Critique of (wage-based) Cyber-Socialism

As promised, I am happy to discuss Dapprich’s model of wage-labor-based cyber-socialism. I want to focus on his critic of the ‘higher stage of communism’ and his arguments for a contribution-based distribution of goods. First of all, let me say that I really enjoy discussing with state socialists, because at least we don’t have to debate over the possibility to reform markets and capitalism all the time. Probably a large part of the modern left is just as thoroughly fixed on the idea of a green or red market as the rest of society is. Secondly, I would invite all readers to read (at least) the first chapter of Dapprich’s dissertation. It is a nice and strong argument for “scientific utopianism” – loved it. And now, let’s start with his wage-socialism.

Dapprich’s modell and moral foundation

Dapprich’s doctor father is Paul Cockshott, the well-known computer socialist and co-author of ‘Towards a new socialism’, and his work is largely in line with Cockshott’s ideas. Cockshott’s general critique of real socialism include at least three points: anti-democratic, bad planning (balanced plan instead of optimized plan, money-based instead of work-time-based – well, and now we have computers), no market for consumer goods (Cockshott & co want the prices for consumer goods be fixed by supply and demand, this information should be used to evaluate the different goods and do better planning and distribution of the means of production). The workers get tokens for the work they perform and with these they can buy goods. Tokens are not money, because they don’t circulate. Which (I think) essentially means you can’t buy means of production or workers with them. They are more like theater tickets, the theater can’t use the ticket to pay the workers or buy stuff. 

Dapprich grounds his socialism in a utilitarian theory of justice and welfare. With Abba Lerner he argues that the best way to maximize welfare would be an equal distribution of income and leisure. Lerner assumes the diminishing marginal utility of income: the more income you have got, the lesser will be the satisfaction of an increase of income. “An individual will first use their income to satisfy their most urgent needs and then spend any additional income on less urgent ones“ (Dapprich 2020: 53). Therefore, equality of income maximizes welfare. In a second step, he argues that workers should be allowed to substitute income for leisure. And with leisure he also expects a decreasing marginal utility: “An individual will spend the first hours of leisure time on the activities most enjoyable to her” (cf. 57)[1]. Allowing the substitution between leisure time and additional income leads to a scenario “where individual income is proportional to the number of hours worked“(cf. 58) – the famous socialist principle “to each according to her contribution”. 

Quite interestingly, Dapprich doesn’t arrive at this principle because he wants or needs income as an incentive to work, but from an entirely welfare-based argument. “But such a principle is not justified through rights or entitlements supposedly gained by labour, but by the welfare that the implementation of such a principle would lead to“ (cf. 70). He even mentions incentives as something “that somehow violates the principle of equality” (cf. 59).[2] In fact, in the discussion at the Future Histories Podcast Dapprich is asked the very same question we get all the time: Who does the garbage collection and other undesired jobs? Likewise Cockshott/Cottrell and Michael Albert (Parecon) argue – based on an idea of justice – that all work should be equally rewarded and only (small) differentiations due to performance should be allowed. Dapprich argues that a differential pay may be appropriate for unpopular jobs. Finally, the model includes common funds, that finance expansion of production, administration, basic services such as health care, etc. 

Marx’ dull critic of wage-socialism and his sleeping fundamental critic 

Whereas traditional Marxism argued for a wage-socialism only as a transition to fully fletched communism, Dapprich wants to stay there altogether. Marx well-known critic of wage-socialism was based on the moral justice argument: Workers differ in their ability to perform labour (‘one man is superior to another physically, or mentally’) and in their needs (‘one has more children than another, and so on and so forth’). “It is therefore a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals“ (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program). “To each according to her work/contribution” must be surpassed by “to each according to her needs”. Dapprich argues: no problem, with the common funds we can take care of this differences. “The lower stage already takes into account differential ability and needs“ (cf. 68). I am not sure about this. Fact is, that real socialism was a lot more just than capitalism but for ex. in the DDR still existed three big social strata and within the socialist zone still existed quite big differences. But I am sure other people have more interesting things to say on justice than me. I would like to talk about something else.

I agree with Dapprich that Marx’ argument for the higher stage on justice grounds may be quite weak. Other arguments are more profound such as the end of the subordination of the individual to the division of labor or that labor becomes not only a mean but a want (“life’s prime want” seems a little bit too much, but still satisfying productive needs is an enormous step).[3] But the essential argument against wage-socialism can be derived directly from Marx, but he doesn’t unfold it at all (or does he?). This argument is based on the common ground of capitalism and wage-socialism, which is wage-labor and commodity production. 

