‘The South Atlantic Quarterly: The Return of Economic Planning, Volume 119, Number 1’ by Campbell Jones (ed) reviewed by Lyes Benarbane

Reviewed by Lyes Benarbane

About the reviewer

Lyes Benarbane is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. His …

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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

References

  • Losurdo, Domenico 2004 Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism Historical Materialism Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 25-57.
  • Murrell, Peter 1991 Can Neoclassical Economics Underpin the Reform of Centrally Planned Economies? Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol. 5, No. 4, pp. 59-76.

4 comments

  1. Thank you for this interesting review. However, I should point out that it is totally wrong to lump Oskar Lange, Otto Neurath and Ernest Mandel together in a “tradition of market socialism”. Or perhaps you were confusing “Ernest Mandel” with “David Mandel”.

    1. All his life Ernest Mandel argued – rightly or wrongly – against the idea of “market socialism”. In the phase of transition to socialism some markets would continue to exist, most Marxists accepted that, but the ultimate goal would be to replace market allocation as much as possible with direct allocation. All the theorists favoured a genuinely democratic socialism, it was just that some critics argued, that it is impossible to reconcile socialism with democracy.

    2. Already sixty years ago, Mandel criticized Oskar Lange’s economics, and the two thinkers had very different theories about socialist political economy (it was actually the “genius” Althusser (sic.) and his mates who plagiarized ideas from Oskar Lange’s textbook on political economy (French edition 1962, English edition 1963), including the famous distinction made in Reading Capital (1965) between “mode of production” and “social formation”).

    3. There does not exist any “tradition of market socialism”, and there has never existed such a tradition, because many different and mutually incompatible types of market socialisms were being proposed in the 20th century, by theorists who often strongly disagreed with each other about the most basic assumptions and principles of socialist economics. I have described that very briefly in an online wiki article. Maybe I ought to have made that more explicit.

    Admittedly, the Fourth International, the International Socialists, the British “super-radical” Trotskyoids, the social liberals, the Mattickists, and the academic social historians etc. often do rewrite the history of socialist thought according to what happens to be their own favourite radical flavor at the time.

    Similarly, the Neue Marx-Lektüre ideologists in Germany often twist the historical truth when they recycle the past, and present it as if it is something “Neu” (it’s a pretty safe sport, since people from the more distant past cannot talk back anymore, now).

    But you don’t have to believe the forgeries. Because you can still read the original texts for yourself, e.g. Mandel’s replies to Alec Nove:

    Ernest Mandel, “In defence of socialist planning”,
    in: New Left Review (London) No. 159, 1986, pp. 5-37.
    https://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1986/09/planning.html

    Ernest Mandel, “The myth of market socialism”,
    in: New Left Review (London) No. 169 1988, pp. 108-120. https://newleftreview.org/issues/I169/articles/ernest-mandel-the-myth-of-market-socialism.pdf

    The articles from the Mandel-Nove debate are actually quite easy to read, we used them in the 1980s for academic courses.

    The main debate about collective planning is actually not about “how a technocracy can impose a planning system on the people and eradicate markets, to create true socialism”.

    It is, instead, about which methods of resource allocation actually work best to provide the goods and services that people really need, so that they really improve people’s lives.

    To answer that question, you need real scientific understanding and verifiable ideas, not simply a recycled Left-Hegelian pomo/bobo ideology that you can buy in the university bookshop.

    A system of collective planning is not intrinsically “good” *because* it is planning, it is good, only insofar as it really provides the results that people want and need.

    Similarly, markets can be desirable, insofar as they meet criteria of efficiency, justice, civil freedom and social equality. If, however, markets strongly conflict with those criteria, then they are not desirable, and other methods of allocation might do a much better job.

    So, the challenge of collective planning is not simply a matter of technology or pushing the right button. It is about whether and how people will cooperate, to help make the plan succeed. Even the best planning technique will fail, if people do not cooperate with the plan.

  2. Hello Jurriaan Bendien,

    I wanted to mention how much I appreciated your edifying comments on the complicated history of Left political economy. In hindsight, it seems like lumping those figures together Mandel, Lange, etc (no matter if, despite their differences, a broader “economic” sense unites them) is inaccurate. And in fact, I was eager to see your fair summarization of the premises of the planned economy.

    Indeed, in my bailiwick of the Middle East and North Africa, individuals almost to a person report that the 60s and 70s, the era of “planning” at its height, was associated with optimism and happiness. The point I was trying to communicate was precisely your observation, that–judged by its merits (results)–a system of state-led industrial and economic development had in many cases a popular mandate and was largely not reducible to mindless instrumental adherence to The Plan. There are abundant successful examples that are worthy of both attention and study.

