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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 1B – Consumption, Consumerism, Advertising

Editor’s note: discussion topics include whether consumer councils in Participatory Economics (parecon) are incentivized to oversell, whether worker councils in parecon can oversell, conspicuous consumption, whether parecon would reproduce a ‘throwaway society’, whether consumer federations in parecon would compete, plan adjustments during the year, and the scope for rising living standards within ecological limits.

[After the Oligarchy] Hello everybody, this is After the Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Professor Robin Hahnel.

Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics in the United States, co-founder with Michael Albert of the post-capitalist model known as Participatory Economics (Parecon), and author of many books.

Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization. This is Part B of the first in a series of interviews with Professor Robin Hahnel about participatory economics, and in particular his latest book Democratic Economic Planning published in 2021. It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book, so I recommend you familiarize yourself with participatory economics to understand what we’re talking about.

The discussion will also continue on the forum of participatoryeconomy.org.

Okay so the next question, staying on consumption, is about excessive consumption and the possibilities of this in participatory economy. So, firstly on the side of consumer councils, since consumer federations organize consumption – for example through shopping centres and online shops – consumer federations will decide how to present and, in general, ‘market’ goods and services. Will there be any incentive to oversell? For example, to convince people to buy things they don’t need or want.

[Robin Hahnel] Okay so I warned you before that you had picked the two things that I am the least … well, are my least favourite subjects.

[AO] Well your intellectual honesty is always appreciated – that’s how we like to do things here. But just whatever comes to mind is good enough.

I’ll give you my best answer, but I’ll preface it by saying that I don’t shop right. I don’t go shopping, I hate shopping. I have always found somebody else who will do the shopping for me. The only thing I enjoy shopping for is … I cook and I go into stores and I shop for food. [But not] clothes, [nor] anything else. There was a time when I would go into bookstores but now we don’t read books anymore, they’re all online. So I am not a shopper.

And at one point, there were three female students in one of my classes and we had done a little section on participatory economics. And they came in during office hours, three of them together it was like a delegation, and they came in and they said ‘well, Professor Hahnel, there are a lot of things we really do like about what you’re proposing here. But there’s one thing we just don’t like: you don’t seem to understand the pleasures of malling it.’ And at first I didn’t even understand what the word [was], I didn’t know what they were what they meant when they said ‘mall’. And they meant going to a mall and seeing and being seen, and spending four hours, you know, after school or after work at the mall. And that they were basically telling me some of us really like that, and we just want to know whether we’re going to be able to do that in a participatory economy.

And I had to say ‘well your dream is my nightmare’. I mean the fact that I would be trapped in a mall for five hours is sort of the worst thing that could ever happen to me. And so I’m going to admit to you that anybody who enjoys the pleasure of shopping, at least this person who designed this economy did not have you in mind. Because it’s the farthest thing from my mind.

But I do just think that structurally, almost by accident, I was concerned with the perverse incentive for sellers to lie to people about how good their products are. And that’s a huge feature of capitalism. I thought well, why don’t we reverse who is in charge of explaining to people what the properties of different options are? Why don’t we put the consumer federations, why don’t we assign them that role? Rather than put producers in the situation where they’re constantly trying to convince somebody to buy something, [where] they’re over-selling the value to the consumer. Let’s get the incentives right.

So the proposal was … I mean, people do need to find out about products. Now, at this point I don’t know how they do it because now everybody’s buying online. Nobody goes to the malls anymore. But at the time we were originally writing this, we said well we can still have malls. I mean, I was trying to get my poor students, I was trying to convince them to support participatory economics, it was shameless. That’s what I was trying to tell them. You can still go to the mall, but the mall is going to be run by your consumer federation. And they’re going to have all sorts of things that are new things on display there. And maybe you can impulse buy, if you want to impulse buy. Or you can just go and see it.

I know that in Cuba they did set up … they weren’t shopping malls, but they would periodically put on sort of a big show where they would display items that were going to be new items that were going to become available. And they would put them on show, and people would visit, and that’s how they would become aware of what was going to soon become available, if they wanted to find out what was coming.

So our suggestion has been that that should be the approach. And then the question is well if it’s the consumer federations that are in charge of … first of all, the consumer federations are going to have their own research and development units that are responsible to them for doing research into new consumer products. Why don’t we want the consumers to be in charge of looking into new consumer products instead of having the producers be the ones that are doing all that research? So we essentially said let’s reverse who’s in charge of that research. Let’s reverse the whole question of who is in charge of presenting and showing people what is available, A.K.A. advertising.

