In 1920, nearly a hundred years ago, a time when Europe was haunted by the specter of communism in the wake of the October revolution, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, a diehard defender of liberalism, claimed in a short, five-part objection that socialism was technically and economically unworkable (Mises, 2012). Anti-communist support to Mises from his own cohort, as well as objections from generations of socialists, have made the “Socialist Calculation Debate” a landmark in the literature.
This debate is still timely and significant beyond its historical import, for two reasons. First, if we scratch the surface of the thesis that “socialism is an impractical, purely fanciful social system, a utopia,” which we so often encounter in public opinion, the universities, and sometimes in the media, almost all the concrete arguments are drawn from Mises and his followers. Second, those socialists who participate in this debate, for their part, are divided between supporters of “market socialism” and defenders of conceptions of a planned economy that goes beyond the market.
Correspondingly, we have two aims in this article.
First, by presenting the main features of the debate and summarizing and interpreting the basic positions of both sides, we will try to answer the question, “can socialism be applied in practice?” To facilitate reading we prefer to deal with each argument and objection on its own and in turn. In the second part we will deal with the ideas (limited to commodity production) of market socialists who have successfully refuted Mises’s theses and, beyond that, the possibility of a planned economy (especially under current conditions)–in short, contrasting conceptions of socialist planning to market socialism.
Arguments and Counter-Arguments
The reader, noticing that we have adopted a defensive line in this section, may ask why we discuss socialism on the basis of capitalist criteria. In brief, for two reasons. First, the accusations against socialism that we touch on below are still quite often expressed in public opinion, daily life, and educational institutions. Usually these objections are too important to be dismissed with an abstract “socialism provides for a completely different social system in which such arguments have no meaning.” Second, in the context of both theory and political propaganda, socialism must be conceived not as an ideal social doctrine or collection of normative pronouncements, but in connection with the contradictions of the existing society and mode of production, with its own political context and tensions. For this reason the objections touched on in the first part must be dealt with carefully, avoiding oversimplification.
It should be made clear that although the socialist calculation debate extended into the 1980s and 1990s, the main framework took shape in the 1920s and 1930s. Here we cannot touch on all the claims that have been put forward. But it will not be wrong to say that the points we deal with below will give direction to and define the main lines of the discussion.
a. Efficient Use of Resources
“Every step that takes us away from private ownership of the means of production and from the use of money also takes us away from rational economics,” Mises warns (Mises, 2012: 17). A reader unfamiliar with the subject will immediately ask what is meant by rationality. And mainstream economic theory will answer unhesitatingly: to obtain maximum utility from given resources, or, putting it the other way around, to obtain a given level of utility (satisfaction of needs) with minimum use of resources.1 According to Mises, the fact that the satisfaction or marginal utility that different individuals draw from consumption has no common unit (or measurability) makes comparison and economic calculation impossible. The price that emerges as a consequence of the reciprocal influences of individuals and producers on the relevant market as a common unit does make this possible. Such is the miracle of the market. The decisions and thoughts of countless individuals about countless commodities, through the channels of supply and demand, concretize, filter, distill, and finally crystallize in price.
Here we will not deal with theoretical problems posed by the mainstream utilitarian approach itself. Just ask any economics major or graduate what he or she thinks about the department’s curriculum, look into their eyes, and you get the idea. Let us instead return to Mises’s claim that economic calculation, and consequently prices, are required for efficient use of resources and that socialism, which abolishes private ownership of the means of production, thereby also eliminates price mechanisms in favor of arbitrary allocation of resources.
The writer maintains that there are two alternative methods of replacing the market with planned allocation of resources.
i) Planning in kind
According to Mises, in the absence of some kind of common unit, namely prices, the planned production of various products is impossible. He accepts that, in view of the limited variety of goods consumed, this might be possible for a household economy, but in the absence of a common unit it is beyond human capacity to acquire the information needed for calculation in an economy simultaneously producing millions of commodities (Mises, 2012: 15ff).
