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The need for economic planning in any serious and radical process of socio-ecological transition is becoming increasingly evident, in contrast to the traditional positions of the green parties, which are in favour of an ecological variant of the market economy, i.e. green capitalism.

In her latest book, Naomi Klein points out that any serious response to the climate crisis must “regain the mastery of an art that was insulted during the decades of iron liberalism: the art of planning. In her view, this means industrial planning, land use planning, agricultural planning, employment planning for workers whose tasks would have become obsolete with the [ecological] transition, and so on. “It is therefore about re-learning how to plan our economies according to our collective priorities and not according to profitability criteria” [1].

Democratic Planning
The socio-ecological transition to an ecosocialist alternative implies public control of the main means of production and democratic planning: for decisions on investments and technological changes to serve the common good of society and respect the environment, they have to be taken from banks and capitalist enterprises.

Who should make these decisions? Often, the socialists’ response was: the workers. In Capital Marx’s book III, he defined socialism as a society in which “the producers associated rationally regulate their metabolism with nature. However, in Book I we find a broader vision: “an association of free men working with collective means of production” [2]. This is a much more appropriate conception: production and consumption should be rationally organized not only by producers, but also by consumers and, in fact, by society as a whole; that is, by the productive or non-productive population: students, young people, women (and men) in the home, retirees, etc.

In this sense, society as a whole will be free to decide democratically the production lines to be privileged and the level of resources to be invested in education, health or culture. The price of these goods will no longer be determined by the law of supply and demand, but will be established, as far as possible, according to social, political and ecological criteria.

Far from being despotic in itself, democratic planning constitutes the exercise of freedom of choice for society as a whole. It is a necessary exercise to emancipate oneself from economic laws and from alienating and reified steel cages within the capitalist and bureaucratic structure. Democratic planning linked to the reduction of working time would mean considerable progress for humanity towards what Marx called the “realm of freedom”: the increase of free time is in fact a condition for the participation of workers in the discussion and democratic management of both the economy and society.

Free market advocates tirelessly use the failure of Soviet planning to justify their radical opposition to any form of planned economy. We do not need to discuss the achievements or failures of the Soviet experience to know that it was undoubtedly a form of “dictatorship over needs”, to quote the expression of György Márkus and his Budapest schoolmates: an undemocratic and authoritarian system that gave a small oligarchy of techno-burocrats a monopoly on decisions. It was not the planning that led to dictatorship; it was the increasing limitation of democracy within the Soviet state and the establishment of totalitarian bureaucratic power after Lenin’s death that led to an increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic system of totalitarian bureaucratic planning. If it is true that socialism is defined as the control of the production process by workers and the population in general, the Soviet Union under Stalin and its successors had nothing to do with this definition.

The failure of the USSR shows the limits and contradictions of bureaucratic planning in which inefficiency and arbitrariness are blatant; therefore, it cannot be used as an argument against establishing truly democratic planning. The socialist conception of planning means above all the radical democratization of the economy: if it is true that political decisions cannot remain in the hands of a small elite of leaders, why not apply the same criteria to decisions of an economic nature? The question of the balance between the mechanisms of the market and those of planning is certainly complex; during the early stages of a new society, it is true that the market will still carry significant weight, but as the transition to socialism progresses, planning will become increasingly important.

In the capitalist system, the use of value is only a means – and often a stratagem – subordinated to the exchange of value and profitability, which explains why so many products make no sense in our society. In a planned socialist economy, the production of goods and services only meets the criterion of value use, which has spectacular economic, social and ecological consequences.

Of course, democratic planning affects the main economic options and not the management of restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, small businesses or craft or service companies at the local level. Similarly, it should be noted that planning does not contradict workers’ self-management in their workplaces. For example, while the decision to transform a car factory into a bus or tram factory will be taken by society as a whole, the internal organisation and functioning of the company will have to be managed democratically by the workers themselves. There has been much debate about the centralised or decentralised nature of planning, but what is fundamental is democratic control of the plan at all levels: local, regional, national, continental and hopefully planetary, because issues relating to ecology (such as the climate crisis) are global and can only be addressed at that level. This proposal could be called global democratic planning. Even at this level, it is planning that opposes what is repeatedly defined as central planning, since economic and social decisions will not be taken by any centre, but will be determined democratically by the population concerned.

It is clear that there will be tensions and contradictions between self-organized spaces and local administrations or wider social sectors; negotiation mechanisms will be needed to resolve conflicts of this kind, but in the end it will be up to the wider social sectors, and only if they are in the majority, to impose the decision. To give an example: a self-managed factory decides to dump its toxic waste in a river, whose pollution will affect the population of the entire region. In these circumstances, and after a democratic debate, one can decide to stop production at this plant until a satisfactory solution to control the waste is found. Ideally, in an ecosocialist society, the plant’s own staff will be environmentally aware to make decisions dangerous to the environment and the health of the local population. However, the introduction of mechanisms that guarantee the decision-making power of the population in defence of general interests, as in the previous example, does not mean that issues related to internal management should not be submitted to the public at company, school, neighbourhood, hospital or village level.

