the Second World War created citadels of public ownership outside the Soviet bloc that represented a standing affront to the New Right then emerging from the shadows into the era of mass politics. The road to serfdom was proclaimed, the great and the good assembled in Mont Pelerin, and the sappers got to work as soon as they were able. Their opening came with the breakdown of the Keynesian equilibrium and onset of structural crisis in the 1970s. First imposed in Chile under the jackboot of the Pinochet dictatorship, then exported to Britain under Margaret Thatcher and out across the developing world via the IMF and World Bank, an aggressive programme of privatisation sought to reverse the post-war gains for public ownership in their entirety.

Latin America was the laboratory (Sader, 2011; Grandin, 2010). In Chile, not only companies nationalised under Allende but also longer-standing public concerns - banks, mines, real estate and agro-industrial plants - were sold off at bargain prices, often to the handful of families that made up the Chilean elite, sometimes even with government financing or through arrangements in which stocks and the company itself were used as collateral. In Britain, all memory of capitalist mismanagement of factories and mines in the inter-war years was erased as the commanding heights of the economy - electricity, gas, civil aviation, telecoms and railways - were returned to private ownership. Decades of under-investment were offset by 'sweeteners', with a torrent of taxpayer funds flowing into public sector firms right before they were delivered up for auction. Having presided over the transfer of state assets, many chairmen - and they were men - of public firms were nimble enough to skip across into highly remunerated positions with the newly private companies. All told, the UK racked up 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996 (HM Treasury, 2002, 4).

It was a rip-off of giant proportions, but the public outcry was muffled at best, perhaps because people were lulled by the promise that a golden dawn of property-owning democ racy was upon them. Henceforth everyone would own their own house and the house next door, while the privatised industries, freed from bureaucratic state management, would become models of capitalist efficiency in the smooth delivery of goods and services under conditions of open market competition. This at least was the litany from the chorus of conservative think tanks set up to proclaim the gospel of privatisation.

Such thinking reached its apogee with the licensed plunder of post-socialism. The fall of Soviet communism brought about a veritable bonanza of 'primitive accumulation' as state assets were distributed among a gangster-capitalist nomenklatura and new billionaires were minted virtually overnight. For the global South, privatisation was the keystone of structural adjustment programmes that battered social provision and suppressed growth rates, leading in many parts to a 'lost decade'. When the fin-de-siecle victories of the centre-left ushered in 'Third Way' governments across Western Europe they simply acceded to the existing dispensation, either doubling down (as in Italy, France and Spain) or continuing the sell-off by other means, bringing in private capital by the back door.

Today, the evidentiary props supporting this neo-liberal construction have long since collapsed or been eroded, but the edifice remains, free-floating in the air, held up by nothing more than a residual system of ideological belief. The actual performance record of the privatised industries ranges from underwhelming to calamitous to downright larcenous. Despite this, public ownership remains the form that dare not speak its name, and its reappearance in the bailouts and government rescues of the financial crisis has constituted a return of the repressed. Public interventions (which at the height of the crisis surpassed [pounds sterling]1 trillion in the UK alone) are barely acknowledged as such and have been conducted on the basis of an automatic assumption that the companies and financial institutions involved will all be returned to private hands as soon as they have been stabilised at taxpayer expense. 'History teaches', said Gramsci, 'but it has no pupils' (Williams, 1975, 291).

Well, not many; but it does have some. Andrew Cumbers, Professor of Geographical Political Economy at the University of Glasgow, is one such pupil, and he has been assiduously constructing some earthworks of his own to sap the fortress of neo-liberal ideology regarding public ownership. Reclaiming Public Ownership: Making Space for Economic Democracy (2012) is the most important book on the subject in many years, and the first to engage with the new wave of innovations that may herald a rebirth of public enterprise for the twenty-first century. It cannot come too soon. In a world gone mad, locked into a downward spiral of debt, austerity and climate destruction, public ownership is 'the vital missing ingredient' (Blackburn, 2013) in the broad menu of public policy options for promoting a new economy.

The family silver

Reclaiming Public Ownership is not a history of public ownership but rather an argument for an alternative future model, including - ambitiously - a sketch, sector by sector, of what an economy organised around pluralist forms of public ownership might actually look like. However, given that 'three decades of market imperialism' (p. 3) have sold the idea that public ownership is by definition inefficient, Cumbers recognises the need to set the record straight. Although he is uninterested in offering a standard left defence of public ownership, he concedes little ground to criticisms from the right of the 'perceived, rather than actual, failings' of public enterprise in practice (p. 36). An early section on markets...

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