1980s >> 1981 >> no-928-december-1981

The socialist breakfast

  The King asked the Queen, and the Queen asked the Dairymaid: “Could we have some butter for the Royal slice of bread?” The Dairymaid she curtsied and went and told the Alderney: ”Don’t forget the butter for the Royal slice of bread.” The Alderney said sleepily: ”You’d better tell his Majesty that many people nowadays like marmalade instead. ” The King said “Bother!” and then he said, “Oh, deary me!” The King sobbed “Oh deary me!” and went back to bed.

A. A. Milne’s king was not a typical royal. The present Queen is hardly likely to go back to bed in a sulk because there was no butter on her breakfast table, since she is one of the few people with a free choice of food and all the other material things of life. Many people in the world get no breakfast — 90 thousand die every day of starvation. The majority have a limited diet to survive on — a few mouthfuls of bread, cereal or rice. On the other hand, we in the more industrialised West are very much dependent on the availability of commodities like sliced bread or breakfast cereal and are brain-washed by advertising into wanting, say, Sugar Popsicles, regardless of their nutritional value or effect on our teeth. In a socialist society life would be very different and breakfast well illustrates how a free access society might be organised.

The key to a satisfying breakfast — as in any other area of consumption — will be communication. The consumer needs first to find out what would constitute a nutritionally satisfying meal for her or his normal daily activity and the choice of foods that could provide that balanced diet. Those caring for babies and young children will be concerned about their special dietary needs. The results of research into new foods — maybe plankton and seaweed porridge, rich in protein and minerals and with a delicious taste — will be of interest even if no one chooses to try it. Information and communication go hand in hand and the two can be achieved simultaneously.

In socialism each person will be free to choose not only what she or he consumes but how she or he registers that and gets delivery. Some may prefer to order by telephone or post and have delivery to the door. Others may like to help themselves from “shops” or “markets”. Whatever way is used, each person’s choice is detected or registered as it is made and then combined with everybody else’s. Thus the total requirement for bread, butter, marmalade, and so on is available to the food industry, so that fluctuations in demand are detected and accommodated day by day.

Having measured the demand for a particular foodstuff — and the same principles apply to other types of basic need — we encounter a further need for communication. Just as we have needs which in socialism we shall communicate directly, so each part of the productive system has its needs. The marmalade factory needs oranges and sugar, peeling and chopping machinery, glass jars, metal tops, and its share of power, water and transport. The marmalade factory’s demand for oranges, say, is added to the soft drink factory’s demand and to our demand for fresh oranges, and so on until a total demand for oranges is registered which has to be communicated to the orange growers. The same sort of merging of requirements throughout all industry forms a very complex network of information, extending world-wide. The network also extends through time since it has to accommodate planting as well as harvesting, replacement of machinery as well as its use and all the various stages of mining and processing of raw materials.

The network of requirement information is an ideal application for a computer system. The data and relationships are basically very simple while the volumes arc enormous. The network will hold a four-dimensional electronic mapping of the entire productive system with linkages established between associated data using a worldwide digitised telephone system. It will record and respond to the capacities and requirements of every unit of production factory, depot, dock, mine, farm — linking all consumption and demand through to raw materials, land and labour through every intermediate stage of distribution and processing.

The network consists physically of millions of small computers sited locally to information sources, all linked by telephone lines to form a “distributed” computer system. It is worth emphasising that this would not have a hierarchical structure with levels of control, nor would it require giant databases at administrative centres. Indeed, the function of the network would be communication and not control. It would enable people involved in production to know what needs to be done. It would not and could not instruct them to do it. So, for example, if the people at an orange plantation decided to have a week off instead of doing their estimate quota of picking and packing, the information system would register this fact and arrange for supplies to be got from some reserve stores set up for such contingencies.

The communication network would replace the money system as a means of regulating production levels. From “how many can we sell in competition with our trade rivals?” to “how many are needed?” means stability and an end to the expansion, boom, crisis, recession cycle. The saving of time and resources now wasted on administration, the law, marketing and in duplication of effort will free us all for more useful and stimulating activities. Associated with the network, and using the same hardware, would be an information system allowing anybody who was interested to see what was happening in the world. With helpful indexing and routing facilities and linked to television news and documentaries and to film archives and reference libraries, the system would provide a window on the world and unity and security for all its people.

There is nothing in this method of organising production that resembles management or government as we know it now. Having automated the routine decision-making, what remains of the planning process — the decision, for example, of where to establish a new orange plantation should it be needed — cannot be made automatically by a computer system. The information system can however make available to the people affected by the decision, or interested in it for some reason, all the relevant facts about alternative sites with suitable climate and soil, and the state of those sites at present. Then the decision would be made democratically by the people.

The ability to automate administration answers the reservations some people have about the reality of socialism. Fears that in socialism we would all be perpetually sitting on committees are groundless. Some people have argued that managers and foremen always be needed and that those people with organising ability — with analytical minds and loud voices — would have a useful contribution to but if we have reliable information about what needs to be done, everything can be organised on the basis of co-operative teamwork. Oscar Wilde in Soul of Man Under Socialism called democracy “the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people”, but in fact no bludgeoning is necessary. Democracy means freedom for the individual — freedom of choice, a say in all significant decision-making, and a secure and happy life.

  The Queen said, “There, there!” and went to the Dairymaid. The Dairymaid said, “There, there!” and went to the shed. The cow said, “There, there!” I didn’t really mean it : Here’s milk for his porringe and butter for his bread. ” 


Chris Marsh