Can socialist planning work?

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  • There is intense planning under capitalism, but it is done to maximise profit
  • Planning under socialism would be driven from the bottom up based on mass participation and democracy

    For many people the words socialist and planning in the same sentence will conjure up images of Stalinist horror: brutal five year plans, inefficiency and waste.

    Yet at a time of deep, protracted economic crisis many are questioning whether capitalism is the best way of organising society. Alternatives are being discussed.

    Throughout this series we have analysed different aspects of capitalism, sought to uncover its dynamics and identified why crisis is endemic in the system. Karl Marx sought to understand capitalism in order to change it. He defined the goal of the workers' movement as being communism, later preferring the term socialism. How would such a society be organised?

    The basis for the socialist organisation of society is production for need and not for profit. Two things are crucial here - democracy and planning.

    Planning is not unique to socialism. An immense amount of planning already takes place under capitalism. Just think, for example, about supermarkets and the amount of time, effort and technology that is used logging customer shopping habits so they can plan their supplies accurately. Think of how much planning goes into sourcing, processing and distributing goods from across the world and getting them into each branch of that supermarket. They have vast supply networks, massive distribution centres - all of which planned in the minute detail.

    But planning under capitalism is done on the basis of the individual firm, each seeking to maximise its profits. So although each firm may plan in detail, there is no overall plan across society. This produces vast waste and inefficiency.

    So, for example, at the height of the housing boom in Ireland, many companies saw vast profits to be made. They invested in and planned numerous housing projects. There are at least 600 empty "ghost estates" in Ireland. No one has ever lived in the houses and no one is likely to, since they are now starting to bulldoze them despite rising homelessness. Each company had planned the building of houses but since it was in competition with its rivals this led to overproduction and waste.

    Planning under socialism would not be top-down and profit driven but would start from what is actually needed in society. This requires mass participation in debates about every aspect of production, rather than a few usually unelected people making the decisions.

    Democracy of this sort does not mean endlessly traipsing to the ballot box or continual referendums but would involve people in society discussing what is needed, making collective decisions and then acting on those decisions. This would be a process that everyone can be involved, in whether it's in their workplace, university, college, school or community.

    Not only would this be far more democratic but it would also be far more efficient. After all, who knows more about what is needed in an area or workplace than those people who live or work there themselves? Those who do the jobs - from driving trains to teaching children, from cleaning the streets to making mobile phones - know far more about the best methods and techniques. They are much better placed to make decisions, think up new ideas or suggest ways to improve things.

    Of course, there may be arguments or disagreements about priorities or how to do things. In the end these will be tested out in practice rather than by deciding on what will make an individual richer or increase profits. And when decisions are made, those tasked with carrying them out would be directly accountable to everyone else rather than separated off as a privileged group. And far from being too complex to plan, technological advances make it easier to communicate and share information from around the world.

    Would people participate in planning and be motivated to produce, especially if it was no longer in order to secure a wage? After all, many people experience work as something boring or burdensome and respond with a lack of enthusiasm. But this reflects the reality of work under capitalism, where workers have no real control over their work, what they produce or how it is produced.

    Transforming the nature of work is central to the creation of a socialist planned economy through giving people real control over their work and how it is organised. And a central goal of a socialist society would be to reduce the length of the working week to allow people time to participate in decision making and to free them up to be able to pursue wide goals of self-development whether those are cultural, artistic or intellectual.

    Socialist planning is about the collective running society. This involves the need for both political and economic control. That means getting rid of class society and a tiny ruling class who make the decisions at present. This, of course, requires the revolutionary transformation of society and getting rid of capitalism completely.