When describing the new society we are working for, socialists frequently encounter the question of “how will it work?”
There is a danger that plans produced today describing a socialist society will only bear the hall mark of the author’s own preference rather than how future socialists will democratically organise themselves. While it is of interest to speculate on a future socialist we are not obliged to produce detailed models to show how socialism will work, how it will solve the problems bequeathed by capitalism and the democratic administrative structure to ensure the rapid development of the forces of production once they are released from the constraints currently imposed by commodity production and exchange for profit.
A popular view is that it will involve centralisation, taking as its model the United Nations, a world central administration which will plan everything, everywhere and carry it out irrespective of the views of local people throughout the world. Socialists see this as both impractical and undemocratic.
There are also questions about the relationship between the community and individual industries. The view of the World Socialist Movement (WSM) is that the community democratically decides what to produce not self-controlled industries as proposed by syndicalism. This does not mean that workers within these industries will not have a democratic say in how production takes place; the quality of the environment and health and safety, but it does not mean that they will have sole say of what and how is produced and for whom. There will be disagreements and these will have to be dealt with democratically. The experts will also disagree as they often do now under capitalism such as over the choice of energy, e.g. nuclear power, coal, oil, gas, electricity, tidal, wind power and solar energy and decisions will have to be made committing labour and resources, but it will be for the community to democratically decide on the basis of transparent information, facts and reasonable argument, not the experts. The WSM long ago rejected the technocrat view of administration.
In socialist society the community will have to take major decisions about the allocation of labour and finite resources. While production will be much greater than it is now, labour and resources will not be unlimited. There are many people whole would like a return to manned moon missions. The cost in voluntary labour, much of it specialist, and the material resources required would be enormous, and if allocated to that project, it would mean that labour and resources cannot be allocated to other industries that other people favour. The community will have to democratically decide between them.
The advocates of centralisation say that as there will be one world community sharing a common interest, the decision-making about what shall be produced and where and how it shall be produced will be made by a world central administrative organisation, and they will carry it out. They will make the decisions and what they decide will apply all the way down to local levels. This appears unnecessary, undesirable and impracticable.
There is first the factor of size and complexity. As organisations become larger – larger in the number of people covered and larger geographically – its ability to handle centrally all the problems that arise decreases and because they are more remote from local needs their decisions and actions are more likely to be wrong.
We see in the multi-nationals, formed by amalgamations and takeovers, experience led to the need to give greater autonomy to functional and geographical divisions. Rigid, top-down planning and direction was dismantled and given greater autonomy to their local boards.
But as regards socialist administration of things there is a more important criterion. People will not want their local issues to be settled by the dictates of some world administrative organisation. Such a bureaucracy would result in the destruction of much of local institutions and imitative. It seems likely, therefore, that socialist administration will not be decision making by a central world organisation, with people regionally and locally falling into line. Instead people at a regional and local level will just get on with the task of ensuring production and distribution meets human needs in what form it takes where they live.
So what use would a world organisation of production and distribution have in a future socialist society?
There are four areas where a world administration would have a useful role; first, a clearing-house of information about production, transport and communications all over the world; second, a repository of expert technical information; third, that it would arrange co-ordination between surplus products in some areas and deficiencies in other areas; and fourth, they would extend some of the functions already existing at a world level, like health, energy, food and agricultural organisations and so on.
As an example we can turn to the example of the Universal Postal Union. At present they handle three kinds of processes; financial, technical and organisational. The financial question will disappear, i.e. what the different organisations pay each other. Postal authorities in each country meet together and draw up conveyances which, when agreed, they all separately carry out. What the U.P.U does not do is to carry on the postal services themselves. They have no hand in it. But there is now and will continue to be agreement of all the postal services about weights and sizes of what they send abroad. There is agreement about safety – exclusion of dangerous articles, and so on. There is agreement about forms of addresses, postal codes and evidence of parcels causing difficulties for workers on sorting work.
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. When we propose different scales of social co-operation such as local, regional and world scales, this is not a question of there being a hierarchy with power located at any central point. What we anticipate is both an integrated and flexible system of democratic organisation which could be adapted for action to solve any problem in any of these scales. This simply takes into account that some problems and the action to solve them arise from local issues and this also extends to the regional and world spheres.
