Questions and thoughts on economic planning in an anarchist economy

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infektfm
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Apr 14 2014 16:28
Questions and thoughts on economic planning in an anarchist economy

Lately I have contemplating on this issue a lot: how much of an anarchist economy would be formally planned (through democratic assemblies enacting community policies)? How much of it would operate informally?

That is, I can imagine a sort of economy based upon a rather informal institution of mutual aid, where the distribution of goods and services is a private affair, between free producers -- I have in mind many of the accounts of gift economies portrayed by anthropologists like David Graeber and Marcel Mauss. Of course, the sort of societies that they have surveyed are usually not completely egalitarian and have some sort of central authority, if weak (a council of tribal elders, a chief, or whatever). But in general, the impression I get is that relations of credit between kin eventually form into a common institution of mutual aid to which everyone adheres. There is a sense of an organic development of mutual aid I get -- that the economy would function on a completely decentralized basis based upon individuals' relationships with one another -- a sort of constant "disequillibrium" as described by Deleuze, for example, where the dual connected tendencies of alliance and filiation are organized by the very fabric of a society -- social ties.

On the other hand, there is the sort of economy described by many anarchosyndicalists and anarchocommunists that entails a a central but democratic planning institution that directs economic activity formally in a community, coordinating resource allocation, production quotas, and the allocation of products of labor for consumption amongst the populace. Thus, the distribution of goods and services is not a private affair between community inhabitants, but a public affair between aggregates of free producers (according to particular industry) in their dual capacities as producers and consumers.

Perhaps the former will eventually grow out of the latter?

Perhaps certain necessary goods and services pertaining to sustenance will be allocated among the populace through democratic coordination, to make sure everybody has what they need to live a comfortable life, whilst the distribution of "luxury" or "recreational" goods would be the result of the more informal approach? In which case there arises a question of the division of labor -- perhaps everybody will share the necessary work (as per the usual ideas of shared work), and much of the work that falls outside of that criteria would be done on either an individual basis or through free association with like-minded producers -- and hence distributed in the former approach.

Of course, I'm making many assumptions here -- chief of which is that a market couldn't grow out of the informal approach due to a lack of state. However, there is the issue of the existence of remnants of exchange-value evaluations which the informal approach could fall victim to, at least early on.

Any thoughts on this would be great!

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Joseph Kay
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Apr 14 2014 17:40

Some disjointed thoughts on this:

  • I find the anthropological stuff helpful in thinking non-market relations, but we're generally dealing with small-scale societies (< Dunbar's number), so everything can be maintained informally, honour/shame etc are a powerful social force. It's not obvious how this applies to larger societies where some impersonal relations are inevitable.
  • There's various possible solutions here, maybe like everyone belonging to some 'human-scale' cell/commune which are federated together; or, since a community where everyone knows each other isn't necessarily libertarian (this is part of Brecher's critique of Bookchin), you could have larger-scale or mixed scale units of belonging.
  • This emphatically isn't something we can design, it will emerge, and maybe we'll figure out how it works later (economists still argue over how markets work, how banking works etc, and they have several centuries of real world data).
  • Looking at things like the Argentine recovered workplaces movement or disaster communities could be instructive, since the kind of improvised production/distribution to meet social needs without states/markets would presumably be similar to the early phases of a revolutionary break (you can also see how they're recuperated back into market/state relations when the movement stalls, but that's less relevant to this discussion).
  • I think you'd see an increase in communal information without private property, competitive markets etc. Some of the gains of collaborative commons are clear even in capitalism (though it often translates into precarious self-managed wage labour for techies, due to prevailing commodity relations). I'd imagine this would be massively increased, and open information sharing would quickly generalise improvements, allow distributed co-ordination of production and distribution without any central plan or price-rationing (which is what a market does).
  • Something Graeber talks about is societies not being too backwards to 'get' market relations, but only too aware of how destructive they are to social solidarity. That kind of awareness would permeate any revolutionary movement (if it didn't, why would people move beyond commodity relations and make a revolution?). That was manifested in things like customary gift ratios between neighbouring communities, explicitly ignoring fluctuations in supply and demand (which in turn, builds solidarity).
  • In terms of how this would emerge... Some jobs people would just abandon, e.g. outbound call centres. Some might be repurposed (empty out a call centre and you've got a creche). Others self-managed (I'd hope nuclear plant workers would keep it ticking over, or at least safely shut it down). I can't imagine Foxconn workers turning up to work if they could reproduce themselves without a wage, so there'd probably be an interruption in tech gadgets until some automated/not dehumanising production was figured out, presumably along with open source/free/modular hardware and software etc.
  • Generally people aren't idiots and know what is socially useful/useless and can self-organise it to the best extent under the conditions (even in disasters, as Solnit shows). There would probably be a relocalisation of food production since I can't see insurgent campesinos exporting grain to Argentina to feed cattle to export to US/Europe, so there might be a bit of 'digging for victory' and a collapse in meat production (since abattoirs are terrible workplaces, I'd imagine most meat production would be small scale and local).
  • While I have no time for any kind of wage or price system, I think there'd be plenty of scope for quantitative accounting and analysis, e.g. resource usage, energy etc, especially if trying to synchronise production with ecological processes. This would probably look more like ecology/product life cycle analysis/chemistry/engineering than financial accounting.
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syndicalistcat
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Apr 14 2014 18:12

