Is socialism making a comeback?

Saturday 2 November, 14:0015:30, Frobisher Auditorium 1Ideology in the 21st century

Socialism seems to be back in fashion. In the UK and America, polling continuously shows favourable opinion and interest in ‘socialism’ across all age groups and social classes. Whatever the future prospects for Jeremy Corbyn, his rise in the UK and the popularity of Bernie Sanders in the USA, many argue, show a shift left within politics in the Anglosphere. The parties of the right, the natural defenders of capitalism and markets, are having their own crisis of identity and power. Even centre-right parties are increasingly governing with classically social-democratic policies. Is it time for socialism to once again challenge the TINA (‘there is no alternative’) narrative of the past 30 years?

The failure of developed Western societies to recover fully from the economic crash of 2008 seems to have created an openness to different ideas about how society should be run. Old battles, long thought to have been won or lost, have resurfaced. Political book sales are the fastest growing non-fiction category, with Marx’s Communist Manifesto placing fifteenth on titles sold in 2018. It is undeniable that interest in socialism is growing. Is now the time for socialism and can it work this time?

The phrase ‘fully automated luxury communism’ has grown beyond a mere slogan, with a slew of books on ‘post-capitalism’ marrying the new potential of socialism with robots, AI and the computer age. Authors argue the success of capitalist corporations, such as Walmart and Amazon, suggests that the meticulous planning within such organisations could be applied to the wider economy. At the very least, such authors want us to recognise that our current, capitalist economy is much more tightly planned and controlled than is often admitted. There is not an ‘invisible hand’, they say, but tight cooperation of governments, international organisations and multinational businesses.

Critics on the right are quick to argue that every attempt to create socialist societies has ended in failure, misery, authoritarianism – or all three. The situation in contemporary Venezuela – ostensibly a socialist country – is frequently cited as a contemporary example of the dangers of excessive state intervention and control.

Is today’s society really as good as it gets? Could the ability of huge corporations to use huge quantities of data to both plan ahead and to react swiftly to consumer demand be used across society in a progressive way? Or would that just be a modern incarnation of the Soviet five-year plan? Is the rising positive opinion of socialism a curious deviation from the norm or will it play an important part in politics this century? What does it mean for socialism, or any economic and political system, to ‘work’? Is it a series of trade-offs or does it need to deliver clear outcomes to be judged by those who experience it?