Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Plan but not THE Plan

Planning is indeed central to the idea of socialism, but socialism is the planned, but not “central-planning”, production of useful things to satisfy human needs instead of the production of wealth as exchange value, commodities and capital. In socialism, wealth would have simply a specific use-value (which would be different under different conditions and for different individuals and groups of individuals) but it would not have any exchange, or economic, value. Although centralised worldwide planning of production and distribution has become more and more possible with the evolution of communication systems and the information-handling capabilities of computers, it has, at the same time, become less and less necessary or desirable. There are bound to be democratic decisions taken about certain aspects of 
production and distribution from time to time, at local, regional, continental and even global levels. But, for the great mass of adjustments and controls, ordinary channels of supply and demand (real demand) will provide the most flexible and responsive basic system for regulating socialist society's production and distribution. The almost infinitely complex network of manufacturers, growers, distributors and suppliers will, however, need well-organised communication and co-operation amongst themselves, as well as ready access to a richness of information about research, designs, methods, output, capacity, local preferences, etc., which is simply impossible in capitalism. The problem with a centrally-planned model of socialism was its inability to cope with change. It lacks any kind of feedback mechanism which allows for mutual adjustments between the different actors in such an economy. It is completely inflexible. We witnessed in Russia how it was unable to determine prices by central planning. Prices were set, re-set, fixed then re-fixed, plans were made then re-appraised, re-defined, changed and dropped. Socialism however is a decentralised or polycentric society that is self-regulating, self-adjusting and self-correcting, from below and not from the top. It is not a command economy but a responsive one. The rule will be “fitness for purpose”, such as the regions of the world most suited for the production of certain goods be used for their production, because it would be stupid to do otherwise. In the world cooperative commonwealth goods will be “distributed” not “exchanged”, neither “exported” nor “imported” but instead as if the whole world’s goods were pooled and then each region were to draw what is required.

 When we declare that production will be planned, do not make the mistake of imagining some super-bureaucratic organisation or World State imposing such a plan. This is not suggesting that a single agency based in New York or Geneva or wherever would be making policy decisions for everyone on the planet. Its function could be to provide information and propose various development strategies so that alternatives could be decided democratically. From where we stand now a lot of people would say that priority should be given to ecologically benign methods such as wind, wave, solar power, etc. With the freedom to make such a decision without the economic constraints of capitalism, socialism could do it. The sole motive would be the needs of people and this would be in sharp contrast to the way in which governments decide matters now from the point of view of national economic and military interests. Capitalist organisations are mostly hierarchical, consisting of a few people at the top who give orders and the much lower down or at the bottom who take them. Communication is usually top-down. Socialist organisations will be mostly lateral, meaning that all participants will work according to a democratically agreed plan. Communication will be free-flowing, not one-way.

Having produced all that is required, all that is now necessary is to distribute it to the people so that each person’s needs are fully satisfied. Since the needs of consumers always need for a specific product at a specific time in a specific locality, we will assume that socialist society would leave the initial assessment of likely needs to a delegated body under the control of the local community (although, other arrangements are possible if that were what the members of socialist society wanted).


 In a stable society such as socialism, needs would change relatively slowly. Hence it is reasonable to surmise that an efficient system of stock control, recording what individuals actually chose to take under conditions of free access from local distribution centres over a given period, would enable the local distribution committee to estimate the need for food, drink, clothes and household goods would be over a similar future period. Some needs would be able to be met locally: local transport, restaurants, builders, repairs and some food are examples as well as services such as street lighting, libraries and refuse collection. The local distribution committee would then communicate needs that could not be met locally to the bodies charged with coordinating supplies to local communities.

The individual would have free access to the goods on the shelves of the local distribution centres; the local distribution centres free access to the goods they required to be always adequately stocked with what people needed; their suppliers' free access to the goods they required from the factories which supplied them; industries and factories free access to the materials, equipment and energy they needed to produce their products; and so on. In the case of perishable goods it would merely be a matter of transport from factory or farm direct to the local distributing centres, and in the case of other goods to large regional, county or city stores or warehouses. From there it is but a step to the local distributing stores which would stock the whole range of necessary goods - a kind of show-room or warehouse - and from which goods could be delivered to the homes of people, or, collected by them if so preferred. After all the daily, weekly, and monthly needs of any given number of people in a district are easily worked out, even nowadays - take, for example, the distribution of milk - so it should not be very difficult to find out what stocks the local stores would require.

