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Replying to a Review


Recently I got an email telling me about a review of a book of mine, Looking Forward (SEP 1991) linked on the theory page of Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (http://www.syndicalist.org/theory/parecon1.shtml) I read it and was rather surprised by some of the content, and so I thought I would write some reactions here, even though I think it is over a decade old. The author of the review was Jeff Stein.

After a brief summary of his view of what parecon is Stein gets into his concerns about it. His broad concerns struck me as quite substantive, but rather surprising for an anarchist.

Stein justifiably says “the authors tend to be somewhat vague about the role of the government in enforcing their system.” That is fair enough because it is actually an understatement since we say pretty much nothing about how the polity would operate (noting why we do so, which explanation Stein ignores).

But then Stein continues, “for instance what about a workplace council which finds the final plan so intolerable that they refuse to go along with it?” I wonder what this means? If they don’t produce in a parecon, they don’t have an income. This is an option, but certainly not a desirable one that anyone would be likely to pursue. But why would people who produce bicycles, violins, soap, or whatever, find it intolerable that there is a generalized valuation of their product and of their inputs, and that to participate in the plan they have to use their assets effectively and generate outputs that are socially useful in the manner that they have agreed to? Why would they reject as simply unbearable to the point of withdrawing from economic life earning a just income, producing what people desire, and so on?

Stein adds “Can they negotiate their own separate agreement, or will some higher authority lock them out of their facilities, cut their rations, or worse?” There are no separate agreements in the sense I think Stein means since agreements about economic activity affect all citizens, by the nature of economic entwinement. There would be no need to lock Stein’s workers out – if they aren’t going to operate within the economy, they wouldn’t want to go into their workplace. Indeed workers in Stein’s workplace are negotiating their voluntary agreement when they are involved in the participatory planning system. That is the whole point. Participatory planning gives substance, in fact, to the idea of workers and consumers negotiating what they wish to do. They are reaching an agreement with all of the economy’s actors, each having a proportionate say.

What would Stein’s workers be seeking outside of that system, I wonder? Do they want to impose on others worse conditions, worse terms of exchange? Do they want to accrue for themselves higher than effort justified income? Is it just that they think something about the plan is sub optimal? Okay, but they are part of a social process. One doesn’t just ignore it, or escape it, because one doesn’t like every decision, of course. To be a part of the economy, to have inputs from the economy, to enjoy its fruits, to have a claim on a fair share of outputs, etc., both workers and consumers must respect self managed decisions that emerge from the planning process and the economy more generally.

You can’t just consume more by virtue of personally deciding that what you like ought to be cheaper, or that you deserve more, or that you just want more — nor can you earn more by deciding that what you produce is more important or you are more worthy, etc. But what confuses me, even if the overall logic and interconnectivity of economics isn’t clear to Stein so that he mistakenly thinks that a workplace negotiating with a few buyers is somehow more self managing than its negotiating with the entire economy, is why an anarchist would think that what is happening in parecon is anything but units negotiating freely with others to arrive at mutually satisfactory results?

I would think an anarchist would notice the elevation of self management in parecon – people influencing decisions to the extent they are affected by them – to a central guiding principle and be very happy about that, and likewise about supporting structures such as balanced job complexes, and then ask, okay, does the allocation system do what it claims? Instead, this anarchist, and others too, I believe, don’t seem to highlight that principle which has surprised me, and just take it for granted that it can’t possibly do what it claims, without making any case.

Stein says: “the authors say nothing about the right to strike, not to mention the right of voluntary association, the basis of federalism.” The right to strike against whom and for what? It makes no sense to strike against yourself – there is no owner, nor even a manager. To strike against the whole rest of the economy? It is true that we don’t discuss that. But surely if there was any reason to strike, a desirable polity would permit and even facilitate it, like dissent generally, though this is a matter that transcends defining economic institutions.