Keeping in mind that Mises’s essay was written in 1920, we may acknowledge that he was not entirely wrong. Indeed, solving the relevant systems of equations for millions of products by hand is next to impossible. Yet significant developments that would facilitate the required calculation, once the targets of the plan are established, did occur. In 1939 the Soviet mathematician Leonid Kantorovich, seeking a solution exactly to this and similar problems (in connection with the 5-year development plans), put forward the principles of linear programming (Kantorovich, 1964: 225ff). Once the plan’s targets are established, determining how resources are to be used, what labor power, and in what quantity, has become rather easy with the computer technology of our time.2 Today’s supercomputers have the capacity to solve linear programming problems involving millions of variables in as little as half an hour (Cockshott, 2007: 17).
At this point the question arises, “okay, but how are the plan’s targets to be determined?” Because in the wake of the “technically impossible, too complicated” objection touched on above, the abolition of the market in favor of socialist planning raises the question “what and how much is to be produced, and consequently, will a handful of planners decide what we are to consume?” For now we will postpone discussion of this problem to later sections.
ii) Planning based on labor-time
Another candidate for a common unit in the absence of the price mechanism is the labor-time embodied in commodities. That is, Mises observes that even if every product lacks a price, if we can apply a label recording the labor-time (directly and indirectly) required for its production, then economic calculation can become possible. But he immediately raises two important objections.
First, if socialist planning is to be done on the basis of labor-time, are skilled (complex) and unskilled (simple) labor to be counted as equal? Concretely, is the labor of a mechanical engineer whose skills required years of training to be considered equal to that of a welder with much less training? In Capital Marx characterizes skilled labor as intensified/multiplied simple labor and says that the former is constantly reduced to the latter by the market (Marx, 1990: 135). Mises does refer to Marx’s position, but unreasonably maintains that if the market is abolished, the proportions of the reduction of different kinds of labor will necessarily become arbitrary (Mises, 2012: 28f).
Like most opponents who have not read Marx (and/or have read him without understanding), Mises, too, ignores the fact that the mode of production being investigated in Capital is capitalism, and that a socialist planned economy based on social ownership of the means of production instead of the market means the abolition of commodity production and the law of value. Consequently, in a socialist society there is no need to reduce different kinds of labor to a common denominator by using labor coefficients (if we leave aside the transitional phase3).
In an egalitarian social system the education required to become an engineer, doctor, scientist, lathe operator, welder, or architect can be financed with social resources, just as the housing, health-care, transportation, and living expenses of the students receiving this education (along with those of all other citizens) can also be met in the same fashion (even while they are out of the process of production). In years to come the skills acquired through education are returned to society in the form of a higher level of productivity, but they are not expressed as a lifelong higher income for the individual, because the costs of education (and the individual’s living expenses during the years of education) were not met out of the individual’s pocket or by going into debt (Cockshott and Cottrell, 1993: chapter 2.)4
Most of the mysteries generated by the market economy are born of focusing all attention on the sphere of exchange. Production (or the labor process) is viewed as carried on behind closed doors purely for the sake of earning the money required for consumption. The labor process thereby ceases to be one in which people realize themselves and discover and develop their capacities and is instead reduced to the status of a vehicle for consumption. Thus, an inversion between ends and means takes place.
If there were a system in which different kinds of labor were regarded as equal and the requisite educational processes and material needs were met by society, then a future would open in which individuals could unhesitatingly enter whatever field they were inclined to or interested in and could even change professions at given intervals. The notion that freedom consists of choosing what is to be consumed (which is in any case contingent on having a job and a given income level) is thereby breached. As Marx believed (Marx, 1991: 959), people freed of the fear of being unable to meet basic needs and of the pressure of competition recover the possibility of realizing and developing their own potential. It is worth emphasizing that it does not follow from this that everyone will have the same income level. Income would be determined proportional to the time expended in the branch of production in which the individual is active. We will revisit this subject below.
