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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 5 – Optimal Plan, Enterprise Incentives, Worker Control, Consumer Satisfaction

Editor’s Note: Discussion includes optimal and efficient production plans in Parecon, accounting of benefits and costs, enterprise incentives, worker control, and satisfying consumers.

[After The Oligarchy] Hello fellow democrats, futurists, and problem solvers, this is After The Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Professor Robin Hahnel.

Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics in the United States, and author of many books, but today I’m interviewing him as co-originator with Michael Albert of the post-capitalist model known as Participatory Economics (or Parecon).

Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization. This is the third 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 two interviews check them out here.

It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book so I recommend that 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 (2012) for a concise introduction to parecon. And Professor Hahnel has a new book coming out in a few months called A Participatory Economy (2022).

Robin Hahnel, thank you for joining me again.

[Robin Hahnel] Great to be with you again.

[ATO] Last time we were talking about production units and we’re going to continue talking about production units, as in worker councils, as in enterprises. And the first question is a follow-up to part of our discussion last time, and we were talking about social costs and social benefits, and the incentives of worker councils in parecon.

So let me frame the matter by presenting my understanding of our last interview. This is going to be a bit technical for viewers but we will break it down and it will be understandable. So I asked you, essentially, ‘wouldn’t we want worker councils to strive for a social benefit much greater than a social cost rather than merely the social cost equalling the social benefit – or having a social benefit to cost ratio of one? Because that means producing the greatest net social benefit. And, if so, what will make worker councils do that?’

‘Social Benefit’ is Revenue. ‘Social Cost’ is Cost.
Net Social Benefit: Revenue – Cost.
‘Social responsibility’ constraint is breaking even. Revenue ≥ Cost.

And you replied, basically, ‘no, we want worker councils to produce up until the marginal social benefit is equal to the marginal social cost. Because if the social benefit is greater than the social cost then there is still some net social benefit to squeeze out by producing another unit (like producing another chair). And this terminates when the marginal social benefit is equal to the marginal social cost, which is when the social benefit the social cost ratio equals one (SB/SC = 1).’

That’s a mouthful. So, this is my understanding of what was said at the time. Please correct me if I misinterpreted what you said during that interview because it seems to me that maybe there was a miscommunication. Because it seems to me that if you keep producing chairs up until the marginal social benefit of that chair is equal to the marginal social cost, that’s the point at which social benefits minus social costs is the greatest. But that’s not going to be the same as the social benefits divided by the social cost equal to one, that there is parity between social costs and social benefits. So could you just clarify or respond to that please?

‘Marginal’ refers to the last chair produced, the last tomato, the last dental filling.
Total Net Benefits are maximised when Marginal Benefit equals Marginal Cost.
The quantity output when Total Benefit = Total Cost is different to when Marginal Benefit = Marginal Cost.

[RH] First of all, I want to thank you for asking the question and probing on this. Because it is a little complicated and it forced me to go back and rethink through. So let me just see if I can lay it out there on in a straightforward way. What I’m going to lay out there is standard and then I’m going to explain why the way we model something is different from standard. And that’s I believe where the sort of miscommunication comes in.

So you’re absolutely right that the general efficiency criterion is you want total social benefits minus total social costs to be as large as possible. You want to maximize, as you’re saying, the difference between total social benefits and total social costs. I mean this principle is we call it the ‘efficiency criterion’ and applies to anything. Anything you’re doing, you want to do it so as to maximize the benefits to any and all people over all time periods minus the cost to any and all people of overall time periods.

Now, mathematically what that is equivalent to is you want to keep doing something up to the point where the last little unit of whatever you did generated exactly the same amount of social benefits as it did increase social costs. So saying you want to maximize the difference between total social benefits and total social costs is the same as saying you want to keep doing something up to the point where the marginal social benefit of the last little bit of it you did is exactly as big as the marginal social cost of the last little bit you did. That’s just mathematics.

