Three Socialisms? A Debate on Postcapitalist Models

Are we clear about what we want? Do we, as socialist militants, know how our aspirations to build a radically different world will be materialised? Can we respond without hesitation to questions about the nature of the society we are fighting for? Will the economic process continue to function through mercantile mechanisms? Will we do without money? What institutions will manage public life? Or are we not capable of imagining beyond the historical experiences that have preceded us?

It is obvious that we live in melancholic times. A time characterised by an extreme weakening of historicity, in which a historical time with no apparent possibility of rupture forces us to live in an eternal present. And although for Daniel Bensaïd this is not “a crisis of utopia, but of the content of the ideal”1 , it is not so clear that, in reality, we are facing this double crisis. Be that as it may, this reflection puts us in front of the mirror and presents us with one of the most pressing challenges for revolutionaries in a world without revolution: the urgency of preconfiguring a convincing horizon.

The disappearance of futuristic ambition and its implications for a transformative politics force us to strive to overcome the idea of the present as empty time, and revitalise "a dormant faculty: that of imagining and producing a future that is not a mere pastiche of the already existing society”, as Martín Arboleda says (2021: 19)2 . And it is not enough to repeat to exhaustion the mantra that the left lacks a project, since it only observes something that, in reality, does not entail any analytical difficulty, posed without any proactive intention whilst delegating to others the task of thinking through a project worthy of the name. For this reason, the end-of-history assumption is fought by taking charge of that need, working collectively to define the basic foundations of a project that is nourished both by historical experience and by the present problems that we, the dominated classes, face. To specify the content of the emancipatory ideal with the aim of attacking the origin of our misfortunes: the capitalist mode of production.

Well, even though the picture is bleak, it is not true that no one is trying to remedy it. The intention of this text is, simply, to evaluate and make known some of the notable exceptions to this generalised paralysis and to offer to those who want to plunge into these promising debates some of the most important references on organisational proposals and economic planning, which are found in the bibliography of this text.

Whether or not you agree with their postulates, a few authors have spent decades trying to develop original theoretical currents around models on how to organise the production process and, therefore, the basis of our social life, in a post-capitalist economy. This does not mean that they propose a closed model of society, theorised down to the last detail, but rather that they propose the fundamental principles on which production, distribution and consumption should be based. And despite the fact that presenting these models in the abstract means ignoring what for Jodi Dean and Kai Heron3 is the problem of our time, the transition (or what is the same, revolution), these proposals are still some of the most valuable contributions we have today to think about our future.

Only the three most developed models with the greatest following4 will be presented here: Economic Democracy, by David Schweickart; Michael Albert and Robin Hanhel's Parecon; and Cybercommunism, by Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell.

The Usefulness of the Discussion

Given these three proposals, it is worth adding some considerations about how to deal with this debate. In the first place, it should not be forgotten that, like Marx and Engels (1846)5 , "we call communism the real movement that annuls and surpasses the current state of things." What does that mean? That our task as revolutionaries is not to implant an ideal, a preconceived model alien to the very political practice of self-organised workers. But this is not at all contradictory to the work proposed in this article, despite the critics of any approach to our more immediate socialist future.

In fact, there are several who have tried to offer a more or less developed model of the functioning of a post-capitalist economy, from the Dutch council-communists of the GIKH6 , through the neoclassical socialists Lange and Taylor7 , to the English economist Pat Devine, with his concept of Negotiated Coordination8 . Even authors such as Peter Hudis have elaborated detailed works that try to decipher the few clues that Marx left regarding an alternative to capitalism9 . But anyone who proposes a model usually warns that their intention is only to propose a feasible alternative, not the culmination of social development. It is not about presenting a perfect model, a completely detailed organisational design, but rather a proposal of a political nature that offers an alternative to the generalised paralysis, as well as a theoretical confrontation that fights against the defenders of capitalism in the most general and ambitious field possible: that of the organisational possibilities of our society.

