Transition and abundance

Schemes for quasi-market communism offer a rationale for capitalism, argues Mike Macnair

Comrade Paul Cockshott’s letter of July 1 replied prematurely to the first part of my response (June 24) to his critique of my book on revolutionary strategy (October 8 2009); the second part of my response, which was focussed on problems of decision-making both under communism and in the transition, was printed in the same issue as his letter. I have delayed replying to his letter because I thought he would also reply to the second part of my response.

In the absence of his having done so, his letter still raises two important general issues: the question of ‘theory of socialism’, in the sense of socialism as the short-term economic alternative to capitalism, and the question of my analysis of the intelligentsia (and particularly the managerial middle class and bureaucracy) as a sub-species of the class of petty proprietors. The two points are interconnected, and it is convenient to deal with the second point first.

Intelligentsia petty proprietors

Some information, including information about the coordination of production, is an indispensable part of the means of production. For the means of production to be collectively appropriated (controlled by democratic decisions) therefore requires that this information should also be collectively appropriated and controlled by democratic decisions. To the extent that there remains private control of this sort of information by individuals or groups, there is not yet communism and the holders of these information monopolies constitute a segment of the class of petty proprietors.

Contrary to comrade Cockshott’s letter, I am perfectly well aware that the USSR and until recently China did not recognise legal intellectual property rights (IPRs), and that these are of little concern to the middle class.[1] But comrade Cockshott here gives too much weight to legal forms. Ownership in economic practice need not take the form of legal ownership. Otherwise there could be no illegal drugs market; medieval English villeins would be economically identical to ancient slaves; and so on.[2]

Comrade Cockshott says that my “identification of what the Soviets called the intelligentsia with the classical petty proprietor is actually based on a concept borrowed from orthodox economics: ‘human capital’”. The suggested connection with Gary Becker and others’ ‘human capital’ is tenuous. In Marx’s analysis the worker owns his or her labour-power; this is a real economic asset, but one which cannot be converted into money capital because its economic value is simply its cost of reproduction.[3]

In contrast, the de facto control of productive information over and above bare labour-power is an asset which can be capitalised and sold. This fact is indirectly reflected in bourgeois law in the form of the efforts of employers to use law to prevent managers and technical specialists capitalising the information they de facto control: the fiduciary duties of agents and managers, exclusive-service contracts and restrictive covenants against competition, contract terms imposing duties of confidentiality and giving the employer rights to formal IPRs created in the course of employment, and so on.

I argue that what immediately replaces capitalist rule is a regime in which the petty proprietor class remains present, but is subordinated to the proletariat, and class struggles between the proletariat and this class continue. It is mainly for this reason that, as I said in the first part of my reply, I personally think that ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or ‘working class rule’ is a more scientific description of this regime than ‘socialism’. There is another reason which will appear below.

The tendency of such a regime - if the managers, bureaucrats and professionals in particular are held in political subordination to the wage-earner majority - is to supersede this class group through ‘overproducing’ holders of the information monopolised by the managerial middle class and thereby devalorising the information in question, and through rotation of offices leading to rotation of employments.

This idea is not a novelty. Engels argues it in the Anti-Dühring (1877).[4] Comrade Cockshott in fact states in his letter that “unlike the peasant proprietor skilled workers or the intelligentsia were, in the USSR, products of the socialist economy itself. Its vast expansion of educational institutes turned out a highly educated workforce.”

This is a truth, but a half truth. The Soviet regime certainly produced large numbers of skilled workers and intelligentsy, and this group was certainly subordinated to the political bureaucratic elite. But this production did not amount to overproduction of skilled workers and intelligentsy relative to the immediate needs of production. And the system of bureaucratic hierarchy and private control of information constituted the bureaucratic ‘cadres’ and managers as a special group of private monopolists of information within the intelligentsia as a group. By doing so it barred the way to the economic tendency for the production of “a highly educated workforce” leading to the supersession of the special role of intelligentsy decision-makers: ie, of class.

