George Walford: Notes on the Ideology of Economics

(Revision of a paper presented to the Walsby Society in 1976).

The foundation-work of systematic ideology, Harold Walsby’s Domain Of Ideologies (1947), closes with a declaration that the study is of more than academic interest:

With the development of scientific knowledge of the various ideologies… it becomes possible to apply this knowledge… in social and political relations generally. Progressive and socially-useful policies, aims, ideas etc. of the broader, more inclusive kind, can henceforth be presented to an ideological group in terms of their particular structure of assumptions and identifications, with the practical certainty of acceptance and agreement by the majority within that group. (p. 231).

That was written forty years ago. In those years, what progress have we made in the presentation of progressive and socially-useful policies? One sometimes feels, not very much, and the present paper is an attempt to take a step in this direction. There are two large ideological classes which appear in politics as the left and right wings, each of them identified with a certain set of assumptions concerning the mode of ownership and control appropriate to the means of production. It is widely assumed that these two sets of assumptions are mutually exclusive and that, therefore, it is impossible for the two groups to work together. If the system express the assumptions of the right the left will oppose it and if it express the assumptions of the left, the right will oppose it.

We are to enquire whether this is so. We may find that the assumptions, in the economic field, of left and right respectively, are not mutually exclusive. If so, then we shall have moved forward, toward a situation where it becomes possible to present a socially-useful policy – at least, one of a very broad and inclusive kind – if not to left and right themselves, then to the ideological classes from which these political classes derive, with the practical certainty of acceptance and agreement by the majority of each. This is, after all, the requirement to be met; once we accept these groups as enduring features of the ideological structure then we have to undertake the preparation of policies, at least in a broad, general form, acceptable to both of them.

The Assumptions
The left assume common ownership and democratic control of the means of production to be inevitable, or necessary, or preferable. The right assume private ownership and individual control of them to be inevitable, or necessary, or preferable.

The two systems are assumed by their proponents to be capable of co-existing, if at all, only in an unstable truce, as in the present British “mixed economy”. Each group takes it for granted that the development of a fully effective economic system requires the elimination of the assumptions of the other group or, at least, their reduction to an uninfluential position. Neither recognises that full realisation in practice of its own assumptions in this area involves, depends upon and presupposes the realisation of the assumptions of the other group.

Both right and left speak of ownership as well as of control, but here I shall speak almost exclusively of control, assuming ownership to have no importance apart from its connection with control.

Democratic Control
The left assumes democratic control to be inevitable or necessary or, at the lowest, preferable. Before considering these issues we must ask: Is it possible?

The definitions of the means of production found in left-wing literature are in general terms. One lists them as “the mills, mines, fields, factories, transport and communication systems,” and others do not depart far from this. When they are defined in this way then the proposition that they should be democratically controlled seems reasonable enough; they are, as the left point out, already socially operated. Only after closer enquiry is it seen to be impossible to operate a productive system entirely by democratic control, excluding all autonomous individual control.

An empty building can be described as a factory, but in the above list the term means something more. As one of the means of production a factory is a functional component of a system; the building together with its machines, power-supply and so on. The machines, power-supply and the rest must also be functional, this requires that they be maintained, and maintenance requires the use of hand-tools. Without hand-tools machines cannot continue to operate, without machines the factories cannot function, and without factories there can be no productive system. Hand-tools, just as much as factories, are means of production. The means of production, according to the left, are to be democratically controlled. Are we, then, to hold a plebiscite every time it is proposed to turn a screwdriver?

The question is absurd, but the absurdity is not ours. It arises, inescapably, when we try to work out, in as much detail as would be necessary to operate the system, what is meant by that splendid phrase “democratic control of the means of production.”

Delegation of Function
The left recognise that democratic control, taken without qualification, leads to the absurdity encountered above, and their solution is “delegation of function.” The community is to decide the general purposes to which the means of production are to be devoted, and delegates appointed to attend to the details. I am a democratically-appointed screwdriver-operator, authorised to control my screwdriver in such fashion as shall maintain the widget-producing capacity of the factory in which I work.