Mises’s second objection to the use of labor-time as a common unit of economic calculation relates to natural resources that can be depleted (or that cannot be reproduced). Since these resources are scarce—that is, can be used up—the coefficients of acquiring them to be used in economic calculation must not be measured in necessary labor time. Otherwise the fact that these resources are scarce will be lost sight of, and the problem of depletion of natural resources through overuse will arise (Mises, 2012: 24ff). The mechanism of the market contains an intrinsic measure against excessive use: since the relations of supply and demand that determine a commodity’s market price are in effect, scarce resources are driven up in price compared to other commodities, and excessive use is thereby averted.
This latter claim, of course, is the purest wishful thinking. By its nature capital seeks to expand. In what Marx describes as the most basic cycle of capital—M-C-M’—the capitalist, by investing in means of production and paid labor, transforms his money in hand (M) into capital. The commodities he acquires as the fruit of the production process (C), once brought to the market and sold, are transformed back into money (M’). The sole motivation driving this cyclical movement of capital is to ensure that the M at the start of the cycle is unequal to the M’ at its end, that is, that the latter be greater than the former. It is through the inequality expressed in the M’ > M relation at each closure of these mutually interlinked cycles coming one after the other that capital, taken as a whole,5 expands. It grows steadily like a snowball and acts only to grow ever larger. Where investments that promise a profit are concerned, the scarcity of natural resources or the rise in their price does not constitute an obstacle to capital in steadily increasing its bulk, because more money-capital arises (M’ > M) at the close of each cycle (which is simultaneously the starting point of a new one). As even Piketty admits, the price system knows neither limit nor morality (Piketty, 2014: 6).
We find that we have arrived at a critical point in the efficiency debate (and the debate about socialism being reduced to efficiency). The argument from Mises’s time to our own that resources cannot be used efficiently and that rational action is excluded because socialist planning has abolished the price mechanism suggests that the capitalist market, based on the price mechanism, has been successful in this.
As we pointed out in the opening of this section, in economic theory, technical efficiency means obtaining maximum output from a given set of resources. On the level of the firm this ensures that overall unit production cost is minimized. No doubt each firm, feeling the hot breath of competition on the back of its neck, will seek various ways of lowering its costs. The most important of these are using new techniques and new technology to increase productivity and shifting the relation between wages and the length/intensity of the workday in capital’s favor.
The result is a dynamic mode of production that continually disrupts, destroys, and creates, acting on the level of competition between labor and capital and between capital and capital, producing new technologies. Everything, but everything, passes in the final analysis through one sole prism: profitability. Where it comes to generating profit, the capitalist market economy is indeed efficient.
Social/class relations lie hidden in the expression “given resources” in the definition of efficiency. An example might be an 8-hour day, but could just as easily be a 14-hour one. It may mean a situation in which all citizens have jobs, but may just as easily mean one in which millions are left jobless in order to depress wages. Where it comes to the ecosystem, it may mean that parks, riverbeds, and forests will be protected, but may just as easily be turned into commodities in the service of capital. In the formulation of the definition, every group of “given resources” has an efficient use. The real question is, how is this definition arrived at?
In the strict sense, the suggestion that efficiency amounts to the most appropriate use of resources for society’s benefit is an invention of mainstream economic theory, concerned above all to celebrate capitalism as the ideal social system. Steadily deepening ecological destruction, not to mention the absurd inequality of income distribution, chronic mass employment, and making universal human rights like access to health care, housing, and food dependent on the functioning of the market, highlights the contradictions implicit in capital’s efficiency in generating profit: there is no intrinsic harmony between economic efficiency and social good. What determines whether or not this harmony exists, and if so to what degree, are the social relations under which production occurs.
Marx’s insistent stress on relations of production as opposed to present-day mainstream economists’ dwelling on the functions of production amount to precisely this. Once a given input is fed into the black box, function determines what the output will be. Whereas social relations determine not only the contents of the black box, but also the character of both the inputs and the outputs.
