The Theory of Socialist Economic Administration
2009 Notes on Chs. VII, VIII
Supplement: How is the consumption vector arrived at?
In the 2009 notes, I simply stipulate U, the n-vector of need-satisfying consumption. it provides for satisfaction of consumer needs. That assumes a pre-planned menu—yes? I say nothing about how the menu is planned.
In Chapter VIII on the totally automated economy, I divide consumption between a guaranteed minimum, and first-come, first-served distribution. This model is set up to give a mandatory floor of consumption. Then unused capacity can be used to please consumers in a first-come first-served way.
In 1978, Chapter VIII, I said: scheduling of consumer goods production will not be determined by moment-to-moment consumer demand. In 2009 I corrected myself, it can and should be done.
What begins to surface here is the need for an explanation of an entire consumer culture and planning of consumption.
In the first place, since the the guaranteed provisions would be delivered as by a free automat, peer-group morale would be highly important. In any public dining hall, slovenliness would be discouraged by peer pressure. Also waste or attempts to hoard would be discouraged.
Of course, the metaphor of the free automat draws on old technology. There is no telling how far technology will have advanced when Communism becomes a realistic prospect. People might requisition ready-to-eat fare from their residences, and it might be delivered by teleportation. In that case, waste and hoarding might be prevented by the rationing implicit in the requisition process.
The principle, however, remains valid. In Communism, a collective of peers provisions itself. There are not supposed to be individual hoards of wealth. Slovenliness and waste—disrespect for the collective effort—would be out of order. (Only if the collective effort is flawed would criticism be in order.) Private profit in goods is out of order. (To win esteem for one’s innovations is another matter.)
In 2010 I imagine two avenues of consumption. One is goods planned from the center and dispensed ready to consume, whether from a free automat or in some more high-tech way. The other: supplies are dispensed or loaned so that consumers can make the products they will consume.
Cooking. Clothes-making, for example. Let us remember that no matter how streamlined food production becomes, people still like cook-outs and campfire cooking and so forth. This most modest sort of “experimentation” has to be kept in play.
In fact, Communism should greatly expand the opportunities for comrades to invent products. That should be an advantage of Communism. So doing one’s own cooking would only be a very modest form of free invention with requisitioned supplies.
As for the menu of goods dispensed from the center, the planners have to start from some baseline of custom, and imagine in the aggregate what baskets of goods individuals will receive. That schedule then faces several tests.
How it squares with feasibility.
Whether consumers will take what they are offered. (Voting at the automat.)
There is a long established practice of planning institutional meals—or even of planning an automat menu. There is no need for quality to be low. With respect to institutional meals as we know them, choice is typically limited. We cannot predict how much that would be changed by technology, as already said.
Obviously, as Marx already knew, different people have different needs, so there is no question of giving everyone the same basket. Classes of consumers have to be planned for. (Male, female; adult, child; etc.)
What may be most unusual in the Communist case is that feasibility cannot be judged by reference to dollar budgets. The planners are not spending money.
The underlying principle for Communism is that goods are not comparable in value. (Whereas in capitalism all goods are measurable in dollars.) There is no summing of different goods with prices as weights. That is why “only” feasibility is sought. (An “optimal” solution imputes values to goods.)
Thus, trial solutions would be plugged into vast computer models to see if they were physically feasible.
Or, the model would be divided into modules representing allocation of resources to sectors of various purposes. Perhaps a solution would have to be tested only in the relevant module. When it comes to dovetailing resources allocated to ready-to-consume goods and resources allocated to supplies for consumer “experimentation” (e.g. cooking), division into modules might be important.
Even though economic theory is not bourgeois here, there are effects well-known in bourgeois economics that may come into play in planning. Some goods are substitutes. The planners will encounter alternatives of potatoes and rice, coffee and tea. Some goods are complements; I would say that they are linked. Since one is used with the other, planning for one requires supplying the other.
Distribution should be monitored continuously. Products that are not taken by consumers should, other things being equal, no longer be produced.
There should also be a serious provision for consumers to request changes in the ready-to-consume menu. Other things being equal, feasible requests would be granted. Or the model could be more widely adjusted to make them feasible.
