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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 mέta, 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.
And this is something else that is one of the essential features of the entire participatory economy project. I think more than anything else our definition of what worker self-management means, or what I would propose is also my definition of what democratic economic decision-making means, is people should have influence over different economic decisions to the degree that they’re affected. So we define economic self-management as decision-making input about any particular economic decision in proportion to the degree that you were affected. So if you are more affected by some decision than somebody else is in the economy, we want institutions to provide you with more of an influence, if you want to with a greater vote, over a decision if you were affected more by that decision. And I certainly believe that what is produced in the workplace where I work and how we go about that, those are decisions that affect people in a workplace more than they do people outside in the rest of the economy.
Now of course what we produce affects all sorts of other people. It affects the consumers. If we’re producing things for other workplaces, intermediate goods, it affects them. And how we go about producing things has effects on others because if we use these inputs rather than those inputs and they are more socially costly … But nonetheless we think the goal should be – and we also think this is something that can only be imperfectly achieved – but we think the goal should be to try, as best we can possibly, arrange for decision-making procedures to provide people with the amount of influence over decisions in proportion to the degree that they’re affected. And unfortunately many economic decisions … There are some economic decisions that affect all of us equally, and then the kind of democracy that I think Cockshott and his proposal exemplifies is ‘well, if we’re all affected, we should all have the same say over the decision’. There are some decisions where we’re all affected more or less equally. There are other decisions where really only I am affected. But unfortunately most economic decisions fall in that in-between range: that this decision will affect not just one person, it will affect many people. But the effect on the many people is very unequal. Some of those people will be affected a lot more and some will be affected a lot less, so in my mind the entire trick of trying to organize our economic decision-making procedures is to try to give people power over decisions, influence over decisions, as much as we can, roughly to the degree that they’re affected,
I think that was the Achilles’ heel of even the best kind of central planning that was practiced in the Soviet economy, in the eastern European economy, for decades and decades. And I also believe that it is true that part of the lack of dynamism in those economies [was this] … So, what would motivate the Soviet Union? There was an early time period when they were motivated by revolutionary [ardour], completely immersed in the revolutionary process; we have overthrown our capitalist rulers, we have taken over the economy for ourselves; and, of course, we’re workers, and the fellow workers in the other places, we are all one, and we now have taken over, and we just need to manage this ourselves in everybody’s best interests. But I think as time went on and as workers and workplace discovered that they really had no more say over what they produced and how they produced it than anybody else did in the economy. That even the most democratic decision-making processes that do not give workers in their own workplace more influence over the decisions that affect them inevitably lead to a situation where ‘why should I get that involved? Why should I participate in making decisions about my workplace? Because those decisions are basically already made by some other process’. And I think in that situation what eventually happens is that you do experience a kind of apathy. It’s somewhat similar to the apathy that workers experience in capitalist economies. It’s the capitalist who’s making the decision. I show up, I collect my pay check, nobody listens to me, I don’t have a say, and I think something very similar happened in the Soviet Union. And it wasn’t just because the political system was anti-democratic. It was also because the economic decision-making process was one that did not give workers the degree of self-management that would encourage them to participate.
So I do think this is a real fundamental disagreement and I do believe that there is plenty of evidence. I have not written books trying to marshal the evidence but I do believe [it] and I was rather astounded that Cockshott would even ask ‘well, why do you think there was worker apathy in the Soviet Union?’. Early worker enthusiasm for socialism having overthrown capitalism I don’t think should be confused with the eventual worker apathy that I believe the Soviet economy and the eastern European economies experienced. After many, many, decades if you put people, if you put workers, in a situation where they don’t have any more say over what’s going on in their workplace than anybody else does, I think the rational response is to become apathetic. And I think that over time that happened. And I think over time that also contributed to what many, many, commentators [reported] … Now, I know these most of these commentators are anti-socialist, they’re pro-capitalist, but many, many, commentators basically commented on a lack of participation in economic decision-making, a kind of apathy, and eventually a failure to be as innovative and creative in developing new economic technologies. This became a generalized complaint about one of the features of the of the centrally planned economies. And I actually believe there was a reason for that. I think it was real and I think there was a reason for it.
And I think it’s very I think it’s very, very, important for people thinking about socialism in the 21st century to come to grips with this. And, first, we have to define the goal right, which is not everybody gets the same amount of decision making input on every economic decision. That shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be decision making input in proportion to the degree that you’re affected by that decision, and figuring out ways to achieve that goal. I think that’s the nature of the project looking forward, and I do think that’s one area in which the Cockshott-Cottrell model has basically missed the boat. They’ve failed to learn one of the key lessons from real world socialism in the 20th century.
