Interviews Postcapitalism

Paul Cockshott Interview on Towards a New Socialism – Part 2 – Socialism & Technologies, Second Hand Goods, Research

Editor’s note: discussion topics include the relevance (or non-relevance) of 3-D printing, the internet of things, recommender systems, neural networks, and quantum computing, to socialism and the Towards a New Socialism model (TNS) in particular, handling second-hand goods in TNS, the number of commodities in a modern, advanced, capitalist economy, basic research and labour time in TNS.

After the Oligarchy: Hi everybody this is After the Oligarchy speaking to Dr. Paul Cockshott again. I’m going to read out his bio from his book How the World Works which is a very good book on historical materialism: 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 Classical Econophysics and Computation and its Limits. And of course How the World Works.

This is the second in a series of interviews with Dr. Cockshott about Towards a New Socialism written by Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, published in 1993. If you haven’t watched that first interview yet check it out. In Towards a New Socialism 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 that you read the book to really understand what we’re talking about.

You can also watch some excellent videos on Dr. Cockshott’s YouTube channel, link to that and his website in the description below. Dr. Paul Cockshott, thanks for joining me again.

Paul Cockshott: Hi.

AO: I just want to, actually, say something that I found out in the meantime about this book How the World Works, that you don’t actually make any money from it because you chose to lower the price to make it more accessible.

PC: Yes.

AO: I just thought that that’s very impressive and interesting. But actually on that note I should also mention that you do have a Patreon, so if people want to support your work, given that, for example, you’re not making money from How the World Works, they can go to your Patreon and become a subscriber.

And last time we didn’t have a copy so here’s Towards a New Socialism, it’s still in print but you can actually get a free PDF version which I’ll put in the description as well.

So with all of that out of the way I’d like to begin with a set of questions about the relevance of various technologies to Towards a New Socialism.

1 – We’ll begin first with micro-production. What is the relevance of micro-production, e.g. 3D printing, to Towards a New Socialism?

I know that nowadays a lot is made of this. There is also small-scale silicon wafer manufacture, for example, I’m just wondering do you think there’s any particular relevance that this has to Towards a New Socialism?

PC: It’s mainly useful for making prototypes. I can’t see it being used for the bulk of goods which people make use of in their home or make use of in industry. But making prototypes, possibly artwork, stuff like that, yes. I mean, the only instance where I think 3D printing techniques are likely to be useful, maybe, is possibly in the construction industry.

You have to think of what is the nature of these 3D printing techniques at a deep level. Go back to when the printing press was invented. Why was that so much of an improvement in productivity? It’s because it transferred information onto the product in parallel. The whole printing head of Gutenberg’s press came down and formed all the letters at once, and that was the essential feature of printing which made it far better than handwriting. In fact, all the letters were done in parallel and that was a general feature of printing presses, that they did things in parallel.

Now there’s a set of technologies which have had a big impact on the world, and the technologies which have been particularly effective and have had huge improvements in productivity have been ones which harness parallelism. The printing press was the first of those.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, two other techniques came about that were significant. One of them, obviously, was the parallelization of spinning in a spinning mill where there’d be hundreds of spindles looked after by each worker instead of one spindle per worker.

The other less obvious to people, perhaps, was the mass production of cast iron goods. If you go to Edinburgh or Dublin you will see railings around buildings which are cast iron railings. You’ll see balconies on buildings which will have cast iron railings. This was an invention of the late 18th century which enabled complex iron objects to be made in a single action by pouring molten iron. The single action was brought about by the fact you had a mould and the mould transferred information onto the product to all points on the product at once. So, it had a big impact also in domestic production, for instance, cast iron stoves and things like that, far higher productivity than a smith using a hammer to carefully beat something out.