Thursday, August 09, 2007

Decision-Making Inside Socialism

Further to earlier articles about the practicalities of Socialist organisation here , here and here , this is from the Production for Use Committee Report 2002 which i think may of be interest

New Decision-making Structures ?

The purpose of discussing socialism as a practical alternative is - in my view - to help elucidate just how simple and straightforward the revolutionary transformation can be. We need to take positive steps to convince sympathisers that the mechanics of the revolution and administration inside socialism are simply not that important in the scheme of things: they should present no psychological barrier to someone becoming a socialist.

The approach that this member of the committee takes is that we should keep whatever we can of capitalist structures, unless there is a very good reason for changing it.

First of all we must take care to distinguish between the democratic structures for getting rid of capitalism, and those needed for making socialism. Certainly, the socialist transformation will require to (or at least set out to with the intent to) capture political power across the globe. But developing decision-making for use inside socialism requires a very different approach. This distinction requires to be very clearly made. The first is necessarily global and top-down in nature, utilising whatever democratic structures capitalism leaves us with. It needs to be "one size fits all", so that socialism starts with a relatively level playing field in terms of workers' class consciousness across the globe (we obviously cannot - to use a crude example - have workers in one part of the world looking to workers elsewhere for leadership or guidance). But this issue has been well-examined in the past by the party and recent developments in global communications makes it even less likely that a socialist consciousness will develop in only certain parts of the planet.

The structures of decision-making necessary to implement socialism however are likely to require to be radically different from those inherited from capitalism.

We should not, of course, confuse the organisation of capitalism with the motive of the market system. Certainly there are some aspects of production, distribution and the structures involved in capitalism which strongly reflect the market system it supports (eg armies), however we should be wary of throwing the baby (decision-making structures) out with the bathwater (the market-based motive for production). A healthier perspective is to continually emphasise that capitalism is about social relationships: the social system, the means underpinning capitalism will be fully available to socialism. Specifically in relation to decision-making inside socialism, we should be very wary of rejecting the structures or lines of communication left by capitalism. Sure, the internal structures of many organisations reflect their origin, but the decision-making processes inherited should surely be our first concern. It is a failing of some anarchist lines of thought to fetishise the organisation or hierarchy, as being inherently oppresive or undemocratic. Rather than re-inventing the wheel or developing new decision-making structures separate to and different from those of capitalism, we should by default use the existing systems, unless an alternative is clearly better.

When I drive on the A1 road I am following a route first made by Roman armies 2000 years ago: it doesn't however mean I necessarily approve of Rome's imperialist expansion. Similarly we should view capitalism's decision-making structures as a social tool developed by humans and currently used to smooth the operation of capitalism. In the hands of a socialist majority, a switch will be flicked in this machine, and - with a little tweaking here and there - it will be available to help enable socialism. Socialism will not mean more meetings, committees etc: it will be a simpler version of production and decision-making than inside capitalism. These are the sorts of arguments that we should give sympathisers who want to know how socialism could operate. If we don't present these arguments, by default it tends to be assumed that we are proposing some sort of unattractive continual global referendum.

In many ways the party's existing comments regarding Socialism as a Practical Alternative emphasise the use which a socialist majority may make of existing capitalist structures, however they do not (in the view of this member of the committee) go nearly far enough. Certainly, specific organisations - and the potential for their almost unaltered involvement in socialism - were well-identified (eg UN WHO, ILO etc) in the 1985 report, however the previous work constructed new democratic structures (at local, regional and global levels) and ignored the main decision-making structure in capitalism.