[ATO] So there’s a lot there. And I’d like to read out a few quotes which I think are very interesting from Democratic Economic Planning, which develops upon these points, and then we can drill into the subject even more. So, the first is from page 75 and 76 of Democratic Economic Planning and you say:
… the only “management” central planning leaves to individual production units is to “manage” to fulfil the production targets they are assigned by the Central Planning Board with the inputs they are allocated … the true relationship between the Central Planning Board and production units is … a command relationship between a superior and inferior … Moreover, the authoritarian character of the relationship between the Central Planning Board and production units is likely to spread inside production units for two reasons.
First, an authoritarian relationship requires that a superior agent have effective means for holding a subordinate agent accountable for carrying out directives. This entails establishing methods of surveillance and verification as well as incentives for subordinates to obey orders. Historical evidence suggests that it quickly became evident to Central Planning Boards that it is easier to hold a unit manager accountable for carrying out directives than to try to establish complicated methods of surveillance, verification, and incentives sufficient to hold an entire democratic council of workers in the production unit accountable … [and hence] it is only logical to grant the manager authority over the workers. In this way hierarchy spreads downward in a central planned economy, as plant manager appoint assistant managers and supervisors, creating an authoritarian hierarchy with ordinary workers at the bottom.
Second, once these hierarchies are established, they will eventually affect people’s consciousness and personalities … apathy became the salient behavioural characteristic of workers under central planning.
I know that that quote for viewers is very long but I just think it’s a very interesting argument. It’s not just saying that there is or was apathy or lack of workers self-management, but giving quite a compelling mechanism for how that occurs and how authoritarianism develops.
So there are two shorter quotes, just one sentence each. This is from page 77 (DEP):
but even in the most democratic version of central planning imaginable … this gives me no more say over choices of product or technology in my workplace than a … worker in a workplace thousands of miles away.
– what you were saying earlier. And from page 78:
… what eventually transpired in all real-world versions of central planning was far worse. Together with a vanguard political elite, a coordinator class of central planners and plant managers increasingly came to rule over ordinary workers who became ever more apathetic.
So do you want to say anything in response to that?
[RH] When you carefully write something, at least for me, I say it better when I have carefully taken the time and energy to write it and to go over it, then I can re-say it verbally. That is exactly what I believe. I think there’s ample evidence for it. I do not claim that I have published exhaustive studies that would provide the evidence that this is what occurred.
I mean, I never lived in the Soviet Union or eastern European country. I have travelled and visited a few times in Cuba. And in my view Cuba made a mistake when they, in the early 60s, basically decided ‘well, we are no longer in the capitalist orbit, [we are under attack from the United States], we’ve nationalized these U.S. companies, we’re under blockade’; when they embraced socialism their ally internationally was the Soviet Union, and when the young Cuban revolutionaries tried to figure out ‘well, how are we going to run our economy? It’s not a capitalist economy anymore’, they took the advice from Soviet experts who came and helped them build and implement the planning system that was used.
So I am somewhat familiar with the situation in Cuba and my own personal experience is an experience of discovering that Cuban workers over time became [apathetic] … Cuban workers were incredibly enthusiastic in the early years of the revolution. And I think one of the things that has happened over time is that they were put into a situation where they really didn’t have much say over what they were producing and how they were producing it. And as much as most of them have continued to support the Cuban government resisting the imperial attempts of the United States to dictate to them, I do think that the Cuban economy has increasingly suffered from sort of degrees of apathy on the part of workers. Because there was no reason for them to become involved in decision making, because the decisions were basically being made by people outside of their own workplace by a process – now it wasn’t a capitalist process, where the capitalists were making decisions trying to maximize profits. But nonetheless these were decisions about what they were going to do, what they were going to produce and how they were going to do it, in which they had no more involvement than people who didn’t work there.
So that’s really all I can say on the subject. And I would put it this way: if there is one lesson that I think the socialists need to learn from real world socialism, or what went under the name of real world socialism, in the 20th century, the Achilles’ heel was that the original vision of socialism as being workers managing themselves disappeared under systems of central planning. And that was really an Achilles’ heel. If we learn nothing else from the failures of socialism past, going forward I think that is the single thing that’s most important. Now, maybe the participatory economy has not figured out how to resolve this problem sufficiently, or maybe we’ve overdone it, but at least there’s a very self-conscious attempt here. And I can say this quite honestly, part of our thinking when we were trying figure out how we would propose that decisions be made was very self-consciously motivated by an attempt to overcome this failure of central planning. Whether or not we’ve done a good job, or the job can be improved, at least that was a primary motivation in proposing something that looked quite different from what anybody else that proposed about how planning should be done, how national economic planning should be organized.