My father was a miserable employee in the advertising industry, so I grew up very aware that there are two supposed purposes of advertising: one is a legitimate public service, which is making accurate information about product availabilities and capabilities available to the public; and the other is tricking them into buying things they really don’t want. So the goal here is … we do have a legitimate service that needs to be provided, and that is information. But we want to do it in a way that we don’t have a terribly perverse incentive about who’s in charge of it and what their motivations will inevitably be.

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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 1A – Housing & Land

Editor’s note: discussions topics include how housing is built, distributed, and managed, in Participatory Economics (parecon), the distribution of land in a socialist economy, and economic rent.

[After The Oligarchy] Hello everybody, this is After The Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Professor Robin Hahnel. Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics in the United States, co-founder with Michael Albert of the post-capitalist model known as Participatory Economics, and author of many books.

Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization. This is the first in a series of interviews with Professor Hahnel about Participatory Economics, and in particular his latest book Democratic Economic Planning published in 2021. It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book, so I recommend you familiarize yourself with Participatory Economics to understand what we’re talking about.

The discussion will also continue on the forum of participatoryeconomy.org.

Robin Hahnel, thank you for joining me.

[Robin Hahnel] It’s great to be with you today.

[AO] I finished reading Democratic Economic Planning recently – here it is for viewers – and it’s an outstanding contribution I think. It’s very technical, which for me is a good thing. I really feel that I needed that book, I felt like I was waiting for that book to be published and it came along at exactly the right time. So I’d say if any viewers are similarly inclined, buy the book Democratic Economic Planning,read it. If viewers want a more straightforward and accessible introduction to Participatory Economics, then Of the People, By the People is very good; short, clear, and accessible.

So without further ado, there are something like 60 questions to discuss in total but we won’t go through all of those today, of course. Today, I just want to begin with some questions about consumption in a participatory economy.

[RH] Before you ask me a question, let me congratulate you for actually reading that book. I don’t know how many people have actually managed to do it yet. You are in very select company I can promise you. And it’s because, I mean, it’s long and there are sections that are that are very technical. And I wish there were more people who had managed to take the time and energy to wade through it. I may have to reassess my opinion of economists versus engineers. I understand that you have an engineering background?

[AO] Yes.

[RH] What I thought was, well, economists can read this book but I’m worried about my fellow political activists, where it’s kind of difficult. And actually AK Press is going to come out with a book sometime in about three or four months called A Participatory Economy, and that book is intended for the for the activist audience, you don’t have to be an economist. But I’m going to revise my strategy to think that, well I can address economists and expect them to actually read things carefully. Maybe I should shift over to the engineers and make you my target audience from now on, because at least you’ve demonstrated a willingness to put in the work.

[AO] Yes well I will add one thing, which is that I’ve got a very intense interest in political economy and I’m kind of pursuing an autodidactic course in economics to prepare myself to become an economist. So I’m in a bit of an odd position. However, I will say that in our post-capitalism discussion group in DiEM25 – so I’m a member of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 – there are quite a few engineers, it’s something that tends to crop up. What I will say about engineering and politics is that something I think about is – it has shaped my view a lot – I think one benefit is that you have a technical and numerical, mathematical, training but you’re not necessarily indoctrinated into the same presuppositions about economics. So there’s a potential there to engage with political economy that maybe those who were trained in orthodox economics don’t experience.

[RH] I can tell that engineers are more inclined to matter-of-fact thinking and therefore less interested in ideology. And I think that’s a huge barrier in thinking about alternatives to capitalism, you know, if you’re so wrapped up in the ideology. Because I think a lot of what we have to do in the aftermath of the failures of attempts to build socialist economies in the past is, I mean we have to engage in really some very concrete thinking about procedures and, you know, what the implications of deciding things this way or that way are. Less political grandstanding and more matter-of-fact thinking would stand us all in good stead. I think the answer is we need to recruit some more engineers.

[AO] Well engineers are not I completely agree with you. That’s the whole premise of this channel, the more concrete the better. And I’m completely on your side in terms of the necessity of vision, in that, it’s kind of common sense: whenever we want to do anything in life we really need to think about what exactly we’re trying to do. And there’s no reason that that would be less true in politics or economics than in any other field of life. But a lot of us on the left have managed to convince ourselves that there’s something wrong with this.

