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  • Public ownership as economic democracy
  • Andrew Cumbers (bio)

Amidst a faltering discourse around globalisation and neoliberalism, a growing sense of disaffection among much of the broad populace, and the frightening upsurge of right populism around the world, there has never been a more urgent need for a coherent left alternative. Economic stagnation, a widening chasm between rich and poor, declining real incomes for the average worker, and evidence of accelerating climate change - all lead to the conclusion that systemic change is required.

Increased awareness of the disconnect between wealthy and empowered global elites and the broader mass of citizens has led to various forms of protest and mobilisation: but we have seen the more progressive, democratic and inclusive movements of the early 2010s, such as Occupy, giving way to a more ambivalent and often regressive xenophobic anti-globalisation politics, as typified by Brexit, Trumpism, and the rise of far-right populism.

Alternative thinking and concrete proposals about more progressive democratic ways to run the economy must be a critical part of the response to this deepening crisis. Yet, with a few honourable exceptions (Soundings, the US New Left Project, Erik Olin Wright), the left has not spent enough energy on the ground work required for formulating an alternative political economy. And the failure to rethink basic left propositions has meant that, as the contradictions of neoliberalism manifest themselves, it has been the far right that has captured the political vacuum created by the flawed ‘third way’ of the centre left.

A nationalist anti-globalisation narrative is taking hold - and driving the mainstream of political debate - that seeks to create new divisions around a racist anti-immigrant politics, but at the same time to occupy economic space vacated by the centre left. This approach is typified by the right-wing Polish government’s recent call to nationalise its banking system, framed in terms of a narrative against increased foreign ownership of the economy and a programme of ‘economic patriotism’

As part of the left response, we need to articulate a new democratic politics of the economy that articulates the common good against private and vested interests. And a critical element of this should be a reconfigured concept of public ownership around economic democracy, decentred decision-making and public participation.1 [End Page 84]

Moving beyond the new right critique

A new narrative of public ownership is required that acknowledges past failures but at the same time challenges its detractors.

Older forms of public ownership - in the UK the Morrisonian model of nationalisation - undoubtedly were often extremely centralised and far removed from the ordinary citizen, and had little democratic accountability, let alone employee involvement or representation. This allowed the new right in the 1970s and 1980s to successfully develop Hayekian-inspired critiques of public ownership as undemocratic, bureaucratic and inefficient, while extolling the virtues of private ownership in safeguarding individual liberties, democracy, enterprise and innovation. But after more than three decades of experiencing the failures of privatisation, alongside its attendant centralisation of corporate power, these arguments look increasingly hollow. However, the caricature of public ownership as an out-dated policy solution retains a stubborn hold on mainstream political and media discourse.

Despite the flaws in Hayek’s celebration of the market and private ownership as promoting individual liberty and democracy, his broader critique of centralised forms of economic decision-making remains prescient.2 But today this critique could just as easily be applied to the accretion of economic power by corporate and financialised interests under a neoliberal regime as it could to the creeping state totalitarianism that was Hayek’s target in the 1940s. The essential point remains however: economic democracy requires a level of devolved decision-making, variety and choice -something that is absent from more centrally planned and orchestrated regimes.

In articulating a new version of public ownership for the twentieth century, and a left alternative political economy more generally, key enlightenment ideals around liberty and democracy need to be reclaimed from the right. This can be achieved through reframing our arguments around a more radical and decentred vision of public ownership as economic democracy.

A twenty-first century narrative of democratic public ownership

An important starting point is to...


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pp. 84-88
Launched on MUSE
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