The World Socialist Movement desires to abolish economics. No exchange hence no economy.
Socialism, being based on the common ownership of the means of production by all members of society, is not an exchange economy. Production would no longer be carried on for sale with a view to profit as under capitalism. In fact, production would not be carried on for sale at all. Production for sale would be nonsense since common ownership of the means of production means that what is produced is commonly owned by society as soon as it is produced. The question of selling just cannot arise because, as an act of exchange, this could only take place between separate owners. Yet separate owners of parts of the social product are precisely what would not, and could not exist in a society where the means of production were owned in common.
However, socialism is more than just not an exchange economy; it is not an economy at all, not even a planned economy. Economics, or political economy as it was originally called, grew up as the study of the forces which came into operation when capitalism, as a system of generalised commodity production, began to become the predominant mode of producing and distributing wealth. The production of wealth under capitalism, instead of being a direct interaction between human beings and nature, in which humans change nature to provide themselves with the useful things they need to live, becomes a process of production of wealth in the form of exchange value. Under this system, production is governed by forces that operate independently of human will and which impose themselves as external, coercive laws when men and women make decisions about the production and distribution of wealth. In other words, the social process of the production and the distribution of wealth becomes under capitalism an economy governed by economic laws and studied by a special discipline, economics.
Socialism is not an economy, because, in re-establishing conscious human control over production, it would restore to the social process of wealth production its original character of simply being a direct interaction between human beings and nature. Wealth in socialism would be produced directly as such, i. e. as useful articles needed for human survival and enjoyment; resources and labour would be allocated for this purpose by conscious decisions, not through the operation of economic laws acting with the same coercive force as laws of nature. Although their effect is similar, the economic laws which come into operation in an exchange economy such as capitalism are not natural laws, since they arise out of a specific set of social relationships existing between human beings. By changing these social relationships through bringing production under conscious human control, socialism would abolish these laws and so also the economy as the field of human activity governed by their operation. Hence socialism would make economics redundant.
What we are saying, in effect, is that the term exchange economy is a tautology in that an economy only comes into existence when wealth is produced for exchange. It is now clear why the term planned economy is unacceptable as a definition of socialism. Socialism is not the planned production of wealth as exchange value, the planned production of commodities, or the planned accumulation of capital. That is what state capitalism aims to be. Planning is indeed central to the idea of socialism, but socialism is the planned (consciously coordinated) production of useful things to satisfy human needs precisely instead of the production, planned or otherwise, 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.
In a socialist society, the productive activity would take the form of freely chosen activity undertaken by human beings with a view to producing the things they needed to live and enjoy life. The necessary productive work of society would not be done by a class of hired wage workers but by all members of society, each according to their particular skills and abilities, cooperating to produce the things required to satisfy their needs both as individuals and as communities. Work in a socialist society could only be voluntary since there would be no group or organ in a position to force people to work against their will.
Socialist production would be produced solely for use. The products would be freely available to people, who would take them and use them to satisfy their needs. In socialism, people would obtain the food, clothes and other articles they needed for their personal consumption by going into a distribution centre and taking what they needed without having to hand over either money or consumption vouchers. Houses and flats would be rent-free, with heating, lighting and water supplied free of charge. Transport, communications, health care, education, restaurants and laundries would be organised as free public services. There would be no admission charge to theatres, cinemas, museums, parks, libraries and other places of entertainment and recreation. The best term to describe this key social relationship of socialist society is free to access, as it emphasises the fact that in socialism it would be the individual who would decide what his or her individual needs were. As to collective needs (schools, hospitals, theatres, libraries and the like), these could be decided by the groups of individuals concerned, using the various democratic representative bodies which they would create at different levels in socialist society. Thus production in socialism would be the production of free goods to meet self-defined needs, both individual and collective
To advocate monetary calculation is to advocate that only one consideration—the total average production time needed to produce goods—should be taken into account when making decisions about which productive methods to employ. This is patently absurd but it is what is imposed by capitalism. Naturally, it leads to all sorts of aberrations from the point of view of human interests. In particular, it rules out a rational, long-term attitude towards conserving resources and it imposes stressful conditions on the actual producers.