As to the “right to voluntary association” this seems to be a confusion. What does it mean? Does it mean any association? Can I and ten neighbors voluntarily join together to rip off five other neighbors? If not, why not? Apparently not just any voluntary association is okay. Well, participatory planning, and for that matter working in parecon type self managed workplace and industry councils or consuming by way of neighborhood and regional consumer councils is, in fact, voluntarily associating, if the phrase means anything other than anything goes, it seems to me. Put differently, your workplace and mine can’t alone make separate arrangements for our economic actions, because they are part of an entwined system and have effects beyond you and I. We make our decisions by voluntary association, but the association is the network of workers and consumers councils.

Anarchists sometimes seem to me to be confused about this matter, elevating a norm beyond its range of applicability. Voluntary association is good so long as mine doesn’t forestall or otherwise prevent yours, and vice versa. The claim for parecon is precisely that workers and consumers can and do engage in economic life as they choose, consistent with all others being able to do likewise. Advocates of markets talk about workers voluntarily seeking employment … but anarchists aren’t as a result fooled into thinking that wage slavery is thereby rendered positive. They will say, but there is unequal power, unequal circumstances, institutions that skew incentives and behavior, and so on. I agree. And if anarchists can make similar claims about parecon’s institutions, that would be important to point out. What parecon claims is that what is ruled out by parecon’s institutions is only voluntary associations that violate or otherwise harm people beyond those associating.

Incredibly, at least to me, Stein next writes, “the authors, being Marxists, still tend to be complacent about the potential for authoritarian abuses in their model.” Maybe it isn’t fair to extrapolate from Stein, but it seems to me anarchists looking at parecon have done so with a very strange attitude. They try to find something, anything, they can find some way to label “authoritarian” or even just potentially authoritarian, however far fetched the assertion may be, and then they claim that that makes parecon unacceptable to them. It always seems like the conclusion has preceded the discussion.

As to being Marxists in some sense, you don’t dismiss ideas on that basis. But in this case, for example, I would bet dollars to donuts that Stein would have a very hard time justifying calling us Marxists, much less complacent about authoritarian abuses, were he to bother actually quoting us. This book begins with a rejection of Marxism Leninism in all its forms, exceptionally harsh. It indicates that Marxism, as I have indicated all over, is a flawed framework which – in my view – is better labeled the ideology of the coordinator class than the ideology of the working class. My guess is I may be less Marxist than Stein or most anarchists, in many respects. But be that as it may, the parecon model itself is self consciously and clearly designed to eliminate impositions of a few people’s wills on many – authoritarianism. The book is peppered with anarchist quotes and references. And so on. No one would know any of this looking at the review. Stein might want to claim we have failed to propose institutions which would ward off authoritarianism, fair enough, but to suggest we don’t care about it seems utterly absurd.

Stein’s justification for the assertion is that “their economic organization requires a large number of `facilitation boards’.” Does this mean that to think that a massive economy of the size and scale and reach of that in the U.S. would require a lot of institutions that are concerned with data and aiding actors in relating to it and to changing conditions, or in finding job offerings, or homes, and so on, is to evidence a willingness to abide authoritarianism? If the existence of what we call facilitation boards – workplaces where people are facilitating overall economic communications and aiding people’s efforts to find new jobs, etc. — was important to him, you would think he would describe them in some detail, explain what they do, and show how they might abuse their situation.

Stein says, instead, “It is not hard to imagine a “facilitatorism” developing if these boards do not have sufficient safeguards placed upon them.” He then fails to seriously note the implications of the following – that all employees of such boards have balanced job complexes, have remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and therefore cannot enhance their own income or conditions even if they could successfully distort data – but, in addition – that all data is open and public, that no data is binding, and that facilitators are only moving data and using known public algorithms on it, not to mention not dealing with data about themselves, or are aiding workers and consumers in finding information, etc., and are in any case not making decisions impacting others, among other “safeguards.”

So here is an economy proposed to deliver self management, to incorporate solidarity, that claims to be just and equitable, that pays attention to the ecology, and that is classless, and Stein is worried that someone who has as part of his or her job somehow tallying some data and retransmitting it or helping someone who want to move to a new state find a job offering there, is going to fudge the information or bias the activity – even though it is all public – and in that manner pursue some political agenda (there being no personal economic path to pursue), and, supposing this has social consequence, that it will have the collective impact of elevating a new class above the rest of society’s actors.

