After the Oligarchy: I’m talking to Paul Cockshott today. I’m just going to read his bio from a book How the World Works which I’m reading at the moment (which is very good): Paul Cockshott is a computer engineer working on computer design and teaching computer science at universities in Scotland. Named on 52 patents, his research covers robotics, computer parallelism, 3D TV, foundations of computability, and data compression. His books include Towards a New Socialism, Classical Econophysics, and Computation and its Limits.
Today we’re going to be talking about the book Towards a New Socialism written by Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, published in 1993. There the authors present a bold vision of a democratically planned economy using computerized labour time. In this interview we’ll be discussing some more advanced questions about that model so I recommend that you read the book to really understand what we’re talking about.
You can also watch some excellent videos on Dr. Cockshott’s YouTube channel, you can find a link to that, and his website, in the description below.
Paul Cockshott: Just seeing if I had a copy of the book but I don’t seem to have one. I can’t wave one around here …
AtO: I have one actually … do I? Yeah I have one here so it’s all right. Look there it is!
Dr. Paul Cockshott thank you very much for joining me.
1 – So we’ll begin with the first question, a more general one. Some advocates of market socialism say that ‘central planning is a solution looking for a problem’. How would you answer in response to an advocate of the most sophisticated and radical kinds of market socialism? A critic might say something like ‘well, yes, there can be direct state provision of all necessities and control key sectors, but once working-class incomes are substantially increased due to worker self-management of firms, suppression of rentiers, plus state regulation of the market, a Job Guarantee, and so forth, there’s no need to have a society which uses central computerized planning and labour time. How would you respond to that?
PC: Well my feeling is that whilst a Yugoslav-type system would be a considerable advance for most people, the Yugoslav economy – which is the historical example we’ve got of such a model – had a series of contradictions which developed over time. One of them was that because it is a market system the market does not regulate total demand for labour to be equal to the number of people wanting to work and there was an unemployment problem in Yugoslavia because of that. There was never an unemployment problem in the Soviet Union, for example. And the solution to it during the 1960s and 70s was emigration to Germany so it can’t be said to have really solved the problem of providing full employment for everyone.
Now the second point is that over time you also got the build-up of increasing regional disparities. These regional disparities became so intense that the conflicts associated with them eventually led to the breakup of the state. And the problem is that market economies tend to lead to uneven development – geographically uneven development – and the state can survive if it’s a strong centralized state that holds the country together and is not threatened but it certainly proved to be a critical failure in the Yugoslav example.
More generally if you say there’s going to be a job guarantee what does that job guarantee mean? How is the job guarantee going to be met? Is it going to be met by the state expanding employment in state industries? In which case you have the progressive replacement of a cooperative sector with a state sector.
The next issue is how does such a market socialist system adapt to externally imposed imperatives? Now, historically, the externally imposed imperatives have been to industrialize as rapidly as possible, for example, but at the moment the externally imposed imperatives are to transform the whole economy within a very short time from one based on fossil fuels to one based on non-fossil fuels. Now that is an in-kind constraint. It’s a physical constraint. It’s not a constraint that is readily addressed by market means. Any attempt to address it by market means is an indirect dressing up of state planning via market incentives. The state plans to do something and has rather inefficiently to try to create a set of market incentives which realize the plan.
Now we know that for the last couple of decades, states have formally been agreeing to reduce carbon output. And following the neoliberal doctrine that everything has got to be done by market incentives, attempts have been made to do this by market incentives. And in general the performance has not been good
AtO: 2 – Okay so here’s something a bit different it’s diving into the details of the Towards a New Socialism model. I’m just going to refer to the model itself as Towards a New Socialism. So, a point that you deal with is self-employment but I’d like to just drill into that a little bit more. My question is really: how do various kinds of self-employed people obtain national labour tokens for their work?
I’ll just give a few examples. Today you might have a chess grandmaster who gives lessons on the internet via YouTube and streaming via Twitch and they can make money from YouTube advertising revenue, from subscribers on Twitch, Patreon, and so forth, and that’s how they make their income. You might have a guitar teacher who does face-to-face lessons and they get paid 20 euro an hour, cash-in-hand, or you might have a meditation teacher who teaches for free and asks for donations, or musicians who play or … I’m just throwing out a few things to motivate the question.