When we come to the question of how production solely for use will operate in socialism we begin with the fact that a world-wide structure of useful production already exists and therefore we already have a working model in front of us. The task is to identify the useful mechanisms which co-ordinate production and distribution now as distinct from the value factors of buying and selling in the markets, which under capitalism constrain useful production. In socialism, these useful mechanisms will operate on their own, freely and directly for need. In addition, our proposals for practical socialism should include the ways in which useful institutions and decision-making bodies could also be adapted from “the existing state of things”.
During the early days of socialism it is likely that the organisation of world co-operation would need to take place through a world council. Because the things we need now are produced and distributed through a world structure of production, and because its present capitalist nature has brought about immense problems, action to solve them would be required on a world scale, For example, it would be a priority to set up an ecologically benign world energy system as soon as possible. Similarly, the countless millions of people suffering from hunger and desperate poverty would need a considerable increase in food production. For this work the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN would at last he able to use its expertise and knowledge of world conditions to help with solving the problems of malnutrition. Again, to begin with, people in socialism would face a huge task in providing every person with secure and comfortable housing. This would call upon the efforts of communities throughout the world, especially in those regions where means of production were well developed. Such world projects could be coordinated through appropriate departments of a world council.
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 level. But, for the great mass of adjustments and controls, ordinary channels of supply arid 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 computerised stock control systems now in use in many major stores that are linked to the computerised warehousing 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. In the post-capitalist world it is this greatly enhanced information and logistics network which 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 will be accorded its true value in socialist society as the data for conscious communal control of the means of life by every member of society. “Democratic control” will be far more than a matter of voting . It will be the continual exercise of informed individual power in the cooperative processes of sustaining and enhancing social life.
Looking at local forms of organisation, individual units of production in capitalism (factories, workshops, 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.
Crucial to the question of democracy is not just the ability to make decisions about what to do but also the powers of action to carry out those decisions. But with the abolition of the market system, communities in socialism will not only be able to make free and democratic decisions about what needs to be done they will also be free to use their resources to achieve those aims. Problems are not solved with money resources. They are solved by people using their labour, skills and the necessary materials and there is in fact an abundance of these material resources. But it will take the relations of common ownership to release them for the needs of communities and this will also mean that communities will be free to decide democratically how best to use those resources.
The corporate authorities or managerial systems which now dictate how production units such as factories or services should be run will be replaced. Small units could be run by regular meetings of all the workers. In the cases of large organisations these could be run by elected committees accountable to the people working in them. In this way, democratic practice would apply not just to the important policy decisions that would steer the main direction of development, it would extend to the day-to-day activities of the work place. Organisation like the trade unions , with their research departments, are well placed to conduct discussions with socialists on how production and the work place could be democratically organised. With common ownership, control of production by boards of directors and their corporate managers would immediately cease. The exploitative operations of the multi-nationals would be brought to an end. This would leave workers with the job of carrying on with the useful parts of production and services and for this they would need to be democratically organised. At this point control of all units engaged in production and distribution, services such as schools and hospitals, and useful parts of the civil service and local administration etc., would switch to management committees or councils elected by the workers running them. Unlike boards of directors and their corporate managers, works committees would not be responding to the economic signals of the market. They will be responding directly to the needs of the community. In this way, the links connecting production units and services in socialism will be far more extensive than the buying and selling that connects capitalist units with their suppliers and market outlets. One immediate difference would be that access to information throughout the world structure of production would be unlimited. There will be no industrial secrecy, copyright or patent protection. Discussion about design, materials or technique will be universally open and the results of research will be universally available. As well as having access to world information systems, production units will operate in line with social policy decisions about priorities of action. This would indicate the ways in which particular industrial and manufacturing units would need to adapt or possibly expand their operations. This would require some units to take on more staff and this again could be administered by elected management committees .
No doubt, as said earlier, the most urgent task will be to stop people dying of hunger but the supply of decent housing will require a vastly greater allocation of labour than any necessary increase in food production. This means that a great surge of required materials and equipment will flow through the units producing building supplies. A structure of housing production that is generally adjusted to the market for housing under capitalism, which is what people in socialism would inherit, will in no way be able to cope with a demand for housing based on need. So, within the wider context of a democratically decided housing policy, in which questions of planning and the environment would have been taken into account, the job of implementing housing decisions would eventually pass to the committees or works councils throughout the construction industry.
What we would see in these arrangements is not just the replacement of corporate management with democratic control, we would also see the liberation of the community’s powers of organisation and production from the shackles of the profit motive