By Andrew Cumbers
As the environmental limits and socially destructive tendencies of the current profit-driven economic model become daily more self-evident, Cumbers argues in Reclaiming Public Ownership that a reconstituted public ownership is central to the creation of a more just and sustainable society.
The last few years have seen the spectacular failure of market fundamentalism in Europe and the US, with a seemingly never-ending spate of corporate scandals and financial crises. As the environmental limits and socially destructive tendencies of the current profit-driven economic model become daily more self-evident, there is a growing demand for a fairer economic alternative, as evidenced by the mounting campaigns against global finance and the politics of austerity.
Reclaiming Public Ownership tackles these issues head on, going beyond traditional leftist arguments about the relative merits of free markets and central planning to present a radical new conception of public ownership, framed around economic democracy and public participation in economic decision-making. Cumbers argues that a reconstituted public ownership is central to the creation of a more just and sustainable society.
This book is a timely reconsideration of a long-standing but essential topic.
Hemanath Swarna Nantha on Political Studies Review wrote:
"Shrewdly, Cumber focuses on the most effective intellectual cited by opponents of public ownership: Friedrich van Hayek. [...] Cumber acknowledges the failures of state socialism in the Soviet Union, and the failures of post-war nationalisations in shifting economic decision making towards workers and citizens. Indeed, the depth of the criticism of previous experiences of state ownership may surprise those on the political right inclined to dismiss a book advocating public ownership out of hand. [...] Using Hayek – whose vision of market freedom as human freedom has been so compelling – allows Cumber to counterpoise Hayek’s vision of a ‘market utopia’ to contemporary sclerotic capitalism. Yet, accepting some of Hayek’s critique of concentrated economic power leads Cumber to advocate new, more diffuse and accountable forms of public ownership including state and municipal-owned enterprises, co-operative firms and employee owned firms. This desire for a plurality of ownership forms, inspired by the Austrian socialist Otto Neurath, is mirrored in Cumber’s desire for a mix of mechanisms for allocative decisions, including the price mechanism and the dedication to wider social and economic goals. [...] One of the key strengths of the book is the emphasis on space and scale, which is unsurprising given Cumber’s academic background. The need for both localist initiatives and regional-wide co-ordination is recognised. Large-scale operations would necessarily demand large state-owned firms, something that anarchist critiques have perhaps been unwilling to systematically engage. Yet, the key weakness of the book is the lack of a sustained engagement with the legal spaces binding, in particular, economies with in the European Union. [...] The book achieves a delicate balance – it is able to articulate demands for economic democracy through collective ownership while also acknowledging, as autonomists such as Hardt and Negri do, the need to engage with the state to enable the creation and promotion of pluralistic forms of public ownership. [...] this book provides a welcome set of theoretical and empirical arguments for new forms of public ownership and co-operation. This book should appeal to students of politics and economics, and the general reader interested in potential alternatives to the current economic dispensation."
Dallas Rogers on International Sociology Reviews wrote:
This book is not a call to salvage the improperly conceived public ownership model of old. It advances a reconstituted public ownership of diverse types as a basis for securing economic democracy. It argues that class justice and democratic participation are important factors for achieving this end and that public ownership has an important role to play.The author addresses the market-liberal criticism of state monopolies and planning, and recognises the advantages and limits of privatisation and markets. A mainly public-ownership economy is proposed that is decentralised, pluralistic and innovation-friendly. Private ownership and markets would be accommodated in the appropriate domains or contexts. While supportive of deliberative, localised decision making, the author considers as impractical the inclination of the ‘commons’-based or autonomous movements to reject the state. Instead, a renewed public ownership agenda would contest control by elites and vested interests and democratise ‘national-level state-owned structures’ or economic sectors deemed ‘too important to be left in private hands’ (banking, energy, etc.). Engaging with the state is also necessary for catalysing support for smaller-scale public initiatives and causes. Higher-scale organisations can help coordinate actions for dealing with processes having extra-local implications, such as environmental problems and growing economic disparities. [...] The book covers extensive ground for a slim volume and cites widely (Otto Neurath, Friedrich Hayek, Geoffrey Hodgson, John O’Neill). Eschewing ideological, one-size-fits-all prescriptions, it is one of the most balanced cases made for public ownership in the literature. This book would interest academics across the social sciences, government policy makers at the various administrative levels and engaged citizens."
