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Socialism One Sector at a Time

Peter Marcuse

The closest we've come to a serious movement that adopted socialism as a goal was in 1968, and Rudi Dutschke - "Red Rudi" - was a charismatic leader in that movement in Berlin. The approach he advocated was to "March through the Institutions of capitalism." In the militant context of the times, that might well have started in the universities and the factories: democratic government led by students and faculty on the campus, democratic government of and by workers, autogestion,   in the work-places.  The approach, recognizing that revolution in its classic form was unlikely to take place all at once but its goals might be approached strategically piece by piece, is worth taking up again today.

The mortgage component of the economic crisis today suggests the approach. While liberals bemoan the greed of bankers and the fraudulent practices of brokers, the roots of the crisis go much deeper. They begin with the selling of the myth of home ownership, sold as the only way to have security of tenure, but increasingly exposed as a fragile reed. The alternatives:  cooperatives, land trusts, public ownership, mutual housing associations, become increasingly obvious alternatives. They suggest social housing, non-speculative forms of ownership in which the possibility of a financial profit is not the driving force behind "owning" a home.  At a personal level, that opens the door to thought about the relationship between use values and exchange values, an important lesson in itself.  But going further, it raises the question of whether the for-profit market is really the best way to allocate housing, one of the necessities of life. Left advocates of rent control have long argued that housing should be provided "for people, not for profit;" that slogan seems more appropriate than ever today.

And what does it mean if not a socialist housing sector - not necessarily covering all housing, and allowing for a non-speculative market to operate, but advancing along very anti-capitalist lines.

The idea that certain sectors of the economy are logically public is hardly a new one. Fire protection was originally undertaken by private fire companies, education was originally privately provided, most railroads were privately built and operated, so were toll roads. Worker management has a much slimmer history, but is hardly unimaginable; experience in some countries with worker take-overs of individual factories or the formation of cooperatives is quite wide-spread, if limited.  But the experience in broad sectors that we now largely take for granted is as germane.

That education should be not only free but publicly-provided is generally acknowledged. The fight over charter schools in the United States illustrates that there is an attack on its public provision, but there is at the same time a strong defensive movement, and the conflict raises the question of the private role sharply.  The form of control is interesting-not teachers themselves, but democratically elected school boards. It might provoke thinking as to how democratic control over other sectors could be established, by some institutionalized relationship between users and workers.

Major research facilities are public. Space exploration is public. Medical research is in large part public. Security services are in part public, and basic policing generally is. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertakes major infrastructure projects. The Post Office is quite well run. Garbage collection and other municipal services are generally public, and in the United States the idea of municipal socialism was not anathema. Participation and control in these cases was hardly what Marx had envisioned, but both electoral controls and union participation offer possible openings in that direction.

Ironically enough, current debates about public-private partnerships, much the vogue on the right, open the door to raising the question, not simply about the relative roles, but also about the need for the private sector to begin with. If the private sector can make money performing a public service, why cannot the public sector do the same work at a lesser cost, since it need not return a profit? Even the banking sector is vulnerable to a questioning of the role of profit (when normal business incentives are seen as greed, it's not so far to question the incentives capitalism relies on altogether).  Maybe lemon socialism, as in government bailing out banks and acquiring preferred stock in them, can be a refreshener on the way to real socialism?

Of course, nationalization, as is now under discussion even of banks, and is taking place as to, e.g., oil, in various countries, is not the same as socialization in the classic Marxist sense. But how direct democracy and worker control would function in major enterprises is still an open question-how direct the control, the role of elections, user inputs, how competition would function, what role a market could continue to play. In the United States that the unions may control a majority of the stock of the Chrysler Corporation raises only the specter of worker self-exploitation, but why could not larger questions be raised about its potential meaning? Is the logic of going from: problems with capitalism to -> modifying capitalism to -> questioning capitalism to -> anti-capitalism to -> open forms of socialism, such a hard chain of thinking to advance, as the context to separate current sectoral struggles?

If there were some commitment to such a strategy, say next for housing and health care, then basic education, continuously with attention to the possibilities of firms "too big to fail," may we not be moving towards socialism one sector at a time? Is a march through the institutions so far-fetched?


Achtenberg, Emily Paradise, and Peter Marcuse. 1983. "Toward the Decommodification of Housing:: A political analysis and a progressive program." in Hartman, Chester, ed.. America's Housing Crisis: What is to be Done? Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hartman, Chester, and Michael Stone. 1986. "Towards a Socialist Housing Program for America." in Bratt et al., eds, Critical Perspectives on Housing, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Marcuse, Peter. 2009 "The Subprime Crisis and Beyond," forthcoming

Sclar, Elliott. 2000. You Don't Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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Peter Marcuse is Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University.  A lawyer as well as a planner, he has written widely on comparative housing and planning issues.  He is co-editor (along with Ronald Van Kempen) of Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order and author of the forthcoming, "The Subprime Crisis and Beyond".

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