That the proposals have a political utility, even strategic, is not negligible. The usefulness of concretising a project, an objective to be approached through struggle, is not the same today as it could have been a century ago. We live in times of defeat, dejection and despair. At most, we have been able to celebrate small one-off victories or mere resistance, in the face of an uncontrollable barrage of offensives to which we have only resigned ourselves. It has not always been like that. The history of the labour movement is full of moments that are much more powerful, more combative and more successful. Moments in which conceptualising better societies was perhaps not as relevant to the mobilisation of the masses as it is today. And despite this, it is not true that it lacked interest, as evidenced by the very powerful reception to utopian novels such as Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy (1888)10 or News from Nowhere, by William Morris (1890)11 . But in our times, an alternative organisational horizon is essential in order to promote our revolutionary aims, connecting present demands and struggles with feasible, non-utopian proposals that have the capacity to demonstrate that our ambitions are not simple wishes without the possibility of materialising.

On the other hand, it is necessary to approach the issue from a militant perspective. Our organisations have an obligation to work on these types of issues, to provide their militants with the necessary training so that we are capable of knowing what our most immediate objective is after seizing political power. As well as this, we need to jump into the debate on the very possibilities of building socialism. It is not for nothing that Lenin quotes Engels in What is to be done? (2015: 26)12 to remember that the theoretical struggle is at the same level of importance as the political and economic struggle: “socialism, since it has become a science, demands that it be pursued as a science, that is, that it be studied.” Offering a developed and concrete formalisation of the type of society we aspire to build -- not in a utopian sense and abstracted from reality, but from the point of view of knowing the general principles that could govern in a socialist economy-- allows us to channel the concerns of militants and ordinary citizens about a post-capitalist future, in addition to warning against the reformist temptations that capitalist possibilism usually offers.

It is noteworthy that the work of research and dissemination carried out by groups such as Cibcom, the Association for the Design of History, or the Next System Project, do not arise from the organisations themselves (so that a strategic channel can be given that makes the eventual implementation of the proposals possible), but from socialists and revolutionaries from very different traditions who have no choice but to team up to tackle the problem on their own. And all this out of sheer need to unmask the diabolical slogan of British conservatives about the impossibility of a different world: There Is No Alternative

The Models

Economic Democracy

In the first place, and as heir to the tradition of market socialism, the model named Economic Democracy by the American philosopher and mathematician David Schweickart defends the possibility of combining the market and democracy at work. The author seeks to integrate into his model those characteristics that can be recovered from three notably different historical experiences: Yugoslav self-managed socialism, Japanese capitalism and the experience of the Mondragón Corporation in the Basque Country.

Schweickart's critique of capitalism focuses on its lack of democracy and its lack of efficiency. But, being also critical of the authoritarian concentration of power and the inefficiency of central planning, his proposal seeks to integrate market and plan into a democratic context. For this reason, the basic characteristics of his model are three: 1) management of each company by its own workers; 2) a market economy in which raw materials and consumer goods are bought and sold at prices determined by supply and demand; and 3) socially controlled investment, financed by taxes, and its distribution determined by the economic plan and the market itself.

Schweickart proposes that the workers of each cooperative be the ones to assume the functions of organisation and discipline in the factory, to determine the production techniques to be used, what and how much is produced, and how the profits are distributed. In addition, decisions would be made through the vote of each and every one of the workers, on an equal basis, although this does not rule out the possibility of granting management powers in cases where it is necessary (due to the size of the company, for example).

In relation to the central role of the market in his proposal, and despite the fact that this is not the place to criticise the model, it is clear that the attempt to use the market as one more tool, as if it were a neutrally assigned mechanism, without conceiving it as an elementary (and inseparable!) part of the capitalist mode of production, calls into question the desirability of this proposal. In line with the Austrian criticism of the possibility of economic calculation in socialism, Schweickart considers that the difficulty of planning to know what goods and services to produce, how much of them to be produced and how to produce them, forces us to resort to mercantile mechanisms, leaving planning only to guide new investments. All these issues will be questioned by the following models, especially by the third.

Finally, reviewing the Yugoslav experience and emphasising capitalist development in Japan and the Mondragón Corporation, a crucial characteristic of the model is presented: the social control of investment. This aims to function as a "counterpoint to the market", a way to "relieve the 'anarchy' of capitalist production". Taxing capital goods is, on the one hand, to promote the efficient use of these goods, and on the other, to finance a common fund for new investments. Once this fund is formed, its distribution is open to different possibilities, ranging from bureaucratic institutions that carry out indicative investment planning to relying on a kind of "socialist laissez-faire"13 .