I would argue that Capitalism has four main decision-making systems of interest to socialists:

A. Firstly there is traditional local democracy, such as local parish, district or regional councils. In these, decisons are primarily made by and with regard to the interests of, a local community, defined geographically. Decisons can have a non-quantitative, non-monetary basis (eg visual impact of a new factory; safety concerns regarding a new by-pass)

B. Secondly there is National and Supra-national democratic structures, such as governments, the European Union, and the UN. At these levels, decisions are made with little impact on any particular locality and tend to be monetary-based. This is the level that various sectors of the capitalist class argue over how surplus value should best be apportioned and spent (taxation, wage levels, training and productivity investment, trade and tarif barriers etc). It is understandable that inside capitalism there will be a tendency to try and make these decisions at the highest level possible, where voters have less interest and less clout. Few people are interested (for example) in UK recycling and waste disposal options, but when a company wants to put an incinerator upwind, the village hall is packed out. Fortunately for the capitalist class, they don't need to come to your village hall and present the reasons why a certain level of unemployment should be accepted in the village. I would argue that while we can take some of capitalism's democratic leftovers, we should do so critically, and not blindly mimic the "levels" of decision-making that capitalism provides us with, nor over-emphasise the importance of the "upper" non-local levels of decision-making. I suspect that the more this issue is examined, the more apparent it will become that decision-making inside socialism will involve a huge shift from the global to the regional, and from the regional to the local.

C. Thirdly, there is decision-making within the workplace. Primarily this is regarding how production is organised. This has always been an area of interest to the left-wing, but strikes me as being of little interest now. "Can the workers run industry ?" is an old question that the left (via nationalisation) and the Party have addressed. It appears an outdated question now, one that few people actually ask. The workplace (particularly industrial ones) was the battleground in the 60s and 70s, as various leftwing strands of thought sought to fetishise the worker and the "point of production", and infiltrate trade unions for recruitment purposes. Instead we would argue that capitalism is a social relationship, that workers experience the class struggle in the many different ways, and that the workplace is not necessarily where workers' consciousness can be changed. That no-one really asks the question "can workers run industry ?" anymore, is to me, a measure of the extent to which capitalism has - on the one hand - managed to control workers outside of the workplace through consumerism, and - on the other hand - within the workplace has had to empower workers.

Capitalism does not fit with human beings too easily. As work (at least in the north/west) shifts from banging metal to using a mouse, capitalism needs workers to be able to use their brains, make decisions and take responsibility. This requirement cannot be turned on and off to suit the capitalist, so workplaces are increasingly being organised on a less hierarchical basis, with "quality circles" and upward appraisals (you appraise your manager), and providing control over when and how you work. In some sectors, employers are falling over themselves to offer flexible working with flat management structures ina "fun" workplace environment of cafes and pool tables: workers are responding less and less to simple increased salaries. Little wonder that less doubt is now expressed that workers can actually run industry - it is more apparent than ever before that they already do so.

D. The final decision-making arena is one that is not discussed in the 1985 report, but one which is - in my view - the most important. Most decisions regarding production and distribution are made inside capitalism by companies, firms, plc's etc. Not so much with regard to the qualitative aspects of how a process is undertaken (that is discussed at 'C' above), but rather the simple quantitative issues of how much should be produced.

Of course inside capitalism this simple issue is massively complicated by the fact that the raw materials coming into your factory, and the product being shipped out, will change in price by the second due to market, and (if you export/import) currency fluctuations, as hundreds of different and anarchic "business cycles" interact.

Nevertheless it should be recognised that the structure of supplier(s)-producer-customer(s) when multiplied up across the economy represents easily the most important decision-making system. (For example, the UN meets once every ten years to discuss Sustainable Development and your local council may employ one officer to address the subject. Yet the businesses in your area will make literally hundreds of decisions every day which will impact on this one issue).

I would argue that socialism would not seek to replace this decision-making structure. We should not try and make decisions about production through a separate local-regional-global democratic structure. We would keep companies and firms as they are. People would go and work as normal in them inside socialism. They would look at projections for demand of their product or service, whether directly from "consumers" or other firms ("customers"), they would establish production requirements for the week/month/year, and they would source suppliers and place orders for the raw materials they in turn will require on the basis of quality, turnaround and proximity.

