avatar
Chomsky’s Chat Criticized


I woke up this past Friday and opened an email from a friend in Japan pointing me to a video of Chomsky. In it, Chomsky answers questions from what appears to be a small gathering in a cafe in Tokyo. The first question comes from a confident activist who reports that he is a member of the Tokyo General Union, whose site is where the Chomsky video first appeared — though the video is now also on ZNet. The questioner speaks perfect English, and is Australian, I learned later. At any rate, here is his question: 

“Professor Chomsky, I am a member of the Tokyo General Union, Tozen, and I have a question. One issue that we have in Tozen is the issue that Michael Albert wrote about the coordinator class, the danger of — even in an extremely democratic organization like Tozen — the danger of people getting unwarranted power. And so do you have any advice, in a small union about how to guard against that, and how do you feel about Michael Albert’s ideas about the coordinator class?” 

Chomsky’s brief reply raises issues about economic vision, and parecon in particular, that I think worth addressing, which is the reason for this article.

Chomsky replied that the parecon idea for preventing the accrual of power to a sector of the workforce that the questioner (and I) call the “coordinator class” is “to distribute the tasks.” In his reply Chomsky made no mention of the issue of power in Tozen or organizations more generally, nor did he discuss the idea that there is a class between labor and capital, nor that what has been called twentieth century socialism elevated that “coordinator class” to ruling status rather than attaining classlessness. Instead, Chomsky heard the question as being mainly about parecon’s particular method of addressing the class difference, or one element of that method, in any event. Chomsky didn’t elaborate on what the method was, didn’t even use its name — balanced job complexes — but instead summarized the approach for dealing with the issue as “distribute the tasks.”  

Did Chomsky think that everyone would understand the meaning of “distribute the tasks,” offered as a summary of parecon’s approach to the problem of coordinator class power? Does “distribute the tasks” convey the idea of establishing balanced job complexes — which is an arrangement of tasks such that everyone does a mix of empowering and disempowering work so that we all have comparable circumstances in the economy rather than some people having circumstances that literally push them toward domination and other people having circumstances that literally push them toward subordination? Only if people understood this could Chomsky seriously address the ideas for dealing with that problem, with everyone knowing what was being discussed. I wish everyone in the audience, not to mention those who will see the exchange on video, were so aware of the parecon perspective that Chomsky’s brief phrase “distribute the tasks” would convey what the questioner and he were talking about, but I rather doubt it.  

Okay, let’s set that aside. Chomsky began by acknowledging that to “distribute the tasks” would “be a way of overcoming this [class division].” The acknowledgement only makes sense if by “distribute the tasks” he did indeed mean establish balanced job complexes, since in every division of labor, corporate or otherwise, tasks are of course distributed among actors and if “distribute the tasks” meant only to spread tasks among recipients, obviously it would not “be a way of overcoming” this class division. The issue Chomsky was therefore addressing was how tasks are distributed. Is it into balanced job complexes, or is it into a division between those who do empowering and those who do disempowering work? But even with no one describing the actual attributes of parecon’s approach, Chomsky doesn’t argue that attaining balanced job complexes would be beside the point. He instead agrees that it would work for that  purpose. 

However, Chomsky then adds that to do it “does run into a barrier.” So, it would work if we could do it, but there are obstacles. Fair enough. I would, however, assume that whatever the barrier might turn out to be, if having balanced job complexes can solve the problem of having a class division even after eliminating owners, and also of having serious imbalances in power and influence even in current movement institutions — which is what the questioner mentioned — then the yet-to-be-identified barrier would be something to try to overcome, not something to immediately accept as permanent. For example, obviously there are serious barriers to eliminating sexism, but we don’t leave the matter there: we devote our efforts to working to overcome those barriers.

However, Chomsky continues, “and the barrier is that certain people like to do some things and not others. Some people are good at some things, and other people are good at other things.” 

It is not easy to make sense of why this observation — and it is really the whole of what Chomsky offered — identifies a decisive “barrier” to attaining balanced job complexes. Do “certain people like to do some things, and not others?” Of course. Are “some people good at some things and other people good at other things?” Of course. To deny these claims would be lunacy. But then it would follow that if these claims being true in turn means that there is so great a barrier to having balanced job complexes that we will have to forego attaining balanced job complexes and will even have to accept having a coordinator class above a working class — well, we would just have to acknowledge that sad reality, like we just have to acknowledge death or gravity. But why does Chomsky think the fact that “certain people like to do some things and not others,” and that “some people are good at some things, and other people are good at other things,” throws up a barrier at all? Perhaps it depends on what one means, after all, by “distribute the tasks.” 

If “distribute the tasks” means that someone other than you decides that you will do this, or that you will do that, irrespective of your abilities, interests, and preferences — then of course, that meaning of “distribute the tasks” would be impeded by Chomsky’s observation. Or, if an economy did distribute the tasks in accordance with that meaning (as, I might add, current economies do for most people), then it would create disgruntled people. But why does Chomsky’s observation constitute a barrier if “distribute the tasks” in the context Chomsky uses it means that we all do a mix of tasks that we each choose to do, but with the constraint that the mix we each do includes a fair share of empowering and disempowering tasks, rather than a minority  monopolizing empowering tasks and the rest getting stuck with the disempowering tasks? 

Does Chomsky think that because “certain people like to do some things, and not others,” some people will say “I want only to do disempowering tasks even though I live in a free and fair social setting, even though I enjoy real educational options, even though I am free to participate, etc.”? I wonder how many students, for example, getting out of high school, anywhere in the world, even in societies that powerfully indoctrinate subordination and rule, would, if asked, say “I don’t want a free college education, I only want to do rote and tedious work, and if to participate in the economy I have to develop my talents and choose a job that includes a fair mix of empowering tasks, I will resist, seeking only subordination”? 

Under conditions of freedom and fair allocation, full and inspiring education, etc., does Chomsky really think anyone is going to say, “hey, I don’t want to have any tasks whose characteristics are such that by doing them I gain insights, confidence, influence, and dignity. Instead, I just want to obey rules that others impose and carry out tasks that with each new day further reduce my insights, confidence, influence, and dignity.” Presumably Chomsky doesn’t think that. However, if he doesn’t, then how does the observation that people like different things and have different inclinations and abilities identify a barrier at all, much less one that is so high that we should give up having balanced job complexes even though they can eliminate the class division between an empowered coordinator class and a disempowered working class by comparably empowering everyone? 

Well, it could be that Chomsky thinks that some people who believe they are headed for coordinator class comfort and status will feel, on hearing about balanced job complexes, that they don’t want to do any tasks that are disempowering. They want to only do that which they want to do, and what they want to do is only empowering tasks and not anything else. No tedium for me. No grading papers. No dealing with records. Only research. Or no cleaning bedpans for me. Only doing surgery. Okay, that feeling would be an obstacle to people welcoming having balanced job complexes, to be sure. Just like owners saying they want to only own is an obstacle to eliminating the owner/worker class division. And just like men or whites saying they only want to be waited on is a barrier to overcoming patriarchy and racism. These are all barriers, yes, but they are barriers to overcome, not to accept and give up about. 

Chomsky might say, but it isn’t just folks who expect to be in the empowered class who won’t rush into supporting this approach. There are working people too who will resist the idea that they should do conceptual labor, labor with responsibility, labor that empowers them but that also involves pressures. And, again, that is quite true. But it occurs for three broad reasons. 1. Not feeling competent and not wanting to fail. 2. Feeling like their agreeing to do empowering work will be a scam to get more work out of them without really transforming their lives. And 3, not wanting to take responsibility for disgusting outputs (in current workplaces). And yes, workers resisting balanced job complexes, too, is a barrier, for sure, but again, it is a barrier to overcome, not one to accept. Just like women or blacks in the U.S. in the past (and even to a degree still) doubted their own capacities or the honesty of those seeking to enlist them to new choices, or even the desirability of being a contributing part of a corrupt society — so too for working people now. 

Sixty years ago if you looked at all those doing empowering labor there were few women, indeed almost none. If you asked the men why there were few if any women in these empowering tasks, they would have said, “well, that is who women are. They do what they are good at. And it is what they want to do.” If you asked most women why there were so few women in empowering roles, a great many — and I think in those days even a large majority — would have answered more or less the same way. “It is who we are, what we can do, and what we want to do.” Of course it was in fact not who they were, but rather who they had been compelled to be.