Hence the other elements discussed in the second half of my reply: the need for rotation of official and managerial posts - and, critically, the need for transparency and the abolition of official and business secrets, copyright, rights of confidentiality, cabinet or central committee confidentiality, and so on.

In reality, we cannot get to a workers’ movement which challenges capitalism without addressing such issues of constitutional forms. The reason is that the existing constitutional forms in the workers’ organisations (trade unions, cooperatives, political parties) are based on the subordination of the membership to the officials and managers. And the common interest of the officials and managers (even of such small groups as the Socialist Workers Party!) with the officials and managers of the capitalist state and the corporations operates to subordinate the working class to the capitalist nation-state.

Comrade Cockshott goes on to say that “Mike is implying that, the more scientifically and technically advanced a socialist economy becomes, the stronger will grow the petty bourgeoisie, and thus the more premature and futile will be the attempt to establish socialism. This is where his argument leads, but I suspect that he will not want to pursue it to this logical conclusion.”

This is completely misconceived. Comrade Cockshott’s argument here contains an implicit claim that scientific and technical advance in socialism will continue and push further the tendency under capitalism to individual lifelong specialisation on particular tasks (usually, if misleadingly, called ‘division of labour’). But this is the opposite of the claims of Marx and Engels about the future.

To quote the passage of the Anti-Dühring cited above: “[P]roduction is most encouraged by a mode of distribution which allows all members of society to develop, maintain and exercise their capacities with maximum universality. It is true that, to the mode of thought of the educated classes ... it must seem monstrous in time to come there will no longer be any professional porters or architects, and that the man who for half an hour gives instructions as an architect will also act as a porter for a period, until his activity as an architect is once again required.”

This direction away from lifelong specialisation is not a mere utopia, but already grows out of the dynamics of capitalism. On the one hand, the tighter the specialisation, the more it can potentially be robotised. In the ‘classic case’ of professional specialism - medicine, for example - there has been recent rapid development of computer-aided diagnosis (because even lifelong specialisation does not allow consistent human recall of the full range of possibilities) and robotic surgery (because for some purposes the robot is less prone to slips and lapses of attention than the human surgeon).

On the other hand, the high development of the productivity of labour has produced conditions in which huge amounts of capital wash around the financial system without being put to productive use. Meanwhile, in the imperialist countries there are massive levels of make-work unproductive labour, and excessive hours worked, both in state and private sectors. And in the semi-colonial ‘third world’ and former Stalinist ‘transitional’ countries there are (more simply) extraordinarily high levels of standing unemployment and pauperisation.

If this was a matter of Malthusian overpopulation relative to productive capacity it would ‘solve itself’ through massive famines; to the contrary, the reality is that current global production can support the present population, but the capitalist order cannot make real work available for people to do.

Any solution to this last problem will involve not only shorter working hours, but also major extensions of time spent by individuals in education, training and retraining, and a move towards rotational employment. It also therefore necessarily involves the proposition that work is already becoming, as Marx argued it would become under communism, “not only a means of life but life’s prime want”.[5]

This last point has profound implications for the question of economic alternatives to capitalism. What it tells us is that socialism, in the sense of an economic alternative to capitalism, needs at once to have aims profoundly different from capitalism. It will have to start with the aim of all-round human development, as opposed to either the aim of maximising productive output (a project which is in any case running up against the habitability of the biosphere) or that of economising on total labour time. Its incentive structure and economic rationality will therefore have to be profoundly different from the capitalist incentive structure and capitalist ‘rational choice’.

Economic alternatives

In my reply to comrade Cockshott’s original critique I said that the basic reason my book did not discuss the question of immediate economic alternatives to capitalism was “the potential minimum basis of Marxist unity: not about a global alternative on everything”. As to the character of the book, I stick by this point. It is about the workers’ movement under capitalism and the road to the goal of working class political power. It was already ambitious in scope without discussing the economics of the transition to communism.