Production and distribution in socialism would thus be a question of organising a coordinated and more or less self-regulating system of linkages between users and suppliers, enabling resources and materials to flow smoothly from one productive unit to another, and ultimately to the final user, in response to information flowing in the opposite direction originating from final users. The productive system would thus be set in motion from the consumer end, as individuals and communities took steps to satisfy their self-defined needs. Socialist production is self-regulating production for use. The average requirements of a person are known: say X pounds of this, Y pounds of that; multiply by the number of people in that locality concerned, and you have on average the total amount necessary to be “shipped” to that place for local distribution. This is now, although in a difficult and complicated way, exactly what’s being done. Doesn’t the wheat importer, know almost exactly, how much wheat he can distribute to his customers and doesn’t he import accordingly? Things will be different, but only in a small way. Whereas now you have dozens of importers for wheat, in socialism there will be a food control or administration. Its function will be to organise production so that there is no shortage or excessive surplus, and that distribution to the demands of the people is satisfied. The food control in each region will arrange for the satisfaction of the needs of that region, and will in addition plan for the distribution of its own products in excess of its needs, to other regions. There will no doubt be a need for a world organisation - probably a statistical body - to control the whole output. It has already been explained how distribution would proceed from this point. From a place of production to a distribution depot, and from there to local depots. From the local depots, there would be daily delivery of perishable goods, such as we have today for milk, and possibly weekly and monthly deliveries of other foods. Clothes, furniture, electrical items and other goods not required frequently or regularly, would be obtained at large outlet stores somewhat similar to as we have today. These will be placed at points in the various localities according to the needs and convenience of the local population. At these stores, people will do their “shopping” without money, much as they do today. The stock control systems now in use in many major stores and the computer-controlled warehousing (such as Amazon) gradually being installed by large distributors already permit the constant monitoring of consumption of goods to be carried on, future demand to be predicted within quite fine limits and automatic, and almost instantaneous, re-ordering to be carried out. Modern information systems make it feasible for anyone, anywhere in the world, who has access to a computer to find out all the specifications and quantities of goods or services that are available or in demand. In the post-capitalist world, it is this greatly enhanced information network that will replace and supersede the market and the price mechanism. The immense volume of information about the daily facts and figures of all production, distribution and services which is in the possession of the working class - and which is today barely used, except to total output figures and compile balance sheets - will be accorded its true value in socialist society as the data for conscious social control of the means of life by every member of society. "Democratic control" will be far more than a matter of voting when contentious issues arise. It will be the continual exercise of informed individual power in the cooperative processes of sustaining and enhancing social life.

It would be necessary to calculate the number of inputs that would be needed to achieve a certain level of production. This kind of input-output calculation would need to occur on different geographical scales–from "local" forms of calculation to the regional and even global. This connects to our second question about the extent of localised versus centralised decision making in socialism. Looking at local forms of organisation, individual units of production in capitalism (factories, offices etc.) already have IT systems for calculating the resources that are required in production, as well as stock control systems for managing the supplies of resources. Aside from the parts that are concerned with monetary accounting, these systems could be of use to the socialist society inheriting them. To ensure the smooth functioning of the system, statistical offices (and many of those now exist in various shapes and forms) would be needed to provide estimates of what would have to be produced to meet peoples likely individual and collective needs. These could be calculated in the light of consumer wants as indicated by returns from local distribution committees and of technical data (productive capacity, production methods, productivity, etc) incorporated in input-output tables. For, at any given level of technology (reflected in the input-output tables), a given mix of final goods (consumer wants) requires for its production a given mix of intermediate goods and raw materials; it is this latter mix that the central statistical office would be calculating in broad terms. Such calculations would also indicate whether or not productive capacity would need to be expanded and in what branches.


 The centres for each world-region would thus be essentially an information clearinghouse, processing information communicated to it about production and distribution and passing on the results to industries for them to draw up their production plans so as to be in a position to meet the requests for their products coming from other industries and from local communities. The only calculations that would be necessary for socialism would be calculations-in-kind. On the one side would be recorded the resources (materials, energy, equipment, labour) used up in production and on the other side the amount of the good produced, together with any by-products.

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