Karl Dietz Verlag, publisher of the Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW), is planning a volume with the working title "Take Back Control. Digital Capitalism and Beyond" in its new series "Analyzes". Editors: Timo Daum and Sabine Nuss.
In the volume we want the debate about planned economy / cybernetics, which is currently experiencing a renaissance in the face of digital technologies to analyze, to be discussed and critically examined with Marx (implicitly or explicitly).
The articles should be 25,000 (including spaces). The first version would be submitted on July 1, 2020, and the revised text would be submitted in September. We look forward to hearing from you soon, if possible prior to April 13.
Sabine Nuss (publishing manager) and Timo Daum (editor)
In the 1920s, a wide-ranging debate took place over the feasibility of planning a socialist economic system – what is known in the English-speaking world as the socialist planning debate. The so-called Austrian School around the market liberals von Mises and Hayek argued at the time that a socialist economy could not function at all given its lack of a market mechanism. With the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, the Austrian School was finally able to win a late but clear victory in the conflict between economic systems: "the market," according to prevailing discourse, had triumphed over "the plan."
A decisive factor in the victory of capitalism over socialism was the new meta-science of management and control developed after the Second World War: cybernetics. It was concerned with the structure of complex systems – and this did not only refer to biological systems, but also to those of machines, firms and entire societies. With its help, it was thought that blind market processes and crises could be prevented through feedback. Even the political was to be rendered obsolete finally, the state having become superfluous.
Today, 70 years after its beginnings, cybernetics is experiencing a renaissance in the hands of digital corporations. With their platforms they have developed digital global ecosystems whose rules they themselves design and control. The analogy to complex natural systems striving for dynamic equilibrium contained in the name is a clear indication of their cybernetic character. Digital capitalism captures and processes every last detail in real time – everything is supposed to become plannable, nothing is to be left to chance.
Only today, in a kind of cybernetics 2.0, are its principles actually being realized, with global processes managed using a vast amount of data, instead of only occasionally providing for digitization and automation. In this way, not only does supply find its paying customers ever more precisely and rapidly, but indeed it makes it possible to transcend large-scale production scheduled in advance for an anonymous market. Even notoriously unpredictable user behavior becomes predictable with the help of big data and artificial intelligence, if it has not already been nudged in the right direction from the outset by the right algorithms. Homo oeconomicus has become homo kyberneticus, the feedback-controlled user.
The internal work and planning processes of the big firms are changing accordingly, because contrary to the dichotomy of market and plan, planning is also being undertaken in capitalism. Even along the Chinese special road to digital capitalism – at least according to chief capitalist Jack Ma – the goal of realizing the planned economy is within reach.
So what about an alternative to this cybernetic capitalism? An alternative in which social production and consumption would no longer be controlled by profit maximization; in which productivity would no longer have to be increased to this end and under the pressure of competition; in which the anonymous market would be replaced by a social arrangement which uses cybernetic management processes in the most resource-friendly and labor-saving manner possible?
How does such an alternative differ from the Amazons, the Walmarts, the Googles and the Teslas of our time? And would it face the same fate as its Fordist progenitors, a grandiose failure somewhere between inefficiency and misery? After all, real socialism thoroughly discredited the idea of a planned economy. Only reasonable and resource-efficient in theory, as we all know in reality it often looked like just the opposite: poor working conditions, outmoded technology, no regard for the environment – the fact that capitalists no longer existed did not change a thing. Actually-existing socialism is in retrospect more like the dirty version of industrialism, the ugly little sister or brother of "Americanism" (Antonio Gramsci).
Or perhaps the opposition of market vs. plan is fundamentally wrong. Was the socialist planned economy only a "corrective subsystem," a "mutation of capitalism" (Yona Friedman), a "catch-up modernization" (Robert Kurz)? And the attempt to plan a unit of abstract labor doomed to failure from the start?
- How exactly does this cybernetic capitalism function, and what role does the market still play in it?
- Does cybernetic capitalism actually bring about a "planned economy"?
- Do we already have a "socialism of things" – but governed by a narrow elite that profits from it?
- Is the general intellect – Marx's famous dictum from the so-called "fragment on machines," general knowledge in its social function as a directly productive force – so well-developed, that we only would need to flip the switch and the shop would belong to us?
- Or does cybernetic capitalism much more represent the highest stage of a system that takes the general intellect itself into its service?
- Is China taking a capitalist-authoritarian special road to a socialist planned economy, or does it represent only one branch of cybernetic capitalism?
- How could these questions be answered with Marx, who in his principal work analyzed the capitalist mode of production, but explicitly refrained from working out an alternative system?
- How would the relation between market and plan be defined in terms of a Marxist critique of political economy, and what consequences would this have for the debate over cybernetic capitalism?
- What emancipatory potentials does the history of cybernetics and/or concrete cybernetic practices and forms of organization offer for the elaboration of a social alternative?
Timo Daum firstname.lastname@example.org
Sabine Nuss email@example.com