The first question is about housing. There are a few questions about this, and I will throw a few of them at you and we’ll move through them and maybe come back. How is housing organized in a participatory economy? Because obviously housing is a very important sector, it has distinct characteristics in terms of houses being assets, they’re durable, they’re large purchases, and so forth. If there’s no private ownership of housing and all housing is socially owned, then what are the rights of use? How does society decide who gets to live where, and for how long? And then, is housing rented? If so, how’s the rent calculated? And so on, but we’ll come to that.

[RH] Actually before starting, let me say that when I looked at your questions the first five are the ones that I am least suitable to answering as fully as we’re going to try and do now.

[AO] Yeah that’s all right.

[RH] Actually as you just mentioned, housing poses some particular problems. But I think what I’ll explain is not really from the production side, that’s not where it’s peculiar, it’s different. It’s from the using and consumption side, because it is such a major … I mean a house in terms of an asset or purchase, if you purchased it, dwarfs everything else you buy. And the other problem is that on a regular income you can’t actually pay for the entire thing, and that’s why we have mortgages. So here’s something that we somehow have to figure out: a way for people with sensible incomes to manage to pay sensible amounts as they go.

Now renting is kind of easy, and so my answer could be well ‘what if we just don’t’? What if all housing units are rentals? Then they would be produced by … if you take a look on the production side, compared to a lot of really, really, large firms, contractors who build housing, these aren’t multinational firms. They’re large, many of them are large companies, many of them actually aren’t. So the idea that you can have worker councils, with carpenters, and electricians, and all of the kinds of people that actually work to build housing, including the engineers that design them – well that could be a workers council and that’s the product that they are selling.

That’s sort of straightforward and easy, but it’s the financing and purchasing of it. and when you’re living in it how do you pay for and what are your rights, etc, that that do pose some special difficulties. And I’m just going to say that this is a subject that one of my collaborators … I accuse him of obsessing over it. This is Anders.

[AO] Ah yes.

[RH] Anders who is a member of the collective in … he’s Swedish and he lives in Stockholm.

[AO] That’s Anders Sandström, is it?

[RH] Yes, it’s Anders Sandström. And he’s published a book called Anarchist Accounting, which I think has the most brilliant title of any book I’ve ever heard. Because who would be the least likely people to have anything to do with each other? It would be anarchists and accountants. And here it is. So I’ve declared him to be the most famous anarchist accountant in the history of the world.

And he also obsesses on matters do come into play particularly heavily in trying to deal with a situation like this. I mean it’s amortization and how do you cost all that out. So I’m just going to say that I’m going to give you my answer, but he took up that challenge in his book Anarchist Accounting in more detail and more seriously than I have in anything I’ve published.

Here would be the short side of it. I think if we just had housing always rented, there’d be a fairly straightforward explanation. And the rent would be, people will be charged the social cost of providing the housing. Whether or not they are paying that to the construction workers council that built it, or whether there’s actually an intermediate workers council which is … I mean usually the builders aren’t the ones that are then managing the property, or the sale of the property, or if it’s rental taking care of the rental. Then there’s another workers council that basically is managing that.

But I think that that people sometimes have a legitimate interest in not just being a renter, where, you know, they might be thrown out at any point. And there I think the idea that comes to mind is well there’s a difference between a lease and being a renter. It’s sort of a halfway ground between ‘I’m the owner of the property’ and ‘I’m merely a renter’, and maybe I sign a one-year contract but basically I’m paying rent month-to-month and the rate can be varied as we’re going along. So as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see any reason that we couldn’t be leasing for people who wanted the lease, and that gives you a long-term contract.

And now you’re thinking ‘okay, we have people who still probably are working on family farms’. And so here’s a family farm and the parents die, and should there be some sort of arrangement? Or just if you grew up in a house, and your parents have been there all that time, you’d grown up, and now you want to stay there. I don’t know why we couldn’t write in something like a first right of [refusal]…

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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Paul Cockshott Interview on Towards a New Socialism – Part 3 – Differential Pay & Worker Self-Management

Editor’s note: discussion topics include how to handle differential pay in the Towards a New Socialism model (TNS), and whether TNS can fulfill aspirations for worker self-management.

[After The Oligarchy] Hello everybody, this is After the Oligarchy speaking to Dr. Paul Cockshott again. 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, How the World Works, Classical Econophysics, and Computation and Its Limits.

Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-Capitalist Civilization. This is the third in a series of interviews with Dr. Cockshott about Towards a New Socialism. Watch the first and second interview if you haven’t already.

In Towards a New Socialism, published by Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell in 1993, 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 you read the book to really understand what we’re talking about.

You can watch some excellent videos on Dr. Cockshott’s YouTube channel.