As will be evident to many, it is difficult to identify this model with something that we can call socialism, although the deepth and detail in some of the economic-institutional aspects that the author and his followers have carried out should be valued. But it is necessary to confront and debate with a current that, despite its good will, naturalises and makes its own a large part of the fundamental characteristics of the system which we intend to free ourselves from.

In our country this current has a certain following, and currently Carmen Madorrán, who has a very elaborate doctoral thesis in which she analyses this proposal from the perspective of ecological ethics14 , is perhaps its most outstanding representative. Economists such as Antoni Comín, among others, have also worked on this model.15

Parecon

Of the three models, the one that seems to have the largest following, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world and particularly in the United States, is the one known as Parecon (an abbreviation for Participative Economics), by Michael Albert and Robin Hanhel. American intellectuals and activists have published a good number of books and articles, from academic texts to writings aimed at a non-specialised audience presenting their proposal for a participatory economy.

Inspired by values such as solidarity, equality, diversity, self-management or ecological balance, Albert and Hanhel argue that the three great pillars of capitalism are private ownership of the means of production, distribution via the market and the corporate division of labour. Therefore, their model tries to offer an alternative to all of these.

In the first place, the simplest and most intuitive of all: social property, of all citizens, of the means of production. A common property that ensures that no one enjoys disproportionate power with respect to others by owning the means of production, as well as that no one obtains an income for the same reason.

Secondly, the proposed alternative to markets is a system (embedded in participatory planning) in which workers and consumers councils carry out assessments of the social costs and benefits of their choices. This is achieved through the mutual communication of the preferences of all the actors, through different organisational and communicative instruments: assistance committees, indicative prices, different phases of adjustment of the production proposals, etc. The key question for the authors is that the real preferences of individuals emerge through social interaction, so that in order to obtain accurate estimates of social benefits and costs, extensive communicative, consultative and deliberative processes must be carried out.

To facilitate these processes, Iteration Assistance Committees are proposed, which coordinate the planning process by collecting all the initial production and consumption proposals (which are basically predictions of what is to be produced and consumed) to compare them and suggest alternatives to the various councils. These proposals are carried out at different levels, both by consumers (organised in neighbourhood consumer councils, district, city, county, state federations...) and by producers (organised in work centers, industrial councils, regional federations…). From there a series of iterative phases of comparison of proposals and negotiation begins, until a definitive result of convergence is found that allows for a feasible plan.

This decentralised participatory planning proposal claims to be the only one that “manages to establish a price and economic adjustment system that is more precise than markets and central planning, but also reinforces rather than annuls solidarity, diversity, equity and self-management” (Albert, 2005: 148).16

Thirdly, against the corporate division of labour under capitalism, we have one of Parecon's star proposals: balanced employment mixes. These are intended to divide and reorganise tasks both within the same work centres and between different work centres, creating a balanced set of more desirable and less desirable tasks. Therefore, it is not an attempt to suppress the division of labour, but rather to develop an equitable redistribution between unpleasant and empowering tasks. In addition, Albert and Hanhel propose that the measure of labour contribution to society, and, therefore, what justifies the remuneration of each individual, is the effort or sacrifice that each worker makes, something that may be problematic (is inspection of our effort desirable?), but without a doubt it forces us to think about how to organise our compensation for contributing work to the community.

Although there are no clear representatives of this current in the Spanish State, the Instituto de Ciencias Económicas y de la Autogestión (ICEA/ Institute of Economic Sciences and Self-Management) has worked on and disseminated this model on occasion. It is not surprising that it has been successful in anarchist environments.Some of the inspirations for its authors are different anarchist struggles and collectivisation of workplaces carried out throughout the world, along with experiences such as the Paris Commune or of different alternative forms of managing work and production such as cooperatives, self-managed centers, the solidarity economy, experiences of participatory democracy as in Porto Alegre or Kerala, etc.

Cybercommunism

Finally, we have the Cybercommunist current and its proposal for computerised economic planning which is the most ambitious model in terms of collective control of the production process. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell have been developing their proposals since the publication of Towards a New Socialism (1993)17 , reflecting on the potential of new information and communication technologies to become tools for rational management of our process of production, as well as criticising the inadequacy of the planning processes of the Soviet Union, both in terms of democracy and efficiency.