My individual control of the screwdriver is accepted, but only within certain limits and for certain purposes. If I do not comply with these conditions then I shall be deprived of control. It is the presence of these limitations which is conceived to distinguish the control exercised by individuals, in a system of communal democaratic control, from the control exercised by owners under a system of autocratic individual control. It is assumed that under the latter system the owners enjoy freedom to produce anything, not officially forbidden, that they may choose to produce. But the condition, that individual autocratic control over any part of the productive system may be exercised only within certain limits and for certain purposes, applies under capitalism as under socialism. It is not the less effective for not being formally declared.

Under either system, if I use my screwdriver to produce wodgets when the community requires widgets I shall be deprived of control over it. Similarly if the component over which I exercise individual autocratic control is some larger component of the system, such as a factory. Under socialism the the community or its representatives would deprive me of control, under capitalism my creditors perform the same office.

For the existence of autocratic individual control the official nature of the system is irrelevant. Autocratic individual control or democratic social control, in each case the minor components of the productive system will be controlled autocratically by individuals, and in each case this autocratic control will be␣ socially restricted.

The phrase “delegation of function” suggests that the community which appointed me to operate the screwdriver might equally well have decided to use the tool itself. But this is impossible. The community cannot operate my screwdriver (or machine or factory); only a single person can do so. And unless my screwdriver (etc.) is operated the productive system cannot function and the community cannot survive.

“Delegation of function” is a cosmetic phrase, a cover-up. It is a screen behind which individual autocratic control, formally excluded, slips back into the socialist system.

Individual Control
The right assume individual autocratic control of the means of production to be inevitable or necessary or, at the lowest, preferable. Before considering these issues we must ask whether it is possible.

It is quite possible for one person to exercise this type of control over a screwdriver; no argument there. Many machines, also, can be controlled by one man or woman, and it is reasonably conceivable that one person might control a factory, making all decisions concerning its internal functioning on their own responsibility and of their own knowledge, without reference elsewhere. But as one moves “up” the productive system, from the minor towards the major components, from screwdrivers towards industries, then, somewhere about the level of the factory, an influence appears which overrides individual control. No matter what the formally established assumptions of the system, the individual controller is not completely free to determine the purpose to which his factory shall be directed. He himself is controlled, not by another individual but by an impersonal societal force known as the market.

The Market
The market is a control exercised by society as a whole over the productive system as a whole. It is, therefore, also a control exercised by society as a whole over each individual controller, a control which becomes more direct as that which he individually controls is closer to being the totality of the productive system. It is a form of communal control which cannot be eliminated from the most individualistic system. The independent, autocratic, sole proprietor operating under a purely laissez-faire system is obliged to comply with the requirements of the market on pain of being deprived of control.

For the theory of exclusively individual control the market performs the same service as delegation of function performs for the theory of exclusively democratic control. It is a cosmetic phrase, a cover-up. It is the screen behind which the excluded element, in this case communal control, slips back into the capitalist system.

Autocratic individual control and democratic communal control of the means of production are not mutually exclusive and not optional alternatives. They are opposites, and as such mutually dependent. Each is a functional component of socialism and also of capitalism. When we confine our attention to abstract principles then the two forms of control appear to be mutually exclusive, but as soon as we begin to think about concrete, functional realities, about operating a productive system, then this appearance is found to be an illusion. When we work out how a socialist system would operate individual control appears in the guise of delegated function. When we examine the operation of capitalism then social control appears in the guise of the market.

“Means of production” is a generalisation embracing a range of objects, organisations, systems and institutions. At one end stand the detailed and particular constituents, hand-tools and machines; at the other the general and inclusive constituents, the industries and the system of production itself. It makes no difference what name be chosen for the system, and it makes no difference whether, officially, it operates by way of individual, autocratic, or social, democratic control. Under every system of production capable of meeting the requirements of a modern society the detailed and particular constituents of the system can be operated only by individual, autocratic control and the more general and inclusive constituents, the industries and the system itself, only by democratic, communal control. Even where the accepted theory is one of unqualified “laissez-faire” the productive system has no option but to comply with the demands of the community formulated in the market.

It is not impossible for the ideological groups from which left and right respectively arise to work together effectively in the operation of a sophisticated economic system. They are already doing so and cannot survive otherwise.

from Ideological Commentary 28, July 1987.