PC: Well, let’s take the case of the chess master. Okay, the first thing you have to ask is should chess be a profession or a hobby? The great majority of people who play chess don’t do it to make a living, they have a regular job, and they play chess as well. And there’s nothing to stop a chess grandmaster having a job as a maths teacher or something like that. It doesn’t require full-time activity, being good at chess.
AtO: Okay I take your point so let’s leave that aside and move on to something which is maybe a bit less clear. An example I think would be the author of a book or a musician who creates a record. If the musician … obviously most musicians who create records are not successful enough to live off that. But let’s take a book author. As far as I know, most authors are actually solicited by a publishing company and I think in that case it’s more simple. You could probably arrange some kind of nominal yearly labour time salary on that basis. But for a significant proportion of authors, who aren’t solicited in advance to write a book, it seems … how would their work be quantified? And how could they be paid?
PC: If someone is actually fully employed writing books, they spend all their time writing, then the soviet system was you’d become a member of the writers’ guild and you would be a salaried member of the writer’s guild. So the writers as a collective organize themselves in such a way they support one another, out of an allocation the state gives for books.
The problem in a capitalist system is that the whole of it depends, this kind of activity depends, on copyright and people not being allowed to copy things.
AtO: And that was actually the next question!
PC: Effectively to establish a monopoly, an artificial monopoly. Now there’s no reason why a socialist society should establish an artificial monopoly like that. Publications can be put on the web and downloaded for free. It doesn’t cost anything to download something, or a minimal amount, a tiny, tiny, amount of labour to download something. So the issue is how are people to be supported when they’re writing things.
Now, there are masses of people who write and create material on the internet just for the joy of doing it. They don’t need to be paid to do it. If people are working, actually, as journalists and systematically allocating so much time to it that it’s their full-time activity, then they should be a salaried journalist.
AtO: Okay. So would you say there’d be a similar thing for musicians? That there would be some kind of musicians’ guild?
PC: Yes, a salaried musician. You can be employed in a municipal orchestra, a municipal band, municipal folk groups, supported by your locality. I mean the Soviet Union had a vast number of orchestras compared to a capitalist country, and had lots of concert halls because the local governments employed lots of musicians.
AtO: 3 – The next question was actually: what regime of intellectual property do you think is appropriate for – well it says consumer goods but not actually just consumer goods – goods such as film, software, etc, given that they can be reproduced at near zero marginal cost?
PC: I think they should be available for free.
AtO: And just pay people for the labour that went into it?
PC: Yeah and there shouldn’t be any adverts on the streaming video channels. The streaming video channels should be paid for out of tax revenue to support the computer equipment that’s required for them.
AtO: 4 – You’re speaking of journalism, and the next question is about media independence. Since all resources are owned by the state, and only the state issues national labour tokens, this means that any media organization, say a national or city newspaper, will require permission for access to resources (such as printing presses, distribution) and for the labour of the journalists, etc, to acquire labour tokens.
Firstly, is this correct? And if so, how can a boisterous, independent media organization be established, survive, and thrive, without worrying that if it doesn’t toe the line it will lose access to necessary resources or funding.
PC: Well again you’ve got to realize that now a large part of media commentary is generated for free by people producing it on blogs and on social media. But if we leave that aside, the issue is one of the editorial independence provision that is set up for printing organizations. The obvious way to do it would be have the editors elected by the journalists and print workers, if it’s still a print mode in that organization, and it has have some guarantee of editorial independence.
We know that some degree of editorial independence is achievable in state organizations in that even in capitalist countries things like the BBC are not totally under state control. They do permit criticism of government activity even though it’s a state-funded organization. Similarly with Channel 4 in Britain. So the fact that things are state-funded doesn’t mean that they they’ll have less in editorial independence. I mean does the editorial independence of the editor of The Sun exceed that of the news editor of the BBC?
AtO: Well no. And let me say for the sake of argument … Let’s compare Towards a New Socialism with a hypothetical market socialist system. Obviously it depends which because it’s easier to criticize the capitalist system. For the sake of argument, somebody might say that in a market socialist system even if the newspaper presented a very controversial opinion which ruffled the feathers of the majority of residents, it could materially sustain itself if enough people purchased the newspaper.
