A Socialist Economy without Numbers?

April 5, 2023

Can a post-Capitalist socialist Economy exist without numbers? There are those who think it can. In this episode Mitchell, Robin and Antti are joined by accountant Anders Sandström (Author of Anarchist accounting) to discuss the topic of numbers in a socialist economy. 

Do we need numbers to measure the true social costs and opportunity costs of goods and services? Can everything be quantified, are there some things that simply can’t? Or are we doomed as Mark Twain once said to know ‘The Price of everything and the value of nothing’?

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About PEP Talk

PEP Talk: The Participatory Economy Podcast is a podcast where we discuss the democratic alternative to capitalism known as a Participatory Economy, featuring co-creator of the model and economist professor Robin Hahnel. He is joined by host of the show Mitchell Szczepanczyk and regular guest Antti Jauhiainen.

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Notable Replies

  1. I can imagine a Parecon consumption planning without numbers, while numbers and accounting exists only for workplaces.

    For instance, what if income remunerated, and consumption requested would be counted not in terms of money, but in terms of “goods class” or “standard of living”? You may have income and consumer goods categories of several levels: economy class, standard, premium class, and luxury class instead of a numeric price tag.

    But then workplaces translating it into numbers and prices.

    What do you think?

  2. I enjoyed the podcast discussion. But who are these people who allegedly think a post-capitalist economy of any kind can – or should – exist without numbers? I kept waiting for someone to give some examples of writers or activists who make these kinds of claims, and kept waiting for a quote or two that might stand as “representative” of their sentiments. But I don’t think that happened.

    Perhaps some people do, in fact, hold such views. But does anyone take them seriously? I’m genuinely curious because I’ve never really heard of this aspiration for a world without numbers before… it strikes me as being about as serious as the “flat earth” society.

  3. Hi, PBurrows. I most certainly agree with your last sentence.
    However, I definitely do run into people in left circles that have a very negative attitude towards money and accounting and that imagine a future postcapitalist economy without any of them. These ideas were probably more common in earlier periods but they are certainly around.

    Here is a quote from the Introduction in my book Anarchist Accounting:

    "… It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the radical left, including many libertarian communists and followers of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, early on had a strong negative attitude towards bookkeeping and accounting, given that these activities were an integral part of the system they wished to abolish. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was a popular slogan on the left in the late 1800s. The early long term visions of a future utopian society were a society without money or accounting, where debit and credit had been “abolished”, and society’s collectively owned resources together with limited work efforts could satisfy everyone’s needs for goods and services without society having to make difficult decisions about what to produce and consume. A quote from the French anarchist Ravachol at the end of the 19th century captures the spirit of the time: "There are currently many worthless things, many professions are also worthless, such as accounting. With anarchy, there is no need for money, no need for accounting and the other forms of employment derived from this. “”

  4. Okay, that explains the focus a bit more. Money and book-keeping, the tracking of credits and debits, certainly do require an understanding of numbers and mathematics. They overlap in the Venn diagram. But they are different from numbers and mathematics. I was under the (mistaken) impression from the title and content of the podcast that there were people advocating a society that eschewed numbers and mathematics altogether – which, to my mind, is non-sensical.

    I am aware that there have been those who think money is unnecessary – and that, at least, is a position that can be understood. I don’t agree with it, of course … or at least, that depends somewhat on what is meant by “money”. Certainly, hard (physical) currency is increasingly unnecessary, even in today’s capitalist society. But “money” is also inherently a form of book-keeping insofar as it is tied to the prices of goods and services and income or consumption rights. That function requires numbers and accounting, with or without physical currency.

    But yeah, I most definitely agree with you that a desirable post-capitalist economy (of any label) requires book-keeping, credits and debits, prices, and ways of tracking income and spending (by individuals and workplaces alike). I was just genuinely confused because the podcast discussion and title seemed to be talking about numbers and mathematics in their own right, not money, book-keeping, or accounting per se. Thanks for clarifying that.

Continue the discussion at forum.participatoryeconomy.org


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