Monday, 2 April 2007

Alternative Futures

The BBC have recently run an interesting set of documentary programmes under the label of 'The Trap'. In the programmes, Adam Curtis argues that much of the current malaise in the West is the result of becoming seduced by the Thatcherite (read Reaganite in the US) agenda of the 1980s. It uses this analysis to chart the rise of political extremism throughout the world and the rise of militant Islam inparticular. (See Wiki for an article about the series, which links through to the BBC site, which has clips well worth watching).

The show started me to think about the idea of alternative futures. For example, had both Reagan and Thatcher lost their respective elections, how would the 1980s have developed? How would it have changed what we are now and how we are today? I was tempted to dismiss this as idle daydreaming, but, as I was working on the China chapter of my current book, the whole idea came into focus.

How do we classify the Chinese economy? It is certainly a market economy, but it is hardly a capitalist economy - the means of production are still, largely, owned by 'the people' and controlled by the Communist Party of China. In squaring this circle, I went back to some work from the 1930s undertaken by the Polish economist Oskar Lange, who developed a theory of market based socialism. This was really instructive in understanding how an economy could allocate resources using the markets, whilst organising the ownership and control of the economy as a collective vehicle.

Why is Lange so obscure? He published at about the same time as Keynes published his General Theory. In our interpretation of events, we rather take the view that Keynes saved market capitalism from itself (the Great Depression being a classic example of market failure), and so Lange wasn't needed. It is so interesting that he pops up again 70 years later just as, according to Adam Curtis, the whole system is starting to falter again.

If so have we always been destined towards market socialism? That would please the Marxists! Or do we chart our own unique path into the future? In which case history can't repeat itself.

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