Responding to Blogger…

Apologies that I haven't had time to relate much to the blog system. Sorry. I'd like to, but…time forbids.
I did, however, take a look around just a few minutes ago and found the most recent comment on one of my entries – quite critical at that. So I thought I would quickly reply. It is from someone named bwong. I hope there is other discussion and exchange, which takes the subject matter more seriously. I will respond to this comment sentence by sentence. I wish I could say it deserved that much attention.
Wong, I hope that is his name, starts by saying…
Parecon is not just a beefed up union movement or a network of co ops. It is a way to transform the entire economy and political structure.
Wong is right about what parecon isn't, but not quite right about what it is. Parecon is not a way to transform the economy – a strategy for change – but is, instead, a model of the central features of a classless economy. Of course developing strategies for attaining ends that we seek, whether parecon or something else, is critically important, but parecon is a proposed end, not a means of winning that end.
While well meaning I don't think it washes. It is an Utopian attempt in designing an entire society from the ground up.
This is wrong too. Parecon is only about the economy, not the polity, culture, kinship, or other aspects of society. It doesn't even design an entire economy, an impossible and useless task. Parecon is, instead, simply about an economy's key institutions.
For example, if I wrote about markets, private ownership, and corporate divisions of labor I couldn't claim to be thereby analyzing a whole capitalist economy, but only capitalism's central features. The same holds for parecon's focus on self managing councils, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning. It obviously isn't a whole society – nor a whole economy but it is the core defining features of a possible type economy.
Society is a living thing which evolves. It has its own ecology and dynamics. We don't even begin to understand the complex dynamics that shapes history, let alone designing it.
Societies aren't alive, whatever that might mean, but certainly they do evolve. And actually we know a lot about what shapes history, especially in broad strokes, but, no, I agree with Wong, I suspect, that we can't design history, though I am not entirely certain what he means by that, either. We can, however, perceive that certain options are inadequate to our aspirations and that we feel very positive about other options. Probably Wong rejects dictatorship, slavery, and so on. Rejecting particular institutions doesn't overextend human intellectual faculties. I reject markets, corporate divisions of labor, and various other currently centrally important economic structures. It is my reasons for doing so that will make that a sensible or senseless stance. My reasons are that those institutions intrinsically, by their very logic, impose class division and rule, produce antisocialist, homogenize outcomes, generate gargantuan inequality, and impose authoritarian decision making. Either my case for these claims is strong or it isn't. Wong says nothing about it. I also believe we can propose alternative institutions, and seek them, learning and adapting in the process. Wong rejects this, apparently, but simply by proclamation, not by assessment.
Albert produces examples such as SEP(South End Press) and Mondragon as mini Parecon.
Well, no, I don't. I have never used the phrase mini parecon, and it certainly wouldn't fit these examples. I suppose if some small country were to become pareconish, we would have a mini parecon. These are, instead, instances of pareconish workplaces that exist amidst market allocation and capitalism more broadly.
I never understand why people think it is useful, or appropriate, to put words in other people's mouths and then ridicule those words. There are more than enough easily accessible presentations of all manner of description and analysis of parecon to consult. If one takes seriously the need for a better economy and wants to make a case that parecon isn't it, that's fine. Address what is actually, in fact, said about parecon, then.
But none of them really live up to the ambitious goals of parecon. Not even close.
First, the pareonish firms do, to my knoweldge, live up to their own aims – which is incorporating balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, self managed decision making, etc. But they are singular and lonely entities functioning in a hostile context, admittedly…which limits their possibilities greatly. But second, what is it that makes Wong think he can make such assertions, with zero evidence, and zero investigation, and then act as though they are truth, using them as the basis for a rejection of a system?
To suggest that you can generalize from localize, small scale experiments involving the VOLUNTEER participations of a few like minded individuals to the whole economy is absurd.
The employees of these firms are not volunteer, but paid. Does Wong care the slightest about saying things that are false?
You can't generalize from anything, universally, to something else, a priori. You can, however, make a serious argument. For example, you might make an argument from the experience of south end press about, say, the viability or the desirability of balanced job complexes. Not only can you do that, but it is perfectly reasonable to do that. One must then judge it on its merits.
So, Wong, if I were to look in a capitalist firm, say one that makes bicycles, and see certain implications of its private ownership and corporate division of labor and if I were to then make a case about how those implications derive inexorably from those structures, showing precisely how it comes about and that it does not derive from the specificity of bicycle making, or the size of the firm, or its locale, etc., but from the features of those structures, and then I said, well, given that all other firms have these same structures, it seems to me these problems are generalizable – would you act as thought that were silly and dismiss it with a phrase, as above? Probably not. What I think this says is that you are happy to use a type of claim that in other contexts you would be embarassed by, if it helps you to dismiss this model. One wonders why.
