Towards a New Cybernetic Socialism

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Book: Towards a New Socialism: Introduction. W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, 1993

URL = http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/intro.html

See also: P2P Theory and Marxism

Introduction

This book by Scottish authors Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell combine a focus on cybernetic coordination, participatory democracy, and the labour theory of value, see http://reality.gn.apc.org/germanpreface.pdf

The complete book, http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/new_socialism.pdf

Main introduction, http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/intro.html

Other introductions:

  1. http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/bettelheim_etc.pdf
  2. http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/soviet_planning.pdf, 'Calculation, Complexity and Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Once Again' (Review of Political Economy, July 1993) in PDF format: calculation_debate.pdf. Our analysis and response to the historic 'socialist calculation debate' involving Mises, Hayek, Lange and others.
  3. http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/hayek_critique.pdf, 'Information and Economics: A Critique of Hayek' (Research in Political Economy, 1997) in PDF format: hayek_critique.pdf. Counter-argument to Hayek's influential critique of socialist planning in his article `The Use of Knowledge in Society'.


Background and Context

Description

Heinz Dieterich [1]:

"Apart from many individuals, two schools of thought have independently advanced the reasoning about the “socialism of the XXI century”: the so-called “Scottish School”, with the computational expert, Paul Cockshott and the economist Allin Cottrell; and that denominated the “School of Bremen”, in turn, of the universal genius, Arno Peters, the mathematician Carsten Stahmer, the Cuban physicist, Raimundo Franco, and myself.

The emphasis of analysis of both schools varies. To put it simply. The principal work of Cockshott/Allin, Towards a New Socialism, is a brilliant and profound discussion centered primarily on the technological and economic aspects of a new and viable non-capitalist project. On the other hand, the works of the Bremen School, for example, The end of Global Capitalism, The New Historic Project; Computer Socialism, (Arno Peters), and XXI Century Socialism and Participative Democracy, (Heinz Dieterich), prioritize a more evolutionary and institutional focus which discusses, in addition the problem of the phase of transition towards a new socialism in Latin America.

The amazing result, nevertheless, is that both theories, developed independently and from different angles, arrive at the same general inferences (conclusions) on the principal institutions which will substitute the bourgeois institutions in the new postbourgeois and postcapitalist civilization. These coincidences on the new socialist institutionalism of the XXI century, undoubtedly constitute a relevant methodological indicator of the validity of the results obtained, in an independent manner, by both groups." (http://reality.gn.apc.org/econ/chavez2.html)


What is the theoretical basis for a new socialism?

"The principal bases for a post-Soviet socialism must be radical democracy and efficient planning. The democratic element, it is now clear, is not a luxury, or something that can be postponed until conditions are especially favourable. Without democracy, as we have argued above, the leaders of a socialist society will be driven to coercion in order to ensure the production of a surplus product, and if coercion slackens the system will tend to stagnate. At the same time, the development of an efficient planning system will most likely be impossible in the absence of an open competition of ideas. The failure of Soviet Communists to come up with viable socialist reform proposals over recent years is testimony to the malign effects of a system in which conformity and obedience were at a premium. Capitalist societies can achieve economic progress under conditions of political dictatorship, for even under such dictatorship the realm of private economic activity is relatively unregulated and the normal processes of competition remain operative, while the suppression of working-class organisation may permit a higher rate of exploitation. Under socialism, there can be no such separation of oppressive state from `free' economy; and if criteria of ideological `correctness' dominate in the promotion of managers and even in economic-theoretical debate, the long-run prospects for growth and efficiency are dim indeed.

On the counts of both democratic institutions and efficient planning mechanisms, we have to say that the problems which emerged in the Soviet case reflect certain weaknesses in classical Marxism. Marx, Engels and Lenin were much stronger in their critiques of capitalism than in their positive theorizing concerning socialist society. As regards democratic institutions, the Bolsheviks initially latched onto the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies as the favoured form. While this may have been tactically astute, we argue that the soviet form is inherently inadequate and indeed dangerous and that we must look elsewhere for the principles of a socialist democratic constitution. As regards planning mechanisms, Marx and Engels had some interesting suggestions, but these were never developed beyond the level of rather vague generalities. The Soviet planners improvised their own system, which worked for certain purposes in its time, but the development of their thinking about socialist economic mechanisms was limited by what they saw as the need to conform to the canons of Marxism -- to avoid and indeed denounce any theoretical methods, such as marginal analysis, that appeared tainted by `bourgeois' connotations. Western marxists have argued that this tendency was based on a misinterpretation of Marx. Quite likely so, but the fact that Marx did not attempt to spell out the principles of operation of a planned economy at any length made such a misreading possible. At any rate, socialism will never again have any credibility as an economic system unless we can spell out such principles in reasonable detail." (http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/intro.html)


Synopsis of the book

"In the remainder of this introduction we offer a synopsis of the main arguments to come, in the light of the problems and issues identified above. Chapters 1 and 2 tackle issues connected with inequality and inequity. The first gives an overview of the bases of inequality in capitalist society -- bases which, as we have suggested above, social democratic amelioration is unable to eradicate. The second shows how a consistent socialist system of payment could substantially eliminate inequality. The payment system outlined in chapter 2 depends on the idea that the total labour content of each product or service can be calculated. Chapter 3 justifies this claim, while developing the argument that economic calculation in terms of labour time is rational and technically progressive.

