Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Beyond Market Dystopia. Socialist Register 2020. Review.

with 7 comments

Dystopian photograph peering down the long hallway of an abandoned building full of debris.

Beyond Market Dystopia. New Ways of Living, Socialist Register 2020. Edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo. Merlin Press/Monthly Review Press.


This Review appears in the latest print edition (May/June 2020)  of Chartist Magazine.

(As will be obvious, it was written before the present Coronavirus pandemic swept the world. The difference this has made make a post in itself).

“Perhaps the foremost challenge in trying to think beyond the market dystopia of contemporary capitalism” the Preface to the 2020 Edition of the Socialist Register states, is to “asses the implications of the alarming ecological conditions” we now confront. The two editors ask whether a “new strategy for structural reform that would take capital away from capital” and remake the “nature-society relation”.

In the opening essay, Stephen Mahler, Sam Ginden and Leo Panitch hail the “renewed appeal of socialist discourse”. They speculate on the challenges that would face socialist-led governments and André Gorz’s (1968) “non-reformist reform”. The opportunity to test plans for economic democracy against Gorz’s later sceptical view that the working class no longer had the capacity to organise production, and be the subject of social transformation, has, for the immediate future, vanished (Adieux au prolétariat. 1980). Today the “tens of thousands of young people” “galvanised” into groups like Momentum and the Democratic Socialists of America are digesting the Labour Party’s historic 2019 defeat and Bernie Sanders’ uncertain future.

One aspect looks set to continue, “the ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘just transition’ have become central parts of the socialist lexicon.” Indeed some are staking the survival of the Corbyn project through a dose of Ecosocialism, as offered by Rebecca Long-Bailey’s version of the Green New Deal.

Other contributors offer a glimpse into the scale of environmental and other global problems. In a thoughtful article Barbara Harriss-White probes the world’s ecological catastrophes and suggests that alarm is not misplaced. What can be done in one country, she asks, when capitalism is the problem? Carbon-reducing mechanisms are not yet up to the task. Climate change is set continue. Nancy Holmstrom is more upbeat, “Based on a global commitment to public goods/commons as the default and social rationality we can aim for the ‘buen vivir’ for all”. Many readers will agree with Harriss-White that in this area there are more questions than answers.

Amy Bartholomew and Hilary Wainwright strike a more optimistic note. Recounting their take on the refugee and migrant crisis in Greece they discover “radical democracy” in the refugee-solidarity City Plaza Squat in Athens. This “accommodation and Solidarity Space” was linked to broader anti-racist initiatives. A “radically democratic model of living together” in this one hotel, practiced “equality and freedom”. Evicted under the victorious right-wing New Democracy government, the authors see the City Plaza as part of “solidarity across struggles”.

Despite this “new landscape” there is no indication about how a radical left government, led by Syriza, under EU and home-created fiscal pressure, could deal on its own with large numbers of migrants.

One of the contributions to Socialist Register stands out. Yu Chunsen offers a brilliant account of the struggles of the “new precarious working class” in Chinese factories. Workmates, “gongyou” have established their own forms of solidarity faced with “management by stress”, workplace despotism, and trade unions which function as conveyer belts for management rule. Chunsen compares the Chinese willingness to take “collective actions” with the making of the English working class described by E.P.Thompson.

“Socialism is Back,” declares Nancy Fraser in the concluding contribution. Some people suggest that the Tory victory in Britain will see a revival not of socialism but of “left folk politics”. That is, a retreat to indignation and moral protests. Alyssa Battistoni, from the populist cheerleaders of the US Jacobin magazine, cites a long list. In the indignados, Occupy, Nuit Debout, the “London riots” Black Lives Matter to Red for Ed (Red For Education)” she sees “struggles combine critiques of wealth inequality, renewed labour militancy and attention to the spaces of daily life..” To which one can add Extinction Rebellion and the Global Climate Strike, admirable though they are. None of these have been strategies towards an electorally victorious socialism prepared to begin “non-reformist reforms”.

Andrew Coates

Written by Andrew Coates

May 17, 2020 at 9:45 am

7 Responses

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  1. Two aspects of the lockdown that I have enjoyed are a.) the Jobcentre closure, not having to attend signing appointments and b.) the tranquillity of no road traffic. Normally I can’t open my front window because of traffic noise and fumes, now it’s blissfully quiet and I can hear the birds sing. I would like to think that things will change for the better as a result of the coronavirus and the pause in commerce it has caused but I fear it will be business as usual when it’s all over no matter how much small groups of people protest. People have to earn a living and companies have to make a profit, so on it goes. Electric vehicles might make a difference though to noise and air pollution. And maybe more people will continue to work from home now they’ve seen it’s possible.


    May 17, 2020 at 10:34 am

    • Too true, though I can’t say that amounts to enough to make you forget what’s happening to other people.

      To remind me – I live near a ‘town’ Ipswich (pop, 150, 000, pop if you include bits which are effectively part of the place, over 200,000) centre – you see closed shops, pubs, restaurants, offices, just after walking out of the house.

      Andrew Coates

      May 17, 2020 at 11:10 am

      • I know Andrew, I wasn’t suggesting that is enough to make you forget what’s happening to other people. It’s pretty eerie walking through deserted streets with everything closed, and I personally know people over 70 and with high risk health conditions who have effectively been under ‘house arrest’ and getting food delivered to the door because they can’t venture out or see their families, it’s very difficult for them and also for people with kids stuck at home. Worse still of course for those that have succumbed to the virus or have lost loved ones. The situation overall is dreadful but would have been a lot worse if we hadn’t followed lockdown procedures. Having said all that, I am dreading going back to the Jobcentre and all that entails, I wish they would shut them permanently and save a fortune in the process. People could just sign on annually, either online or by post, and the system would still function.


        May 17, 2020 at 11:50 am

        • Furlough has been extended to the end of October so hopefully the Jobcentre lockdown will be extended until at least then. And as you say fingers crossed that the infernal places are shut down permanently. Good riddance to the Jobcentre.


          May 17, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    • The lockdown has proven that a) Jobcentres and signing on appointments are unnecessary b) most ‘jobs’ are unnecessary and horseshit. We need lockdown to continue at least long enough for these positive changes to ‘cement’. That last thing we want is a return to Jobcentres, signing on appointments; Range Rover driving, stockpiler, couldn’t give a fuck about anyone else, I’m all right Jack driving into ‘work’ in their polluting, noisy dirty vehicle to earn a vast salary in their non-job to pay for unnecessary flights etc. The lockdown has also taught us who the necessary workers are. Like those who food food on our plates. The middle-class have played a blinder on the working classes by making their chosen bullshit jobs and ‘professions’ as somehow more worthy and worth more in pay. Who cares if this virus is real or not here’s to another ‘mutation’ or ‘second wave’ to keep it going. You can’t beat bird song of a morning.


      May 17, 2020 at 11:14 am

  2. Eileen. Your post is straight out of Richard Neville’s Playpower circa 1968. Capitalism works.

    Dave Roberts

    May 18, 2020 at 1:09 pm

    • The reasons we think capitalism ‘works are’ twofold: a) It’s all we’ve ever known b) Communism has never been given a chance.


      May 18, 2020 at 2:31 pm

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