Comrade Cockshott in his letter makes three points in response to this (I have slightly reordered them for the benefit of clarity of my response). The first is - to paraphrase - that the book’s emphasis on political democracy sounds like the Eurocommunists’ process of abandonment of communist commitment. From the tone of comrade Cockshott’s letter at this point I take it that that the first part of my reply at least eased what he calls a “worry”.

The second point is that “without a working class political economy there can be no political workers’ movement ... Without its own political economy labour cannot advance policies to change the way the economy operates.” Moreover, “To reconstitute a socialist movement capable of winning not just core working class support, but the support of a majority of the population, that movement is going to need very clear and convincing economic policies ...”

This point is broadly sound, if a little overstated. It poses two questions. The first is that there are a range of different proposals for the future economy on offer. Comrade Cockshott and his co-author, Allin Cottrell, have offered one in Towards a new socialism (TNS - 1993) and more recently in ‘A defence of socialism in the 21st century’ (DOS - 2008).[6] Beside the wide range of ‘market socialist’ and left social democratic proposals on offer, other fairly systematically argued versions of socialism include Hillel Ticktin’s ‘What will a socialist society be like?’ (1997), Al Campbell’s ‘Democratic planned socialism’ (2002) and David Laibman’s ‘Democratic coordination’ (2002), and Michael Albert’s Parecon (2004).[7] This is not remotely an exhaustive list.

The problem is choosing between the multiplicity of different options - that is, if we are required to choose between them in order to get to the first-base stage of having a moderately sized minority communist party which can begin to act effectively in the real world, as opposed to umpteen grouplets. The problem is accentuated by the fact that Marxist political economy expertise is not merely splintered between grouplets, but has shifted to a considerable extent into the academy and become splintered between individuals. My view is that we are more likely to make successful choices on detailed economic policy with a party, initially based on outline goals, which can bring together a wider range of expertise than any group or individual theorist possesses.

The second question posed is why it should be necessary to specify economic policy in detail. After all, the mass socialist workers’ movement developed in the late 19th and early 20th century on the basis of Marxist political economy as a critique of capitalism. But, as to the alternative to capitalism, it offered merely a general aim, immediate demands, and - fundamentally - the practical activity of trade unions, cooperatives, mutuals, workers’ education, etc, as representing the alternative. The movement offered little more in the way of positive economic policy for the future society than some hand-waving (Bebel’s Woman and socialism and so on) and some utopian fiction (Morris’s News from nowhere and so on). So why do we need precise economic alternatives now?

Soviet failure

The answer to the second question is at least partly, as comrade Cockshott says in his letter, that in the 1980s and 1990s “the labour movement worldwide suffered an enormous ideological setback ... In that setback the very idea of socialism as a distinct way of organising the economy was apparently discredited.” That is to say, in substance, that the idea of socialism was discredited by the fall of the USSR, the fact that the USSR was generally identified as ‘socialist’, and the particular form of the fall, that the leaders of the USSR denounced its economy as ‘inefficient’.

In particular, there was a revival in the academy and in particular among economists of the arguments of the Austrian school (von Mises and Hayek) that socialist planning was impossible for reasons of the complexity of the calculations involved. This filtered through into politics as the ‘efficient markets theory’ - and neoliberalism. This is the immediate context of comrade Cockshott’s third point. This is that my use of Marx’s arguments for a minimum programme misses out all the water that has “has gone under the bridge since 1880”.

“As the labour movement became more powerful, it began, from the 1920s on under Marxian and other socialist influence, to challenge the economic dominance of capital. In the process it needed a political economy that went beyond Marx’s description and critique of Victorian capitalism.

“People like Neurath, Feldman, Kalecki, Lange and Dickinson provided a body of ideas that could both guide socialist economic policy and provide a refutation of the ideologies put forward by early 20th century bourgeois economists. This ideological foundation allowed the movement to advance confidently to challenge the institutions of capitalist economy. It gave socialism an intellectual credibility that meant even orthodox economics textbooks treated it as a viable alternative system.”

