The clearest and most concise statement of John Roemer’s project in A Future for Socialism occurs at the end of his book.footnote＊ In its concluding chapter he summarizes his argument as pivoting on two ‘crucial ideas’—the idea that ‘socialism is best thought of as a kind of egalitarianism, not the implementation of a particular property relation’, and the idea that ‘modern capitalism provides us with many fertile possibilities for designing the next wave of socialist experiments’ (pp. 124–5). Associated with these ideas are two other claims, that ‘the failure of the Soviet experiment is ascribable not to the egalitarian goals of communism but to the abrogation of markets’ and that ‘Modern capitalism does not. . .owe its success specifically to the embrace of the right to unlimited accumulation of private property’ (p. 125).
Roemer’s project appears to express two, mutually supportive interests: the political interest he has in developing a reformulation of the socialist project in a form that is feasible and defensible in the historical context arising from the Soviet collapse; and his intellectual interest in the ways in which the recent history of capitalism has shown the connections between market institutions and property relations to be far less determinate, and far more variable, than is allowed for in either standard economic theory or neo-liberal ideology. The upshot of both interests is a political and theoretical displacement and subordination of property relations. Within socialism, they are to be regarded in wholly instrumental fashion, their assessment and reform being governed by their contribution to the achievement of the egalitarian objectives in terms of which the socialist project is best understood. Within capitalism, property relations are recognized to be extremely complex and variable, embodied in diverse legal practices and cultures which create environments in which market competition can occur.
Roemer’s two-pronged argument is that, since market institutions are far more significant in generating the competitive efficiencies and productivity of capitalism than are private property relations, socialism should not be conceived as the project of
Roemer’s book is remarkable, and admirable, for its candour and rigour in argument; it is generous to a fault in its account of liberal critics of socialism, giving Hayek, in particular, all, indeed perhaps more than, the credit he is due; and it is further evidence, if any were needed, that the ephemeral political triumph of New Right ideology has in no sense resulted in a neo-liberal intellectual hegemony. Again, Roemer is undoubtedly right that successful market institutions come in many varieties, depend on a host of conditions not mentioned in the thin, neoclassical theory of market competition, and have no very determinate links with property institutions. In particular, contrary to neo-liberal
At the same time, A Future for Socialism is testimony to the fact that liberal thought enjoys a hegemony that is now almost wholly unchallenged, at least in the English-speaking world, where liberalism has conquered or marginalized all its political and intellectual rivals. There are now few socialist (or, for that matter, conservative) theorists willing, or able, to state their views in terms that do not derive from liberal discourse. Roemer follows intellectual fashion, and conforms with the conventional wisdom of the American liberal academy, in that his revisionist market socialism is indistinguishable from the egalitarian liberalism long advocated by John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel and (latterly) G.A. Cohen. Roemer himself acknowledges that traditional socialists and Marxists may object that he is offering ‘a liberal egalitarian creed’ and responds with the argument that the ethical foundation of the Marxist critique of exploitation in capitalism lies in a claim about unjust inequality in the distribution of ownership rights (p. 15). This hardly speaks to the objection that will be made by those who wish to preserve, and develop, a tradition of thought, and of practice, that is distinctively socialist. For, even if we accept Roemer’s interpretation of Marx’s ethical objection to capitalism, it shows only an overlap, or a point of convergence, between the Marxian critique of capitalism and liberal egalitarianism. It fails utterly to show the presence of anything in Roemer’s market socialism that is not also found in liberal theory.