STOCKHOLM -- That the Soviet government has lost control over the economy in the U.S.S.R. is now clear. That the reaction to this should be gloom and alarm in the West is not. It's about time apparatchiks lost control over that economy.
The economy Gorbachev & Co. have lost control of is the tired, old bureaucratic command system that even they acknowledge no longer works. This system has gone belly up as the people have proved once again to be more resourceful and resilient than communism ever assumed they could be. To paraphrase Brecht, the people have dissolved the official economy and established their own.
The film and stories of the panic buying in Moscow's state stores have obscured the fact that the underground Soviet economy is flourishing. Goods have disappeared from the official stores because Soviet citizens at every socioeconomic level are hoarding on a massive scale.
A Moscow liberal intellectual recently described to me the five refrigerators he keeps at home so that perishable goods that sneak onto the market can be scooped up and saved. A Western businessman with excellent contacts recounted to one of the Kremlin's senior figures last month that he had just visited a civil servant's home that had a five-year stockpile of soap. The official marveled. His family only had a year's supply on hand.
Bread is scarce; yet a Western agribusinessman has pinpointed a 20-million-ton shortfall of harvested grain that never made it to the official markets. He thinks it has been sold privately or salted away by farmers who refuse to sell at the current derisory prices.
These snapshots of a functioning hidden economy suggest a larger pattern. Last autumn the masses took to the streets of Eastern Europe, crying, ''We are the people,'' and brought down Soviet-installed Communist governments. Something like that is happening now in the reawakening economies of the old Soviet bloc. Where bureaucrats hesitate or obstruct change, people carve new channels of distribution and incentives around them.
Take Poland, where a Solidarity government bit the bullet of economic reform, which Gorbachev continues to gum. While 400,000 people are listed as unemployed since the communists lost power, the people who had jobs that have actually been eliminated number only in the tens of thousands, according to one Swedish study. The rest of the newly unemployed have come out of the woodwork of a society that refused to recognize unemployment and have said for the first time that they want jobs.
But not all of the earnings from this trade get included in state statistics. Up to one-third of consumer trade goes on in the streets, outside Poland's state-run distribution networks. (Communism encouraged over-reporting of production; free markets encourage under-reporting of income.) The new Soviet revolution will occur when the perestroikacrats see that losing control to the street market is their solution, not their problem.
''We have succeeded in destroying the only functioning market we had, which was a quasi-market,'' Soviet economist Oleg Bogomolov told a few of us at the annual conference of the Institute for East West Security Studies here. ''The old system could deliver goods to the state stores. Now I reckon there are no more than 150 staple goods like salt or matches in the stores.''
Experts debate whether Soviet industrial production has declined 2 percent or 5 percent in the past year. But production problems do not account for the invisible hand that has swept almost all goods off the store shelves.
The government prints money 24 hours a day to buy off discontented workers, with no regard for inflationary pressures. Wages (up 13 percent this year) run well ahead of unofficial price increases (8 to 9 percent). Enormous amounts of rubles chase the reduced flow of goods, driving them underground. The jolt of this monetary mass hitting the crumbling official distribution system sounds like communism's coup de gra~ce.
Bogomolov and other knowledgeable Soviets say that only a ''national salvation'' or coalition government untainted by the mistakes of the past five years can regain public confidence and undertake real reform. Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov's fate appears to have been sealed by the panic that erupted when he announced on May 23 that food prices would double on July 1.
Ryzhkov told an incredulous American shortly before the announcement that he had no choice but to warn the people about the increases, ''to tell the people the truth and try to win back their confidence.'' Gorbachev told another Western visitor about the same time: ''I can't listen any more to these economists'' in the government. ''They don't know any more than I do.''
Gorbachev and his advisers miss the point, as do ideologues in the West who gloat over Soviet economic misery and proclaim a systemic victory for capitalism. The coming victory is one of people, not ideology. The people are redefining the relationship of work, money and material rewards in a country that devalued all these things.
As a lifelong Communist, Gorbachev seems condemned to perpetuate the crucial error of Marxism. He cannot bring himself to trust the people. He does not watch how they are reorganizing his stumbling economy around him. As their leader, he should be following them.