Letter to the Editors
Why we don’t make a pitch for communism with a “well thought-out concept of a planned economy”
If I correctly understand what I’ve read of yours so far, you reject any constructive criticism of society because it seeks to improve a system that needs to be abolished. In your articles, you offer evidence that society’s evils are due to the system and that the state, Keynesianism, the World Bank, the UN, etc. cannot remedy them.
Since you obviously confine yourself to criticizing capitalism, you must frequently be confronted in your public discussions with comments like: “Can’t you do more than just criticize!” or “What’s your alternative, then!” My question is aimed at this kind of objection: Why don’t you say anything on the topic of a planned society and attempt to refute the criticism of it made by most economists, for instance, that a planned economy is an “inefficient scarcity economy”? There is after all no denying the fact that East Germany didn’t succeed in maintaining its building stock and that the production of goods required the employment of umpteen times more labor than in West Germany. Nor can the social benefits in East Germany make up for the fact that compared to the West, the means of production were antiquated. Recently in Die Zeit there was an article presumably aimed at critics of globalization and nostalgic fans of the East which was supposed to make them aware of how miserably the defunct alternative to capitalism functioned and that a planned economy is per se a faulty design. An issue of Merkur from the past year under the inappropriate title “Capitalism or Barbarity” also suggested something similar. So wouldn’t it be advantageous to prove with good arguments to all those who maintain that a capitalist economy is inhuman but unfortunately without alternative, that there is a better mode of production? Or to put it another way: Doesn’t even the most accurate critique of capitalism lose some of its power of persuasion when no positive alternative is offered?
I suppose that you regard it as pointless and elitist to develop plans for a faraway future in the manner of a self-appointed political vanguard, as long as those harmed by the system have no class struggle in mind. But I would make the point that a well thought-out concept of a planned economy might really give a boost to such a movement.
As long as socialism or a planned economy are equated with the system of East Germany or the Soviet Union, and nobody points out what the mistakes of “actually existing socialism” were and how they could be avoided in a new attempt, nobody but some former citizens of these states, who in the meantime have fallen prey to a nonsocial market economy, will want to refer to a planned economy in a positive way.
The editors’ answer
We don’t do what you think is missing because attempting to dispel doubts about the feasibility of an alternative to capitalist exploitation by painting the beauties or opportunities of a liberated society in bright colors is not just pointless but downright nonsensical. People who would measure the “power of persuasion of the most accurate critique of capitalism” according to whether we are able to offer something in the way of an alternative that pleases and seems realistic to them, these people reject our critique — in fact in a way that is just as fundamental as it is disingenuous, whether they are aware of it or not.
Those who, after hearing a critique, ask whether something other than the criticized object would actually work, leave the analysis of what causes the “evils due to the system” uncontested, as if they agreed with the analysis. If they did agree, however, they could no longer foster any reasonable doubts about whether something other than the criticized evil were feasible. The specified causes are after all not natural necessities but based on social relations of power, which in no way have to be as they are. It’s the other way around. Those who doubt the feasibility of an alternative are not convinced that they have been presented with the real causes in the explanation of the social causes of the circumstances whose harmfulness they concede. On the contrary, they are convinced that there must be an entirely different reason than the prevailing relations of power, some not yet understood necessity that lends stability to the criticized circumstances. They thus deny the soundness of our arguments. One cannot avoid arguing about that.
Those who, after hearing a critique, demand the “positive” side likewise pretend that the critique is fine but that the practical consequences remain in the dark. That’s not honest. Every particular critique shows what alternative it is driving at. Those who, for example, ascribe contemporary evils, which we after all are not the only ones to criticize, to free competition in which the big fish always swallow the small fish — those people are pleading for fairness in competition, control of monopolies, antitrust legislation, and healthy medium-sized firms. Those who lay the blame for these abuses on modern man‘s growth mania, on its unspecific “always wanting more” — those people are pleading for salvation in doing without and reveal themselves as global ecological reformers. And when we explain that the poverty and insecure existence of wageworkers is a necessary consequence of their role as the cost factor ‘labor’ and that this role is a consequence of the one and only purpose for which production in capitalism takes place — namely turning money into more money — then everyone can hear perfectly well the call for action in it: the people who, in their entire existence, are made instruments of the growth of capital must get rid of this obstacle standing in the way of their own benefit. They must break the power of those who have the interest in profits, and win the freedom to organize their work so that it finally is about their needs and a good life for them. Everyone who takes note of our explanations understands that much of an alternative. Whether these explanations deserve approval depends on whether or not the causes of the well-known evils have been correctly determined. But those who, apart from any controversy about particular causes, turn up with the question of whether we actually had an alternative just don’t want the practical consequences they’ve sounded out, and clothe their displeasure in polite doubt as to whether the intended goal is in fact realistic.