    Also, I would like to mention that (while I love a well-placed dig of Flavor of the month Leftism™) the notion that Left-Hegelianism is analagous to “pomo” is just not true. In fact, rejection of Hegel (or at the very least a strange elevation of an anachronistic, improvisational Nietzsche-inflected Hegel, cribbed from Kojève’s lectures) animated the lion’s share of Parisian anti-dialectical thought in the twentieth century–Lyotard, Bataille, Deleuze, etc. I can only dream of the university bookstore providing a Left-Hegelian alternative to the penetration of that school into the present.

  3. Well that is kind of you. I do not know much about North Africa, I only visited Morocco. I certainly agree that postmodernism and Hegelianism are not the same things at all. I can say a few things here.

    Among other things, analytically, the postmodernists reject the very idea that the nature of the epoch in which we live, or any other epoch in the past, that is to say, the “big picture” of what is happening in society, can be understood in its totality – not even by the greatest research effort. The big picture forever eludes us, in that sense, or at least it’s a slippery fish.

    Postmodernist thinking considers that phenomena can only be understood in terms of partial and incomplete perspectives, where the extent to which they are true, is often in doubt. At best we can honour and have appreciation for the different perspectives there are, with empathy for the Other, where the Other is somebody or something that is outside or foreign to our own world, our own (limited) experience. So too, in the global Covid-19 pandemic which we suffer right now.

    In contrast, Hegelian thought does aspire to understand things in their totality, and tries to build a picture of it, with concepts which are deduced and linked in a non-arbitrary way, even if they may be connected somewhat speculatively, and extrapolate insights that go beyond historical knowledge.

    And, central to Hegel’s philosophy is the concept of human progress, principally the progression to greater freedom and emancipation from oppressive conditions, through a process in which people grapple with and try to resolve the social contradictions of their epoch, and find solutions to its problems, which also generate fresh contradictions.

    For postmodernists, such a concept of the “forward march of human progress” is highly suspect, if not mistaken altogether. There can be progress and regress, and it is never certain which will prevail; there can be no teleology or “grand purpose” or “grand design” in an historical process that works itself out through generations of living individuals.

    This postmodernist stance was, in good part, a Western response to the totalitarian dimension of Marxism-Leninism, in which the Party as the “vanguard of the people” aimed to set society firmly (and forcibly) on the road to progress, armed with a very comprehensive and seemingly infallible system of concepts (and insights into the “laws of motion of history”) that defined the “correct” way to understand almost everything.

    Nevertheless, many postmodernist thinkers have been at least influenced by Hegelian thought. That was perhaps inevitable, since they were still very much concerned with “where the world was heading to”. And today’s Marxian thought is strongly influenced both by Hegelianism and by postmodernist thought, you can also see that clearly in this journal and in the literatures it discusses.

    This contrasts with (say) the 1970s and 1980s, when I was a student, where many Marxian scholars (in my experience) were very preoccupied with researching and testing empirical hypotheses – they believed (in contrast to theoretical and idealist concept-mongering) that the categories used to understand society had to be rooted in, obtained from and tested by empirical experience, rather than being deduced from other concepts via a process of abstraction from abstractions.

    Not in a positivist or naively empiricist way, but in a realist way, with recognition for the theory-laden character of human perceptions about the inner and outer world. And the Marxists of that era believed, that you could get there, if you did the necessary factual research. It involved taking the step from philosophizing to empirical science, to the empirical verification of concepts, the concepts had to be disciplined by experience.

    I agree that the 1960s and 1970s were a time of social optimism. That was true almost everywhere. You can hear it in the pop music of that time. Just listen, for example, to Chuckberry’s song “I’m so glad I’m living in the USA”. Nowadays a lot of Americans want to emigrate.

    One reason for the optimism was robust economic growth, through which most people in the West, and many places in the East, could improve their standard of living. Another reason was that, after the terrible ordeal of a world war, people had the desire and striving to reconstruct society and build a better world. They really believed that a better world for all was possible, and that they could create it, it had to be created, with human effort, a wise system of justice and technological innovation.

    The world war had smashed up not just a lot of property and people, but also a whole way of life, and now everything had to be rebuilt, and given its appropriate place again. In that sense, the ruling ideology was “modernist”, with ideas of social engineering and structural-functionalism gaining prominence. Science could define how everything in human culture objectively worked and functioned. “Modernization” would extend through the whole world, so that all countries would, by stages, develop to reach the “Western” industrialized model.

