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Paul Cockshott Interview: Towards a New Socialism

In 1993, Paul Cockshott & Allin Cottrell published ‘Towards a New Socialism’, presenting a compelling vision of a democratically planned society which harnessed the best available information technology: cyber-socialism.

In this interview by ‘After the Oligarchy’ and in collaboration with mέta, the Centre for Postcapitalist Civilisation, Dr. Cockshott talks to ‘After the Oligarchy’ about standardized pay grades, differential pay, and whether worker self-management can be reconciled with central planning.

Paul Cockshott is a computer engineer and economist. He has written several books including How the World Works, Computation and Its Limits, Classical Econophysics, Arguments for Socialism, and Towards a New Socialism.


[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 mέta | the Centre for Postcapitalist Civilisation. 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.

[AO] And just further to that I’m curious about, say, cases where it isn’t as easy to measure, where there isn’t a clear output where somebody can say ‘I produce 12 of this, and the average is 10, and this other person produced 8 and of course there are all sorts of occupations where this is the case.

[PC] Well, in that case if those are occupations where you cannot objectively say that one person is doing better than another, there’s no objective basis for saying there should be differential reward.

[AO] Well, there might be a way but it might be more ambiguous or subject to contestation. I’m sure everybody has experienced a workplace, or just a team or a group, regardless of whether the output is some very clear product, you will have the sense that ‘I’m working much harder than other people’ even though you might be working as long. And there’s a question about this in a socialist society, maybe this will be necessary for a time or who knows – I think this is discussed in Towards a New Socialism – having some leeway for people to feel like they’re being appreciated or rewarded sufficiently.

[PC] Yes, but the point I’m making is that insofar as that is done it is always on the basis that one person is doing more and another person is doing less, and therefore it has to be a mutual recognition because otherwise you’ve got inflation there.

[AO] So really, if I can recap, one of the critical things is that this is something that’s determined within a workplace or within a particular sector by the people doing that. It’s not something that’s decided by the planning bureau, where they’re saying ‘there’s tier A, there’s tier B, there’s tier C’ and everybody else fits within that.

[PC] As I said the only circumstances in which someone engaged in planning would be interested in this is the very special ones I was saying where for some reason they could only assign a fixed number of people to a task and they wanted the best possible people on that task.

[AO] Okay, because in ordinary circumstances there would be a certain amount of labour time apportioned to an enterprise and so once that bulk amount has been apportioned it’s up to, put simply, the people within that to distribute it amongst themselves in a relative way. Would that be correct?

[PC] Yes. I mean you would normally expect the law of large numbers to obtain. And if there are 100 people working in a place there’ll be a wide range of skills there, of individual productivities, certainly.

[AO] And just one last thing on that point, can Towards a New Socialism survive or function effectively in a situation where in a substantial number of enterprises workers decide that they want differential pay rates? At what level of differential pay does the system become seriously dysfunctional?

[PC] The system would work provided that within each project the important thing is that you’re trying to plan real resources physical means of production and real people provided the totals of real people allocated to each activity are correct then it doesn’t matter how within that project the actual labour credits are handed out between people.

[AO] Sorry to interrupt I just mean … there’s a certain amount of labour and that needs to actually correspond to what people are being paid for, I think you’ve made that clear, but where I was more coming at this from is in terms of status, equality, etc.

[PC] Well these are political ideological questions, and if you have that overall budgetary constraint then it forces those within a given project or branch of industry to settle it among themselves. That project has been credited with a certain number of workers, if they want to divide up the payments to them differently that is a collective matter for them. Now, certainly you can see this is something that could give rise to or almost certainly will give rise to argument and dispute, but if the number of labour credits they get is equal to the number of people working there then it’s up to the enterprise what they’re doing.

Now the place where you’re most likely to get a risk of gaming the system is if the … well, let’s not call it an enterprise, let’s call it a project, since we assume it’s not necessarily an accounting unit receiving revenue from things it sells. If within the project everyone is supposed to be working a 40-hour week but in fact they all knock off at uh at two o’clock on Friday, how does the outside society know that’s the case?

[AO] Yes exactly. That was actually a question.

[PC] So at one level you can say that is just straightforward fraud and it’s a legal issue like any kind of theft. And if it’s discovered by means of some public inspection that the people are working less, then the whole collective gets the excess hours that they were credited removed.

[AO] That touches on a very big question I want to raise, and we’re not going to have time to cover it fully today but we can begin and take it up on another day. This is the question of worker self-management. I know from listening to you and from reading what you’ve written that this is something that you care about a lot and you definitely strive to put forward a model of a society that is democratic and participatory. So the question is what is the scope of worker self-management or workplace democracy in Towards a New Socialism?

We can begin, actually, with the point that you just raised before. Let’s say in the case of a project where workers are supposed to be working a 40 hour work week but they’re working 10 hours, or something like that, we could say that’s a very clear-cut case. But what if the workers are working let’s say 7 hours in a day rather than eight? To frame it in terms of fraud or investigate in terms of fraud seems to be too harsh – or maybe not – so that raises the question of what is the relation between the project and the centre.

[PC] Let’s take a case of this. Suppose that at the local hospital, the people, the medical staff are deciding they’re going to knock off at four o’clock instead of five. It’s not going to be unnoticed. People who have appointments after four o’clock are going to wonder why they’re not being met. So that, in anything that’s producing a public service like that, there has to be some way for the people who the service is being provided to complain if then the people supposedly doing it are not doing it. Now, how that is established through the system of local government and how such complaints will be made, I’m not proposing a definite solution to. But what I’m saying is it’s no different from what exists if you complain about a public service now.