If we put to one side those industries and services which will fall into total or almost complete disuse inside socialism (eg advertising, marketing, insurance , banking, military etc), the rest of capitalist production will carry on, if not quite seamlessly, then at least in much the same way as before. The only differences being how the factory or firm or office is organised internally (which would be left to the people themselves to sort out), and the absence of wages or prices. Companies would switch suppliers, and win or lose contracts on the basis of the quality and turnaround they can provide for their product. Resource depletion, transport costs and energy usage factors of production would start to be taken into account in a way that capitalism can only talk about. Decision-making would be devolved to the "consumer". The market system does empower the individual when it makes him/her a consumer, but only of course, if they have some money. Socialism would not discard this: the individual "consumer" in a moneyless society will ultimately make the decisions on production, articulated through their demand when they take from the common stores of goods, according to self-defined need.

Many defenders of "free-market" (if there is such a thing) capitalism, call it an efficient system. And it is - compared to centralised state capitalism. Far better to have individuals deciding what products and how much they want to consume, than some central committee. The only problem with capitalism of course is that - expressed through money - some individuals have many more opportunities to make decisions than others do. While billions have $1 per day to vote with, Bill Gates and Richard Branson and a few others have millions of dollars-worth of nice votes to make.

Many non-socialists (and socialists for that matter) have expressed the view that socialist production will be a matter of meetings, referenda, committees etc. I would argue that we should not be seeking to establish democratic sructures to decide and then dictate production levels throughout the "economy". Millions and millions of self-organised, self-defined units of production which occupy specific niches in the global economy, are already in operation inside capitalism, waiting to be transformed by the missing element (class-conscious workers) into the means of production and distribution that will define socialism.

These production units will not really have any power though - they will be responding to consumer demand. Do we want to go down the route of establishing local committees on glass production etc ?. Instead, the responsibility will be left to the producers (who are of course also consumers in their own right it should be remembered).

Where strategic decisions - rather than ones merely responding to demand - require to be made, (or there is a significant increase or decrease in demand) this may require production units in a particular industry to make decisions amongst themselves. Again this is not wishful thinking - this mimics what happens inside capitalism, with industry trade bodies. However rather than being mouthpieces for the capitalist class of that sector, they will be making decisions on behalf of the consumer to try and meet the changing demand requirements in that locality.

Society will delegate responsibility then, for glass production, to the relevant production units (sand quarrying, glass factory, general distribution networks). There will however be some areas where society will want to retain ultimate control. Two scenarios where decision-making regarding production will require "external" input are discussed here.

Firstly, perhaps increased demand for glass requirements will require more workers, or diversion of natural resources from another sector of industry. This could be achieved by diktat, by means of a council decision (at local, regional or global levels depending on the geographical scope of the problem). Alternatively however we should not forget the chaotic, self-organised decision-making model that is underpinned by the consumer. This is a highly democratic user-defined decision-making model that capitalism has claimed for itself but in fact operates on a distorted basis. Consumers in such a situation will also be far more free than they are inside capitalism, to make decisions based on more than just their material needs (eg for beer in a glass bottle) , and will switch to non-glass products if glass is getting scarce. Inside capitalism the consumer is just that and nothing else. In socialism though they are also producers in social production (eg factories), they are also producers in another sense - of waste. Recycling is a sensible measure and (again) one that capitalism finds extremely difficult to develop to any real extent, but which will occur where needed inside socialism as the consumer (informed and involved in society) feeds back decreased consumption of glass and increased recycling.
The second scenario where decision-making regarding production cannot just be left to the producers, is where local issues impact. The siting of a factory, the construction of a road etc may have positive impacts for society as a whole, but will have negative ones for those who have to breathe in traffic fumes or have the visual impact of a factory. Delineating the plusses and minuses of such developments, and trying to ensure that the benefits and the disadvantages impact fairly is a massive problem inside capitalism and it will remain a problem inside socialism. The way of resolving the issue will be the same - by means of decision-making at the appropriate level - local (for those affected by proximity) versus regional/global (for those affected as consumers) . Of course, what causes so much of a ("Nimby") problem inside capitalism is the emotional attachment placed by someone on their property, the potential "amenity value" financial impact (eg reduction in value of their house), and the perception that someone is making money at their expense. While socialism would avoid or reduce some of these concerns, it is important to be realistic and recognise that it would not remove them all.

Brian Gardner

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