Democratic Socialism Under a Digital Planned Economy

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Kees van der Pijl:

"The Soviet experiments with digital planning, most of which remained confined to the drawing board, are yet important to assess the possibilities of collectively operating system of computerised direction of an economy at the service of society. One would imagine that a number of directly involved mathematicians and computer engineers are still around to enlighten the world about what was and can be achieved here. There was also an important experiment with digital planning in Chile under Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government in which the element of responsiveness to popular concerns (and to disruptions) was explicitly accounted for, but it was cut short by the Pinochet coup in 1973.

The question I address in the remaining part of this essay is how social control of the economy, as part of a broader social self-determination guaranteeing maximum individual autonomy, might be realised.

Unlike the Soviet digital planning experience, which transpired when the United States was also in the early, experimental phase of the Information Revolution, this time, the capitalist economy has pioneered key aspects of digitalisation, as noted with repression and war preparation as key objectives. However, there is also a conscious attempt to revitalise the system ideologically by attaching it to a new bourgeois, entrepreneurial heroism. Presented first at the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering at Davos in 2009, a ‘New Deal on Data’ was launched to turn those providing their data into active property owners of what can be done with it. As Evgeny Morozov relates, the idea caught on and both the EU and the UN embraced the notion of a new era of enterprising data owners, who would directly engage in transactions with each other, essentially an ownership-based Peer-to-Peer (P2P) system, with the allure of emancipation but firmly based on private property rights.17 However, the ambivalences of digitalisation in principle work to empower the population at large too. The Open Source and Open Data spheres are effectively operating as a democratic movement increasingly confronting the economically powerful private sector, which owns the media, enjoys privileged state protection nationally and internationally and yet is weaker, in terms of the larger transition underway, than the open, public domains. The transition hinges on how states will respond to pressures to ensure the security (job, food, energy security and the like) of the population under conditions of extreme financial volatility. ‘Just as companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon build regulatory mechanisms to manage their platforms, government exists as a platform to ensure the success of our society, and that platform needs to be well regulated’, writes O’Reilly.

The Open Data movement, in which Aaron Swartz was an iconic leading figure (he took his own life when faced with a draconian sentence in the US for making privately copyrighted academic materials publicly accessible), seeks to create a data universe parallel to the Big Data available to the corporate sector, ‘civic data’. The ubiquity of data itself already works to generate a culture that is moving away from the bourgeois one of possessive individualism, or any other individualism that is irresponsible relative to the large questions of human survival. The availability of these data create expectations and habits that help build a civic culture which is resistant to corporate control.

Hence it will be essential that movements making demands on capital and the state (whether through trade union action or in movements such as the Yellow Vests in France) also demand control facilities embedded in Open Data systems accessible to all. These will then serve to complement the operation of representative organs, from the United Nations and its functional and regional organisations down to national and sub-national parliaments and councils. As more and more issues concerning the organisation of the economy, the safeguarding of the biosphere including human health, etc. will be reclaimed for democratic decision-making, these bodies will again begin to attract quality memberships. After all, the decline of representative organs has everything to do with the fact that in neoliberal capitalism the oligarchies behind the major banks and corporations decide, and representative organs are merely there to rubber-stamp their decisions. Through the IT infrastructure, old ideals such as the right to recall of elected officials are becoming a reality because citizens will be provided with real-time information on how representatives vote. In combination with freely accessible tax data and data on secondary occupations of representatives, the citizenry will be able to reclaim true sovereignty.

Clearly, the expropriation of large private concerns (in the case of public utilities by not renewing the leases when they come up for renewal, as proposed by the Labour Party in Britain) would have to be complemented by a movement to reclaim the media from corporate control in order to make meaningful public discussion possible. In this way the aforementioned structures of public representation, subject to digital transparency, may be expected to begin to set targets beyond the day-to-day management of current affairs.

Within these broad parameters of a socialist reorientation of society as a whole, specific digital regulation according to O’Reilly would require four steps:

1) an understanding of the desired outcome;

2) ‘real-time measurement whether that outcome is being achieved’;

3) algorithms (ordering rules meant to allow adjustment on the basis of new data), and

4) ‘Periodic, deeper analysis of whether the algorithms themselves are correct and performing as expected’. "


More information

  • Katharina Loeber,. ‘Big Data, Algorithmic Regulation, and the History of the Cybersyn Project

in Chile, 1971–1973’. Social Sciences, 7 (65) 2018, doi:10.3390/socsci7040065, pp. 1-15.

  • Evgeny Morozov, ‘Digital Socialism? The Calculation Debate in the Age of Big Data’. New Left

Review, 2nd series (116-117), 2019, pp. 33-4.

  • W. Paul Cockshott, and Allin Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism. Nottingham: Spokesman

Books [pdf edition].1993, pp. 57-8.