Dr. Paul Cockshott thank you very much for joining me again.

[Paul Cockshott] Hi.

[AO] Let’s start off with a question about standardized pay grades. So, in Towards a New Socialism you write that ‘the planners would know for instance that a given project requiring 1000 person hours of average labour would only require, say, 800 person hours of grade a labour’ – how would the planners figure this out?

The context for people watching is that in TNS people are paid according to the number of hours that they work. But it’s the idea that there might be pay grades according to how strenuously people want to work, and there might be, say, tier A, tier B, and tier C. So, how would the planners figure out these pay grades?

[PC] It has to be done in terms of physical or realized productivity of individual people. Some people can just work faster than others. However, this is not a property of a trade or profession. It’s not that some trades or professions are higher grade than others, it’s a difference in productivity within any trade. Some people are just faster workers in a trade.

Now, for planning purposes it’s unlikely this would be relevant except in very special circumstances, where for some reason the number of people that could be employed on the project was limited and the project was of high priority and therefore within each trade that was going to be involved they might want to have the best workers working on it. If it was some project of major national importance and you couldn’t just assign more workers to it, then under those circumstances, and they’re very limited circumstances, it might be worth planners knowing these things.

But they would be exceptional really, because in most circumstances, within any work team, you’ll get some people who are more productive and some people who are less productive. And Marx says that once you get around twelve – I think he says it is – in a work team the difference is evened out and work teams above a certain size all count just as average labour. So for it to be significant you’re talking about a circumstance where you you’ve got a small number of people where they can’t add more to them and they need to be highly productive. Like astronauts going to the moon or something like that.

[AO] Is there not another dimension as well to this, in terms of motivational efficiency? There’s a discussion in the book that perhaps it might be required to pay people slightly differently depending on how hard they want to work.

Well it depends on what the method of pay or measuring work is. If you are in some branch of labour where the work can be physically measured in some way, and you can then establish a norm what the average is, then people would get paid more if they exceed the norm, paid less if they fall short of the norm. And this this was standard practice in socialist countries where they had what they called payment according to labour.

I mean I was surprised, I remember, in the late 70s, early 80s, to be visiting Bulgaria and finding that university lecturers were paid according to norms where they got a higher rate of pay according to how many pages of lecture notes they prepared and things like that. Areas which here are not graded in terms of productivity can be graded in terms of productivity, which is not the same thing as what’s done here where people are paid for seniority, prestige, etc.

It was based on actual measured outputs so if it’s reckoned that in a 40-hour week someone can, the average person can, do a certain amount, if somebody is able to do 10 percent more than that in a 40-hour week and another person 10 percent less, then provided across the work team averages out there’s no reason why the person who’s more productive can’t be credited with more and the person who’s less productive can’t be credited with less.

But since what you are trying to measure is two objective things, actual productivity and human time, you have to have a proper conservation principle of human time. You can’t start paying more than the actual number of hours that everyone worked. And since it’s a relative measure of productivity in a particular trade, in a particular branch of that trade, then it has to be something that’s decided by the people collectively in the group that are undertaking the task. that some people are doing more than their fair share and should be rewarded.

But that does depend on it being agreed collectively. And it does depend on the average adding up because you can’t have a situation where your calculation becomes detached from reality. You don’t want to have an inflation of the notional labour credit so that more labour credits are being handed out than actual hours that are working being worked.

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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Yanis Varoufakis Interview on Another Now – Part 1 – Nationalization, Unemployment, Climate, Public Finance, Debt

Editor’s note: discussion topics include the role of nationalization in the Another Now model (AN), unemployment in AN, whether AN can overcome the climate crisis, interest in AN, public finance in AN, the scope for and means of debt cancellation in AN.

[After the Oligarchy] Hello everybody, this is After The Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Yanis Varoufakis

Yanis Varoufakis is the former Greek Finance Minister, a professor of economics, co-founder of DiEM25 and the Progressive International, leader of MERA25, and a member of Greek parliament.

Today’s conversation is in association with mέta: the Centre for Post-Capitalist Civilization. And the topic is Yanis’s latest book Another Now, published in 2020, which presents a vision of a post-capitalist society. It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book. If you want an introduction, I wrote an essay and made a 40-minute video doing just that. Though I do recommend that you eventually read the book itself, it’s very good.

Yanis Varoufakis thank you for joining me.

[Yanis Varoufakis] Well thank you for doing everything you’ve done, it’s remarkable what you did, thank you.

[AO] Oh yeah my pleasure, my pleasure absolutely.