Chapters 4 to 9 then develop various aspects of an efficient system of economic planning, a system capable of ensuring that economic development is governed by the democratically constructed needs of the people. Chapter 4 establishes some basic concepts and priorities, and distinguishes a number of different `levels' of planning, namely strategic planning, detailed planning, and macroeconomic planning, which are then examined in detail in chapters 5, 6 and 7 respectively. Chapter 8 outlines a specific mechanism for ensuring that the detailed pattern of production remains in line with consumers' preferences, while avoiding excessive queues and shortages. Chapter 9 examines the information requirements for the type of planning system we envisage, and makes a link between the issue of accurate information and the incentives and sanctions faced by individuals. In the course of these chapters we draw a number of contrasts between the sort of system we are proposing, and the system commonly regarded as having failed in the Soviet Union.

While chapters 4 to 9 deal with the planning of a single economy in isolation, chapters 10 and 11 extend the argument to consider issues arising from trade with other economies, an important practical concern in a world of increasing interdependence.

Chapters 12 to 14 move beyond the economic to further social and political questions. Chapter 12 makes a connection between socialist objectives and the concerns brought to light by feminists. It investigates the possibilities for domestic communes as an alternative to the nuclear family `household', and shows how such communes could function within the broad structure of a planned economy. Chapter 13 considers the political sphere, and proposes a radical form of democratic constitution capable of giving ordinary people real control over their lives. As mentioned earlier, we are critical of the soviet model of democracy. We are equally critical of parliamentary systems, and our own proposals stem from a re-examination of the mechanisms of classical (Athenian) democracy in the modern context. Chapter 14 examines the question of property relations, and elaborates the specific forms of property required as a basis for the preceding economic and social forms.

In a final chapter we tackle some contrary arguments put forward by sceptical socialists in recent years. In this context we reply to arguments in favour of `market socialism' as an alternative to the sort of planning we advocate.

The overall theme which animates the book, through all its various detailed arguments, will, we hope, be clear. That is, we take as our ultimate aim the greatest possible fulfillment of the potential of each human being, as individual and as a member of society. This fulfillment requires dignity, security and substantive equality (though not, of course, uniformity), as well as productive efficiency. It also requires that humans find sustainable ways of living in balance with the overall environment of the planet. We argue that these aims can best be met through a cooperative, planned form of social economy under a radically democratic political constitution -- a post-Soviet socialism." (http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/intro.html)


Discussion

by Gavin Mendel-Gleason [2] :

"Cockshott & Cottrell’s new socialism attempts to use labour time as a basis for optimisation of the economy. The idea is to use sophisticated computers, which are now widely available, to determine the most rational allocation of productive capacity, given social spending power based itself on labour time. That is, the consumer gets to choose from amongst the various products with a purchasing power based on the amount of labour expended towards fulfilment of the plan.

The work is particularly notable in dealing with many issues known to be difficult in planned economies such as dealing with innovation. the proposal is both very thorough and concrete, giving little doubt to those who might want to begin its implementation how one should be guided. It is therefore one of the strongest planning proposals which we have, and seems a useful template. Further useful developments might look at a partial implementation which would be suitable for a cooperative, with a notion of a planned inside/capitalist outside as a transitional model.

Its great fault, however, is that it does not deal systematically with many of the fundamental quality control concerns that led to cascading failure in the USSR, and the rise of a parallel illegal but wholly necessary therefore tolerated bartering system. That is, because parts are sourced by the plan, and not by the individual producers, quality control has to be additionally imposed. Whereas in a market system, substandard parts would simply never sell, in a planned system the fulfilment of the plan is not deemed by the customer of the parts but either by the supplier or some third party.

Further there is no mention of the rushing effects caused by the periodicity of planning (shturmovshchina) or the need for flexibility in changing subsections of the plan or any other issues which are always difficult in global optimisation problems. The first problem of periodicity led to big fluctuations in output near the beginning and end of the planning periods. It is likely that computational power will reduce the size and therefore the damage done by these, but the problem needs to be addressed. Further, there is little discussion on overcoming the tautness of Soviet plans, which was a continual problem that we need to deal with seriously. We need to build in fault tolerance and looseness such that failures do not cascade.” (http://spiritofcontradiction.eu/rowan-duffy/2012/06/28/which-way-the-economic-revolution)