Reply To: Asking About Parecon/Parsoc

ZSplash Forums AskAlbert Asking About Parecon/Parsoc Reply To: Asking About Parecon/Parsoc

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Michael Albert
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As to the second part of your concerns, centered mainly on “productivity,” the first thing is to ask why a person thinks parecon would be less productive? And also, what the person thinks constitutes productivity, while we are at it.

You write: “The general assumption these individuals have is that human beings are inherently lazy and will always view labor a disutility. They aren’t considering how radically different employment could be after transitioning to a life of directly social labor , i.e., democratically planned, self-managed production.” And I would add, in which the apportionment of circumstances and income is just. And would add that the claimed self management can’t be had if there is a class division between empowered and disempowered workers.

You add, “but even after I describe the myriad ways in which labor would be transformed, and cite the empirical studies which routinely find that workers who possess greater control over their work lives are happier than those who don’t, they maintain their skepticism…after all, it’s one thing to say workers in self-managed firms are happier than those in hierarchical ones, but it’s quite another to say that the former set of workers are just as productive.”

Take into account larger scale variables – wasted labor on oversight, resistance, strikes, etc. etc. Take into account that in fact income in parecon depends on doing socially valued labor, which means given social assessments, desires, capacities, etc., a firm can’t under utilize its assets and have it employees get full incomes. The next evaluation is parecon would be far more productive, actually – for hours worked, though people may opt for shorter works weeks, and the like. Then include that instead of the economy needing 80% of the population to enter it with near no initiative, with capacities smashed, etc., it needs and expects everyone to be fully developed in whatever directions they desire – and the productivity gap, per hours of human labor, is growing immense. Now get rid of idiotic redundancies, built in obsolesence, etc. etc. and the gap grows still more.

When you say, “As it happens, they are (self-managed firms even rank as slightly more productive in many studies) – which I hasten to point out – but that evidence only extends to labor-managed firms operating within the confines of market economies.”

And these are not, by and large, remotely self managed in parecon’s sense. Just like you would not call bourgeois democracy participatory democracy.

But the big problem is what kind of productivity matters and is desirable? We all understand that a slave, whipped, who picks more cotton than one who is not whipped – isn’t a good thing. We don’t seem to get that same insight, however, for wage slaves. And for some reason, the gigantic variables, like military production, the costs of maintaining hierarchies, the savage annihilation of environments, and on and on, all of which grow from class division, are simply ignored in such discussions.

Parecon does not claim it is the economic system that will generate the largest pile of stuff. It claims to be an economy that will generate a pile of stuff people actually benefit from and want, in ways that also benefit people including their desires for leisure, etc. Very very different.

Of course you can’t argue for parecon by saying in that parecon, right over there, these are the results. True. And, yes, there is no alternative to there being a long period of emergence of movements, including many reforms won along the way, including transitional programs, etc. etc. Of course. But, while all that is happening, are we moving toward classlessness, or not. Is it galvanizing working people and generating awareness of classless possibilities – or, instead, are we opposing some powerful and dreadful ills, but also solidifying habits and views that preclude their full elimination.

You write: “With respect to what the skeptics have in mind when they discuss productivity, it’s usually material output per worker. Without hierarchical, detached managers overseeing the shop floor, they believe workers will shirk.”

And, in a capitalist firm, of course they will. I would. What is surprising, actually, is that it is a less pronounced phenomenon than one might expect, and might hope for in the form of job actions, etc. But what if the workers run the shop floor, and run the whole firm. And they all have balanced job complexes. And what if the systems operate such that if their firm under produces given its assets, their income will suffer – and note this doesn’t push excess accumulation, no gains from that, but it does provide a disincentive to shirking, an incentive for responsible work levels.

And finally, if shop floor oversight is important, then what precludes having it? That is, self management doesn’t rule that out, It doesn’t even rule out hierarchies, which are sometimes very much needed. The person piloting a plane doesn’t have a vote on her decisions in a storm. But the person piloting does have a balanced job complex, as do all the other folks, and does get an equitable income, as do all the others, and so on. Same for a workplace – what if – think of an orchestra – at various points and times, there needs to be oversight and not dissent – okay, fine. But not fine if those doing the overseeing only oversee, and if those being overseen are only overseen.

You write: “I understand that, in addition to self-management, a parecon would feature remuneration based upon effort and sacrifice, balanced job-complexes, and participatory planning – all of which I support, with the aforementioned exception of balanced job-complexes.”

The crucial missing point is that the remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work – is only for socially valued work. In this context incentives are as they need to be and should be to elicit productivity that adds to fulfillment more than side effects detract – treating everyone’s fulfillment as mattering.

About Gintis, if you could send me anything he wrote about parecon, that would be nice to see. I am guessing that Herb, who really is very very smart and capable, did not, in fact, address it carefully, but rather just threw out the usual kinds of scare terms – impractical, impossible, etc. etc – without saying why…

You write: “The problem that Hodgson sees isn’t necessarily that rates of technological innovations will reduce within a planned economy, but rather that workers will be hesitant to invest in new technologies and/or incorporate those technologies into the labor process.”

Honestly, I think this is true for what you and I would call harmful technologies, not true for what we would call desirable ones, but maybe I am missing something. What kind of technological innovation, in a parecon, would be researched and ready to implement? Well, one that would either reduce the onerousness or the time required – or the pollution or other social ills involved, to generate the familiar output – x. Or one that would improve the quality and social value of the output, without unduly increasing any harms involved. Now, why would workers in some plant resist such an innovation?