Stein says, “It is somewhat disturbing that Albert and Hahnel seem reluctant to insist upon even the most elementary safeguards, such as limiting the terms of board members”—of course doing so would be no problem, but unlike some other positions in society, it is probably quite unnecessary in this case, which we pointed out, not least due to all such workers having balanced job complexes – which are not a safeguard, but a structural redefinition removing what Stein feels we need to safeguard against, class rule. Stein says, we don’t require facilitation workers to hold their jobs only temporarily “since [as they say] this might interfere with the need for “expertise” at facilitation.” First, I would be flabbergasted if we ever said anything like that, since it takes relatively little down to no expertise at all, and, in any event, holding a job for a few years would have no effect in any case. But if Stein read it this way, and thinks this would correct it, why is this whole discussion here, with such prominence. Why not just say, good deal, with these corrections? But the main point of this, I think, is that Stein is trying to tar us as arguing that having expertise is an excuse for having hierarchies of influence – which, given our attention to maintaining high quality but simultaneously overcoming hierarchies of influence by rejecting precisely this sort of contention, seems almost willful misrepresentation…not least given there is no passage offered and that he could find plenty with precisely the opposite import.

Stein says “this is even more surprising considering that they see expertise in every other job as being so unnecessary that it doesn’t interfere with their “job complex” work rotation scheme at all.” There is no work rotation scheme in parecon, rather people have a mix of responsibilities. And nowhere do we ever say expertise isn’t needed in doing quality work, for the simple reason that it usually is. It seems like Stein is now in some sense winging it, no longer connecting his comments to the actual model and claims about it. What we do say, in fact, is that being expert at empowering tasks in no way precludes doing other tasks that are less empowering, and that expertise is not in such short supply that equitable sharing of empowering tasks would diminish quality of output.

My feeling is that there is nothing difficult about this insight, nor about seeing that it is what is said in the text…and that to miss it betokens having an agenda of seeing only what can perhaps be molded into a form that may seem authoritarian. Perhaps that isn’t fair…but it seems to me to be the case.

Stein says, “Apparently anybody can fly a passenger airline jet but it takes a special breed to “facilitate” society.” Again, I don’t see how anyone can read the book, or even just an article about parecon, and write something like this unless they have a preconception that blinds them to what is actually argued in the pages, or they don’t care about being accurate. In fact, of course only an ignoramous would say it requires no special training to fly an airline jet – and we never say anything like that. Does Stein really think we believe that? And there is no “facilitating” society in the parecon model, whatever that might mean. Of all the jobs in society, in fact, arguably those in facilitation boards would require less than typical skill and creativity and might even involved less than average empowerment and need to be balanced off by more engaging work elsewhere. They would certainly have less independent impact, for that matter, on other people, than many other jobs. Consider researchers working on climate issues, or medical workers, and so on.

Stein says, “job complexing would not necessarily end the division of labor. The point of doing away with divided labor is to help workers control their own work, to understand the full implications of their efforts by allowing them to play a role in the design of their products and organize their own jobs as they see fit. Thus the artificial separation between hand work and brain work, labor and management, is abolished.” Whose point is that? Although it sounds nice, and I certainly sympathize with and likely share the underlying values, I am not sure the substance is even coherent. Our point, however, made over and over, is somewhat more precise. We want to change the division of labor from the corporate allocation of tasks we now endure to balanced job complexes in order to ensure that each worker is comparably empowered and therefore comparably able to develop and manifest their preferences, and thus that there is no layer of workers – coordinators – who become a new ruling class. It is to ensure that every worker is free to find ways of expressing their talents and fulfilling their desires consistent with doing useful work and with not infringing other workers’ ability to do likewise.

Stein writes: “Albert and Hahnel, however, have devised more of a socialist job enrichment scheme in which workers would be required to move between several workplaces each week, doing one task here, one task there, as though the sum total of all these fragmented experiences would give them a sense of control over the entire economy.”