I have many questions to ask you, including from some viewers, but we can only cover so much in one interview. So we’ll see how we get on.

Q1 – The first question is about nationalization. In Another Now you briefly mentioned that utilities have been nationalized and I was just wondering what is and what is not nationalized? Because ‘utility’ usually refers to things like electricity, gas, sewage, rubbish, and so forth, but … if you want to jump in you can.

[YV] In the book, what I do is I try to tell a story of how we could change the very fabric of the social economic system that we live in by starting from the fact that these were all nationalized utilities, in Ireland, in Britain, Germany, everywhere, they were created by the state primarily because no private business was interested in creating them. Even the BBC was created by the BBC before there was private radio because the fixed costs were too large.

And then in the 1970s with the onslaught of neoliberalism, with Margaret thatcher in Britain, with Ronald Reagan in the United States a bit later in 1980, you have the privatization of all utilities. Effectively the conversion of state monopolies into private monopolies that were presented as marketized, decentralized, but were not really. I mean if you look at the electricity grid and the electricity network in our countries they are still monopolies except that there is an infrastructure of speculation on energy prices. Which is today, given the rise in energy prices and inflation in the post-pandemic world, a clear and present danger to the fabric of society.

So as far as I’m concerned the answer to this is not a re-nationalization but the answer that I propose in the book – and you know this very well because you’ve done a great job at summarizing the blueprint that I’m putting forward – so instead of nationalizing the privatized utilities, I am proposing the socialization of all companies not just the former nationalized utilities or nationally state-owned utilities. Because I’m challenging the very notion of tradable shares. Something we take for granted, that the property rights over companies are segmented in tiny little pieces of paper or digital pieces they call ‘shares’ and that these shares are traded anonymously in markets called ‘share markets’. I challenge that very notion. I think that in the end it’s even antithetical to the mentality, the philosophy, of the original proponents of market societies like Adam Smith.

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Post-Capitalist Vision

Post-Capitalism: Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis – Model Summary

Introduction

In this essay, we will summarize the model presented in Another Now, a proposal for a post-capitalist society. This summary is also available in video format (see video embedded below). However, the essay is definitive.

In 2020, Yanis Varoufakis, professor of economics, former Greek finance minister, co-founder of DiEM25 and the Progressive International, general secretary of MERA25, and member of parliament in Greece, published the book Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present. The book discusses an alternate history where humanity broke with capitalism after the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a brilliant book, highly readable, inventive, and likely to appeal to general audience, so I recommend that you read it. This essay will present an abstract summary of the model found in those pages.

Before we begin though, some clarifications are needed.

Firstly, this is not a summary of the book Another Now. Another Now is written in a science fiction format with a lot of dialogue between characters with different opinions. In the book the characters find themselves in contact with another reality i.e Another Now, a post-capitalist reality. The details of that new society are scattered throughout the narrative. So I’m only going to present that alternate reality here. I will not say anything about the characters. And for the most part I’m not going to summarize the arguments made in the book, just the conclusions.

Secondly, this is only a summary of the economic model of Another Now. I’m not going to discuss activism, strategy, and transition, even though these topics are discussed in the book and they are crucially important.

Thirdly, this isn’t a review, analysis, critique, or endorsement. I will only provide an exposition of the model.

Brevity is the reason for the foregoing. Those are topics for another date.

Lastly, this essay emphasizes accuracy and completeness. However, it will be very clear and will make extensive use of illustrations. If you follow you’ll understand and by the end you’ll be an expert in Another Now.

Now, before we dive into the details I want to quickly give you the gist of Another Now. It’s a kind of socialism. There’s a big emphasis on properly functioning markets, on worker self-management, on radically reforming finance (especially through a public payment system), on international economic institutions, on the public ownership of land, on digital data rights, and there is extensive use of sortition for regulation and governance.

If you haven’t come across the word ‘sortition’, it means picking people at random (sorting people). You can use many different words: sortition, lottery, by lot. Effectively it means picking people at random. And this is the technique which was used predominantly in the Athenian democracy.

The main headings for the essay are as follows. I grouped the proposals in Another Now into five main categories:

  1. Production Units & Regulation
  2. Finance
  3. Digital Information
  4. Land & Immigration
  5. International Trade and Development.
Figure 0 – Summary diagram of some key features of Another Now.

