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Socialism: Participatory Planning


[This is the thirteenth essay in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism, what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

“True social costs and benefits.” What is that? Well, suppose we make a car. What does it cost? What are the benefits? If we don’t know, how can we decide it is a good idea to make the car instead of something else? If we don’t know, how can we decide if we need more cars, or fewer? 

The costs we should take into account should go beyond the costs that current owners of automobile plants consider. They want to maximize profits while retaining the rights to accrue those profits themselves. We want to advance our values while meeting the needs and developing the potentials of those involved.

Owners of automobile plants take into account the amount they have to pay for resources, intermediate goods, technologies employed, rent, and electricity, and the wages they have to pay – as well as if there are any significant effects on their balance of power, and thus their ability to keep taking their preferred giant share of revenues. We should take into account the costs of producing, transporting, and consuming cars including the impact on the environment, workers, consumers, bystanders, and communities. We should also take into account the benefits for those same affected constituencies – both individual and collective. 

It follows that true social costs and benefits are an accurate measure of the gains and losses associated with the production and consumption of a car or any other product in social relations, in the material, moral and psychological condition of workers, communities, and consumers, and in the environment.

A desirable means of allocation must therefore allocate resources, labor, and the products of labor in a flexible manner able to realign in case of unexpected crises or shocks. It must not homogenize tastes but instead abide diverse preferences, preserve privacy and individuality, engender sociality and solidarity, and meet the needs and develop the capacities of all workers and consumers. 

Desirable allocation must operate without class division and class rule but instead with equity and classlessness, and must operate without authoritarianism and disproportionate influence for a few people but with self management for all.

Finally, in deciding what to do with any particular asset – whether it is people’s labor or a resource like oil or copper, or some technology – desirable allocation needs to take into account the true and full material and etherial social and environmental affects of contending options.

And beyond even all the above, attaining self management of allocation by all who are affected in proportion as they are affected is clearly no little ambition given that virtually everyone is, to at least some degree, affected by each decision made in an economy so that in any institution – whether a factory, university, health center, or whatever – many interests need to be appropriately represented in decision-making. There is the workforce itself, obviously affected by their actions each day. There is the community in which the workplace is located – polluted, for example, or uplifted. And there are the users of its products or services, presumably benefitting from what they receive, or losing because labor and inputs were not put to a different use that they would have preferred. If society is making cars instead of public transport, I may gain from having a car, but I will also lose due to the lack of public transport. To have self management, requires structures that eliminate influence for private owners of the means of production and resources by ensuring that that type ownership no longer exists.  But it also requires that the disproportionate influence and distorted motives that private owners held are not simply morphed a bit and handed on to a still larger class of coordinators, leaving workers still subordinate.

In other words, while private ownership is disastrous in its effects on economic outcomes, the deeper and arguably even deadlier villains, as we have all too briefly indicated above and last essay in this series, are markets and central planning. We not only need “directly democratic” workers and consumers councils, but we also need allocation connections between workers and consumers that preserve and enhance informed, insightful, self managed decisions. That is the allocation task if we are to have allocation augment rather than subvert equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and self management for both workers and consumers.

So what can we pursue? Suppose in place of top-down allocation via centrally planned choices, and in place of competitive market allocation by atomized buyers and sellers, we opt for informed, self-managed, cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs by socially entwined actors who each have influence in proportion as choices affect them, who each have accurate information to assess, and who each have appropriate training, confidence, conditions, and motivation to accurately develop, communicate, and express their preferences. Will that do the job we seek to get done?

Yes, this choice of allocation – if we could conceive institutions able to make it real – would, as we seek, compatibly advance council-centered participatory self-management, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, and balanced job complexes. It would also provide proper valuations of personal, social, and ecological impacts and promote classlessness.

Participatory planning, the next key component of eco-socialism, participatory socialism, or participatory economics, whichever name you prefer – is conceived to accomplish all this. In participatory planning, worker and consumer councils propose their work activities and consumption preferences in light of continually updated knowledge of the personal, local, and national implications of the full social benefits and costs of their choices. What does it look like?

Workers and consumers cooperatively negotiate workplace and consumer inputs and outputs. They employ a back and forth communication of mutually informed preferences using what are called indicative prices, facilitation boards, rounds of accommodation to new information, and other participatory planning features which permit people to express and refine their desires in light of feedback about other people’s desires.

