People's Republic of Walmart

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* Book: Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski. The People's Republic of Walmart: How the World's Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism. Verso (Jacobin), .

URL = ebook


From the publisher:

"ince the demise of the USSR, the mantle of the largest planned economies in the world has been taken up by the likes of Walmart, Amazon and other multinational corporations

For the left and the right, major multinational companies are held up as the ultimate expressions of free-market capitalism. Their remarkable success appears to vindicate the old idea that modern society is too complex to be subjected to a plan. And yet, as Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski argue, much of the economy of the West is centrally planned at present. Not only is planning on vast scales possible, we already have it and it works. The real question is whether planning can be democratic. Can it be transformed to work for us?

An engaging, polemical romp through economic theory, computational complexity, and the history of planning, The People’s Republic of Walmart revives the conversation about how society can extend democratic decision-making to all economic matters. With the advances in information technology in recent decades and the emergence of globe-straddling collective enterprises, democratic planning in the interest of all humanity is more important and closer to attainment than ever before."


"Phillips and his co-author, Canadian labour organiser Michal Rozworski, have outdone themselves with this volume.

The two are addressing themselves to the socialist calculation debate, which raged through Austrian economic circles a century ago, with market-focused economists like Ludwig von Mises arguing that it was technically impossible to calculate an efficient allocation of goods in a large, industrial society, and that markets alone -- as a kind of distributed calculation engine -- could solve the problem of getting goods to the people who could make best use of them.

Von Mises won the argument in the 1920s, but a funny thing happened on the way to the 2020s: we are now surrounded by companies and organisations that within the same order of magnitude as the Soviet economy at its apex, which undertake breathtakingly efficient allocations of goods and resources, and all without markets, running as command economies.

You've heard of these comparable-to-the-Soviet-Union command economies: Amazon. Walmart. The Pentagon. There are many more. Each one is an existence-proof of the idea that markets are not needed for mass-scale allocation. What's more, the counterexamples, like Sears -- which implemented internal markets at the insistence of an ideology-blinded libertarian CEO -- show that markets are much worse at allocating resources than the computational command economies used in other enterprises.

The upshot of this is that to the extent that the Soviet Union was crippled by inefficient allocation, that is no longer the problem it once was. It's that we can imagine something as efficient and convenient as Walmart or Amazon without CEOs, shareholders or exploited workers, bringing all the bounties of late-stage capitalism without its pathologies.

The upshot is that fully automated luxury communism isn't just science fiction: it's a going concern with real evidence on the ground.

Market purists argue that we must tolerate all the evils of markets -- exploitation, inequality, the endangering of our biosphere -- because markets are the only conceivable force that can accomplish efficient allocation in our highly technical world. Deep greens take them at their word and say, fine, let's get rid of technology and return to a kind of agrarian feudalism.

Both of them are buying into Thatcher's maxim that "there is no alternative." But Phillips and Rozworksi are proposing an alternative: bright green, high-tech societies where markets are useful tools for solving the odd problem, but where allocation is primarily accomplished by the preferred means of Jeff Bezos and Sam Walton, but to the benefit of the many, not the few." (