Sunday 9 June 2013

Iain Banks on Life after Capitalism

Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what- -works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is - without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset - intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual [immaturity and] - through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others - a kind of synthetic evil.

Intelligence, which is capable of looking farther ahead than the next aggressive mutation, can set up long-term aims and work towards them; the same amount of raw invention that bursts in all directions from the market can be - to some degree - channelled and directed, so that while the market merely shines (and the feudal gutters), the planned lases, reaching out coherently and efficiently towards agreed-on goals. What is vital for such a scheme, however, and what was always missing in the planned economies of our world's experience, is the continual, intimate and decisive participation of the mass of the citizenry in determining these goals, and designing as well as implementing the plans which should lead towards them.

Of course, there is a place for serendipity and chance in any sensibly envisaged plan, and the degree to which this would affect the higher functions of a democratically designed economy would be one of the most important parameters to be set... but just as the information we have stored in our libraries and institutions has undeniably outgrown (if not outweighed) that resident in our genes, and just as we may, within a century of the invention of electronics, duplicate - through machine sentience - a process which evolution took billions of years to achieve, so we shall one day abandon the grossly targeted vagaries of the market for the precision creation of the planned economy.

- Iain Banks, A Few Notes on the Culture


Jim Jepps said...

Thanks for this

A note on; "a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces."

I've always thought we're using the wrong terms here, although this is probably the pedant in me.

What I think we mean is a democratically planned economy rather than one where all major decisions are planned by the richest in society - sometimes in opposition to each other, sometimes in league with their friends.


I'll get my coat.

Boffy said...

Ultimately, some form of plan will enable the kind of things you describe, but the scope for such effective planning here and now is slight other than at a broad outline level similar to what we already have.

Some years ago, I was involved with a campaign by people to have traffic calming measures introduced. The planning that went into it was extensive, and very democratic. An agreed scheme of measures was introduced, and almost immediately people began to complain about it! The reality of what they had voted for was not at all what they wanted in reality.

That tends to be the problem with this kind of decision making. People often give as their voiced preference what they think would be good for other people to do not what would be good for themselves. So, when asked people will say they think fewer cars on the road, and better public transport would be a good thing. That's because if other people used the public transport, it would leave the roads clearer for them to continue driving their car!

The same thing applies with the market. There have been lots of surveys where people were asked who they thought should be paid most money etc. Nurses always come fairly high up, and footballers lower down. But what is the reality? Ask people to pay more taxes to cover higher nurses wages and they baulk. Yet, the same people are the ones who make the high footballers wages possible, because they think nothing of spending £1,000 for a season ticket, or £50 a month for a Sky Subscription, and so on.

Its not rich people that make those high wages possible, but the actual spending decisions of millions of ordinary working people. That's why when any attempt to introduce forms of planning have been introduced, they always lead to the development of black markets, because what is produced never conforms to what people actually want to spend their money on.

Markets are, of course distorted, by the fact that very rich people get a bigger vote, but the real answer to that, as Marx set out, is for workers to own the means of production, so that wealth and income is itself more evenly distributed.

Then we can begin the other task of gradually introducing planning on a rational basis, growing out of the plans of thousands of co-operative enterprises.

Sean Thompson said...

Thanks for posting this Phil - it's a beautifully elegant and concise argument for socialism and a very fitting reminder of a fine writer and a decent man.

Gary Elsby said...

I'm hesitant to ask, but Boffy, how would Marx organise the Premier League, thus putting the means of production in the hands of the supporters?

Sean, do you mean Iain Banks is a fine writer and a decent man, or do you often go about ruining a blog writers day?

Chris said...

And yet traffic calming is here to stay.............and expanding fast! In my experience traffic calming comes from concerned residents who are sick to the teeth of idiots using streets as motor racing tracks. And, on balance, they are happy they were introduced

I can relate to what Boffy is saying though, and I have a better example, I think.

When planning how to make cuts, our local authority sent various questionnaires to people. They said things like, what spending areas do you prioritise. Now many people said roads. So the council cuts didn’t really affect roads, they affected more cultural things, as they finished lower on the list. But no wonder people said roads because the roads were falling apart! The questionnaire didn’t ask people what they wanted to cut but what spend priorities were, But they used these to justify cuts! This kind of manipulation and dishonesty is the problem with top down planning, it is often rigged. And I am talking about a New Labour council here.

I really don’t think you can separate democracy of ownership with democracy in general. Democracy (and worker ownership) demands engagement and abhors apathy and ignorance. And apathy and ignorance abound.

Boffy said...


The point is that Marx would not try to organise the Premier League, precisely because that would be him/an elite organising things on behalf of workers, which is what he abhorred.

His whole point was about workers doing things themselves, and wanting to reorganise things under their own control. But, I understand that there are already some football clubs that are owned by their supporters. Such consumer co-operatives are not my or Marx's first choice, better is a worker owned co-operative, which would mean in the case of a football club it being owned by the players and staff collectively.

My bet on that basis is that players would get paid somewhat less, and the ground staff and other workers would get paid a hell of a lot more!

Gary Elsby said...

You make it sound so wonderful, Boffy, that I believe that a Karl Marx XI would score an own goal if it went one up against stock market owned Manchester United.
If a United player was sent off, Marx player would go on strike.
The co operative crowd would cheer each time its own side missed an open goal.
Rather than lift the cup, they would hand the cup over to United for taking part.
The Karl Marx XI would welcome relegation to allow others a chance.

Boffy said...


The workers co-operatives as part of Mondragon seem to be doing quite well in regard of competition, which undermines your argument. Look at their growth, and the growth of their employment for one.

Or better still look at the performance of their Pension Scheme. The average pension for a Mondragon worker is around £13,000 a year. Moreover, the pension scheme has twice as much income coming in, as it needs to finance the benefits its paying out, yet pension contributions for members are no more than for British workers whose pensions are paltry by comparison.

The same was true of the Lancashire textile co-ops cited by Marx. They produced higher rates of profit than their private competitors despite the higher costs that were imposed on them for borrowing etc. The same was true of the Ralahine agricultural co-op in Ireland, and Karl Kautsky showed that in the US agricultural co-operatives were more efficient than private farms.

A study in the UK in the late 90's showed that Co-operative Housing was the most efficient form of provision, and provided the best conditions for tenants and owners.

Generally speaking people who own their own business will always work more efficiently, have more concern for their customers, and try to find new innovative methods and products compared to those who work for someone else.