Against “market socialism”: Rebutting Richard Wolff on worker cooperatives versus a planned economy

Someone on reddit asked me

Curious what you think about this article by Richard Wolff? Critics of capitalism must include its definition

Below was my response. It is a little sloppier but in some ways maybe a little tighter than it could be otherwise, because I accidentally erased my first attempt at a response in an unfortunate hitting-back-on-my-browser incident.

>  WSDEs represent the end of exploitation.

> Significant conclusions follow. Soviet socialism from 1917 to 1989 did displace private in favor of social ownership of means of production and markets in favor of central planning. It did not displace the capitalist organization of the surplus in favor of WSDEs; surplus producers and appropriators in state enterprises were not made identical.

He’s incorrect about WSDEs. An economy composed of WSDEs competing for profit would suffer from the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

This means that all WSDEs would be forced to compete for a share of the ever-dwindling consumer base for their product. This means an ever-heightening pressure to work harder for the same livelhood despite fewer and fewer of the workers in an WSDE wanting to. Those WSDEs that would survive would be those that most successfully overcame those pressures–that is, most successfully forced their workers into exploiting themselves, or came to resemble current corporations in having a small managerial class that forces the rest of the employees to work in conditions of exploitation.

Meanwhile, there are a few problems with his explanations about the socialist projects of the 20th century.

First, he conflates socialism with communism. Communism is a system in which we expect no exploitation at all, where the state, class, and money have all been abolished. Socialism is a system that is attempting to achieve communism. But the socialist stage of this process will endure as long as capitalism exists somewhere else on the planet, and for a while after, as well.

So we should not expect an identicalness between the producers of a surplus and the distributors of this surplus even in socialism. What we do expect is that the distributors of this surplus are now doing it in a way that advances us toward communism as opposed to in a way that shores up capitalism.

So the question is, what guarantees that the distributors of the surplus under socialism reliably use the surplus in that way? A growing number of modern communists believe that this question was answered theoretically by the Chinese revolution–specifically with the idea of cultural revolution. The practitioners of cultural revolution recognize that under socialism there is a constant bourgeoisifying pressure within the Communist Party, and work to constantly eject the bourgeosified elements and bring in the most proletarian ones from all sections of the proletariat, putting an emphasis on bringing in people from the farthest and deepest sections of it. Keeping this circuit going perpetually should produce the strongest identicalness between the working class as a whole and the communist party that is its most self-conscious organ for achieving communism.

The point Wolff misses is that there is no option of an economy where some broader force isn’t putting pressure on the micro-level production of surplus in some way. In a “market socialist” economy composed of competing WSDEs, the capitalistic chaos of production for profit would be that broader force, tending toward a restoration of capitalism because it would tend to put the most capital in the hands of people who are most willing, eager, and able to accumulate profit. His micro-level view of each WSDE controlling its own surplus misses the fact that none of this happens in a vacuum.

So the only two options available are whether that pressure is (1) conscious and controlled democratically (a planned economy) or (2) driven by the chaos of competition for profit (a “market socialist” economy composed of competing WSDEs).