Reviewed by Lyes Benarbane
An inadvertent benefit of COVID-19 quarantine has been the opportunity to talk at length with my parents about their familiarity with catastrophe. Born right after the nearly apocalyptic struggle against the French, the newly independent Algeria of their childhood emerged depleted and scarred, not only in terms of physical infrastructure damaged by war, but by the almost wholesale emigration of the professional class to metropolitan France. Doctors, especially, were in short supply as cholera – perennially a problem – raged among the already battered populace of Algiers. Yet, despite these early hardships, my parents also reported an accompanying sense of solidarity, a feeling that the nation had righted itself from the world-historical horrors of colonization. In particular, they stressed the role played by Algeria’s state-run enterprises: providing gainful employment and producing everything from shelf-stable food to sophisticated machinery. For them and others of their generation, Algeria’s period of Third-Worldist ‘centralized planning’ is remembered favorably when contrasted to the present of petrostate dysfunction. With an inadvertent reference to The Wire’s melancholic longshoreman Frank Sobotka, my father concluded that, like many nations, Algeria – which had once been a country that ‘built things’ with pride – had been deindustrialized by its political class on essentially false promises.
In this sense, South Atlantic Quarterly’s latest issue, The Return of Economic Planning, should provoke a great deal of excitement. Finally, after years in the wilderness, the notion of ‘planning’ has returned as an object of interest for Marxists and other radicals. Since the collapse of the East Bloc in 1991 and beyond, reference to a planned economy has typically been met with a formulaic dismissal: markets work by synchronizing inconceivable amounts of information in the price mechanism; any deviation from this principle must therefore translate to decreasing efficiency and a reduction of living standards. To that end, Campbell Jones’ introductory explication of the sheer degree of planning undertaken by present capitalist firms, in cooperation with regulators and financial institutions, comes as a refreshing correction of the many nostrums that have been accepted by the mainstream economics community – particularly the framing of market exchange as an unadulterated, organic representation of human behavior. Echoing the thesis presented by Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski’s The People’s Republic of Walmart (2019), Jones points to how large corporations often ‘systematically bracket the market mechanism’ in favor of centralized ‘predictability and control’, allowing them to avoid ‘transaction costs’ associated with coordinating market activity (4). Accordingly, the division between these monopolistic firms and government increasingly seems to be one of ownership – advanced warehouse and management systems in the hands of private actors for profit, not for the public good. Yet, from this essay onward, we are told that a mere shift in ownership, a preoccupation with ‘control of the machinery’ remains incompatible with a vision of ‘planning from below’ – as if a renewed industrial Stakhanovism presents a serious concern for today’s Left (4).
First, the most successful contributions to the issue deserve praise. For example, Jessica Whyte’s ‘Calculation and Conflict’, an extension of themes covered in her excellent The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, provides a lucid introduction to the thought of Austrian thinker Otto Neurath. Originally highlighting his role in the so-called ‘economic calculation’ debates with F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, Whyte details how Neurath’s utopian economics presents an underappreciated tendency in Marxist thought. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the tradition of market socialism – Oskar Lange or Ernest Mandel – Neurath was fully committed to moving beyond the rigid paradigms of the calculation debates, considering them too defined by the conditions imposed by Viennese reactionaries. In her telling, Neurath advocated for a genuinely democratic form of centralized planning, not only concerned with how ‘socialization will change control over economic life’, but the ‘intergenerational ecological impact’ of investment and production (41, 38). While in his time unfairly maligned as a naif and belletrist for his eccentric ideas and comparative indifference to the cold realities of prices and production – Neurath was a lukewarm proponent of the war economy as a model for later socialism – many of his ideas are still broadly relevant. Specifically, he possessed a far-reaching understanding of market capitalism as a distinct world civilization, eager to relegate ‘nonmarket forms of existence’ to ‘superseded stages of human development’, and in turn providing a permanent rationale for imperial expansion (43).
The same credit should be extended to Brett Neilson’s ‘The Reverse of Engineering’, an ambitious traversal of ‘future making’ as a practice of today’s technically sophisticated corporations (78). Like Jones’ introduction, Neilson describes just how intimate the heuristics of planning and market have become. The role of algorithms, he says, now consists of no less than the ‘production of the future around market positions’ (78). Yet, in a departure from conventional accounts of this present juncture, ‘The Reverse of Engineering’ points to the role played by nominally non-market, ‘developmental’ states in the rise of today’s informatic reality (80). By the 1970s, even socialist states like Allende’s Chile – which promoted the synthesis of cybernetics, systems theory, and industrial design in the famous Project Cybersyn – had distanced themselves from centralized ‘import substitution industrialization’ to an extractivist role in the global economic world-system (mining, forestry, petrochemicals) (80). This ethically ‘perverse’ variant of central planning – creating environmental destruction and a renewed wave of peasant dispossessions – foreshadowed the later, technocratic promise of data accumulation as a neutral source of ‘value’ for its own sake (81). Neilson calls for a practice of reverse engineering to challenge this trend, ‘opening the black box’ of proprietary systems in order to challenge the current wave of ‘hostile’ machine design, preserving a future: ‘open to experimental modes of activism and contestation, susceptible to contingency as much as determination, and fuller and more unknowable than data-driven predictions and automated planning techniques might hope to fathom’ (88, 90). The future ought to be experienced, not made.