We must admit, however, that most people consider it normal to examine a critique not for its correctness but for the feasibility of an alternative, quite as if this were a criterion for the cogency of the arguments brought forward. All “legitimate” and “reasonable” criticism circulating around the country sees itself just in this way. For this reason, “arguments” consist primarily of a vision of better conditions, which strays as little as possible from an uncritical image of existing circumstances, except at one point: the criticized evil is no longer to be found in it. As a rule, the “analysis” presented with it amounts to the assertion that this evil need not be; with some good will, more power on the part of the aggrieved and less corruption and neglect of duty on the part of those responsible, things could be set right. This is not necessarily incorrect — when it is aggrieved competitive interests that are being voiced, interests that are in principle acknowledged and fundamentally in good hands under prevailing competitive conditions. Then indeed nothing stands in the way of their success other than either another competitor, against whom one needs to mobilize more instruments of power for oneself — whereby nothing matters more than the chief social instrument of power, sufficient money. Or the obstacle consists in the priorities set by the political power overseeing the course of competition, which may turn out differently according to the prevailing standards of justice enforced by state rule. An association of “medium-sized” businesses, for instance, that ascribes all the evils of the world to the allocation of credit practiced by big finance capital, and which propagates as an alternative an ideal world in which the minister of finance subsidizes interest payments for small business, has a good chance of being right with their “critique of the system,” if only they convince the minister of finance of the importance of their competitive interests and the viability of financing the requested subsidies. Things are a bit different with all those interests that the system of competition fundamentally damages — for instance, such modest interests as humane living conditions for a wageworking world population that for the most part is not even needed for wage labor. Those who come up with a critique that is satisfied with subtracting some necessary and disastrous consequences from prevailing circumstances and call upon all people of good will to solve this subtraction problem with their good will under the given circumstances — they are off the mark. And they lead themselves and their protégés, or those they address, to believe in the feasibility of an alternative that is in fact not to be had in this way. On the contrary: those who are serious about successfully asserting systematically damaged interests can first of all not avoid forming a correct concept of how the prevailing order really works, instead of merely conjuring up an accusatory image. And secondly, they cannot avoid convincing the aggrieved that within this system and with the opportunities it offers they have no realistic prospects of being successful in competition and being better served by political rulers. In all other cases, an ideal of better conditions might really suffice as an effective critique; after all, in a world of competition, one actually only need identify the competitor and take action against him by prescribed means, appeals to the authorities included, in order to have, not by any means success, but realistic prospects of success. Critique in the proper sense of the word logically functions the other way around: an ideal of lovely conditions is no help at all. It knows only one criterion: one has to reach the point from which — if we may make use of Marx’ flowery metaphor — “these petrified relations” can be “forced to dance.”[*] This is its criterion of “feasibility.”
Those of our contemporaries who demand a proof that the “inherently humane idea of communism” is also “possible” have apparently understood the critique of the capitalist order as something like the fairy tale of the land of milk and honey; one may well wonder whether roast pigeons fly into the idle glutton’s mouth there without a finger being lifted. Like clever children questioning the fairy tale, they question the critique, asking whether the abolition of exploitation is really consistent with “reality.” Under this only seemingly naive examination, the lovely idea of a better society is bound to fail since the “reality” against which it has to prove itself is none other than the capitalist reality we criticize, a reality so familiar and obvious to the examiners. They only entertain the thought of whether an economy could be organized differently than it is here and now in order to convince themselves that in the end, “things” really can’t be done differently.