Nothing we write can reasonably, I think, translate into this picture, unless one is trying to bend what we write so it can be ridiculed.

Stein says, “Spending a few hours each week picking apples will not give a construction worker a better understanding of either agriculture or the construction industry. Nor would it necessarily give farm workers more control of their industry.”

This almost sounds like quoting us where we reject what is called job rotation as a solution for an economy’s division of labor. What balanced job complexes are is quite different then job rotation, however. Each person has a job, naturally. Each job has a bunch of tasks, also naturally. The change to a balanced job complex is that this set of tasks is assembled with the intention that each worker has, overall, comparably empowering work. So, for any workplace, people are doing different jobs, but each job is comparable to all others for overall empowerment implications. There is no hierarchy with about a fifth monopolizing conceptual and empowering labor, and the rest doing rote and obedient labor. But, even this isn’t enough.

If we have balanced job complexes in a coal mine, and also in a publishing house – the average empowerment quality of the former will be much less than of the latter. If we take this approach, allowing this sort of situation, one can easily anticipate the economy reorganizing so that all empowering and authoritative positions are in about a fifth of all workplaces, with the rest incorporating overwhelmingly obedient, rote, labor. The correction to that emergence of class division is that if one is in a workplace that has a below average job complex one offsets that in work outside that workplace, likely in one’s community, and similarly if one is in a workplace that has above average empowerment, one offsets that outside. This doesn’t mean you are flitting around from place to place, however.

Stein says “The influx of thousands of part-time workers with no particular knowledge of or interest in the industry, could make matters worse on the job if the part-timers had an equal vote in workplace matters and were played off against the regular workforce.”

Yes, indeed, and so clearly one would not conduct operations in such a self defeating manner. In parecon influence over decisions is in proportion are one is impacted by them. And there would be no thousands of part time workers complicating workplaces.

Stein says “The division of labor is not negated by forcing workers to frequently change jobs. Instead of empowering workers, such a scheme could make them even more dependent on the few within industry who “facilitate” all the job rating and the rotation of work assignments.”

It really feels like a quick brush with the book, then imposing a kind of nightmare interpretation. There is no changing jobs, each person’s job is composed of an array of tasks, and some may be in one’s community or in a second workplace. But that is probably just semantics. More to the point, how does Stein imagine a coal miner having a fair allotment of workplace empowerment, I wonder? And there is no few people who facilitate job ratings and rotation in a parecon, and Stein again must know that, if he read the descriptions. These matters are, like all others, under the purview of those impacted – the workers and consumers, via their councils.

Stein says, “Job complexing could certainly work at the workplace level and may be desirable, but making it a strict requirement for shuffling workers between industries is incompatible with self-management.” Why? If the populace likes and supports balanced job complexes, if people choose their jobs and show up for work out of liking them, what is the problem? Income is just. Decisions are self managed. And so on. Having balanced job complexes means no one has circumstances that forestall others having comparable ones. If all those who work in the fields, or in the mines, or on the assembly lines in plants that have few other activities, only have balance in their workplace and work nowhere else, they will only be sharing rote and obedient tasks. Other people, in workplaces that have a great abundance of highly skilled and especially empowering work, will be sharing only that. This is what is inconsistent with self management, because in time the latter group will be able to dominate the former.

Stein says, “Albert and Hahnel have the relationship between power and desirable work reversed. People do not lack power at their workplaces because they do the lousy jobs; rather they do the lousy jobs because they lack power.” Actually, of course both are true, now and also in the future. The latter point is trivially obvious, that if you have no power you are likely to wind up with harsh work conditions. But the former point turns it into a near inescapable condition once it exists: if you do rote and obedient labor you will have a hard time amassing the power to change the situation. But what is Stein’s implication? Is it that if we all have comparable power there will be no harsh and disempowering tasks? That is certainly false. Or is it that we will share them fairly – in which case, how is that not balanced job complexes?

