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Reply to Reis


I was glad to hear about a review appearing in Italy, by Erich Reis, addressing issues having to do with the economic model Participatory Economics, and the book Parecon. I received a translation of it, and had some comments.

Differences aside, there seem to be a couple of confusions. Self management doesn’t mean, for me, that everyone gets their way. That is simply impossible whenever people have conflicting desires about a single outcome. Self management means, instead, that in making decisions each person affected by the outcome addressed has a say in the decision about that outcome proportionate to how much they are affected. Reis seems to be concerned that no single mechanism is proposed in parecon to achieve this. But of course there is no such single mechanism. The point is, different decisions should be taken by different constituencies, with actors having different say, using different vote methods, as the case requires. The book offers many and diverse examples. Sometimes consensus is a good approach. Other times, majority rule is. And sometimes other options. Sometimes a few should partake of discussion and vote, others times many. And so on. The point is neither one parecon one vote or consensus or any other single method of arriving at decisions is always appropriate. Rather, what is always appropriate is to strive for self management using whatever techniques make sense, case by case.

The author refers to something called “normalization,” put in quotes. I don’t know what that references because I don’t use that term. Participatory planning permits producers and consumers to arrive at decisions for inputs and outputs throughout the economy. This is what any allocation system accomplishes. But participatory planning does this (1) in accord with true social costs and benefits, (2) providing each actor a say proportionate to effects on them, and (3) using methods and mechanisms that propel rather than destroy solidarity, diversity, and equity. This is a large claim, of course. The book argues it is true both in theory and with examples.

I am not sure I am discerning all of what Reis had to say. My apologies. But Reis did assert that “a ‘free society’ can realise itself and maintain itself only through free accord and continuous exchange between the individuals that make it up.” Okay, that is precisely what parecon’s workers and consumers councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, balanced job complexes, self management, and participatory planning make possible – as compared to more typical corporate structures, markets, central planning, profit-taking, and payment for bargining power, which obliterate Reis’s goal.

Reis says a good economy’s members “must have the will to create and re-create the conditions that would let the society be defined as being free.” Having the will is good, but if you have the will, and not the means, that is not so good. More, having the will owes a lot to the circumstances and situations you enjoy or endure day to day. Fulfilling Reis’s desire is why parecon’s workplaces and allocation system are constituted to ensure that each participant can fully develop their inclinations and potentials rather than some being made subordinate to the will of others via class rule. Parecon eliminates not only the domination of owners over others, but also the domination of what I call a coordinator class that monopolizes empowering conditions and circumstances over others. Parecon ensures that everyone has a fair share of empowering tasks in their economic responsibilities.

It seems that what Reis is worried about is that Parecon seeks to achieve justice not by the “will of the singles, of free accord and of continuous exchange” but by its various institutions. Reis takes this to imply that parecon is therefore authoritarian. I think this indicates a confusion, and an important one.

What Reis seems to be saying is that if an economy – or a whole society – has institutional structures that people abide from day to day, then it is, by that very fact, authoritarian. Reis seems to be suggesting that the only non authoritarian path is for the economy’s population to daily renegotiate all arrangements, not even just daily decisions, but also all social relations. Each day we decide how to arrange ourselves at work. Who does what job. How different firms will interact with one another, transmitting and conveying what inforamtion, to where, to be handled how. Each day we will, what, take apart and reconstruct the whole of society?

Of course this is utterly impossible, but more, it is also utterly undesirable. I may be misreading Reis, but I do think that this is the implication of thinking that institutions are, by their very existence, a denial of liberty and freedom.

Social life is not anything goes, nor is it something we reconstruct from scratch with each new day. Societys involve lots of people, who must come into diverse accord. They involve patterns of interchange that must have continuity. Yes, social structures should be an outgrowth of the will of populations and subject to refinement and even being overthrown by those populations. More, we should even demand of social structures that they constantly create an environment and condition in which populations continaully re-assess them, and when need be refine them or replace them.

But that doesn’t mean institutions aren’t there. You can’t have an economy that doesn’t have an allocation system, or that has a new allocation system each day. You can’t have workplaces with zero continuity from day to day, month to month, and year to year. The needed continuity, which saves incredible time and permits incredible benefits, is enshrined in what are called roles and social relations that we put in place, and that we continually ratify, or we alter. Parecon has roles and social relations of a certain sort. The hope is that populations will put them in place and find them desirable. The argument is that this makes sense because parecon can accomplish economic functions – production, allcation, and consumption – consistent with values. In other words, parecon’s institutions are chosen precisely to accomplish what I think Reis desires – that is, to ensure classlessness, participation, self mangement, and so on. But Parecon doesn’t say, hey, there is no need for structure, there is no need for institutions. To say that is devoid of reason.