Now someone could say — and indeed many men did say — hey, this feminism stuff is nonsense. It overlooks the reality of human tastes and preferences. Just look. Efforts to overcome sexual hierarchies have failed for hundreds of years. Give it up. Men like to do this, women like to do that — or, in the U.S., “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” Or someone might say, the obstacle to having women do what are currently men’s tasks, and having men do what are currently women’s tasks, or to share all the tasks more equally, is too great to overcome. To seek a different outcome would deny people’s preferences and talents. To make that  level of change happen by ale ring institutions would require coercing people, and people would in turn resist, become depressed, become dysfunctional, etc. 

Could we conceive of a universe in which the actual capacities and inclinations of men and women were such that women had to be passive housewives and, if they wanted to do anything beyond that, it could be only menial tasks because that was their preference and also their capacity? Yes, we could conceive of such a universe. But even while nearly everyone thought that was the actual explanation for the disparity in women’s and men’s situations sixty years ago, there was of course another possibility. It could be that what men and women at the time considered a virtually inevitable outcome of human attributes was, instead, a virtually inevitable outgrowth of the daily dynamics of certain social arrangements that were in fact alterable. 

Now consider all the coordinator class folks who do empowering work and who have lots of power and considerable wealth — and who will have more of each, relatively, if they manage to get rid of owners above while retaining workers below, those who are doing almost exclusively tasks that disempower them. 

Now ask the coordinators — why are all those others doing disempowering work? There are four of them for every one of you. The answer will be, “well, that is what they are capable of. That is what they like.” And then ask the working class members why only one fifth of the population does empowering work. “That is what they are capable of. It is what they like. It is what we are capable of. It is what we like.” 

Could we conceive of a universe in which it was true that 20% of the population likes to be empowered and has the ability to be, and 80% both wouldn’t like it if they were empowered, and couldn’t be empowered in any case? Yes, we can conceive of that. Is it our universe? I hope you will agree that it is not. I hope you will agree that the reason for one fifth on top and four fifths below is because a set of institutions (including the corporate division of labor but also, of course, prior schooling, socialization, income distribution, etc.) skews the apportionment of information, knowledge, confidence, and skills in a way that creates that result. It is thus our institutions at fault, not our stars or our genes.

We on the left all reject as mere propaganda the idea that since certain people like this and other people like that — and since some people are good at this and others at that — sexism, racism, and having an owning class is justified. Yet, oddly, and without seriously assessing the underlying logic of the claim or of any alternative possibilities, this same reasoning regarding the economy rises to the level of a justification for not overcoming classism with balanced job complexes.

That could only make sense if there were something about trying to “distribute the tasks” into balanced job complexes so as to overcome the problem the questioner broached of class division and class rule — which Chomsky agreed it would do — that would cause the result to fail or be abysmal despite the good it could achieve. In that case, we would have to forego balancing job complexes and find some other approach to the issue of coordinator class rule.

Chomsky realizes this and so he continues: “And the result [of trying to distribute tasks to solve the problem] is that when you get a group that works like that, it moves toward paralysis. South End Press began like that. But it declined.”

Chomsky is here referring to a radical publishing house founded in Boston in the 1970s typically involving some half dozen workers at any one time. I was part of it for the first 10 years. It thrived for about 25 years, roughly.

Suppose it was true that for this particular institution that operated in a sea of capitalist shoals and also on a small scale which makes having rewarding balanced job complexes tough, it declined because of its inability to maintain balanced job complexes against the preferences and capacities of its members. Would that be a serious argument for junking the approach? No, it wouldn’t, for lots of reasons. For example, did the members have adequate training? Was the institution able to pay enough to sustain them? Was a balanced job complex inside the institution — in a world with coordinator class options all around — desirable enough to retain people who could enjoy those options outside (even while others could not, of course). And so on. But in fact the claim isn’t true. 

Chomsky’s explanation for SEP’s decline overlooks so many other factors: its adherence to balanced job complexes faded when new people were involved; it had few resources, few material supporters, and thus very limited means of doing its work or paying its staff; the distribution of books of the sort it was committed to was never easy, and changing times made it steadily less possible; its books were never reviewed in the mainstream, and, to a considerable degree, even on the left; a lot of writers that it made very visible then took their talents to mainstream presses that could pay better; the rest of alternative media institutions would never take seriously its approach, discuss its methods, etc., not because SEP was failing, but because it was succeeding so well but was also anathema to people leading those other institutions because SEP’s success threatened their claim on control over those other institutions. Instead of acknowledging any of these sources of difficulty, Chomsky tells us that SEP declined because of balanced job complexes. On the contrary, it was precisely because of the balanced job complexes that, for the ten years I was there, it was, I would guess, relative to available resources, and despite all the above obstacles to success, the most effective and productive small press around — even without noting the quality of its books. 

Chomsky goes on, “I think people are just too different for them to be able to accept that kind of a structure.”

What kind of structure? The structure is never described at all. If Chomsky has accurately in mind balanced job complexes, then it is a structure that would give most people way more daily variety and of course more influence and stature, than they would otherwise have access to. And it is a structure in which the difference between what one person does and what the next person does is as large as people’s different tastes and inclinations make desirable — unlike with a corporate division of labor where, regarding the level of empowerment, there is no diversity at all for about 80% because for all of them it is near zero, while for about 20% it is relatively unlimited. So what changes when we switch from a corporate division of labor to “that kind of structure”? 

Besides eliminating class division, class rule, and not just poverty but unjust inequality, and not just authoritarian imposition but anything short of self management, under parecon the big difference relevant to this discussion is that the empowerment level of work is essentially the same for everyone. It is empowerment effects on workers that balanced job complexes balance.  

So we are back to our initial query. How does the fact that people differ from one another tell us that a corporate division of labor will be doable, but a division of labor that eliminates class difference won’t be? The only answer I can discern would be that differences among people are such that rather than a result consistent with human needs and abilities being that we all are essentially equally empowered, instead, to be consistent with everyone’s human attributes, about 20% should wield almost all power because that is their need and capacity, whereas the other 80% should do rote and repetitive tasks, because that is their need and capacity. This, for class, is like saying women get what they want and are capable of under patriarchy. 

People now accept, though in fact they do not welcome or celebrate, a structure in which 80% are disempowered by their labor. Their jobs differ from one another in what rote tasks they do, but not in the level of empowerment those roles convey. A disempowered worker can choose to do disempowering job A, or to do disempowering job B, but cannot choose to do a job that is empowering. Does Chomsky really want to say that human nature is such that those 80% would, given the opportunity for change, reject a structure that provides them education, influence, dignity, and better income? I doubt it. So maybe he is saying the way in which “people are just too different for them to be able to accept that kind of a structure,” anticipates that the 20% who now monopolize empowering work have some difference from other people that will cause them to reject balanced job complexes. Well, yes, to an extent I agree that that is true. And that difference is called class interest and class-bred habits. But that needs to be overcome — just like the resistance of men to eliminating sexism, or of whites to eliminating racism, or of owners to eliminating private ownership, needs to be overcome. 

Chomsky goes on, “my own guess is that any kind of organization is going to have representation but with constant recall and control from below, such as monitoring what the coordinator class is doing.” 

This says, at least to my ears, that we will have a coordinator class inside our own organizations, and presumably in a new society. The best we can do to mitigate ill effects is try to restrain any violations of freedom, dignity, etc., that stem from the class hierarchy. To do that we can employ representation and recall. Really? We are going to conceive of engineers, doctors, managers, etc., as representatives. We are going to recall them into rote labor if we don’t like their acts? Can one even imagine Chomsky saying the same thing but replacing the coordinator class as the sector to keep within limits with the capitalist class as the sector to keep within limits? I don’t think so. Can we imagine him saying that to deal with the pains that society’s evident gender hierarchy creates, we should have men overseen and recallable, or some such thing. 

Of course restraining power and privilege is better than letting power and privilege operate without restraints. But better still is an end to the structures that create excessive power and privilege in the first place. So perhaps Chomsky doesn’t mean what to me his few words seem to say. I feel certain, for example, that he would not say that worker resistance to monitoring their own bosses counts as an argument against the merits of doing that, which Chomsky here recommends. I also doubt he would suggest that if a firm that included workers monitoring bosses, but that had virtually no resources and sold goods that appeared to most of the public to be from Neptune (like SEP), failed after thirty years of success, he would feel it was evidence against workers monitoring bosses being a valuable reform. Of course not. So why does Chomsky offer arguments like that against balanced job complexes, I wonder.

