Socialized Capital Markets

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Seth Ackerman:

" In a market economy, a troubled firm can sell part or all of its operations to another firm. Or it can seek capital from lenders or investors, if it can convince them it has the potential to improve its performance. But in the absence of a capital market, the only practical options are bankruptcy or bailouts. Constant bailouts were the price the Hungarian leadership was forced to pay to avoid extremely high and wasteful rates of firm failures. In other words, capital markets provide a rational way to deal with the turbulence caused by the hard budget constraints of market systems: when a firm needs to spend more than its income, it can turn to lenders and investors. Without a capital market, that option is foreclosed.

As resistance against Communism rose, those in Eastern Europe who wished to avoid a turn to capitalism drew the appropriate lessons. In 1989, the dissident Polish reform economists Włodzimierz Brus and Kazimierz Łaski — both convinced socialists and disciples of the distinguished Marxist-Keynesian Michał Kalecki — published a book examining the prospects for East European reform. Both had been influential proponents of democratic reforms and socialist market mechanisms since the 1950s.

Their conclusion now was that in order to have a rational market socialism, publicly-owned firms would have to be made autonomous — and this would require a socialized capital market. The authors made it clear that this would entail a fundamental reordering of the political economy of East European systems – and indeed of traditional notions of socialism. Writing on the eve of the upheavals that would bring down Communism, they set out their vision: “the role of the owner-state should be separated from the state as an authority in charge of administration….[E]nterprises…have to become separated not only from the state in its wider role but also from each other.”

The vision Brus and Łaski sketched was novel: a constellation of autonomous firms, financed by a multiplicity of autonomous banks or investment funds, all competing and interacting in a market — yet all nevertheless socially owned." (

A proposal

Seth Ackerman:

"What is needed is a structure that allows autonomous firms to produce and trade goods for the market, aiming to generate a surplus of output over input — while keeping those firms public and preventing their surplus from being appropriated by a narrow class of capitalists. Under this type of system, workers can assume any degree of control they like over the management of their firms, and any “profits” can be socialized– that is, they can truly function as a signal, rather than as a motive force. But the precondition of such a system is the socialization of the means of production — structured in a way that preserves the existence of a capital market. How can all this be done?

Start with the basics. Private control over society’s productive infrastructure is ultimately a financial phenomenon. It is by financing the means of production that capitalists exercise control, as a class or as individuals. What’s needed, then, is a socialization of finance — that is, a system of common, collective financing of the means of production and credit. But what does that mean in practice?

It might be said that people own two kinds of assets. “Personal” assets include houses, cars, or computers. But financial assets – claims on money flows, like stocks, bonds, and mutual funds — are what finance the productive infrastructure. Suppose a public common fund were established, to undertake what might be euphemistically called the “compulsory purchase” of all privately-owned financial assets. It would, for example, “buy” a person’s mutual fund shares at their market price, depositing payment in the person’s bank account. By the end of this process, the common fund would own all formerly privately-owned financial assets, while all the financial wealth of individuals would be converted into bank deposits (but with the banks in question now owned in common, since the common fund now owns all the shares).

No one has lost any wealth; they’ve simply cashed out their stocks and bonds. But there are far-reaching consequences. Society’s means of production and credit now constitute the assets of a public fund, while individuals’ financial wealth balances are now its liabilities. In other words, the job of intermediating between individuals’ money savings and society’s productive physical assets that used to be performed by capitalist banks, mutual funds, and so on, has been socialized. The common fund can now reestablish a “tamed” capital market on a socialized basis, with a multiplicity of socialized banks and investment funds owning and allocating capital among the means of production.

The lesson here is that the transformation to a different system does not have to be catastrophic. Of course, the situation I’m describing would be a revolutionary one — but it wouldn’t have to involve the total collapse of the old society and the Promethean conjuring of something entirely unrecognizable in its place.

At the end of the process, firms no longer have individual owners who seek to maximize profits. Instead, they are owned by society as a whole, along with any surplus (“profits”) they might generate. Since firms still buy and sell in the market, they can still generate a surplus (or deficit) that can be used to judge their efficacy. But no individual owner actually pockets these surpluses, meaning that no one has any particular interest in perpetuating or exploiting the profit-driven mis-valuation of goods that is endemic under capitalism. The “social democratic solution” that was once a contradiction – selectively frustrating the profit motive to uphold the common good, while systematically relying on it as the engine of the system – can now be reconciled.

To the same end, the accrual of interest to individuals’ bank deposits can be capped at a certain threshold of wealth, and beyond that level it could be limited to simply compensate for inflation. (Or the social surplus could be divided up equally among everyone and just paid out as a social dividend.) This would yield not exactly the euthanasia of the rentier, but of the rentier “interest” in society. And while individuals could still be free to start businesses, once their firms reached a certain size, age and importance, they would have to “go public”: to be sold by their owners into the socialized capital market.

What I’m describing is, in one sense, the culmination of a trend that has been proceeding under capitalism for centuries: the growing separation of ownership from control. Already in the mid-nineteenth century, Marx marveled at the proliferation of what we now call corporations: “Stock companies in general – developed with the credit system – have an increasing tendency to separate this work of management as a function from the ownership of capital, be it self-owned or borrowed. Just as the development of bourgeois society witnessed a separation of the functions of judges and administrators from land-ownership, whose attributes they were in feudal times.” Marx thought this development highly significant: “It is the abolition of capital as private property within the framework of capitalist production itself.” (