Otto Neurath (1882-1945), Michal Kalecki (1899-1970), Oskar Lange (1904-65) and HD Dickinson (1899-1968) were participants in the ‘socialist calculation debate’. With the exception of Neurath, they rejected the labour theory of value in favour of marginalism and argued for forms of ‘market socialism’ in which there were, at least, markets in consumer goods. GA Feldman was a Soviet economist (of the school of EA Preobrazhensky) who developed a model of planning for economic development based on Marx’s ‘reproduction schemas’ in Capital Vol 2.[8]

This selection of authors (notably not including Preobrazhensky’s important work on the contradictions of the transition period) reflects choices of how to respond to the fall of the USSR made by comrades Cockshott and Cottrell in TNS. These choices provide - I think - reasons not to choose the economic proposals of TNS.

The first choice was to characterise the USSR as (defectively) socialist. This was in contrast to the substantial element of the left which insisted and continues to insist that it was not socialist. Perhaps it was ‘state capitalist’ (some ‘left’ and ‘council’ communists, Maoists and sub-Trotskyists) or the domination of capital without capitalists (Mészáros). Perhaps it was a “degenerated workers’ state” (‘orthodox’ Trotskyists). Perhaps it was a sui generis form (Ticktin) or “ectopic society” (Conrad).

Comrades Cockshott’s and Cottrell’s case for calling the regime ‘socialist’ is that the USSR was a society in which the social surplus was extracted not through the wage relation, but through political decisions in the form of a plan (TNS pp4-6).

This approach has the advantage (shared with the CPGB’s use of our name) of forcing you to confront head-on in argument with people who are not already leftwingers two questions. The first is what was wrong with the regime, and the second is what went wrong with it as results of errors by people who were still, in the 1920s, subjectively committed to Marxian communism. The alternative approaches try (in practice usually unsuccessfully) to evade these questions by taking moral distance from the USSR.

The problem with this choice is also a problem with the use of ‘socialist’ in our (original and redrafted) Draft programme. It is that, since ‘socialist society’ is also widely used as a synonym for ‘communist society’, it elides the distinction between the period of transition between capitalism and communism, and communism proper. It becomes unclear what are not goals, but necessary means of the transition, and what are long-term goals.

This is exacerbated by the diagnosis of what went wrong with the USSR. Comrades Cockshott and Cottrell analyse that the plan more or less worked under Stalin due to a combination of the terror with “genuine pioneering fervour”. Under Brezhnev both were eroded and the plan lacked an internal mechanism to motivate continued economic growth and appropriate allocation of resources (TNS pp6-7). They deny that the absence of democracy was a sufficient explanation of the latter problem.

This is partly because they understand the role of democracy as being simply to mobilise public consent to the plan decisions (TNS p6), or to overcome particularist sectionalism (DOS, note 11), though the plan options are actually constructed by ‘experts’. It is not to force the subordination of the managers and ‘specialists’ to the proletarian majority. The consequence is that TNS hand-waves aside the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) effects on the planning process caused by false reporting by managers who want to keep their jobs (which are present in capitalist managerial hierarchies and even in the small SWP apparat of district organisers).[9]

Secondly, comrades Cockshott and Cottrell recognise that the USSR was unavoidably a war economy (TNS pp60-61). The core state apparats in the UK and US regarded themselves as at war with the Soviet regime between 1917 and 1941 and between 1946 and 1991 and continued during these periods to carry on blockade and covert operations against the Soviet regime. So the USSR was constantly trying to catch up with ‘the west’ and never quite succeeding. But they do not integrate in their argument fully what this implies. That is, that even an entirely democratic regime with the best possible planning arrangements could not have avoided the real choice between guns and butter which was part of the inability of the system to deliver consumer goods.

