All human societies, from the most primitive to the most modern, have an important commonality — the need to work. Water, food, shelter and other basics of life don’t arrive as gifts. Work is required to secure them and to raise the next generation.
So fundamental is this basic principal of human life that generations of Marxist theorists have based analyses of social societies and structures on the economic base of a given society. The base-and-superstructure framework is controversial to most other schools of thought, although it ought to be obvious that capitalist organization of an economy puts strong parameters on how that capitalist country can organize itself politically and culturally. Nonetheless, can traditional Marxist understandings be stretched to wider interpretations?
Computer engineer Paul Cockshott, in his latest book, How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor From Prehistory to the Modern Era,* answers with an emphatic yes. His premise is that Western Marxism has been too dominated by “people with a training in the humanities or social studies” who have a “reluctance to use mathematical quantitative analysis.” He intends to infuse the term “mode of production” with a “much more technological interpretation.” In other words, a study of technology is a better basis for understanding the organization of labor in the various modes of production over the course of human history.
This stress on technology is a strength of the book, but also, at times, a weakness. This perspective does enable fresh thinking about subjects as disparate as why agriculture supplanted the hunting-gathering stage, the inefficiency of capitalism and the cause of the weaknesses of the Soviet Union that culminated in its collapse. How the World Works is a book full of interesting ideas — I took double the amount of notes I ordinarily take to review a book, a good measure of its content.
How the World Works takes the reader through all the basic modes of production of human history — lengthy chapters each on “pre-class society,” slave economy, peasant economy, capitalist economy and socialist economy, plus a final brief chapter on “future economy” that revolves around the impending exhaustion of fossil fuels and the decrease in available energy that post-fossil fuel societies will likely face. Crucially, the book argues that the “idea of abstract labor” applies to all economies, not only capitalist ones.
Transitions to agriculture despite the extra work
Professor Cockshott demonstrates that agriculture required more work hours than did hunting-gathering, and asks the question: Why was the transition made? He argues that hunters wiped out big game and the population of hunter-gatherers became too large for available land to support. Although agriculture required more work, more food per unit is also produced. This change came with a crucial development — there was now a surplus. Hunter-gatherers had no storage facilities and had to be mobile; what was taken was quickly eaten. These were often egalitarian societies (although not always, based on studies of isolated societies that survived into the 20th century).
With the new phenomenon of surplus, the ability and, given the cyclical nature of agriculture, the necessity, of storing food for future use enabled the rise of hierarchy and significantly deepened the subordination of women that had its roots in hunting-gatherer societies’ tendency for women to move to other settlements for marriage, putting those young women, cut off from their original community, in subordinate positions to their husbands and mothers-in-law. But although a surplus is necessary for a nonproductive elite to arise, the book argues that a surplus on its own is insufficient to develop the social stratification that would develop:
“A class society requires a surplus, but the converse does not hold. A food surplus does not necessitate an exploiting class. Establishing that seems to have required other misfortunes: war, patriarchy, and religion.” [page 45]
Authoritarian ideologies must be developed to justify unequal status, and human sacrifice fuels high social stratification. Ideologies of superior and inferior human beings justified slavery, but Professor Cockshott additionally argues that slave economies were dependent on transport and urban markets. Labor is the source of value in slave economies. The next stage, feudalism, also featured exploitation but in a different form. A lack of transport and limited circulation characterized feudalism. Lords did not have to engage in systematic trade and peasants were self-sufficient; coercion was the glue that kept this economy in place.
The shift from feudal farming to capitalist farming required that peasants “be deprived both of security of tenure and access to communal lands” [page 93]. And that brings the book to its longest chapter, the discussion of work in a capitalist economy. Here is where the author’s technological perspective more fully comes into play. The price of labor regulates product pricing and profitability, and, crucially, if workers were paid the full value of their work in a capitalist enterprise there would be no profit for the capitalist — “in a capitalist society, there will be a markup” [page 111].
Advance of mechanical energy under capitalism
Where capitalism differs from feudal and slave economies is far greater use of mechanical energy and scientific research. In contradiction to a commonly accepted theory that the use of slave labor in the Roman Empire prevented the primitive steam engine that was developed then from being introduced into production because using machines would have been much more expensive than continuing to use slave labor, Professor Cockshott argues that Hero’s turbine was vastly inefficient to be of any industrial use. Even the first steam engines of the 18th century were exponentially more powerful and could greatly expand industrial capacity. He argues that it was this new capacity that was the catalyst for industrial capitalism: “Existence of commodity relations and wage labor would not have been sufficient to generate the capitalist mode of production” [page 123].
Limitations on productive capacity were overcome with the rise of fossil fuels and in turn advances in technology arising from more efficient fossil fuels led to innovation and new products that beget more new products. In turn, the capital required to build and operate large industrial factories was beyond the reach of workers and previously independent artisans, forcing small independent producers out of business due to the scale of competition. “[T]he application of powered machines and fossil fuels allowed rising labor productivity that closed off whole branches of production from the self-employed artisan” [page 128].
