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The Chicago Parecon Debate of February 10, 2007: My thoughts


(Note: The opinions expressed in what’s to follow are solely those of its author, Mitchell Szczepanczyk, and do not necessarily reflect those of members of CAPES — the Chicago Area Participatory Economics Society — nor of the organization as a whole.) On February 10, 2007, the offices of In These Times magazine played host to a debate that, I wonder, may eventually prove pivotal in future histories of participatory economics. The event was hosted by a Chicago group called The Open University of the Left. On the one side was David Schweickart, professor of Philosophy at Loyola University of the Chicago, to present a model called Economic Democracy, which he has expounded upon in various books. Many ZNet readers know for David Schweickart his critique of participatory economics. On the other side, me. No tenured academic position. No published books to my credit. And I haven’t taken a course in economics since high school. But I did co-found a group dedicated to economics, and I have been reading up on this stuff for about four years now. And I was the standard bearer for the model of participatory economics in this debate. The event certainly drew a crowd. The room where the event took place was completely filled — about sixty people attended where a robust audience is often twenty. And it was a far more, shall I say, diverse audience than one would find in similar wonky presentations. (There’s still a longer way to go to get to a level of diversity I would deem "diverse", but I was nonetheless very encouraged.) I presented the model of parecon for 30 minutes. Then David presented his model and critiqued parecon for 30 minutes. Then we opened the door to discussion, questions, and commentary from the audience, not to mention additional back-and-forth between David and myself. This entire second act after the first hour of initial presentations wound up lasting close to two hours. I had read David’s previous essays about (and against) participatory economics. So I used his essays as likely source material, preparing as best I could, but also understanding that the preparation wouldn’t be enough. That was exactly what wound up happening, but differently from what I imagined. David previously raised a number of objections to parecon. There are three in particular: (1) Balanced job complexes can’t scale to larger sizes. (2) There’s no motivation to accurately judge remuneration for effort and sacrifice. (3) Participatory planning can’t work because it will just get enormously bogged down in a morass of detail. I had the chance in Q&A to address points (1) and (3). My responses were basically (1) Larger firms can gauge desirability (and thus balance for it) by counting the number of applications to jobs. If there are wide discrepancies, recalibrate the jobs and repeat the application process. And you can use longer-term sociology studies to determine if all actors in a firm are empowered, though that’s harder to do since empowerment is a judgment call. But ultimately — what is your goal: workplaces and jobs balanced for desirability and empowerment, or Wal-mart? (2) The motivation problem is solved by capping the effort rating — either having a single maximum effort rating, or letting different firms use different effort ratings. It can also be solved in the here-and-now by paying everyone in a pareconish firm the same, thus motivating folks to gauge accurately and balance jobs as best as possible. And (3) Parecon and participatory planning doesn’t prevent techniques from being developed for handling individual details and information flow — just as most people who use the Firefox web browser don’t look at the code of the Firefox web rendering engine which makes the darn thing actually work, everyone in parecon can examine the details of a decision, though I think some may choose not to. Plus, there’s no reason you can have something as pedestrian as a catalog in a parecon. During my presentation, a small number of people scattered throughout the audience would noticeably laugh (but not laugh out loud, thank goodness). This was, as you can imagine, pretty distracting, but maybe the most difficult thing I had to handle all day. I will be the first to admit that I could have given a better response to some of the questions I heard. There was even one question where I eventually said to myself "You know, you’re rambling and not really answering the question." But, I’m happy to say that I did my homework, and I think and hope it showed. There was not a single time in the entire event where I was left unable to give a response, whereas David was rhetorically trapped at least twice. Here’s an excerpt from an exchange David had with one CAPES member:

M: You can earn more if you sell more [in your model]. D: That’s right. M: Okay, so then what does that then do down the road for creating class division? D: I don’t see why selling more necessarily creates class division…Will there be some inequalities? Yes. Of course. Otherwise, there’s no monetary incentives. That’s also true under parecon. Nobody’s noticed it yet. Some groups — the monitor say are doing well. They get more. M: But if money is the incentive then you have the same system, in a lot of ways, than what you have here. D: No. That’s a big mistake. Just because they all use money, they all use markets, does not make them the same. They got fundamentally different directions. M: Oh sure. But you’ve got the same issues if money is the incentive. D: [pause] Somebody else? Call on somebody else?

