in defense of planned socialism (and just a little science fiction)

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Wed Nov 2 11:27:08 MST 1994

On Wed, 2 Nov 1994, Andrew Hagen wrote:

> I like Ann Ferguson's idea of council socialism. I feel it is a derivative
> of planned socialism.

Ann's idea--actually Albert and Hahnel's--is the best and most detailed
story we have about planned socialism.
> I have a number of points to make against market socialism, and a few to
> make for planned socialism.
> First, the weaknesses of market socialism. Markets cannot be part of
> socialism, because markets are instruments of class power perpetrated by
> the bourgeosie.

What, is this an axiom? Capitalist markets roughly fit this description.
But markets without capitalists cannot, because there is no bourgeoisie.
Anyway, people will exchange things unless prevented by the police. Is it
your left-libertarian idea to stop them using the coercive power of the state?

 Markets presume a widening division of labor, private
> property, and commodity production.

Not private property. Markets need property rights, but these need not be
vested in private individuals or corporations.

 Markets are so effective in
> maintaining and expanding power that they are used more and more often by
> the empowered class. Thus, markets seem to naturally spread all over the
> globe, commoditizing more goods and services, and creating a need for the
> protection of private property as a legal right.
> A market socialism, whatever it looks like, would not do away with that
> which is perhaps the most serious trepidation of capitalism: the
> commodification of labor.

Why not? Here the coercive power of the state has a place. We prohibit the
sale of human being, slavery. We can likewise prohibit the sale of wage
labor. If all workers are cooperators with an owner's stake in the means
of production. there is no wage labor. Or perhaps it need not be
prohibited. If cooperative production is always a real alternative,
perhaps either no one would enter into a wage labor contract, or if people
did on the margins of the economy, they would do so under conditions where
they did not have to, and employers would have to match or better the
conditions of cooperative production to get workers at all. In that case,
it's not obvious what would be wrong with it.

 The reproduction of the means of human life
> would continue to be controlled by the Moneybags's of the world.
No, for the reasons stated. Income from production would revert to the
workers. There would be no moneybags.

> Next, the weaknesses of planned socialism. Completely leaving aside all
> the "small is beautiful" arguments and the cousins to such arguments, a
> case can be made for heavy planning, warts and all. Justin Schwartz
> complains that planned socialism leads to lines, shortages, waste,
> corruption, and black markets.
> Aside from the fact that capitalism has all these, too (even lines, if
> you consider starving people to be in an abstract "line" for food), and
> the fact that capitalism is much worse in these areas outside the first
> world, we can see that planned socialism has been unfairly judged.

I'm not defending captalism.

> black markets exist, that is clearly a result of class machinations,
> assuming democracy is working nearly perfectly.

Clearly?! Is that an axiom too? Look, if there are shortages and
bottlenecks, people will seek what they need and want outside the regular
channels. I have not yet heard an argument that perfect democracy can stop
shortages and bottlenecks.

 To the extent that they
> exist, corruption and the others will follow. Moreover, the empirical
> examples we have on this, namely the USSR and its satellites, were wholly
> non-democratic and under tremendous pressure by the capitalist and
> fascist regimes of the world during their existence, and so their
> usefulness as empirical evidence is limited.

Well, we can learn from the USSR that democracy is necessary for
socialism. But if you dismiss the only empirical evidence we have, you
drift off into never-never land. After all, pro-capitalists can dismiss
the empirical evidence of actual capitalism and appeal to the wonderful
world of neoclassical economics, where Pareto-optimality reigns, or to
Austrian utopias, where by getting the private property rights right and
letting the market reign unchecked, as Chris seems to advocate (is this a
caricature, Chris?), all comes out for the best. In fact I think we have
to work with the empirical evidence on both sides.

> How do we get to a nearly perfectly functioning democracy? Through class
> consciousness.

This is simplistic. Even if workers are aware of their real interests, it
does not follow that we have good solutions to the problems of
aggregating their preferences into a social choice. The Arrow Theorem is
really hard. Moreover, the difficulties in ensuring meaningful input and
participation in a large society are immense. One vote in 150 million
amounts to almost nothing. Participation is smaller units is better, but
how can these be structured to give individuals a real effect on choices
affecting society as a whole? I don't say these problems are insoluble,
but they are very difficult and incanting "democracy" and "class
consciousness" will not solve them.

 Class power and political tyranny are nearly the same thing
> in this day and age.
> Other than that, the strikes against planned socialism seem to me to boil
> down to two assertions:
> 1) that humankind is naturally greedy and cannot open its heart to
> anything so naive as socialism.

