A New Socialism for the 21st Century: On Leigh Philipps' and Michal Rozworski's "The People's Republic of Walmart"
A few months before I read The People’s Republic of WalMart, I had to fill a prescription at WalMart’s pharmacy. When I first dropped off the prescription, they were out of stock. I had to wait a few days before the pharmacy would receive any more. They didn’t actually manually order a new shipment of the medication, however - the order is automatically placed by their computer system.
Philips’ and Rozworski’s thesis, that central planning is already here - even if we don’t necessarily realize it - explains my experience with WalMart’s pharmacy. While the central planning of WalMart isn't 100% accurate (after all, I did have to wait for my medicine), it does a better job of allocating resources than any internal market economy could ever do.
Despite the fact that internal planned economies are already in use by everyone’s favorite corporate behemoths, WalMart and Amazon, planned economies don’t have a good reputation. If you go into any economics department of almost any university in the United States and tell professors that planned economies are more efficient than free market economies, you will probably be laughed out of the room. Most people associate planned economies with the Soviet Union or China (at least before the new ideology of Deng Xiaoping introduced the market economy to Communist China), both of which certainly had their fair share of economic difficulties. Philips and Rozworski are aware of this, and unlike some on the left, are more than willing to admit that the command economies of previous “socialist states” either ended in disaster or made the gradual transition to a type of state-capitalism.
Planned economies, however, have a much deeper history than just the Soviet Union. Ancient Egypt used economic planning to redistribute land and crops to farmers who had a particularly rough season. After the Second World War, when most of France’s infrastructure was destroyed, even the centre-right president Gaulle had made economic planning a key economic policy of his administration. Known as dirigisme, it was a more moderate economic system than the command economy of the Soviet Union or the regulated market economy of the United States. The dirigisme economic system had less to do with a firm philosophical or political belief than it had to do with necessity -- post-war France simply could not afford to rely on the free market’s ability to rebuild France.
Just a few years after Gaulle left office, the president of Chile, Salvador Allende, had made plans to implement "Project Cybersyn" - an ambitious project that would use telex machines to help aid economic decisions - that unfortunately was never fully realized before a coup, backed by the United States, overthrew Allende's democratically elected government. The biggest separation between this type of economic planning that was present and the economic planning that was previously present in the Soviet Union and China was authoritarianism and political repression. Philips and Rozworski argue that it wasn’t a planned economy that led to economic decline in the Soviet Union and China. Rather, it was political repression and authoritarianism. If Stalin orders you to produce 50 hays of wheat in a day, or if Mao tells you to kill a hundred sparrows in a week to ensure that the wheels of agricultural planning are in motion, you might be tempted to fudge those numbers just a bit. Both governments were hostile to any new theories from scientists or economists.
Philips and Rozworski realize that while capitalism cannot possibly be prepared to handle the biggest threats to human existence — ecological crises, infections that are totally resistant to antibiotics — a paradigm shift towards a completely planned economy is not immediately possible. Market socialism, the idea that businesses should be controlled by workers in a market economy, would have to serve as a link between the transition from a capitalist economy to a socialist economy. A relatively obscure school in socialist thought even among the left, the only real world example of market socialism is Yugoslavia under the rule of Tito. Philips’ and Rozworski’s criticisms of Yugoslavian market socialism are a bit unfair; it is difficult to argue that Yugoslavia's implementation of market socialism was a major factor that led to the failure of the Yugoslavian state when the rise of ultra-nationalism and the poor leadership in Yugoslavia’s last decade were more critical factors. However, their recognition that market socialism is a necessary part in the transition to a planned economy shows that despite their optimistic outlook of a planned economy on a national scale, they are realists.
Although Philips and Rozworski vision for a democratically planned economy is mainly focused on a global scale, their idea is especially pertinent to regions of this country that have been decimated by the United State’s continuing shift from an industrial economy to an information economy. A democratically planned economy - even one with market socialist characteristics - could be the answer to the economic problems that continue to plague some regions of this country. In central California, the manufacturing plants that held towns together are long gone; what remains are husks of their former glory. In the Midwest, this can be seen on an even more dramatic level. Although many public intellectuals and pundits see the rapid advances of technology as being diametrically opposed to the industrialization of the 20th century, a democratically planned economy offers a vision for an economy encompassing both. The deindustrialization of the Midwest may have been the intended result of many political leaders of the past few decades, but with a democratically planned economy, a reindustrialization of the Midwest seems like an inevitable step forward, rather than a step backward.
Philips and Rozworski might just be right. It would be deeply ironic if capitalism, particularly the late capitalism of the 21st century, lays the foundation for socialism. But after all of the absurdity of the past three years, where the political world feels like a fever dream, it seems like a very fitting end to this economic system.