A couple weeks ago, Neal Meyer argued in Jacobin that the Nordic countries are not socialist because they have not challenged the private ownership of major corporations. I responded here that this is not really true: Nordic countries have substantial state ownership, including of major corporations, especially in Norway.
Yesterday, Mathieu Desan and Michael A. McCarthy took to Jacobin to continue this discussion. In their piece, Desan and McCarthy acknowledge what Meyer did not: Nordic countries have “high levels of state ownership.” They also acknowledge that the countries have “political democracy,” meaning that the state is democratically elected by the people. Yet, they still nonetheless conclude that they are a “long ways off” from socialism.
The apparent reason they are still not socialist is stated as follows:
Socialism aims to socialize that power. Capitalists shouldn’t be able to hold all that power and impact all of society — it’s undemocratic and unjust.
But socialists don’t just want to replace private ownership with state ownership. In the same way we don’t believe that capitalists should be able to have disproportionate control over economic resources, we don’t think unaccountable state officials and bureaucrats should have the power to control investment and production through “socialism from above.” In some cases, like the former Soviet Union, the failings of such a system are nearly as deep as those of capitalism itself.
The core aim of socialism is not just the state gaining control of industry, but empowering the broad masses of people — in their workplaces, in their communities, in their homes, in their schools, in their politics — to be in the driver’s seat of society.
Unaccountable State Officials
The general argument here is plausible: state ownership is not socialist when the state does not represent the people, is unaccountable to them, and so on. Thus, it could be argued that the Soviet Union was not properly socialist insofar as its state did not act as the people’s representatives and was not accountable to them.
But the specific application of that argument to the Nordic countries is clearly wrong. The Nordic countries are different from the Soviet Union because their state officials are elected by the people and accountable to them. They have political democracies, as the authors themselves admit. Governments form and dissolve. The ministries responsible for the various state-owned enterprises and collective wealth funds are headed by elected politicians or appointed by them.
This appears to be a case where the authors were familiar with a boilerplate argument about how “state ownership does not necessarily mean socialist,” but never bothered to check whether that boilerplate argument actually made any sense in the context of the Nordic countries. It does not make sense in that context, which should be pretty obvious since “unaccountable state officials and bureaucrats” does not actually describe democratically-elected state officials and bureaucrats that can be, and are frequently, voted out of power.
The authors finish out the quote above with a classic socialist mad lib. The way the mad lib works is you go “____ is not socialism; socialism is when the masses are in control.” The blank can then be filled in with literally any proposed socialist institution ever.
Normally people who go this rhetorical route remain vague about what “the masses are in control” would mean in detailed terms. Desan and McCarthy mostly stick to that strategy in their piece, but they kind of depart from it for a brief paragraph, writing:
This democratization could be achieved through a number of concrete institutions: grassroots state planning agencies, workers’ cooperatives, participatory boards. But what is essential is that the people have real, not just formal, democratic control over society’s wealth.
Of course, my natural reaction to these alternatives is: grassroots state planning agencies, workers’ cooperatives, and participatory boards are not socialism; socialism is when the masses are in control. A “state planning agency” is not the masses. It’s a relatively small group of people, whether you call them grassroots or not. A workers’ cooperative is not the masses: it requires the election of officers and leaders who make day-to-day decisions from above. And don’t even get me started on how few of the masses are on the participatory boards!
Somewhat more seriously, what’s bizarre about all of these Real Socialist Institutions is that they are representative institutions not unlike an elected government. We are not talking about direct democracy here where every single decision is voted on by every single person. And we certainly are not talking about a consensus arrangement where every thing requires the approval of 100 percent of the people. Instead we are talking about institutions that supposedly channel the will of a broader constituency through a group of representatives accountable to that constituency. Sound familiar?
Not only are these Real Socialist Institutions basically the same thing as a democratically-elected state owner in their structure, but one of them is literally just a rewording of “state ownership.” If you take the phrase “state ownership” and then make it a little bit more specific, you get “state planning agencies,” since that is how state ownership works: ministers of various sorts reside in agencies and do the “planning” of ownership. From there, all you have to do is slap the aspirational word “grassroots” in the front of it, and you get “grassroots state planning agencies,” a Real Socialist Institution!
It’s perfectly fine for people to have preferences for one representative-democratic institution over another when it comes to how to implement social/collective/worker ownership and control. I certainly have my preferences and I respect that the authors have theirs. But it is silly in my view to take your personal preferences for representative-democratic institution X over representative-democratic institution Y and then declare that therefore Y is not socialist. A democratically-elected state that is accountable to its people is at least as legitimate a social owner as any other kind of representative institution.