1980s >> 1984 >> no-959-july-1984

Supply and Needs in Socialism

If socialism had to be summed up in a single phrase we could say that it was conscious social control of all aspects of life, including the production and distribution of wealth. This is why Marx once spoke of real history only beginning with socialism, by which he meant that humans had until then been the victims of natural scarcity (low productivity imposing hard labour and material shortage on the bulk of the population) and. under capitalism, of blind economic forces beyond their control; pre-history would end with the end of capitalism as the establishment of socialism would precisely put social life under conscious human control; in socialism the human race would be carrying out their own desires and decisions.

What will give humans this freedom in socialism is the fact that all the Earth’s resources, including the means for producing wealth, will have become the common heritage of the whole of humanity. Actually, this is just another way of saying that the world will belong to nobody: there will be neither property nor territorial rights over any part of the globe. Humanity will therefore be free to organise its social life in accordance with its wishes. To do this—to decide on and carry out its wishes—humanity will have to organise itself, inevitably democratically, since if decision-making were left to a permanent minority they would constitute a new owning class.

Socialism will be a society entirely geared to satisfying human needs. What human beings decide they want will be paramount; everything else will be subordinate to this aim. It is difficult for us, living in capitalist society where time-measured cost as reflected in accounting in monetary units is paramount, and where human energies are no more than a costed factor of production, to appreciate how enormous a change this will be. Today time is money and the economic pressure is to do everything as quickly as possible. In socialism not only will there be no money but time will no longer be so important. Men and women will be free to choose to take longer to produce something if. for instance, this slower production method gives the producers more pleasure, is less unpleasant or results in a product that is better for the health and the welfare of human beings.

This latter brings out again the whole point of socialism; to satisfy human wants and needs. In contrast to capitalism, human beings will no longer be the mere bearers of value-producing energy that most of us are today: satisfying their needs will be the sole determinant of production. This too represents an immense change as compared with today, where human needs are only catered for (“satisfied” would be the wrong word) as a means to the end of maintaining people as efficient wealth-producers. Under capitalism the qualitative and quantitative consumption of the majority of the population is restricted to more or less what is needed to maintain them in efficient working order.

Slowly changing wants

When we have cleared up the mess left by capitalism—which will involve an immense increase in production to eliminate material want and misery throughout the world— socialism can be expected to become a stable, slow-changing society, in terms both of population size and of the wants and consumption habits of its members. This will considerably simplify the task of balancing production and consumption.

As the consumption habits would be stable, or only slowly changing, so would the distribution circuits. Everything would be running more or less smoothly from year to year: adjustments would be relatively easy since it would only be a question of adding something here or subtracting something there in the context of an already functioning system. Production can be expected to platform off (and eventually may even fall once goods will be well-made and so will last longer than today, so needing to be replaced less often). Nevertheless, it is still useful to outline how such a system of ensuring the satisfaction of the material needs of humans might function.

The material needs of human beings boil down basically to food, clothing and shelter. We will begin with food. Here, as with everything else in socialism, humans will have a free choice. Having made this proviso however, it is hard to see the people of socialist society being satisfied with the instant this and Quick that that is the staple diet of most people today. In fact most of the food available today in shops and supermarkets is likely to be rejected as substandard. If only for the sake of their health (quite apart from improved taste) people are going to demand more fresh fruit and vegetables and more free-range animal products.

If we imagine people living in much smaller urban communities than today we can also imagine this need being satisfied to the maximum extent possible locally, with each town/country area trying to be as self-sufficient in these products as it can. Some of course will be less successful in this than others, their excess needs having to be satisfied on .m inter-regional basis in the same sort of way as we shall see could be applied for certain other consumer goods. As to the distribution of locally-produced food, no doubt the same sort of system could apply as was suggested by pre-industrial socialist writers like Thomas More and Gerrard Winstanley. The produce could simply be taken to stores from which people could take freely what they needed without buying and selling.

With regard to the home, we enter the realm of speculation. Some writers like Cabet and Edward Bellamy have envisaged preparing—and eating— meals, washing clothes, cleaning and the like being done communally, pointing out the waste involved in each household preparing its own meals and doing its own washing. We have already seen that saving time won’t be a consideration in socialism if it conflicts with satisfying human needs in the best way possible, so this is not a very strong argument. But we can certainly expect that socialism, being a society which will give free range to the nature of humans as social beings, will see needs being satisfied in common much more than is the case today under capitalism, which has made the nuclear family the basic competitive unit in the rat-race society that it is. Anyway this is a question that can be left open without in any way affecting the case for socialism.

But, whatever the choice, houses will be built to conform to it and, in any event, whether cooking or washing are done individually or communally, the “consumer durables” required will be technically similar. The houses and communal buildings would be built locally with perhaps the participation of their future inhabitants, but there is no particular reason for every town/country area to be self-sufficient in the production of cookers, washing machines, fridges, and so on. This is something that could enter into a more complex distribution system than that which we have mentioned for locally-produced food products.

