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Routes to Economic Vision: Alienation


Decades ago I came across a compelling definition of alienation, a concept not so easy to pin down even for those who use the word a lot. After all, how do you simultaneously capture psychological, sociological, economic, and other connotations?

I think the author of the definition that I liked and still use was Bertell Ollman in his excellent book titled Alienation but I may be misremembering that.

At any rate, the idea is that something I receive or buy or experience is alienated for me to the extent it was conceived and produced and made available to me for other than my human well being and development.

Suppose I go to the hospital and get treated and it works out nicely. Was the care alienated? You bet it was, assuming that the care I got was mostly motivated by a desire to garner profits and to maintain hospital hierarchies, not by a desire to heal my sickness.

This simple definition highlights the motivation behind outcomes and nicely captures the angst of alienation as well as the distinction between alienation and straight out oppression or suffering.

Okay, suppose we want an economy without alienation understood in this sense. In that case, the economy’s production, allocation, and consumption will have to pursue the human well being and development of those who are affected. What will that entail for the economy’s institutions?

(a) Optimally, the economy’s institutions will have to convey information and conditions suitable to such motives operating or even making those motives essentially unavoidable, or (b) at the very least, the economy’s institutions must not impose on people that other aims be pursued in place of serving the needs of those affected.

However, for your decision making that affects me to be motivated by my well being, your interests and mine need to be entwined. For you to get ahead, the economy should entail that you be concerned that outcomes also meet my needs, if I am affected, and vice versa. For your decisions to be non alienated for me, you would need to make decisions in light of their affects on me, and not just on you, and vice versa.

This is asking quite a lot but it turns out it is precisely what parecon accomplishes.

If your income is dependent on the overall average income in society and rises only as the average rises, or rises only in accord with exceptional efforts on your part so that you aren’t getting more at anyone else’s expense (as is the case in a parecon) – and if your conditions of work similarly improve only if the average conditions of everyone improve (again, as holds in a parecon), we have the interesting situation that for you to pursue your well being you must pay attention to social averages, and thus to everyone else’s well being. Regarding workplace investments, for example, you, I, and everyone will desire innovations that have the largest per expenditure impact on overall average quality of worklife throughout the economy rather than each of us caring only about immediate impact directly where we work. We will all get ahead together because we will all wind up, after job balancing — which is a key feature of a parecon and a key factor if we want to eliminate alienation — with a job that has average quality of life attributes.

More, suppose you are producing some product for use by others. If our improved economy is to transcend alienation, it can’t be that you will do better if more people use your product regardless of why they do so — because then you would have an incentive to maximize users regardless of the impact on them (or on bystanders) and even by manipulating or lying to them (as we see all around us, all the time, in market economies). And it also can’t be that you would do better if you dumped waste products on the neighbors environment to reduce your immediate costs, or if someone was overworked to expand output, and so on, as is true in market systems.

It must instead be true that you can only do better, like everyone else, if needs are met and potentials developed and that your gains will only be equitable for you and for others (remuneration for effort and sacrifice).

Following logic like the above, admittedly argued very succinctly and summarily here, I suspect that to have an alienation-free economy not only precludes using markets or central planning (because these institutions intrinsically skew motives away from the well being of all those affected), and not only precludes profit seeking and corporate divisions of labor for the same reasons, but also virtually necessitates pareconish values and institutions such as remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning, or, at any rate, structures very like these in their logic and implications. I doubt, that is, that eliminating alienation is consistent with many other arrangements, at least if we also demand efficient economic activity.

Perhaps others will explore this hypothesis further. I would be interested in what people find, of course!

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