If the recent trident of the pandemic, the "cost of living crisis", and the climate crisis tells us anything, it is that we cannot let society be run for profit. We need to plan for the needs of far, far more people than the billionaires: this much became evident when the truly essential workers were revealed as hospital support staff, delivery drivers and shelf stackers. Nevertheless, too much of the economy remains planned in the rich's interests: huge loans, backroom deals and golden passports for the loaded, low-paid precarious work, terrible housing conditions and higher prices for everyday goods for the rest of us.
"Economic planning" is a phrase that bestows a sense of dread into some and wonder into others. To some, it means the authoritarian centralisation of resources and power where freedom and choice are limited. To others, a sustainable way to organise the economy that isn't speeding up environmental degradation at unprecedented levels. It can mean both of these and more.
How do we determine what resources to use, how do we use resources and for whom. All local and international economies are planned, despite what orthodox economists might want you to believe. It is not a question of whether we live in a planned economy or not. We do. The real question is, whose interests should it be planned for and by whom?
The British state has always had a critical role in developing capitalism at home and abroad. But, as time has passed, the role of the economic planner has needed to adapt to the political and economic environment of the time. This time is no different.
Liberals and those on the Right understand that somebody has to do the planning, and they dream of it being themselves in the spirit of a Keynsian-esque technocracy. With the current concoction of crises expected to worsen, we are starting to see those of the centre and right going to the mound, digging their feet and preparing to take a few swings at what economic planning means for the 21st century. But their scope is a minimal one. Their chief hope to save capitalism from its death throes: a few plasters to lay over the widening structural cracks that are inherent in our economic system.
Still, this allows us to dream bigger and plan deeper - not just as economists but as enfranchised citizens and community members.
In Daniel Ritschel's excellent book The Politics of Planning, which delves into the economic planning debate in 1930s Britain, we see how various groups from all over the political spectrum were creating and putting forward their ideas of what economic planning means to them. The stranglehold that laissez-faire thinking had on society had potentially had its day.
The slump in the 1920s and the Great Depression of 1929-31 knocked the confidence in laissez-faire economics and the doctrine of many classical economists. The free market maybe didn't know best anymore. The uneasiness and the yearning for something new made many question the free market's efficiency and benevolence. This spurned the debate on what a new British economy should look like.
From the Independent Labour Party’s socialist planning to the ideas of the Political Economic Planning (PEP) group, to the Keynesian "middle way", to Mosley's fascist National Plan and everything in between, everyone wanted to bake their economic planning pie and serve it to Britain.
Yet, although there was a vast popular debate on what economic planning should mean, some argued it was an empty concept with nothing behind it. There was too much loosely defined, and interpretations were too wide-ranging to lead to anything tangible.
Putting aside the question whether the debate was positive and led to anywhere useful, at least a discussion around economic planning was happening. Perhaps a lesson can be learned a century later.
Today, even after the pandemic, what we have is an economy planned to exploit the working class further. The vast wealth transfers that resulted from the global crisis - much like those resulting from the war in Ukraine - have gone from the bottom to those at the top of society. But this is nothing new. The economy was planned like this before the pandemic and will continue to do so long after. Less so the mantra of trickle-down economics but trickle up.
The looming ecological crisis threatens to raise global average temperatures, wreak havoc on food supply chains and displace millions. Unless we collectively develop what a sustainable future economy looks like, then the future will indeed be very bleak.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. And although there are plenty of lessons we can learn from the past, the good and the bad, a planned economy for people and the planet doesn’t have to conjure up the usual image of briefcase technocrats or bearded theoreticians being the all-knowing deciders of how the economy unfolds.
How do we get ahead of the debate in the 21st century before it is too late?
First, the most important thing we can do is talk to people. And by people, I don't just mean those already aligned with your beliefs. I mean everyone, whether they agree with your political and economic views or not. Although preaching to the choir can be good, if this is our only focus, we will not get anywhere worthwhile. We have to speak with and get on board those whose opinions aren't a 100% formed. And do not disregard and lambast them if their views don't perfectly align with yours. Get out, have those chats, and see what blossoms. Socialists, radicals and revolutionaries will be pleasantly surprised by what is outside their bubbles.
Secondly, taking the initiative and setting up a space to learn, analyse and debate what a future planned society in the interests of the working class would look like. Get people from all walks of life together to talk about economic planning and what it would mean to them. We cannot afford to let this debate be run by the commentariat, academia and think tanks - I say this as someone in that world. Not to say those individuals in that world shouldn't get involved, they should, and we should use their expertise where they have it, but we need to include the voices of those who face the brunt of capitalism. Those voices that will be affected the most need to have a say in their future. Bottom-up economic planning, not a top-down one - á la Hal Draper.
From this, create working/study groups on various areas of economic planning, including the environment, industrial relations, social services, finance, government, food, housing, health, etc. Let these working groups get into the nitty gritty to tease out policies and actions that would be part of a larger plan. Writing, orating, and media skills should be embedded within the education of these working groups.
From the working groups, a readily accessible bank of resources will be created where activists can broaden their knowledge. From the history of economic planning, the organisation, the political, social and economic impacts, tools and techniques, etc. An educated working class is a dangerous one.
On the back of this, a progress schedule should be created to ensure things are moving on and give activists something to work towards. Then, and only then, will a mass effort to push for getting the plan/ideas into the open. We can start the debate and have the knowledge and skills to be one step ahead.
Finally, is pushing for change, turning the organising and education into action. There is no point in having all these great ideas and plans for economic planning if we do nothing with them. Maybe this would mean a large umbrella organisation of groups from all over society, like COIN in the 1970s or perhaps the Enough is Enough and Don't Pay campaigns evolve into one to push and lobby these ideas. Maybe it would also mean creating a new political party to get into the seat of Westminster and across the devolved regions to put it all into practice. Who knows? But what we do know is that things need to change. All of this should be on the table, researched and debated.
The wealthy will continue to cling to the last vestiges of a society that plans in their interests. But we cannot afford to let the economy to continue to be planned against the needs of everyone else.