The capitalist who innovates early reaps an increased profit, but such benefits are always temporary as competitors will soon adopt the innovation. Perpetual competition forces increased reliance on technology, although the author argues that innovation for a capitalist is only worthwhile when wages are high. An example not examined in the book that also serves as a partial explanation for why so much production has been shifted to low-wage, developing countries is the ability to pay drastically lower wages. That is an “innovation” that competition dictates be swiftly copied. The book argues that the ability of capitalists to innovate “shouldn’t be overrated,” but the continual shifting of production and the development of global supply chains is grim evidence of considerable capitalist innovation, one of course deeply negative for working people. Control of the means of production also gives capitalists control of the technology necessary to make these transformations in production possible — yet more innovation that is bad for working people.
The mathematical approach of How the World Works does serve the author well in his theory of why the wage gap between men and women persists: Professor Cockshott argues that it is because women work fewer hours then men and as a consequence are less likely then men to be the sole wage earner in a family; he believes the wage gap won’t be closed until it is equally likely that women will be the sole family wage earner as men. The level of such a wage earner can’t fall below starvation level for the basic reason that mortality rates would skyrocket; it is the ensuing shortage of workers that would occur rather than any morality that put an ultimate lower limit on wages.
That natural lower limit of course does not prevent wages from falling to deeply exploitative levels. On top of that, finance produces still more inequality — it is not only unproductive but a huge drain of money. “Since so little finance goes into increasing real production, these rents [windfall profits] can only be sustained by depressing the real living standards of much of the population” [page 196]. Concomitant to that is the ever increasing cost of housing, which is a product of inefficiency. Because housing is an asset subject to speculation, it appreciates in price and thus speculation becomes more profitable than engaging in productive activity, which in turns draws in more speculative capital, further fueling the process. Loans by banks in turn go disproportionally to real estate. Yet more exploitation.
Judging socialism by actual conditions, not ideals
The chapter on “socialist economies” is likely to be the most controversial for many readers; certainly is was for myself. The chapter opens by noting, quite correctly, that there is no uniform definition of socialism. How the World Works argues that “as social scientists, we cannot judge the real world by the standards of an ideal one. It is not the job of reality to materialize our ideals. Reality just is in all its glories, horrors, and contradictions” [page 209]. To that, there is nothing to do except agree. Material reality is what we have to go by.
Interpreting that reality, on the other hand, leaves room for debate. How the World Works shoots down various theories of why the Soviet Union and the model it imposed on Central European countries wasn’t socialist, including that is used money, you can’t have socialism in a single country and there was scarcity rather than the plenty that socialism is supposed to provide. So far so good, although these arguments are presented in a somewhat cartoonish fashion rather than in their full complexity. Having ably dispensed with these arguments, and reiterating that there was a “common understanding” that those countries were socialist, the author offers his concept of what socialism actually is, based on what did exist.
Although he writes that “What distinguishes them are the forms of property and the way in which the surplus product is determined,” he concludes that socialism is characterized by machine industry and agriculture, the same as capitalism. His definition rests on, inter alia, a mix of technical achievements such as “widespread use of electricity” and “widespread use of machinery and applied science” interspersed with social relations such as “the absence of a class of wealthy private proprietors” and “public or cooperative ownership of most of the economy” [pages 209-201].
To be sure, claims that the Soviet Union was “capitalist” is ultra-left phrase-mongering that sheds little light. But is socialism simply expropriation and building industry? If so, then one would have to agree with Josef Stalin’s boast in the 1930s that socialism had been built and Nikita Khrushchev’s follow-up boast in the 1950s that the Soviet Union was in the process of building communism, the successor to socialism. But is that all there is? A fuller definition of socialism mandates that democracy be extended to economic matters and strengthened in political matters, beyond what is possible in capitalism. It would follow then that expropriating capitalists and establishing state or cooperative ownership of most of the economy is a precursor to socialism, not the actual content in itself.
An alternative theory, not discussed in the book, is that the Soviet model represented a post-capitalist economy (certainly not capitalist) in transition to socialism, a transition never completed. Perhaps this can be seen as edging toward idealism and in contradiction to the agreement above that those countries had to be judged based on their material reality, which obviously included the fact that they had to expend so much of their resources on defense against never-ending attacks from the capitalist world. But to put forth this position is not to dismiss those experiences but rather to lament what could have been. The grassroots movement in late 1960s Czechoslovakia to keep the economy in state hands but have it managed by the workers through councils and coordinating bodies in a system of democratic social accountability was the advancement to socialism that never developed because of the Warsaw Pact invasion. That invasion was a function of closed-minded ideological prescriptions that had become calcified in one particular form, which evolved in chaotic fashion in one country (the Soviet Union) that cannot be extricated from the specific absolutist cultural heritage of that country’s dominant nation (Russia).
Socialism should be not only industrial development and an end to private capital but a democratic system that grows, develops and changes with the rise in consciousness and development of a society’s members, not a rigid formula.