In this respect, TNS is still within Stalin’s paradigm of ‘socialism in a single country’ and ‘peaceful coexistence’.[10] That is, the characterisation of the USSR as ‘socialist’ slips away from recognition that the USSR on its own could never have been more than an instrument for the global overthrow of capitalism. Capitalism is and has from the beginning of its ascendancy been a simple system of competing states, but an international articulated system headed by a global top-dog state. There are strong reasons to suppose that ‘backward’ countries in this world order cannot ‘catch up’ unless the top-dog state promotes their doing so for geopolitical reasons. The overthrow of capitalism will therefore have to be global.[11]

The choice to call the USSR ‘socialist’ and the consequent ambiguity between the period of transition and (global) communism results in the ambiguity of comrades Cockshott and Cottrell’s remedies for the failings of ‘Soviet-style socialism’: ‘Athenian’ democracy plus a better form of plan, plus the replacement of money by ‘labour tokens’.

As I have already discussed in my two articles replying to comrade Cockshott, the idea of ‘Athenian’ democracy, while partly helpful in imagining the possible forms of decision-making for communism (if over-schematic), fails to deal with the necessary class struggles of the period of the transition to communism. The economic proposals of TNS, on the other hand, are partly helpful in drawing attention to some problems of the immediate transition. But the price is a conception of communism which would retain some of the decisive failings of capitalism.

Semi-quasi-market socialism

‘Market socialism’ is a generic term for forms of socialism (considered as an end goal comparable to communism) which combine public ownership and planning (and greater or lesser degrees of democracy, workers’ self-management, cooperatives, etc) with partial use of markets to arrange economic activity. Comrades Cockshott’s and Cottrell’s economic scheme is not market socialism proper, but combines a high element of planning with markets in (some) consumer goods, but without money in the proper sense. It can thus be called a semi-market socialism (the market is limited to consumer goods) and a quasi-market socialism (the market uses labour tokens, not money).[12]

The normal inegalitarian effects of markets are blocked by the fact that in the scheme consumer goods (a) are exclusively produced by public-owned firms and (b) can only be purchased with labour tokens. Labour tokens are not money; they are non-transferable between the holders and can only be used to purchase consumer goods. They represent hours contributed to common production.

The members of the society decide by referendum on a high-level distribution of shares of the total social product between (1) the needs of reproduction, (2) new investment, (3) needs-based sectors like health and education and (4) consumer goods. Within this framework, the prices of consumer goods are set at market-clearing levels (in amounts of labour-time): so goods in short supply or high demand may be priced at more hours than they cost and vice versa. The consumer goods ‘quasi-market’ thus provides signals of consumer preferences, among other things as to the quality of competing goods offered by different producers. It also provides signals of efficiency, in terms of economy of labour-time, again as between competing producers of consumer goods.

These signals can then be used (with a lot of computing power and software superior to that the USSR tried to use in the 1960s) to compute a technical plan for the distribution of raw materials, plant and machinery, etc to the different productive branches. In relation to the allocation of labour, TNS (pp34-40) contemplates limited use of differentials in areas of skills shortage or particularly unpleasant tasks, and if push comes to shove some conscription (which, as they point out, is not different in principle from the capitalist state’s cutting benefits to claimants who refuse work).

TNS originated as an alternative to the market socialism proposals of Alec Nove’s Economics of feasible socialism (1983) and the marketising ‘reforms’ in the USSR of the Gorbachev period: ie, one which could in principle be immediately implemented in the USSR. The scheme remains one for more or less immediate implementation. The 2004 draft preface to TNS suggests a quite short transition to the replacement of money with labour tokens (pp14-15). The route proposed in comrades Cockshott, Cottrell and Heinz Dieterich’s 2010 pamphlet Transition to 21st century socialism in the EU is even shorter.

Considered from this angle the critical weakness of the proposal is (as I argued before) failure to take proper account of the political and economic significance of the petty bourgeoisie.

There are others, to give merely three examples. First, distinguishing producer and consumer goods is not straightforward. For example, hand tools are producer goods when supplied to a business; consumer goods when supplied to a hobbyist. Food items are usually consumer goods, but producer goods when supplied to a works canteen.

Second, many ‘consumer goods’, like food and housing, enter into the reproduction costs of labour-power. Others, like children’s books, enter into the reproduction costs of skilled labour-power. Supply of such items falls in any plan to be classified as a part of the costs of reproduction.