That any large organization, or society, requires lots of structures if it is to function well, including elements of participation and representation, is, like Chomsky’s earlier observation about people being different, of course, true. But why is it relevant? Jumping from that observation to dismissing a method for preventing about 20% of the population from doing all the representing and deciding — and about 80% from at best keeping watch on them from below, is an unwarranted leap. With the corporate division of labor in place, a division of labor that gives 20% of the workforce a monopoly on relevant information, confidence, access to levers of power, etc., plus giving them a mindset that they have their advantages because they are more capable of initiative, creativity, insight, etc. as well as because they want to do the associated tasks while everyone else, below, is incapable of such activity and happy not doing the associated tasks (happy slaves, anyone?), so that those above should also get the lion’s share of income, does it make any sense to think it will be kept in check by some formal recall power? I don’t think so.

Chomsky continues, “It is kind of striking that after about thirty years of hard theoretical work, there are still no organizations that illustrate the parecon system. Theoretically it is well thought out. Lots of good discussion, thinking through the possibilities, but can you think of organizations that work like that? There is a proliferation of worker owned and worker managed enterprises but they don’t go that far.”

Let’s not even bother mentioning that most small groups of friends operate very much like this. And that there are also experiments that try to do so. Let’s also ignore that to create and maintain any small business, even if you have ample resources, even in an arena where there are no difficult obstacles to your product being wanted, is a very hit or miss affair. Let’s also suppose there was no pareconish experiment now flourishing — after the gargantuan span of thirty years. I agree that it could arguably be taken as a sign that one should be careful. Maybe in theory parecon is solid, but experiments haven’t blossomed because they cannot for reasons we don’t yet understand. Yes, maybe that depressing explanation is accurate. But before embracing the permanence of class division, and hoping better representation and recall will prevent the associated ills of coordinator class rule, here is a very different explanation for the relative dearth of pareconish experiments. 

Maybe it is because we are trying to plant innovative seeds in a tremendously hostile environment. And here is another. If those who monopolize information, confidence, and access to communications don’t want something to happen and don’t even want an approach to be seriously discussed — then getting that approach on the table, much less getting it implemented even in experiments, is going to be very difficult. Wouldn’t this explain why, as Chomsky notes, it has taken people like me thirty years not to think up the stuff — that was actually not particularly hard other than that it was so contrary to prior beliefs we all learn — but to spread the ideas against the barrier of contrary biases and despite media silence in the mainstream and on the left? And when the ideas incredibly do spread, at least somewhat, after tremendous effort, and tend to reach new audiences — say in Tokyo — wouldn’t the fact that they get deemed impossible to implement by august personages who, however, offer no real substantive reasons for the dismissal and don’t welcome any debate, as is the case with Chomsky’s comments on parecon, help explain the difficulty, too? 

For example, does Chomsky think the activists in that room in that bookstore in Tokyo, or those hearing him online via the video of the session, are going to run out and try to create an underfunded, unsupported, pareconish project after he tells them any such effort is doomed, in any case, because — well — “people are just too different from one another to accept it?” And I also wonder whether Chomsky would accept the argument that the fact that we haven’t had a lasting anarchist polity as yet, despite many times thirty years of effort for that goal, demonstrates that anarchist political aims are nonsense. I don’t think he would. I don’t think he should. So why in this case does he seem to accept that kind of argument?

Chomsky closes his answer to the question about the coordinator class, “you really ought to invite Mike Albert to advocate it. He is a smart guy, has thought about it, but to actually implement it has been extremely hard.” 

Indeed it has. Not least because very few people with access to means of communication at their disposal, and with time and energy for assessment will even remotely give the ideas a try — though they are quick to dismiss them (at least when I or others like me aren’t around to debate the point). And because there are not funds to finance efforts to implement experiments, and, when an effort is tried, which quite a few have been, often way outside the purview of my awareness, the effort therefore not only has to overcome an incredible paucity of resources, and all sorts of built-in bad habits that we all carry, but also the dismissal or hostility of most people, even on the left, even people who one would think would give it serious attention.

The webpage of the Tokyo General Union, the organization of which the questioner was a member and that posted the video, has a description under it. In that description there is only one mention of substance that occurred during the hour long video — literally, only one. It goes like this: “Tozen member Matthew Allen discussed the dangers of union leaders becoming a `coordinator class’ with unwarranted power. Chomsky suggested that efforts to eliminate all division of labor have failed.” My guess is that was simply what the person who wrote the description thought Chomsky was saying, absent more clarity. Hopefully this essay will help. 

Sadly, though, this is the usual level of discussion of issues surrounding the possible role of the coordinator class, possible solutions, and parecon. Pose or at least imply that what is being suggested is something absurd — for example parecon denies that people have differences, or parecon seeks to “eliminate all division of labor” — and then dismiss the absurdity of that straw formulation. 

Some time back I published an article titled Querying the Young Chomsky. In it, I very critically addressed Chomsky’s own views of an economic alternative to capitalism that he expressed many years back in his most extensive interview on the subject that I could find. I took it very seriously and tried to open space for discussion and debate. Chomsky ignored that essay. I hope he won’t ignore this shorter one that again indicates differences. He has a number of reservations about participatory economics. That is fine. But it would be very helpful to explore them, carefully, to see if they are valid (in which case we would learn that corrections to parecon are needed), or if they are misunderstandings (in which case we would learn that clarifications are needed), or if they are simply wrong (in which case Chomsky could presumably happily revise his stance). 

45 Comments

  1. Lary Fuku April 1, 2014 10:24 pm 

    Michael, seems a little obsessive to write so much about an off the cough comment even if it’s by Chomsky. I think you’re reading too much into it – you should take criticism a bit more lightly.

    And I don’t understand you guys seem to be friends… talk about failure of communication, why don’t you just ask him what he mean rather than to going into this crazy diatribe of hypotheticals.

    I happen to agree with Chomsky – 30 years a good span to judge an idea given that we live in a society were we are free to organize any way we see fit.

    you write ” Maybe in theory parecon is solid, but experiments haven’t blossomed because they cannot for reasons we don’t yet understand.”

    – actually that should read “… for reasons don’t yet understand”. Over the years people outlined a great number of reasons why Parecon wouldn’t work – take your pick. It’s just you are in denial about their validity. Even IOPS is dying for a reason that when people get a whim of Parecon they run for the hills.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert April 2, 2014 3:57 pm 

      Hi Larry,

      The trouble is, Noam’s words travel far and wide. And his saying, or even just appearing to say, that balanced job complexes are not viable because they will cause a workplace to flounder and fail because they somehow conflict with the diversity of human desires and talents, (which, in fact, they would celebrate and foster and unleash), would if true, cause me to reject balanced job complexes. So it is a claim I have to take seriously, if I am a remotely serious person.

      I agree he didn’t provide much reason, etc., as the article indicates. And you are right that he and I are friends, for decades, and yes, I have asked him for his reasons, which is to say for why an advocate of parecon should have doubts in light of his concerns He supplied no answer. The assertions circulate, but not supporting argument, and there is no response when I do reply. It is a sore issue between us.

      I don’t think giving a full reaction is “obsessive,” rather it is just honest and, well pretty full. It is precisely what welcoming criticism means. If you welcome criticism you don’t just say hooray, something I believe in and that I think has important implications was criticized, terrific, and move on. Nor do you just ignore it. Rather, being serious about ideas and social relations, to welcome criticism means, or it should mean, to take criticism seriously, to consider it carefully, and then to respond. That is what I do in general, and what I did in this case.

      One response would be to say, okay, the critic is right, I will adapt or change my views. Most people don’t ever even contemplate such a choice. I do, all the time. The other is to say, well, no, I think the critic is wrong, and here is why. That was my reacion to Noam’s comment.

      Now the question becomes is the critic serious about it, or was the critic just tossing grenades, so to speak, even offhand, about something important,,personally and socially, but uninterested in debate?

      Not every critic of an idea has to be ready to defend what they offer, of course. But when someone of Noam’s stature says something highly critical of some perspective, in this case a perspective which, among things, claims to be consistent with and even an elaboration of Noam’s own formulations, which criticism, if true, would matter a lot, well, that has consequences. I not only didn’t have to put the reply up, I didn’t have to put up his video. But I do welcome criticism, so i do give critics visibility so to explore differences and to try to see what makes sense. You can judge that…

      In regard to another point you raise, if thirty years is enough time to decide if a set of ideas is worth relating to, as if the validity of an idea was a matter of popularity, or not, and if one should dismiss ideas on account of not enough people supporting them after thirty years, there would be no anarchism, no libertarian socialism, long ago feminism would have died before it grew, and on and on. The thing to ask is, are there obstacles as well as confusions, that prevent people even knowing about an idea, to have an opinion of it.

      When parecon was first introduced it was dismissed in grounds that having vision is a bad thing to do…actually Noam used to say that. That reason has been overcome. Now we have another reason. Is it sound? Is it confused or just wrong. Only way to know is to explore it…something I am happy to do.

