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Ehrenreich Interviews Albert Q/A 9


Ehrenreich: Singer also asked, what do you do when changed conditions, say a natural disaster, require instant decision-making? How do you answer this question?

Albert: The question about responding to changes in people’s preferences or in material conditions, whether modest or major, is very important, of course. Any economy needs to be flexible or it will be disastrous in various respects. Indeed, there is a full chapter in the Parecon book, even after the full presentation of the model, exploring this issue in detail. Both markets and participatory planning have to reply to changes and shocks. Markets do it by actors seeking to exploit the new situation to increase profits or surplus using prices that reflect bargaining power rather than social costs and benefits and little concerns for who goes without missing outputs or other possible ramifications. Effects ripple out from the affected industry. Results accrue. And this takes time and involves diverse implications, often moving outcomes even further from just and desirable results.

In participatory planning, effects are also systemic, and also ripple outward from centers of change. Sometimes they are modest and have damped ripple effects, as when slack planning covers the changes or when industries in question can increase output with overtime. Sometimes, as with a big disaster or a major breakthrough in productivity, real juggling and resetting of options must occur, or if it is more efficient and desirable, changes must wait a new planning period.

There are many ways this can happen. It can be that valuations of items change and that some people go without affected items when prices climb, shifting their expenditures elsewhere, while others get what they sought, though at increased cost. It can be that, instead, valuations are held steady but some people go without due to shortfalls — either randomly or perhaps in accord with assessments of need — as production comes back into accord with desires. The details of alternatives and why one or another would be preferred in different situations would take too long to elaborate here. The point is, the norms guiding the situation are workers and consumers preferences. The process is self managed. And the results occur with only modest dislocation, even in difficult cases.

I guess the answer for this interview, then, is yes, responding to shocks is very important. If it turns out participatory planning is inadequate in this regard, it would certainly need refinement, though it certainly wouldn’t be an argument to employ markets or central planning, which react to shocks like they react to everything else, in the interest of dominant classes and therefore with horrible repercussions. As to whether participatory planning has failings in this regard, I think when readers examine the whole parecon system they will see that it very closely addresses these issues, and can handle them adroitly as well as in accord with parecon’s guiding values.

Ehrenreich: You say your notion of parecon was influenced by your experiences with real “alternative” organizations like South End Press. Can you tell us something about these experiences and how they shaped your thinking?

Parecon emerged conceptually from examining the experiences of many post capitalist economies and efforts, of course. And very central to that were some of our own experiences. When we formed South End Press, for example, we wanted it to implement our values, not only in the books we chose to publish, but also in how we structured our workplace. We knew we wanted real democracy, but when we sat around to talk about how to achieve that, serious issues arose.

First, what did it mean? Was everything to be decided by a vote of everyone with fifty percent plus one winning? And second, however decisions were to be arrived at, we realized our procedures wouldn’t matter all that much if we came to the meetings to discuss them with very unequal preparedness, motivation, and insights to offer.

So, regarding the first point, we realized that we wanted to discuss and make decisions in a way that gave appropriate say to each person involved, but we also realized that how much say that was would vary from case to case since impact and importance would vary from case to case. We were allergic — like you — to spending long amounts of time on low importance choices. And no one wanted others telling them what to do when it was largely a personal choice.

As we worked out rules, hiring and firing became a consensus decision because of the powerful effect a new employee might have on each person who might not like that new employee. Many broad issues were fifty percent plus one, though of course we would seek overall agreement first — salaries, hours, definitions of jobs, and so on. Accepting a book was two thirds needed in favor with recourse for opponents to delay decisions. Choices about how specific members or teams would organize their own time were made by those folks, not by everyone.

In short, we worked out in practice the processes and norms of self management including learning the efficacy of using different modes of decision making for different issues, and of allotting different numbers of people to making different choices depending on who the choices affected and to what extent. The norms regarding parecon decision making emerged naturally from all that. Similarly, while the council commitment of parecon has a long pedigree on the left, it was reinforced by the South End Press experience.

The payment approach in SEP wasn’t so directly related to parecon’s exact commitments, but indirectly it was. We had almost no resources for the first few years so people worked for room and board and no more. Everyone worked very hard, well over the usual full time job, but even given that, some people worked longer than others. There was no difference in pay, however. We all got room and board, period. When there was sufficient income to have salaries, we put upper limits on them — in accord with our respecting social averages. It was still true, however, that we all got the same pay. Everyone put out intensely, and everyone worked a long week, and for those who worked extra there simply was no more pay to be had. So the extra was just considered volunteering. But for me, being part of SEP and trying to learn from what we were doing while also thinking through other experiences, what I and Robin Hahnel, my partner in developing the parecon vision, teased out was the remuneration for effort and sacrifice idea.

The main impact on parecon of the SEP experience, though, was about the division of labor. We realized that if some people were editors or handled the finances, and other people just typeset the books or cleaned the office, no matter what initial pay structure we set up, and no matter what initial voting and discussion procedures we chose, in time the former folks would dominate all outcomes and the latter folks would become typical employees. The former would raise their own incomes and lower that of the subordinates. The hierarchies of power, income, and circumstance that we dreaded would worm their way back into our project. So we incorporated what we later refined and called balanced job complexes to insure that our work impacted us all in ways that facilitated all of us being able to participate and have a motivated and informed say in the decisions affecting us.

It wasn’t easy to do because it was a small operation with not all that many tasks to do so that apportioning tasks in a balanced way was difficult. Ignoring details, everyone did editorial, everyone did typesetting (which was backbreaking and hugely time consuming) and then some people did some functions like promotion, others did other functions like organizing production and fulfilling purchase orders, but with everyone doing a balanced mix in their overall job. This set of choices about how to organize SEP was, I think, a huge impetus to the parecon idea of balanced job complexes, though it became refined when thinking about applicability to a whole economy rather than just a single small workplace.

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