I recently was directed to a serious essay by Joseph Green about participatory economics. I don’t know how to engage with him and the essay, but will offer some reactions and hope that they find their way to the relevant audiences, and to Green himself. One problem is, however, that the piece is quite long, and in places to reply would entail rewriting or reproducing the equivalent of whole chapters about the model. I will try to be more succinct.
Green’s title is “An anarchist society that wallows in regulations” – of course parecon is not a vision for a whole society, but only an economy, and as to regulations, perhaps let’s take the points a step at a time, to see what is suggested here, and whether it is the case.
Green starts by saying the basic idea of parecon is that “workers will run the economy and decide matters that concern them.” Actually, in a parecon, workers and consumers – the populace – run the economy, and have input into decisions about matters in proportion as those matters affect them. As Green notes, “Thus for parecon, the statement that one participates in decisions to the extent that they affect one isn’t simply a flowery way of saying that the mass of people decide things. Instead it is supposed to indicate exactly who gets to decide what.”
But then Green goes on to say, “One might think that the parecon principle would lead to the idea that there are things that everyone should decide, and hence a role for centralism. But Albert and Hahnel believe that all centralism is necessarily bureaucratic, top-down, and oppressive.”
This I don’t actually understand. What does Green mean by the word “centralism.”
The idea that there are a great many things – and in some real sense all things – that impact everyone and that everyone should therefore have some impact on, certainly doesn’t imply that there should be some central authority making decisions on everyone’s behalf. Quite the opposite. It implies that there should be a social mechanism that in some fashion elicits the preferences or desires of those affected – often everyone – and amalgamates their preferences into a decision, giving an appropriate weight to each preference (which, with self management, means a weight in accord with degree affected).
Consider determining how many bicycles are produced. This is not decided by people who build bicycles, alone, of course. What about those who use them? But that isn’t the end of it, either. What about those who would use the products that could be made were we to forego bicycles and employ the resources and energies that went to bicycles for other purposes? What about those impacted by by-products, as well?
Every decision in any economy is impacted by the overall choices made – the entire economic pattern of inputs and outputs – because the entirety impacts relative values and thus the context in which each separate decision is made. This is called by economists a general equilibrium system – which is one of the more useful insights of their profession. So the question becomes, can we have institutions which arrive at economic inputs and outputs apportioning influence to producers and consumers commensurate to impacts on them – more influence about what affects them more, less influence about what affects them less?
Trying to do this as well as we can certainly doesn’t imply “centralization” in the sense of some few central actors, however delegated, acting on behalf of the populace. That might be the best approximation possible in some situations, yes. But it makes sense first to see if we can achieve outcomes in accord with people’s desires without such delegation, or even worse usurpation, by a few as against the involvement of the many. Participatory planning lets each actor register their preferences and in so doing impact decisions appropriately.
Green says, next, “They claim that they have devised a system in which the common concerns of the whole society can be addressed in a uniform manner, but without centralism. A good deal of the complexity of parecon is based on trying to show how people can participate in taking decisions for the entire society, and how these decisions can be implemented, although there are supposedly no central institutions.”
I don’t know what Green means by no central institutions. What does the word “central” mean, here? No institutions that are critically involved in determining outcomes? Of course there are such institutions. No institutions that facilitate amalgamating the wills of the populace? Again there are. No institutions which stand above the populace, whose participants make decisions that impose on or otherwise regulate the populace without the populace having had the appropriate say? That is correct, parecon doesn’t include central institutions of that sort.
Green says, “On the other hand, there are few decisions that only affect an individual. Almost anything one does has some affect on other people. Indeed, there is no separation of private and social concerns in parecon. There are only decisions with a greater or lesser amount of affect on other people. Thus there are actually strict limits on what an individual can decide in parecon.”
Individuals can prefer whatever they want. Individual preferences will not always be enacted, however. If I want to be a concert pianist as part of my job in a parecon – it isn’t going to happen. I can’t do it well enough for the populace to desire to hear me enough to warrant my being remunerated for it. If I want to consume beyond my budget – I can’t do it. If I want to work at an unbalanced job complex, I can’t do it. And so on.
There are limits on what individuals can have happen in any and every society – the issue is what is the nature of those limits, not do they exist.
In a parecon anyone can have any preference about work and consumption, investment, etc. Whether it will yield the desired outcome has to do with the wills of others, as well, of course. If I work in a place with others, I cannot simply decide I will do x, y, and z, irrespective of the wills of those others who also work there, of course. Or even irrespective of the implications for consumers. There must be a mesh, just as there must be a mesh of inputs and outputs in the allocation system.
Does the mesh come about by a top down imposition? Does it come about by some kind of asymmetrical competition or other contest or struggle based on power, or property? Or does it come about via what parecon calls self management – whether in units or in the economy as a whole?
Green says, “Parecon differs from anarcho-syndicalism in that it doesn’t give trade unions or workers’ councils all power. Albert believes that the workers’ councils should only decide matters that affect them directly, that