      Take yourself, do you have an informed reaction to parecon based on being familiar with its actual substance and finding fault with its logic or underlying values, or something of that sort? Or, might it be, instead, that your reaction is based on things like Noam’s comment? And other dismissals that, examined closely, perhaps hold no water.

      I ask that not to know what is the case for you, so much as to point up the difference. Large numbers of currents supporters of pare con as an economic vision as one time forcefully rejected it as totalitarian, markets in disguise, dysfunctional, and so on. But, they held those impressions not due to knowing its features, thinking about them, and coming to those conclusions, but due to hearing others say such things. Upon looking for themselves, their views changed. That is what debate can accomplish, on both sides of a difference.

      When I get emails from people in japan within hours of the session Noam was at, telling me that what he said has harmed their ability to speak with people, because people say if that is what Noam thinks, yes, even just a paragraph or so, then why should I spend any of my time on assessing parecon? If Noam has problems with it, it must be a mess…and all I have to do to be correct is to repeat what he said. And then they ask me why does he say that, what are his reasons, etc., what should I do?

      I can ignore what he said and those emails I got, or I can try to be helpful and to clarify, in hopes people will decide what they think not based on what you call a relatively brief comment without much substantiation, but based on actually thinking about the issues..

      • Lary Fuku April 4, 2014 4:18 pm 

        Michael you wronte:
        “One response would be to say, okay, the critic is right, I will adapt or change my views. Most people don’t ever even contemplate such a choice. I do, all the time”

        Can I ask you – in 30 years of you hearing criticism of Parecon, can you name a single, significant alteration you made to Parecon as a result of it?

        • avatar
          Michael Albert April 5, 2014 4:07 am 

          Parecon is a very simple system, actually. There are four institutions. That is it. And since only the key features of each are described, not details, exept hypothetically, there are not even many features. Quite a few have been refined and adapted, I believe, but if you are asking for something that has been overturned…if anything had been, I would no longer be an advocate. All there is, in the parecon model, are features central to it. That is part of the point. It doesn’t go beyond the key features deemed necessary to attain claslessness. One institution goes, it is highly likely it all goes, at least as a system. So, you are correct, while in discussions many have been adapted a bit, over the years, nine has been found completely wanting, at least by me.

          But lary, I am a supporter of it. You reject it. Fine, tell me what central attribute, and there are really only a few to choose from, you reject as either harmful, or unviable, and why you believe what you do. I can’t go back over your comments just now, but I am pretty sure you have yet to mention anything you find wanting…much less provide a reason.

      • Lary Fuku April 4, 2014 4:37 pm 

        Also additional point. You mentioned that z site is struggling financially (I am sorry about that, even though I disagree ideologically). According to Parecon that means community’s vote of no confidence in your ideas (weather right or wrong).

        However under Parecon someone like you (a rebel with a very contrarian point of view from mainstream) would only be able to solicit your local community’s resources for your enterprise, not Global like you get now (cause there’s no transfer of personal credits, right?).

        That means under Parecon you would’ve never even began your venture much less survive 30 years in it. Doesn’t that mean that Parecon has a more stifling effect on descending views?

        • avatar
          Michael Albert April 5, 2014 4:14 am 

          Actually, z struggling doesn’t mean any such thing, at least that I can determine. But suppose there was one advocate in the entire world of parecon, let’s say just me. It isn’t itself an argument that it is unviable or unworthy, only that it is not currently appealing to more people. Now it could be because they all see it is unviable or unworthy. Or it could be they don’t even know what it is. Or they don’t like its implications, among many possibilities.

          Of course the above isn’t the case, but even if it was it is not an argument about worthiness or viability, only current appeal. To demonstrate the institutions are unworthy or unviable one would have to make an argument to that effect.,you haven’t.,if you can,,I welcome yu to write an essay doing so…I routinely run such essays on the site…have done so for many perspectives and critics.

          • Lary Fuku April 5, 2014 5:20 am 

            Michael
            I dont think you understood the point of my post
            I didnot claim that Parecon is unworthy idea because there is no current popular support for it.

            I simply meant to compare and contrast how would someone like you (a contrarian dissenting advocate) fare under a parecon system. And my point was that because under Parecon you couldnt solicit resources from random people around the globe but only from your local comminity – then ur chances of getting as far as u did with ur venture would be reduced. Is that not a correct reasoning?

            • avatar
              Michael Albert April 5, 2014 12:58 pm 

              You are right in one aspect. In a parecon you don’t get income for doing work that isn’t socially valued. That is true. But as to whether dissident journalism and commentary would be valued, about that you are wrong. Of course it would.

              Much of what goes on in our society would disappear in a participatory society, but not critical writing and thought that is seeking new gains.

              Lary, you have been critical, even disparaging, yet you have not yet evidenced being even familiar with parecon, much less thinking seriously about it. I would welcome you to do so, again, and if you find reasons to doubt, or reject, write them in a blog or essay.

              When I was a young activist, many decades back, I learned Marxism and it was highly prevalent throughout my community, so to speak. I began to feel, quite quickly, however, that it had serious flaws that were a problem for progress. I didn’t just wing it. I first made sure I understood it at a high level of confidence and clarity. It doesn’t take forever…I asked questions, but mostly I read and thought about what I read. Then, when I was confident I could present Marxism, I pursued the problems that were bugging me, so as to express them for debate.

              I recommend a similar approach. After some questions, looking, etc., one should either turn away, to pursue other issues, visions, or whatever, or stay attentive by examining serious material after which one either becomes an advocate, or, if critical, one pursues criticisms. So perhaps you will follow one course, or the other…

              • Lary Fuku April 6, 2014 6:12 am 

                “yet you have not yet evidenced being even familiar with parecon, much less thinking seriously about it”

                Given that you levied this charge against every single Parecon critic that I ever read on this site – may be you are not the best judge of that. There plenty of cases when creators did not understand the scope of their creation. I think you fall into that category.

                ” But as to whether dissident journalism and commentary would be valued, about that you are wrong. Of course it would.”

                So how would exactly dissident journalism be valued under Parecon if not via payments? or are you saying that dissidents will be paid no matter what community thinks of them- which is obviously unworkable?

                You keep complaining I don’t present any criticism of Parecon, all the while here it is in front of you. I am demonstrating via example that Parecon is less conducive to dissident views then capitalism.

                Btw like you said “Parecon is a very simple system” . Doesn’t take much to understand basic concepts and underlying assumptions. Everything on top of that (and a lot of) is conjecture.

                • avatar
                  James Wilson April 6, 2014 1:24 pm 

                  Lary

                  I’m obviously not Michael, so forgive me for jumping in, but have been reading and having a little trouble wrapping my head around what you are saying.

                  “And my point was that because under Parecon you couldnt solicit resources from random people around the globe but only from your local comminity – then ur chances of getting as far as u did with ur venture would be reduced. Is that not a correct reasoning?”

                  I actually don’t think or find this to be correct reasoning at all. It does not follow that a media organisation operating with the communities consent would not get as far as Z has. I’m also assuming Z exists, within a capitalist market economy for very good reason, reasons that may not exist if a similar type of media org was established within a society based on the values and similar institutional structures that a Parecon would be. It does not follow, at least to my mind, that a media org containing brilliant, incisive and fearless journalists could not exist and thrive within a participatory planned economy. If you think dissident journalism is a good thing, as does Michael and myself, why wouldn’t others, most, all, within the community? So therefore there is a bloody good chance that courageous fearless journalism and commentary
                  would most definitely exist, and be encouraged.

                  ” I am demonstrating via example that Parecon is less conducive to dissident views then capitalism.”

                  I personally think you are not demonstrating anything but merely making an assertion. That is if I have understood what you write correctly. Perhaps you are meaning that within a Pareconish society there may be less reason for dissent or dissident views, that it is less conducive to them, than within a unequal, oppressive, repressive, capitalist one. Not that dissent is repressed or jackbooted out of existence. There is just less reason for it because society is more equal, just, solidaritous, self-managed and diverse. But I don’t think that is what you mean. Dissent would be there, but as to its nature or character and the concerns of citizens expressed by journalists, I can imagine that it may be a little different but still highly valued and in demand. But that’s just conjecture.

                • avatar
                  Michael Albert April 6, 2014 2:01 pm 

                  Lary – I think we have to agree to disagree. That you make no or very little reference to parecon’s features is not a charge, but an observation – likewise, you are commenting under an article, over and over, but you have at most barely addressed any point raised in that article, or in any of my replies to your comments, much less in the available material about parecon. That is fine, once, twice, but not over and over.

