Washington Monthly: The Socialist Network

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“…In our conversations, even the socialists who insisted most strongly that they want to eliminate capitalism tended to sketch out worlds in which capitalist markets still play at least some role. “Profit itself isn’t the problem,” Sunkara said. “The problem is the work-or-starve contract that forces some people to give up their autonomy.” No one I spoke to was calling for total state ownership of all industry. But their commitment to the “Get rid of capitalism” rhetoric raises the prospect that these very smart people will turn up their noses at the less ideologically pure work of structuring market competition itself.

This distinguishes socialists from the budding anti-monopoly movement, which has done much of its thinking in the pages of this magazine. This school of thought, sometimes referred to as the New Brandeis movement, has its purest expression at the Open Markets Institute, a D.C. think tank, but also has drawn allies elsewhere in Washington, most notably Elizabeth Warren. Their central insight is that one of the greatest—and least appreciated—achievements of the New Deal and postwar era was the U.S. government’s strong commitment to preserving real economic competition, especially through antitrust enforcement. And that, on the flip side, one of the key causes for the radical post-1980 rise in income inequality was the retreat from antitrust enforcement prompted by the Reagan administration and changing judicial doctrine.

A renewed commitment to competition policy and an ambitiously universal welfare state aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But there seems to be a reluctance among the socialist left to engage with an agenda that promotes competition. (One exception is Ryan Cooper, who has written favorably about the anti-monopoly movement.) That, in turn, means a reluctance to think about how to tackle the question of concentrated economic power. What is the socialist answer to the dominance of Amazon, Facebook, and Google? Matt Bruenig told me that competition policy is, for him, “way down on the list of priorities.” When someone on Twitter asked Liz Bruenig why she didn’t subscribe to the New Brandeis movement, her reply was that “the answer to the destruction wrought by capitalism isn’t more, better capitalism.”

The term “capitalism”—like “socialism”—can’t be reduced to any simple fixed meaning. At its core, it refers merely to an economy based on market exchanges aimed at private profit. But a response like Liz Bruenig’s illustrates just how degraded the meaning of the word has become…”

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