Ecosocialist planning must be based on democratic and pluralist debate at all levels of decision-making. Delegates to planning bodies will be elected on the basis of parties, platforms or other forms of political organization, and proposals will be directed to stakeholders. In other words, representative democracy has to be enriched and improved by a direct democracy that allows people to decide directly – at local, national and finally international level – between different proposals. In this way, the entire population would make decisions about, say, free public transport, vehicle taxes to finance public transport, solar energy subsidies to make it competitive with fossil energy, reducing working time to 30, 25 or less hours a week, even if it means a decrease in production.

The democratic nature of the planning does not make it incompatible with the participation of experts whose role is not to decide, but to present arguments – often different and even opposing – in the democratic decision-making process. As Ernest Mandel pointed out: “Governments, political parties, planning councils, scientists, technocrats or anyone else can make proposals, present initiatives or try to influence the people… However, in a multiparty system, such proposals will never be unanimous: the people will choose between coherent alternatives. Therefore, the right and effective power to make decisions must be in the hands of the majority of producers and consumers, the majority of citizens and no one else. There is some hint of paternalism or despotism in this approach” [3].

The question arises: What guarantee is there that people will make the right decisions, those that will protect the environment, even if the price to be paid is to change part of their consumption habits? There is no such guarantee; we have only the reasonable prospect that the rationality of democratic decisions will triumph when the fetishism of consumer goods is abolished. Is it true that people will make mistakes, that they will make choices that are not the right ones, but experts do not make the same mistakes? It is impossible to conceive of the construction of a new society without the majority of the people having achieved a great socialist and ecological consciousness, the fruit of their struggles, their self-education and their social experience. It is reasonable, therefore, to believe that serious mistakes – even decisions incompatible with environmental needs – will be corrected. In any case, one might wonder whether the alternatives – the ruthless market, the ecological dictatorship of the experts – are not much more dangerous than the democratic process with all its limits?

Certainly, technical and executive groups that can implement the decisions taken are needed for work planning, but their decision-making capacity would be subject to the permanent and democratic control exercised by the lower levels where democratic administration is carried out through workers’ self-management. Naturally, it is inconceivable to think that the majority of the population would use their free time for self-management or participatory meetings. As Ernest Mandel pointed out: “Self-management does not imply the suppression of delegation, but the combination of decision-making by the citizenry and the rigorous control of delegates by their respective voters” [4].

A long process not without its contradictions
The transition from the destructive progress of the capitalist system to ecosocialism is a historical process, a revolutionary and permanent transformation of society, culture and mentalities; and politics, in the broad sense we have defined above, is undeniably at the heart of that process. It is important to emphasize that this transformation cannot take place without a revolutionary change in social and political structures and without the active support of a broad majority of people for the ecosocialist program. Socialist and ecological consciousness is a process in which the decisive factors are the collective experience and struggles of the population, which from partial confrontations at the local level advance to a perspective of radical social change. This transition will not only lead to a new mode of production and a democratic and egalitarian society, but also to an alternative way of life, a true ecosocialist civilization beyond the empire of money and its artificial consumption habits induced by production, as well as the unlimited production of useless or environmentally harmful goods.

Thus, the problem does not lie in excessive consumption in the abstract, but above all in the type of dominant consumption whose main characteristics are: ostensive property, massive waste, obsessive accumulation of goods and compulsory acquisition of pseudo-news imposed by fashion. A new society would direct production towards the satisfaction of real needs, starting with what could be described as biblical needs: water, food, clothing and housing, and including essential services such as health, education, culture and transportation.

Of course, countries where these needs are far from being met, that is, countries in the southern hemisphere, would have to develop much more – building railways, hospitals, sanitation and other infrastructure – than the industrialized countries, but this would have to be compatible with a production system based on renewable energy and therefore not harmful to the environment. These countries will need to produce large quantities of food for their starving population, but – as the internationally organized peasant movements in the Via Campesina network have been pointing out for years – this is an objective that is easier to achieve through organic peasant agriculture based on family units, cooperatives or collective farms than through the destructive and anti-social methods of the agribusiness industry whose principle is the intensive use of pesticides, chemical ingredients and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The current odious system of debt and imperialist exploitation of the resources of the South by the capitalist and industrialized countries would be replaced by the impulse of technical and economic support from the North to the South. It would not be necessary – as certain puritanical and ascetic ecologists seem to believe – to reduce in absolute terms the standard of living of the European or North American population. It would simply be necessary for this population to get rid of useless products, those that do not satisfy any real need and whose obsessive consumption is driven by the capitalist system. By reducing the consumption of these products, the standard of living would be redefined and would give rise to a really richer lifestyle.

How can we distinguish authentic needs from artificial, false or simulated needs? The advertising industry – which influences needs through mental manipulation – has penetrated all spheres of human life in modern capitalist societies. Everything is forged according to its rules; not only food and clothing, but also areas such as sports, culture, religion and politics. Advertising has invaded the streets, mailboxes, television screens, newspapers and our entire landscape in an insidious, permanent and aggressive way. This sector contributes directly to ostensive and compulsive consumer habits. It also leads to an enormous waste of oil, electricity, working time, paper and chemical products (among other raw materials), which are paid for entirely by consumers. This is a production sector that is not only useless from a human point of view, but is also in contradiction with real social needs.