Sacha Dierckx on Review of Radical Political Economics wrote:
"In this provocative book, Andrew Cumbers’ aim is not only to revisit questions of public ownership, but also to radically reconsider the project of public ownership and commons more generally. The ideas are clearly presented and revolutionary in spirit. From the outset, Cumbers establishes that governments of varying political pervasions, which have been ‘signing up to a form of free market fundamentalism’ (p. 2), continually fail to get the relationship of government intervention to free market economics right. [...] Cumbers shows that market discourses run free in times of boom, but governments inevitably become the leaders of last resort in times of crises, often renationalizing in the process. This book is well-researched [...] Although certainly revolutionary in spirit, as much commons theorizing is, and perhaps needs to be, there remains an underlying tension between the capacity of neoliberal actors to reinvent the capitalist project and the ability of radical commons projects ‘to construct autonomous spaces outside capitalism’ (p. 128). In my reading, this is the key insight to be taken from the book. I read Cumbers’ book as a call for a more critical appraisal of conceptual binaries: the left and the right; the market and the state; individualism and collectivism; local and central democratic planning; and the limits of both revolutionary commons theory and Hayekian inspired market-centrism."
"This is a well-informed, accessible book on a very important theme. While some important cases or issues are not (comprehensively) addressed in the book (e.g. the Spanish cooperative Mondragon, the role of the U.S. government in advancing privatization), the descriptions of the general history and recent cases of public ownership are illuminating to readers who are not very familiar with these issues. Further, Andrew Cumbers forcefully makes the crucial claim that the left should urgently engage with the concept and practice of public ownership and economic democracy, with which I could not agree more. It is also very insightful in recognizing the flaws of the nationalized companies that existed after World War II (and of which some still exist today). Cumbers does not refrain from condemning the employment relations in public corporations, arguing that they do not necessarily improve the conditions of the working classes. [...] As such, while the author forcefully argues that we should rethink the potential of public ownership, he does not fall in the trap of uncritically reviewing the past experiences with nationalized corporations. [...] However, in my view, there are some passages where the book is a bit vague, and where it could have been more powerful. First, Cumbers is rather imprecise on the role that markets should still play in the future. [...] This is related to a second question: to put it bluntly, is it not the purpose of companies that matters rather than whether they are publicly or privately owned? [...] Many questions remain unanswered in this regard. For instance, what if cooperatives or employee-owned firms make decisions in their own interest which go against the general public interest? How should these conflicts be (democratically) dealt with? How to avoid 'turning workers into capitalists,' as The Economist (2013) would like to have it? [...] Third, it not clear from the book how all these different forms of public ownership should be democratically managed. [...] There are more subjects where I was eager to find more answers and concrete details, such as on the question of scale. That the author does not provide them has probably to do with his choice not to provide a blueprint, commensurate with his pledge for tolerance and diversity. Nevertheless, I would have liked to see more details on what he has to say on these questions. Maybe this could be discussed in a following book. All in all, however, I think this book is highly important, both in debunking neoliberal myths, in criticizing undemocratic forms of public ownership, and in giving a first impression of what an economy based on diverse forms of public ownership could look like. Therefore, this book should be read by everyone who is concerned with creating a more democratic and more just economic order."
Publications by Andrew Cumbers
- "Diversifying Public Ownership; Constructing Institutions for Participation, Social Empowerment and Democratic Control" - policy paper for The Next System Project, April 2017
- "Revisiting Public Ownership: Knowledge, Democracy and Participation in Economic Decision Making", article by Andrew Cumbers1 and Robert McMaster in Review of Radical Political Economics 44(3) 358–373.
- "Economic democracy: Reclaiming public ownership as the pragmatic left alternative" - opinion piece by Cumbers in Juncture, 22(4), pp. 324-328 (doi:10.1111/j.2050-5876.2016.00882.x).
- "Renewing Public Ownership: Constructing a Democratic Economy in the Twenty-First Century" - policy paper for The Centre for Labour and Social Studies, July 2014
Table of Contents of Reclaiming Public Ownership
- Introduction: an unexpected guest - the return of public ownership
PART ONE - Public ownership and its discontents
- Public ownership as state ownership: the post-1945 legacy
- The neoliberal onslaught and the politics of privatization
- Coming to terms with Hayek: markets, planning and economic democracy
PART TWO - The return of public ownership
- Financial crisis and the rediscovery of the state in the neoliberal heartland
- Public ownership and an alternative political economy in Latin America
- Alternative globalizations and the discourse of the commons
PART THREE - Remaking public ownership
- Remaking and rescaling public ownership
- State ownership, deliberative democracy and elite interests in Norway's oil bonanza
- Decentred public ownership and the Danish wind power revolution
About Andrew Cumbers
Andrew Cumbers is Professor in Regional Political Economy at the University of Glasgow. He has written extensively on the problems and the prospects for a more democratic and egalitarian economy and society. He is currently working on a project funded by The Economic and Social Research Council to create an Economic Democracy Index. His book Reclaiming Public Ownership (Zed) won the 2015 Gunnar Myrdal Prize for Evolutionary Political Economy.