Triangulation is dead: what does "socialism" mean in the 21st century?

Thirty years ago, the collapse of the USSR and the ascendancy of the neoliberal policies of Thatcher, Reagan, Pinochet and Mulroney sent the left into retreat, and what has passed for the left ever since has been dominated by Bill Clinton/Tony Blair-style "triangulation" or "humanized capitalism," whose core hypothesis might be summed up as, "Rather than allowing 150 white male CEOs to run the world, we should ensure that at least half of them are women and/or people of color."

But as neoliberalism's untenability becomes so obvious that it washes away entire populated islands, the left is surging with people who represent a kind of 21st century socialism, in which markets are relegated to a single tool in society's toolbox, rather than a moral arbiter that elevates the worthy to unspeakable wealth and dooms everyone else to penury, hard labor, and precarity.

It's easy to see what the new socialists — Corbyn, Sanders, even the left-swinging Canadian New Democratic Party — stand against, but what they stand for is a little more nebulously defined. Are a $15 minimum wage and a guaranteed income a stepping stone on the way to the elimination of finance altogether, or an end in themselves, or something else?

John Quiggin's long Guardian piece takes a swing at defining a positive agenda for a 21st century socialism, "Socialist with a spine," in which policies "allocate much less economic activity to big business, and more to other forms of organisations."

A socialist program in the 21st century needs to involve much more than a reversal of neoliberalism. The internet and the information economy have broken the link between productive activity and market returns. Information is a pure public good, which can be shared again and again with no additional costs.

So the production of information (ranging from scientific research to Instagram pictures) has potentially huge social value. On the other hand, the market value of internet activity depends, almost entirely, on the ease with which it can be packaged up with commercial advertising – meaning access is artificially constrained.

The fact that information is naturally a public good creates a huge potential for economic and social benefits of which we have realised only a small fraction. The combination of strong intellectual property laws and reliance on advertising to finance internet content mean that our access to information is artificially constrained. Governments could address this problem, providing vastly increased access to resources of all kinds, from artistic and cultural content to designs to be used in 3-D printers.

But the policies of neoliberal austerity have pushed us in the opposite direction, cutting budgets and pushing public institutions of all kinds towards more reliance on user pricing and advertising.

There is also much more room for voluntary and non-government activity. The neoliberal state, through contracting, competitive tendering and the audit culture, has sought to turn voluntary work and non-government organisations into low-cost providers of government services. In the process, much of the creative potential of civil society has been lost. Expanding the scope for voluntary social initiatives would fit naturally with a socialist program, and this is already beginning with the rise of social enterprises.

Socialism with a spine: the only 21st century alternative
[John Quiggin/The Guardian]

(via Crooked Timber)