Combining the critique of political economy with cybernetics into a science of information and control, the cybersocialist perspective proposes the abolition of private property, the market, money and, ultimately, the laws that govern the functioning of the capitalist economic process. One of its most developed contributions is the critique of markets, with their inherent tendency to create socially unequal results (whether capitalist or allegedly socialist). In addition, their inability to function outside the logic of profitability makes them a blind, rudimentary and inefficient mechanism for processing information, incapable of incorporating non-monetary variables.

For this reason, this model proposes a centralised and decentralised planning system at the same time, in which, in an acephalous (headless) state, three types of plans are democratically designed, debated and selected: macroeconomic, strategic and detailed. With a network of computers interconnecting each production unit, using linear optimisation to solve the equations of the production matrix of the economy, with the possibility of carrying out an in-kind (in-natura) calculation of resources, or by organically integrating environmental constraints into the optimisation problem to achieve an ecologically sustainable plan, the possibilities opened up by democratic economic planning to solve the great problems of our time are immense.

Contrary to the Parecon proposal, the economic accounting in this model is carried out using labour time as the unit of accounting, from which the labour cost of the production of goods and services is calculated, and producers are remunerated in work bonuses according to their labour contribution. The latter is specified as

each producer receives a certificate (...( where the hours of work that are contributed are indicated (after deducting (...) the part destined for the common fund) and with which the means of consumption can be withdrawn from the social fund that have cost equivalent work. Thus, each producer receives from society exactly the same as what is contributed to it. Deciding the number of hours that a producer wants to spend is choosing the desired level of consumption (Cockshott and Nieto, 2017: 153).18

On the other hand, we also have the political-institutional counterpart of the proposal: direct democracy. Inspired by classical Athenian democracy, its authors highlight a critique of representative electoral processes as eminently aristocratic systems, to defend an election by lottery: a structure of councils of common citizens chosen at random. And the commitment to a genuine democracy is not a whim: it is an indispensable prerequisite from an informational point of view in order for the workers to exercise effective control of the means of production.

Some of the historical references that inspire this proposal are the aborted OGAS  project in the Soviet Union or the Cybersyn of Allende's Chile.19 Researchers such as Maxi Nieto, in several articles and a recent book20 , develop the fundamental principles of this model along with Cibcom, a collective for research and dissemination of cybernetic communism, are the most relevant representatives of this current in the Spanish state.

Model and Build

At this point, it is worth remembering again that, as Mandel (1990) stated, "the most efficient and most humane way to build a classless society continues to be experimentation".21 Experimentation that must be understood in the sense of perfecting, of improvement "through successive approaches", through which are rescued those elements valuable for the construction of a different society. But the fact that it is the most effective cannot absolve us, in any way, from theoretically facing the problem. In line with Brassier,

experience is a corrective to theory, not its generative matrix. The claim that theory begins and ends with experience is empiricism. It assumes that experience speaks unequivocally and that its lessons are incontrovertible. But experience is equivocal and what it has to teach us can only be crystallised through subsequent theoretical effort.22

In addition, we must be aware that such experimentation is expensive. Revolutionary processes are not laboratory experiments that we dispose of at will; they entail gigantic efforts of thousands and thousands of human beings who risk their lives to build better worlds. For this reason, it is also our duty to advance our tasks through theoretical work, with the aim of putting it into practice when we are able to open windows of opportunity. Giving up this tool, the theoretical one, is absurd no matter how you look at it, because we are in no position to afford ourselves the luxury of not contributing, from all possible fronts, to the revolutionary task of building new and democratic social relations.

Thus, given the timid but growing interest in building better worlds that is reflected in the warm reception received by books such as Contra la dystopia (Francisco Martorell, 2021) or Utopia is not an island (Layla Martínez, 2021), or in the development of movements such as Solarpunk23 , the political organisation of the working class must assume the role of giving content to these new ideals, to this incipient creative ambition. We ourselves, have the role of studying, debating and defining the forms that the economy can take once we free it from oppressive capitalist social relations and put it at the service of the needs of human beings and their natural environment.

The economic construction of socialism, once put into practice, must necessarily attend to the debate between authors such as Cockshott, Albert or Schweickart, or it will walk blindly along a path that we are forced to travel. That is the central idea of this short text: to remember that the alternative future we are fighting for is more desirable, more viable and more feasible than ever, so making it more concrete has a political utility that we cannot ignore.

