In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, recently (since 2016/17 at least) there’s a new recent trend among the more STEM oriented leftists towards what is called, alternatively “CyberSocialism“, “CyberCommunism“, or “21st Century Digital Communism“. These ideas are primarily associated with the Scottish Marxist economist and computer scientist William Paul Cockshott and a variety of other academics who have collaborated on topics with him over the years.
Why should I care?
At this point you may be thinking, so what? There are a thousand different leftist theorists out there that I could be reading. Well, allow me to relay a personal story about How I discovered Cockshott and CyberCommunism.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, I was a leftist student. As an anarcho-communist I often debated Libertarians and Anarcho-capitalists online. In those days Anarcho-Capitalism and extreme libertarianism were the meme ideology of the internet in the same way the alt-right/anti-sjw-ism is today. Instead of fashies you had hordes of dorky looking guys who liked Ron Paul and referred you to mises.org any time someone said something vaguely socialistic (these people haven’t exactly disappeared, but a good deal of them got sucked down the libertarian-to-fascist pipeline – although thats a topic for another post). The problem I had debating these people, in addition to bashing you over the head with their abstruse Austrian economics/libertarian jargon (Praxeology, etc.) and vulgar neoclassical economic theory, they would also use things like Mises’ calculation argument. The left responses to this I could find were pretty feeble and mostly revolved around ethical arguments rather than hard economic theories (much like breadtubers today). After reading Mises’ “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth“, I nearly stopped being a socialist because I could find no intellectually adequate response on the left. If Mises was right, then anything except free market capitalism could not work (this even applied to market socialism/mutualism/’syndicalism’ which Mises also critiqued in other works). That is – until I read Cockshott.
Cockshott really saved socialism/communism for me. If not for Cockshott I would be a Socdem and/or centrist today. I remember feeling absolutely electrified reading his arguments in classic tracts like “Towards a New Socialism” and especially “Calculation in Natura“. I had been beaten by Mises, intellectually cowed into rejecting socialism, yet here was this guy who was demolishing Mises effortlessly and with precision, not using appeals to vague moralism or ethics like other leftist authors, but very hard science, math, and theory to absolutely, and I say this without a hint of irony, DESTROY the austro-libertarian right. As someone with a STEM/CS background his arguments based on computing theory not only made sense to me but I could see that they were ingenious. I had never seen political and economic arguments blended with computer science and mathematics deployed as such a cunning weapon of Marxist polemics. If there is one thing I’m sure of, it’s that, regardless of anything else, based on this alone, Paul Cockshott is the most important left-wing theorist of the 21st century. His theories are without a doubt the future of Marxism. From those days forward I decided to read and spread the gospel of the immortal scientist, and I haven’t looked back since.
Cockshott isn’t perfect and a few of his takes of late on certain issues have been less than well thought out. Nevertheless, the core of his arguments and worldview are still sound and incredibly helpful in debating the right. The best direction the left can take at this moment is building upon his insights in computerized planning and “econophysics” to develop a new 21st century version of Marxist theory.
Unfortunately, his theories and writings have developed a (not undeserved) reputation for being highly mathematical and hard to understand. Sometimes even I get lost despite my STEM background (don’t ask me to explain econophysics – just yet). Fortunately as a student of the immortal scientist, I’m here to explain, in as simple as possible terms, what the fuck his arguments are, and why they are great. I am going to turn this into a series of blog posts going over his theories, beginning with his arguably easiest to read work, “Towards a New Socialism”.