Sunday, October 12, 2008
A breviary on socialist planning posted by leninMarkets, if not an expression of aspirations implicit in human nature, are supposedly indispensable to any happy human prospect. Free market ideology has it that markets are the most efficient delivery system for goods; that competition will drive innovation and flexibility; that consumer-led demand will ensure that people get what they want (within their means); and that waged labour will incentivize hard work and thus produce growth. This fabular conception advises the most rudimentary assumptions of policymakers (who then go on to violate their own assumptions in practise) and a great majority of the intelligentsia. And, within its own terms, it has a certain allure. It is not obviously utopian, and doesn't assume basic human goodness. In fact, it states quite bluntly that what humans had often considered the main source of evil, the accumulation of wealth, was the progenerator of unprecedented good. Adam Smith thus famously argued: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own neccessities but of their advantages." Moreover, in the context in which the classical liberal economists were writing, it made a great deal of sense. The absence of that context makes any attempt to apply such precepts to today's reality absurd.
For, we are hardly living in an economy characterised overwhelmingly by small producers, responding to consumer-led demand in a largely anarchic, unplanned, and highly competitive fashion, in which the main impediment to growth is the appropriative practises of largely parasitic feudal remnants. We are familiar with a high degree of capital concentration and centralisation, with systemic pressures toward price-fixing, the concealment of vital knowledge, the suppression of competitors, lobbying against potentially ruinous innovations, bribery, and so on. We are long inured to an economy based on the production and shaping of demand by corporations, in the form of advertising, and in which consumer-led demand is increasingly marginal to economic growth. We are used to planned obsolescence and to corporations transferring massive externalities to people in their capacity as workers, consumers and residents. And we are more than acquainted with the way that the purveyors of killer products, from pollutants to carcinogens, act covertly to seduce us into seeing their cause as one of freedom and enlightenment versus ignorance, censorship and nannying regulation. Of course, one would like to think that by appealing to the self-interest of the capitalist class, we could ultimately get what we want. (This would vindicate over a century of reformist socialism). And we would like to think that our tastes and preferences are ultimately registered and transmitted through price signals, though anyone who has worked in the music industry can tell you that the next sensation has already been decided on two years in advance (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but not enough of an exaggeration to vitiate the point that it is often the corporation's productive activities that dictate our tastes rather than the other way around). Enlightened self-interest is, however, no longer a plausible alibi - we just know too much. And, as a matter of fact, bourgeois ideology often tells us bluntly that the alibi is a fraud - as when game theorists concocted the "prisoners' dilemma" and proved that social solidarity of some sort could be far more effective in delivering a net good than a narrowly conceived self-interest.
Paradoxically, the capitalist economy is both a highly planned environment and a highly chaotic one. Significant resources are devoted to planning within corporations, and it can work due to a certain amount of predictability in, and manipulability of, demand. The demand for core goods such as bread is relatively stable, and inelastic. In contrast, the demand for iPods isn't so stable, and is liable to fall off if they don't come up with something better than the 120GB classic - hence, the need to shape demand, and to stage the introduction of better models in a process of planned obsolescence. But this substantial economic planning takes place in a context that is highly unstable, not to mention obviously undemocratic on account of the class relations embedded in production, and in a way that ensures large amounts of waste (hundreds of billions invested in PR, advertising, market research, lobbying etc). Overseeing this process is the state, whose enormous productive activities are equally planned, in a way that is slightly more democratic to the extent that it registers demands for social justice, and more stable to the extent that its access to knowledge is greater, its scope larger than any single corporation operating in its domain (this is true at least of advanced capitalist economies), and its functions insulated from the profit imperative. Planning is very much a part of the system, and it would be chaotic without it. And we now have a situation where right-wing newspapers like the Telegraph, who have hated the state precisely on account of its limited democratic potential, are carrying articles arguing for the nationalisation of the banks as a prudential response to the crisis. They want massive state planning, in other words.
So, it is no secret that planning is already with us, that substantial sectors of the economy that work quite efficiently are exempt from the profit motive, and that markets working in hypothetically good conditions produce largely negative social results. It is because of the fact that planning has been confined to individual units of capital, and conducted in the interests of a minority ruling class, that socialist planning has been proposed as a corrective. It involves, not the complete suppression of markets, but their active supercession. Markets are to be subordinated to imperatives arrived at democratically and implemented democratically. And because the limitations of representative democracy in the liberal capitalist state are obvious, because it can all too easily assume the regnant functions of capital (often simply by hiring capitalist managers and placing them in charge of recently nationalised institutions), socialist planning requires a different kind of polity. It has been called "workers' democracy" because it takes planning from the boardroom to the shop floor - elected workers' councils, deliberating under the advice of technical advisers who were previously subordinate to capital, take decisions in place of cabals of appointed executives and shareholders. Moreover, democratic organs built in each particular workplace are aggregated into local, regional and national structures, in which delegates are subject to instant recall. In such a scenario, there is a direct and continuous line of authority that exerts itself from the bottom up rather than the top down. For this reason, it has also been called 'direct democracy'. And because it aims to undermine the logic of 'scarcity' - so crucial to market economics - it is necessary to create such a superabundance of goods that some kinds of commodities would be treated more or less as if free, and thus delivered essentially as free services. This is quite distinct from the logic of a market economy in which goods are regularly destroyed or dumped in order to maintain the necessary scarcity of goods and ensure that they remain profitable to produce and sell.
Socialist planning is a remarkably simple idea, therefore. Its propositions do not depend on theoretical arcanum. It just happens to be the most radical extension of the democratic idea available. We now have a situation where we feel powerless, where a crisis driven by factors seemingly beyond our control, imposed on us as if by a natural force that we have yet to understand or master, threatens to destroy millions of livelihoods. We are the mercy of those whom we know don't share our interests. That could not be the case if the decisions about production, its character, conditions, and rate, were under our direct command. We would still face all kinds of problems, and conflicts, but we would do so as the rulers of our own society with the werewithal to manage it. But such an idea, though simple, has only been asserted in revolutionary conditions: in Russia and much of Europe during the interim after WWI, for example, as well as in France after 1936, in Chile after 1970, and Iran during 1978-9. It is impossible to imagine such a transformation, though simple and obviously just, taking place in a normal political situation. It is just as impossible to see it happening unless based on a powerful experience of solidarity and collective action. As a start, then, the experience of grassroots democracy would need to be routinised in workplaces across the country, in order to offset the pressures of competition, careerism and atomisation. Such is one of the many uses of trade unionism and rank-and-file organisation. The collective defense of jobs and living conditions against the inevitable attempts to force us to bear the costs of this crisis can be the basis for establishing such solidarity. Defying the logic of capital and the priorities of those who presently rule may be one crucial step in preparing us unruly natives for authentic self-government.