The accusation that socialism is irrational is truly ironic coming from the defenders of a social system that breeds interlinked phenomena like scarcity within abundance, mind-numbing deprivation in a world of unimaginable richness, the rise in unemployment, and the intensification (and in places the lengthening) rather than the shortening of the workday in spite of the steady increase in productivity through new machinery and technologies.
In a nutshell, Mises’s criticism that in the absence of the price mechanism resources will be allocated arbitrarily, that in real life planning will be tantamount to chaos, is groundless in both theory and practice. Socialist planning, using present-day technology, will not fall short of the market economy where it comes to employing resources at the minimal level to reach a given set of targets.
Beyond this, by freeing the production process from the straitjacket of profit, socialism will rise on the basis of social relations that make it possible to take into consideration criteria other than efficiency (in the strict sense). That under socialism technical efficiency is not the only (or even the most important) yardstick gives it its special character.
b. Incentives and Human Nature
Let us move on to the second common objection, which arises in the form “equality is contrary to human nature.” To begin with, it is worth making this clear: socialism is not a system in which everyone has an equal income, buys the same clothes, cars, and computers, and lives in the same housing. Equality arises in individuals’ relation to the production process, in other words, in the ownership of the means of production. What is eliminated is not ownership, but the structure of private ownership of the means of production, and with it class society.
Economics especially emphasizes the connection between incentive and innovation. Mises, too, maintains this tradition, and states that in a system in which the means of production and factories are publicly (or socially) owned, the system of incentives that drives the individuals who manage/organize/direct the production process to take responsibility, increase productivity, and develop new technologies is also eliminated (Mises, 2012: 31ff). It is true that constantly seeking ways to reduce costs is rule number one of capitalist competition. As a result, it is also incontestable that R&D investments play a central role, and that technological progress is an intrinsic feature of capitalism. But that same capitalism which on the one hand constantly develops the productive forces, increases productivity, and intensifies the use of machines and computers in the production process, on the other hand lengthens, and in particular intensifies the working day for those who are employed and leaves ever more workers jobless.
It is precisely here that socialism takes a course different from the market economy. In a system in which the producers are not driven into line by the club of competition, organizing the production process in a more effective way, developing new machines and technology and putting them to use, above all raises the possibility of shortening the workday. In fact, it can be said that this is how a non-monetary incentive is formed. The shortening of that part of the day set aside for the labor obligatory for social reproduction is undoubtedly a desire for every worker.
In fact, it is entirely natural for economic ideology–which depicts individuals as programmed solely to maximize their own profit, making profit and cost analyses moment to moment like walking computers–to claim that without monetary incentives there can be no progress. The trouble is that homo economicus has never existed anywhere except in the dream world of the economists.
When Einstein developed the theories of special and general relativity, or Alan Turing laid the foundations of computer science, neither was motivated by any mechanism of monetary incentive. Cuban doctors doing epoch-making research in various fields and offering the highest quality health services on the planet enjoy no privilege-yielding monetary perks. In 1961 the Soviet Union, having inherited the wreckage of Tsarist Russian infrastructure, technology, and productive forces back in 1917 (and it might be noted that the end of the civil war, when development was launched, more or less coincides with the date of the founding of the Turkish republic), demonstrated its leadership in science and technology by sending the first man into space. All this development was realized under conditions that von Mises and his ilk term “impossible.”
In other words, in a social context not subject to market relations human beings do not wither like flowers plucked from a branch. In other words, it is just not true that by nature human beings can grow and develop only under market conditions. A planned economy, just like a market economy, will breed dynamic new techniques and technologies. But since innovation will be driven by motives different from those that prevail in the market, the results generated will likewise be different.
c. Too Complex and Unwieldy?