If there is a problem with The Return of Economic Planning, however, it is an ideological one. Not in the sense one might expect, either – no one is opposed to a critical evaluation of the failures of twentieth-century ‘central planning’ states, from pragmatic considerations about their economic productivity to higher-order evaluations of their sometimes abysmal environmental and labor records. Sadly, a reasoned, even-handed treatment of the past’s planned economics (especially in the geographies of the underdeveloped global south) is almost totally non-existent, replaced in favor of contributions largely from the contemporary ultra and post-left: the Althusserian ‘Leninism’ of Alberto Toscano; the Tiqqunist ‘Communization’ of the Endnotes journal; the social media savvy Commune.
For instance, Silvia Federici’s interview with Campbell Jones, ‘Counterplanning in the Crisis of Social Reproduction’, characterizes all ‘self-proclaimed Communist states’ as ‘state capitalism’, the consequence of ‘structures imposed, with violence’ (161). Like today’s multinational corporations or groups like the International Monetary Fund, the ‘state’ invariably fails by virtue of its distance from the ‘day to day’ struggle for social reproduction (161). Or as says George Ciccariello-Maher in ‘The Commune Is the Plan’, his condensed report on the tensions between Venezuela’s ostensible left-populist government and the grassroots collectives that constitute its popular base, ‘[t]his communal-decolonial alternative stands today besieged from all sides, not least from within the state’ (127). It would be false to argue that these contributions provide nothing of value, but one is struck by the uniformity of opinion on display. All are more or less hostile to the legacy of the past (perhaps with the exception of Toscano), and repeat familiar slogans; ‘above’, the ‘state’, is a source of oppression, violence, and bureaucracy whereas the ‘below’ is an unrealized horizon of revolutionary elan. We have been here before.
Without too deep a dive into the myriad problems with these assertions – care should be taken to observe that Ciccariello-Maher’s argument is at the very least nuanced, conceding that state power must remain a point of contestation for any would-be communards – it seems questionable to conclude that (even in the much-maligned Russian and Chinese cases) experiments in ‘collective self-government’, in Federici’s phrasing, were totally absent (161). Indeed, the French documentary series How Yukong Moved the Mountains is a mesmerizing glimpse at Chinese peasant self-management and democracy at the village level during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, more pressing is the absence of entire continents in Federici’s sweeping denunciation of twentieth-century socialism as rigidly bureaucratic and authoritarian. She correctly recognizes that Latin America and Africa currently host laudable, women-led struggles against a renewed wave of capitalist extractivism, and at the same time seems disinterested in continuity between today’s resistance and yesterday’s. A great number of successful left-wing governments in the last century themselves originated as mass social movements. Aside from the familiar bogeys listed above, is it fair to conclude that the left-wing states of, say, Sahel or Lusophone Africa can be easily furnished as proof of the inferiority of formalized politics (movements, parties) vis-a-vis the anarchist sublime of leaderless, horizontal resistance?
The same kind of objections can be raised to Jasper Bernes’ ‘Planning and Anarchy’, without a doubt the fiercest salvo against central planning included in the issue. Representing the aforementioned Commune (as one of its editors), he begins with a wholesale refutation of central planning as practiced in the USSR. The attempt to create an industrialized competitor to capitalism had ‘no reliable way to act on the [economic] information’ it had amassed, and thus central planners had to rely on the ‘application of violence and crude structures of incentive’ to replace the structure of ‘price, wage, profit, and competition’ prevailing in traditional market economies (58, 59). From this basis, Bernes concludes that contemporary schemes for either a return to the Communism of yore or today’s ambitious calls for a technocratic ‘Google Gosplan’ (a reference to the historical Soviet State Planning Committee) are doomed to failure (60). To him, they represent the ultimate folly of an unreconstructed, Comtean Marxism – preoccupied with engineering the ‘poor mimesis of capitalism’, while ignoring that the ‘factory is the materialization of the law of value’ (58, 59). As a result, wholly new forms of organizing productive labor must prevail in any revolutionary context.
Bolder still, Bernes dismisses the very premise of socialist calculation (if not economics itself) as inimical to the ‘egalitarian and emancipatory’ commitments all anticapitalists should value (68). No matter its nature, the demand of ‘where to go, what to do, and how to do it’, couched in either socialism or the plan, maintains the ‘opposition between the individual and the alienated social totality’ (59). Curiously, the proffered alternative of ‘planarchy’, a decentralized system that elevates the ‘self-directed, spontaneous, and creative character’ of humanity, points to pre-industrial, highly bureaucratized projects like the Great Wall or Machu Picchu (both constructed by almost unimaginable mobilizations of corvée, if not explicit slavery) as positive examples of ‘non-centralized’ planning (68).