It is said that we carry a new world in our hearts. But, today, it is urgent to model its fundamental principles in our heads to provide us with the conditions to ensure its construction. And we are more than capable of doing so, since all human activity is defined by being goal-oriented, by the desire to achieve an objective, and the latter already exists in our imagination, just as it happens in the work process when it is performed and a result is obtained.Following Marx:

(…) a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.24

15 October 2022.

Gonzalo Bárcena is a militant with Anticapitalistas and a Member of the Cibcom Collective.

Published on Viento Sur. Translated by David Fagan for Fourth.International.

  • 1Bensaïd, Daniel (1997). L’arc tendu de l’attente, Le Monde de l’éducation, de la culture et de la formation.
  • 2Arboleda, Martín (2021). Gobernar la utopía. Sobre la planificación y el poder popular. Caja Negra.
  • 3Dean, Jodi y Heron, Kai (2022). Climate Leninism and Revolutionary Transition, Spectre, https://spectr…
  • 4For a more in-depth comparison of the various models, we recommend reading Derecho a decidir (2006), edited by Joaquín Arriola, which contains a series of articles by several of the proponents of the models. Also recommended is the article “A brief sketch of three models of democratic economic planning”, by Frédéric Legault and Simon Tremblay-Pepin, which, in this case, compares Parecon and Cybercommunism with Negotiated Coordination, the model proposed by Pat Devine. The latter is available here: https://innova…
  • 5Marx, Karl y Engels, Friedrich (1846). The German Ideology available here: https://www.ma…
  • 6GIKH (1976). Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution https://www.ma…. Group of International Communists, aka Group of Internationalist Communists (GIK) – Holland Founded in 1926, the GIK was a group of left communists in the Netherlands, whose ideas had been shaped by the experiences of the Russian and German Revolutions of 1917 and 1918.
  • 7Lange, Oskar and Taylor, Fred (1938). On the Economic Theory of Socialism. University of Mionnesota Press.
  • 8Devine, Pat (1988). Democracy and economic planning. The political economy of a self-governing society. WestviewPress.
  • 9Hudis, Peter (2013). Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism. Haymarket.
  • 10Bellamy, Edward (1888). Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (republished Penguin Classics 1982)
  • 11Morris, William (1890). News from Nowhere. Available https://www.gu….
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  • 13Schweickart, David (1992). Economic Democracy: A worthy socialism that would really work. Science and Society, Vol 56 No 1 Spring (9).
  • 14Madorrán, Carmen (2017). Necesidades humanas y límites ecológicos en la Democracia Económica. Una revisión de la propuesta de David Schweickart. Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.
  • 15Comín, Antoni (coord.) (2011). Democracia Económica: Hacia una alternativa al capitalismo. Barcelona: Icaria editorial.
  • 16Albert, Michael (2005). Parecon. Vida después del capitalismo. Madrid: Akal.
  • 17Cockshott, Paul and Cottrell, Allin (1993). Towards a New Socialism. Spokesman.
  • 18Cockshott, Paul y Nieto, M. (2017). Ciber-comunismo. Planificación económica, computadoras y democracia. Trotta.
  • 19OGAS: Общегосударственная автоматизированная система учёта и обработки информации, "ОГАС", "National Automated System for Computation and Information Processing") was meant to create a USSR-wide information network. Begun in 1962 by 1970 it was denied funding and collapsed. Cybersyn[Cybernetics Synergy) was a Chilean project from 1971 to 1973 during the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende to construct a distributed decision support system to aid in the management of the national economy. After the military coup on September 11, 1973, Cybersyn was abandoned, and its operations room was destroyed.
  • 20Nieto, Maxi (2021). Marx y el comunismo en la era digital (y ante la crisis eco-social planetaria). Maia
  • 21Mandel, Ernest (1991). Plan ou marché: la troisième voie. Critique Communiste, nº 106-107.
  • 22Brassier, Ray (s.f.). Texto inédito en proceso de publicación.
  • 23Petruccioli, Marco (2021). ¿Un porvenir luminoso? Jacobin América Latina https://jacobi….
  • 24Marx, Karl (1867, translated 1887). Capital A Critique of Political Economy available here: https://www.ma…

Gonzalo Bárcena