Ownership: The Cornerstone Of A New Strategy For The Left?

Pingree's Potato Patch
Studying the Economics of Detroit

I was reading an interview in Salon discussing the relative lack of success of the left in the United States in comparison with Europe. It attributes most of the difference to long-term influences of the formal class structures in Europe, which lead to traditional political alignments along class lines which never took hold in the US for more than brief stretches. The problem today for most progressives/liberals/whatever is that formal or not it does appear that a strong class division has established itself in our society in the last thirty years as wealth and income inequality has grown. However, the traditional villain of the left, capitalism, is almost as ineffective a boogie-man with the US public as communism, Tea Party sound and fury aside. People believe capitalism and relatively unhindered markets are the best options we've got, and as an economist I don't think they are completely wrong. As right-wing visionary (and sometime economic crank) Louis Kelso argued, Marx's analysis was right: the capitalist system is inherently unstable, with a definite tendency for wealth to concentrate in existing hands.

The basic instability stems from the fact that the owners of capital tend to capture most economic growth - aside from the basic issue of profits going to the owners, you've also got the Fed capping wage growth as one of the primary drivers of inflation, and finally that corporate investment raises the value of the shares held by the existing owners - money follows money. However, the public doesn't want government owning businesses (which to be fair has not worked that well over the last hundred years outside of public goods like water, security and other utilities, where government is a somewhat logical provider), and clearly the wealthy are rebelling against the New Deal political equilibrium, where government diffused class hostilities by placing a thumb on the scales through progressive taxation and regulatory oversight. Our political discourse today really doesn't contain any ideas for addressing this instability.

People who know me well may feel I'm a broken record here, but I believe that as a political project, the left needs to focus on making capitalism work by picking up the needle on Marx and putting it in a new groove. Workers do need to control the means of production if we're going to stabilize and humanize the economy, but the last two hundred years have shown many, many ways to do it without resorting to government expropriation. The left needs to build a political agenda around community wealth building: the mass expansion of cooperatives, employee ownership, credit unions, and the whole gamut of engines for building wealth at the level of the average citizen. It's a straightforward concept that voters could understand, and its has many spinoff benefits that could tie into other elements of a broader platform, such as urban economic development, improved international competitiveness, environmentalism.

The left's successes have almost always come from arguing for equity and fairness. We should return to that theme.

Categories: Blog, Politics, Concentration