Remember, they understand the system, appreciate classlessness, etc. etc. Well, you might think, maybe they put themselves above the rest of society… but, wait, how do they get hurt by the innovations? The former have no negative impacts on them, ditto the latter. They wind up with balanced job complexes, and equitable income, and after the overall effects one or the other or both improve somewhat. Now you might claim that there should be a local bonus gain of the innovations, for a time, to incentivize any risk involved – and fine, parecon can incorporate that.

You write: “Suppose, for example, there was a plant manufacturing cellular telephones in a parecon and an inventor came up with a way to dramatically increase the number of phones produced with a fraction of the labor currently employed. Demand is high for this particular product, so it would significantly benefit consumers. Moreover, none of the environmental externalities would be different under the new method. But the workers employed in the manufacturing collectives enjoy the traditional production techniques they employ and don’t want to search for work elsewhere. A tension, as you can see, arises. How is the matter to be settled?”

Since demand is so high, actually, I think your example isn’t what you want. Say demand is modest – so after the innovation the benefits of cell phones entail only 50% of the workforce remaining in that industry. What happens? If this is happening in all industries, the work week just gets shorter – or people decide they still want to work the same duration, and more stuff is produced for people than before. But suppose, for your example, it is just this industry that has the change. In a parecon, some workers will need to change jobs once the technology is in place. So, they will get income for the duration of the transition – and yes, maybe the installation of the new technology is delayed just a bit to avoid unplanned dislocations. The workers who opt for a change get training if needed. And so on. No unemployment without income or with reduced income. No sense of failure, etc. And of course, if all that cost is too high to be offset by the gains of the technology being in place, it is delayed – because the issue isn’t technological innovation for the sake of it, but for people’s well being.

Now what about other economies? For this type innovation, workers simply get dumped, by bosses, and suffer horrendously. That is the real comparison. What about other types of innovation – well, innovations that increase owner and manager control – they imposed, who cares and harm on workers. Innovations that spew crap that society has to clean up or suffer, but profitabe for the firm – they are imposed, who cares the harm on society. Innovations that subtly change the product to make them addictive say, or prone to needing repair from the producer. Great.

My point is, not only do folks generally not understand parecon’s logic and steps, due to not really trying, I think, or having the opportunity, but they overlook the ills of other economic arrangements. What is striking is that it isn’t a matter of complexity, but rather of having a belief system or rationalizations for existing relations, and defending those without seriously thinking through the real issues.

I wrote: “But still more, capitalism, in fact, incredibly distorts and circumvents innovation and experiment – because the idea is to profit and there are lots of ways to do that without, in fact, risking failure. Innovate to fragment workers and control them, sure, but not to make their work day more fulfilling. This is no small observation.”

And you wrote: “Indeed. I found David Noble’s Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation particularly enlightening on the many ways capitalism distorts our investment and R&D priorities.”

Yes, exactly, but this isn’t academic – it is mammoth. Even if every concern anyone has ever voiced about parecon had some merit – which I don’t think many do, at all – this would dwarf all that. Every system one can envision will have situations of imperfect functioning, etc. With some systems this does serious harm, with others not so much. But then there are systems where it isn’t just imperfect functioning that is a problem, but, instead, the proper functioning, by the system’s logic and dictates, is the real problem.

I wrote “The underlying issue here, though, is what is a good innovation? You tell me, in a workplace, what type innovation should be implemented, what type should be rejected – then it is possible to ask whether parecon or a market coordinator or capitalist system would function better.”

You reply: “I suppose Hodgson’s response would simply be that the ease by which market economies accommodate the introduction and adoption of new consumer products, technologies and/or methods of production renders them more technologically dynamic than planned economies, since the latter require a greater amount of time being spent on deliberating the costs and benefits those new products and technologies will have for society. But, as you said, that is a perfectly justifiable process.”

Yes, but it isn’t just justifiable – it is absolutely essential if one wants economics that serves populations, not elites.

And this so-called dynamism or markets isn’t dynamism in pursuit of popular well being and development, but dynamism in pursuit of profits for owners and preserved status and wealth for coordinators. Huge swaths of possible technologies are not only not pursued but aggressively blocked because they would raise worker consciousness and confidence, diminish the value of existing properties, etc. etc.

Then you add: “The problem I see, however, concerns a hypothetical democratically planned country operating within global capitalism. Will the ethos of the masses in the socialist nation be sufficiently transformed that the temptation of more frivolous consumer luxuries being produced in foreign capitalist states not jeopardize the stability of the system? If it’s true that market economies (be they capitalist or market socialist in orientation) possess a great technological dynamism, they may well produce flashier devices and in a greater abundance.”

I guess we will find out – or I hope so. My own view is that a participatory society, with a participatory economy, or even a country that is remotely well on the way – would be hugely resistant to temptation and that the impact toward change would run in the other direction. The threat of a good example would be real and huge. And I think that elites very much understand this. Which is the main reason why they are so hell bent on curtailing even moderate forays in positive directions. They worry about a real domino effect – if a country becomes participatory – or good in general – and others elsewhere can hear about it, see it, experience aspects of it, the whole giant system of injustice risks dissolution in the face of informed desire.

And yes, you are right that those who go first have a toughest route to travel. True.