[AO] Sure, and I think most of us would agree that in the case of very important public services like health that would certainly impose certain more stringent obligations on those working there than it would necessarily for a local cafe or bookshop or something like that. If health workers aren’t treating people people can die, whereas if somebody is not serving enough coffee it’s an inconvenience and we don’t like it but it’s not as important.

But let’s take that latter case, for example, not necessarily a café. But there’s a passage in Towards a New Socialism about inefficient enterprises: ‘so long as there is more than one producer of a given product the planning authorities can compare the calculated labour values of the same product from various different enterprises and unless there is good reason for above average labour value in some cases the high cost produces can be made to shape up’. I don’t really want to get into the issue of monopoly so much here, but the questions we can just discuss are: How would this be done? Between whom are the negotiations? The project in question and whom? Does one have authority over the other?

[PC] Well, ultimately, since all labour is directly social labour, it’s not private labour, the social authorities have authority over it.

If a project is doing something and is using up people’s time to do it, and is not using up people’s time as effectively as some other project, then the obvious answer is to transfer some of the people to one of the better run projects.

An alternative would be to carry out an investigation to see why is it doing worse, and if it’s doing worse because it has less efficient equipment than the other projects then it may be more effective to provide new equipment to that project.

On the other hand, it may be that the equipment is expensive and you can only afford to build a certain number of them, in which case you decide to close down that project and transfer the people. Because ultimately it’s human time that is the precious resource of a an economy and if the human time is being wasted somewhere then it’s not to society’s advantage. But the important point is people would not be employees of a distinct enterprise, they would in a sense be seconded to it but by the community.

[AO] Yes, there’s a fundamental issue here, which I think is a very difficult question for anybody trying to propose a model of post-capitalism, which is that we live in a society where there’s a notion of social ownership, there’s a notion that we’re accountable to each other and that scarce resources shouldn’t be wasted. And there needs to be a way for individuals and sub-sections of the population to be accountable to the rest of the population. That has to be the case. It can’t just be completely atomistic. On the other hand, we do want to have individuals and sub-sections and sub-units of a society to be able to have some kind of meaningful autonomy and control over their own situation.

And so I want to read out a quote here which makes a criticism of Towards a New Socialism so we can get into it. We’ll have to leave this on a cliff-hanger and come back to it. So, I finished reading Democratic Economic Planning (2021) recently which Robin Hahnel brought out, and there’s a discussion of Towards a New Socialism in that, a brief one, and after paying several compliments to yourself and Allin Cottrell about the model he makes a few criticisms. And one of them is that 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’.

[PC] Well, there’s a question, firstly, was there worker apathy? If there was worker apathy, was it for that reason? And is he right to say that there would be limited ability to meaningfully decide things?

In no society can the producers be entirely autonomous unless they’re producing just for themselves. If they’re producing for the rest of society then in some way, whether it’s through the market or through a planning mechanism, the rest of society will impose its needs on them.

Now I would question whether the worker apathy that he describes was actually there more than in western economies, where there is no pretence that workers have any autonomy. But this complaint about worker apathy tends to be focused on the Soviet example, where when you dig down to what people mean by worker apathy they mean that the workers weren’t obedient servants. They didn’t just do what they were told by managers. So the managers had to at least pay some attention to them.

Now, the important difference there is that they didn’t fear unemployment, whereas in the West people fear unemployment and therefore their ability to resist what the management want to do is limited except under times of low unemployment and strong trade unions.

I think saying Soviet economy was plagued by worker apathy is a questionable claim. I think it’s conflating the criticism made by capitalist economists, that workers there were apathetic because they didn’t feel the fear of being fired and therefore didn’t feel the need to put in an extra effort, with an imputed cause – which Hahnel is saying – which is that it is limited ability to decide things.

Now given that they actually had more ability to decide things than a worker in a western company, why are they supposed to have been more apathetic? What is the standard of apathy? I mean, were the workers at Tupolev apathetic compared to the workers at Lockheed? On what basis did you decide they were apathetic?

[AO] I suppose if I were to play devil’s advocate – or just try to substitute myself for somebody making that point – I’d say that capitalist economies would not serve as any kind of comparison because they failed so abjectly in any kind of economic democracy or worker self-management. So that, as it were, that would be a low bar.

[PC] But what is the high bar? What is his measuring bar that he’s using? I mean, is he saying that the Soviet workers were more apathetic than Yugoslav workers? That might be it.

[AO] I’m not exactly sure. But I think that’ll be more along the lines.

[PC] Possibly, but where’s the evidence?

[AO] Well, I will have to ask him that. I will ask him that because I think it’s a very interesting discussion, and I think you’re right to say that we should concretely establish the basis of the criticism empirically before then proceeding to explain it. So I will ask him.

[PC] If you’re going to make an argument on the basis of a criticism, let’s see that the criticism actually is true.

[AO] Would you be up for another interview sometime soon?

[PC] It’d have to be over a week from now.

[AO] Okay, we’ll leave things on a cliff-hanger. Worker self-management: a huge topic, much more to discuss, and we’ll discuss that again.

So, thank you very much for joining me, it’s a pleasure to talk to you as always, very interesting, and enjoy your holidays.

[PC] I must say, just before I go, that when I reposted the video you’d made the comments were equally complimentary about the acuteness of the questions you asked.

[AO] Well, thank you very much for saying that. I do my research and I try to facilitate a good discussion.

[PC] Okay, bye for now.

[AO] And thank you for watching. As always I want to hear your thoughts in the comments section below about what we were discussing: differential pay and worker self-management and anything else relevant.

Tomorrow I’ll begin a series of interviews with Professor Robin Hahnel about Participatory Economics and his latest book, published in 2021, Democratic Economic Planning.

That’s all for now. The only viable future for humanity is one After the Oligarchy.