We have already touched on one of Mises’s objections, the alleged impossibility of gathering and processing data for large numbers of products in the absence of a market and price mechanism. This argument was also embraced by another of the gods of liberalism, Friedrich von Hayek (Hayek, 1963: 212). Hayek, however, writing in 1935, was familiar with the solution advanced by Enrico Barone in 1908 (Barone, 1963) and repeated by Taylor in 1929 (Taylor, 1929). Hayek, who knew—at least theoretically—that the problem of resource allocation could be solved through a system of equations updated by trial-and-error techniques, was careful not to carry his objection too far. Below we will deal in detail with the market-socialism solution that was given its finished form by Oskar Lange.
Hayek chose to attack on a different—and perhaps more important—basis than complexity. A commodity’s market price is dependent not only on supply and demand, but also on changing technological capacity, changes in inputs costs (fluctuations in harvests consequent to changes in climate, for instance), in short, on the totality of the conditions of production. Even if all these factors change constantly, each individual producer gives expression to them in the prices of the commodities they produce. Price thereby gives assorted signs and signals to all market protagonists (producers and consumers).
If the price mechanism were eliminated, a plan drawn up for given circumstances (of technology, cost structure, etc.) could not keep up with all these changes. That is, planning cannot duplicate the dynamic aspect of the market, which quickly adapts to changing conditions (Hayek, 1963: 210ff; Hayek, 1949: 188).
Hayek may be answered from two standpoints. First, present-day means of communication have so accelerated the speed with which data can be obtained and transmitted that any objection based on the unwieldiness of planning is groundless. With internet technology any development anywhere can be transmitted to the far side of the world in less than a second with no difficulty. But the more important issue here concerns the change new technology creates for the possibilities of production, that is, how information is to be formed, how technology not yet in use (and hence not included in the plan) can change the plan itself. Though this question has no easy answer, for every financial-planning period we can consider allocating a research budget for experiments and simulations seeking answers to just such questions (Cockshott and Cottrell, 1993: 16f.). In any case, capitalist entrepreneurs also amass information through this sort of trial-and-error procedure and through R&D investments.
Second, in a socialist society information and technology are not generated for profit-making and are not kept secret. Patent laws and the array of measures taken by firms in day-to-day competition to hide the “magic formula” of their products impede capitalist competition, new technology, and the dissemination of information. Production is carried out for profit. Technology and information are not exempt from this. Information transmitted by the price mechanism, taking no account of social good, is by nature alienated.
Socialist planning, of course, makes no claim to imitate these aspects of the market economy. Information and technology have a different character under socialism, in both content and mode of transmission. For instance, there would be no reason to develop technology that poisons the air we breathe in an effort to augment efficiency (and profit), since there would be no pressure of competition. There would likewise be no need for secrecy about new information/technology aimed at increasing productivity, because there would be no conflict of interest among the producers. Socialism thereby makes transparency possible by eliminating the vise of competition.
d. Consumer Hegemony
The last objection we’ll deal with in this section is, alongside the “planning is not efficient, it causes waste” argument, the most effective weapon of anticommunist propaganda in the academy and public opinion alike. So much so that Hayek, who dedicated his life to the defense of freedom6(!), dealt with it exhaustively in a separate book (Hayek, 1944). The accusation is fairly simple: in a planned economy the central planners will decide what products and services are to be produced, political power will inevitably be centralized accordingly, and the rest of society will be enslaved.
To begin with, let us emphasize that demand (or consumption) is not defined solely by the desire or freedom to buy. No matter how intensely people may desire, if they lack the requisite purchasing power, they can’t meet their needs, and the “desire/freedom to buy” in practice means nothing. In Turkey, for example, there are at least 6.5 million minimum-wage workers—more like 8-10 million if, more realistically, we include some of the 3.5 million who work off the books. According to the (highly suspect) calculations of TÜRK-İŞ (Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions, a conservative trade-union federation), as of the end of 2016 the monthly food cost for a family of four existing on the borderline of hunger is 1432 Lira, while attaining “a standard of living compatible with human dignity” (as defined by TÜRK-İŞ) would cost the same family 4665 Lira a month. In short, Hayek and company have good news for the millions of workers squeezed between hunger and deep poverty [with a gross monthly minimum wage of about 2000 lira and a net monthly minimum wage of about 1600 lira at the time of translation—Abstrakt]: unable to make it to the end of the month and drowning in debt as they may be, at least they are “free”!