[ATO] Could we just stay on the topic just a little bit longer? So, I’d like to get a bit more concrete about worker self-management. I asked ‘what do you mean by worker self-management?’ and you were saying that it is having influence over economic decisions in proportion to how one is affected. And I think most socialists on the face of it would say that sounds broadly agreeable but also it’s quite abstract. So, getting more concrete, what in the context of a workplace, a production unit, does control mean? What does it mean for workers to be involved? Because, for example, when I was talking to Paul Cockshott about this he replied saying ‘well, in the Soviet Union workers had guaranteed employment and they didn’t have to fear that their managers would fire them’ and you might say that that is a type of control. So, more broadly, what does it mean to have control over economic decisions?
[RH] Okay. First of all, Cockshott is right that in the Soviet Union jobs were guaranteed. And that was one of the virtues of central planning. One of the virtues of central planning was that you didn’t have to fear unemployment. I don’t think everything that central planning provided was bad.
[ATO] Of course.
[RH] And particularly compared to capitalism, knowing that there was going to be a job for everybody, whereas in capitalism you don’t know whether there’s going to be a job for you, that’s a major advantage of that system. And I would like to also say if in a participatory economy we were going to go back to a situation where there was unemployment, and people had to fear unemployment, I would consider that to be a major failure.
However, let me point out a few of the things about the annual planning process we proposed that embodied self-management or provides self-management in ways that no other proposal that I know of does. In annual planning, every worker council is responsible for making its own proposals. Nobody else can come in and make a proposal for a worker council, what they want to make and what they want to use to make it. Nobody can come in and say well this was your proposal but we now know that it’s not efficient, or it doesn’t work with something else, and we’re going to revise your proposal for you. So only worker councils get to make their own proposals during annual planning and only worker councils get to revise their own proposals during annual planning. That means that the workers in a workplace are the ones that have to be proposing and deciding what they want to produce and how they want to produce it.
[ATO] Sorry to interrupt, just to make this more vivid for people can we talk about an example of a particular workplace? You know, it could be a furniture factory or an office, or something like that, if you don’t mind.
[RH] Sure, yeah, let’s make a furniture factory. I’ve never … Well I’ve worked in steel mills. I always go to steel mills. But we’ll do a furniture factory. I haven’t worked in a steel mill since 1966, so it’s a distant memory. So we’ll think of a furniture factory. The idea would be ‘well, what kind of furniture do you want to make? And what technologies do you want to use? How do you want to organize the workplace in terms of breaks? In terms of starting times? In terms of all of that?’. That should be up to workplaces to decide for themselves.
Here’s another thing that comes into play. At some point, the question becomes ‘yeah, but what they decide in a workplace does have implications for other people.’ And remember the definition of self-management is decision-making input in proportion to the degree that you’re affected. So at some point we have to consider ‘what about those people who are not in the workplace but are affected by the proposal that the workplace is making?’. There are consumers, and so if the workplace is proposing to make furniture that nobody wants, well, that affects consumers and we want to be sure the consumers have some input. And if the workplace is saying ‘we want to use this kind of wood’ but this wood is very scarce, and this wood is also used for something else, and perhaps it is more valuable when used for something else … So the question always becomes ‘how do you incorporate decision-making impact or input for these lesser affected parties?’
The annual participatory planning process is designed to basically say this: ‘we want you to do whatever you want, but the resources you’re using are resources that belong to all of us so we want to be sure, that when you do what you want to do, that you’re also behaving in a socially responsible way’. And what a socially responsible way means [is that] you’re using resources that are scarce and could be used by others to produce things; if you’re producing things people don’t want, well then our interests are affected and we don’t want to allow you to do that; if you’re using resources that could be better used by somebody else well then we don’t want to let you do that either. And the planning procedure is designed so that as long as the social benefits that a workplace is proposing to produce and supply are at least as large as the social cost of the inputs then – think about it – it means the rest of us are no worse off for you going ahead and doing what you’ve just said you wanted to do. The rest of us have no reason to tell you not to do it.
The problem to be solved therefore becomes: well, how do we generate accurate estimates of the social benefits of the outputs from worker councils? And how do we generate accurate estimates of the social costs? But assuming we can do that – and we spent a lot of time basically arguing why certain procedures would lead to more and more accurate estimates – assuming we can do that, the basic idea is as long as what you are proposing is socially responsible, as long as it’s not making the rest of us any worse off, then why shouldn’t you go ahead and do what you want to do? That’s the kind of sort of self-managing freedom that our system is designed to give workers in their workplaces.