It begins with their crediting capitalism with achievements in supplying goods, to which they aren’t able to imagine any practical alternative at all: How on earth could one get the things one needs other than by going shopping with money? With this question, all the bad experiences ordinary people usually have with shopping suddenly fall by the wayside. First of all one is barred from access to what one needs even though it exists and the access opened up by one’s own money notoriously turns out to be extremely limited. Moreover, this money must be acquired in the first place, which often doesn’t work out at all, and if it does, tends to make a wreck of the people… Wherever one looks, one comes across the fact that the much-lauded “market economy” is anything but an institution of supply. That in this economy “supply” does not exist without money earning and product buying is not a stamp of quality for the “market economy” but rather a sign of its inadequacy. “The market” does not “coordinate” anything, least of all social needs with production. What it brings about in terms of “coordination” is the trivial waste product of a competition that eliminates everything that is not capable of holding its ground, so that in the end, only those who have asserted themselves successfully somehow or another act together. When companies compete for the purchasing power of their customers, they do not serve their customers' needs, but take advantage of them; needs not backed by money do not even come into consideration. One could at least keep this in mind when asking whether an economic life without poverty could function. Nor is it so that the market compels quality; on the contrary. Businesses offer a graded variety of goods, from premium brands to complete rubbish — and all of this makes economic sense as long as it works to steer money from even the poorest customers into their coffers.
Well, there are people who wouldn’t criticize these observations but still maintain that a plan — one plan! — would be much less able to coordinate the needs and production of an entire society because so many divergent interests simply couldn’t be systematically determined and combined. Interestingly, these doubts as to whether economic connections and cooperative relations could be planned in advance are not disturbed at all by a glance at reality, which the doubters otherwise so firmly insist on. Capitalist firms plan their production, material requirements, and output of commodities down to the smallest detail. Not just a factory but the entire chain of production with all its suppliers and customers functions like clockwork, ‘just in time’ — simply for profit, for which all work is done in this country. But for any purpose other than competition for the money of society, planning is somehow absolutely futile!
By the way, many a skeptic of a properly planned economy wouldn’t even deny that the methodical pursuit of this purpose by a whole class of competition-crazy property owners, managers included, brings about poverty and wastefulness, overwork and unemployment in a grotesque, indiscriminate juxtaposition; but only to add a third unbeatable element to their fictitious realism. They declare the conceded absurdities of a “market economy” to be rational, i.e., suitable for the irrational and deficient human being, and all the compulsions to earn and budget money to be salutary as far as the innate shoddy character of mankind is concerned. As all experience teaches, an economy couldn’t function other than by “carrot and stick.” Wouldn’t consumers hoard and endlessly carry away goods if they didn’t have to pay for them? Would producers deliver quality goods, and the ones that are needed at that, without being forced by competition? Indeed, would they produce at all and not be idly lazing about? Who would still save, invest, and provide costly technology, did he not expect compensation? Who would still learn, take up demanding careers, shoulder responsibility, were he not offered twice to two hundred times the normal wage? Those who ask questions like these have a truly first-class circular line of reasoning in mind. They take all the elements of a capitalist economy for granted and make the unrealizable demand to be told how all this could work out any other way. They presuppose permanent poverty and the separation of consumers from the objects of their needs, so that the poor would certainly loot storerooms without the guard standing in front. In the same way, they presume producers who want anything but to produce the means of satisfying needs, so that they have to be lured and forced by a bit of profit into serving the demand. And so forth. The servants of capitalist property aren’t good for much else than their service for capitalist property — well, you don’t say!
In order to make their circular line of reasoning plausible, some anti-critics don’t shy away from pronouncing themselves principal witness to a human nature that wants the unreasonable and reacts only to force. They profess a need for extreme luxury — cars for half a million euros and hand-knotted carpets that require eight thousand working hours — just to be sure of leading us into admitting the economic necessity of suppressing needs: see how greedy human beings are! In the process, these smart alecks do not even notice that the “human nature” they refer to is, if not completely fictitious, then anyway itself the product of a capitalist business acumen that creates the most absurd desires in the first place; namely by offering goods calculated to yield money, without which goods our most greedy contemporary really wouldn’t know what to be greedy for. On the other hand, they grandly ignore the fact that the same business acumen doesn’t exclude the bulk of mankind from such idiotic necessaries at all, but from rather modest goods that could in all cases be had in abundance. The constraints of poverty don’t start with the collection of childish examples from an economics proseminar on the topic of “scarcity.” They start with needs that actually have quite a bit to do with human nature — for instance, the need for an organized secure existence, the need to have as much of one’s lifetime and stamina at one’s own free disposal… This reality, however, is something anti-communist “realists,” who consider the social power of capitalism to be humane, just aren’t interested in. Instead, they absolutely know that “man” is egoistic, works only when compelled, and seeks his own advantage at the expense of others. Expedient cooperation to provide for all parties is something they can imagine only as the abstract and moral opposite of their capitalist private egoism; namely as an unrecompensed sacrifice of work for the common good and thus not worthwhile. At best they think nuns and other screwballs capable of so much self-denial, but not “the human being” they know only too well.