Reis says, “Further, if we hold, as Albert does, that in a society without classes with an anti-hierarchical economic system characterised by co-operation and equity, the culture and approach to work would be different from the one we know today, it is not clear why it is ‘necessary’ to create institutions with mechanisms such as those described above.”

This embodies the same confusion. Parecon is an economy without classes precisely because it has institutions and mechanisms that accomplish economic functions without dividing the population into opposed sectors such that some having more status, power, and wealth than others. Yes, parecon’s workers and consumers will have very new attitudes and confidence and knowledge . But no, that won’t let us do without institutions and mechanisms.

There is a workplace, for bicycles, for food, for airplanes, or whatever. Does Reis think there is no continuity in that workplace from day to day, no structure? Does Reis think that there is no stable lasting mechanism by which the bicycle plant, farm, and airplane factory discover how much of their product should be produced? Does he think there is no on-going mechanism that permits consumers to indicate their preferences and then meet their needs? To accomplish economic functions without constant confusion and turmoil that wastes huge resources requires recurring patterns of behavior with an expectation by each person that others will do their part. It is a bit like having red lights, or green lights, at intersections. We need to know that we all interpret them similarly and will all act similarly, as in stopping at the red. This is institutional. So is the division of labor we have, how we determine who receives what part of the social product, what is produced, and how it is valued institutional. These are what the institutions of parecon accomplish. What makes these structures of parecon worthy is that they accomplish these functions while advancing desirable values…solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, sustainability, etc.

Reis says “I believe it legitimate to think that it is neither necessary nor just to try all means to make effort uniform through specific institutions.” Fair enough, but nothing in parecon tries to make “every effort uniform.” Different levels of effort are welcome, though it is true that they receive different remuneration. Does Reis disagree about that? Shouldn’t those who choose to work harder or longer get more income than those who would rather work less hard or less long?

Reis says, “and it wouldn’t be necessary nor just to use the same methods to ‘balance’ up jobs.” If Reis means the methods by which we attain balanced job complexes would vary from workplace to workplace, that is quite true. But, if he means that we have no need to attain balanced job complexes at all, well, why not?

Suppose the logic of parecon is correct that having typical corporate divisions of labor ensures class division (even without private ownership). Reis gives no indication of doubting this. Suppose also that it is true, as parecon claims, that only a new division of labor that apportions a fair share of empowering work to all is consistent with self management and classlessness. Reis also doesn’t indicate a disagreement with this. Then, if we want classlessness – if we want solidarity, self management, etc. – it seems to me that it follows that we must avoid the old division of labor and adopt, instead, balanced job complexes. Does Reis disagree with that?

Reis says, “Certainly, it is desirable that everyone co-operates to finish also the more repetitive and less stimulating tasks, especially if necessary, but going about obsessively to obtain these results by means of institutional mechanisms for the purpose is terrifying.”

I am confused, perhaps by language barriers. What parecon deems desirable is that there is classlessness. Parecon desires that we don’t have a class of empowered actors who make decisions, and a class of disempowered actors who are ruled and bossed around. Parecon sees that if some people do only empowering work – managing, doctoring, lawyering, engineering, and so on – and other people do only rote and obedient work, the former people will rule the latter. Parecon deduces that what is needed is for everyone to do a mix of tasks so that on average all producers have a comparably empowering work situation. It is no more obsessive for me to want to eliminate the hierarchy created by corporate divisions of labor than it is obsessive me or Reis or anyone else to want to eliminate the hierarchy created by private ownership of productive property.

Reis says “we don’t find any serious and adequate analysis exactly on the ways to create the reign of Participative Economy in the text.” Here we agree. That is true. This is a book about a desirable economy, not about how to attain it. I have written elsewhere on that topic, and so have others, of course.

There is a confusion here too, however. Reis thinks, it seems, that to advocate a reform, or reforms, makes one reformist. This is false. Everyone on the left advocates a great many reforms. Higher wages is a reform. So is having more popular control over government or corporate choices. So is affirmative action, all social programs, getting rid of or replacing the IMF, ending a war, and so on. What distinguishes revolution from reform isn’t, in fact, the reforms themselves – the demands – but how we fight for the reforms.

The reformist fights for things like higher wages or an end to a war assuming that basic social structures are permanent. Capitalism is forever. The reformist seeks the reform, and upon winning, celebrates and goes home. In contrast, the revolutionary fights for a reform, often the same one, in a very different manner. The revolutionary desires to replace basic social structures. Capitalism is to be overcome – in my case, by participatory economics – and also racism, patriarchy, the nation state, and so on. In seeking reforms, the revolutionary tries to simultaneously win the sought aim and to also develop consciousness and organization that will fight on for more gains, and eventually for a new society. The revolutionary doesn’t go home upon winning a reform. It is just part of a trajectory of change to transforming defining social relations.

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