'Socialist Register' editors discuss capitalist contradictions and the COVID-19 crisis

Following the publication of the Socialist Register's 56th volume at the end of 2019, co-editors Leo Panitch and Greg Albo of York University reflect on their editorships of the journal and discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the contradictions in neoliberal capitalism.

Panitch, professor emeritus of politics at York University, has been co-editing the Socialist Register for nearly 35 years.

In a paper that appeared in the first volume he was responsible for, Panitch argued that there is nothing automatic about the development of socialist consciousness when the capitalist economy is not generating material benefits or job security for the working class.

Leo Panitch

Revisiting that theme, Panitch is adamant that it remains, unfortunately, objectively true today.

Panitch believes that mainstream social democratic parties, unable to move beyond the welfare states they helped establish after the Second World War, have accommodated themselves to neoliberal global capitalism.

“Part of the radical left’s critique of social democratic parties, which I agree with,” Panitch explained, “is that the compromise with the existing capitalist system those parties tried to make has come undone. On the other hand, the expectation that crises in the system would produce new revolutionary workers has simply not been born out.”

Albo, an associate professor in York University’s Department of Politics, considered similar themes when he took up co-editing the Socialist Register in 2011 following the global financial crisis and recession. The preface of his first volume opened by stating that “crises have a way of clarifying things.”

Now, as the world faces a new challenge – the COVID-19 pandemic – Albo again sees an opportunity for clarity.

“I think there’s a certain clarity at the present moment of the problems of neoliberalism,” Albo explained. “Everybody is seeing, for example, the rundown conditions of our health care systems.”

Greg Albo

Greg Albo

Albo envisions new mechanisms forming within states to address the crisis – ranging from emergency monetary policy and the socialization of wages to the way supply chains and health care systems are being re-thought – as important issues to monitor as this crisis, and the responses to it, unfolds.

While, similar to Panitch, Albo doesn’t see crisis as an automatic catalyst for change, he is interested in the types of class alliances that could emerge following this world event, and what the global balance of power might look like on the other side. “After we see the wreckage that has been imposed, again, by neoliberalism, will the response be to push away from it?” he asked.

The latest volume of the Socialist Register, the publication’s 56th, titled, Beyond Market Dystopia: New Ways of Living, captures several issues and themes related to the impact of states’ responses to the COVID-19 outbreak despite being published prior to the virus being declared a pandemic. “The volume hit this moment very well, although the authors of the essays were obviously not writing about this moment directly,” Albo said.

Although Panitch and Albo asked contributors to consider dystopia, they don’t see the volume as necessarily pessimistic.

"Beyond Market Dystopia: New Ways of Living"

Beyond Market Dystopia: New Ways of Living

Panitch described the theme of “new ways of living” as “an attempt to get us to think about the terrible new ways in which we’re living, and the consequences of market dystopia – as seen in the appalling lack of preparation of our health care system – but also to encourage people to be visionary.” For Panitch, looking at new ways of living means encouraging the Register’s authors and audience to retain a positive vision of the future.

In a paper he co-authored with former York Professor and Visiting Packer Chair in Social Justice Sam Gindin and York PhD graduate Stephen Maher, Panitch explores both the promises and limitations of contemporary progressive political campaigns such as those for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Jeremy Corbyn.

Oxford University Professor Barbara Harriss-White examines climate change and the ecological crisis and considers how to make the world a better place through restitution and restoration.

Authors contributed pieces looking at refugees and global migration, social reproduction, the economy in the home, the corporatization of health care and education systems and a variety of other topics related to neoliberalism is fostering market economies in all parts of society.

Roger Keil, a professor at York University, wrote a paper titled “Communism in the Suburbs?” which looks at attempts throughout the past century to develop “utopian communities” in Los Angeles through measures such as more egalitarian housing policies.

The volume concludes with a paper by renowned critical theorist, feminist and philosopher Nancy Fraser, asking, “What should socialism mean in the twenty-first century?”

Panitch is pleased to see York University well represented in the Register’s 56th volume, reflecting on a “steady stream of York contributors” he has been thankful for since he and Albo began editing the journal.

“I’m very proud of the place York always occupies,” Panitch said, “and I’m very thankful to York for the kind of support it has always provided to my editorship of the Register.”

Looking back at his tenure as one of the journal’s editors, Panitch is also proud of the places the Socialist Register has come to occupy both in academia and amongst left intellectuals.

“It was always resolutely international, and it still is,” Panitch said. “Someone once said to me, ‘if you want to be read in Alexandria, Egypt, publish in the Register, and if you want to be read in Cambridge, Massachusetts, don’t.’”

Panitch recalled how founding editor Ralph Miliband told him, “the Register needs to be hard to read and hard to write for,” in the sense of being intellectually challenging yet always very clearly written. Nearly all of the journal’s essays are commissioned, with hardly anyone ever declining to write for the publication when asked.

"Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn"

Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn

Beyond Market Dystopia is the first of two volumes based on the theme of new ways of living. Panitch and Albo are already working on a companion edition, Beyond Digital Capitalism, to be published in fall 2020.

Albo, who coordinates the Toronto Socialist Project’s daily e-magazine, The Bullet, and supports the work of the Centre for Social Justice, is finding more time for writing – and editing the work of others who have more time for writing – while in isolation.

Panitch, whose formal role at York as a retired senior scholar mainly sees him giving talks and wrapping up a handful of remaining PhD supervisions, is looking forward to the upcoming launch of his new book, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn, co-authored with Colin Leyes, which will likely take place in a virtual format later this month.

“Maybe we’ll call it ‘Zooming for Socialism,’” Panitch joked.

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