So the question about a workable alternative to capitalism expresses no thirst for knowledge but rather the unshakeable certainty that communism, considered as a humane idea, doesn’t work and cannot work because it is inconsistent with the private property–owning nature of “the” human being. The reverse is also equally clear to such a connoisseur of human nature — and this is why the inquiry into “your alternative” is completely dishonest — and communists are in for it when they nevertheless get down to business with their cause. Then it’s not that they abolish the constraints of the “market economy” but that they simply execute the constraints themselves. And all at once, the constraint that just a minute ago couldn’t be praised enough as necessary and naturally human becomes a horror and a crime. What the opponents of a planned economy treasure above all else about the “market,” namely that it organizes a general restriction and blackmail and coercion that nobody can escape, is exactly what they presume to be the communists’ business and in that case find a priori abhorrent. Hardly do they hear “plan” than they understand “constraint” and discover force, whereas their splendidly functioning capitalism has “merely” nothing but some “necessary constraints” that all of a sudden harm nobody. Hardly does somebody hint that the social conditions of production and distribution should themselves definitely be made an object of reasonable consideration one day and an object of free decision by those affected than they promptly come up with the devastating question: And who will dictate then if “the market” no longer does? Who gets to decide in your society which needs are to be satisfied and which not — your Politburo, an education dictator, Stalin? They have just denounced the marvelous freedom of being allowed to cavort in the “free market” as just a technology for restricting and oppressing mankind — in order to justify it as required by human nature — but now they condemn communists because they intend to rob mankind of this marvelous freedom.
And then you expect us to paint the beauties of a supermarket in a planned economy?!
You are putting high hopes in a critique of the recently ruined economic system in the East, an economy “planned with levers,” which in fact took up competition with capitalism for a more just, more humane, and above all else more worker-friendly — and in the process more efficient — way of restricting and utilizing wage-earning human beings. Well, here you have it, that’s all there is to it. Do you really think that helps?
Perhaps it would be more helpful to consider more closely the widespread condemnation of “Real Socialism” that you cite so affirmatively. In fact, this condemnation involves the application of the fictitious, dishonest test of fitness for reality by which the ideological advocates of “free enterprise” explain absolutely nothing of the hostile system, but simply celebrate their own system in a faked counter-image. In fact, the socialists in the East sought to run their economy differently from capitalism in the West, and did run it differently; at this the official parties are said to have failed. Not true. This system, too, was “possible” and “efficient” in its own way — at any rate far too much so for its enemies in the West. They didn’t wait for an inevitable failure but waged a Cold War against it and tried to drive it to its death with a historically unique arms race. In the end, so-called Real Socialism did not “fall in the face of reality,” but was discarded by its rulers, the communist parties of the East Bloc; and not because their citizens would have rebelled against a scarcity economy, but because the national leadership had compared their means of power and resources with those of their enemy in the West, and had resolved to copy the capitalist system that simply extracts more wealth for the state out of its people. The decisive thing that didn’t “function” well enough in the planned economy of the East was the exploitation of the people to the state’s benefit. Their exit casts a revealing light on the purposes these socialists expressly and energetically realized — after all, that’s why they paid themselves the unspeakable compliment of being not only theoretical but real socialists. With all seriousness, they wanted to set up a superior alternative to capitalism that in every performance measure of capitalist nations would come out ahead of the original. They made their revolution with the purpose of putting an end to the unjust treatment of the workers by factory lords, and of establishing a workers’ state that would clear away the “inefficiency” of capitalism, abolish its crises, and spare national growth the useless burden of luxury consumption on the part of the rich as well as the interruptions of the working process due to class struggle. The activists of this “real socialist” state sought to catch up with and overtake capitalism in output, rate of growth, and labor productivity. And when they had finally persuaded themselves that they’d never achieve this in their way, they lost interest in their socialist alternative. Whatever their system had spared the workers in terms of competition and struggle for existence was no longer interesting for them except in one respect: this was precisely what had been hindering the “efficiency” they were after. Under the motto of “overcoming the phase of stagnation,” they didn’t improve their system then but instead abolished everything that deviated from the formerly criticized capitalism — and from all that, the advocates of “free enterprise” draw only one “conclusion,” enthusiastically invoking the fatal self-criticism of the state socialists who stepped down: how wrong it had been to deviate from the capitalist model in the first place.
