A New Left Review discussion on market socialism

In the latest New Left Review, there's an interesting article by Pat Devine and Fikret Adaman titled "The Economic Theory of Socialism". It is a survey of various models of socialism from the centrally planned variety of Maurice Dobb, to various stripes of the market-oriented.

There is much more attention paid to market socialism than the planned variety. The authors draw a distinction between a market socialism that is neoclassically inspired like Nove's and Romer's and Austrian inspired such as Schweickart's. The first type assumes that since cost and investment decisions are objective, the market can adjust to supply and demand even if the ownership is collective. The second type is influenced by the Hayekian school and places a big premium on allowing entrepreneurship to have full sway.

They then review alternatives to market socialism which include Cockshott-Cottrell and Hahnel-Albert. The former draw heavily from computer technology that does wage/cost calculations based on the labor theory of value. The latter favor a more decentralized approach which has the flavor of much of new left utopian thought of the late 1960s.

Devine and Adaman make a sales pitch for their own model of socialism:

"The present authors have advocated a system of participatory planning, the third contemporary contender in the discussion of the economic theory of socialism, arguing that what is needed is a paradigm shift in the way in which economic interactions are conceptualized in order to overcome the two sources of imperfection of knowledge identified in the evaluation of the socialist economic calculation debate."

Their magic bullet is that the values of individuals and collectives would "interact and shape one another through a process of cooperation and negotiation." This sounds a little like the sort of thing one would hear in a weekend retreat for a nonprofit, doesn't it? How can one be against cooperation and negotiation? Well, maybe one or two people on this list could.

The rest of their recommendations involve calls for institutions that certainly sound great on paper:

"Devine defines social ownership as ownership by those affected by the use of the assets in question. Thus, in his model, enterprises are owed by their workers, customers, suppliers, the communities and regions in which they are located, the more general interests represented by the regional, national or global planning commission, depending on the geographical reach of their operations, and issue-based groups, such as those concerned with the environment or equal opportunities."

There's a little bit of market cod-liver oil in their schemas, but it would be good for us. "Devine's model of participatory planning incorporates market exchange but not market forces [?!]. Since the use of existing capacity by enterprises engaging in market exchange on a decentralized basis, the danger of administrative overload is minimized." Whew, what a relief. Who can stand administrative overload. Isn't it a relief to discover that we have a model that prohibits such abuse.

I propose that left economists declare a moratorium on model-building. All of these models--Cockshott-Cottrell, Schweickart, Devine, Hahnel-Albert--represent varieties of utopian thought. Utopian thinking in the 19th century was accompanied by actual experiments often funded by high-minded benefactors from the ruling-class who had a profound distaste for capitalism.

Today's utopian thought shares the same preoccupation with model-building but deludes itself into thinking that it is more scientific because the scope of the model is an entire country or the planet rather than some isolated commune. It makes no difference. Attempts to construct models or blueprints disengaged from the living class struggle are pointless. The underlying assumption is that one model or another will prevail because it is more logical, more comprehensive and more ethical. This is antithetical to the real socialist project. The economic forms of socialist societies arise from the relationship of class forces, not from models.

Absent in all such literature is engagement with the living class struggle. Cockshott-Cottrell's book, which has great personal appeal to me, is an exercise in computer science, not political science. Hahnel-Albert's book is all for the idea of worker's councils. The problem is that they just ideas and little else. They are disconnected from the American society we are living in with its declining union membership, racial chasm and deepening social isolation.

The reason that Marxists never paid much attention to models in the past is that the conquest of political power was uppermost in their mind. They regarded the overthrow of the bourgeoisie as a historical goal. The details of economic administration could not be decided in advance for the simple reason that nobody could figure out in advance what cards they would be dealt after civil war and during imperialist blockade. "War Communism" in the early USSR was not a "model". It was simply a policy addressed to the exigencies of the class struggle, as was the NEP that followed.

In general, the leaders of the working-class can come up with only the most general notions of what socialism will look like. These include such goals as planned production for human need, distribution of the social product on an equitable basis, protection of the environment, etc. Within these general guidelines, everything else will be determined by conditions inherited from the past and by the political will and intelligence of the revolutionary government.

These governments will immediately be burdened by horrendous problems of survival in a capitalist world. Imagine a socialist revolution in South Africa. This is a country with a huge resource base and advanced manufacturing capabilities. The United States spent billions trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in impovershed Nicaragua. Carl Oquist, an American economist who served as Daniel Ortega's chief adviser, found it nearly impossible to work out economic plans in the conditions of warfare and blockade that he faced.

Raise this to the nth power and you can understand the tasks that would face a socialist South Africa. Decisions will be made not on the basis of someone's elegant model, but on what will assure survival from one month to the next. What problems a socialist government would face in Western Europe are simply beyond my comprehension. I am convinced that they will not be ones of how to avoid excess inventory or shoddy goods.

When the United States finds itself in the throes of a genuine working-class radicalization on the scale of the 1930s, discussions of models will recede into the background. What will be on everybody's mind is how to achieve power. In such cataclysmic times, the embryonic forms of the new state will be found in democratic working-class institutions generated through political struggle. Problems of how to build socialism will be addressed on the spot. All of the model-building that was done in the absence of such large-scale political ferment will have been long-forgotten.