                  Regarding dissident journalism – you might check articles on the topic of participatory society and journalism, for more – or the chapter devoted to journalism in a participatory society in Realizing Hope, say. Which is also online. If you were serious, you would do that. You would not think that you can just spin out some concern and ask me to address it, from scratch, when I have addressed it already elsewhere, in far more details than is possible here. You would look at that, to see if your concern is met, or if your concern holds up, and then you would either write an essay with your views, or perhaps ask a question about what you find, putting it in the forums, say. Or you could say, I have found what I think is a serious problem – which is this…

                  The brief comment you offer, well, actually, even the extreme case that you dismiss in this comment as unworkable, of course it is not in fact unworkable, in context of a new society. So – a participatory society could and certainly would decide it wants to devote so much resources to dissident journalism, not only to producing but also disseminating it – just like it might and certainly would decide it wants to devote so much to investment, or to research into basic science, and in fact, even into improving existing consumer products, etc. Then, workers councils in the fields, would be provided means to provide the sought output – even though neither the public nor even the researchers would know in advance what the exact output would be.

                  The main point therefore, is that a free population, educated and confident, will value dissent greatly, just like it will value research greatly – and actually, for pretty much the same reasons – and will therefore consider it socially valuable labor, and, in the planning process, will provide for it.

                  You say about criticism – here it is in front of you. Well, I am sorry, at least to my eyes that isn’t the case. Perhaps you really believe you are rendering serious criticisms and reacting to replies. But I think you are not. If I say to a proponent of market socialism – market socialism hurts people, or people don’t like it, or it won’t deliver x or y, and so on – it is just throwing out a possible idea, which could have merit or not, but is not a serious criticism. If I do some work and say something like, because market socialism includes such and such features, and because the operations of those features in this way hurt people, or aren’t liked, or prevent delivery of x and y, etc., market socialism is flawed, then it is serious criticism. Now both are okay – but the former, only to a point. Thinking it is appropriate to toss out unargued claims, to ignore the specifics of replies, and to then just bring up another unargued, as well as knocking the respondent for not paying attention when he has – in this case I have – in fact paid a very great deal of attention, is very odd, I think. Doing it under an article as a comment, is even more odd, I think.

                  So okay, what is the responsibility of an advocate on seeing such comments? Well, an advocate with a lot of energy for doing so, and who really does believe in addressing all concerns rather than ignoring them, will try and engage in real discussion by providing some substance, even in limited space, and then looking to see if the “critic” has reasons, or is just saying something he heard or he assumes must be the case without having thought about it. If the “critic” isn’t interested enough to engage or doesn’t have real reasons and hasn’t really thought about it, or at least reveals no evidence of having done so, and merely seems to want to take shots unconnected to claims about features, without even looking at the replies, then this will become a useless waste, especially in a comments, section.

                  Lary, on ZNet you will find Q/A material addressing much more serious versions of concerns that you very vaguely have. You will find whole chapters doing so in books, and freely available online. You will find that I have debated all kinds of folks about related matters – most of them offering far far more substance than you do – all freely available online, on ZNet. And so on. But you want me to reply to you in a comments section, under an article whose content you don’t address, with you offering mere impressions but not substance – and I am telling you, that after a point, that is not reasonable – which is to say, it becomes a waste of time. You aren’t offering real substance, and actually, it would arguably be worse if you did- since hidden here few would see it. Real substance deserves to be viewed.

                  And that is why a few times, and now here again, I have said, Lary, if you believe you have serious criticisms, with real substance, that is great, by all means write an essay. Then we can see your views. That is not putting you off. That is saying, if you want to engage, seriously, fine, do so. Others have – again, take a look at the debates section of ZNet.

                  In this comment, like in the others I have replied to, there is no reference to any actual aspect of parecon – not a one. You don’t say, for example, for this reason I think balanced job complexes would hurt people, or they wouldn’t work to allow a well functioning workplace, and thus I think parecon which includes them, is flawed. That is the kind of stance I replied to in the article you are commenting under, whose substance you ignored. Or, you don’t say, I think self management would yield poor decisions, or be too unwieldy, say, because of this aspect of people participating in such a way. You don’t say participatory planning will misvalue items for this reason, or will have the following bad incentive implication for this reason. And so on. Those would be serious formulations. Without that, I can’t reply to some specific concern you raise – I can only, for example, produce a major essay, in a comments section, about journalism – as the most recent example. Well, if such essays didn’t already exist, I might just do it now, but they do. So I direct you to it. But no, to look at any serious presentation – even the article you are commnting under – would take some effort from you. You prefer to say to me, well, hey, parecon won’t deal well with journalism, or technology, or science, or it will ruin sports, or art will go down the drain, or whatever – just as assertion, without reasons rooted in specific features – leaving me as my option to write a book for you, in the comments section – or to direct you to treatments that already address what you raise, very carefully, and inviting you, on reading those, to raise any concerns you may still have, in an essay, or in the forums.

                  Here is another reason why what you have been doing here isn’t optimal. Few authors on ZNet – actually few authors anywhere – are remotely as forthcoming as I am in watching for comments and replying to them – in debating people with different views, etc. Why is that? Well, most radical writers – like others but often more so – are busy. And one simple reason they don’t related to comments sections much is they don’t want to get into useless exchanges with people who believe they can just go back and forth, endlessly, without, however, having made the slightest effort to actually engage seriously. So when you do this, and other writers see it, they think to themselves, do I want to pay attention to comments, and have to deal with someone like Lary – endlessly – or would I rather just ignore all comments. And, understandably they opt for the latter.

                  If you think you have examined parecon, and you feel that you have found problems with it, rooted in its actual features, by all means write up your results. But not here in a comments section, barely visible under a month old article. Have the courage of your convictions and write an article of your own. Or, if you feel less confident (certainly not evidenced by your words so far) perhaps bring your concerns to the forum system.

                  Finally, parecon is simple in the sense that that are just a few institutions, each described only to in their crucial features – workers and consumers self managing councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning. Beyond that, to fill out a description of all those key attributes, takes longer, of course – some pages. Next, to explore the implications of all that – well, I don’t think it is all that hard conceptually, but there is a potentially endless amount one could address. And ditto for responding to all possible questions or worries that have been or might concern people. Well all that exists, and you are very much more than welcome to examine parts of it, or all of it, to find flaws or worthy aspects, to then ask questions, or render judgements – like others. But not in a comments section, where you leave me only the options to say cut it out already – and then you complain I don’t respect critics – or to endlessly give my time to responding to each intuitive whim of a concern you might have – with you pretty much ignoring what I say only to move on to another.

                  I am sorry if that is unfair description – but it is my impression – and there is a very straightforward, responsible, and time honored way to show that I am wrong. Write up your concerns. Show they are not whims but seriously thought through concerns based on knowing parecon’s features and evaluating their implications. Do it in an essay.

  2. willi uebelherr March 24, 2014 10:17 am 

    Dear friends,
    please excuse my bad english.

    I support very the argument by Michael Albert. All works, if we need it, based on our rationality and on our common decision, need our responsibility and our activity. Because we all together need this.

    On the beginnig of the process to design our new world, we have to be clear and radical. Then, if we create our visions and destinations in a common process, then we can be very tolerant. The people do it normaly, if no pressure exist.

    the central element of our vision of a new world is the equivalence of all people. The equality is a necessary consequence from the equivalence. And also the equivalence of our doing. This because our time is equivalent.

    many greetings, willi
    Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

  3. Abdulaziz Ahmed March 23, 2014 2:44 pm 

    I have only got the 9th paragraph of the article, then things got too technical for me to understand, even though I have seen fully to the Chomsky’s interview without feeling so, so that is one point. Secondly I found your argument too apologetic to start with, instead of engaging with what Chomsky has to say. To tell you the truth, I m someone who has all the stuff you claim will make a perfect person, being creative and all, yet I lack it all, a suggestion I have is to make a sort of film or documentary that follows all your ideas through and hence try to see their effects on both the short and long run.

  4. Gerry Conroy March 22, 2014 1:08 am 

    Chomsky has previously commented elsewhere that he feels parecon’s remuneration norm, which is based mainly on effort but also takes account of workers’s circumstances, to be ‘demeaning’, though I presume he’d agree that it would at least be vastly better than the capitalist norms for remuneration. Presumably he also thinks the unjust division of labour is demeaning but he seems to think we’re stuck with it to some extent, due to the diversity in capacities and preferences among people being so great, as he sees it, that we can’t sketch out even a basic institutional form like the balanced job complex to correct it.

