While certain anarchists have certain preferences on the social system they want to live in and so argue for that, they are aware that objective circumstances and social desires will determine what is introduced during a revolution (for example, while Kropotkin was a communist-anarchist and considered it essential that a revolution proceed towards communism as quickly as possible, he was aware that it was unlikely it would be introduced immediately -- see section I.2.2 for details).
However, we will outline some possible means of economic decision making criteria as this question is an important one (it is the crux of the "libertarian socialism is impossible" argument, for example). Therefore, we will indicate what possible solutions exist in different forms of anarchism.
In a mutualist or collectivist system, the answer is easy. Prices will exist and be used as a means of making decisions. Mutualism will be more market orientated than collectivism, with collectivism being based on confederations of collectives to respond to changes in demand (i.e. to determine investment decisions and ensure that supply is kept in line with demand). Mutualism, with its system of market based distribution around a network of co-operatives and mutual banks, does not really need a further discussion as its basic operations are the same as in any non-capitalist market system. Collectivism and communism will have to be discussed in more detail. However, all systems are based on workers' self-management and so the individuals directly affected make the decisions concerning what to produce, when to do it, and how to do it. In this way workers retain control of the product of their labour. It is the social context of these decisions and what criteria workers use to make their decisions that differ between anarchist schools of thought.
Although collectivism promotes the greatest autonomy for worker associations, it should not be confused with a market economy as advocated by supporters of mutualism (particularly in its Individualist form). The goods produced by the collectivised factories and workshops are exchanged not according to highest price that can be wrung from consumers, but according to their actual production costs. The determination of these honest prices is to be by a "Bank of Exchange" in each community (obviously an idea borrowed from Proudhon). These "Banks" would represent the various producer confederations and consumer/citizen groups in the community and would seek to negotiate these "honest" prices (which would, in all likelihood, include "hidden" costs like pollution). These agreements would be subject to ratification by the assemblies of those involved.
As Guillaume puts it "the value of the commodities having been established in advance by a contractual agreement between the regional co-operative federations [i.e. confederations of syndicates] and the various communes, who will also furnish statistics to the Banks of Exchange. The Bank of Exchange will remit to the producers negotiable vouchers representing the value of their products; these vouchers will be accepted throughout the territory included in the federation of communes." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 366] These vouchers would be related to hours worked, for example, and when used as a guide for investment decisions could be supplemented with cost-benefit analysis of the kind possibly used in a communist-anarchist society (see below).
Although this scheme bears a strong resemblance to Proudhonian "People's Banks," it should be noted that the Banks of Exchange, along with a "Communal Statistical Commission," are intended to have a "planning" function as well to ensure that supply meets demand. This does not imply a "command" economy, but simple book keeping for "each Bank of Exchange makes sure in advance that these products are in demand [in order to risk] nothing by immediately issuing payment vouchers to the producers." [Op. Cit., p. 367] The workers syndicates would still determine what orders to produce and each commune would be free to choose its suppliers.
As will be discussed in more depth later (see section I.4.8) information about consumption patterns will be recorded and used by workers to inform their production and investment decisions. In addition, we can imagine that production syndicates would encourage communes as well as consumer groups and co-operatives to participate in making these decisions. This would ensure that produced goods reflect consumer needs. Moreover, as conditions permit, the exchange functions of the communal "banks" would (in all likelihood) be gradually replaced by the distribution of goods "in accordance with the needs of the consumers." In other words, most supporters of collectivist anarchism see it as a temporary measure before anarcho-communism could develop.
Communist anarchism would be similar to collectivism, i.e. a system of confederations of collectives, communes and distribution centres ("Communal stores").