Here’s another thing I want to throw in at this point. There’s another way to take into account the fact that other people are affected and Pat Devine, and his co-author Fikret Adaman, what they have proposed is, well, for a workplace it’s not just the workers there who are affected by the decisions of that are made, there are other people who are affected also. For instance, suppose you’re producing something that’s used as an input in another industry. Well, then the workers in that other industry are affected. Suppose you use an input that comes from another workplace. Well then they’re affected. Their proposal for ‘how do you take into account the fact that not just the workers in the workplace are affected by what they do, there are other people affected?’ is to give representation on the board of directors of the workplace from constituencies that are the other affected constituencies. First, I’d like to say I think it’s admirable but that they have thought this problem through. It’s admirable that they have said ‘wait a minute, it’s true that the workers in a workplace are affected by what goes on there, but there are other interested parties and we need to somehow get them involved in the decision-making’. And their proposal is do it by giving them representation on the boards. And that is a way to do it.
I don’t think it’s the best way to do it, and I have two problems with it. My first problem is that ‘wait a minute, that means the workers in the workplace can’t even sit down at a meeting amongst themselves and even start to talk about what they want to do’. That meeting is not a meeting of them only, it’s a meeting of their board which includes people who don’t work there at all. And I think that’s unfortunate. I think that workers have been so disenfranchised for so many centuries that any anything that gets in the way of them having the right to sit down and talk things through, and make decisions, at least preliminary decisions, on their own, is a poor idea at this point in human history.
The second problem is a technical problem. How do you make up the list of who should be represented on the board? And how many board positions do you give them? And my argument is that the participatory annual planning process basically has an organic way, it has a better way, of allowing outside parties who are affected by decisions to affect what’s going on. It’s a better way to do it than a rather arbitrary choice of how many outside board members should there be, from what constituencies. It seems to me that when we sat down to figure that out for every enterprise there’d be sort of an endless debate about with no clear way of deciding what the right answer is. And our proposal is ‘no, we’ve actually come up with a planning procedure that takes care of allowing anybody who is outside a workplace but has an interest’. We have incorporated their influence in a way where we don’t have to face what I think is an arbitrary decision if you try and go about it in a different way.
[ATO] So let me play devil’s advocate about those last two points to further the discussion. You’re saying that if there are to be members of the boards of production units which are external to the people who actually work there that there is a choice then to be made about who is going to be represented and to what extent they’re represented (how many seats they get essentially). And you’re saying that this is an underdetermined question, that there are many different answers which could be given and that there would predictably be a political contest over what the answers to that would be. But to play devil’s advocate, somebody might say ‘yes, of course, but it’s not necessarily rocket science. And there are a lot of questions which are not uniquely determined, yet it’s a nature of life that we just need to muddle through, and try to be pragmatic, and come up with something that’s reasonably agreeable’. And so somebody might say ‘okay, sure, I see your point. But let’s say if we think about who are the interested parties. it’ll be – this is off the top of my head now, so forgive me but you might say – consumers, you might say it’s a political representation of the state which represents all of society as a political entity, you might say the ecological dimension will be represented, something like that’. You might come up with, say, three to five major constituencies that most people could look at and say ‘yeah, that makes sense’. There are some quibbles [but it is broadly acceptable]. So how do you reply to that?
[RH] This is an indirect reply. This is the way I see it. We have the Paul Cockshott, centrally planned, response to this situation. And in my view their response is – in the most democratic version of central planning I can ever imagine – what their response reduces to is everybody gets an equal say on every economic decision. You get it when you vote for the social welfare function that the planners use. And I’ve already explained why I think that is a poor solution.
I do think that [Pat] Devine and [Fikret] Adaman have at least addressed the problem, and in my view what they’ve basically proposed is sort of an old clunky can opener. We’ve got to open the can and they’ve come up with a primitive can opener. I think that our participatory planning procedure is an electric can opener, because I think that our electric can opener better resolves the inevitable debate that would arise under the [Pat] Devine and Fikret [Adaman] proposal, which is how many different board members from how many different affected constituencies? Because I’m always imagining sort of nightmare debates. And the nightmare debate I’m imagining is that there would be more and more outside affected parties that would say ‘hey, we’re affected by what that’s going on in that factory, we need representation on the board’. And then the workers there would say ‘yeah, that’s right, in principle we’re in favour of that, but now there are so many people on the board who don’t work here that you know we’re back to [not having control]’. I don’t think there are good answers to ‘who should be represented?’, ‘where do you draw the line?’.