Although advertising is an indispensable dimension of a capitalist market economy, it would make no sense in a society in transition to socialism. It would be replaced by information on products and services provided by consumer associations. The criterion for differentiating a genuine need from an artificial need would be its permanence after the abolition of advertising. Of course, old consumer habits will persist for some time because nobody has the right to tell people what their needs are. Changing the consumption model is a historical process and an educational challenge.

Some products, like the individual car, pose more complex problems. The individual car is a public problem. On a planetary level, they kill or maim hundreds of thousands of people each year; they pollute the air in big cities – with terrible consequences for the health of children and the elderly – and they contribute significantly to the climate crisis. On the other hand, the car meets the real needs in the current conditions of capitalism. In European cities where the authorities care about the environment, local experiences – which have the majority support of the population – show that it is possible to gradually limit the use of private cars to favor buses or trams. In a process of transition to eco-socialism, free public transportation – both surface and underground – would be greatly expanded, while the streets would be protected for pedestrians and cyclists.

Consequently, the individual car would occupy a much less important place than in bourgeois society, where it has become a fetish promoted by intense and aggressive advertising. The car is a symbol of prestige, a sign of identity – in the USA, the driver’s license is recognized as an identity card – it occupies a central place in personal, social and erotic life. In this transition to a new society, it will be much easier to drastically reduce road freight transport – responsible for tragic accidents and a very high level of pollution – and replace it with rail transport: only the absurd logic of capitalist competitiveness explains the current development of road freight transport.

Faced with these proposals, the pessimists will answer: yes, but people are motivated by infinite aspirations and desires that must be monitored, analyzed, rejected and even repressed, if necessary. And, in that case, democracy could suffer certain restrictions. However, ecosocialism is based on a reasonable hypothesis already presented by Marx: the prevalence, in a non-capitalist society, of being over having; that is, the primacy of free time over the desire to possess innumerable objects; personal fulfillment through cultural, sports, recreational, scientific, erotic, artistic and political activities.

As we have already pointed out above, this does not mean, especially during the transition period, the absence of conflict: between the needs of environmental protection and social needs, between ecological obligations and the need to develop basic infrastructure – especially in poor countries – between popular consumption habits and lack of resources… A society without social classes does not mean a society without contradictions and conflicts. The latter are inevitable: solving them will be the role that democratic planning will have to play through open and pluralist debates that allow society to take decisions from an eco-socialist perspective, free from the pressures of capital and profit. This common and participatory democracy is the only means not to avoid mistakes being made, but to correct them collectively.

Dreaming of a green socialism or, as some say, of a solar communism, and fighting for this dream does not mean that the effort to achieve concrete and urgent reforms is abandoned. While we should not have any illusions about clean capitalism, we should at least try to gain time and impose some basic changes on the public authorities, such as a general moratorium on GMOs, a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, strict regulation of industrial fishing and the use of pesticides and chemical substances in agro-industrial production, a greater boost to public transport, the gradual replacement of trucks by trains?

These urgent eco-social demands can lead to a process of radicalization, provided they do not accommodate the demands of competitiveness. Based on the logic of what Marxists call a transition program, each small victory, each small partial advance leads immediately to a greater demand, to a more radical goal. Struggles over concrete objectives are important, not only because partial victories are useful in themselves, but also because they contribute to ecological and socialist consciousness. Moreover, these victories promote activity and self-organization from below: two necessary and decisive conditions to achieve a radical, i.e. revolutionary, transformation of the world.

There will be no radical transformation until the forces committed to a radical, socialist and ecological program are hegemonic, in the sense that Antonio Gramsci understood. On the one hand, time is our ally, because we are working for the only change capable of solving environmental problems, whose situation is only aggravated by threats – such as the climate crisis – that are increasingly close. On the other hand, time is limited, and in a few years – no one can predict how much – the damage may be irreversible. There is no reason for optimism: the power of the current elites at the top of the system is immense and the radical forces of opposition are modest. Yet they are the only hope we have of halting capitalism’s destructive progress.

3/04/2020

Notas:

1/ N. Klein, Plan B pour la planète : le New Deal vert, Paris, Actes sud, 2019, p. 117.

2/ K. Marx, El Capital, Siglo XXI, Tomo III, p. 398 y Tomo 1, p. 51.

3/ E. Mandel, Power and money, Verso, Londres, 1991, p. 209.

4/ E. Mandel, Power and money, op. Cit., p. 204.

5/ El filósofo alemán Hans Jonas (Le principe responsabilité, Éd. du Cerf, 1979) evocó la posibilidad de una “tiranía bondadosa” para salvar la naturaleza y el ecofascista finlandés Pentti Linkola (Voisiko elämä voittaa. Helsinki, Tammi, 2004) es partidario de una dictadura que impida el crecimiento económico.

6/ E. Mandel, Power and money, op. cit., p. 206.

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