Socialist Calculation Debate
The Socialist Calculation Debate Today: what the left should do
"If the Socialist Calculation Debate teaches us anything, it’s that the left should not waste time debating the merits of the price mechanism in isolation from its embeddedness in the broader system of capitalist competition, which generates non-price knowledge—reputation and so on—and produces the general social norms and patterns of legibility which allow the price system to do so much with so little. While it’s true that, evaluated on its own terms, the price system appears a marvel of social coordination, it’s also true that, without capitalist markets, it doesn’t exist. It thus makes sense to strive for a more comprehensive assessment, looking at how the existence of capitalist competition—and of capitalism in general—affect social coordination tout court. Social coordination can be mediated by a whole ecology of mechanisms, including law, democratic deliberation, decentralized ‘radical bureaucracy’ and feedback control, as well as the price system. Consider, for example, the non-price knowledge that circulates in capitalist economies, which not only informs the price system but also shapes our assessment of the urgency of threats, helping to inform our responses. The more accurate that information, the more likely we are to ensure social coordination in solving tasks which—like climate change—are crucial to the survival of the species.
Yet capitalist competition often ends up contaminating that knowledge, making an accurate assessment of the situation nearly impossible. After the neoliberal turn, competition is increasingly becoming a non-discovery procedure. Consider the energy companies or pharmaceutical firms who deliberately manufacture ignorance by selectively funding academics and think tanks. Or the media-military-industrial complex, shaping how the public thinks about the latest war. Or the increasingly privatized education system, unable to ‘discover’ the sort of knowledge that has no easily quantifiable impact. Or the credit rating agencies, whose business models often obscure the real state of the firms they are supposed to be evaluating. An entire academic industry—under the quirky name of ‘agnotology’—has sprung up to study the production of such manufactured ignorance and its use by capitalist firms.footnote38 The best possible outcome of this research would be a recalibration of how we assess the comparative advantages of various systems of social coordination—and a shift of focus, from measuring solely their respective contributions to economic efficiency, to weighing up their ability to perceive existential social problems, in all their complexity, and to propose possible solutions.
The ideological residue of the Cold War, with its binary choice between central planning and the price system, has obscured the existence of this broader ecology of modes of social coordination. The emancipatory promise of information technology is to rediscover and enrich this repertoire, while revealing the high invisible costs of relying on the current dominant mode of social coordination—capitalist competition. Given this possibility, the agenda of the neoliberal establishment is clear. On the one hand, they will rally behind a slogan of ‘There Is No Alternative (to Google)’, depicting any departure from the cartelized Silicon Valley model—or at least, any moves that dare go beyond the consumerist utopia of a ‘New Deal on Data’—as yet another step on the road to serfdom. On the other hand, they will continue filling in the empty social and political spaces which previously had their own logics and ways of doing things, with the ‘smart’ capitalist logic of digital platforms.
The left, then, should focus on preserving and expanding the ecology of different modes of social coordination, while also documenting the heavy costs—including on discovery itself—of discovering exclusively via competition. This mission, meanwhile, will be all but impossible without regaining control over the ‘feedback infrastructure’. The contradiction between collaborative forms of knowledge discovery and the private ownership of the means of digital production is already becoming apparent in the processes of ‘peer production’—long celebrated by liberal legal academics—used in the production of free software or services like Wikipedia. Under the current Silicon Valley private-ownership model, the feedback infrastructure is unlikely to be amenable to radical-democratic transformation.footnote39 Freedom, as neoliberals have long understood, must be planned; but so must their ‘spontaneous order’. In the absence of such planning, spontaneity quickly morphs into adaptation to an external reality that is not to be tinkered with. This may be an acceptable—even desirable—development for conservatives, but it should be anathema to the left." (https://newleftreview.org/issues/II116/articles/evgeny-morozov-digital-socialism)
- Allin Cottrell and W. Paul Cockshott, ‘Calculation, Complexity and Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Once Again’, Review of Political Economy, vol. 5, no. 1, 1993, pp. 73–112;
- Cottrell and Cockshott, ‘Computers and Economic Democracy’, New Historical Project, 8 April 2003;
- Nick Dyer-Witheford, ‘Red Plenty Platforms’, Culture Machine, vol. 14, 2013;
- Ionela Bălţătescu and Petre Prisecaru, ‘Computability and Economic Planning’, Kybernetes, vol. 38, no. 7–8, 2009, pp. 1399–1408;
- Erick Limas, ‘Cybersocialism: A Reassessment of the Socialist Calculation Debate’, 4 February 2018, available at ssrn.
- Daniel Saros. Information Technology and Socialist Construction.
- Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski, The People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism, London and New York 2019.
- Johanna Bockman, Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism, Stanford 2011.