Here’s where things get a little complicated. When we’re talking about social benefits, then the context in which I’m always talking about it is I’m thinking of a particular worker council or a particular consumer council. Then you have to ask well the social benefits in the mathematical pure sense includes everybody, which means it includes the council that we’re considering. So social benefits are usually thought of as being social benefits for others, for everybody else other than the worker council; and social costs are usually thought of as being only the social cost to those who aren’t in the council.

I mean one thing that’s always a little bit delicate or complicating is these social costs that we’re thinking of cost a society something that a worker council does. That includes the opportunity cost – traditionally, as everybody does it – of using scarce labour in that worker council. If you have you have a certain amount of engineers and carpenters in an economy, any time one worker council uses them they can’t be used in another worker council. And that we traditionally call an ‘opportunity cost’. So standard treatments will include the opportunity cost of using engineers or carpenters in any workplace, in any worker council. It doesn’t usually include something that mainstream economists call the ‘disutility of labour’. So there’s a scarcity cost to using labour but in addition – for labour, unlike other inputs – there’s also not just an opportunity cost, performing the activity might be more or less pleasurable, or more or less unpleasurable.

Usually, traditionally, when we’re talking about social costs for a workplace we include the opportunity costs of using these different categories of labour but we don’t really include the disutility. Or at least it’s possible not to include that part. Now, for two particular reasons, that I’m going to come to in a minute, we chose to model worker council and consumer councils in a particular way.

Toy example illustrating Marginal Benefit and Marginal Cost. Here Net Total Benefit is maximum when Marginal Benefit = Marginal Cost.

For consumer councils it’s very straightforward and easy to understand. A consumer council should maximize what economists call their utility, their well-being, their satisfaction from the activities they engage in. And for a consumer council we usually think of the activities of people are engaging in as what are called consumption activities. So the whole idea is you want your consumer council to maximize the well-being they get out of their consumption activities. Oh, but it’s subject to a constraint. And I’m going to use this phrase to describe the constraint: broadly speaking I would say as long as what they’re consuming is socially responsible. And in the case of a consumer council what social responsibility amounts to is well it would be irresponsible if the social cost to society of their consumption activity was larger than what we consider to be their fair income. So for a consumer council we basically have this set up where what we want them to do is to maximize their well-being as long as they’re being socially responsible. As long as the social cost of society of their consumption activity is what I would call justified or warranted by the income that they fairly have. And for us that income for some of them it’s their income from work, and for some of them it’s their social security payment or their childcare allowance or whatever it is.

We wanted to model worker councils exactly in the same way. We wanted to say, hey, these are people, these are humans engaged in a human activity. It happens to be an activity we think of as work or production rather than consumption. But the worker council is a bunch of people engaged in an activity and we want them to maximize the satisfaction or utility they get from engaging in their activity as long as their activity is socially responsible. So, we modelled worker councils as maximizing … Now, in their case it may be maximizing the satisfaction you get from the work process that you engage in. What it may amount to is minimizing the disutility of your labour. But still, it’s the same sort of … I mean where we had reasons, basically underlying methodological reasons, for wanting to view the entire thing in this way, sort of very symmetrical to what it is that consumers are doing.

So for a worker council what we said is we’re going to assume that what they’re going to try to do is to maximize their utility subject to the social responsibility constraint. Now, for us the social responsibility constraint is: nobody should object to them doing what they want to do as long as what they’re doing is not making anybody else worse off. So we model their social responsibility constraint as: worker council do whatever you want, as long as the social benefits – and now these would be the social benefits to any and all other people – are at least as great as the social cost to any and all other people. And that’s the way we set up our procedure. That’s the way we set up our model.

And when we say that the annual participatory planning procedure will achieve an efficient outcome, or in economist language a Pareto optimal outcome under certain assumptions, what we mean is if worker councils do this and if consumer councils do this, we can prove that the outcome will be socially efficient. It will be a Pareto optimum. Now you might ask well why did we want to model things this way? And this is where I thank you for forcing me to think back why decades ago we did this.