Socialism, because it will calculate directly it kind, will be able to take these other, more important, factors than production time into account. This will naturally lead to different, in many cases quite different, productive methods being adopted than now under capitalism. If the health, comfort and enjoyment of those who actually manipulate the materials, or who supervise the machines which do this, to transform them into useful objects are to be paramount, certain methods are going to be ruled out altogether. The fast-moving production lines associated with the manufacture of cars would be stopped forever; night work would be reduced to the strict minimum; particularly dangerous or unhealthy jobs would be automated (or completely abandoned). Work can, in fact, must become enjoyable. But to the extent that work becomes enjoyable, measurement by minimum average working time would be completely meaningless, since people would not be seeking to minimise or rush such work.
When socialism is established it will be necessary to set up councils at local, regional and global levels for the administration of social affairs in every aspect of productive activity. Also, there will have to be councils whose functions will be to coordinate the work of the various specific councils. The majority of the people in a local area will make decisions affecting that area specifically, the people in a certain region will make decisions for that region and everyone will make global decisions.
The problem with a centrally-planned model of socialism is among other things 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 in this regard. A decentralised or polycentric version of socialism, on the other hand, overcomes these difficulties. It facilitates the generation of information concerning the supply and demand for production and consumption goods through the economy via distributed information. Stock or inventory control systems employing calculation in kind are absolutely indispensable to any kind of modern production system.
In a “free access” socialist economy income or purchasing power would, of course, be devoid of meaning. So too would the notion of status based upon the conspicuous consumption of wealth. Because individuals would stand in equal relation to the means of production and have free access to the resultant goods and services
Marx saw the communist administration as a federation of self-governing groups largely concerned with their internal affairs and collaborating for the comparatively few purposes that concern all the groups. The association of free producers, not a centrally planned State whose roots go back to “Bismarckian state-socialism” and Lassalle, so readily endorsed by Lenin and his Bolsheviks yet so rarely acknowledged by his pupils.
How are these needs communicated? What allocation mechanism do you use? Certainly, they won’t be by getting those individuals needs allotted to them.
Decisions involving choices of a general nature, such as what forms of energy to use, which of two or more materials to employ to produce a particular good, whether and where to build a new factory, there is a technique already in use under capitalism that could be adapted for use in socialism: so-called cost-benefit analysis and its variants. Naturally, under capitalism, the balance sheet of the relevant benefits and costs advantages and disadvantages of a particular scheme or rival schemes is drawn up in money terms, but in socialism, a points system for attributing relative importance to the various relevant considerations could be used instead. The points attributed to these considerations would be subjective, in the sense that this would depend on a deliberate social decision rather than on some objective standard. In the sense that one of the aims of socialism is precisely to rescue humankind from the capitalist fixation with production time/money, cost-benefit type analyses, as a means of taking into account other factors, could therefore be said to be more appropriate for use in socialism than under capitalism. Using points systems to attribute relative importance in this way would not be to recreate some universal unit of evaluation and calculation, but simply to employ a technique to facilitate decision-making in particular concrete cases. The advantages /disadvantages and even the points attributed to them can, and normally would, differ from case to case. So what we are talking about is not a new abstract-universal unit of measurement to replace money and economic value but one technique among others for reaching rational decisions in a society where the criterion of rationality is human welfare.
Planning in socialism is essentially a question of industrial organisation, of organising productive units into a productive system functioning smoothly to supply the useful things which people had indicated they needed, both for their individual and for their collective consumption. What socialism would establish would be a rationalised network of planned links between users and suppliers; between final users and their immediate suppliers, between these latter and their suppliers, and so on down the line to those who extract the raw materials from nature. There is no point in drawing up in advance the sort of detailed blueprint of industrial organisation that the Wobblies and the Syndicalists used to, but it is still reasonable to assume that productive activity would be divided into branches and that production in these branches would be organised by a delegate body. The responsibility of these industries would be to ensure the supply of a particular kind of product either, in the case of consumer goods, to distribution centres or, in the case of goods used to produce other goods, to productive units or other industries.
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 (for want of a better name) to estimate what 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. 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.
To ensure the smooth functioning of the system, a central statistical office 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 centre (or rather 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.
Stock or inventory control systems employing calculation in kind are, as was suggested earlier, absolutely indispensable to any kind of modern production system. While it is true that they operate within a price environment today, that is not the same thing as saying they need such an environment in order to operate. The key to good stock management is the stock turnover rate – how rapidly stock is removed from the shelves – and the point at which it may need to be re-ordered. This will also be affected by considerations such as lead times – how long it takes for fresh stock to arrive – and the need to anticipate possible changes in demand.