Before moving systematically through those headings, I want to give you a global picture of the model. Production units are divided into a nationalized sector, a worker-owned sector, and a domestic economy. And these production units are regulated by Social Accountability Juries. The central bank has a very important role, with a public payment system, local digital currencies, a private credit system, and each resident having an account at the central bank (broken into three sections with different functions). People have full property rights over their digital information and its use is controlled by a Sovereign Data Fund and micro-payment system. Land is publicly owned and is governed by County Associations, and immigration is managed regionally. Lastly, there’s a relation between the nation state and other states through the International Monetary Project, which regulates international trade and economic development.

Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to understand this yet. All will be explained.

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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Paul Cockshott Interview on Towards a New Socialism – Part 2 – Socialism & Technologies, Second Hand Goods, Research

Editor’s note: discussion topics include the relevance (or non-relevance) of 3-D printing, the internet of things, recommender systems, neural networks, and quantum computing, to socialism and the Towards a New Socialism model (TNS) in particular, handling second-hand goods in TNS, the number of commodities in a modern, advanced, capitalist economy, basic research and labour time in TNS.

After the Oligarchy: Hi everybody this is After the Oligarchy speaking to Dr. Paul Cockshott again. I’m going to read out his bio from his book How the World Works which is a very good book on historical materialism: 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. And of course How the World Works.

This is the second in a series of interviews with Dr. Cockshott about Towards a New Socialism written by Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, published in 1993. If you haven’t watched that first interview yet check it out. In Towards a New Socialism 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, link to that and his website in the description below. Dr. Paul Cockshott, thanks for joining me again.

Paul Cockshott: Hi.

AO: I just want to, actually, say something that I found out in the meantime about this book How the World Works, that you don’t actually make any money from it because you chose to lower the price to make it more accessible.

PC: Yes.

AO: I just thought that that’s very impressive and interesting. But actually on that note I should also mention that you do have a Patreon, so if people want to support your work, given that, for example, you’re not making money from How the World Works, they can go to your Patreon and become a subscriber.

And last time we didn’t have a copy so here’s Towards a New Socialism, it’s still in print but you can actually get a free PDF version which I’ll put in the description as well.

So with all of that out of the way I’d like to begin with a set of questions about the relevance of various technologies to Towards a New Socialism.

1 – We’ll begin first with micro-production. What is the relevance of micro-production, e.g. 3D printing, to Towards a New Socialism?

I know that nowadays a lot is made of this. There is also small-scale silicon wafer manufacture, for example, I’m just wondering do you think there’s any particular relevance that this has to Towards a New Socialism?

PC: It’s mainly useful for making prototypes. I can’t see it being used for the bulk of goods which people make use of in their home or make use of in industry. But making prototypes, possibly artwork, stuff like that, yes. I mean, the only instance where I think 3D printing techniques are likely to be useful, maybe, is possibly in the construction industry.

You have to think of what is the nature of these 3D printing techniques at a deep level. Go back to when the printing press was invented. Why was that so much of an improvement in productivity? It’s because it transferred information onto the product in parallel. The whole printing head of Gutenberg’s press came down and formed all the letters at once, and that was the essential feature of printing which made it far better than handwriting. In fact, all the letters were done in parallel and that was a general feature of printing presses, that they did things in parallel.

Now there’s a set of technologies which have had a big impact on the world, and the technologies which have been particularly effective and have had huge improvements in productivity have been ones which harness parallelism. The printing press was the first of those.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, two other techniques came about that were significant. One of them, obviously, was the parallelization of spinning in a spinning mill where there’d be hundreds of spindles looked after by each worker instead of one spindle per worker.

The other less obvious to people, perhaps, was the mass production of cast iron goods. If you go to Edinburgh or Dublin you will see railings around buildings which are cast iron railings. You’ll see balconies on buildings which will have cast iron railings. This was an invention of the late 18th century which enabled complex iron objects to be made in a single action by pouring molten iron. The single action was brought about by the fact you had a mould and the mould transferred information onto the product to all points on the product at once. So, it had a big impact also in domestic production, for instance, cast iron stoves and things like that, far higher productivity than a smith using a hammer to carefully beat something out.

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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Paul Cockshott Interview on Towards a New Socialism – Part 1 – Planning, Self-Employment, IP, Media, Privacy, Transition

Editor’s note: discussion topics include the motivation for economic planning versus market socialism, self-employment in the Towards A New Socialism model (TNS), intellectual property in TNS, independence of media in TNS, efficiency in TNS, labour credits and privacy in TNS, the weaknesses of TNS, how not to implement TNS in a socialist transition, and a hypothetical TNS research programme.

[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, here is a link to that, and his website and blog.

[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 …

[AO] 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