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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 6 – Monopoly & Essential Sectors

Editor’s Note: discussion topics include monopoly & oligopoly, how to regulate monopoly in capitalism, how to regulate monopoly in parecon, how to organise strategic & essential sectors (like health) in parecon.

[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] The next question is a bit different, it’s about monopoly and strategic sectors. For example, what about natural monopolies in parecon? These would be things like electricity, [methane] gas, water, sewage, transport, communications, health, mining, etc. These are sectors of the economy, these are production processes, where … electricity production and distribution is a classic example; it doesn’t make sense for there to be three companies with three different electrical grids, for example. And which are also of strategic, vital, importance. That society be provided with a reliable supply of electricity, where there aren’t blackouts, where it has an appropriate cost, and so forth. So, there are sectors like this which are natural monopolies, and either you end up with a situation – where you have a market system – private monopolies, or a situation where the solution is for the state to take control of these and nationalize them.

So, is there any opportunity in parecon to charge monopoly rents? And what if natural monopoly worker councils don’t treat indicative prices parametrically? Let’s deal with the first question then come back to the second. And if you could just explain what a monopoly rent is to people.

[RH] We have an answer. Every economist knows that only if you have competitive market structures could you make any case that you’re going to get efficient outcomes. As soon as you have a market structure that’s not competitive in a capitalist economy, what will happen is in the most extreme cases a monopoly, and a natural monopoly is sort of the most likely real world example to end up with, one company is the only company that’s producing this product.

As soon as you have that, there is a perverse incentive for that company to produce less than the socially optimal outcome, and therefore to drive its price up. So, two things happen. It reduces the amount that it supplies. That also means it reduces the number of units it’s going to sell, so that’s a negative effect on revenues. On the other hand, every unit it does sell is going to sell at a higher price, and that’s a positive effect on revenues. And the problem is the positive effect is larger than the negative effect leading to a predictable sub-optimal level of output.

Now there are two solutions to this in a capitalist economy. One is to nationalize the natural monopoly and not have it maximize profits but to maximize net social benefits, that is produce the amount that actually is the efficient amount. And the other solution is to regulate the monopoly and say well there’s only one of you but we’re going to set up a regulatory agency. And the regulatory agency’s job … Most people think the regulatory agency’s job is to keep them from price gouging but what economists understand is, no, the regulatory agency’s job is not really to keep them from price gouging, it’s to force them to produce more than they would otherwise be willing to produce if they weren’t regulated. And then the price will take care of itself.

That’s how it works, and one of the problems that defenders of modern market capitalist economies are faced with is in theory they know their economy is only efficient if all industries are competitive. But in reality, what has happened over time is the number of non-competitive industries, and it’s usually not a monopoly, a natural monopoly, it’s an oligopoly. But the same logic applies to oligopolies and economists all know this. So, on the one hand in the real world markets become less and less competitive, and yet defenders of market capitalist economies continue to insist that these are the most efficient economies.

We have a solution in a participatory economy. And the solution takes a very simple form, which is any worker council in our economy is supposed to take the indicative prices as givens.

[ATO] Can you just explain to people briefly what the indicative price is?

[RH] Right, so for instance if you have a natural monopoly let’s choose electricity. During the planning procedure that natural monopoly is quoted a price per watt of electricity and then responds with its output proposals.

[Editor’s Note: During annual planning, worker councils and consumer councils make production and consumption proposals for the year. These proposals are aggregated by the Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB) which feeds back new ‘indicative prices’ to producers and consumers according to a rule chosen to encourage the balancing of supply and demand. This continues for a number of rounds (iterations) until a feasible plan is reached.]

Now, the thing that a monopoly does that’s inefficient is it doesn’t look at market price and take it as a given. Instead, what it does is it asks well wait a minute I’m looking at the entire demand curve. I’m not going to take the price I’m quoted as a given because I can see that if I reduced my supply I could drive that price higher. So, in effect what monopolies are doing is they are not taking prices as givens. They are recognizing that their monopoly status permits them to affect what the price is going to end up being.

These are worker councils in a participatory economy, and there just happens to be one that’s producing electricity in a given region. They don’t have stockholders that are telling them to maximize profits, instead they are certainly supposed to be obeying the rules of the system and one of the rules is when you make your proposals you respond to indicative prices as the given price. You do not calculate ‘but I could affect that price by my response in this round’. Aha, what would prevent one from doing it?

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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 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.