Touch of myopia in utopia

Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?
January 21, 2000

Pointing the finger: Friedrich Hayek's challenge to socialists cannot be ignored The author of this book is a member of a very rare species. He is an American socialist, an anti-Stalinist one, yet a Marxist. He is the European correspondent for The Nation , an influential "liberal" weekly.

Daniel Singer's book is not only a critical account of globalisation but a fervent plea for setting up the alternative - a post-capitalist socialist utopia. He argues that his is a realistic utopia and indeed, as Rosa Luxemburg said many decades ago, he implies that the alternative to socialism is barbarism. This discussion of the alternative distinguishes his book from the many available that are critical of globalisation but do not see any alternative except perhaps a return to 1970s Keynsianism or some confused retreat into a protectionist version of capitalism in the hope of frustrating the machinations of those new demons, the multinational corporations.

The first part of the book, "The heritage", is concerned with the destruction of the Berlin Wall and its repercussions. The second, "Changing Europe", is an account in turn of Boris Yeltsin's re-election in 1996, the sad saga of Solidarity as it turned from a hope for a new order in 1980 to a semi-fascist ragbag party in 1990s Poland, and a rather rosy account of the 1995 French "winter of discontent", when the unemployed and the low-paid marched in the streets against Alain Juppe's proposed reforms of the welfare state. Singer is particularly good on, though in my view too easily shocked by, the shenanigans of those who conspired to get the ailing Yeltsin re-elected. I sympathise with his analysis that the United States/Central Intelligence Agency withheld the truth and Yeltsin's control of the state apparatus made it an unfair contest. But is this not similar to what Mahathir bin Mohammed does in Malaysia or former president Suharto did in Indonesia? Russia is in a mess. Its condition is no better than Zaire's, except that it has nuclear weapons. This is why everyone treats Russia with kid gloves, as the most recent Chechnya episode shows.

The surprise is the author's enthusiastic account of the French workers' march. He sees this as a rejection of the logic of globalisation. It reminds him of May 1968 and he sees in it seeds of an eventual resurgence of the European working class against capitalism. But it was only the public-sector workers and the unemployed who marched. Private industries stayed in business, no profits were lost, prime minister Lionel Jospin has since been elected and he does not embrace the third way: I cannot see revolutionary potential in the French situation.

In the last section, "In search of an alternative", Singer lays his cards on the table. He hopes that the "movement" can be revived. You can imagine his eyes lighting up as he talks of the workers. But he seriously sets about the task of exploring a post-capitalist order. This revives an abandoned project and is welcome whatever you think of its feasibility.

Questions of democracy and of transition are examined. The author betrays his Leninism in that he cannot envisage multiple political formations in his utopia. Like many others before him, he seems to think that people's wants are very similar, and while he welcomes their diversity he does not see that this creates complex issues that cannot be brushed aside.

The most serious omission is the absence of any economics. Singer does not deal with the trenchant critique that Friedrich Hayek advanced of the difficulties of allocation in socialism without markets. While in the 1930s many thought that the Polish economist Oscar Lange had answered Hayek, all that Lange did was to assume that the socialist economy would mimic the market. Hayek quite rightly remarked that market efficiency is not possible without market incentives, profits or higher wages. The performance of Eastern Europe vindicated Hayek and thus he became a hero of the anti-communists. Hayek's challenge to socialists still stands and cannot be ignored. No utopia is realistic

that cannot deal with the nitty-gritty question of who gets what and how. Slogans of democratic decision-making by the entire society are just hot air. Still there is scope here for some serious thought, inspired by Singer's proposals.

Lord Desai is director, centre for the study of global governance, London School of Economics.

Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?

Author - Daniel Singer
ISBN - 0 85345 943 6 and 946 0
Publisher - Monthly Review Press
Price - £45.00, £9.95
Pages - 295

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