"As to decisions involving choices of a general nature, such as what forms of energy to use, which of two or more materials to employ to produce a particular good, whether to build a new factory, there is a . . . technique . . . that could be [used] . . . 'cost-benefit analysis' . . . in socialism a points scheme for attributing relative importance to the various relevant considerations could be used . . . The points attributed to these considerations would be subjective, in the sense that this would depend on a deliberate social decision rather than some objective standard, but this is the case even under capitalism when a monetary value has to be attributed to some such 'cost' or 'benefit' . . . In the sense that one of the aims of socialism is precisely to rescue humankind from the capitalist fixation with production time/money, cost-benefit analyses, as a means of taking into account other factors, could therefore be said to be more appropriate for use in socialism than under capitalism. Using points systems to attribute relative importance in this way would not be to recreate some universal unit of evaluation and calculation, but simply to employ a technique to facilitate decision-making in particular concrete cases." [Adam Buick and John Crump, State Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management, pp. 138-139]This points system would be the means by which producers and consumers would be able to determine whether the use of a particular good is efficient or not. Unlike prices, this cost-benefit analysis system would ensure that production and consumption reflects social and ecological costs, awareness and priorities. Moreover, this analysis would be a guide to decision making and not a replacement of human decision making and evaluation. As Lewis Mumford argues:
"it is plan that in the decision as to whether to build a bridge or a tunnel there is a human question that should outweigh the question of cheapness or mechanical feasibility: namely the number of lives that will be lost in the actual building or the advisability of condemning a certain number of men [and women] to spend their entire working days underground supervising tunnel traffic. As soon as our thought ceases to be automatically conditioned by the mine, such questions become important. Similarly the social choice between silk and rayon is not one that can be made simply on the different costs of production, or the difference in quality between the fibres themselves: there also remains, to be integrated in the decision, the question as to difference in working-pleasure between tending silkworms and assisting in rayon production. What the product contributes to the labourer is just as important as what the worker contributes to the product. A well-managed society might alter the process of motor car assemblage, at some loss of speed and cheapness, in order to produce a more interesting routine for the worker: similarly, it would either go to the expense of equipping dry-process cement making plants with dust removers -- or replace the product itself with a less noxious substitute. When none of these alternatives was available, it would drastically reduce the demand itself to the lowest possible level." [The Future of Technics and Civilisation, pp. 160-1]Obviously, today, we would include ecological issues as well as human ones. However Mumford's argument is correct. Any decision making process which disregards the quality of work or the effect on the human and natural environment is a deranged process. However, this is how capitalism operates, with the market rewarding capitalists and managers who introduce de-humanising and ecologically harmful practices. Indeed, so biased against labour and the environment is capitalism that economists and pro-capitalists argue that reducing "efficiency" by such social concerns is actually harmful to an economy, which is a total reversal of common sense and human feelings (after all, surely the economy should satisfy human needs and not sacrifice those needs to the economy?). The argument is that consumption would suffer as resources (human and material) would be diverted from more "efficient" productive activities and so reduce, over all, our economic well-being. What this argument ignores is that consumption does not exist in isolation from the rest of the economy. What we what to consume is conditioned, in part, by the sort of person we are and that is influenced by the kind of work we do, the kinds of social relationships we have, whether we are happy with our work and life, and so on. If our work is alienating and of low quality, then so will our consumption decisions. If our work is subject to hierarchical control and servile in nature then we cannot expect our consumption decisions of totally rational -- indeed they may become an attempt to find happiness via shopping, a self-defeating activity as consumption cannot solve a problem created in production. Thus rampant consumerism may be the result of capitalist "efficiency" and so the objection against socially aware production is question begging.
Of course, as well as absolute scarcity, prices under capitalism also reflect relative scarcity (while in the long term, market prices tend towards their production price plus a mark-up based on the degree of monopoly in a market, in the short term prices can change as a result of changes in supply and demand). How a communist society could take into account such short term changes and communicate them through out the economy is discussed in section I.4.5 ( "What about 'supply and demand'?"). Needless to say, production and investment decisions based upon such cost-benefit analysis would take into account the current production situation and so the relative scarcity of specific goods.
Therefore, a communist-anarchist society would be based around a network of syndicates who communicate information between each other. Instead of the "price" being communicated between workplaces as in capitalism, actual physical data will be sent. This data is a summary of the use values of the good (for example labour time and energy used to produce it, pollution details, relative scarcity and so forth). With this information a cost-benefit analysis will be conducted to determine which good will be best to use in a given situation based upon mutually agreed common values. The data for a given workplace could be compared to the industry as a whole (as confederations of syndicates would gather and produce such information -- see section I.3.5) in order to determine whether a specific workplace will efficiently produce the required goods (this system has the additional advantage of indicating which workplaces require investment to bring them in line, or improve upon, the industrial average in terms of working conditions, hours worked and so on). In addition, common rules of thumb would possibly be agreed, such as agreements not to use scarce materials unless there is no alternative (either ones that use a lot of labour, energy and time to produce or those whose demand is currently exceeding supply capacity).
Similarly, when ordering goods, the syndicate, commune or individual involved will have to inform the syndicate why it is required in order to allow the syndicate to determine if they desire to produce the good and to enable them to prioritise the orders they receive. In this way, resource use can be guided by social considerations and "unreasonable" requests ignored (for example, if an individual "needs" a ship-builders syndicate to build a ship for his personal use, the ship-builders may not "need" to build it and instead builds ships for the transportation of freight). However, in almost all cases of individual consumption, no such information will be needed as communal stores would order consumer goods in bulk as they do now. Hence the economy would be a vast network of co-operating individuals and workplaces and the dispersed knowledge which exists within any society can be put to good effect (better effect than under capitalism because it does not hide social and ecological costs in the way market prices do and co-operation will eliminate the business cycle and its resulting social problems).
Therefore, production units in a social anarchist society, by virtue of their autonomy within association, are aware of what is socially useful for them to produce and, by virtue of their links with communes, also aware of the social (human and ecological) cost of the resources they need to produce it. They can combine this knowledge, reflecting overall social priorities, with their local knowledge of the detailed circumstances of their workplaces and communities to decide how they can best use their productive capacity. In this way the division of knowledge within society can be used by the syndicates effectively as well as overcoming the restrictions within knowledge communication imposed by the price mechanism.