It was for two reasons. We actually believe in self-management. I think there’s long been a divide between anti-capitalists, between the anarchists and the socialists, or on the question of socialism how libertarian a socialist are you. And I think we’re firmly in the camp of feeling that there is a very important, great, value put on doing things in a way that provides workers and consumers with self-management. So if you’re thinking in terms of self-management, then the idea that we want people, we want workers and consumers to be doing whatever they want as long, as they’re behaving in socially responsible ways is in our mind the right way to look at it.

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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Paul Cockshott Interview on Towards a New Socialism – Part 4 – Worker Self-Management in Central Planning

Editor’s note: discussion topics include what worker self-management is, the division of labour, how to overcome rule by the professional-managerial class, whether the Towards a New Socialism model (TNS) can fulfil aspirations for worker self-management, innovation and product development, the managerial structure of a project in TNS, hiring and firing in TNS, employment, and strategic planning.

[After The Oligarchy] Hello fellow democrats, futurists, and problem-solvers, this is After The Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Dr. Paul Cockshott again.

Paul Cockshott is a computer engineer, Marxist economist, and author of several books, but today I’m interviewing him as co-originator with Allin Cottrell of the post-capitalist model first presented in the book Towards a New Socialism published in 1993.

Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization.

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with Dr. Cockshott about Towards a New Socialism, make sure to watch the other interviews. Today we’ll be discussing some more advanced questions about Towards a New Socialism, so I recommend you read the book to understand what we’re talking about. It’s still in print and there’s free PDF available online which I’ll put in the description.

So, Paul Cockshott thank you very much for joining me again.

[Paul Cockshott] Hi.

[ATO] Today we’re going to talk about worker self-management. We’re going to talk about the relation between the centre and the periphery, or projects, in central planning and in socialism in general.

And how this started was – for viewers, to give context – is that I put a quote to Paul Cockshott from a book that was published by Robin Hahnel, who is co-originator of Participatory Economics and wrote a book called Democratic Economic Planning recently. And I read a quote which was making some criticisms of central planning on the basis that it was incompatible with worker self-management. And then we talked about that briefly, but we didn’t get a chance to go into it fully so that’s what we’re going to do now. So, since then I’ve had an interview with Robin Hahnel about this topic and Dr. Cockshott has seen that as well.

I made the same kind of preamble when talking to Robin Hahnel, just for viewers, that I’m just going to ask you to approach this with an attitude of curiosity and problem solving. That this isn’t about clinging to whatever political identities which we’ve decided that we have and trying to win a debate or score points. It’s about trying to create a better world, and in doing that to honestly look at these problems. I know that that’s how Robin Hahnel approaches this, I know that is how Paul Cockshott approaches this, and I’m just asking you, the audience, to approach it like that as well.

So, before I ask you specific questions are there any initial remarks you’d like to make in response to that interview that I did with Robin Hahnel?

[PC] I think it’ll all come up in the questions you ask.

[ATO] Okay I’d like to begin with a framing question, a general question, which is what in your view is worker self-management? Why is it important? And how is it achieved, how can it be achieved in a society?

[PC] Well it’s fundamentally a question of overcoming the division between mental and manual labour, between those who tell people what to do and those who actually do it. And that is an old basis of class hierarchy going back to the early stages of class society. And in a modern society it takes the form of less educated people being told what to do by more educated people generally. Or in some cases there may be no difference in educational level but people have a managerial authority which enables them to say what’s going to be done.

And this has the disadvantage that the ideas and initiative of people who don’t have the mark of authority and which could improve the operation of systems, whether it’s healthcare systems or industrial production systems, and their knowledge is disregarded or down-valued compared to the knowledge of those who are put in authority.

Overcoming this requires the sorts of struggles that were partially worked out during the cultural revolution in China. They didn’t end up with forms of organization that were stable to deal with that. But the issues that were being raised were relevant, and these will certainly still be a big issue in any society where you’re having radical socialist change. The issue of how do you get people who are initially educated members of the upper middle class, the professional managerial class, who have certain skills which are necessary for society but they have their own class interest. They have their interest in maintaining a higher social status, and a higher income and authority over other people. So, it’s the issue of how do you get people who are both read an expert and how do you ensure that those who may not initially ideologically support socialism will still work for the common good.