The problem with an "informal" approach is that there are inevitably going to be rules over access to anything that is of value in the ordinary sense of very useful for satisfying human purposes. So for example use of arable land or building sites in settled or urban communities. What would it mean for use of such land to be "informally" arranged? Given that pre-class societies gave rise to class societies, out of seemingly "informal" arrangements, there is clearly a danger there. Kropotkin said anything that isn't a "need" people must be required to make for themselves. (In Conquest of Bread.) I think it's not likely that would be the way it will be. On that principle you won't have wine or oranges if grapes & oranges aren't readily grown where you are. And many things are such that people may not be so enamored of them as to learn how to make them, but their lives may be impoverished a bit by not having them. Scarcity of resources is likely to become worse as time goes on, what with the consequences of global warming (such as a significant reduction in crop yields). So some form of social accounting & planning is going to be necessary, like it or not.

infektfm
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Apr 14 2014 23:21

Thank you both for your thoughtful comments! In general, there were several things that you both pointed out which had not figured into my reflection. All the points raised were of utmost importance and showed me that the planning approach would be optimal for a large society, considering that it is democratic and decentralized, of course. As I often do, I neglected to take into account the present fact of climate change -- a presence which could only be dealt with a coordinated approach in an industrialized economy.

Furthermore, I thought Joseph Kay raised a very good point -- that economists are still trying to figure the market out, after all this time. We know it's underlying mechanism (or rather, we all have a view), but that knowledge certainly still fails us in predicting market behavior and so on. Anyways, thank you both again. And Joseph Kay, thank you for the resources.

B_Reasonable
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Apr 15 2014 16:17

I'd add that in modern economies a lot of labour is allocated to the sales, finance etc. Removing this would free up a quite a lot of time which could be spent studying and discussing production-planning and distribution. Enough to satisfy most people that the right activities are being undertaken and everyone is being treated fairly. (I'm not suggesting that ex-bankers and salespersons should become specialist arbitrators of distribution -- that would be horrific!)

Also, the information revolution means that everybody can access, and have the means to process, large-scale economic data. This can break down the strict dichotomy between having a bottom-up communal economy and top-down central planning -- everyone can see and analyse the central picture so that any central plans that are deemed necessary can be generally agreed and monitored.

What comes out of this though is the importance of a free flow of information. Many radicals unquestioningly support data-privacy but for a successful post-capitalist economy data-privacy will probably have to be regarded as another form of property i.e. theft of a common resource.

boomerang
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Apr 16 2014 03:31

If I remember correctly, this article / debate addresses this question (to an extent) from two different perspectives http://libcom.org/library/participatory-society-or-libertarian-communism

infektfm
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Apr 17 2014 18:01

Thank you boomerang for the link to that discussion.

The free flow of information of the internet certainly makes things easier in terms of democratic economic planning. Perhaps I gave off the wrong impression in the OP -- I don't have a preference for one form or the other, I was just wondering the comparative significance of the two in the (post)revolutionary economy, or if one would evolve into the other and so forth. Indeed, I believe that it is certainly possible for democratic and decentralized decision-making and thus economic planning in an anarchist society due to things like the internet. I mean, just imagine what the spanish anarchists could have done with the internet; they already had quite a libertarian and democratic organization in the CNT (though, not completely libertarian and democratic -- but enough so for myself to think of it as such). In general, I think the internet may make planning and decision-making more responsive the immediate changes -- response time being a very important thing in democratic decision making, I would think.

boomerang
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Apr 17 2014 18:32

My view is that we'd need public planning for public consumption (like roads, subway systems, hospitals, childcare centers, etc.) but that things made for individual consumption won't require this planning. In communism, consumers just take what they want and producers pay attention to their stock flows and respond to demand, based on their stock depletion rate.

On second thought, even for individual consumption we'd need some public planning, for things that are scarce we'd need to democratically figure out a rationing system.