If you now would like to hear arguments proving that a planned economy doesn’t have to be as bad as the “inefficient scarcity economy” in the East was — because even you wouldn’t “deny the fact” that East Germany couldn’t maintain its old building stock and was vastly inferior to the West in the area of labor productivity — then you also presume that a style of home decor as found in the golden West and world-record productivity figures are the measure of all things, by which every planned economy also must be judged. That is why we have to remind you which economic reality it is in our country that adorns itself with the label “building stock restoration”: if there are record rents to collect, for instance for public offices, classy downtown showrooms, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, as well as for very well-to-do tenants, then proprietors of fine old houses keep them in good shape. People who have to pay their rent out of wages or salaries normally fear the aesthetic sense of landlords, who take a third or more of their income for permission to lodge in renovated properties. For the same reason, capitalist metropolises supplement their exclusively redeveloped commercial centers with a belt of more or less rundown residential areas for the average consumer — and slums for those who cannot even afford normal rents. In the same way, you indiscriminately accept the labor productivity gap in the East as an objection, and the Western lead as the natural yardstick for correct productivity. Once again, you disregard the purpose for which productivity is continually and sharply raised, as well as its real consequences. The productivity of labor only interests a capitalist businessman because he seeks to extract an ever increasing product from his workers’ paid working hours and thereby save on paid labor — in other words, as a means to raise the profitability of his capital. He lowers his unit costs, seeing to it that one part of his workforce becomes superfluous and loses all income, while the others, who are still needed, not only have to work harder but take home as wages an ever smaller share of the commodity value they have created. With their chase after margins in labor productivity, capitalists force newly valid levels of productivity upon their rivals, thus depreciating their means of production; that is, compelling them to replace their machines and assembly lines by modern ones long before the old ones are worn out as means of labor. In this way, capitalist competitors supplement their radical thrift in the use of paid labor by a gigantic squandering of already performed work. Both — including the associated compulsion to make capital grow or go under — are the consequence of the competition of capitalists to appropriate profit. Nothing in all this is a natural law that a planned society would have to copy.
Wealth in a communist society at any rate doesn’t consist in the absurdity of productive property that thrives on something as absurd as the productive poverty of the bulk of the population, property that needs to grow in this way just to exist, whose growth also makes unproductive misery grow in stride, and that meanwhile takes advantage of the human and material inventory of the entire globe in a most ruinous manner. Nor would people find many a capitalist idiocy, many a trendy fashion, important enough to be ready to expend work on, once they are finally able to decide this for themselves…
If people whom you want to mobilize with a “well thought-out concept of a planned economy” now still go on asking which better alternative we have to offer them, then we must ask in return: Did they really pick out their capitalist existence from a large department store catalogue for systems? Did they perhaps not vote for socialism because they hadn’t received the relevant brochure in time? Or have they perhaps actually heard something about a state that doesn’t permit any alternatives to the system, but restricts its citizen by law to make of the decreed living conditions corresponding to a money economy what they can, that is, to wear themselves out? And if they can really imagine — or at least pretend they can — that one day the power of capital will be broken and a new order will be established, perhaps by them — by whom else? — do they really want to be told immediately afterwards by some new authority what they are to do, and what they are entitled to?
In other words: those who inquire about the attractiveness of what communists have to “offer” confuse the critique of capitalism with election slogans of an alternative elite who promise to run things better for their valued citizens than those currently holding power. They misunderstand themselves as courted voters allowed to choose in a department store for politico-economic systems which one they’d like to place an order for — from others who then are responsible for the delivery. They think as subjects of ruling authorities who decide for them, and they have resolved to remain just that: democratic underlings, who have no choice but between two sorts of rule — but this choice is theirs for sure. What we can tell these people is simply the following: nobody will offer them this free choice. Either they fight for the freedom to organize the politico-economic conditions of their lives in a sensible way, or they will continue to have no say at all in the matter.
[*] Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
© GegenStandpunkt 2007