Now to the extent over time where there’s a radical improvement in educational levels and equalization of educational opportunity, that kind of issue may become less important to some extent. But given that in a market economy those with qualifications tend systematically to have a higher income and towards the upper end of that there are people who aren’t actually exploited, they’re either receiving something roughly equivalent to the labour they put in, or actually receiving part of the labour that others put in. This means that what is in the West the professional managerial class, there’s an interest in becoming a professional managerial class in a socialist economy. And they will push for the increase in their power and their authority. So, it’s basically a question of class interest. Class interest mediated through educational privilege.

[ATO] Okay let’s go into this further by moving into the next question. This is about specifically now Towards a New Socialism. In Towards a New Socialism, there’s a comprehensive plan for the production of the entire economy. And this plan is set by a planning bureau, which is overseen politically by a randomly selected body from the general population. And production is accomplished by projects, which we might think of as enterprises but they’re not exactly the same. And the projects implement the plan.
So, what decisions do workers in a project have control over? And what decisions do workers in a project not have control over?

[PC] Well, let’s take an example where these social relations to an extent already exist, in terms of the production not being enterprise-based in like in the British National Health Service. In that case a hospital is equivalent to a project. Now, over time from the 1980s onwards running of hospitals was increasingly professionalized and handed over to a professional managerial elite, who are distinct from the medical staff and ancillary workers who actually provide the care.

And there was a scandal recently. You’re in Ireland, you may not have seen it. There was a scandal associated with Shrewsbury Maternity Hospital, where there was a very large number of excess neonatal deaths – or babies delivered with brain damage and other injuries. Now, in pursuing what caused that, the inquiry found that it was a managerial policy to set a target to reduce the number of caesarean sections. This was not something that was arrived at by the obstetricians or the midwives, it was a target set by professional managers. By having it set by professional managers they were overriding the clinical judgment of the medical professionals and the result was clearly proven to be deleterious for the mothers and the babies.

If the management of hospitals was made up, or policy was set, by a committee drawn from the different sections of the medical and ancillary staff that worked there, that kind of policy would not have been arrived at. Now, exactly how the supervisory board would be formed, there’s room for discussion on that. Whether it be elected, chosen by a lot, by quotas, or what. Had it been based on the people who actually were delivering the care, the policies would have been different. And these are policies related to how to treat the patients. What practices should be pursued.

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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 4 – Outsourcing and ‘Wage Labour Through the Back Door?’

Editor’s note: discussion topics include how to decide which workers are members of a particular worker council in Participatory Economics (parecon), whether this threatens wage labour exploitation through the back door in market socialism or parecon, balancing jobs and reproductive labour in parecon, and outsourcing in capitalism.

[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 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. 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, the question is about how to decide who is a worker council member and who isn’t. In parecon, how does a worker council decide who is a member who isn’t?

For consumer councils the answer is a simple matter of geography, if you live in a certain area you’re part of that consumer council. That’s easy.

However for worker council it’s more complicated. A worker council will use many labour inputs, but some of them will be considered internal inputs of labour from the worker council members and some will be considered external inputs of labour from non-members. How is this distinction made in practice? And how is this distinction made such that wage labour isn’t introduced through the back door by excluding certain workers from membership? For example, just to illustrate that, again coming back to our furniture factory, let’s say you have a handful of cleaners who come in and they clean the offices every day. You could imagine that those cleaners would be part of the furniture factory worker council. You could also imagine that there’s almost a subcontracting situation where the worker council hires the cleaners as external labour and then pays them differently.

But then again, maybe I’m thinking of this just in terms of a market. But please, anyway, just come in.

[RH] There are no external workers.

I mean, first let’s just deal with the basics. So, how do you become a member of a worker council? You go to their personnel department and you apply. So for existing worker councils you’re free to quit the one you’re in and apply to work in any other one.

There’s a more complicated issue about how do new workers councils come into being, particularly because as soon as we have a worker council they get to participate during the annual planning process and they could be allocated social resources. So there’s a question of do you have to establish some sort of credentials and credibility before we have you participating in the planning process.

But you’re not you’re not concerned with that.

