The People's Republic of Walmart: How the World's Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism (Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski) -
When people say "socialism doesn't work", what they usually mean is "large-scale top-down economic planning doesn't work". One of the biggest takeaways from the twentieth century is supposed to be that markets are much more efficient at allocating resources than planning could ever be. And yet one very obvious but never acknowledged fact is that there are many examples today of large-scale, country-wide economic planning of the Soviet type working exceptionally well, better than almost anyone could have foreseen - namely, those exemplars of corporate capitalism, Walmart and Amazon, who undergo economic planning on an absolutely massive scale to unprecedented, extraordinary success. Walmart by itself is the 38th largest economy in the world and is pulling in more than the Soviet Union did at its height in the early 70s, all with absolutely no internal markets, and in fact precisely because it was a pioneer in adopting efficient supply chain management through internal cooperation rather than competition. The book takes a detailed look at the inner workings of Walmart, and it shows that it does pretty much exactly what socialism's critics have, for over a hundred years now, been saying can't be done - everything, from the manufacturers to the suppliers to the distributors to the retailers, is coordinated and organized with extreme precision from the top down. It's a planned economy in all but name. The US Department of Defense is also the single largest employer in the world, and conservatives would be reluctant to disagree that it's pretty good at what it does, despite it being a centrally planned non-market public sector operation, and the People's Liberation Army is second, which also seems to be working fine. (Britain's NHS is fourth, also a publicly planned service, and it routinely outpolls every other institution in popularity, including the monarchy.)
You can contrast Walmart with Sears, which destroyed itself a few years ago due to its libertarian CEO's decision to disaggregate its different divisions into competing units, or create an internal market. Apparels, appliances, human resources, IT, branding, and everything else were to work as autonomous businesses, with their own board of directors and statements of profit and everything. It was complete chaos, it seems, "dysfunctionality at the highest level", and resulted in Sears losing half its value in a few years. Turns out there's a reason pretty much all firms operate by planning and top-down coordination rather than anarchic market competition. In fact, planning takes up the vast bulk of capitalism: the volume of transactions that takes place within firms, the interlocking nodes of capitalism, is as great or greater than the volume carried out between them. The problem is that, as traditional economists have been steadfastly ignoring and socialists have been pointing out for literal centuries, is that this planning is authoritarian and coercive, with firms operating as little "islands of tyranny", in Chomsky's words, even and especially concerning the labor market, the only "market" that could be said to take place within them. The "theory of the firm" is the open question in economics that asks, if the free market is so great, why are all of its most central nodes resolutely organized as non-market? But the better question is the other way around: if top-down planning is so great, and it takes up the bulk of our system anyway, why even bother with markets.
Amazon in particular is a good rejoinder to the idea that socialism/planning can't provide consumer goods. I'm pretty sure it can. There's a lot of planning that goes into the operation of Amazon. Of course, it still distributes its good partly via the market/price signaling, but it's easy to imagine a scenario wherein that particular part of it could work similarly to, for example, an online public library catalogue, which can theoretically build data-heavy models of consumer interests and demands and recommendations just like Amazon without any price mechanism. Prices are not an indispensable part of Amazon's functioning.
As for the market being the only source of investment and innovation, as libertarian true believers seem to somehow think, most innovation is already driven by the public sector. The public sector, and primarily the Pentagon, has been responsible for the Internet, Google's search engine algorithm, the iPhone, computers, jet aircraft, nuclear energy, lasers, much of modern biotechnology, and roughly two-thirds of the groundbreaking "new molecular entity" drugs discovered in the past decade. What's more, the state has a history of overseeing economic planning when it feels it necessary, particularly during World War 2, when it oversaw everything from fixing production quotas to resource distribution and price setting, and it was directly responsible for the invention of both the atomic bomb and the first antibiotic, penicillin. It seems that when shit starts getting real, the government all of a sudden doesn't feel the private sector is up to the task.
As for the Soviet Union, it's not a very good example of economic planning, partly because it didn't really start out with a comprehensive blueprint in the first place, but mostly because Stalinism basically distorted it out of all reason. The lesson to take from the USSR is not that planning doesn't work, but planning with arbitrary nonsensical coercive authority structures, radically incompetent and pointlessly brutal leadership, all management petrified of doing anything innovative or taking responsibility for anything for fear of being gulaged, lack of honest communication for fear of sending accurate-yet-unwanted information and (again) being gulaged, and above all, all the specialists and experts necessary to run a country mass murdered, doesn't work. Just to take one example, the government sent volunteers to the peasants' villages during collectivization to encourage them to increase productivity, but when they (the volunteers) realized that the procurement quotas needed to be immediately reduced, they were condemned as "saboteurs" and mostly gulaged. Also it's pretty hard to switch from agrarian feudalism straight to communism with no actual plan or blueprint even without Stalinist stupidity, which is why it probably shouldn't be tried.
So large-scale planning works. It works, empirically, despite the century-old arguments from von Mises and Hayek that it, in theory, shouldn't. It's a reversion of the cliche - socialism, clearly, works in practice, even though it shouldn't in theory. The problem is that, right now, it only works for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, as opposed to actual socialist planning that should work for everyone. Amazon, Walmart, and the Pentagon are, to put it lightly, not very socialist or democratic, so we should put a bit of a spin on the historical MO of Marxists and seize the means of large-scale planning from the Waltons and Bezoses of the world and democratize them so that they can be be used for the benefit of the many and not for the few. Exactly how this is to be done, the book doesn't say. But unlike socialist revolutionaries of the early twentieth century, we don't need to invent a country-wide planning system from scratch - we have plenty already here just waiting to be seized and repurposed.
It was good. The book was good. It successfully made its case that large-scale planning, empirically, can work. 21st-century socialism can work. All the shit for it is already available. We just need to make use of it. My only minor gripe with the book is that, despite its title, it doesn't talk about China very much, with its weird form of top-down market socialism. You know, a country ruled by a one-party state with the vast bulk of its economy planned that managed to pull like a billion people out of poverty in thirty years might deserve a mention in a book like this. Like, maybe even just a footnote. But I guess not. Kind of a weird little gap.