PC: But papers aren’t supported by purchase, they’re supposed by advertising. And that’s overwhelmingly the case with TV channels. So if you’re going to have a market socialist system of media, you are assuming that you’ve got, essentially, competing monopolies or oligopolies that are paying for adverts. So you’re making all sorts of assumptions about the degree of concentration of economic power, the fact that advertising is seen as something desirable to have in such a society, etc.
AtO: That’s a fair point and I think a question a proponent of market socialism would have to answer is how the media would be funded without advertising, which is obviously a very corrupting factor.
Just so I understand you clearly, you’re saying that there would be a certain media organization and that the editors, or the editorial governance of that group, would be determined by the actual journalists and workers within that organization. Is that what you’re saying?
PC: Yeah I mean exactly that was how Le Monde used to operate.
AtO: Okay. Can I ask you then, how would that address the issue of having access to the resources themselves? I think that would definitely be a better structure within the media enterprise. But in terms of the relation between the media enterprise and the rest of society and having access to resources?
PC: Well, if you’re still thinking in terms of newspapers, and then the newspapers are being paid for, then in a sense paying for the newspapers is the deduction from the overall labour budget of society to balance the resources used to produce a newspaper. And you would charge for the entire print run of the newspaper the number of hours work that went into producing that entire print. So that’s just like any other good, there’s nothing special about newspapers as opposed to lengths of fabric.
If you’re talking about broadcasting where there’s not a purchase of a physical product, then it has to be paid for out of some general taxation.
AtO: I suppose what I’m more concerned with is … I don’t think it’s difficult to see how it could be ‘funded’, so to speak, materially. I think that’s relatively clear. I suppose more what I’m saying is … for example, people can comment [on the internet], and so forth, but the most important role that journalists play is in investigative journalism. And sometimes that can go against the grain of society, it can go against the grain of powerful figures within society. And I suppose I’m just raising the issue of there being a temptation by either the public or certain figures within the civil service, etc, of trying to try to use their political power – even if they’re an ordinary citizen – to just get rid of media organizations that they don’t agree with.
PC: You can see that with Julian Assange at the moment.
AtO: What do you mean?
PC: Well, WikiLeaks is a media organization that the British and American state don’t agree with so they’re putting the guy in prison.
AtO: Yes, absolutely. I think the media is so central to any functioning society, particularly any democracy, that I think it is reasonable to have concerns that given that the establishment and maintenance of these media organizations will be a political process, rather than a purely economic one, that there might be issues about that political process being used to diminish the independence of media.
PC: Well there is always a risk that the state in the society may decide to restrict the media. Whether the state in the society restricts the media is something quite orthogonal to whether the economy is planned or market-based.
There are a whole series of means by which media can be controlled in Britain. I mean let’s take the Assange case again. Assange revealed that U.S. forces had been killing civilians in Iraq. He also revealed lots of details of communications that be made by the U.S. forces.
Now this was initially published by the Guardian and a number of other newspapers across the world. They took his investigative reporting. He’s an independent investigative reporter who did the work on the web and the newspapers published it.
The intelligence services later turned up at the offices of the Guardian and demanded they handed over all the discs with this and destroyed the discs in the Guardian offices with hammers. Since which point the Guardian has been loyally following the line of the intelligence services, spreading calumny about Assange, and parroting every story that the MI6 want to propagate.
So you have a nominally independent newspaper which claims that it has no millionaire owners and is independent but it is effectively a mouthpiece for the secret services. And it’s not planned, it’s not it’s legally the case that it has to do that but the secret service are able to impose that.
AtO: Look, I completely agree. I mean, to suggest that the only circumstance under which media can be distorted and controlled by the powerful is under a planned economy would be ridiculous because it’s manifestly not true. I suppose it’s more of a matter of degree, in that if media organizations are entirely dependent upon the state for resources that might present certain unique challenges.
