How would common ownership and democratic control work in practice? Without a price mechanism some critics do not understand how signals can pass from the user to the producer or how decisions about production can be made. Yet such non-market systems already exist even within capitalism and a study of these can give useful insights into the practical operation of a socialist production and distribution system.
What distinguishes the Socialist Party from the leftists is that when we talk of common ownership we do not just include the means of production, but also, specifically, call for the common and democratic control of the means of distribution. Equal access to the common store without requirement of exchange or payment is one of the things we consider to be the hallmark of genuine socialism. After all, you cannot buy something you already own. To people living in a society where everything has a price, where access to any aspect of our society from necessities to leisure and culture comes with a price tag, such a system seems alien, or possibly even naively utopian. Clever apologists of gross inequality and privilege even try to claim that it is categorically impossible to organise provision of any good or service without the vital signals of monetary exchange or market haggling.
Socialists are loath to draw up blue-prints of the future. It would be undemocratic for a handful of us now without access to the exact details of available resources and conditions to try and draw up rigid plans. We also recognise that there may not be one single way of doing things, and precise details and ways of doing things might vary from one part of the world to another, even between neighbouring communities. Of course, we can reach logical conclusions based on basic premises – that socialism will be necessarily democratic, for example – and can outline broad principles or options that could be applied. That is, we do not have to draw up a plan for socialism, but broadly demonstrate that it is possible.
We draw upon scientific methods, that is, we do not come up with a dream and try and fix it to reality, but, rather, we look to the real world to see how it is, and how it could be. Just as the market – the central feature of capitalism – pre-dated the explosion of that society across the globe, so too are principles and practices that socialism could use latent in our world today. That is, provision of services based on free access at the point of use are more common in the world today than the ideologues of capitalism would have us believe.
Consider shopping in socialism. A person would walk into the store, browse the shelves, select what they want, and then arrange to take it away. They would take as much as they think they would need, sure in the knowledge that more will be readily available should they need more not to try and take and hoard everything. If what they want is not available, staff and procedures would be on hand to obtain the goods from another source. Before they go, they could let the store crew know what they’ve taken, so that both the staff and other consumers would know what was and was not available from the inventory.
Put like that, it sounds convoluted, but it is what happens everyday in local public libraries throughout Britain. Under the Libraries, Archives and Museums Act of 1963, local authorities must provide books and magazines free of charge, and obtain (by purchase if necessary, but usually from other libraries) anything they do not have immediately to hand. Currently, over 60 percent of library patrons get what they want from just cold calling into their local branch.
Big businesses provide a similar service. Blockbusters video stores provide rental goods for a charge per loan. Libraries too provide videos, and the difference between their operating parameters is clear. Big video stores overwhelmingly stock the latest hits in huge bundles, with older or niche films harder to find, while local libraries have a wider range of stock. Market provision leads to conformity more than conscious service. Libraries, however, are compelled by competition law not to undercut video stores (which they could do). That is, they are prevented from out-performing commercial rivals by legal fiat.
Libraries exhibit a number of non-monetary techniques for allocating resources, which they mix to various degrees, and each of which would be suitable for use in socialism. Library staff use published data to provide items to fulfill the publicly stated service level agreement in terms of the stock that users can assume they will find in the library. Once the stock is there, users can take it from the shelves on a first-come first served basis. If it is already taken, they can be put into a queue to receive it next, or they can order one to be brought in from another institution. If an item is highly popular, its terms of availability may be restricted to enable more people to have access to it, and people always have the option of trying a different source of information. In some libraries, if some users have particular needs, they may have their borrowing limit increased to be able to take more items out.
That is, a mix of queuing, lottery and rationing are used in various mixtures to maximise the use of resources. Alongside this, the library catalogue – the inventory of available stock which includes its current location and status – can be used to co-ordinate between both library users and staff so that everyone can control their use of the library and its goods. This information, unlike market information which travels at the speed of goods to market, travels at the speed of light. Today, it is possible to discover, via the internet, that the Communist Manifesto is available in the Mary L. Cook Public Library in Waynesville Ohio, shelved in the social sciences section. If that book were not available in a local library, it would be possible to ask them, possibly ultimately, to obtain it from this source.
Even the objections that these libraries exist within capitalism doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Although they must buy their books, it is possible to calculate how much would need to be spent to maintain the agreed stock levels, and set the budget accordingly. Publishers often tailor their print runs to their expectations of the number of libraries that will stock a title (and will often cancel titles if too few institutions do not order it via pre-publication data). The money largely follows the quality management.
Some parts of library management now might not be needed. Currently, a lot of personal detail is held by libraries in order to help protect their stock and monitor its usage. To generalise this might require some sort of identity registration, which some people may or may not find objectionable; but even then, an anonymous system like loyalty cards wherein the bearer of the card can simply record information whenever they remove stock could be used to see what combinations of goods people generally withdraw in so as to help ordering and stocking the stores. Again, this is a detail that can be left to the people who will live in socialism, but it is clear that we do not need an authoritarian state dictating each person’s precise ration as some commissars of capitalism might pretend.
This is just one, almost random example of the ways in which workers, with all their skills and experience of co-operating to run capitalism in the interests of the capitalists, could begin to run society in their own interest. We do not need to build the new society in the womb of the old, that is here already. What we need is to decide that we have the way to actively declare an end to unnecessary want, and build a free co-operative commonwealth so that “poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality and slavery to freedom.”