Fiscal imbalances through imbalanced taxation
The term “actually existing socialism” was often used for the Soviet bloc, and despite the clumsiness of the term, perhaps that is a reasonable compromise. Those countries have reverted to capitalism, and so a discussion of their economies inevitably moves toward determining the reasons for why. Professor Cockshott puts forth an original theory on this: the system of taxation. Specifically, he argues that reliance on sales taxes and taxes on enterprise revenue rather than assessing income tax on wages hid the cost of free social services, forced up the cost of machinery and thereby discouraged mechanization and made the relative cost of providing free services more expensive. As a result, managerial hoarding of labor was encouraged with concomitant overstaffing and lack of efficiency measures. This thesis is related to his belief that the Soviet use of money was a mistake; rather, people should have been paid in “labor hours.” To this last point, we will return.
Mathematics are used to explain this theory. The economy is divided into three parts — production of the means of production (or what are called producer goods), production of consumer goods and the provision of uncharged services, such as education, health care and public infrastructure. The money for the third category has to come from some revenue stream, and the need to pay for those and the necessity of the first category of producer goods constrains what is available for consumer goods. Assuming that what is available for consumer goods must be limited to the money-equivalent of the hours spent producing consumer goods, the author suggests there were three possible methods of taxation: an income tax on employees, a sales tax or VAT, or by pricing all goods at a markup or profit.
Because there was no income tax in the Soviet Union, revenue for social services was raised from taxes on enterprise revenue, those producing for consumer goods and those producing for producer goods, and from sales taxes. Because of that, the costs of machinery is much greater, thereby making the provision of social services far more expensive that it would have been. It was “short-term populism that hampered efficiency” [page 256] and made labor cheap and machinery expensive.
Concomitantly, the author argues that Soviet workers should have been paid in labor hours rather than rubles. This would have been a fairer way of paying people and would have made any imbalances easier for all to see; money was necessary to disguise that, for example, that collective farmers were underpaid relative to their labor. In essense, the argument is that one hour of work should have been compensated by one hour of labor credit. Doing so would have immediate egalitarian effect:
“The significance of labor tokens is that they establish the obligation on all to work by abolishing unearned incomes; they make the economic relations between people transparently obvious; and they are egalitarian, ensuring that all labor is counted as equal. Is it the last point that ensured labor tokens were never developed under the bureaucratic state socialisms of the twentieth century. What ruler or manager was willing to see his work as equal to that of a mere laborer?” [page 263]
This arrangement would also eliminate black markets because the labor credits could not be circulated or transferred to someone else; they could only be used at communal stores. But “it is absolutely essential” that prices reflect the work value put into them to avoid imbalances. This would in turn make planning more responsive because deviations of sales from actual production would send a signal that production levels should be adjusted to real demand.
What caused the Soviet Union to collapse?
The foregoing were serious weaknesses in the Soviet economy, Professor Cockshott argues, in addition to the most skilled technical and professional employees becoming dissatisfied because their gains were not comparable to elites in the capitalist West. That social group’s dissatisfaction mattered because it was disproportionally represented in the Communist Party. The structural changes made by Mikhail Gorbachev had the effect of disorganizing an economy in which enterprises were strongly interlinked and enabling the rise of black-market criminals as state revenues plunged because declines in production resulted in less revenue due to the reliance on taxes on enterprises and sales taxes.
The author makes a strong case for his thesis that the taxation system underlaid Soviet economic crisis. I found much merit in it and considering it enriches our understanding of Soviet economics. But this is an instance where a heavy reliance on mathematics and technology leaves out some of what is a bigger picture. Left out is the over-centralization of the economy, the inability of central planners and the distribution system to have the knowledge necessary to ensure that raw materials and supplies were delivered properly and a rigid production quota system based on physical output. Base wages in the Soviet Union were low; workers counted on the bonus to be paid for fulfilling quotas. Managers and directors were responsible for fulfilling quotas handed down from ministries and their jobs were on the line if they didn’t. Thus both management and floor workers had incentives to hide capacity and keep quotas as low as possible, and keep extra materials and personnel on hand to “storm the plan” if they had fallen behind.
Surpluses of material somewhere meant shortages somewhere else; the difficulties in distributing sufficient supplies enhanced these tendencies. And because quantity and not quality was what mattered, shoddy products could be produced without real penalty. A full description of the Soviet economy can’t exclude these factors. Although the author dates the start of the imposition of capitalism to 1986, which should properly be dated to 1990, when General Secretary Gorbachev rammed through the legislature a series of measures that introduced elements of capitalism, including laws that ended working peoples’ limited ability to defend themselves and mechanisms to enable privatizations, that is a minor technical point. Reforms instituted from 1986 did place the burdens squarely on workers because of their one-sided implementation, and Professor Cockshott is entirely correct in writing that Gorbachev’s reforms ultimately disorganized the economy, precipitating a collapse.
Ultimately, the measure of a book isn’t whether we agree on all points; disagreement with some points of a book with such a large volume of interesting theories and analyses is inevitable. What is pertinent is stimulation of thought and the challenge of worthy ideas. A book that intends nothing less than to reveal the workings of the world from the earliest prehistory to the present day and beyond has set itself a sweeping goal. How the World Works succeeds marvelously.
* Paul Cockshott, How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor From Prehistory to the Modern Era [Monthly Review Press, New York, 2019]