Actually you can't even generalize examples like SEP to a large city, let alone the state of California . It is like saying you can infer directly how a human body functions by observing an earth worm.
In fact you can't draw many lessons from sep or any other pareconish firm bearing on the interconnections of units in a whole pareconish economy – at all. Because sep has no such interconnections. It functions in a market not in context of participatory planning. You can, however, develop insights about structures that are in sep and would appear as well in other firms.
Similarly, though I hate to grace it with this much legitimacy, you can't extract relevant insights from observing an earth worm about attributes of living things that have no relation to the earth worm's features – say about human language – though you can extract lessons relevant to living things that have similar features.
Parecon completely ignores the problem of complexity, which grows exponentially with the size of the population, the economy, etc.
Actually, parecon is incredibly attuned to the entwinement / complexity of economic life. Indeed, that is at the heart of its creation. I don't understand how it is possible to read, say, parecon: life after capitalism, and treat it to these kind of comments – so perhaps Wong is making his sweeping judgements based on some other material. He quotes nothing, so it is hard to tell.
At any rate, it is precisely to not ignore economic and social complexity, and to not allow it to be governed by centers of power, that parecon was conceived.
Economies affect not just material outputs but ecology, social relations, consciousness, human fulfilment, and so on and so forth. But Wong is again winging it when he says things like complexity grows exponentially with the size of the population. What do such phrases mean, other than as scare tactics to try to ward off thought? The issue would be, does allocation, or production, unit by unit, and among units, grow beyond our means to handle? In fact, some things are more complex or difficult in larger settings, other things are quite a bit easier, due to averaging effects, greater diversity, etc.
If parecon is implemented in large scale, nothing will ever get done and people would be engage in endless exhausting meetings.
Apparently, to dismiss a vision of how economics might be accomplished other than by methods that yield grotesque inequality and violence, it is sufficient to simply pronounce things like the above. No reason is given. Nothing is said, really, except, no, it won't work. I can't reproduce the whole model here, but descriptions are easily available. Take a look, think it through, judge for yourself…
Albert claims "democratic planning" will eliminate the adversarial market relationship. The truth is he just move the bargaining process from the market to the meeting halls (and more likely, the back rooms) When everyone has to have her DETAIL consumption plan for the whole year approved in several morathon planning sessions you can imagine the process would become even MORE adversial, not the least deal to temper flare as a result of exhaustion.
It is interesting that "democratic planning" appears in quotes. It is, however, not a phrase I use. Wong just doesn't care, apparently, about seriously addressing the model. Yes, however, I do think participatory planning can replace market allocation, and that the latter intrinscially has an adversarial competitive logic – no one denies that – where participatory planning instead has a cooperative logic and eliminates the adversarial component. Wong simply says whatever he wants… but there is no need for the slightest reference. This is sad. Maybe he has something insightful to say, or would, if he actually addressed parecon, I don't know.
There are no marathon sessions in parecon – unless, I guess, people like that. And planning is not, by and large, done in meetings, in any case, at least no more than now – though who participates is different. Yes, my neighbors may be concerned if I propose to consume machine guns or noise machines. This type of problem exists in any economy. In parecon, like all other aspects, instead of having decisions made by elites empowered to rule others, the decisions are arrived at by processes that afford people appropriate self manging say.
"Direct democracy" in the way Albert envisions is a non starter. Albert's "delegates" are not representatives, they are remote control knobs.
Parecon not only doesn't have, to my knowledge, something called direct democracy – rather it has self management – but it also doesn't have delegates, or, at least, I don't know what Wong is referring to. Not surprising, honestly, since don't think he does either. Sorry to have to say that, but…
As to people being remote control knobs, I have no idea what Wong has in mind, here, but I am quite familiar with the technique. Attribute a despicable feature to a system…it homogenizes everyone, it is boring, it takes too long, it makes people into robots, or whatever…the features are generally ones that have in fact been faults of some system or other… and then dismiss it because it has the feature you have imposed on it.
It is naive to think that you can run any complex democracy using this remote control knob model.
See above. Meanwhile, I will scour my memory to see when and where it was that I fell in love with a remote control knob model…
Right wing populists tend to favour such models and not surprisingly, they are often laughed at for the impracticality of their idea. But Albert goes way beyond the wildest proposals in this direction.
First attribute the feature, remote control knob people, then run with it. No matter it isn't clear even what it means, much less what it has to actually do with the model in question.
I go way beyond these right wingers – yet there is not a word from me, quoted, indicating where I go. There is nothing serious here, honestly.
First impose a feature, control knob people. Then ridicule it. Then claim it is right-wing like, and so on. If I respond to this stuff I am not only wasting my time, and the readers', I am somehow legitimating it as serious, which it isn't.
Why do people behave this way, might be an interesting question to explore.
