Overcoming Blind Spots In Left Vision: Participatory Planning

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications…]

What can those who want to replace the economics of competition and greed with the economics of equitable cooperation in the twenty-first century learn from those who struggled to build socialist economies in the twentieth century? I think we should embrace our forebears’ goals – economic justice and economic democracy – and honour the memory of the millions of socialist militants who dedicated their lives to pursuing these goals, often at great personal cost. But I think we can also learn from our forerunners’ efforts and sacrifices what will NOT achieve these goals. Planning by an elite — no matter how well intentioned — will not achieve the historic goals of socialism. Nor will a retreat to markets when planning falters – well intentioned promises that market forces will be "tamed" or "socialized" notwithstanding.
I am under no illusions that we have reached a consensus within the Left on these lessons. A few continue to concentrate on how elite planning can be made more efficient and incorporate more input from consumers. While this is no doubt true, unfortunately it misses the major point: Planning by an elite reinforces worker and consumer apathy at best and degenerates into a new class system with accompanying privileges at worst. Planning for people is not the same as planning by people. Serve the people is not the same as power to the people. On the other hand, many on the Left have recoiled from the negative experiences of centralized planning and bent to pressure from what can only be described as market mania over the past three decades to embrace some version of market socialism or eco-localism. While many of their criticisms of previous attempts at comprehensive, national planning are on the mark, unfortunately it also ignores a more important point: Markets reward the most greedy and anti-social among us while penalizing those who act out of solidarity. It is naive to expect some people to behave in socially responsible ways while others are allowed to benefit personally by behaving in socially irresponsible ways – which is what appropriating productive resources that should belong to and benefit all, and taking advantage of others in market exchanges amounts to. So while we must do all we can to tame markets for now, because markets are antithetical to building the economics of equitable cooperation we must also work to replace markets with an altogether different coordinating mechanism.
Hopefully more and more on the Left will learn these fundamental lessons. But as important as this debate is, explaining why elite planning, markets, and local self-sufficiency are NOT the answers we seek is not my purpose here.[i] When the Left does learn these lessons – and I do believe we are slowly learning what will not work – this will only equip us to win the last war, not the war that lies ahead.  When we finally realize that elite planning, market socialism, and local self-sufficiency are all incapable of achieving the historic goals of socialism, what will be left? The answer is "democratic planning." But, besides a catch phrase and a prayer, what is democratic planning?
It is far from obvious how comprehensive democratic planning should be organized. As a matter of fact, I think many today who champion democratic planning as the best alternative to capitalism are blissfully unaware that many of their ideas about how to go about it are flawed. I think this intellectual failing stems from two blind spots in traditional Left thinking about democratic planning. The traditional socialist vision of democratic planning remains blind to the need to provide workers in enterprises and consumers in neighbourhoods with a considerable degree of autonomy over their own behaviour. On the other hand, libertarian socialist and anarchist visions are blind to the need for carefully designed procedures to help producers and consumers who should be autonomous in some regards but not in others plan activities that are highly interrelated both equitably and efficiently. A penchant for avoiding serious – not to be confused with contentious — debate over exactly what procedures are best suited for different categories of economic decisions has hidden these blind spots for too long.
Early in the twentieth century most socialists thought that after capitalism was overthrown workers in different enterprises and consumers in different communities would plan their activities together with little difficulty. But if the history of twentieth century socialism has anything to teach us it is that this is most emphatically not the case. Planning by those Marx called the "associated producers" did not occur for many reasons that are important to study carefully. But one reason is that it is not as easy for groups of workers and consumers to plan together as early socialists naively assumed. Making decisions inside a worker or neighborhood council in ways that are not only formally democratic but also inclusive and truly participatory is difficult enough. But working out procedures that allow different worker and neighborhood councils to retain an appropriate degree of autonomy over their own activities, while planning their relations fairly and efficiently is even more difficult. It is not just that coordinating the activities of millions of different workplaces and neighborhoods democratically is hard to do. Figuring out how to go about doing it in ways that encourage participation on the part of ordinary workers and consumers and leads to plans that are fair and efficient is also not a trivial intellectual task. One of the greatest intellectual failures of twentieth century socialism was that it left twenty-first century socialists with precious little in the way of ideas about how to help groups of workers and consumers coordinate their activities themselves – fairly, efficiently, and democratically.
What democratic planning means and entails is still distant on agendas for most of the world – although not as distant as I believed only two years ago. However, deciding how to organize democratic planning is of paramount importance in Venezuela today, and may soon be in several other Latin American countries as well. Ten years ago socialists in Venezuela embarked on a new path and have accomplished a great deal. The norms of democracy have been scrupulously observed, major political initiatives have never lacked a popular mandate, and the building blocks for a new kind of socialist economy have been created. Educational Misiones, neighbourhood health clinics, people’s food stores, worker cooperatives, participatory budgeting, municipal assemblies, nuclei of endogenous development, and communal councils together comprise what Venezuelans call their "social economy." However, Bolivarian revolutionaries have yet to decide how to coordinate t

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