[ATO] No.

[RH] You’re concerned with an issue that basically comes down to how integrated is an industry. So you could have a single company that makes its own steel and then makes its own automobiles. On the other hand, you could have two companies, one that makes the steel and sells the steel to the automobile company, and the automobile company buys the steel and then goes ahead and makes the automobile out of the steel.

[ATO] Yes. But do you mind if I just make the question a bit more pointed? So, I think probably in the context of parecon the question might be a confusion. But I’m thinking about it because this is a concern that I have about market socialism. And, for example, let’s look at Google under capitalism, then consider it under market socialism, say, and this will explain where I’m coming from.

So, Google today has wonderful conditions, like many such workplaces with highly skilled labour, where you can get your food there, and relax on bean bags, and blah, blah, blah. However, if you clean the offices where the software engineers work, you have no labour rights, you’re considered self-employed, you’re paid very little, and you’re just treated like human waste essentially. Okay, that’s capitalism.

Now let’s look at market socialism. I have concerns that even in a market socialist society that that worker council which operates Google could have an incentive to treat the cleaners in a similar way. That the cleaners would not be part of that worker council, they wouldn’t get the profit divided by number of members, because there is an incentive to have as few members as possible and it’s still a competitive market situation. So you can reduce costs by paying these cleaners less. And, of course, there’s a whole coordinator class element there, where there’s an issue of bargaining power, and that’s why I picked the cleaners because they have less bargaining power.

So that’s in a market economy. But is that even a question in parecon?

[RH] First of all, this is not an issue that I have thought about so I’m thinking out loud here.

You have a place like Google, and one of the things that has to happen at that place is offices have to be cleaned and the cafeteria has to be [served]. I can tell you that back 30 years ago, thinking about this, the way I would have thought about it would have been well those are some unpleasant tasks and we have to be sure that when we create jobs we have to be sure that everybody is going to have to do some of those unpleasant tasks along with those more pleasant tasks. So I would have viewed this as an issue of how do you balance jobs for both empowerment and desirability. And if you don’t balance them for desirability, how do you compensate that in terms of greater sacrifices and therefore effort ratings.

And I think those are perfectly good answers, but what you’ve introduced is a is a second possibility which is, well, wait a minute, you’ve imagined the more integrated production process where a single worker council is both producing software and also cleaning offices. What if we have a whole separate workers council that is cleaning offices? Now the place that that that I’ve actually done some thinking about this is in the chapter on reproductive labour. And there it’s not a question of a workplace, it’s a question of are there going to be households that hire people to [do reproductive labour]? Are you going to be able to [hire someone to do] gardening for you and they’re going to be all male? And are you going to be able to hire people to come and make your beds, and do your laundry, and do a deep cleaning on your house, and those people in that workers council are going to be all female? It was that sort of problem and issue that we were trying to address. But it introduces the same issue which is if we have this place that says ‘we don’t want to clean our offices at all, we want to hire another worker’s council to come and do this’ …

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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 3 – Worker Councils, Efficiency, Labour Cost, Automation

Editor’s note: discussion topics include what production targets for individual production units benefit society as a whole the most in a Participatory Economy (parecon), how to calculate the cost of labour in parecon, how to determine pay for workers in parecon, the role of automation in parecon, unemployment in planned economies vs. market economies, and whether parecon is incentive compatible with efficient use of automation.

[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 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. 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. [Music]

[ATO] We were talking about worker self-management there at length, and there’s been a lot of talk of social cost and social benefit, and production proposals, and how the social interest is factored into the formulation and revision of production of proposals through this calculation of social benefit and social cost.

So, let’s dive into that with this question, and the question is: you made the point that if a workers council makes a proposal, as long as the social benefit that is produced by that proposal, and calculated, is at least equal to the social cost of that proposal – for the labour, the different resources, the capital goods, the pollution it generates, and so on – if those are at least equal, at parity, then at least people are no worse off because of it, right? And so the question is: are worker councils always aiming for social benefit divided by social costs is equal to one (SB/SC = 1)? Surely there is no progress unless the social benefit is greater than the social cost, in the long run, say. Would it not be desirable if the aim was for the social benefit to be much greater than the social cost? Representing getting much more out of much less. And if so, what will drive worker councils to achieve this? So it’s two questions there.