PC: It depends on the actual degree to which you can have a legislative framework which gives effective independent editorial independence to media organizations. It doesn’t depend on whether they’re state-owned or not. It’s a separate question. The question is whether or not the state actually has the effective power or the laws by which it can impose its will on the press.
AtO: That’s a fair point. If you have a democratic society – which Towards a New Socialism very much would be, much more democratic than the societies that we live in – the thing about democracy is that it’s an expression of what people want. So if people want to live in a society with a free and independent media, and that’s something that a lot of people are willing to fight for, that’s something which is more likely to happen.
PC: Yeah. It doesn’t depend at all, as far as I can see, on who owns the press.
AtO: 5 – Let’s go onto something quite different now. On page 132 of the book you say that ‘for enterprises producing consumer goods this should deter the overstatement of input requirements, since overstatement would result in a higher labour value and hence a lower ratio of market price to value compared to the correct statement of input requirements’. So that’s saying that firms which are being inefficient, essentially, with resources could be detected through the ratio of …
PC: The same mechanism operates now if they overstate the labour requirements. The equivalent would be to deliberately hire more people and run at a higher cost than otherwise and therefore sell at a higher price.
AtO: Yes exactly. So let me ask a follow-up on that.
This is true but it assumes that an appropriately accurate figure for labour value is available with which to make the comparison. So my question is where does this come from? Is it not possible that the firm, one, systematically overstates input requirements and, two, provides an excessively high figure for the required labour value to the planning bureau so that a comparison is not possible?
PC: The difficulty is when you have a single supplier and where it is some activity which is highly concentrated so that there is only one enterprise or maybe two enterprises in the country doing it. At which point it’s difficult to arrive at an optimal figure for the average amount of labour required to do it since the average just is the amount used there. And you then have to say that on one level it’s an engineering issue.
Let’s take something which was concentrated like that. which is the Soviet space programme. There was initially just one project developing launchers. Now were they developing the launchers with the minimum resources required? Very difficult to say since no one else had ever built a rocket to put someone in orbit. Once they’d done that, they were able to turn out proton rockets at very low cost. But how do you know it’s low cost? It’s a matter of engineering studies to compare, hypothetically, what it would require to put things in orbit via a proton rocket versus an air gear or some other design of rocket.
If you’re dealing with an industry that is so concentrated that there is only one producer in it then it is inevitable that, for one thing, you take risks. If you’ve only got one shot at it, your design for the moon rocket, if it’s the wrong design and it blows up on the launch pad as it did, well that’s the risk you take. You can’t afford to assign three separate teams to build independent moon rockets. And your success depends on whether the engineers are good.
AtO: Yes. Can I follow up on that actually with a slightly different example? Let’s say the company is democratic communist Fender guitars, making electric guitars, and Fender states that a Player Stratocaster has a labour value of 100 hours – well it’s basically the same question – how can the planning bureau determine whether this labour value is itself accurate? No, it’s the same issue.
PC: It’s unlikely that there’s just one factory producing guitars in the whole country. So as soon as you have multiple people doing it you have comparisons. The problem is when the comparisons are not exact. And that happens in big industries. It happens in things like the aircraft industry. The Soviet Union could afford to have Mikoyan, Tupolev, and Ilyushin design bureaus producing things, Yakovlev as well. So they could have some kind of comparison for jet transports. They might have a couple of different designs to compare.
But talking about this in terms of overestimating and underestimating the amount of labour is not necessarily a sensible way to look at it. The thing is, is the whole engineering design of a particular type of aircraft efficient given the available labour resources, the fuel its going to use, etc? The difficult problems are when you’re dealing with very big major industries with very big investment costs, and there are pros and cons of having multiple designs and multiple teams.
The supposed pro of having multiple teams is that they’re competing against one another and you can make the best choice. Now that was the attitude taken by the central electricity generating board in Britain. It was decided that instead of having the state-owned atomic energy authority design and build all the power stations – they were nuclear stations – they would build the first two, after which they would have competing engineering consortia which would come up with designs. They very rapidly progressed but the problem was that no two were built to the same standard and you then didn’t get the savings which come from replication.
Now if you compare that with the French planning system, Électricité de France does the whole thing. It doesn’t put it out to a set of private contractors so it ends up with standardized designs which it must produce and becomes the world leader in nuclear power. So the centralization and having a single organization doing the whole thing seemed to work in the French case.