    That conception of the epoch began to wane from the 1970s onward, when the great boom dissipated. Things became more uncertain and confusing, a consensus about social norms and values broke down. A key factor involved was the effect of the international youth rebellion against conformity to the norms and rules of their parents, and against the stuffiness, incongruities and alienations of modern bourgeois society.

    It was also the beginning of the sexual revolution, which focused very much on how people were treating each other, informally, whatever the formal rules might be. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who travelled the world, said once – I have lost the source of the exact quote – that rock ‘n’ roll was the most “revolutionary” thing that happened in his era. It reached right into the soul and spirit that animated people, and changed the lives of masses of people.

    The idea of planning, social planning and central planning is a big subject about which I cannot go into great detail here. You are certainly correct, that a lot of planning does go on in society, even if it is not central planning by the state of what and how much will be produced and distributed. No business could exist without planning, the state does a lot of planning and so on. Capitalism is “full of plans”.

    People learn about planning, already from the time they are little children, although it may be affected a lot by whether they grow up in a stable, predictable environment, or in a war-torn, chaotic and disordered environment where much is unpredictable. It is difficult to learn systematically, if you don’t reasonably know what the effects of your own actions or inaction are going to be, although it can also be a great stimulus for learning.

    The main thing I wanted to get across, is that the success of planning is not simply a “technical” matter. It greatly depends on the willingness of people to make the plans work well and succeed. The more deregulated and competitive society becomes, the more difficult it typically becomes, to reach any kind of social cooperation that goes beyond self-interest. It creates continual political and management crises, because it gets increasingly difficult to unite people to work together efficiently to achieve common goals.

    An important insight there is, that in truth, cooperation cannot be totally and efficiently assured by financial incentives and disincentives alone, and that human motivations transcend financial interests. Market cooperation requires non-market cooperation to succeed. It requires trust, good faith, and voluntarism.

    One of the central theses of my own social theory is that all human societies are structured both (and simultaneously) by patterns of competition and by patterns of cooperation. But it matters very much what the forms are, that competition and cooperation actually take, that can vary greatly depending on the social set-up.

    Socialists do not want to get rid of competition as such, they couldn’t do it even if they tried, but they certainly want to get rid of harmful competition and promote beneficial competition, just as they want to get rid of harmful cooperation and promote beneficial cooperation, so that competition and cooperation will “mesh” (or are aligned) in a much better way.

    Yet the actual science about this problem actually remains rather fragmented and particularistic, if not altogether a management secret. Comprehensive theories are rare, in this field. There are many reasons for that, but the total effect is, that the inferences drawn and perceptions about what kinds of competition and cooperation are possible, can often be quite faulty. The Covid-19 pandemic creates many new insights about this issue, which hopefully also has a constructive effect.

    In the neoliberal epoch, it is fashionable to disparage central planning and centrally planned economies. It is fashionable to think, that such systems were a total failure, or even that they were not socialist in any shape or form. But in actual fact they were also amazingly successful in raising the standard of living and quality of life for whole populations, who had previously eked out an illiterate life in miserable poverty under fairly despotic and undemocratic regimes.

    The revisionism of the Neue Marx Lekture has certain merits, of course, but the main objection I have is that, by simply either deleting or rewriting the history of Marxism in the 20th century (according to their favourite academic flavor!), the members of this school fail to appreciate the influence which the past still has on their own thinking, and on society as a whole – how it influences they whole conceptualization of social reality.

    It would be better, I think, if we could transcend Stalinophilia and Stalinophobia through a more careful critique, and develop a much more balanced appraisal of the contributions which socialist revolutions made to human progress.

    In order to learn efficiently, you need to be able to recognize what is a success, and what is a failure. That is the bottom line in the educational endeavor. When we start to pretend (apologetically) that a failure was a success, and (derisively) that a success was a failure, if we mix up what is a success and what is a failure, we cannot learn what ought to be learnt, in fact we cannot learn much at all, or draw the appropriate conclusions from experience. Values are of course important in “evaluating” matters, but if we cannot even explicate what they are, we don’t get anywhere much.

    In real social revolutions, some things are always lost as well as gained. Maybe, at first, it may be difficult to draw the right conclusions about what was or was not achieved, but with time and in hindsight we can do that much better, and then we genuinely learn from history. The sorry state of socialism in our time, is perhaps best indicated by the fact that socialists cannot even agree whether Soviet-type societies were really socialist, capitalist or something else, or how you get from capitalism to socialism or vice versa. The past becomes an enigma, a mystery.

