Nationalization Is a Great American Tradition

The U.S. government has at various times taken control of radio, railroads, coal mines and banks. Today there are movements afoot to nationalize Amazon, SpaceX, transit and more.

Dayton Martindale

by terry laban



1. The transition of a privately owned industry into a publicly owned asset.

The oil industry, and the entire energy industry, should be owned by the public and used for the public good — not for additional profits for billionaires.” 

— Bernie Sanders in a 1973 open letter to Vermont Sen. Robert Stafford

So what’s the point? 

Under private ownership, CEOs and shareholders are incentivized to make the most profit for themselves at the expense of workers, consumers and the planet. Through public ownership, industries could prioritize people first. Activists and policy experts have called to nationalize all sorts of companies, especially in industries with an outsized influence on the broader economy. An incomplete list: Amazon, airlines and transit, banks, internet and telecom providers, fossil fuels, healthcare, SpaceX, Twitter and Tyson Foods.

How would that even work? 

Generally, a government would gain a controlling stake of a company by buying up a majority (or all) of the company’s shares. Other times, a government might just seize control directly, with or without compensation to the former owners.

Doesn’t sound like we could do that here in the United States. 

In fact, this country has a long history of nationalization. During World War I and II, the federal government took control of radio, railroads, coal mines and more. In 1984, the government took 80% ownership in the failing Continental Illinois bank, which remained nationalized until 1991. The Bush administration took similar action to bail out banks in 2008. Many of these nationalization efforts were temporary, and companies that tolerated government control during crisis eventually wanted the reins back. But there are (inevitably) new crises to come, and some nationalizations — such as the largely voluntary transfer of private passenger rail to Amtrak in the 1970s — have had staying power.

Is this the road to socialism? 

Not by itself. Like Engels pointed out, So long as the propertied classes remain at the helm, nationalization never abolishes exploitation but merely changes its form.” Just because the government is in charge does not mean the people are — and without democratic management, government bosses are just as capable of polluting, exploiting and price gouging as private bosses. Socialism worthy of the name, then, likely requires a more egalitarian national government or other forms of oversight— through municipalities or workers’ councils, for example. But nationalization could play a key role in taking essential industries out of private hands and putting them toward the public good.

This is part of ​“The Big Idea,” a series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For past In These Times coverage of these ideas, see, ​“Is Decentralizing the Internet the Answer?” and ​“It’s Time to Democratize City Budgets.”

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Dayton Martindale is a freelance writer and former associate editor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Journal, Harbinger and The Next System Project. Follow him on Twitter: @DaytonRMartind.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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