Defending Balanced Job Complexes

Of all the features of Parecon balanced job complexes (BJC) seems to be the most controversial, yet, in my opinion, one of the most important.


To start, I think much of the initial opposition to a BJC derive from a conditioning process in the workplace. In other words, while in many scenarios we may have a strong sense of solidarity, fairness and justice – say, we see a homeless man being helped by the kindness of others and it touches us or we feel sympathy/empathy for striking workers in Chicago – a contradiction has been instilled in us through the corporate division of labor that currently reigns.


We can see how private, corporate or state ownership produces undesirable results. We can even theorize that in a benevolent dictatorship all needs and many desires could be met, but people wouldn’t have any meaningful control over their lives. If we follow orders that do us no harm we are deprived of not only self-management but the social bonds that come from doing so. What kind of social bonds can we possibly develop through alienated labor?


We can also see how compensation should be based on effort and sacrifice (while tempered by need for those who are sick, disabled, elderly, etc.) is preferable to private ownership, genetic lottery and so on. When 500 billionaires make more than 3 billion people we know something is wrong (unless you can explain how 0.000007 of the world’s population fairly and justly acquired income greater than the bottom 50%). When Vanna White makes more then the people who clean and maintain our sewers we know something is wrong.


We can even see how market and central planning are not desirable. Much like ownership we can see how markets are deeply antagonistic to social needs, and we can see how central planning deprives people of self-management and the social bonds that come with it.


We can get all of this, but without balanced job complexes it doesn’t have good chances at being sustainable. So long as labor is divided in ways that empower others and disempower others then no amount of social ownership or democratic planning or fair compensation will resolve the fact that for the most part it is all formal and not functioning because the disempowered are forced to rely on the empowered to get the information needed to make the potential of democratic planning and social ownership realized.


In my home, and this started long before I got into Parecon, my spouse and I have something similar. We don’t do all of the tasks, but we certainly don’t monopolize the empowering ones either. To a large extent we balance out our responsibilities so that we get an equal, fair and just share in the desirable and undesirable features that come with having a family. And we love it. We are inspired by it and others are inspired by us.


Many fathers leave child-raising to the mothers but not me. I take an active role in raising my daughter and look forward to doing so with any other children I may have. My mom still comments about how much I preferred to change the diapers, feed and put to sleep my precious little girl. Grandma literally has to wrestle time away from me. And, admittedly it has been difficult to share these acts with Amy, who happens not to be Charley’s birth mom.


The point should be clear: At home we can easily see how balanced job complexes are desirable because the home is largely removed from market behavior. At home we see the sense of it all, but at work we turn into Mr. Hyde and say "I don’t want to do that."


Ultimately, it comes down to what is preferable: a division of labor that compounds the problems we face or a balancing of labor that gives more opportunities to all with the specific goal of realizing our full potentials.


To me, the interesting thing about BJC’s is they give us the leverage over capitalists who talk about "economic freedom." So, what economic freedom do BJC’s give? In his book, The ABC’s of Political Economy Robin Hahnel writes:

[Milton] Friedman says the most important virtue of free enterprise is that it provides economic freedom, by which he means the freedom to do whatever one wishes with one’s own person and property – including the right to contract with others over their use of your person or property. He says economic freedom is important in and of itself, but also important because it unleashes people’s economic creativity and promotes political freedom.

Political economists believe that people should control their economic lives, and only when they do is it possible to tap their full economic potential. We also believe economic democracy promotes political democracy. But we find Friedman’s concept of economic freedom inadequate, his argument that free enterprise allows people to control their economic lives highly misleading, his claim that free enterprise is efficient, rather than merely energetic, unpersuasive, and his conclusion that free enterprise promotes political democracy preposterous.

Finally, some critics [of Participatory Economics] worry that democratic planning would violate people’s freedom, i.e. not be sufficiently libertarian. But what is a libertarian economy? If people are not free, for example, to buy another human being is the economy not libertarian? There are circumstances that would lead people knowingly and willingly to sell themselves into slavery, yet few would refuse to call an economy libertarian because slavery was outlawed. If people are not free to hire the services of another human being in return for a wage, is the economy not libertarian? There are familiar circumstances that lead people knowingly and willingly to accept "wage slavery." Does this mean public enterprise market economies are not libertarian because the employer/employee relation is outlawed? Critics of capitalism argue that to equate libertarianism with the freedom of individuals to do whatever they please is a misinterpretation that robs libertarianism of the merit it richly deserves.

It is, of course, a good thing for people to be free to do what they please – as long as what they choose to do does not infringe on more important freedoms or rights of others. I should not be free to kill you because that would be robbing you of a more fundamental freedom to live. I should not be free to own you because that robs you of a more fundamental freedom to live your own life. I should not be free to employ because my freedom of enterprise robs you of a more fundamental freedom to manage your own laboring capacities. I should not be free to bequeath substantial inheritance to my children because that robs the children of less wealthy parents of their more fundamental right to an equal opportunity in life. Although advocates of capitalism would not agree, there is little disagreement about any of this among those who believe we must go beyond capitalism if we are to achieve the economics of equitable cooperation. But are there additional freedoms and rights that others should not be free to violate in choosing to do what they please?

Advocates of participatory economics think everyone should have an equal opportunity to participate in making economic decisions in proportion to the degree they are affected. We think self-management is the only way to interpret what "economic freedom" means without having one person’s freedom conflict with freedoms of others. We think self-management, in this sense, is a fundamental right, so when people are free to do what they want this should not mean they are free to infringe others’ right to self-management. In other words, we do not think some should be "free" to appropriate disproportionate power, or "free" to oppress others with their greater economic power. But we do not think ourselves any less libertarian for wanting to outlaw oppression, any more than abolitionists thought themselves less libertarian for fighting to outlaw slavery.

There can be no meaningful sense of self-management if labor is alienated or divided in such a fashion that the outcome allows others "to appropriate disproportionate power."


I want to close with a quote I have seen on the AK Press website and in Michael Albert’s book Remembering Tomorrow. I think it is useful in the context of BJC’s. It is by the late evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould:

I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.

I can think of nothing as important as balanced job complexes that could adequately address this issue.

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