Suppose Wong is honest about all this and really thinks these things. Okay, then why not examine the literature on parecon, find the passages that show these commitments, present them, and then tear into them? It would be devastating, were it possible.
Anyone who has worked in any real project understands that people who do the work have to be empowered to make on the ground decisions without having to report to their political masters (be it parliament or "the people") at every turn.
This is just more very typical scare-mongering. Of course parecon is conceived precisely to empower workers, and all actors, to be able to self manage their situations – no mention of this by Wong. And of course, there is no reporting to political masters at every turn, not least because there are no political masters. Nor is there reporting to the people at every turn, or even your immediate workmates. Is it that Wong so fears these negative features that he sees them where they aren't, or just assumes they are there? Or is it that he so wants to reject parecon that he attributes the features without even looking? I don't know.
To have the people who are doing work empowered, as Wong says he desires, requires, in the parecon view, balanced job complexes and self management. To have these requires, as well, having participatory planning, since markets and central planning would subvert these features. This argument, obviously horrendously summarized here, may be false, but Wong offers zero evidence of knowing what the argument is, or what its steps are, much less of having a substantive problem with it. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, if Wong were asking questions about parecon. But he isn't. He is dismissing it, totally ignorant, it seems, of its content.
This leads to some problems for example, bureaucratic power. But bureaucracies exist for a reason and they are not just evil designs of "the elite". It is (an imperfect, granted) a solution to the problem of having to make complex decisions on a regular basis. Of course once in place, bureaucrats often abuse their power conferred by autonomy .
Parecon doesn't eliminate decision making or autonomy, but it does change who makes decisions and with what degrees of influence and autonomy. If Wong is saying you can't make decisions about complicated matters without handing the power to some fixed elite, then we just disagree. If he is saying you could do that, but you shouldn't because the price in the quality of decisions would be too high, again, we just disagree.
The world's foremost expert in Wong's preferences is Wong. In a good economy he should express those, I think we can agree on that, or I hope so, and not someone for him, whether it is about the work he does, or what he consumes. How much impact should his preferences have, then, over outcomes? That's the big decision making issue – and I favor what is called self management, which is that Wong and everyone should have an influence on choices proportionate to the degree they are affected by those choices.
But Albert's cure of managerial power is to get rid of managers in favour of "direct participation".
This too, as every other statement about my views, is wrong. Again we have "direct participation" in quotes, as if this is some core phrase of mine. My guess is I have never used this phrase, certainly not often. Parecon does get rid of people being managers per se, yes. But that doesn't mean management is eliminated. Things are managed, self managed… though in some contexts this includes people taking charge for a time, then other people. There are endless variations. What parecon doesn't have is some people who do only empowering labor and other people who do only obedient labor. Wong should perhaps say whether he thinks that is a mistake. Would he prefer that society have economies in which about 20% dominate decision making?
It is simplistic and unrealistic. It completely ignores the complexity problem that gave rise to managers in the first place.
Calling something simplistic and unrealistic is not the same as making a coherent argument. As to the origin of managers, that is an interesting matter. Capitalists used to run their own workplaces, down to the details. But as the workplaces grew, the single capitalist couldn't run all over the plant, bossing everyone about everything. If the workers were to continue to be subordinate, which was essential if the capitalist owner was to be able to accrue the great bulk of the social product, the capitalist would need agents in the workplace to enforce discipline, etc. Thus… managers. This was not about productivity or efficiency, but power/control.
And this was not the only possible solution. Another would have been to realize that the workforce could become active rather than passive, and run the place itself, without domination by a small elite. But of course, that was ruled out, since it would have overthrown capitalism.
The computer is a black box device for Albert to "solve" the problem of complexity. The way he waves the magic wand of information technology on key implementation issues is about as convincing as the star trek crew getting themselves out of a jam by recanting some incomprehensible techno babbles. No one really knows what they are talking about except somehow in the end the problems will be solved magicaly .
How can I take this kind of thing seriously? If Wong wants to make a case about the use of computers in parecon – really, a sidebar issue – fine, again, why not quote something that he disagrees with?
It appears that Albert, despite having a math degree, knows next to nothing about what computers can and cannot do and the real challenges of coping with huge data sets, like the kind parecon would generate. But even if parecon were technological feasible, there will still be other problems.
Whoops, Wong got this right, I am really a nincompoop, of course. And just saying so is all that's necessary to prove the point. That said, and while apparently it did me no good, one thing some training in math is good for, and the hard sciences generally, probably also law school but I don't know about that myself, is learning what an argument is…
For example, when everyone's consumption and allotment of resources are kept in some giantic computers, it doesn't take a genuis to predict that computer scientists would have enormous power over the rest and hackers would be in high demand in some kind of "black market" economy.
