Thursday, 30 July 2015

The dizzy heights of public ownership

In the winter of 2007, in a bout of hopeless nostalgia for socialist times I decided to spend my New Years Eve high up in the clouds above Berlin. Well, not that high, 290 metres to be exact, in the Television Tower of East Berlin.

By chance, I ended up sitting next to a former manager of the East German Socialist Planning Agency. The Agency was responsible to project the number of consumer goods needed, everything ranging from car tyres to toilet paper (there was only one kind, of the grey and rough variety). Planning periods ranged from 1 year (the short term plans) to five years. The projections would then be passed on to the Ministry of Economic Affairs which instructed East German factories to produce the relevant number of goods.

I remember distinctly that, despite this being almost 20 years after the collapse of socialism, my neighbour at the dining table was remarkably upbeat about the future prospects of socialist planning. The reason it had all failed the last time, he argued, was because they (at the Planning Agency) had not yet had computers with sufficient calculating capacity. This was likely to be different soon as computer capacity would become so large that you could plan the needs of millions of people at any point in time. At that moment, people would finally see the light and socialism would come back.

I was recently reminded of this slightly unhinged reminiscing with a former party comrade in Berlin's television tower when I heard Jeremy Corbyn suggest that most of the UK's problems would be solved once the railways, utilities and pretty much anything else would be taken into public ownership.

What really astounded me however was not that he advocated what had failed before. Rather, of all people, Corbyn did not seem to have read much Trostky. Having turned his back on Stalinism in Soviet Russia, Trostky produced a stinging critique of public ownership arguing, in essence, that where everybody owns everything, no one owns anything, leaving a small party political clique (or union nomenklatura) in charge.

Sometimes I wonder why socialists keep climbing the same dizzy heights of economic planning time and again. But then perhaps, the view from up high might be very comforting. Everything looks small from there, as if we can move things around according to the plans we have for them.


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