Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Remaking Scarcity – from capitalist inefficiency to economic democracy
By Costas Panayotakis
Pubs. Pluto Press and Fernwood Publishing
Pbck. £18.04

This book is an invaluable addition to any catalogue of modern Marxist economic thought. Panayotakis delivers a devastating critique of neo-liberal economic dogma and at the same time provides an up-to-date analysis of capitalism’s inbuilt destructiveness.

He lucidly demonstrates, giving detailed sources, how the capitalist system creates and exacerbates scarcity. It is often argued that capitalism, if nothing else, is efficient (particularly vis-à-vis socialist economies), but Panayotakis demonstrates that it is in fact the opposite. He also provides a cursory explanation of why the Soviet system collapsed without resorting to simplistic labelling or knee-jerk clichés. He also underlines what many forget, that despite all its weaknesses the socialist world not only provided a bulwark against the worst ravages of capitalism, but also pressured capitalism into making concessions to the working class; ones that are now being rapidly demolished.

He also polemicises against those who argued that socialism would usher in an era of super-abundance and unlimited productive capacity. Whatever the system, he argues, we have to live with scarcity in order to ensure an environmentally sustainable world.

The unprecedented lobbying power of big companies has led to an abject subservience of governments and states to their dictat, as seen in Greece and elsewhere. Panayotakis argues that this corrosive relationship can only be broken by struggling for and extending economic democracy alongside political democracy.

He concludes by offering useful pointers to a way forward – not a blueprint or quasi manifesto – towards what he sees as the key to change: economic democracy. Economic democracy for him means everyone having a say in setting society’s economic priorities and the way wealth is distributed. He sees the world social forum, popular budget-setting as practised in Porto Alegre and in Kerala, as well as worker take-overs of factories in Argentina and Venezuela, as positive examples of people power. He emphasises, though, that successful local struggles or isolated examples of co-operative action will not, of themselves, bring about the necessary changes at national or world level. Panayotakis’s prose can be dryly academic, sometimes repetitive, with the flow interrupted by an over-abundance of source quotes, but despite this minor caveat, this is an insightful and illuminating read for anyone wishing to better comprehend the present crisis and the mechanisms of capitalism. He is also strong on environmentalism and the importance of the feminist project. In his concluding chapter he examines several ideas for future organisation and illustrates these with examples from around the world, without donning any particular sectarian or ideological straitjacket.

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