A typical sequence of information flows in a socialist economy might be as follows. Assume a distribution point (shop) stocks a certain consumer good – say, cans of baked beans. From past experience, it knows that it will need to re-order approximately 1000 cans of beans from its suppliers at the start of every month or, by the end of the month, supplies will be low. Assume that, for whatever reason, the rate of stock turnover increases sharply to say 2000 tins per month. This will require either more frequent deliveries or, alternatively, larger deliveries. Possibly the capacity of the distribution point may not be large enough to accommodate the extra quantity of tins required in which case it will have to opt for more frequent deliveries. It could also add to its storage capacity but this would probably take a bit more time. In any event, this information will be communicated to its suppliers. These suppliers, in turn, may require additional tin plates (steel sheet coated with tin), to make cans of beans to be processed and this information can similarly be communicated in the form of new orders to suppliers of those items further down the production chain. And so on and so forth. The whole process is, to a large extent, automatically self-regulating, being driven by dispersed information signals from producers and consumers concerning the supply and demand for goods and, as such, is far removed from the gross caricature of a centrally planned economy.
It may be argued that this overlooks the problem of opportunity costs. For example, if the supplier of baked beans orders more tin plates from the manufacturers of the tin plates then that will mean other uses for this material being deprived by that amount. However, it must be born in mind in the first place that the systematic overproduction of goods that Marx talked of – i.e. buffer stock – applies to all goods, consumer goods as well as production goods. So increased demand from one consumer/producer, need not necessarily entail a cut in supply to another – or at least, not immediately. The existence of buffer stocks provides for a period of re-adjustment.
Liebig’s Law of the Minimum – states is that plant growth is controlled not by the total amount of resources available to a plant but by the particular factor that is scarcest. This factor is called the limiting factor. It is only by increasing the supply of the limiting factor in question – eg nitrogen fertiliser – that you promote plant growth.
Liebig’s Law can be applied equally to the problem of resource allocation in any economy. It makes sense from an economic point of view to economise most on those things that are scarcest and to make the greatest use of those things that are abundant. To claim that all factors are scarce (because the use of any factor entails an opportunity cost) and, consequently, need to have economised is actually not a very sensible approach to adopt. You cannot treat every factor equally – that is, as equally scarce – or, if you do, this will result in gross misallocation of resources and economic inefficiency. The most sensible basis on which to make such discrimination is the relative availability of different factors and this is precisely what the law of the minimum is all about. When a particular factor is limited in relation to the multifarious demands placed on it, the only way in which it can be “inefficiently allocated” (although this is ultimately a value judgement) is in choosing “incorrectly” to which particular end-use it should be allocated. Beyond that, you cannot misuse or misallocate a resource if it simply isn’t available to misallocate (that is, where there are inadequate or no buffer stocks on the shelf, so to speak). Of necessity, one is compelled to seek out a more abundant alternative or substitute.
To determine priorities Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” would be a guide to action. It would seem reasonable to suppose that needs that were most pressing and upon which the satisfaction of others needs was contingent, would take priority over those other needs. We are talking here about our basic physiological needs for food, water, adequate sanitation and housing and so on. This would be reflected in the allocation of resources: high priority end goals would take precedence over low priority end goals where resources common to both are revealed using the earlier discussed “points” system of cost-benefit analysis.
To sum up, a socialist steady-state equilibrium will have been reached. Gradual change, growth, will be simple and pain-free. The task of planning becomes one of simple routine, the role of economics is virtually eliminated.
Marx said in communism it is now society’s free (disposable) time and no longer labour time that becomes the true measure of society’s wealth.
We recognise that there may not be one single way of doing things, and precise details and ways of doing things might vary from one part of the world to another, even between neighbouring communities. Of course, we can reach some generalised conclusions based on basic premises – that socialism will be necessarily democratic, for example – and can outline broad principles or options that could be applied. That is, we do not have to draw up a plan for socialism, but simply and broadly demonstrate that it is possible and therefore refute the label of “Utopianism”.
We look to the real world to see how it is, and how it could be. Socialist society is not starting from a blank sheet and we are inheriting an already existing economic system. Workers with all their skills and experience of co-operating to run capitalism in the interests of the capitalists could begin to run society in their own interest. We do not need to build the new society in the womb of the old, that is here already.