Workers and consumers indicate in their councils their personal and group preferences. I say I want such and such. My workplace settles on a proposal that we collectively wish to produce. We learn what preferences others have indicated as they learn ours. They, and we, then alter and resubmit our preferences – keeping in mind the need to balance a personally fulfilling pattern of work and consumption with the requirements of a viable overall plan. Each participant – as a worker and as a consumer – seeks personal and collective group well being and development. However, each can improve his or her situation only by acting in accord with more general social benefit. New information leads to new submissions in a sequence of cooperatively negotiated refinements, until settling on a plan.

As in any economy, for consumers to decide on what they want for their share of the social product, they must take into account their income (which is proportional to the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their socially valued labor) and the relative costs of available products that they desire, as conveyed by the participatory planning process. This occurs not only for individuals deciding personal consumption, but also for households, communes, neighborhoods, and regions deciding collective consumption, all done through consumer councils and summing to the cumulative demand put forth by all of society. Workers in their workplace councils similarly indicate how much work they wish to do in light of requests for their product as well as their own labor/leisure preferences. The proposals of workers in each firm sum to industry and societal proposed output. While workplace proposals are collective for the whole workplace, they are arrived at with input from each individual in the workplace. Both proposed supply and demand are refined, each in light of the other, during the iterative planning process.

In a participatory economy, no one has any interest in selling products at inflated prices or in selling more items than consumers actually need because imposing high prices and inducing purchases beyond what will fulfill people does not increase anyone’s income.

Even if a workforce could set some false, inflated price for what it was selling, the income of each of its workers would not thereby climb as income doesn’t depend on overall sales revenue. On the other hand, producing too little or too poorly for the efforts to all be socially valuable given the labor and resources involved, would diminish each worker’s income. There is reason to meet needs and utilize and develop potentials, but neither more no less. And the same goes for somehow getting people to buy what they don’t really need. In fact, why would I want to produce anything – applying my time and energy – that wasn’t actually going to benefit folks? I wouldn’t, not in a participatory economic institutional setting.

Nor is there any need for firms to compete for market share. Individuals and units do not advance by way of beating others in any manner. Rather, motives are simply to meet needs and to develop potentials at whatever level turns out to be preferred in light of all costs and benefits, without wasting assets. We seek to produce what is socially valuable and useful while compatibly and cooperatively fulfilling our own as well as the rest of society’s preferences. This is true not because people are suddenly saints but because cooperation benefits everyone, and waste harms everyone. Merciless fleecing, indeed fleecing of any degree, has no place in the new economy because there is neither means to do it, nor gains to be had from doing it.

We communicate our preferences for desired production and consumption by means of special mechanisms developed for the purpose. Cooperative negotiation follows in a series of planning rounds. Every participant has an interest in most effectively utilizing productive potentials to meet needs, because everyone gets an equitable share of the overall social output for all.  Each person also favors workplaces – and all of society – making investments that reduce drudge work and that improve the quality of the average balanced job complex, because this is the job quality that everyone, on average, enjoys.

Plans for economic production and consumption are continually updated and refined. It isn’t that there are no errors or imperfections in the day-to-day and year-to-year operations of a participatory economy. Nor are preferences immune to change. It is that such deviations from ideal choices as occur during planning arise from ignorance or from mistakes and not from the system, by its logic, causing such deviations. So in no way can one sector systematically benefit above others. Mistaken choices and deviations don’t snowball or multiply in a manner that continually benefits some (in a ruling class, for example) to the detriment of others.

In another aspect of allocation, to choose what role and position to occupy in a participatory workplace, each person consults his or her own personal tastes and talents. Of course, each person will be better suited and more likely to be happy at some pursuits than at others. However, each person’s job search is about meeting personal preferences equitably. There is no choice that one can individually make – or that a group can collectively make – that would accrue what other members of society would deem unjust power, wealth, or circumstance.

As with all entries in this essay series, the above is a very succinct presentation indeed, and the more so since, in the case of allocation, the topic is considerably more complex than the other issues we have treated. Surely there must arise objections to something as unusual and different as participatory planning? Our next essay will raise and seek to address such objections.

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