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by R. Burke
Democracy and Economic Planning: The Political Economy of a Self-Governing Society, by Pat Devine, Westview Press, 1988, ISBN 0-8133-0799-6.
In the last three decades new forms of socialist economic models have arisen to challenge the dominance of both central planning and market socialism. The best known of these is the participatory economics or "parecon" model of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. This proposal for an alternative economic system to capitalism has many desirable features, and has recently begun to attract a greater amount of attention and support. There is, however, another version of participatory socialism with a greater degree of empirical grounding.
This is the participatory planning model of British economist Pat Devine. Devine's model may prove to be more easily attainable and capable of attracting a wider mass base of support beyond a clique of committed supporters.
Part of the lack of recognition for Devine's model, especially in the US, may stem from the fact that his work has largely appeared in academic publications not easily available to a larger audience, and his 1988 masterpiece Democracy and Economic Planning: The Political Economy of a Self-Governing Society, is currently out of print (this author was only able to read it by subscribing to an on-line library service).
Participatory economics has benefited from the fact that one of its authors, Michael Albert, is the founder and editor of Z Magazine, a publication well-known and popular amongst the American left. Devine's proposals are nonetheless better known in Britain, and have even gained the official support of two political organizations there: the Socialist Workers Party (somewhat to Devine's surprise) as well as the UK-based Red Green Study Group. At the time of this writing no political organization supports the parecon model, and its supporters concentrate on attempts to create cooperative enterprises which attempt to implement the principles of parecon. These attempts have met with mixed success at best. While participatory planning shares many features with participatory economics, the two proposals are different in certain features.
Social ownership means that an economic enterprise is owned by those who are affected by its activities.
One of Devine's basic concepts is that of social ownership, which he presents as an alternative to both private and state ownership. Social ownership means that an economic enterprise is owned by those who are affected by its activities: the workers who work there, consumers who buy its products, and citizens of the community in which it is located. Devine answers neoliberal, "free market" advocates who claim that only markets possess the ability to mobilize "tacit knowledge," defined as knowing how to do something as opposed to saying how to do it, which they claim makes necessary private property, undermines attempts at economic planning, and rules out any socialist alternative. To the well known left response that markets are biased in favor of private goods over social ones, and entail externalities which have huge social costs not part of market transactions, Devine adds the insight that tacit knowledge is formed socially, and that markets mobilize the tacit knowledge of those who possess capital only, rather than the larger population.
Another key feature of Devine's model is his distinction between "market forces" and "market exchange." Market forces refer to decisions regarding investment and disinvestment, which are made by the owners and managers of capital without participation by workers, consumers, and the citizens of the larger society. Market exchange is the process of buying and selling goods and services, in which prices are determined by changes in supply and demand. Participatory planning aims at replacing market forces while retaining market exchange, especially for consumer goods.
Participatory planning aims at replacing market forces while retaining market exchange, especially for consumer goods.
Devine's solution for eliminating market forces is "participatory planning through negotiated cooperation" within the context of social ownership. What this means is that workers, consumers, suppliers, and communities come together to negotiate and democratically plan the large scale issues of investment, disinvestment, and allocation of resources, reaching an agreement that can be accepted by all concerned parties. A lengthy section of Democracy and Economic Planning is an historical survey of previous attempts at planning under capitalist, centrally planned, and market socialist economies.
Devine shows that there is empirical evidence that such negotiation has in fact shown itself to be both possible and efficient, and that the lack of success regarding previous attempts at planning has actually stemmed from the limited use made of it by regimes less than committed to economic democracy. His survey begins with the experience of a limited form of negotiated cooperation which was implemented during World War II in Great Britain, which proved itself to be highly effective and which was dismantled, ironically, by the 1945 Labor government because of its association with conditions of wartime austerity!
Devine argues for the need for institutions and councils that would allow for workers, consumers, and citizens to govern their affairs cooperatively and democratically. He conceives of these being federated into larger units from the locality up to the national level. Recognized, though not elaborated on, is the need for institutions of global governance. Many on the left seem reluctant to support the idea of world government. Also welcome is his advocacy of a guaranteed income, a demand that has been a part of the socialist movement since the days of Fourier, but which has often been ignored by many socialists.
Another interesting feature of Devine's model is his proposal for abolishing the social division of labor. He analyzes tasks into five kinds: menial and unskilled, skilled, caring and nurturing, creative, and planning and running. Menial and unskilled tasks should be abolished as much as possible through automation, but Devine recognizes that these will probably not be completely eliminated.
He advocates that every worker concentrate on one particular task for each of his five categories, and be expected to develop a level of expertise in each area. This is a quantum leap over the vague "balanced work complexes" of parecon which its supporters have trouble realizing in practice, and which are often admitted to be not completely attainable!
Devine reserves his planning process for the large scale contours
of the economy, relying instead on market exchange for the rest.
There are major differences between Devine and supporters of parecon. One is his ability to draw upon empirical and historical data to support his ideas rather than presenting an economic model as if it were an exercise in pure reason. Another is his sensitivity to the interconnectedness between the economic and political spheres which actually exists in the real world, rather than treating economics as an isolated and atomistic entity, something which exists nowhere in reality.
A third concerns his ability to distinguish between different aspects of the market and to identify precisely those features which need to be eliminated, and which should be retained. These features have real-world consequences. Whereas Albert and Hahnel attempt to provide a model in which everything, including consumer goods, must be planned out before production and consumption begin, Devine reserves his planning process for the large scale contours of the economy, relying instead on market exchange for the rest. Under parecon a plan would be reached which would soon prove to be out of step with actual economic activity, and would have to be constantly updated. Devine's participatory planning would arguably involve less time and effort in the planning process, and would prove to be more convenient. A model which retains market exchange will also be more attainable, and more understandable to the larger population, than one which would scrap all aspects of markets in favor of a new, unfamiliar, and untested form of exchange.
For environmentalists perhaps most important is Devine's critique of the ideology of productivism and endless growth.
A fourth difference is his recognition that prior to the "withering away of the state," the state will continue to exist and will play a part in the negotiation process. Devine recognizes that in addition to the interests of people as workers and consumers, they also have interests as citizens of the broader society that they are a part of. Whereas Albert and Hahnel have proposed an economic model and then have struggled to show how it might be implemented, Devine's model is not only "utopian" in the positive sense of the word, it is also prefigurative and transformative. It is much easier to see how we might start with the existing state of affairs and move in the direction he proposes.
For environmentalists perhaps most important is Devine's critique of the ideology of productivism and endless growth. With insight he recognizes that the consumerism of late capitalism is largely compensatory, a result of people being placed in a situation where they have little or no control over their working situations, and the affairs of political economy in general. Devine makes the connection between the imperative to reduce production and the demands of the environmental movement. Like Andre Gorz he advocates consuming less, but consuming better. With the increasing threat of global warming his proposals recommend themselves to environmentalists, rather than those of "parecon," whose supporters struggle and strain to show their relevance in regards to environmental concerns, and who are unable to critique the ideology of growth and production.
Taking all these features of Pat Devine's model of participatory planning through negotiated cooperation, his work deserves a more through recognition by the world left, particularly in the US. His proposals are thoroughly "utopistic" in the sense advocated by Immanuel Wallerstein. That is to say that they are credibly realistic while leading in the direction of a more democratic and egalitarian alternative to the capitalist world-system.
R. Burke is an artist and teacher. He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Surrealist Movement.
[10 sep 10]