AtO: Yeah, well we have to remember there are always pros and cons to any system. It’s more of a question of what works in that situation and what are our tolerances for error. Because there are always errors.
PC: Yeah. If the French people had made a fundamentally bad design decision, if they’d made the bad design decision that was involved with the RBMK reactor’s use in Chernobyl, then you’d have led into a dead end with that and you’d have to then switch to an entirely different way of doing things, as the Russians had to do after Chernobyl. There’s no getting around the fact that developing new technologies is a difficult engineering process and that mistakes are made even by the best engineers designing things.
AtO: 6 – The next question is quite different. Towards a New Socialism is a cashless society and people pay for all of their purchases using labour credit cards, essentially. Is it possible to anonymize transactions so that people have complete privacy over their individual purchases while still allowing the planning bureau to gather vital information on what goods and services are purchased at what time and place?
PC: Well it’s certainly possible. You just don’t allow the publication or the transmission of the data beyond the record of initial purchase. Whether that is always the thing you want to do; I mean there are reasons why in a monetary system you may not want complete banking autonomy because of all the black market and hot money and things that occur if you allow that. If you’re not allowing transfers between people then there’s no particular reason why you couldn’t have it completely anonymized.
But that’s a matter for the equivalent of the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation.
AtO: As in, it’s something that technically could be done so it’s just a matter of doing it.
PC: It’s a matter of what data protection regulation legislation the country has.
AtO: 7 – You might think this is a bit of a funny question but I tend to approach everything from an engineering point of view. So that’s what motivates this question. It’s about weaknesses. It’s asking what are the biggest weaknesses, from your perspective, of Towards a New Socialism? What are the parts which you think are most deserving of criticism and what parts need to be improved the most?
PC: What’s not worked out explicitly enough is the relationship between election of representatives in a socialist workplace and its necessary subordination to the social requirements. How is that negotiated? And there is inevitably an element of contradiction there because if decisions were made just by individual representatives on what’s going to be done you’ve got no guarantee that it’ll meet social requirements. But how do you allow internal autonomy whilst meeting the external requirements? What is the kind of legal framework that you would have with that?
And some other things which I don’t think we explained well enough are – maybe we did, it’s such a while since I wrote the book that I forget – but the difference between people being paid by an enterprise and people being paid by society as a whole, and how does the budgeting of an enterprise work at that level? I mean, we go into it in some detail but I think I’ve later had to elaborate on that.
AtO: You have elaborated on that in papers, etc?
PC: In papers and videos, yes.
Another thing is we didn’t, at that time, know how to compute multi-year plans.
AtO: Well, when I’m asking this question I don’t mean just the book itself, I mean the model as a whole as it’s developed up until the present day.
PC: No, I mean I’m pretty confident that the basic model is right. What we were trying to do was just take what Marx said in his later writings and see if you take all that literally and take seriously what he’s saying there, what does it imply? So that was our starting point. Our starting point was what Marx wrote in Capital and what he wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Programme and saying ‘can we elaborate that?’.
AtO: Well I have to say it is a very compelling model. I say this as a very sceptical person who tries to be a realist. And even if people don’t end up agreeing with it, I think that basically everybody who considers themselves a socialist should read it, even if only to react to it in some way because I really do think it’s an important work.
PC: It’s marked by the particular conjunction that we wrote it in. We were writing it in at the time of perestroika when it was clear that the existing model in the Soviet Union was being criticized and had weaknesses, and we wanted to intervene in that ideological conjunction with a defence that is in a sense an orthodox Marxist defence. Being very true to the original if not necessarily what became the orthodoxy.
AtO: As in classical Marxism.
So we could probably just maybe do just one more.
AtO: Yeah I was going to say just finish this question, maybe just one more and then we can leave it at that.
8 – There’s a question actually related to that. So, I told you that I’m active in DiEM25 and we’re trying to figure out our own policy of post-capitalism in Europe. So let’s say a socialist movement has come to power in Europe in 50 years and wants to implement Towards a New Socialism. What do you think are the most important and most likely ways that they would make a mess of that? Because there’s always a problem of interpretation and implementation.
