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Computers and socialism

Socialism will be a society based upon production for use. But what does this mean? How could this work and what part could be played by information technology in socialism?

When describing the new society they are working for, socialists frequently encounter the question of "how will it work?". Questioners often assume that only with a system of money and prices can things "work"; that things just happen, without any need for them to participate.

The market system of buying and selling may well "work", in the sense that it continues to function with or without people trying to control where it takes us. After all, politicians nowadays seem to increasingly admit how little control they have over the system they merely administer. Yet, this unavoidable absence of conscious, social, control is precisely the problem. The new form of social organisation where production is organised solely for use may require more active involvement by people but this is the only way of running society in the interests of the whole population. So when replying to the question "how will it work?" socialists recognise that there is firstly a necessity for the vast majority of people to understand and want socialism.

The way that things will "work" in socialism is through what we call "production for use". This defining feature of socialism, is not difficult to understand–it simply means directly producing what is needed, without the need for monetary exchange, as in capitalism. Throughout human history there has always been production solely for use, starting with food gathering and tool making in hunter-gatherer societies. In modern day capitalism, there are many examples ranging from the activities of voluntary organisations to housework and gardening.

Production for use
In socialism, production directly for use will be the rule. Socialist production needs to be organised democratically–a dictatorship organising production for use would not be socialism. In considering the relationship between democracy and production, the "how will it work" question demands some further answers. In building socialism, we need to consider how the preferences and opinions of the whole of society will be reflected in the choices that are made about the production of goods and services.

Three specific questions about production in socialism come to mind. Firstly, a question about economic calculation, secondly the geographical scale of decision making and thirdly incentives in a socialist society. These are questions where the role of information technology (IT) in socialism can be an important in the answers offered by socialists.

The first question concerning economic calculation is put by defenders of the free market. The market is said to be a decentralised mechanism for calculating demand in order to achieve the right level of supply, as expressed through monetary expenditure. There are, of course, flaws in this argument–money is not equally distributed, the market is not such an elegantly decentralised system and does not achieve the kind of textbook efficiency as is claimed. Still, there is a need to show how calculations about supply and demand would be approached in the absence of the market system.

It would be necessary to calculate the amount 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 of that are concerned with monetary accounting, these systems could be of use to the socialist society inheriting them.

In any case, monetary accounting does not help with the input-output calculations that are really needed in the planning of production. These calculations can be made in terms of quantities (whether it be kilograms, litres, watts or other units of measurement). They often are, even within capitalism. Indeed, in 1973 an economist Wassily Leontief was awarded a Nobel prize for formulating a methodology for input-output analysis that could use such quantitative measurements.

As well as utilising existing IT systems, many new developments would be needed in the local organisation of production. For example, the operations of the many different types of productive activity could be made more open and accountable through improved public information. Decision-making and recruitment of people with certain skills are other areas where IT would enhance the organisation of production for use.

Moving onto the wider regional and global scales, it is often said that production in modern society is too complex to be the subject of calculation. Yet, even going back to the 1960s when computer technology was in its early stages, "socialist" minded theorists have cited the potential use of computers for input-output calculation on the larger scale. Modern computing power means that the calculations needed even for millions of products can be achieved in minutes. In fact, the computational scale of such calculations is small when compared to other uses of modern "super-computers" such as in weather forecasting (see Towards a New Socialism by W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, Spokesman Books, 1993)

Democratic decision-making
Large-scale mathematical processing may not be the problem it once was, yet a socialist society would still face the question of how best to democratise production. IT could be used to provide universally accessible global sources of information about the different choices that are faced in the planning of production. It is important to note that the central storage of information does not necessarily mean that decision-making must be centralised. The wider availability of information would itself facilitate the very democracy that socialists argue is needed to prevent the centralisation of power.

The question of how far it will be possible to localise production and decision-making will remain a matter for debate both before and after the socialist revolution. Certainly, local organisation seems appropriate for many kinds of production, some of which will not need to centralise much or even any of the information used in their planning. Other issues will need decisions on a larger geographical scale–some aspects of environmental management, for example. Discussion of these issues will benefit from the versatility of IT systems, which means that decision-making can occur at the most appropriate scale, whether it be local, regional or global.

On the third question, about incentives, it is often asked what would motivate people in socialism to achieve new innovations. The main answer to this lies in the completely new set of priorities and motivations in which people would recognise the urgent need for achieving certain kinds of development (for example, developing renewable energy sources and other ecologically sustainable forms of production). IT, in promoting knowledge sharing and co-operation, would also be important in fostering innovation, as indeed it has been even under capitalism. One example that socialists have noticed has been the "open source software" movement in which geographically separated people have collaborated over the internet to develop the computer platform Linux. Their work, at the cutting edge of the IT industry, has been organised on a voluntary basis, actively seeking to avoid the market rather than utilise it.

A system of production solely for use would have a completely new set of priorities and the incentives to develop in these areas would arise from quite different sources such as the dynamics of co-operation, democracy and the greatly enhanced freedom to focus on those areas of production that are widely recognised to be of the greatest benefit.

The rapid development of computer technology offers a new kind of response to the pro-market arguments concerning calculation, decision-making and incentives. The provision of information will be an essential part of the democratic structure of socialism and the task of designing the systems that can best manage this will be one of the biggest challenges facing socialist society.

The use of IT systems in socialism may not always be the aspect of the new society that captures the imagination most. Some may even fear it leading to a nightmare scenario in which computers start to control us, rather than the other way round. These fears fail to acknowledge the potential for IT to facilitate rather than dictate social organisation, once it is used to work in the interests of the whole of society. IT can provide the building blocks for new forms of organisation that surpass anything that does or could ever exist in capitalism.