Branko Milanovic has put forward an idea he thinks “will gradually become more popular”:
The idea is simple: the presence of the ideology of socialism (abolition of private property) and its embodiment in the Soviet Union and other Communist states made capitalists careful: they knew that if they tried to push workers too hard, the workers might retaliate and capitalists might end up by losing all.
The idea reminds me of an argument Etienne Balibar made many years ago (unfortunately, I can no long remember or find the original source but here’s a link [pdf] to one version of it)—that the “European project” was more progressive during the Cold War in the sense that the welfare state was constructed, by forces from above and below, as a response to the Soviet model of socialism, in order to prevent the working classes from adopting a communist ideology. (Since then, as Balibar has recently argued, the European project has fundamentally changed, as it has been assimilated by globalized finance capitalism and, under German hegemony, a strategy of industrial competitiveness based on low wages.)
Milanovice discusses some recent empirical work on three channels through which socialism “disciplined” income inequality under capitalism: (a) ideology/politics (e.g., the electoral importance of Communist and some socialist parties), (b) trade unions (some of which were affiliated with Communist or Labor parties), and (c) the “policing” device of the Soviet military power. He then offers his own analysis:
Communism, was a global movement. It does not require much reading of the literature from the 1920s to realize how scared capitalists and those who defended the free market were of socialism. After all, that’s why capitalist countries militarily intervened in the Russian Civil War, and then imposed the trade embargo and the cordon sanitaire on the USSR. Not a sort of policies you would do if you were not ideologically afraid (because militarily the Soviet Union was then very weak). The threat intensified again after the World War II when the Communist influence through all three channels was at its peak. And then it steadily declined so much that by mid-1970s, it was definitely small. The Communist parties reached their maximum influence in the early 1970s but Eurocomunism had already expunged from its program any ideas of nationalization of property. It was rapidly transforming itself into social democracy. The trade unions declined. And both the demonstration effect and the fear of the Soviet Union receded. So capitalism could go back to what it would be doing anyway, that is to the levels of inequality it achieved at the end of the 19th century. “El periodo especial” of capitalism was over.
He admits the implication of such a story may be rather unpleasant:
left to itself, without any countervailing powers, capitalism will keep on generating high inequality and so the US may soon look like South Africa.
This is not to suggest we need another Cold War for United States to move even closer to looking like South Africa. But it does mean there will be a significant move from above toward more democracy and less inequality only if there’s a real threat to move outside of capitalism from below.