    In fact, socialists cannot even agree these days at the most basic level about what socialism actually is. Whatever you might say about that, and how fruitful or futile you may judge the concept-mongering and moralistic drivel that goes on these days, it does show, that the socialist learning process is not occurring very efficiently at all, since even the most basic assumptions and foundations of the socialist endeavour are constantly being contested, without any solution being in sight.

    I personally do not believe, that you are going to solve that problem, by deciding to ditch the experience of the 20th century as irrelevant to the present and the future, and as irrelevant to the further development of the Marxian school.

    That does not mean that you have to be “backward-looking” in your appraisal, of course you have to live in the present and orient to the future. But, as Imre Lakatos said once, “honest record keeping” is an essential condition for scientific progress. Honesty is not simply a matter of respect for the truth. It is telling the truth in a way that considers the situation of the other (or “the Other”?). The other might live in a world, whose language you do not speak.

  4. Some managers would agree with points I made, but they would object, that “overregulation” by a government planning regime can be just as problematic as “failed privatization”.

    Overregulation basically means, that you are legally constrained and obliged to follow a procedure – even although this procedure creates a worse outcome, rather a than better outcome for all concerned.

    I don’t deny this possibility at all. In the matrix model of my theory, cooperation has quite a few different modalities. In the case of overregulation, we are dealing basically with involuntary (coerced) cooperation, instead of voluntary cooperation.

    Some “coerced or compulsory cooperation” is often necessary, for example in schools – since children do not always regulate themselves well, and do not understand their boundaries – but you can have “too much” of it (an excess, too many rules) or to little of it (things are too lax, things get out of hand).

    Whether or not cooperation happens to be “coerced” or “voluntary”, cooperation is not necessarily *intrinsically* a good thing or a bad thing. That depends on the appropriate values which apply, the means-ends relationship, the context, etc.

    In his interesting (but rather superficial) defense of private enterprise, The Capitalism Paradox: How Cooperation Enables Free Market Competition” (2019), Paul H. Rubin has some notion of what I am talking about, but he can think only managerially in terms of coordinated/uncoordinated cooperation, simple/complex cooperation, and contractual/informal cooperation.

    I think myself that although Rubin’s approach has some merit, it is too simplistic to be credible. To get a better appreciation of what it is really about, you have to consider everything that is involved in (say) a football game.

    At the observable surface, a football game seems to be just two teams of players kicking a ball around on a grass field, while trying to score goals against each other. But if we consider the social meaning of what happens in more depth, all the different interactions, the dialectics of cooperation and competition actually get quite complex.

    In American culture, competition is usually presented as “a game” that people play. From this you get the notion of “game theory” with agents who act in a certain way, according to certain interests in defined scenarios, with predictable outcomes.

    Of course, the game may not be so sportslike (a “fair” game on a level playing field). In fact, game theory was first formalized by John von Neuman and Oskar Morgenstern in 1944, in the context of world war 2. Competition can get very brutal, even if it is not a military war (“competition as war”, as Anwar Shaikh puts it).

    Economists and political scientists often regard game theory as “too simplistic” and misleading, if not altogether useless (cf. for example, comments by Anwar Shaikh, Duncan Foley and Yannis Varoufakis).

    A common critique of game theory boils down to the idea, that the assumptions on which game-theoretical models are built, either cater for too few possible conditions or outcomes, or else too many them – compared to what happens in the real world. Either the models lack realism, or they become too unwieldy, or they lack predictive power.

    In my own theory, partly inspired by Mario Bunge, by Marx, and by work done by anthropologists and sociologists from the 1930s onward, the failures of game theory owe quite a lot to a deficient understanding of the dialectics of cooperation and competition.

    That is, the game theorists failed to formalize adequately the ways in which people must *simultaneously* compete and cooperate, at several different levels. That is I think a big reason why the models do not succeed.

    Normally, it is assumed in game theory, (1) that the “actors” in the game *either* compete *or* cooperate, and (2) that if they cooperate, that they do this voluntarily, because (3) it is in their self-interest to do this. This is not only too schematic, it simply disregards many real modalities of cooperation and competition. The model seems to be “strictly objective” but in reality it is a highly selective, one-sided ideological perspective.

    So the future of the science, I think, is with the combination of a theory of “real competition” and a theory of “real cooperation”,. based on the actual forms these phenomena take in the real world (a morphology and typification of these phenomena).

    I personally believe that such an approach is of great importance for the future of the theory of social and economic planning. As I indicated before, you might have created a fantastic planning apparatus, but if people do something else instead, you are not much further ahead with the plan.

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