[RH] My answer is going to be very economics-y, okay?

[ATO] Sure.

[RH] And when you sent me these questions in advance, and when I looked at this series of questions, I realized ‘oh my god’.

When we teach economics classes and we teach ‘well, how would a profit-maximizing firm decide whether to use more of some input?’, what we say is, well, if when we use more of the input the increase in revenues is higher than the increase in costs, then the firm will keep doing it. And we come up with this rule which basically says a profit-maximizing firm is going to keep using every input right up to the point where the last unit that it used generated an increase in revenue that was exactly equal to the increase in cost.

And then the students will eventually ask me – some bright student in the class at some point will raise their hand and say – ‘well then why did the firm use that last unit?’. And my answer is we don’t really care if it used the last unit. It’s just a little thought experiment so that we can show that it wants to use every unit that generates a little more in revenues than it does in cost. It doesn’t want to use any units that would increase cost more than revenues.

And what you’re asking me is: that marginal unit should I use it or not? And what I’m saying is that’s not the point. So, part of my answer to your question is: when we say that we want workers councils to keep doing what they’re doing right up to the point where the social benefits equal to social costs, it is the same kind of reasoning. What if the social benefits were still greater than the social costs of doing something? Well then we should want that council to keep doing more of it. Whether it does the last little bit isn’t really the point.

Now here’s the second place where things are going to get a little economics-y. One of my criticisms of the usual teaching of microeconomic theory about capitalism is that that’s actually not what profit-maximizing firms do.

[ATO] Yes, yes, yes, yes.

[RH] And they don’t do that because if you keep buying units all the way up to the point where the increase in revenues that comes from it is no bigger than the increase in cost, you haven’t earned any profit on that last unit. And what profit-maximizing firms actually do is they basically have an expected rate of profit. So they’re not going to keep using inputs unless … They’re going to stop whenever the increase in revenues is not only as large as the increase in cost but it’s a little bit more. That gives them that standard rate of profit that they’re insisting on.

And this has been one of the things I’ve always loved about Sraffian economic theory compared to mainstream neoclassical economic theory. Sraffian economic theory basically says: look, in economies there’s a going rate of profit, and that’s rather arbitrary; when the workers’ bargaining power is high, the standard rate of profit will be low; when capitalist bargaining power is high, the standard rate of profit will be high; but there will be some standard rate of profit and firms take that into account.

And so, in a sense, you’re also asking me that. And the answer is again going to be a little economics-y and complicated.

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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

Yanis Varoufakis Interview on Another Now – Part 2 – Housing, Taxation, Inequality, Monopoly, Workplace Democracy

Editor’s note: discussion topics include security in commercial housing in the Another Now model (AN), taxation in AN, income and wealth inequality in AN, inheritance in AN, time-limited or depreciating money, whether divergent incomes combined with compound interest can lead to class divisions in AN, firm size in AN, monopoly in AN, workplace management structures in AN, and the argument for equal decision-making rights within enterprises.

[After the Oligarchy] Hello everybody, this is After the Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Professor 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. This is the second in a series of interviews with Professor Varoufakis, if you haven’t watched the first check that out.

Today’s conversation is in association with mέta: the Centre for PostCapitalist 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 read the book.

Yanis Varoufakis, thank you very much for joining me.

[Yanis Varoufakis] Well thank you very much for having me on After the Oligarchy. We are living under the oligarchy, but anyway let’s imagine, let’s imagine.

[ATO] Exactly.

So again I have a lot of questions for you. We’ll begin with a question about housing, because after I posted the first interview and also the model summary something that kept coming up again and again from commenters was that they were worried about security in the commercial housing sector. The problem raised was basically that you’re saying that every year, or every period of time, I have to keep bidding to retain access to my house. And if somebody comes along who has more money than me then then I get kicked out.