I should say that there was one question about black markets near the end of the event, in which I felt I didn’t give as effective response as I could, and I apologize to "Number Nine" (after a time we had to assign numbers to folks keep track of the list of questions). And there were at least two points (one with a gentleman about the social effects of markets, and another young man who raised an excellent question about parecon handling unforeseen) where I simply forgot a key point of the question and thus forgot what I was going to say. I extend my belated apologies to both. But, if it’s any consolation, these were problems with me, not with the model, and such lapses were few and far between; overwhelmingly, and overall, I thought that I fared quite well. I thought that the comments David leveled against parecon near the end of the event got increasingly ridiculous, bordering on "Maybe I just don’t want to do it." and "Maybe actors in a participatory economy just don’t want to carry out their roles." Or "The motivation seems to be absent." Great. I don’t want to be in a market economy, but neither do a great many other people (just ask day laborers in Immokalee, Florida, for example). Wanna switch? And on the motivation question, sure the threat of imminent starvation or a cocked gun to your head is sure to motivate. But why do market economists assume that this is the ONLY way people get motivated? People are motivated by lots of things. There also seemed to be this undercurrent in David’s critique of parecon which struck me as saying "I can’t imagine it working. Therefore, it can’t work". I’m not sure how I would respond to this. Imagine harder? Shall I help by writing a science fiction novel or a movie screenplay set in some participatory economy? (That’s actually not a bad idea, come to think of it. Anyone reading this want to work on such a project? Email me.) But more to the point, failure to imagine strikes me as more a copout than a valid response, particularly when there isn’t anything like an apparent contradiction in the formal model getting in the way of imagining. (You can start humming that John Lennon song now.) There was one valid concern which was about process at the event — that the keeping-track-of-questions part could have gone better. I quite agree; in the organizing for the event, we never discussed how to handle that. So we basically played that by ear, and that should have been set up in a better way, I’ll concede. Near the end of the event, one gentleman asked what struck me as the most hostile question of the event. As he put it:

You’ve got so many levels of committees and councils in parecon you’ve actually created a system of bureaucratic anarchism. It’s amazing: the idea that you’re talking about you don’t have government, you’ve created an anarchist state. The idea that you can estimate how broken arms you’re going to have in Chicago for your plan goes beyond Stalinist central planning…There are so many meetings in your conception of society. People do other things than meet…It’s like the Cultural Revolution on steroids.

And my response:

You’re setting up this structure in order to better account for things that past structures haven’t done, or in such ways with onerous results. And the point here is, to make a comparison between I think the example between markets and participatory economics is clear. Use the example of what’s termed a zero-sum game. In a market economy, you can succeed basically at the expense of someone else. In a participatory economy, the point is, do we all succeed or do we all fail? So we should set up this arrangement so we can all succeed. And also set up the institutions — balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and to achieve what we arrive at a viable society-wide allocation plan. These are all things we all want. And a result, we can try to achieve those things so we all get along.

However, despite the pretty serious disagreements and serious questions that arose, I should say the event was also very civil, among all participants. I think it was understood that, differences aside, we’ve got to get to work on figuring out something better. And that what was extraordinary about this event was that it was a very real step, however small, in proceeding in that direction. Any success that parecon advocates can count to this day and this event owe a debt of gratitude to the following folks for their assistance with my presentation and responses: the members of CAPES for their suggestions and helpful feedback, particularly Nina and Matt; Jessica Azulay at The New Standard; and Chris Spannos, Mike Albert, and Lydia Sargent at Z Communications. A special debt of thanks goes to Robin Hahnel, whose suggestions and advice were simply invaluable for preparation. The audio of the event will be online soon at the CAPES website. A video production or presentation of the footage (we had three videocameras) is hopefully forthcoming soon. And best of all, it was the first time that the model faced market advocates in real time — which as I understand it has been damned rare. If the success of this event is any indication, more success is in the offing when the model is brought to much larger audiences. Hasta la victoria siempre. Here’s hoping we do this again.

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