Third, there is a class of cases which even (most) pro-market economists recognise as ‘market failures’: for example, it may in advance make sense for each individual to travel by car, but the result if many people do so is traffic congestion.[13] This sort of ‘market failure’ is as much a feature of the labour tokens scheme as of capitalist markets.

These different sorts of difficulties are reflected in TNS in a series of ad hoc limitations to the quasi-market in consumer goods. This is restricted to “food, drink, entertainment, books, clothing, holiday travel and so forth - goods where ‘externalities’ are absent or unimportant” (TNS p79). It is also subject to controls for market failures, as in transport (pp69-70); to ‘citizenship rights’ - for example, in education, childcare and healthcare (p78); to free distribution of goods, such as water, where the metering and charging costs exceed the income produced (pp79-80); and to some degree of food supply planning on the basis of public health and nutritional considerations (pp80-82).

Hence the various planning algorithms, etc proposed in TNS probably do not succeed in creating planning ‘calculation’ on the basis of labour inputs and final consumer demand. They do not, therefore, avoid the problem of the incommensurability of use-values, which is the fundamental objection of von Mises, Hayek and co to socialist planning.

Semi-quasi-market communism?

The other side of this coin is that the arguments for the mix of plan and quasi-market and the role of labour tokens appear to be transhistorical. Cockshott and Cottrell do not present their scheme as a proposal for a transitional regime, but as the permanent, long-term alternative to capitalism. Why, then, does this permanent alternative require labour tokens and a quasi-market in consumer goods?

The answer comes back to the balance sheet of the USSR and the debates with Nove and with the Austrian school objections. Cockshott and Cottrell identify the USSR as having failed because of its inability to deliver efficient allocation of labour, technical innovation and consumer goods. In this context they - like Kalecki, Lange and Dickinson - accept two fundamental arguments in favour of the free market. The first is that it provides an approximately efficient allocation of labour, and incentives for technical innovation.

The second is that an economy of ‘relative abundance’ - what Marx called the ‘higher stage’ of communism in the Critique of the Gotha programme - is absolutely unattainable (TNS pp214-15). There will, therefore, be a substantial class of consumer goods which have to be rationed in some way: either by a market or quasi-market, or by direct bureaucratic rationing (or lottery, which for some reason they do not consider), or - as in the USSR - by queues.


There is an underlying problem with von Mises and co’s ‘socialist calculation’ objection. This is that markets do not, in fact, clear and there are not and cannot be any market-clearing prices: Say’s Law is false. There is no underlying tendency of capitalist markets to equilibrium.

The limited appearance of markets as ‘clearing’ and as satisfying human desires or rationally allocating labour is, in fact, given by a combination of three factors. The first is that capitalist markets are in reality far from equilibrium and have a permanent tendency to drive random growth and innovation. This tendency is necessarily periodically interrupted by cyclical crises of the type now in progress; but in the growth phase of the cycle equilibrium ideas have a certain plausibility. In the cyclical downswing market-equilibrium ideas tend to be discredited and a variety of (both planning-oriented and petty-bourgeois-nostalgic) economic alternatives are proposed.

The second element is that even in the growth phase there is, in fact, massive waste: the wide availability of goods to consumers is given by the existence of stocks and their periodic devalorisation, either in bankruptcies or by dumping of time-expired goods in landfill, etc. Put another way, capitalism considered as a system of economic calculation requires very large ‘tolerances’. In addition, substantial ‘lubrication’ of the system is provided by the niche-market activities of elements of the petty bourgeoisie.

Thirdly, the theory that markets clear, and so on, only has any serious degree of popularity in countries which are high up the global hierarchy of states. Being high in the global hierarchy of states means that the economy of these countries is affected by an inflow of social surplus product produced elsewhere (through interest on foreign loans, rents on formal IPRs, speculative profit on international financial transactions, returns on foreign direct investment, and so on) which increases local prosperity. In countries lower down the global hierarchy, neoliberal economics looks - except to narrow elite groups closely linked to US capital, its state and its NGOs - like a physics that predicts that the sun rises in the west.