And, of course, I certainly appreciate the ingenuity of the mechanism, to try to constantly reveal the opportunity cost of the land and the housing for society to be able to get that back so that there isn’t a rentier dynamic in housing.

How would you respond to that question of security?

[YV] Well, firstly, remember that this is about the commercial zone. In in my blueprint, every county – think of it as counties – chooses to create a space that’s not … I mean, it’s democratically determined how large this commercial zone will be. The purpose of this commercial zone is for it to be run commercially by the many, for the many, in order to extract rents from those who want to operate in the commercial zone; rents with which to build social housing, social zoning, social entrepreneurial activities, common spaces, the commons. So it is a good feature, a well-designed feature of the commercial zone, that anybody who wants to operate in it has to live in fear. If you wanted to live in a house that that you paid for, not in a social house, not in a unit within social housing, then yeah I mean live in fear.

Remember, it’s not just that once a year you bid for it, but it’s something like a perpetual auction whereby anybody can actually outbid you and throw you out. Which is great because the commercial zone is there to make money for the many, for every citizen who lives in the social zone and whose activities – whether they’re poetry readings, or paintings, or producing social goods – are being funded by the commercial enterprises within the commercial zone. So it’s okay if you if you live in fear. And the whole point of this permanent auction is to ensure that there is complete incentive compatibility. In other words, that when you declare to the authorities what you value that building or piece of land as that you’re truthful. And you will only be truthful if … you can undervalue it if you want, but then somebody can come and outbid you and throw you out. So I have no defence to those who say that ‘oh, the people who live there in commercial zone will live in fear’. We want them to live in fear.

And, you know, it’s a game for them. The crucial point here is that you don’t have to live in the commercial zone. I would live in the social zone. But if you want a fancy house, a much fancier house than you deserve, or you want to create an enterprise in a place that society does not deem that you should have it, then yes you pay for it. And if you make the money for it, yeah good it all goes back to social housing and the social zone.

[ATO] Okay, so it’s really that that the priority is being put on the redistributive function of the commercial housing zone.

To move on to something else, I’ve a series of questions about income and wealth inequality. This is also a concern for some people, it’s a concern for me as well and any kind of market system … so, for example let’s talk about taxation. In Another Now there are two taxes. I mean, maybe there could be a carbon tax but let’s not go into that. There is a corporation tax, which is a tax on the revenue of all firms, and then there’s a land tax and we were talking about that there.

[YV] Land tax only in the commercial zone, only the commercial.

[ATO] Yes exactly, on the commercial zone. One might say ‘well, are you serious? There’s no income tax?’

[YV] Yeah! There’s no income tax.

[ATO] Because there could be seriously divergent incomes, because different firms could have much different rates of profitability or revenue streams, so it’s likely, one might say, that there is a lot of inequality generated. But there’s no progressive income tax.

[YV] I’m not convinced. I don’t believe there will be. If you look at the capitalist system, or techno-feudal system, in which to live today, inequality – mind numbing and soul-crushing inequality – is the result of two things. Firstly, the private ownership of firms, of the means of production, shares, share markets. That’s one, and finance is the second one. That’s where the huge inequality that is destroying our spirit comes from. Not to mention our planet.

In Another Now there would be neither. Because shares are distributed on the basis of one employee, one member, one share, one vote. And there is no financial sector, the financial sector has been taken over by a distributed ledger of the central bank. And therefore this highly problematic toxic duet – duetto in Italian – between the banker and the mogul, the banker creating, printing, money out of thin air, lending to the mogul, who uses the printing presses of the private bank in order to corner the market in the share market and effectively own everything. And then the wealth begets wealth.

Now why is Zuckerberg so much wealthier today than he was at the beginning of the pandemic. Nothing to do with the profitability of Facebook. It’s got to do with the fact that there is this combination of financial capital – the printing presses of the central bank working for Zuckerberg, not for the people, not for the many unlike in Another Now – and ownership of Facebook. And if you break down ownership of Facebook, and Facebook is equally owned by everybody who works in Facebook, and if you end the printing presses both of the state and the private sector banks operating at full throttle on behalf of the very, very, few, then the inequality that you and I are used to goes.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.