Socialist Planning or "Market Socialism"?—Part 3

Overthrowing Consumer Society

by Raymond Lotta

Revolutionary Worker #1168, September 29, 2002, posted at

The following is part 3 of an article by Maoist political economist Raymond Lotta. Part 2 appeared in last week's issue of the RW. This article was originally posted on the website, a site for discussion and debate on the RCP's Draft Programme.

5. The Question of Consumer Goods

The question of consumer goods in socialist society has come up in several exchanges I've had with people about the Draft Programme . But before I talk about consumption under socialism, I want to make a point about the consumer market under capitalism.

We are often told that the capitalist consumer market is a kind of “referendum” in which consumers “vote with their dollars”—that in the market the “best product” wins.

This is an extraordinary distortion, because it is the market that shapes the consumer. What wins in the marketplace is a function of marketing. What wins is a function of the manipulation and creation of wants (and the party's economic investigation has revealed that 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. labor force is engaged in selling and marketing and advertising). What wins out in the dog-eat-dog world of capital is profitability and least-cost production.

We're supposed to worship at the altar of the great consumer market of the U.S. But doesn't this market have something to do with empire? When was the last time any of us got a piece of clothing that wasn't manufactured by super-exploited labor in the Third World?

A. Revolutionizing the Realm of Consumption

We get this message from capitalist ideologues that socialism will only produce a standardized and dull selection of goods that people don't like; or that people won't be able to get what they need, because there isn't enough attention paid to distribution of products. From people who are more radical, I often hear the argument that socialist planning is inappropriate to consumer want, because these wants are so varied and changing.

On the website, BrightRedLight suggested (and I know that BRL's heart is in the right place): “A socialist market would be more in touch with the diverse needs of people in a way that central planning isn't.”

My immediate response to such arguments is: NOT RADICAL ENOUGH! I'm always surprised by the unspoken assumptions about consumption wrapped up in theories of “market socialism.” It's as though, when you're talking about consumer goods, things should pretty much stay the same, or at least not veer too far from the ways of the market.

You see, Maoism believes that revolution also has to revolutionize the realm of consumption . Not to enforce some “shared poverty” but to radically restructure relations between people and to ultimately achieve, with the achievement of communism, what the Draft Programme calls a “common material abundance”—on a world level.

So when I say “not radical enough,” I mean that we have to get under the whole “skin of social life” under contemporary monopoly capitalism.

I'm not trying to get into these points in and of themselves, but rather posing them as illustrations of why a simple endorsement of a consumer market that supposedly answers to changing consumer needs is...“not radical enough.” My point is that socialist society has to meet social need but it also has to shape the structure, standards, and ideology of consumption .

One of the more provocative sections of the Draft Programme talks about issues of standards of consumption and attitudes towards consumption in a socialist society, and puts this in the context of developing a self-reliant economy that no longer exploits the people of the world:

“People's most basic needs will be met, and the new economy will strive to produce a rational variety of consumer goods. But the ‘convenience’ of having Indonesian workers cater to athletic clothing needs, or peasants in other parts of the world cater to upscale coffee sensibilities, will be no more.... At the same time, people's social needs will change with the transformation of social life. There will not be the obsession with consumption, the need to define oneself on the basis of what and how much one consumes.”

The Draft Programme also talks about socializing consumption:

“More of life's needs must be met outside the ‘cash nexus,’ that is, by means other than exchange through money. Things like health care, childcare, cultural activities, and some consumer goods will increasingly be provided at low or no expense. They will be provided through more collective means: in workplaces, neighborhoods, and farms.”

The Draft Programme is saying that a new industrial-agricultural system that is not wasteful and environmentally destructive, and an economy that no longer feasts on the world, will call forth big changes. It will require a radical overhauling of production practices. It will also require the development of new patterns of consumption.

The Draft Programme is saying that socialist society has to bring forward elements of communist distribution: an increasing share of goods and services will be distributed socially without payment, on the basis of need. It is saying that a goal of socialist society is to create a common (shared) material abundance.

Part of achieving that involves expanding productive capabilities. But it also involves forging new social networks. As work and residence and community are increasingly integrated, production and consumption will become linked in new ways (the notion of being a “consumer” won't have the same meaning). There will be more of a social basis for a common material abundance.

B. Once Again on Consumer Wants

A genuine system of socialist planning cannot be ignorant or indifferent to people's needs and wants. It must safeguard people's basic interests and it does have to be responsive to changing wants. This is not gone into in detail in the Draft Programme,but I wanted to offer some thoughts on how this might be approached. Here I am drawing on socialist experience and the political economy of socialism.

The proletarian state has to make decisions about the output levels and product mix of the consumer goods sectors. These decisions will be based on overall political, economic, and social priorities; on assessment of social wants; and on production capacities. Some of this can be determined and solved at the regional and local political and administrative levels.

In the realm of the production and distribution of consumer goods, the socialist economy has to make use both of a price system and of feedback mechanisms.

Let me start with the socialist price system: For some time under socialism, individuals will still purchase many consumer goods. So the socialist state has to “regulate” this sphere. Commerce (“retailing” and the wholesale supply channels) has to be under the control of the proletarian state. And the state has to utilize a pricing system that is “rational” from a socialist standpoint. That means that total prices must relate to total income in society. It also means—and this is absolutely “irrational” from the standpoint of bourgeois economics—that prices of individual goods and services must be consciously and deliberately set to meet people's basic needs.

Let me break this down. Essential goods, like food and medicines, will have very low prices—selling at or below cost—or will be provided free of charge. Also, rationing may be utilized, if and when there are scarcities or disruptions of supplies. Other goods that are needed but less essential will be priced differently. And goods even less essential (BrightRedLight used the term “minor luxuries”) will have a different structure of prices. These categories of consumer goods will change over time—in relation to production capabilities and the transformation of social life.

Let me move on to what we might call “the preference question”—the question of the volume, assortment, and variety of consumer goods. The standard bourgeois charge is that a socialist economy can't respond to, or doesn't care about, changing wants. Now there are two responses to this.

The first I have already touched on. In the realm of consumption, socialism is not “more of the same”—or “less of the same”—with the private individual as the starting and end point. Socialism has to forge new relations of social life and community. It has to develop more collective forms of consumption; and it has to aim to create a common (shared) material wealth of society. It also has to criticize and struggle against the ideology of consumerism, which equates the meaning and value of life with the acquisition of things. It has to promote new values.

Still, people have raised a legitimate question as to how a socialist economy would be dealing with and responding to consumer wants and “changing tastes.” The answer is that responsiveness requires “feedback mechanisms” and information flows into the planning process. It requires social interchange and social investigation at all levels.

In other words, it's not a question of bureaucrats deciding from afar, or of letting the market and price dictate what gets produced and who gets to buy it.

Rather than approaching this on an abstract, formal level, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the practices in Maoist China:

I'm referencing this not because it all worked perfectly (it didn't), or as some blueprint (we Maoists don't go for that: life and the class struggle are too messy). But I believe this approach to consumer and user wants (and it did work!) helps people take off the blinders and think about real alternatives to market- price mechanisms of decision-making.

In concluding these comments, I wanted to make one additional point.

BrightRedLight writes, “Marxism is a creative evolving analytical tool.” And I agree—with the affirmation, of course, that this is a tool to achieve classless society .

I think the RCP's Draft Programme and the broader understanding that has been gained by the party and by the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement speak to the power of Marxism, including its ability to assimilate new experience and new understanding—exactly so we can carry out this most radical and liberating of revolutions: the world proletarian revolution.