In this discussion, we have to be wary of being guided by bourgeois economics and by the experience of the “socialism” of the twentieth century. There was a narrow view of consumption as “starvation-prevention,” combined with bourgeois economics’ question of what is marketed. If we take that route, then the Communist culture of consumption seems highly institutional. Its posture towards personal initiative seems ponderous.
But a new technology might allow a remarkable choice of prepared meals, delivered to residences. And again, we should not think of “consumption” as restricted to starvation-prevention. All experimentation individuals might carry on in their free time would overlap with consumption.
The definition of Communism does not demand low quality or poor choice. It does not preclude individuals or communities from developing personal solutions.
Any impression of a skimpy and rigid menu may be unnecessary. The inhabitants of the hypothetical society are peers. While there are many varieties of authority, the planners are not the general bosses of the people they plan for. (The “political” problem is to ensure that.) The public should be able to ask for what it wants and expect to get it.
The arrangement is meant to provide a vast increase in personal discretion. Free time and liked work. Labors of love. The door for experimentation is open, far more so than in a necessary-labor society.
There should be great freedom and opportunity for personal solutions. The granting of requests for inputs should be commonplace. What would be profoundly different is that self-made products cannot be bartered. Hoards of wealth cannot be allowed to arise. The only way personal solutions can be disseminated widely is for many people to copy them or for the planners to incorporate them in the plan.
Again, consumers or communities would request supplies with which to make their own products. Consumer “experimentation.” These sectors of the model, then, would be modules outside the “automat” module. These requests would be granted by some sort of rationing combined with accommodating requests in the order received. The planners would seek to keep different regions, different communities in balance.
Consumers who made their own products could not barter them. The only alternative to using them themselves would be to give them away. Again: if goods proved popular, they should be considered for adoption in the automat. As consumers made goods for themselves from requisitioned supplies, if they proved attractive, they could be adopted in the “guaranteed” menu.
Our exposition has not encouraged “frivolous” consumption, and yet it may be entirely legitimate.
A test for a number of these issues would be whether alcohol was offered as a consumer good. Health versus custom and transient pleasure. I do not have a ready answer. Another test out of the many that could be imagined would be sex toys.
It all goes to show that Communism could not get started without a mature, equible constituency to found it. Indeed, Communism would need a “constitutional law” modality to curb demagogic or fanatical or irresponsible crazes, while protecting the individual from unreasonable, unnecessary restraints. Since there is no divine source of moral commandments, the code would derive from a cumulation of past moral revolutions. That is how cannibalism would be ruled out, for example. There would, then, be authority-imposed limits on personal initiative.
Individuals would not obtain materials for an atomic bomb and experiment with them. Recreational drugs and pedophilia would additionally test the wisdom of constitutional judgments.
Again, Communism is supposed to be a society of peers. And yet authority would exist in widely diverse areas. It is a problem, again, to ensure that authority is confined to its purpose—that authorities do not become general bosses relative to the population.
Here is another respect in which peer-group morale is crucial. People are perfectly capable of conceiving ventures that are self-harmful or socially undesirable. There are also honest disagreements about what is socially desirable. On the one hand, peer morale is an important restraint on foolish courses of action. On the other hand, the collective can be hidebound in the face of innovation. This area of discretion shades over into Communism’s “constitutional law” realm. The protection of the individual from unreasonable, unnecessary restraints. Again, there would have to be a mature, equable constituency to found Communism. People would then discover that they were hostages to whatever norms they devised for themselves—and that they could only change those norms by moral revolutions, for example. It is the same as it has always been—but now it would be obvious.
Whether genuine Communism would have some of the features of twentieth-century “socialism” that bourgeois culture labels unappetizing we cannot say. It depends on how far technology has advanced and on how much the mode of life is re-thought to allow for free time and labors of love. It is what twentieth-century socialism failed to do that would be most important.
People would not be separated by hoards of wealth or the quality of their possessions. Since rank is a major aspiration in existing societies, many people (today) might find Communist egalitarianism or comradeship “cheap” (for want of a better word). Here again, let us remember that the question of Communism is the science-fiction question of whether Communism is possible at all. Could it even get started? Would it be stable in the medium term? Whether it is the most appealing arrangement is a separate question and depends very much on what your standards are.