Moreover, production units, by their association within confederations (or Guilds) ensure that there is effective communication between them. This results in a process of negotiated co-ordination between equals (i.e. horizontal links and agreements) for major investment decisions, thus bringing together supply and demand and allowing the plans of the various units to be co-ordinated. By this process of co-operation, production units can reduce duplicating effort and so reduce the waste associated with over-investment (and so the irrationalities of booms and slumps associated with the price mechanism, which does not provide sufficient information to allow workplaces to efficiently co-ordinate their plans - see section C.7.2).
Needless to say, this issue is related to the "socialist calculation" issue we discussed in section I.1.2. To clarify our ideas, we shall present an example.
Consider two production processes. Method A requires 70 tons of steel and 60 tons of concrete while Method B requires 60 tons of steel and 70 tons of concrete. Which method should be preferred? One of the methods will be more economical in terms of leaving more resources available for other uses than the other but in order to establish which we need to compare the relevant quantities.
Supporters of capitalism argue that only prices can supply the necessary information as they are heterogeneous quantities. Both steel and concrete have a price (say $10 per ton for steel and $5 per ton for concrete). The method to choose is clearly B as it has a lower price that A ($950 for B compared to $1000 for A). However, this does not actually tell us whether B is the more economical method of production in terms of minimising waste and resource use, it just tells us which costs less in terms of money.
Why is this? Simply because, as we argued in section I.1.2, prices do not totally reflect social, economic and ecological costs. They are influenced by market power, for example, and produce externalities, environmental and health costs which are not reflected in the price. Indeed, passing on costs in the form of externalities and inhuman working conditions actually are rewarded in the market as it allows the company so doing to cut their prices. As far as market power goes, this has a massive influence on prices, directly in terms of prices charged and indirectly in terms of wages and conditions of workers. Due to natural barriers to entry (see section C.4), prices are maintained artificially high by the market power of big business. For example, steel could, in fact cost $5 per ton to produce but market power allows the company to charge $10 per ton,
Wage costs are, again, determined by the bargaining power of labour and so do not reflect the real costs in terms of health, personality and alienation the workers experience. They may be working in unhealthy conditions simply to get by, with unemployment or job insecurity hindering their attempts to improve their conditions or find a new job. Nor are the social and individual costs of hierarchy and alienation factored into the price, quite the reverse. It seems ironic that an economy which it defenders claim meets human needs (as expressed by money, of course) totally ignores individuals in the workplace, the place they spend most of their waking hours in adult life.
So the relative costs of each production method have to be evaluated but price does not, indeed cannot, provide an real indication of whether a method is economical in the sense of actually minimising resource use. Prices do reflect some of these costs, of course, but filtered through the effects of market power, hierarchy and externalities they become less and less accurate. Unless you take the term "economical" to simply mean "has the least cost in price" rather than the sensible "has the least cost in resource use, ecological impact and human pain" you have to accept that the price mechanism is not a great indicator of economic use.
What is the alternative? Obviously the exact details will be worked out in practice by the members of a free society, but we can suggest a few ideas based on our comments above.
When evaluating production methods we need to take into account as many social and ecological costs as possible and these have to be evaluated. Which costs will be taken into account, of course, be decided by those involved, as will how important they are relative to each other (i.e. how they are weighted). Moreover, it is likely that they will factor in the desirability of the work performed to indicate the potential waste in human time involved in production (see section I.4.13 for a discussion of how the desirability of productive activity could be indicated in an anarchist society). The logic behind this is simple, a resource which people like to produce will be a better use of the scare resource of an individual's time than one people hate producing.
So, for example, steel may take 3 person hours to produce one ton, produce 200 cubic metres of waste gas, 2000 kilo-joules of energy, and has excellent working conditions. Concrete, on the other hand, may take 4 person hours to produce one ton, produce 300 cubic metres of waste gas, uses 1000 kilo-joules of energy and has dangerous working conditions due to dust. What would be the best method? Assuming that each factor is weighted the same, then obviously Method A is the better method as it produces the least ecological impact and has the safest working environment -- the higher energy cost is offset by the other, more important, factors.
What factors to take into account and how to weigh them in the decision making process will be evaluated constantly and reviewed so to ensure that it reflects real costs and social concerns. Moreover, simply accounting tools can be created (as a spreadsheet or computer programme) that takes the decided factors as inputs and returns a cost benefit analysis of the choices available.
Therefore, the claim that communism cannot evaluate different production methods due to lack of prices is inaccurate. Indeed, a look at the actual capitalist market -- marked as it is by differences in bargaining and market power, externalities and wage labour -- soon shows that the claims that prices accurately reflect costs is simply not accurate.
One final point on this subject. As social anarchists consider it important to encourage all to participate in the decisions that affect their lives, it would be the role of communal confederations to determine the relative points value of given inputs and outputs. In this way, all individuals in a community determine how their society develops, so ensuring that economic activity is responsible to social needs and takes into account the desires of everyone affected by production. In this way the problems associated with the "Isolation Paradox" (see section B.6) can be over come and so consumption and production can be harmonised with the needs of individuals as members of society and the environment they live in.