    While I don’t see anything at all demeaning about parecon’s remuneration norm, the demeaning nature of an unjust division of labour cuts me to the bone and I won’t trust anything that doesn’t deal with it clearly. What always worries me about this thinking that we can’t say much about future arrangements, is that the whole scheme in our supposedly revolutionary society will in reality become just one big elitist bolt-hole. There’s an awful lot of awkward, dirty, repetitive, dangerous work to be done in our society. I’ve done plenty of it in my time and the craft-work I now do still involves it. I want to see that that work is being shared properly by everybody and that some 20% of the workforce aren’t able to make some excuses about their personal work preferences and shift their due share of it on to everybody else. Neither Chomsky nor Alperovitz seem to express that feeling particularly. For me it appears huge on my radar.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert March 22, 2014 2:21 am 

      Seems huge to me, too. Thanks for the reaction.

    • avatar
      Matthew Allen March 22, 2014 5:26 am 

      I’m the questioner referenced in the article, which I agree with, by the way. I do have one question for Michael, though: What do you think of people who already have one kind of empowering work (like surgery), and who are OK with occasionally cleaning bedpans, not wanting to take on another kind (like decision-making within the hospital)?

      • avatar
        Michael Albert March 22, 2014 12:59 pm 

        In thinking about balanced job complexes, there are two very different foci of concern. Getting there. Once there, what it looks like.

        People certainly have different tastes, of course. These exist, however, in a context of what is available and how it is generally regarded. If come one goes to prison, their voiced preferences change dramatically because, unless the person is a masochist, they take into account the range of available items.

        So, if we are talking about an established parecon, then we are talking about people making choices of jobs in an arena of balanced job complexes, arriving with different training, and so on. All it says is that people should all have a mix of tasks to do that convey comparable empowerment. In a hospital, say, he way of organizing tasks is under the purview of the workers council, like elsewhere. So they will combine tasks into jobs in ways aiming to best fulfill people’s needs and express their capacities…but all people, not just some. I have no idea what the precise mix in one hospital will be, but there is no reason to think it will be the same as in some other hospital. And these differences, reflecting geography, different agendas, different surroundings, etc..etc. will affect where people want to work.

        If people in general would prefer a shift in the composition of job complexes, well, that would lead to investments to get it done…not to shifting for a few at the expense of the rest.

        Back to your question.,if I was working in a hospital, I certainly wouldn’t want in my mix doing any surgery…it would be disastrous. And so I have no trouble, as well, with the idea that someone doing surgery is fine with balance, but not fine with certain tasks as compared to others, as best we can, we all try for a balanced mix that suits us, and we can do well.

        Transition is a much more difficult and complex matter, I think. Not easy at all, but necessary if there is to be classlessness.

        • avatar
          Matthew Allen March 22, 2014 1:31 pm 

          Thanks so much. That makes sense. It ironically reminds me of what I think I heard Chomsky say once: that very little of Marx was prescriptive and that you couldn’t predict the details of a system in a true democracy because, being democratic, it would depend on what the individuals involved wanted. I guess the difference between you and him is just what gets considered a “detail”…

          • avatar
            Michael Albert April 2, 2014 4:12 pm 

            Hi again, I think I missed this earlier. I think you are correct. So one person says, say, that for a good economy we can’t have private ownership of workplaces. He then says, however, regarding whether we can have, say a corporate division of labor, or competitive markets, we can’t know. Up to future people to decide.

            Two points. Why can the person say we can know that we can’t have private ownership? The answer is going to be because he has a compelling argument that doing so will preclude the economy being good, and, for that matter, preclude most future people being able to decide much about their lives, at all.

            Okay, the same follows. If I want to say we can’t have a corporate division or labor, or markets, or both, I have to be able to make a compelling case that having those would preclude the economy being good…and, as well, preclude most people from being able to decide their lives. To be really responsible, I have to be able to describe a better alternative, as well.

            What we should do is propose a minimal list of critical institutional choices…things we must not have, things we need to have, for future people to be in control of their lives, all people, not just some. That is the logic behind parecon’s four defining institutions, a very short list when you think about it, and each of which has endless room for variation.

            So back to your point, if someone says no private property of productive assets, but can’t say anything about markets or corporate division of labor, yes, they are saying the latter we either don’t know enough about, or are just details we can choose among. If I say no corporate division of labor and no markets, I am saying that like with people owning workplaces, those institutional choices also preclude desirable outcomes we want, including classlessness. If I propose an alternative, balanced job complexes and participatory planning, it is because I believe they don’t have the flaws, don’t produce class divisions, etc, and they do have very positive attributes.

            The difference, as you say, is what is deemed central, and what is deemed peripheral and details…but it isn’t just assertion, or taste, or a popularity contest, it is a matter of careful taught and judgement, as well as guiding values.

  5. avatar
    Ira Woodwa March 21, 2014 7:23 am 

    Hi Michael,
    I think you guys are misunderstanding each other. I think what you guys are both talking about in general, is trust.
    Chomsky is basically saying “no system is going to be perfect— ultimately we just have to trust each other. Of course someone might be up to no good, so we have to keep our eyes and ears open, too.”
    You are saying “this system builds trust in. If we divide work up this way, we don’t have to worry because we will get an automatic signal if someone is consolidating power.”
    Personally, I think both are true to some extent. You gave the example of groups of friends. In some situations, friends don’t worry so much about who is responsible for what and how that might create conflict or resentment. In other situations, it becomes very important.
    I guess I would say there are no hard and fast rules. At the same time, we all need some consistent expectations and structure to have a stable relationship.
    We also need to challenge those rules, and continue to grow. Sometimes together, sometimes apart.
    Sharing power can be too much. But that still leaves room for negotiations, a truce, and eventually peace.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert March 21, 2014 12:25 pm 

      Hello Ira…

      The analogy is extreme, but suppose someone said to slavr abolitionists that the thing is trust, not structure, so to speak? We can have slave structures, but then mitigate them… Presumably you, like I, would say no. The slave structure induces behaviors that are horrendously unacceptable. So the issue is, does a particular structure induce behaviors so bad that we do not want that structure in place? And does another not inky illuminate the ills, but in he heir place induce worthy results? Returning to this case, the issue is how bad are the ill effects of a corporate division of labor? How good are the different effects of balanced job complexes?

      • avatar
        Ira Woodwa March 21, 2014 8:29 pm 

        I am a fan of extreme analogies myself, actually. And I think I do see how yours fits.

        Yeah, I think slavery is horrendous too.

        One potential pitfall here, as I see it, is acting without a clear plan. I notice this with my own projects. I hate it when I get started without thinking things through, and then waste a lot of effort carrying out a half-formed plan that I realize eventually simply won’t work. Of course, I also sometimes spend so much time planning, deciding, evaluating options that I never get started.

        It’s really impossible to know whether planning or doing is the appropriate step at any given moment in the process. Commiting to any course of action is inherently rigid– and I think rigidity is in far too great supply these days. Fortunately, we have the capacity to hone our instincts toward flexibility. The next challenge is finding ways to demonstrate the value of flexibility in a way that other people will take note and consider relaxing their approach.

        I think a balanced job complex, such as I understand the concept, is a good way to distribute tasks and to solve some central sources of class division. I guess my way of thinking about it: Our goal is to get everyone to take responsibility for their own decisions but also collective management of the whole society. Therefore, everyone needs to have roughly equal confidence, knowledge and skills, or despite their desire and intention, they won’t be able to assume that responsibility.

        Like Chomsky, I don’t see many people doing things that way. I’m not sure I see them doing things a better way. It’s quite frustrating and painful. Both to see the suffering, and to know that something better is possible. I think that effective activism requires a lot of empathy; we all need someone who understands us. And who we understand.

      • avatar
        Ira Woodwa March 25, 2014 6:05 pm 

        My last was a roundabout reply. I’ll be direct: I am feeling a bit confused about how to contribute to this converation, honestly.

        I can see that you and Chomsky seem to be at odds here. I’m really having trouble articulating or even understanding the source of the disagreement.

        I’ve involved myself because I know that these are very important issues; they are certainly near and dear to my heart.

        I will say this: I have noticed from reading both of you over the years that Chomsky’s writing and speaking tends to focus more on facts about specific situations and critical analysis of authoritarian power, while yours tends to focus on vision/strategy/critical analysis of the left. My guess would be the disagreement relates to this somehow, but I’m not sure what the connection is.

        • avatar
          Michael Albert March 26, 2014 3:17 pm 

          I am not sure how to help…Noam and I most often – actually overwhelmingly often – agree. It is rare, for example, that I would have any significant issue with his take on “facts about specific situations,” though it happens sometimes. About issues of what we want – things changes. Here we do have significant differences. One set is about the importance of the matter at all. So forget about economy, for a minute – I think we need clear, compelling, vision of other areas of life too – for example, the political system, culture, etc. Noam, not so much, putting it mildly.