Stein says, “It is far more important to discuss the distribution of decision-making within workplaces and industry, than to try to formulate an elaborate job-sharing scheme which should be left up to the workers themselves.” Parecon does discuss the distribution of decision making and the determination of jobs is left up to the workers in a parecon, but it is left up to workers in balanced job complexes, not to a few managers and a lot of wage slaves. If it is left up to workers filling job slots as we now know them, a subset will dominate, as now.

Stein says, “Formal democracy that hides an informal class system is a valid concern, but I suspect that wherever this exists it may have more to do with a minority having a monopoly on information and education and a “good ol’ boy” political network, than with the absence of a system for rating every job for some abstract enjoyment level.”

Either this is willful misinterpretation or just poor reading, or else this early book does a very poor job of presenting parecon. It isn’t an abstract enjoyment level that is balanced. It is precisely a matter of monopolizing information and education, plus access to daily levers of influence, all on the job, that balancing job complexes is all about. As usual when I read anarchist discussions of parecon, it seems to me the reviewer is struggling to find ways to mis cast parecon so as to be able to reject it, even though, in fact, it is quite in accord with anarchist values. I wish I knew why.

Stein says, “Another problem with the Albert-Hahnel model is its use of the labor theory of value as a means for determining individual consumption levels.” This is of course quite wrong and very ironic given the amount we have written about what is wrong with Marxist economics. What is used to determine individual consumption levels is a measure of effort and sacrifice at socially useful work. It turns out that if you have balanced job complexes this reduces largely to remunerating duration and intensity, but even that isn’t the labor theory of value which is about not only what determines workers’ income, but what determines relative prices.

Stein says, “The authors are correct in making the simple observation that if society as a whole wants to consume more, that at any given technological level, some people will have to work more. It only seems fair that those who wish to do the extra consuming should have to do the extra working. A problem comes in determining exactly how much each individual’s labor is worth when production is a complex and interdependent social undertaking.”

This is only a problem if one wants to remunerate output, which we very explicitly reject doing.

“Albert and Hahnel get around this problem with their “job complexing”. In theory, every hour of labor is equal to some average because every worker works at the same average level of intensity under the same average working conditions. (This certainly makes things easier for the statisticians.)”

Also, it is something we never claim. Rather, the point is that balanced job complexes are likely to require essentially the same sacrifice if one works at the same intensity and duration, so the latter become the key variables for determining income. But there is no necessity that people work the same length of time, or the same intensity.

Stein says, “Yet even if it were possible to balance all jobs in society according to some average level (and ignoring the huge bureaucracy this might require), Albert and Hahnel sacrifice the most valid application of the labor theory of value, its connection to technological change, while they retain the theory’s negative side effect, its neglect of ecological devastation. One might say, they have kept the bath water and thrown out the baby.”

I am not sure what the above means, but Parecon in fact accounts for ecological impact, unlike markets. As to incentives to innovate, they are not only to fulfill the large scale benefit, but also remuneration for doing one’s job and earning one’s pay…those who are doing technical innovations, in other words, are either producing or they are not working. Parecon does not price goods by embodied labor time. This is simply a false impression. Relative valuations in a parecon are arrived at by the planning process, and take account of full social costs and benefits, including environmental. There are no quotes to substantiate these types of claims about our views other than one that says providing more milk would mean people working longer, which is extrapolated by Stein into ignoring that it would mean more cows milking, or more other inputs, etc., which is actually, of course, quite false, as the full discussion of participatory planning makes clear.

Stein finally says, “Looking Forward has been accused by more orthodox Marxists of being an anarcho-syndicalist inspired proposal. Unfortunately this is not so. Although the authors clearly would like to give local economic bodies some autonomy, there still lingers a central plan and a state authority in the background (one the authors claim will wither away as their system has less “need” for it).

There is no central plan, no central planners. We say no such thing about any state. I don’t know what giving autonomy means…and it is not a priority for us in any event. A key point regarding participatory planning is economies are entwined and decisions should be made in light of impact all around, not in an atomistic fashion, or autonomously. What parecon does, though, is to require self management of decisions at every level.

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