The point of these observations is not to attempt to trivialise the defects of the USSR (and similar economies), though it has to be said that the economic consequences of Yeltsin have produced in Russia widespread nostalgia for Stalin. It is to limit the degree of efficiency - even in labour-time allocation - that should be expected of any alternative to capitalism. There are lower bounds of effective coordination beyond which production is dislocated; but maximisation of efficiency is not in itself necessary to economic coordination.

Nor - as I observed earlier in relation to the systemic decline of capitalism and endemic unemployment and make-work jobs, and to natural limits on unplanned ‘growth’ - is maximisation of labour-saving and innovation in itself a desirable objective. Rather, the ‘maximising’ aim of communism as a social order relates to human potential and conscious human individual and collective choices about our lives in the world.[14]

Market rationing

Is an economy of relative abundance absolutely unattainable? If it is, the schema of TNS is unsound in the sense that education and health provision should be returned to market rationing, as the neoliberals propose. But there are good reasons to suppose that it is not, explained by Ticktin in the 1997 article I cited above.

Supply may be less limited than Cockshott and Cottrell suppose. For example, books are included in their market-rationed category - understandably in 1993. But Towards a new socialism has been for years available free on their website, and large numbers of out-of-copyright books are now available as free pdfs through Google books. Unusual and beautiful places (“holiday travel” - TNS p79) are undoubtedly a limited resource, and mass tourism to them involves exactly the same market failure as car travel.[15] But, though the technology has not yet reached anything like this point, it is entirely foreseeable that a virtual reality broadcast of the site could generate unlimited availability of the experience of presence at it.

However, it has to be recognised that in general supply is not infinite. So an economy of absolute abundance in which individuals can simply take what they please is indeed absolutely unattainable. ‘I want the whole of Australia, emptied, for myself to roam around in’ is untenable.[16]

The question, then, is whether human demand is unlimited. And here present-day reality actually points to the opposite conclusion. Capitalists do not behave as though demand would be unlimited if prices fell far enough: on the contrary, they engage in elaborate efforts to increase demand - for example, marketing efforts to sell new cars, or Microsoft’s cartel with the computer manufacturers to force early replacement of computer hardware by increasing the resource consumption of software. Compulsive eating, boozing and shopping - for example - are recognised as disorders. And so on. Avner Offer’s The challenge of affluence (Oxford 2006) discusses a wide range of related issues.

In a sense the appearance of unlimited demand may be a result of the ‘trickle-down’ of capitalist mentalities. Precisely because markets do not clear, capitalism is dependent on unlimited growth and hence on the rejection or ‘overcoming’ of natural limits. This ‘Promethean’ quality of capital can naturally be expected to ‘trickle down’ to the lower orders. But this trickle-down has a psychological price, which is expressed in the prevalence of addiction and depression in the ‘affluent’ societies.

Imagine that, contrary to this argument, demand is in fact unlimited. There is then no reason to suppose that demand is not unlimited in relation to health or educational services. Very many people would like to live longer, if they can do so in good health; demand for university places and for places in ‘successful’ schools is well above supply. Some form of rationing is then required, and the arguments of TNS for market rationing (with inequality reduced through the use of labour tokens) would apply with equal force. In fact, the point becomes more general. Once unlimited demand in general and as a transhistorical fact, and the utility of rationing through quasi-markets is conceded, the case for real markets - ie, for capitalism - becomes irresistible.

Communism and transition

This is not to say that market or quasi-market rationing, or the sort of technical planning based on economy of labour-time, that TNS discusses, has no place in the forms of the transition to communism. In particular, in the case of the overthrow of capitalist rule in a single continent, a partial war economy is unavoidable until the working class overthrow, or a decisive naval and air/space defeat, of the lead states in the inevitable global capitalist counterrevolutionary coalition. And this does require institutional drivers for both innovation and efficient use of labour-time. Whether the approach of TNS is the right one is another and essentially technical question.