Marx famously argued that commodity and labor have two sides: the commodity has use value and exchange value and labor in capitalism is concrete labor as well as abstract labor. The individual worker although interested in the use value of the commodity and even fighting for it (ex. care workers draining themselves to care well despite harassing work environment) is bound by society to concentrate on the exchange value. The capitalist system reduces her to an egoist that firstly should think of what she gets not what she gives, although she might want to care more and produce good and ecological products. The same holds true for enterprises and producers that primarily produce for exchange value, not use value. But these elements hold true for wage-socialism. Again, workers are primarily motivated by the income they get, not by their productive need. Again, the wage-socialist enterprises look out for bonuses, resources and money/tokens and hide production capacities, produce lower quality, and delay the products. Therefore, the same societal fabric binds capitalism and wage-socialism together. And whereas within capitalism market and competition sanctions inferior use values partially, in wage-socialism the state had and always will have the impossible task to replace force and cruelty of competition. And market exactly uses the effective economic whip against workers (huge income differentiations and unemployment) and enterprises (enormous profit differentiations and bankruptcy) that socialism wants to get rid of. Due to his focus on equality and justice, wage-socialism is essentially economically soft, however hard it politically may be. And this economic softness is what broke the back of real socialism. Most reformist asked for higher income differentiations, performance-based pay, possibility for bankruptcy, ‘material interest’ for workers and enterprises – in the end for the market to come back in. This similarity to capitalism is an argument against wage-socialism one could directly derive from Marx. It explains the famous hide-and-seek between state and enterprises, (softened) struggle between workers and owners and many empirical problems with efficiency, productivity, production delays, concealing, black market, etc. 

There are many other arguments against wage-socialism: Ongoing privatization of care work and therefore an important basis for patriarchy. Its tendency to autocratic political forms due to its autocratic and centralized economic form (although it’s always important to keep in mind that it got rid of the market’s autocratic domination). Continuation of externalization principle with enterprises reducing their cost by bypassing, ignoring, and restraining ecological principles. Continuation of class with state and its bureaucracy – not as ideology had it the people – being in control of the means of production. Continuation of exploitation within work organization – although not to the benefit of capitalists and shareholders, but according to the fundamental fact that workers are still primarily forced to labor. Continuation of alienation. Extensive reduction of self-enfoldment to leisure and consumption, whereas production and productive needs are still subdued to alienation, exploitation and exchange value. Therefore, consumerism and primacy on consumption, destroying alternative less-commodified ideas of wellbeing essential for a fulfilling and ecological life: Workers that are forced to labor, will always acknowledge consumption and higher consumption as the reward they get for their submission and discipline. And these workers in the global north will most certainly not give up their imperial mode of living as individual wealth at the expense of poverty, racism and precarization is the only wealth they know and will fight for. To sum up, wage-socialism is still a society based on the logic of exclusion, where the best way to satisfy one’s needs is at the expense of present and future others. 

I significantly shortened the critic here (see Kurz 1991: The Collapse of Modernization). It’s understandable but historically devastating that Marx didn’t engage in scientific utopianism and didn’t discuss how to organize socialism. But could he have predicted the outcome of a wage-socialism or are historical experiences essential? This critic is also essential to understand the troubles socialist leaders were in. They weren’t just stupid, ignorant, or bad people. I think quite often they really worked hard for socialism, but as this socialism in its basic constitution was capitalist with a frozen market, they fought a very very difficult battle. Future (wage-)socialists should acknowledge this historical fight and defeat. 

Dapprich’s incorrect critic of the ‚higher stage of communism‘

But Dapprich misses the critic of wage-socialism for several reasons. Firstly, he has the usual class-centered understanding of Marx. The problem with capitalism is essentially the unequal distribution of goods – and partially the anarchy of the market. The contradiction between concrete and abstract labor and use and exchange value that Marx calls the “focal point” of his critic is not addressed at all.  Secondly, it seems he doesn’t really engage with historical wage-socialism – what Cockshott/Cottrell at least partially tried. The failure of real socialism then can be easily attributed to bad mathematics and minor problems. But if we engage in scientific utopianism we should use historical and existing modes of re/production as thoroughly as we can. Especially, for an updated version of a society that already existed.