          Now on the economy, that general difference becomes a bit sharper. So, while he, consistently with other areas of social life, doesn’t think we need much in the way of economic vision (beyond broad values, say) he also has problems with two aspects of participatory economics. On the one hand, he has doubts about its remuneration approach, on the other, about balanced job complexes. You can read about differences over the latter, in the piece above, and about differences over remuneration, in the essay querying the young chomsky – I think it is called – among other places. Beyond that, unless you have a specific question – I don’t think I can add much that isn’t in the essays.

          • avatar
            Ira Woodwa March 26, 2014 10:08 pm 

            Well, one thought I’ve had is that some people really are satisfied leaving big decisions up to other people. This could be one of the “differences between people” that Chomsky refers to.

            You say you presume he would disagree with this. Why do you think that’s not what he means?

            As far as the issue of remuneration:

            One issue you identify is higher pay for more onerous work. You said you’re not sure why Chomsky is opposed to this, but instead prefers everyone gets paid the same for their work, and shares the onerous work equally. I think someone else in the comments quoted him saying this form of remuneration is demeaning. Perhaps you responded to that argument somewhere and I missed it. Whatever the case, I’m curious to hear what you think of that argument, since I agree with it.

            The other issue with remuneration:

            You seem to have trouble with the formulation of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” The reason being that this doesn’t enforce responsible choices.

            I’m guessing, inferring a lot into his brief responses, that Chomsky sees us as more interconnected than that. What I need is for you to be happy, and vice versa. So it all kinda works out when we let down our guard and start trusting/caring for one another. That’s more or less as far I’ve gotten with my own thinking about it.

            I guess the source of my confusion is partly that his replies are quite vague and I feel a need to infer a lot. Of course, maybe he’s just not giving clear answers for some reason, so I’m providing my own as a way to have a meaningful conversation.

            • avatar
              Michael Albert March 28, 2014 2:23 pm 

              The idea that some people would like to leave big decisions to other people – is mis stated. Since big decisions in any just situation would, in fact, be the purview of all those affects. If Joe, for any reason, in a good society, doesn’t want to register his preference, fine. That joe can, however, is essential. That said, I think the view that some people don’t want a say in outcomes affecting their life is, I am sorry, not much different than saying some people are happy slaves – so let’s allow slavery.

              Actually Noam doesn’t say all should get paid the same nor that all should share the onerous work equally. That is parecon – in that once there are balanced job complexes we are all sharing empowering work equally – which largely means onerous too – but not entirely. So, if in a wonderful economy I happen to have work equally empowering to yours, but mine is just more onerous, for some reason, or I work longer, often, for some reason – I would say I should get more income for that. There are both moral reasons – and economic reasons for example, having to do with getting proper singles for investment in labor saving innovations, at well. You are curious my views – okay, good. Why not look at them, in that case, in some full and careful presentation? Try the essay that I am pretty sure is mentioned, perhaps linked from, the one you are commenting on – that is, querying the young chomsky – and more to the point, try a full presentation of the logic and implications of parecon.

              Saying that everything works out when we are all nice – is simply beside the point. The issue is, are some institutions conducive to us all being nice, so to speak, whereas others preclude it? Answer, yes. Slavery doesn’t work out due to people being nice to one another and ignoring the institution. Nor does dictatorship. Nor does class domination and exploitation.

              • avatar
                Ira Woodwa April 1, 2014 9:01 pm 

                Hey Michael,

                Yes, you’re right about me mis-stating that. I meant that some people might continue to choose not to register their preferences.

                I think Chomsky actually did advocate sharing the onerous work equally in the interview you quote from in your article “querying the young chomsky.” He says we could probably get rid of most onerous work if we tried, but if some remains “that work has to be equally shared among people capable of doing it.”

                I don’t know if he thinks paying people more to do onerous work is demeaning, but I think it is. Basically, I see it in some sense as akin to a bribe. I would prefer that everyone share the onerous work equally, if that’s possible.

                As for the last part, I sense that we are talking past each other at least somewhat. I want to focus for now on my idea about interconnection between people. Maybe narrowing the discussion will help us communicate.

                For example, let’s say someone insists that he do more than his share of the onerous work. He’s just really determined and persistent about it, offering to sweep up after other people, doing the dishes way before anyone else gets to them.

                One solution is to make it into a fight since my rule is that we all share this work equally. Another solution is to accomodate him and find something I can offer that makes him feel good about our relationship. Maybe I can cook him dinner after he’s spent the day taking care of other people, I don’t know. In my experience life situations and relationships require that level of flexibility.

                Which maybe you already know. And maybe the reason we are talking past each other lies somewhere else.

                • avatar
                  Michael Albert April 2, 2014 4:23 pm 

                  I have to be honest with you. I can’t discuss with you not only this article, not only my views, but actually your views, endlessly. At some point two things seem to me to make sense. One…work out you views to where you are really happy with them and write an essay that presents them filly. Then I can either comment, or not, as I choose. And likewise for others.

                  Take a look at my views, if you are interested, in a full and carful presentation of them. After doing so, perhaps you will have a question or comment to address to me….the new forum system would be good for that.

                  on issues of remuneration, balanced job complexes, and on and on, I have really have written at great length, and if you are interested in a full rendition of any of that, I can’t rewrite it all, here in comments, usefully. So I would say, if that interests you, look at a full presentation.

                  We all have things that irk us. For me, I give more time tha almost any write I know to addressing comments, queries, criticisms, etc. but, sadly, I can’t give infinite time to it. And so sometimes I have to say you need to look at a full presentation if you want more. Sorry about that, but I have no choice….

                  • avatar
                    Ira Woodwa April 8, 2014 5:19 am 

                    That’s fair, I’ve really tried to express myself but it wasn’t coming out. I’m stubborn.

          • avatar
            Ira Woodwa March 27, 2014 6:43 am 

            I want to add to my thoughts about balanced job complexes.

            I’m torn. I want to believe everyone is both capable and interested in participating in decision-making. But I’m pretty sure we’re not equal in either regard.

            I’d say my own observations and intuitions indicate we are way more capable and interested than current institutions allow for or encourage.

            I also believe that some of this is due to who we actually are, what we’re born with.

            I am more comfortable with the goal that we all take responsibility for and accept group decisions, even if we don’t all participate equally in making them. I don’t like this. I think it’s more realistic.

            • avatar
              Michael Albert March 27, 2014 1:22 pm 

              We are not all equal – the same – in any regard. That is a fact, but nothing to be upset about. Indeed, how boring it would be if instead we were all identical in all respects. More, it will even be true that some people, due to extreme ailments, are not able to do most kinds of labor, or perhaps even any empowering labor, I suppose.

              But the idea that human tastes and capacities are such that it makes sense to have a corporate division of labor that structurally guarantees 20% all the empowering tasks in no way follows from that. And that view, I think your reaction is right, would be something to be upset about, if it was true. But it isn’t. Not remotely.

              The reason working class people do no empowering tasks isn’t because of some innate disposition or capacity in them that precludes their doing such tasks, or that would make them miserable doing such tasks in a balanced mix they chose, assuming training, etc., but because when they seek work, the only thing available is work that is disempowering and their lives have prepared them for obedience and to endure the boredom, and to anticipate and accept that outcome, or at least not fight it.

              This is little different than the reason blacks – in the U.S. in the past – worked in the fields (or sometimes mansions) as slaves wasn’t because of some innate disposition or capacity that suited them to being slave and not free, but because when they sought (or were pulled into) work, the only thing available was work that was for a master/slave owner.

              Black slaves had different innate dispositions and talents from one another – of course – but that had nothing to do with the organizational system that imposed slavery on them. Saying, as slave owners did, that the slaves were doing what they could, were happy, would not be happy free, etc., was self serving rationalization. The same holds for the corporate division of labor.

              And of course, whites had different innate dispositions and talents from one another too – during slavery, but on average not from blacks.

              Or consider women, again in the U.S. Fifty year ago, almost none had empowering tasks in their workplace jobs. That had nothing to do with innate talents or disposition. It had everything to do with social relations and structures channeling their dispositions, squashing their talents, and then giving them highly skewed options.

              So, it comes down to this. Take the 20% who are doctors, lawyers, engineers, high level managers, college professors, accountants, etc., and ask, do you think, at birth, there was some genetic difference in that population, as compared to the other 80%, such that the 80% could not do a mix of tasks conveying comparable empowerment effects or would be miserable doing them. I am sorry, but I have to be honest about this – that is not realist but is, instead, in its implications, classist. It rationalizes injustice.

