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Ehrenreich Interviews Albert Q/A 3


Ehrenreich: An eloquent answer, and I fully agree on the importance of keeping our vision in sight even while battling in the trenches. But there are alternatives to the present global power arrangements other than — you might say “short of” — the participatory economics you map out. Bill Greider, for example, has a book on how to make major change within capitalism, using levers like union pension funds. And I, though I call myself a socialist, am unpersuaded of the wisdom of abolishing the market in all areas. Health care, housing, and other basic things should be freed from the market for some kind of public control. But cosmetics, stylish clothing, and other things that could be construed as non-necessities — why not leave all that to the market? Call me a vain, petty, capitalist running dog, but I certainly don’t want a bunch of committees deciding how long skirts will be or what lipstick colors will be available.

Albert: Of course capitalism can be better or worse. The relative bargaining power of contending classes determines just how draconian income distribution, concentrations of power, investment patterns, and conflicts among economic classes are. With more bargaining power, we can raise wages, improve work conditions, increase social investments, and win many other innovations. So yes, we can certainly win and defend improvements against capitalism’s socially reinforced greed and power, and we must — but why not simultaneously seek a new system that has desirable outcomes as its norm?

To avoid miscommunicating my desires I don’t call myself a socialist, and I certainly would never call you petty, vain, or a capitalist running dog — but about markets, the big choice is not markets versus a bunch of committees. That’s a false polarity.

The big choice is do we want competitive markets that depend on each actor fleecing the rest, that misaccount the relative value of all items and distort preferences, that lead workplaces to seek maximum surpluses and deliver unjust remuneration, that apportion decision making influence hierarchically, and that produce class division and class rule — or do we want cooperative participatory planning that produces equity, enhances solidarity, enlarges diversity, and facilitates self-management, even as it also helps us meet needs and develop potentials?

Having markets for some items and not for others as you suggest might have relative benefits if markets had significant virtues that no alternative allocation system could match and exceed, and if markets had no huge debits for the proposed items, and if a market in some items but not in others was viable, for that matter.

But markets have no virtues that participatory planning won’t match and dramatically exceed. Markets lack all kinds of virtues that participatory planning incorporates. Markets have numerous disastrous faults that apply not only to markets in labor, or to markets in huge investment projects, but to markets in any item at all, including dresses, all of which faults are absent in participatory planning. And finally, if you don’t have labor markets the entire argument that marketeers put forth for having any kind of markets collapses.

Applying all this to skirts, we should want the tastes and preferences of all workers and consumers and particularly of people who wear and of those who produce skirts to interactively proportionately influence their length and colors, as well as their number and composition, their method or production, and so on — instead of profit seeking determining these results. But to have a market in skirts not only violates these desires, it means skirt prices will diverge from the true social costs and benefits of their production and consumption, that skirt factories will seek surpluses as their guiding motive and will remunerate their workers unjustly, and that these factories will utilize ill conceived methods of production and also incorporate class division, among many other faults.

All the items involved in economic life are connected. Producing more of any one item leaves less assets for producing all the other items. Items that seem relatively simple on the consumption side can utilize all kinds of inputs with wide ranging ramifications. Mispricing any item induces a ripple effect that misprices the rest. Having antisocial motives at play in any one item’s production and consumption skews the context for other items production and consumption. Excessive or inferior remuneration levels generate harmful incentives.

In other words, markets aren’t a little bad, or even just very bad in some contexts. Instead, in all contexts, markets instill anti-social motivations in buyers and sellers, misprice items that are exchanged, misdirect aims regarding what to produce in what quantities and by what means, mis-remunerate producers, introduce class division and class rule, and embody an imperial logic that spreads itself throughout economic life.

If eating, having shelter, and having desirable additional items to express and fulfill our potentials and enjoy life’s options — including skirts — couldn’t be had by some system better in its material and human implications than markets, then, yes, we would have to settle for markets and try to ameliorate their ills as our highest aim. But luckily for humanity, there is a system that is much better than markets, so that we can strive to attain participatory planning even as we also ameliorate current market ills.

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