Thirdly, Dapprich seems to have an essentially wrong conception of what “each according to her abilitiy and to each according to her needs” means. In a workshop he argues that “according to abilities” means people also have to use their ability and therefore directly force people to do things – instead of forcing them by limiting access to goods, largely to money – is “compatible with the higher stage”: “you can do that, you have to do that” (Dapprich 2021: 1:03:00ff).[4] This idea can be found with some Marxist-Leninist thinkers, that are kind of unsure if people work in communism because they are morally bound, socially forced or motivated by themselves. But Marx and many other communists clearly thought “according to ability” means workers doing things because they think it important and/or want to do it (even wiki got that right). But understandably if “according to ability” means forced than the entirely different nature of a communist as opposed to a wage-socialist re/production is cloaked. 

How can ‚according to need‘ be organised? 

Dapprich sees the main difference between the lower and the higher stage not in the entirely different mode of re/production, but in the mode of distribution. Many socialists and traditional Marxists argued the lower stage is organized according to the principle “each according to her ability, to each according to her contribution/work”. The higher “according to her need”. Lenin imagined (not really argued) that “to each according to her need” means that workers could consume “without any control over the labor of the individual citizen, any quantity of truffles, cars, pianos, etc.“ and trusts in productivity and voluntary restraint. Dapprich doesn’t like that at all: “In fact, each receiving goods appropriate to their individual needs implies a significant degree of control over who gets which goods to ensure this outcome“ (cf. 68). True. In our model – commonism – we usually differentiate between two types of goods: some will be produced in such quantity, that they can be taken freely, others are scarce and therefore prioritizing mechanisms of distribution are necessary. Usually, we argue that the different distributive commons will use different methods and learn from each other, with dependency on free cooperation suggesting or even forcing them to find inclusive and fair ways to do so. What options exist?

The most undeveloped method would be “first come, first served”. Some commons may use algorithms to decide how to distribute, others may organize interpersonal (or transpersonal) mediations for example who and how best to use the hierarchical consumption structure of capitalism with its villas at the sea and shanty towns. Others may use an equal distribution scheme. In one place it may be enough to trust voluntary constraint and support it by signs on products such as how much work time, CO2-emissions, etc. were needed or a scarcity denomination. In another city this may not work at all. 

Daniel Saros argues that a credit-based distribution mechanism – very similar to Dapprichs token-based – should be used even in communism. Distributive commons in a region may use a token system to attribute to everyone a similar number of tokens they can spend on scarce goods. The main difference is that these tokens are distributed not according to labor contribution. What would be the negative effects of such a system? Again, it must be controlled that these tokens don’t circulate, for example, somebody paying their neighbor to do garden work – they would create a small market. Some regions may experiment with it, and even accept these small market areas. What do you think? What options exist and which are preferable? 

Certainly, distribution remains a question. I still want to read Dapprich’s discussion of the socialist calculation debate – I guess they are quite enlightening – and of course Dapprichs mathematics, planning ideas and instrument may be of great interest to communists, but his ignorance of the problems of a wage-socialist mode of production are sad. 

[1] Probably not, first she will have to do the necessary reproductive work. But Dapprich leaves care work aside in his mode – ill-willed people may say ›ignores it‹. In fact feminism is mentioned once in the whole dissertation. Quite a thing for 21th century Marxism. 

[2] At the same time he strongly objects to the idea of Brandt, who argues that an equal basic income should be paid to all, “which can be supplemented by income earned through labour. This income ought to be no larger than is necessary for it to function as an incentive (Brandt 1979, 309-311). In Brandt’s view an income incentive to work is a fundamentally undesirable, but necessary, deviation from the principle of equality”. For Dapprich “Brandt’s system allows some potential workers not to contribute an appropriate share of their time towards social production. While they will have somewhat less income than those who work, this does not completely balance out their lack of labour contribution” (cf. 59f). 

[3] Maybe Dapprich is also right when he argues that Marx thinks of these elements being the product of a development within wage-socialism: “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly”. But I would strongly argue the transition from wage-socialism to communism is certainly not a gradual one. In a wage-labor-based society (be it capitalism or wage-socialism) labor is enforced and work organized as exploitation. Therefore, I think it neither produces an organization of production, nor a subjectivity, nor means of production necessary for a post-wage mode of re/production. Communism arrives by revolution not by reform one might say. Marx may be a revolutionary wage-socialist, but a reformist communist. 

[4] In the same workshop Dapprich agrees that tokens coerce workers, but that’s no problem because society has to produce goods, and therefore there always exists coercion. But the necessity on a societal level to produce all the goods the society wants to consume, doesn’t mean at all that this necessity is individualized. The potential to choose between different tasks is the basis of human freedom and communism would mean that societal necessities are met driven by individual motivation and social coordination, not by forced labor. 

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