A question of stock control

The techniques for estimating wants exist already under capitalism, even though they are distorted to gauge not real wants but only profitable markets. But whatever the subject being investigated—real needs in socialism, restricted market demand in capitalism—the techniques remain the same: representative sample surveys as well as data on what has happened in the past, changing age-patterns, and so on. which are fed into computers.

The other aspect—ensuring that what people want is always available when and where they want it—is more complicated hut once again this has been considerably cased by the coming of computers which are ideally suited for organising the dispatching of goods and stock control. The system we are about to describe is one that could be used to ensure that town/country communities will always be adequately supplied with what their inhabitants are likely to want in terms of non-locally produced food, materials to make shoes and clothes, consumer durables, furniture and other items of everyday use.

We will imagine all these goods to be available—for taking freely as and when needed of course—in stores which will be connected to a central computer. This will allow the dispatching centre (where we will assume this computer to be sited) to know at any time the exact state of the stock in all of the stores it covers. The computer would be programmed to indicate when the stock of any particular item fell below a certain level and to order further supplies of the item in question to be sent to the store in question. This could be co-ordinated, again by the computer, with other orders from other stores so as to work out a full load and itinerary for a lorry or train leaving the dispatching centre.

Such a system is not something that socialists have dreamed up. It already exists and is already used by some supermarket chains, as anyone in the trade will know and as is explained in an article on the mechanisation of work by Martin Ernst in the September 1982 special issue of the Scientific American. You may have noticed on many of the things you buy in supermarkets and grocery stores a space tilled with thick and thin lines. These “bar codes”, which are read by an electronic eye at the same time as you pass the cash desk, allow the good in question to be identified as well as who supplies it. The only difference between what happens now and what could happen in socialism would be that in socialism stocks would run down through people taking according to need, while under capitalism they run down through people buying according to what they can afford. Even under capitalism this computerised system is essentially a system of stock control (even if inevitably it is also used for identifying the price of a good and for profit calculation purposes).

So far we have only dealt with what might be called the retail side of the question, but it is possible to imagine the same sort of computerised system working at the “wholesale” level too, with the various dispatching centres we have mentioned in their turn being connected with the factories where the goods they supply are produced. Then we can imagine these factories being connected with the suppliers of their raw materials, and so on. Such a computer network, when perfected, could provide a system of adjusting supply to demand just as flexible as the advantages claimed for the free market by the defenders of capitalism, only the “demand” in question would be real human needs and not artificially restricted market demand.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that we are not envisaging the level of stocks of consumer goods throughout she whole world being controlled by a single huge computer, the sort of “Brain” that some science-fiction writers have thought up. Clearly there is no need for those concerned with, say, world copper production to know the state of the stock of copper wire in every distribution centre in the world! What we have in mind is a sort of hierarchy of computer networks going from those controlling stocks in the local distribution centres in a particular region through those controlling stocks in “wholesale” distribution centres right up to those controlling the production of raw materials on the world scale.

Of course it would still be possible to organise the adjustment of supply to real needs even without today’s electronic computers but this would be much more time-consuming. Most stock control—for that is what we are talking about rather than buying and selling—under capitalism is still not computerised and yet still works more or less efficiently as a means of adjusting supply to market demand. It is just that computers simplify the task immensely. This in fact is yet another example of every advance in science and technology making socialism ever more practicable.

We have been talking about the system once it has been set up and is in operation. Once this has been done it will function fairly smoothly, especially as demand is likely to be fairly stable. The big problem will be setting up the system, but the technology and human skills to do this already exist. This will be a challenge which we are sure computer workers, once socialism has been established, will be only too keen to take up with enthusiasm. Most of them would be using their skills to a socially useful end for the first time. Today. most computers are used in connection with money, while advances in telecommunications are prostituted either to relay share or commodity prices to stock exchanges and brokers throughout the world or for military purposes. The scope for combining computers and telecommunications in the service of satisfying human needs will be immense in socialism.

Pre-computer socialists like Cabet, Marx and Bellamy (and indeed earlier members of the Socialist Party) got it basically right when they saw the problem of adjusting supply to needs in a moneyless society as being essentially one of surveying and deciding wants and then organising the production and distribution of wealth accordingly. They realised that this was essentially a statistical exercise and one that could be done much more easily in a moneyless society than in an exchange economy like capitalism where, quite apart from the artificial restrictions imposed on the consumption of the majority, adjusting supply and demand is very much a hit-and-miss affair. Mistakes could occur in socialism but they would not have the disastrous effects they do under capitalism. As Marx pointed out, socialist society could deliberately choose to overproduce a little to constitute a reserve precisely to cater for underestimates (and natural disasters), and if demand was overestimated, then those producing the good in over-supply could . . .simply take a holiday and do something else for a while.

What we have described here is not something completely new thought up by socialists. It is something which already exists and which we are suggesting could be extended and adapted to serve human needs, instead of being prostituted in the service of profit and capital accumulation. After all. as we have always said, the material basis for socialism (of which the mechanism for adjusting supply to needs is one aspect) already exists, and has existed for some time: all that is lacking is the will to change society so as to be able to take full advantage of it.