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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 2 – Worker Self-Management & Central Planning

Editor’s note: discussion topics include defining worker self-management, the scope for worker self-management in central planning (and Towards a New Socialism in particular), and the scope for worker self-management in Participatory Economics.

[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 Postcapitalist Civilisation. This is the second in a series of interviews with Professor Hahnel about participatory economics, and in particular his latest book Democratic Economic Planning published in 2021. If you haven’t watched the first interview check out Part A and Part B here.

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. You can do that by visiting participatoryeconomy.org. You can also read Of the People, By the People for a concise introduction to parecon.

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

Robin Hahnel thank you very much for joining me.

[Robin Hahnel] Great to be with you.

[ATO] So you said actually that there was another book which will be published by AK Press in a few months called A Participatory Economy. Did you write that or was that written by somebody else?

[RH] No, I wrote that. What I realized was that Democratic Economic Planning, that book, can be a real challenge. Parts of that book would be a real challenge for people who do not have extensive background in economics, who haven’t studied economics, who didn’t major in economics, who aren’t professional economists. And yet obviously there are more people interested in post-capitalist economic models who are not economists than who are economists. So, the second book. And it’s published by an appropriate publisher. AK Press is a press that basically is for that audience, for libertarian minded people interested in post-capitalist visions.

So that second book is an attempt to present essentially the same ideas but not require the reader to have any extensive economic background. There are no proofs of theorems in that book, so that that’s the difference. And that that’s coming out, I think, sometime in June (2022). Both books are my attempt to get everybody up to date with what we now, after all these decades, have managed to come up with. So, they’re the most recent version of everything we have to say in response to all sorts of criticisms and questions people have raised over the years. But one book is more appropriate for one audience and the other for a different audience.

[ATO] Well Democratic Economic Planning, for what it is – as I said last time – is outstanding for people who really want something rigorous and detailed. And I will certainly read A Participatory Economy when that comes out in summer of 2022. I’m sure that it’ll be a good read as well.

So, let us begin with the questions. Our discussion today has a central theme. Last time we talked about housing and we talked about consumption, so this time I would like to talk about production units broadly, worker councils and so forth. And the first question is about worker self-management.

I have been having some discussions with Dr. Paul Cockshott about Towards a New Socialism and the model that he and Alan Cottrell put forward in that book and subsequently. And I quoted from Democratic Economic Planning a passage that you wrote about that model, and central planning more generally, which critiqued it on the basis of it inhibiting worker self-management. And so Paul Cockshott had a response, and I’d like to just put that to you and we can have a discussion.

And just before we proceed I just saw some [YouTube] comments when Paul Cockshott reposted that video on his own YouTube channel. Maybe some people seemed to misunderstand. When we’re having this discussion it’s really about two people who respect each other, who actually agree far more than they disagree, and are just having a civil, constructive, discussion about some disagreements about post-capitalist models. Some people seemed to think that it was some kind of polemic struggle. So, I just want to put that out there before beginning, so that people understand this in the right light.

So, the quote, to repeat it from page 314 of Democratic Economic Planning, was ‘as a consumer and voter, every person has as much say over what any particular group of workers produces and what inputs they will be allocated to produce it as those workers have themselves … [and thus workers] do not get to exercise meaningful self-management. [Hence] we believe it would predictably lead to the kind of worker apathy that plagued centrally planned economies in the 20th century’. I put this to Paul Cockshott, we discussed it briefly, we’re going to discuss it again subsequently. And Cockshott responded by questioning the assertion that there was worker apathy, and asked ‘what is the measuring bar that he’s using?’, and ‘where is the evidence?’. So what do you mean by apathy, by worker apathy? What is your measuring bar? And what is the evidence of work apathy in the centrally planned, socialist, states in the 20th century? And, lastly, similarly, if we can talk about what is worker self-management in concrete terms, what does it mean to possess or enact workplace self-management? It’s a big topic.

[RH] It is a big topic. First of all, I completely endorse when we have discussions about things like this they can either become sort of sectarian screaming matches and point scoring or they can be conducted more along the lines serious inquiry and probing. And this is a problem that has plagued the left from time immemorial: that too often our discussions about serious problems where people have somewhat different ideas about what the solutions are descend into scoring points and name-calling. And I always think that doesn’t serve any of us well, and I appreciate that Paul approaches these things in a better way, and I seek to do that as well. And there certainly are many, many, points of agreement between myself and Paul, and people who support his post-capitalist vision and people who support the post-capitalist vision known as participatory economics.

But there is I think a very serious difference of opinion and it’s been there for a very, very, long time. And, in some ways, the position that I endorse has long been the one associated with people who one way or another think of themselves as libertarian socialists, and who feel like that the essence of the socialist vision is one where workers finally get to manage themselves rather than be bossed around by other people. And I do sincerely believe that the essential pitfall, the essential mistake, that the Soviet Union made, and the Soviet model of socialism made … Now, I’m not talking about the political sphere, and we can really leave that aside, whether a single party state governed by a communist party whose internal rules are the ones called democratic centralism, whether that is profoundly anti-democratic and a poor way to organize political life. We can leave that aside for the moment, and we can just talk about the economic model, the economic system itself.

But I think that the economic system that the Soviet Union adopted was one where the real Achilles’ heel was it did not provide workers with the opportunity to manage their own productive activity themselves. And my sincere my most basic disagreement with Professor Cockshott, and his collaborator Alan Cottrell, is that – I think they would wish that in socialism we had full-blown and vibrant worker self-management – I think they don’t realize that the model they’ve proposed for decision-making would not provide that. And I was rather surprised, I mean I had not heard this from him but his response which was ‘well, Professor Hahnel where do you think there’s evidence that there was worker apathy in the Soviet economies?’. No, I haven’t done an exhaustive study but I do believe that there is ample evidence that over time what workers in the Soviet economies came to understand was that what went on in their workplace was they had basically no particular influence over that. They were just people who showed up and did what they were told, and what they were told to do was something that had been calculated through a planning procedure, and that planning procedure had provided them no more ability to influence what they produced and how they produced it than anybody else in the economy. Even if the entire planning procedure was incredibly democratic.

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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

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