PC: Well as I was saying before, the book is conjunctural. It was written almost 30 years ago. Who knows what the situation is going to be like in 50 years? I mean it’s just unrealistic to think you can predict what the world situation is like in 50 years. How much of western Europe will be underwater, how much of southern Europe will be uninhabitable due to wildfires? I mean you just don’t know.
AtO: That’s fair. Let me see how I would rephrase that. If you could speak to those people in 50 years, not knowing what situation they were in, what warning would you give them if they were trying to implement this model?
PC: The thing you’ve got to make sure is that you don’t attempt to make a switch too suddenly. You mustn’t switch from one system to another whilst taking away what you’re standing on at the moment. You’ve got to have a period in which the two systems run to an extent in parallel.
It’s relatively easy to transform ownership relations. You can either make the entire economy state-owned or you can make the entire economy cooperative-owned just by legislation. To actually set up a system of planning beyond that requires you to have software networks and data networks operating in place, and you’ve got to do that step by step. You’ve got to start off by ensuring that you’re collecting the data whilst transactions are still taking place in monetary unit. You can shift the basis of your currency to be time rather than arbitrary units of money to de-fetishize the relations of production, but until you actually have got the data to coordinate it you’re still going to have to require enterprises to balance their books for a period until you have the data. And then you can shift to a non- – I can’t say the Russian word – kosrakots or whatever they called it. The enterprises cease to be juridical subjects but that can only come once you have a degree of coordination.
Now, in a sense, just nationalization is able to achieve that pretty rapidly. In that when Britain nationalized the health service, the individual hospitals, etc, very rapidly ceased to be juridical subjects. And the same applies to when Britain nationalized the coal mines. The individual collieries ceased to be juridical subjects.
So some aspects of it can be carried out quite quickly. But you don’t want to make the mistake of thinking you can suddenly completely transit from one system to another overnight. But on the other hand I don’t think it need be a very long time. I don’t think it need be more than about five to ten years.
AtO: It’s quite a short time really in the scheme of things.
PC: Have you ever read [Oscar] Lange’s book on socialism, his reply to Hayek? Well, basically he says any socialist government that doesn’t proceed very rapidly with transforming the economy isn’t really serious. He was obviously a state market socialist, and in a sense what he was proposing was very similar to the model that was put in place by the Attlee government, for those sections it brought under control. And basically he said if you put it off, you’re not serious about it.
AtO: I’ll definitely check out that work of Oscar Lange’s. I’ll be 78-years-old in 50 years anyway, so if I don’t end up in some kind of fascist prison camp then I will definitely bear that in mind.
So will we do just one more question or will we leave it?
PC: Okay one more.
AtO: 9 – I really like this question. It’s about a Towards a New Socialism research programme. Imagine you were the director of a multidisciplinary team at a fully-funded research institute whose purpose was to develop a vision for a democratic post-capitalist society. What would be the outlines of your research programme? What aspects of Towards a New Socialism would you like to flesh out? I suppose it’s continuing on from the weaknesses question.
PC: Well, the biggest thing is to develop the software for, on the one hand, nationwide participatory budgeting and nationwide participatory democracy, and, on the other hand, to develop robust planning software. It’s one thing for me and one or two students to develop participatory democracy software as student projects. There’s a big difference between that and robust stuff that could be rolled out.
On a more general point, what I would be getting people to investigate is trying to build parameterized Markov models of the conditions under which social change can occur.
AtO: What do you think would be the practical use of that in transitioning to …
PC: For political strategy.
AtO: So to understand what are the possibilities given certain concrete conditions?
AtO: Because they would vary from country to country.
PC: It would indeed.
AtO: Okay, that’s interesting. I often think it’s nice to imagine what would happen … I mean obviously the social science mainstream is neoclassical economics and all the resources go there, which is essentially an exercise in futility. And I just think it’s interesting to imagine what would happen if we even put one percent of those resources towards something that would actually help us.
PC: Yes, indeed.
AtO: Okay so we can leave it at that. It’s been fantastic talking to you. Have a good rest of the evening.
PC: Bye for now.