Yes, and what would these folks do…one wonders, to aggrandize either themselves or others? Now Wong seems to want to take up matters of theft, black market economy, the possibility of agents of one type or another manipulating the system, etc. Fine. These are real issues. But has he looked at what is said about these issues, all of which are dealt with in the literature on parecon quite explicitly? It seems not, otherwise presumably he would quote.
Albert's formula of remuneration based on "effort and sacrifice" is likewise meaningless. How do you measure "effort and sacrifice"?
This time the quotes are right – perhaps we should celebrate – though quoting three words isn't exactly informative.
Meaningless? He might mean while it is quite clear what it means, but it can't be done. Okay, but has he looked at the discussion of equitable remuneration, both what it means and how to do it. I don't think so, or, again, if it is so idiotic he would quote some of the idiocy to make a definitive claim about it.
Remuerating effort and sacrifice for socially valued labor, the last part of the norm being left out by Wong, means you earn more if you work longer, harder, or at more onerous tasks, producing outputs that society seeks. Duration is easy to measure. Intensity isn't that much harder, in fact, of course not to the nearest hundredth, but broadly. And onerousness is largely taken care of by balancing job complexes, in any case. There is much written about all this, down to specific example, etc. If Wong finds it to be so obviously wrong, fine, perhaps he can give an actual reason, a case, showing how it is wrong. No one else has managed to do that, maybe he can.
Would it follow that an incompetent worker who takes double the amount of time to complete a job and in the process suffers nervous break down get "paid",–there is no cash in parecon,–more than her more experienced and capable colleagues because it costs her more effort and sacrifice?
This is a fair question, in fact a very good question, if it were coming from someone trying to understand the system. But coming from someone who dismisses the system as ridiculous, it is not a fair question at all, but one that reveals a lack of seriousness. Over and over, in pretty much every rendition, even short ones, I take pains to make clear we are talking about remuneration for socially valuable labor, not for any old activity no matter its output or effectiveness. You don't get paid for the value of your output, but the value must be there to get paid. If I work producing bicycles I can't claim to have worked 30 hours unless I have generated output commensurate to the expending of 30 hours. And ditto for other work. This is all spelled out, very carefully in many places. I think one rather recent presentation, is the debate with Schweickart, a more serious critic, that is online on ZNet.
This seems like a negative incentive.
Worse, if parecon worked as Wong suggests I could dig holes in my backyard and fill them, at a leisurely pace, while chatting with friends, claiming full pay for all the hours. Silly? Yes, indeed.
This is only an outline. I have not even talked about other features such as balanced work complex and so on.
Actually, Wong hasn't talked about any actual features. None are specified remotely accurately. So it may be an outline of something, but not of a criticism of parecon.
I commend Albert's effort in coming up with a somewhat detail scheme for a post capitalist economy. But in the end I don't think parecon is a workable model.
In the end, what seems to be true, is that Wong somehow decided it can't be, and then just threw at it whatever reasons he could dream up, and whatever assertions about its features stuck him as sufficiently damning, evidence absent.
Albert betrays a mechanical view of society and economy which is devoid of nuances.
Got me again. You are right, there is no nuance, merely mechanical detail, in a view that finds a third key class based on monopolizing empowering work, that elevates all inputs and outputs including the human and social to prime attention, that emphasizes the effects of the social relations of work and allocation on actor's motives and personalities, and so on.
It also appears that Albert is taking himself a bit too seriously.
I don't know what this means, so it is hard to reply. But, yes, I think that trying to conceive an alternative to capitalism is serious. I also think dismissing ideas and work is serious, and ought to be undertaken with care, unlike Wong's approach.
It is an interesting intellectual exercise to speculate about alternative social and economical structures in the distance future.
I don't know how distant parecon is. And I am not interested in speculation, rather careful thought. But, when in the future we will attain parecon, though unknown, is not damning even if distant. Planting the seeds of the future in the present is an immediate task that we face right now, and being able to do that effectively depends on having considerable insight into the defining features of that future. The same holds for adopting demands, methods, and organizational forms for our movements that lead where we want to go.
But IMO it is a lot more productive to use one's talent and energy in addressing real problems that affect people NOW. I am sorry if the criticism sounds harsh. I have nothing personal against Albert.
While I do address a great many problems that affect people now, I daresay, perhaps for more hours in each day, over more years, and with a bit more effectivity, than, say, Wong does – which makes one wonder about his comment which if apt for me is probably apt as well for him – I in fact think that developing answers to the question "what do you want?", a question that is perpetually put to all our movements by serious people, is in fact addressing matters of the present. My feeling is that a great obstacle, right now, operating all the time, perhaps even the greatest obstacle, to really widespread involvement in movements of the present – about economy, race, gender, war, whatever – is doubt about the possibility of any lasting alternative. Thus, I focus on overcoming that obstacle, NOW.

Leave a comment