Dystopia is not inevitable, but institutions need radical transformation

In his new book, Escaping Dystopia: Rebuilding a Public Domain, McMaster University Professor Stephen McBride argues that we can escape dystopia by pointing to the contemporary relevance of democratic socialism, embedded in a close analysis of the multiple overlapping crises of neoliberalism.

As multiple globalized crises simultaneously crash in on each other, does dystopia become inevitable? In his new book, Escaping Dystopia: Rebuilding a Public Domain,McMaster University Professor Stephen McBride argues that we can escape dystopia by pointing to the contemporary relevance of democratic socialism, embedded in a close analysis of the multiple overlapping crises of neoliberalism. A radical transformation of these institutions is needed to stop multiple crises from sending us to complete disaster.

McBride’s starting point is to argue that the simultaneous crises we face today, from rising inequality to the climate crisis, to COVID and economic instability, are rooted in and exacerbated by neoliberal ideology and institutions. Neoliberalism cannot simply be solved through reformist measures. Escaping Dystopia documents the rise of populist and anti-system politics in the advanced capitalist economies, and the serious threats they pose to the norms of liberal democracy. McBride judges that traditional social democracy is also complicit in weakening democracy, thanks to its reformist embrace of neoliberal policies since the 1980s and growing disconnection from the working-class.

The nation-state, however, remains absolutely central to politics. McBride argues that the neoliberal state constructed an international order to protect capital against democracy, but also this cannot be reformed without a major progressive political shift within nation-states. 

Rather than dreaming of a global alternative, the left must take a leaf from the populist right (while rejecting cultural nationalism) in calling for the restoration and exercise of political power at the level of the nation-state. One way to push back against neoliberal decay, for example, is to limit the constraints on national economic policy imposed by corporate interests through international trade and investment agreements. 

McBride argues forcefully that the solidly entrenched neoliberal order has manifestly failed to live up to its promises of shared prosperity and has lost legitimacy after the global financial crisis. It has failed to deal with rising inequality, increasing insecurity, and the climate crisis after decades of stagnation. While we have seen some well-intentioned, modest proposals for reform, such as subsidies to green industries and calls for a stakeholder format of capitalism, the fact is that fiscal austerity, low taxes, and weak regulations remain in the current paradigm.

After imposing neoliberal reform to national economic and political institutions, no government was prepared to seriously redress the imbalance of power between labour and capital, or challenge control of investment by banks and private finance. States could not seriously equalize income and wealth inequality through major tax reforms while serving the interests of capital.

Ultimately, reforms flounder because of the entrenched political and economic power of capital combined with the weakness of serious alternatives. The capitulation of the traditional left to neoliberal ideas is seen a serious barrier to systemic change.

In the most important chapter entitled “Radical Transformation,” McBride argues for control of capital while expanding the public domain and related policies which he embeds squarely in the democratic socialist tradition. To escape dystopia, he calls for stronger controls on international flows of capital, controls on private investment through public ownership of banks, democratic control over the “commanding heights of the economy” such as public utilities, natural resources, and manufacturing industries, and serious redistribution of wealth.

Massive state intervention is needed to shape investment that can meet human needs, rather than maximize profits and returns to capital. Economic planning and socialized investment are necessary to address the climate crisis, economic instability, and to close huge gaps in wealth that currently exist between the richest and the poorest.

Escaping Dystopia can and should be seen as a major re-statement of the case for democratic socialism today, drawing heavily on the state socialism model of the 1930s and 1940s which inspired the post-War Labour government in the United Kingdom, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in Canada. However, McBride advances some proposals to make the expanded public sector accountable to the wider society, including labour and communities. He also specifies some needed reforms to democratize political institutions.

As an aside, McBride suggests that Keynes worked to save capitalism from itself, prolonging its life through modest reform. Yet Keynes himself (see James Crotty, Keynes Against Capitalism) called for massive socialization of the investment process, the euthanasia of the rentier class, and capital controls at the international level sufficient to give national governments control of their economic destiny. Whether or not Keynes’ intentions were to prolong or end capitalism, what is demonstrated is that institutional change is necessary for a radical Great Transformation.

McBride’s book is much richer than this brief summary suggests, but his argument is underdeveloped when it comes to agency. The author certainly recognizes the important linkages between the labour movement and democratic socialism in the past, and the political consequences of the decline of unions since the 1970s and 80s. However, McBride has had little to say on how to build a new labour movement committed to a democratic workplace and socialist politics, or on how to change existing social democratic parties from within.

That said, this book needs to be read and debated by anyone interested in how to move beyond neoliberal dystopia.

Stephen McBride is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Public Policy and Globalization at McMaster University. His research deals with issues of comparative public policy, globalization and political economy.

Escaping Dystopia: Rebuilding a Public Domain by Stephen McBride is now available from Bristol University Press.

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