It’s very heartening that a discussion like this is happening at all. The neoliberal era has been plagued by an intellectual atmosphere that was ably characterized by Margaret Thatcher in her slogan “there is no alternative.” But I think that there are also important problems in how both Ackerman and Quiggin have approached the question of a socialist economy. Rather than provide an in depth review of these articles, I’d like to present this as an opportunity for discussion. To get things going, I’ll start with a few observations:
- Ackerman places little weight on defining capitalism, simply starting “from the common socialist assumption that capitalism’s central defects arise from the conflict between the pursuit of private profit and the satisfaction of human needs.” But it would be just as relevant, arguably far more so, to start from the assumption that the central contradiction of capitalism is between ever increasing productivity on one hand and the continuing necessity of human labor, on the other. What are the implications of Ackerman’s assumption?
- Quiggin’s reply is helpful in that he raises the current political context as a necessary factor in evaluating what kind of society we can and should be fighting to create. But despite his sensitivity to political issues, Quiggin argues for reforms that hardly seem radical, and may actually be reactionary. Breaking up the big banks, for example, would merely substitute of the tyranny of the market for that of Big Finance, making the industry harder to regulate and forestalling the use of finance for badly needed investment to mitigate environmental destruction and encourage development in poor countries. However, it is worth mentioning that Quiggin has also presented much more interesting ideas elsewhere.
- To what extent is the debate that we need to be having economic, and to what extent should it be critical of the categories in which economics as a discipline grasp the world? It seems to me that Ackerman and Quiggan for the most part take the meanings of these terms, such as profit, to be self evident, even if they find the operation of profit to have some negative outcomes. And how can we bring such a critical perspective to bear on a practical left politics?
- It’s interesting that both authors feel the need to raise participatory economics and then to quickly dismiss it as a desirable economic system with little elaboration. Whether or not they are correct, it might be enlightening to have a fuller account of its merits and flaws.