Nothing in the Mises-Hayek critique, my basis for opposing planned
socialism, postulates selfishness as a human motivation. As I have
insisted in previous posts, the calculation problem would exist for a
society of open-hearted altruists.

> I don't think many here will argue with me as I assert that this is
> untrue. But won't people always yearn for newer and better things? Yes, if
> that demand is manufactured by P.R. and advertising firms.
> This is very much related to the need to dismantle the division of labor.
> Greed is a result of the possibility of extravagance. No division of labor
> means no possibliity of extravagance. People become persuaded of the
> negativity of the DOL when they realize that sustenance and sustainability
> are more important than extravagance.

Is your idea that we should adopt the Gandhian ideal of producing all our
own needs and living within the limits of what each of us an individuals
can produce by him- or herself? Or in small family units? Good luck
selling that to the working class!

> 2) you can can never plan out an economy.
> Socialism is not really an economy. Instead of presuming scarcity, it
> eliminates it.

By magic? If we don't have scarcity, why worry about sustainability?

 Instead of focusing on the distribution of goods (which
> becomes important to a demand driven "economy"), socialism focuses on the
> production of resources that result in the survival of humans globally. Of
> course, socialism will produce many extravagances, but it will be for the
> enjoyment of all, that is, social. For example, borrowing limousines.
> Whoo-woo, everybody loves to ride in a limousine. Now everybody gets to.

What's an extravagance? When Louis Armstrong moved to Chicago he was
astounded to have a bathtub in his apartment. In New Orleans, he said, not
only didn't people have bathtubs (they washed in sawn-off barrels, at
least in his poor Black circles), they didn't have bathrooms in the house.
Just outhouses. Are bathrooms and bathtubs extravagances? Will we be
forced marched out of our suburban houses and city apartments to live in
communal flats with shared bathrooms and bathe in collective washrooms?

> You can plan out the production of resources, and to the extent needed,
> the distribution of them. But it requires much more democracy than voting
> once every two years. There should be votes every month.

Every minute! Every second! Let's spend all our waking hours debating and
voting! Doesn't anyone else find this an appalling prospect. I like
politics more than most people, or I wouldn't be on this net, but I find
it appalling.

 Every voting day
> should be a holiday, with no one working. Everyone should have the right
> to make speeches and print handbills.

May I observe that we have that right even now?

 There should be more referendums,
> and less elections of officials. Yes, you can have so much democracy that
> the planning problems go away. After all, we know that organizations with
> no "management" layer are far more productive than those with such layers.

We "know" this? Where do we know it? Somewhere along the line that bit of
knowledge missed me.

> Why can't societies be the same way? Obviously, for reasons of political
> power plays. That's why we need a group somewhat like Plato's Guardians,
> from _The Republic_.
> Finally, about the assertion that we have 1.5 billion years to get
> socialism right. No, we don't. From the combined likelihoods of an
> asteroid-induced end-of-humanity calamity, to nuclear war, to
> environmental spoilage and poisoning, to some unforeseen phenonmena, the
> human race's days are numbered.

I agree. That was my point against Juan.

 And when we consider that there is no
> obvious biological group to step forward evolutionarily (to play the role
> of mammals, which evolved before the fall of the dinosaurs), we realize
> that intelligent life on this planet is quite threatened right now.
> Further, it is unlikely that a group of humans will be able to adapt to
> new conditions and thus evolve into a new species, if our "supporting
> cast,"  mammals, fishes, higher plants, insects, become extinct as well.
> I may be too far into the realm of science fiction here, but humor me. My
> point is that our choice is rapidly shifting from "socialism or
> barbarism" (we already have barbarism.), to "socialism or death."

You know, sometimes I feel as if I am out of touch, When Rosa Luxemburg
talked about socialism or barbarism she was thinking about world war as
barbarism. Now there is real barbarism, in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, etc.
But I sit in my comfortable home office with my son sleeping down below,
thinking about going to a good law school next year if I don't find an
academic job, and this is barbarism? Give me a break. Of course in the
inner cities life for many people is extremely hard and the working poor
find it harder and harder to make ends meet. But we do not live in the
fear that the army will demolish our homes, that the sound of helicopters
means the death squads are coming, that we will end up dead in a ditch by
the side of the road, raped and tortured. You insult the people who live
under real barbarism if you think that we have it in the industrialized
Things are not rosy. They are bad and getting worse. We do face the
catastrophes you mentioned if things go on as they are. That's why we
have to fight. But we have to be realistic about our situation. As well as
our proposals!

--Justin Schwartz


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