The problem, as I have already said, is that the TNS scheme fudges the difference between immediate-term transitional forms and the nature of a communist society: which would be far more different from capitalist society, both in its goals and in its forms, than TNS allows. The transitional forms are necessarily, as Preobrazhensky argued, contradictory combinations of market and plan.

And this brings me back to the starting point - comrade Cockshott’s critique of the lack of an economic alternative to capitalism in my book on strategy and his parallel critique of the lack of economic ambition of the CPGB PCC’s new draft of our Draft programme. The boot, I would argue, is on the other foot. Because we recognise that the victory of the working class over capital in the form of the overthrow of the capitalist is a moment in a more prolonged transition, we can also recognise that the communism which we ultimately aim for is a more human society, more profoundly unlike capitalism, than the short-term proposals of TNS.


  1. Except authors, musicians, etc: ‘Copyright or human need’ Weekly Worker December 14 2006.
  2. I argued this point specifically in relation to IPRs in ‘A bridge too far’ (Weekly Worker December 18 2003). Comrade Cockshott’s fetishism of the legal form in his argument is inconsistent with his and Allin Cottrell’s explicit rejection of such fetishism in the 2004 new preface to TNS (see note 6): reality.gn.apc.org/germanpreface.pdf, pp4-5.
  3. Capital Vol 3, chapter 29 at note 1: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch29.htm. This ‘ownership’, too, is practical control, not legal ownership: no modern legal system recognises a free individual as having a legal ownership right in his or her body or labour capacity.
  4. Part 2, section 6: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch18.htm
  5. Critique of the Gotha programme (1875) part 1: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm The sense I am using here is slightly different; but the point is that capitalist development has proceeded much further in the direction of an economy of relative abundance than in Marx’s time.
  6. TNS Nottingham 1993; DOS (unpaginated) in P Cockshott, A Cottrell, H Dieterich Transition to 21st century socialism in the European Union: lulu.com 2010.
  7. Ticktin: 25 Critique pp147-67; Campbell: 66 Science and Society 29-42; Laibman: ibid pp116-29; Albert: Parecon: life after capitalism London 2003.
  8. Neurath, Kalecki and Lange can be found conveniently discussed on Wikipedia. Add for Neurath T Uebel, ‘Incommensurability, ecology and planning’ (2005) 37 History of Political Economy 309-42; for Kalecki: DM Nuti, ‘Michal Kalecki’s contribution to the theory and practice of socialist planning’ (1986) 10 Cambridge Journal of Economics pp333-53. For Dickinson, Oxford dictionary of national biography online has a summary of his life; his review of Mandel’s Marxist economic theory in New Left Review 1st series, No21 (1963), www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=386, outlines some of his views at that date. Summary account of Feldman’s background and his model in DL Clark, ‘Foundations of growth and planning theory’ (1984) 14 Journal of Contemporary Asia pp266-82 at pp273-74.
  9. TNS pp130-36. The superficiality is noted in an Austrian-school critique of TNS by Len Brewster (2004) 7 Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics pp65-77 at p68.
  10. TNS chapter 10, on foreign trade, assumes ‘peaceful coexistence’; the discussion of the 1920s debate on ‘socialism in one country’ in chapter 11, pp159-61, at least recognises some strength in Trotsky’s objections but remains ambiguous.
  11. B Kagarlitsky, Empire of the periphery London 2007; and my review Weekly Worker April 2 and 9 2009.
  12. The account of the scheme below is taken primarily from the outline in DOS with some reference to TNS.
  13. I leave aside entirely the heavy public subsidy to road transport, or its ‘negative externalities’, for which see www.igreens.org.uk/great_road_transport_subsidy.htm (1996).
  14. Cf also A Campbell, M Tutan, ‘Human development and socialist institutional transformation’ (2008) 82 Political Economy pp153-79.
  15. Incidentally, this implies that holiday travel is not a case “where ‘externalities’ are absent or unimportant”.
  16. Norman Geras’s example before his shift to the right, ‘The controversy on Marx and justice’: www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/geras.htm