Participatory Planning

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Participatory planning as a fundamental characteristic of 21th cy. socialism

Martha Harnecker:

25. If we examine the characteristics that we have noted of the new society we want to build, we see that that transferring ownership over the strategic means of production to the state is not enough, as this does not mean anything other than a juridical change of property. The subordination of workers to an external force continues; there are new socialist managers, but the alienated status of the workers in the production process remains unchanged. This is formally collective property, because the state represents society, but real appropriation (ownership) is still not collective.

26. That is why Engels argues “state-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict [between the increasingly social character of production and private ownership over the means of production],” although he adds that “concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.” What is the solution? He maintains that “this solution can only consist in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production, and therefore in the harmonizing of the mode of production, appropriation and exchange with the socialized character of the means of production. And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces, which have outgrown all controls, except that of society as a whole. […]”[19]

27. But what does it mean for society to take possession of the means of production? Society is a highly abstract concept: it may mean all of humanity. In my understanding what we need to determine is who should have effective possession of those means of production — i.e., who should be entitled to use, enjoy and dispose of those assets. It is here that Pat Devine’s contribution of distinguishing among different levels of social ownership seems important to me. Each level is associated with who is “affected by decisions over the use of the assets involved, in proportion to the extent to which they are affected.”[20]

28. According to this logic, who should be the owner of a bakery that produces bread and sweets for a given geographic area, for a commune, for example? If the bakery workers live in that area, if the raw material needed for the bread comes from local farmers, and the bread and sweets that are produced are also consumed locally, there is no sense in the bakery being property of the nation; it should be owned by that commune.

29. In contrast, in the case of a strategic enterprise such as oil, it would be absurd for the oil workforce to claim ownership of these resources, which belong to all inhabitants of the country (or even to humanity as a whole). This doesn’t means however that those workers should not play a decisive role in the management of the enterprise. The surplus that is produced cannot be dedicated solely to improving the lives of its workers, but should also be devoted to new investment in the enterprise, to improving the living conditions of surrounding community, and, due to its status of wealth that belongs to the nation as a whole, should provide a substantial contribution to the national budget. The legal ownership of this enterprise should be in the hands of the state in representation of the nation, the effective control of the production process should be in the hands of the enterprise’s employees, but the destination of the wealth obtained — once the investments necessary for the reproduction of the productive process and labor remuneration have been deducted — should be defined by society as a whole.

30. How, then, does the commune (in the first case) and society (in the second) define what is to be done with the fruits of productive activity? Here is where an essential role must be played by the participatory planning process — which will be very different from bureaucratic planning – as it is only via this process that society – in its different levels – can really appropriate for itself the fruits of labor that it generates

31. I share with Pat Devine[21], the idea that the actors in participatory planning will vary according to different levels of social ownership. In the case of the community bakery, decisions on how much to produce with what raw materials, what quality, what variety, when the product should be ready, how to distribute it, how much to invest in maintaining or expanding the enterprise, etc., should be made not only by those who work in the bakery but also by the people who produce the raw material used and by the consumers of bread and sweets. In the case of the oil enterprise, while its workers must participate in management, decisions concerning reinvestment, new investment, marketing, the destination of the rest of the surplus, must involve the entire society. In both cases: the local society or the national society should be present through its various representatives or spokespersons.

32. I wanted to focus on this issue as participatory planning is often neglected as one of the central characteristics of socialism. In my opinion, there can be no socialism if there is no participatory planning, that is, if society does not “openly and directly” take possession of the means of production – as Engels put it — through the exercise of participatory planning.[22]

33. But if 21st-century socialism is about returning to the ideas of Marx and Engels, this does not mean that we shouldn’t carry out a rigorous criticism of the experiments in so-called “real socialism” in order to learn from them and avoid repeating its errors and deviations. These weigh too heavily in the minds of the people for us to pretend we can raise the socialist flag without dealing with our own past.

34. For some this process will last decades. For others, such as Samir Amin, it will take centuries – just as capitalism took centuries to consolidate itself – and there are those, such as myself, who see it as a utopian goal that lights the path, that orientates the struggle, but one that we will never fully achieve. This is not being pessimistic, as some might think. On the contrary, a utopian goal that is well defined helps us chart our course, strengthens our resolve to struggle and each step which brings us closer to the horizon, as small as it maybe, is considered positive." (

More Information

* Brabham, D. C. (2009). “Crowdsourcing the public participation process for Planning projects.” Planning Theory 8(3): 242.