Socialism, Capitalism, and the Alternatives

SSEES Centenary Conference

Socialism, Capitalism, and the Alternatives: Lessons from Russia and Eastern Europe

Monday 14 December – Wednesday 16 December 2015

Confirmed speakers: Thomas Piketty; Naomi Klein; Chantal Mouffe; Leszek
Balcerowicz; Paul Mason; Tomáš Sedláček; Jan Kubik
2015 marks the centenary of the foundation of the UCL School of Slavonic and East
European Studies (UCL SSEES), one of the world’s leading institutions specialising in Central,
Eastern, South-Eastern Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Union. During the existence of
SSEES the world has seen the creation, dominance and dissolution of Communism in Russia
and Eastern Europe. Neo-liberalism, Communism’s archenemy, which appeared dominant
following the collapse of the European Socialist regimes, has recently suffered its own crisis
of credibility. Yet articulating coherent alternatives to these entrenched conceptual
categories remains stubbornly difficult. This conference will explore how an analysis of the
historical and political trajectories of both pre- and post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe
may contribute to confronting this challenge to the global imagination.
For many, the post-communist period highlighted the need for efficient and stable free
democratic institutions to successfully develop both the economy and society. In some postcommunist
societies, however, there has been the development of substantially illiberal
political cultures. The return of authoritarianism in parts of the region has challenged
orthodox views about capitalism and democracy, lending new urgency to the study of
different capitalist models and their impact on society.
Further, the 2008 financial crisis has hit almost everyone but the wealthiest. As a result,
many academic debates on the socio-economic consequences of capitalism have now
entered mainstream discourse. In his seminal Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014),
Thomas Piketty warns that the increasing imbalance in global wealth has the potential to
cause major instability and to threaten democracy. Already right-wing movements such as
the Front National and Jobbik have attracted support. World leaders have confronted
movements and parties such as Occupy, Podemos and Syriza, and have responded by coopting
issues like inequality and unemployment as their own. With everybody from the
Pope to President Obama to the Prince of Wales discussing the perils and drawbacks of the
present economic system, the search for a ‘capitalism with a human face’, if not for
alternatives, is no longer restricted to the ivory tower or activist circles. There is increasing
consensus about the problematic features of capitalism, but there is far less clarity about
possible solutions.
UCL SSEES will dedicate its centenary conference to addressing some of the fundamental
questions that emerge in this context:
 What do the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ mean today?
 What do the impact of the 2008 financial crisis and rising inequality tell us about the
efficiency or sustainability of capitalism?
 What parts, if any, of traditional socialist critiques of capitalism remain relevant today?
 What can government responses to the crisis teach us about the role of government in
a ‘market democracy’? Can the EU be a force for change?
 What can be learned from the (comparative) study of social, political and cultural
dissent, political unrest and protest movements in the SSEES region and elsewhere?
 What can be learned from the study of memory and nostalgia?
 What do literary or cultural debates on non-conformity and alternatives to capitalism
tell us?
 What alternatives are there to the models of capitalism and socialism existing today or
which have already failed? Can there be a Third Way? Is ‘revolution’ still a viable idea?
The broader European, comparative and global dimensions of these questions constitute
the focal point of the conference. Debate is encouraged not only from the perspectives of
political economy, economics, politics, sociology, anthropology and history, but also through
cultural analysis, particularly in relation to literature, the media and film.

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