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.
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.