It occurs to me that for a generation of leftists in the Anglo-American world, any reckoning with the legacies of the planned economy is tightly bound with the uncritical acceptance of the totalitarian thesis of émigré intellectuals like Hannah Arendt or Karl Popper. For whatever reason, it is verboten to suggest that life behind any number of metaphorical barriers – the Wall, the Iron Curtain, the Third World – may have at times approached normalcy, filled with mostly ordinary disappointments, violations, and frustrations. In some cases, that normalcy represented an absolute improvement from previous circumstances. While Bernes may admit that Arendt is a ‘counter-revolutionary thinker’, her definition of ‘natality’ – the person’s capacity for ‘unpredictable and novel action’ – is nonetheless furnished as proof of a human nature that is ‘anarchic in a fundamental way’ (70, 71). As Domenico Losurdo points out, however, the ‘category of totalitarianism’ was always marked by an imprecise ‘deductivist’ tendency to elevate particular tragedies of the twentieth century above others (Losurdo 2004: 40). Imperialism, for instance, is conspicuously not considered totalitarian, unlike National Socialism or Soviet-style Communism. Neither, for that matter, are the innumerable horrors of the past century waged in the name of anticommunism.
Again, it is worth asking why these circa Cold War figurations account for planned economies in nations as diverse as Burkina Faso or Yugoslavia? In the former, the ‘planned economy’ served to pioneer a model of third-world development predicated on moonshot initiatives in public health, education and gender equality; whereas the latter established cooperative enterprises in limited autarkic competition with one another. While some of Bernes’ trepidations at the prospect of a vast and depersonalized algorithm assigning Worker Cadre A to trench-digging on the frontier may be warranted in some far-off confluence of circumstances, they clearly do not completely foreclose the possibilities of a sophisticated technological apparatus subjected to public control. A messy and democratic process, accordant with a new political culture, would not invariably bind workers into some dystopian system of command and control.
Incidentally, the purely technocratic case for the abject failure of the planned economy in Eastern and Central Europe itself is not an ironclad one. The comparative economist Peter Murrell makes the persuasive argument that central planning among Soviet and Soviet-aligned nations, even when judged on the normative basis of the neoclassical economics – hostile to the very premise of state-led investment itself – comes startlingly close to parity with market-based systems in a variety of measures. In sectors like foreign trade and agriculture, utilizing an ‘empirical’ analysis, he finds productive efficiencies comparable to many European social democracies. As he laconically concludes, ‘if the Soviet Union were to attain the U.S. level of allocative efficiency, GNP would increase by 2 percent-hardly an amount likely to encourage the overthrow of a whole socio-economic system’ (Murrell 1991: 70). Findings like this trouble the depiction offered by most of the authors, of an exceptionally cruel system of belching smokestacks controlled by the arbitrary whims of Breznevite nomenklatura.
Other contributions to the volume are more eager to sever any remaining link to the past, which apparently includes even civilization itself. Unexpectedly, this involves describing future Communism as the negation of the inequality originally established by Neolithic agriculture. John Clegg and Rob Lucas in ‘Three Agricultural Revolutions’ (of the Endnotes collective) argue for a ‘physiocratic reduction’, a ‘narrowing’ of revolutionary focus to a question of basic subsistence (99). In principle a laudable goal (persistent hunger remains one of late-capitalism’s most obscene features), their call for a ‘third agricultural revolution’ frames the abolition of ‘domination’ by either personal (market actors) or impersonal (the state) forces through a massive expansion of localized food production (100). Like Bernes, however, they observe no qualitative distinction between those entities – indicating that ‘planning’, to the degree that capitalist agriculture engages in multi-year logistical frames already, presents a false solution to the intractable problems of climate change and environmental destruction (99, 105). Yet, is it so easy to conflate massive, unwieldy utilizations of land, fertilizer and labor for commodity production and an as yet created industrialized system that quite literally grows food? In the abstract, the mechanization of agriculture might represent a positive development: suddenly, one’s time can be occupied with additional leisure or learning. Notwithstanding the current valorization of rustic lifestyles among alienated urban classes, for a significant portion of the world’s population the intensification of agricultural efficiency translates directly to liberation from work that is often defined by toil, hardship and misery.
Running from the thought-provoking to the objectionable, The Return of Economic Planning provides a critical opportunity to reflect. If anything, a break from the hegemonic tendencies of left anti-industrialism and state phobia might now be more necessary than ever. Have political developments in the past decade really vindicated these theoretical predilections? Facing as we are the perils of economic recession, a world-historical pandemic, and a fraying of the shopworn slogans of market-oriented liberals and conservatives alike, a call for the conceptual elevation of human capacities for organization, cooperation – and, yes, order that transcends the ex post facto appearance of economic growth – may now represent the only viable hope for progress. It is possible, with care, to take what works, abandon what does not, and otherwise affirm that past generations may find their legacy vindicated in the arrival of the future.
6 June 2020
- 2004 Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism Historical Materialism Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 25-57.
- 1991 Can Neoclassical Economics Underpin the Reform of Centrally Planned Economies? Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol. 5, No. 4, pp. 59-76.