Socialism and Surplus: Why Planning Cannot Overthrow Capitalism

blackboardAs the economic crisis continues along with militant action against it, the idea of socialist planning has emerged from the grave.  The beginning of the neoliberal offensive, along with libertarian Marxist currents, discredited state socialism for various forms of micro-politics. And yet, its contemporary resurrection has not proven itself a feasible historical project. It exists as a zombie that has lost the horizon of communism as revolutionary action. In its stead, planning has been misrecognized–and not only by social democrats–as if it were post-capitalism instead of a potential strategic avenue within capitalism. The old formulation of the latter has transmuted into the myth of planning as the realization of post-capitalist society itself. It is ultimately a regression in Marxist thought. It is a position that neither Marx nor that 20th century scion, Lenin, held–even though both could periodically fall prey to the illusion. At bottom, socialism is subject to the same compulsions as capitalism. Its planning is the planning of the management of surplus; the category which is the foundation of domination. If it might attenuate some of the most vicious results of the capitalist hell, it cannot help us escape it.

At bottom, socialism is subject to the same compulsions as capitalism. Its planning is the planning of the management of surplus; the category which is the foundation of domination.

It is precisely in the compulsion for surplus that dominating relations manifest themselves. Indeed, its collusion with stratification predates capitalism. Hunter-gatherers did not have permanent leaders since mobility required the minimization of material possessions. A reliable surplus helped some households accumulate larger shares over subsistence-centralizing leadership. In societies which did not have a surplus to consolidate, subject populations could not be integrated and thus hierarchy would crumble. Marx claimed that communism was that which realized human species-being. It would be the re-emergence of the most primitive in the most advanced. Species-being is impossible to realize with the compulsion of surplus since it is a logic which compels alien production.

Honing on this anthropological point is not merely an academic exercise. It indicates the literal lack of empirical evidence for planning as a means to abolish capitalism. The best retort to what is being argued is that efficient planning would equitably redistribute the surplus making it impossible to expropriate. Workplace democracy and the ability for people to take control of society through participation will prevent backsliding, or so we are told.

However, A theoretical and practical problem emerge for revolutionary thought. First, there is no actual material claim to prove that domination would not reoccur. The ties that bind society are, at best, the moral force of a social contract. The ideological delusions exhorting humanity toward its essential goodness are militated against by the system of calculation which must arise for the whole system to function. Calculation would not be the coordination and distribution of use-values. Such a calculation is qualitatively different than calculation in the area of production. The latter is inherently the regulation of socially necessary labor-time. The reduction of labor to planned labor-power reimposes factory discipline in order to regulate the input and output of a given factory. The abstract call for democracy is not as romantic as it sounds. It would only bring us to a world in which labor self-disciplines; the internalization of capital without capitalists.

The second argument follows from the first. An emergent bureaucracy out of capitalism would, despite all intentions, be subject to the compulsions of the economic. In order to demonstrate this point, Amadeo Bordiga’s critique of Stalinist Russia is important. Bordiga thought the problem with the Soviet Union was not in the despotism of the bureaucracy as a class but the laws to which it was ultimately subject. He looked at the social relations in the Kolkoz and Sovkhoz–the former a cooperative farm and the other a straight wage-labor state farm–to demonstrate that the state took the role of merely another firm among firms. Importantly, he argued the essential impossibility of realizing communism alongside calculation in money prices (or in ‘labor tickets’ as some recent scholars have advocated).

Communism is not planning but the overcoming of the “economic” as a functional category.

Communism is not planning but the overcoming of the “economic” as a functional category. Production would not be the creation of alien wealth in any form but the realization of human creative capacity. If the species must metabolize nature, it would not be in the service of production but in the conscious reproduction of basic material needs. The coordination of large-scale society is not planning and to maintain such an argument is to mangle categories. Planning is discipline at the site of production, which is necessarily the regulation of bodies.

And yet, socialism is not rejected as inherently evil. Uneven and combined development indicate the necessity for multiple mediations in the realization of communism. The problem to be isolated is the false belief in socialism as the abolition of capitalism itself. If there is room for socialism, then the situation is one of strategic retreat. Retreat is not used in a pejorative sense; revolution is not Pickett’s Charge. Rather, there is no such thing as a “victory for socialism,” just another step in the Long March* to communism.

*A strategic retreat necessary for a victory.

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