UKfilter: Too jaded for Socialism? Help me rediscover the ideals...
May 21, 2013 8:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm an ex-Leftie who now works as a money man in the UK. I'd like to rediscover Socialist philosophy and ideals. Problem: 10+ years of economic analysis of public spending and government fiscal policy has left me thinking that Socialism is unrealistic, ill thought out, and well, a bit...silly. Help me turn myself around before it's too late! ...much more inside....

In my youth, like most folk, I flirted with Socialism. Not in a particularly politically active way, but I was NUS rep for my VI Form College, regularly went on marches against this or that issue, and generally held left of centre fairly 'right-on' views. The world, it seemed to me, was full of injustice caused by corporate malfeasance and greed; monoculture and homogeneity were invading our high streets and our lives; and we, the proud and beautiful few, were keepers of the truth and the keys to the future. The enemy? Capitalism and the fuddy-duddy Tories.

Then, like most people, I spent the following 20 years embarking on a career and having a family. Having started as an IT developer, I drifted into finance and now work on the trading desk of a fairly big UK bank. I'm not a 'banker' - if anything I'm a researcher - and I've no regrets about where I've ended up; I work hard and I provide well for my family whom I love dearly. Oh if my younger self could see me now.

So what's the issue? Well, there are limits to my hypocracy.
My work means I've been very focussed over the past 10 years on how fiscal and monetary policy affect national finances. I've become widely read on the 20th century's economic thinkers, from Keynes and Hayek, to Rehn and Krugman via everyone in between. I've learnt to read the bond markets and I've had a ringside seat at the Eurozone debt crisis.
Now, when I go back and reread some of the pamphlets and other material I used read to as a young adult, it just seems like tubthumping rhetoric from the embittered dispossesed rather than reasoned argument and realistic policies.
I know socialism was always about being idealistic, but I've just realised that I can't remember a single Lefty describing to me, in detail, what they actually want. Yes, we all want a fairer society. Yes, we all want an end to proverty. Yes we all want to retain personal freedom and liberty. But how to achieve all those things? What policies and structures to put in place and how to finance them? How to maintain a welfare state and improve standards of living? Aye, there's the rub.
There are grand visions and there are actionable, relevant policies. The Lefties that I've met seem to be very much focused on the former.

All this makes me sad though. Loss of idealism is tantamount to world-weariness. Am I a lost cause? Too jaded to believe that a fairer and more equitable society exists (details TBD)? Has Socialism had its time? Are we all Centrists healthcare & free markets? Is there no idealism left any more? Is there no Left any more? Is there such a thing as an economics-literate Socialist?

What books/resources can I digest to reignite some Red zeal? Who are the most relevant modern Socialists out there that can realistically apply Socialist philosophy to today's Britain? Is it still a relevant ideology or is it now philosophy only? Who can talk to the detail as well as the grand visions?
Stop me before I start voting Blue. Please.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (14 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I have had much the same experience as you developing my worldview over the years. Here's a blog that I quite like which is definitely left-leaning.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 8:47 AM on May 21, 2013

Not a socialist - definitely an anarchist - but have you read James C. Scott? Seeing Like a State is excellent, not at all strident/bombastic, and was a gateway for me in terms of re-thinking the neoliberal consensus. I don't buy it all, far from it, but it definitely gets the mind working.

Also, check out the OWS Library.
posted by downing street memo at 8:48 AM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Crooked Timber has ongoing discussions on "whither social democracy?" that might tap into the grand vision thing, and perhaps Doug Henwood's LBO (and its related mailing list) may fit your trajectory.
posted by holgate at 8:57 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

The answer to this depends on what you mean by socialism. Do you actually mean workers seizing the means of production Marxist-style socialism? Or are you thinking more about the sort of post-WWII social democracies in western Europe where governments ensured access to healthcare, social security income, etc.?

The answer to that question will inform whether your interested in reading debates between neo-keynesian stimulus vs. the sort of austerity policy currently being pursued in the EU or whether you're interested in more "out-there" thinkers who want to dismantle the prevailing capitalism market system, in whole or in part.

Things you might find interesting (in no particular order):

Seconding Scott just because his work is so interesting.

Erik Olin Wright’s book Envisioning Real Utopias which tried to separate socialism from the conceptual baggage of Marxism. See also a good academic discussion of the book over on the Crooked Timber blog, including a response from the author.

G. A. Cohen's critiques of libertarianism and defense of marxism/socialism. Most notably Why Not Socialism and If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?

The Wikipedia page on socialism is surprisingly comprehensive and not a bad place to start looking, when you find something interesting use it as a search term to find out more.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:14 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

In terms of reading you sound like you'd enjoy Stumbling and Mumbling. Not just policy from a socialist and UK perspective - but economic analysis and economically literate socialism

I'd also recommend Lenin's Tomb and Prog Gold.

And no-one is a lost cause, and justice doesn't change, and idealism doesn't have a sell by date.
posted by Gilgongo at 9:36 AM on May 21, 2013

I don't know that it has specific practical lefty policies to advocate, but you might try reading Yves Smith's Naked Capitalism blog. There aren't two many ex-Goldman folks writing knowledgable lefty critiques of the world on finance....

The reason I recommend her specifically is that I think you're suffering from an inside-outside problem. Your knowledge of the world of finance is minute, thorough; outsider critiques from first principles can all seem hopelessly naive from that perspective. Smith has also read her Hayek and so her critiques come from a place of knowledge.
posted by Diablevert at 9:43 AM on May 21, 2013

I was going to suggest reading Marx's Value Price and Profit. but i see you are getting alot of suggested readings.

Maybe engaging with the feelings and perspective you use to have would be more helpful than doing a bunch of reading.

It might help to figure out what you really believe about what things should be like, and why you think those things... that might be more rewarding than finding a philosophy to adopt.
posted by ServSci at 11:16 AM on May 21, 2013

Aye its hard to hold onto your ideals when you are gorging at the corporate trough. I believe the distribution of wealth is unfair. I do not expect any redistribution to leave me or anybody else in the west better off. I suggest you read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.
posted by BenPens at 11:39 AM on May 21, 2013

I live in Canada, and socialist policies are the only reason I'm not homeless, uneducated, and probably in prison for unpaid medical bills. Sure, the systems are flawed, but they're pretty important.
posted by windykites at 12:23 PM on May 21, 2013

Krugman's not a socialist per se but he is smart and writes very well.
posted by Aizkolari at 12:23 PM on May 21, 2013

speaking of Krugman, he just wrote an excellent analysis of the abject failure of austerity. I also continue to be inspired by the examples of Scandinavian and Sandinista socialism. The latter is really interesting and its social welfare successes (of which there were undoubtedly many) remain poorly studied or understood. You could start with Thomas Walker. The Sandinistas are also frequently discussed by Noam Chomsky, who has managed to remain (against enormous odds) remarkably sanguine about the socialist left.
posted by idlethink at 1:40 PM on May 21, 2013

You may have come across his blog before, but Alex Harrowell is an economically literate UK lefty. You may find more links to interest you there.
posted by mister_kaupungister at 2:00 PM on May 21, 2013

It's not a totality, it's a tactic.

Social services don't solve all the problems, they just help make things a little bit better.

If you add up a whole bunch of things that make life a little better for some of us, life gets a lot better for all of us, especially in ways that are not quite quantifiable in terms of GDP.
posted by Freen at 3:04 PM on May 21, 2013

This comment by gingerest pretty much sums up the modern appeal for socialism.
posted by Freen at 3:09 PM on May 21, 2013

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