Now, you’re right. In real life, if we overthrew capitalism and set up the [Pat] Devine-Fikret [Adaman] model, then we would basically muddle through, we would muddle through this. But what I envision is in the muddling through process we would keep getting into arguments that have no actual, objective, way of being resolved. And if the participatory planning process is taking care of this automatically and organically, then not only do we get a better outcome – the electric can opener opens the can better – we also cut back on a tremendous amount of argumentation, debate, and disagreement with one another. There are some socialists, there are some people who are attracted to socialism because they look forward to an endless debate, and there are some people who are frightened by socialism if it would turn into an endless debate. My friend Nancy Folbre, who’s a socialist feminist economist, that was her reaction to the participatory economic proposal.
[ATO] ‘The tyranny of the sociable’, wasn’t it?
[RH] That’s right. That it would degenerate into this into the ‘tyranny of the sociable’. And I am sufficiently of her mind that I am fearful of that kind of phenomena. I wrote this to her I said, you know, you’re wrong about participatory economics, it would not degenerate into the tyranny of the sociable, but if you haven’t looked at [Pat] Devine and Fikret [Adaman]’s proposal you might discover that that’s the one that you would have to fear would degenerate into that. So, I think there’s also that question about how important is it for us to avoid situations where basically endless debate would go on, ended by just who gave up first. And I’ll just say, for the record, that one of my primary motivations is to try and avoid those situations. And when I look at other proposals I often ask myself ‘would that proposal essentially fail the test of avoiding those situations as best we can?’
[ATO] I was going to ask a question about when you were saying it would be unfortunate that workers wouldn’t have a place where they, and they alone, could discuss, make decisions, formulate proposals (obviously within the constraints of the annual planning procedure). So, why would it be unfortunate if they didn’t have that? I think you’ve given an answer to that to a large extent.
[RH] Let me just summarize here. What a workers council does is they make their own first proposal, and then they discover whether it has been approved or it has not been approved. Then they, and only they, get to revise that proposal. So, they’re the only ones who ever make a proposal for what they do, they’re the only ones who get to revise that proposal. What else do they do? The only other thing they do is they look at very, very, simple information about whether other workers councils and consumer councils proposals seem to be socially responsible. And if the evaluation of those social benefit and social cost ratios for others indicates that’s not socially responsible yet, then they just say ‘hey, we object to what you’re saying because it’s not socially responsible’. So we have an easy way to say when others are doing things that aren’t socially responsible, and always get to say what we’re proposing to do. When I describe it in that way, I’m also describing exactly why I like it, and why I like it better than a lot of other proposals out there. It seems to me that it provides workers councils with control over their own situation, and yet we have a system of policing them that does not entail a central planning board at all, and the degree to which they’re self-policing one another is a really simple operation for all of them.
[ATO] Let’s leave the discussion of worker self-management there. I’m going to be talking to Paul Cockshott again, I will relay your points to him, I’ll show him this video. And I’m sure we’ll come back and talk about this, and hopefully have a fruitful exchange between the two of you again which is constructive and respectful. I think both of you, as you said, very much have that attitude. You’re both willing to consider difficult questions, criticisms of the models that you propose, and think about them honestly. And that’s what I’m trying to do with this channel. It’s really a space which is not about being polemical, like you said it’s not about being sectarian. It’s saying if we want to create a new world, we have to wrestle with these difficult problems, these quandaries, we cannot look away from reality and embrace wishful thinking, even if it’s uncomfortable for us.
[RH] Let me just say I think that the Cockshott-Cottrell model is the most democratic version of central planning you can have. Most central planning, most places in the world, including Cuba, was not done very democratically. And I think that they recognize that as being a mistake of the past that needs to be corrected. So I think they have proposed the most democratic possible version of central planning and are to be commended for that. I just think that even the most democratic possible version of central planning does not provide economic self-management, and that should be our goal rather than everybody having the same input on all economic decisions. Okay but we’ve beaten this to death, so I know you want to move on, go ahead.
[ATO] No, no, it’s good. It’s just that we’ve reached natural point and we can take this up again when Cockshott responds.
But yes, I agree with you, one of the enduring features of Towards a New Socialism is that it is such a democratic proposal, substantially democratic, and I think that’s what so many people – including you and I – find compelling about it, in a world where what we call ‘democracy’ today is really various kinds of aristocracy, electoral or appointed.
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