Clearly, the most basic priority of a planned economy will be to see to the primary (life-sustaining) needs of all inhabitants without exception. A portion of social resources will always be allocated for production of basic goods and services including components like food and drink, clothing, housing, health care, education, and transportation.
Other goods and services that are not necessary for purposes of social reproduction (like personal motor vehicles and computers, home furnishings of varying design such as tables, sofas, cabinets, etc.) can be produced through a planned process by taking account of the desires of individuals. Present-day software systems collect the most detailed data on the products people are interested in, for instance, which history books on which periods a given individual has purchased (or even simply browsed) online. Everyone knows full well that internet sites offering personalized choices like Amazon, eBay, or Google do so while tracking our every step.
In a socialist society, of course, the use of this technology will be different. Data will be collected not so as to encourage consumption but to replace already sold products with new ones and to establish the basic trends of consumer behavior. Beyond this, participatory planning is surely possible through interlinked local-to-center decision-making councils connected by a computer network sensitive to interaction between the local councils and to changes in production and consumption.
Hayek’s suggestion is that planning ipso facto excludes democratic participation and has to be done from a narrow center. But as we will see in the second part of this essay, this a priori claim is just as hollow and unfounded as the identification of freedom with private property.
In this part we have discussed the most salient main points of the Socialist Calculation Debate, focusing on predominantly technical subjects. In brief, we have seen that where it comes to resource allocation without waste, generation of new methods and technologies, and adapting the planning and production structure to changing conditions, there is no technical or theoretical reason why a socialist economy should lag behind a market economy based on private property.
Perhaps more important, we have argued that the concept of efficiency is not merely technical, but has an inevitable social and class content as well. Capitalist production mobilizes all available resources in the interest of generating profit. The length and intensity of the workday, working conditions, the plundering of natural resources, and destruction of the ecosystem all fall outside the criterion of technical efficiency.
In this sense, the efficient use of resources (or use causing the least waste), however important and necessary from a socialist standpoint, is in no case sufficient. Exactly for this reason, discussion about socialism cannot be reduced to an efficiency competition within the narrow framework imposed by the bourgeois outlook.
Defenses by neoclassical socialism, the best known being Oskar Lange’s (Lange, 1936 and Lange, 1937), fell into this trap, claiming that an overall balance of total supply and demand can be established by socialist planning and only by socialist planning, thereby imagining planning according to the success criteria of capitalism and within its conceptual world.
On the other hand, there are many socialists who not only accept the objections of Mises and Hayek and their ilk, but also see the collapse of the Soviet Union as the defeat of planning, taking the view that socialism can survive only so long as it is reconciled to the market.
1. I will not go into the discussion of Pareto efficiency and welfare, which incudes efficiency in both production and consumption, since I want to keep the focus on the sphere of production. We therefore take the definition of technical efficiency as a reference.
2. Here I will not go into the issue of linear programming’s exclusion of economies of scale and the use of non-linear methods.
3. Here I leave aside Marx and Engels’s distinction betwen socialism and communism, since it is not directly related to our subject. I consequently use the concepts of socialism and communism synonymously.
4. We should mention that the pro-planning socialists who contributed to the debate in the 1990s and 2000s were not of like mind on the issue of equating different concrete labors. Those interested should see Campbell (2002).
5. Here we are abstracting from competition between individual capitals and the destructive effects of this competition on those capitals, as well as the redivision between capitals of total surplus-value consequent to prices disproportionate to labor values, and similar difficulties.
6. Let us not forget, for instance, how Hayek’s love for freedom impelled him to support the fascist Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, where he also played an important role in shaping the post-coup economic policies of this first laboratory of neoliberalism.
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