              One might make a case that society’s need for output, achievements, etc. etc., in some areas, causes it to find, in the whole population, everyone with certain off the chart talents in those areas – but I don’t even see reason to think that that is true. It seems far far more likely to me, that for every talent having to do with decision making there is simply four times as much of that same talent lurking in people in the 80% as lurking in people in the 20%.

              I would grant that a person thinking that society may manage to find high levels of athletic talent without any biases excluding folks, is arguable, but really – on thinking about it, do you even believe that? I don’t. Look at sports and gender, sports and race. In the past. Okay, now ask how many Larry Birds, say, assuming he was working class, even in basketball-focused Indiana, never get off the farm, or even the beat up old court they played on for a few hours as kids…and so on, yet had great talent? It isn’t particularly relevant, but even in the few areas where so called meritocracy might cause those who occupy elite positions to belong there based on preference and capacity – I think it doesn’t. But let’s not sidetrack into that – the real issue is, if you have 200 people at some workplaces doing all the empowering tasks, and 800 people doing all the disempowering tasks, do you really believe that with full and free education, a different culture, etc., plus redefinition of work roles, and remixing of them – you could not have the 80% doing a fair share of empowering things, as the 20%, with an overall increase not only in well being for the 80%, and not only in participation generally, and level of solidarity among all who work in the firm, but even in quality of the work done and output levels per hour of sensible labor? And then there is the impact, writ large, on overall power and influence, conflict, solidarity, personal fulfillment and dignity, and so on.

              • avatar
                Ira Woodwa March 27, 2014 8:54 pm 

                I’d say I both strongly agree and disagree with you. Let me do my best to explain.

                I think most people are way more capable of and way more interested in empowering work than our world allows them to do. And I think finding some rationalization to accommodate this situation is almost ubiquitous among all classes. For some reason the irrational beliefs appear to help people survive.

                At the same time I strongly believe that some people have exceptional gifts of insight and strength that give them greater personal power. The rough opposite of this is someone who is mentally disabled or limited. The concept of genius most closely captures what I’m talking about. I don’t think genius is just about solving advanced physics problems, say, but also about the ability to read other people or maybe to simply be more determined than they are, or even to create relatively stunning art.

                I think one big source of all the pain and horror in our world is that we think or at least behave as though people with gifts are entitled to run everything. That’s a gross oversimplification, but my basic idea is that a solution involves both sides giving something up.

                I think we have a myth of equality that gets in the way of respect and compassion. If someone really is better at something, I think the mature response is to admit their superiority and move on, not hold a jealous grudge. On the other hand, if someone is worse at something, the mature approach is to be nice about it and use one’s gifts to offer service to others, not to jealously guard power.

                I think there’s probably a rough correlation between class and actual ability. But because of the operating principle you’ve described as ‘nice guys finish last,’ I think we have a lot of good but relatively low status though highly capable people, and a lot of relatively evil high status people who aren’t particularly bright.

                As for sports, I think you may be underestimating the sophistication of and resources behind modern efforts to promote participation and cast a wide net.

                • avatar
                  Michael Albert March 28, 2014 2:12 pm 

                  The idea that some people have great talents – nurtured in experience and training, to be sure – is not really a matter of debate, I should think. So I don’t know why you state it as if I or anyone would disagree. More, it also has nothing to do with what is at stake here – unless you think that it is moral and socially sound to elevate people on such grounds to domineering status. Born lucky, with a large frame, great voice, great power of calculation, or whatever – we should additionally shower them with additional benefits, welath and power. Why?

                  Take Lebron James – he has exceptional talent. No one would deny that – no one sensible, anyhow. Of course he could have died young and never expressed it, or gotten caught in a need for income and a debilitating job, or seen the poverty of options in the economy and opted for drug dealing – etc. Then no talent manifested. But, okay, he made it through the gauntlet of capitalism and racism, and now people enjoy and gain from the pleasure of watching him excel. So far, so good – should we give him incredible wealth on those grounds. Why? There is no moral justification I have ever heard for doing that. There is no economic justification either – though people do argue there is a positive incentive effect on him – that is incredibly dubious – and the same people then ignore the undeniable negative effects on others of this sort of income distribution.

                  Okay, switch to someone with intellectual talents – Chomsky say. The abilities are born, and nurtured as well, of course. Should Chomsky have more votes, more income, on that basis? Or should his income correlate, instead, to the duration, intensity, and onerousness of his labor (both morally and incentive sensible) and his influence (vote) be the same as everyone else’s, albeit with his efforts to convince others of things he has divined added to the mix? Even if we had an economy that somehow elevated people solely based on truly having intrinsic talents and utilizing them positively – like James and Chomsky – would that be good? Why? I am sorry to have to ask – but when you think about this, are you thinking about effects on the whole population – or simply about effects on the star, or star wanna be?

                  Now let’s take the other extreme. Someone with a deficit of some sort that precludes judgement, or whatever else. The person obviously doesn’t do the precluded thing as their way of doing “social valuable labor.” It is no different than my not being a forward on a basketball team, even when I was younger. My capacities preclude that being socially valuable. Someone with some mental deficit doing something they can’t would not be socially valuable. But these observations have little if anything to do with having balanced job complexes, or not. Because some people are blind and others have incredible visual acuity, we don’t forego street signs. No – blind people should not drive.

                  The opposite extreme is already dealt with above. The exceptionally talented won’t not utilize their abilities because they do not get rich by utilizing it, but only get a sensible income. They have no other route to get rich – so their real calculation becomes do I want to do what I have talent for, or something else? They will not reject being an expert on some topic, say, because they are not given tons of votes or just free reign to implement their views in that area – as compared to having to express those views, and get others to agree.

                  Now, consider the impact of a corporate division of labor – the real topic here. 80% of the population doesn’t get to utilize their talents. It is that simple. The neative incentive/productivity impact is enormous. In the 80%, I would wager there are four times as many geniuses, so to speak, as in the 20% who are utilizing their talents – albeit in a horribly restricted setting in which they have to simultaneously defined the advantages of their class. But far more important than the outliers – is everyone else. All those who could and should be dignified and respects equal participants in society, doing productive work, etc. etc., who instead, are throttled from being the full persons they could be. On incentive grounds, on moral grounds, looking at just individuals, or looking at the broad social implications – I see no argument for a corporate division of labor and every argument for balanced job complexes. And honestly, your comments don’t even address the issues, it seems to me.

                  No one remotely sensible believes a notion of equality that says that everyone is the same in all respects as others. No one, I think. But saying we should have, barring medical exceptions, equality, in precisely the sense that we should all have an appropriate (self managing) say over our lives, and all be entitled to a fair share of the economic and social product for our labors – is a different matter.

                  For you to be addressing the issue of balanced job complexes vs corporate division of labor and write “If someone really is better at something, I think the mature response is to admit their superiority and move on, not hold a jealous grudge. On the other hand, if someone is worse at something, the mature approach is to be nice about it and use one’s gifts to offer service to others, not to jealously guard power,” is hard for me to understand. This is what balanced job complexes permit and generate, as well as classlessness. It is a natural reaction, as well, but certain institutions crush the inclinations compelling defense of advantage, on the one hand, and anger or resignation at disadvantage, on the other hand.

                  Please don’t take this wrong – but I would ask you to consider whether your thoughts reflect careful reasoning based on serious exploration of arguments and evidence, on the one hand, or piecing together some claims that happen to correspond to – well – widespread biases, on the other?

                  You have yet to actually address points I am raising, directly – that I can see. Consider the attitude of men to women – to make it very stark, fifty years ago. So here is a case of someone saying “I think there’s probably a rough correlation between [in this case gender] and actual ability.” The person’s saying that, however, were horribly wrong, which should have been completely evident to them, but was not, because they were not spouting a view based on careful thinking, but, instead, a view that rationalized their advantage, or, sometimes, their disadvantage, in a socially accepted manner. So that can explain a view like yours.

                  Now I ask you again – do you really believe that if the 80% working class and 20% coordinator class folks – in the U.S., say – had, instead, grown up in a society where all had fair incomes (their families) all had full and rich education, and all embarked on their economic lives having to take jobs that had balanced job complexes – the result would be the 80% would be in over their heads, making a mess, and miserable – and the 20%, for that matter, would be outraged at their situation? Do you really believe, in other words, that there are literally genetic differences in these two constituencies – unlike for men and women in the case mentioned above – such that the most beneficial for each person, and for society, arrangement, is to have them instead enter jobs that are either (20%) empowering or (80%) disempowering?

                  Finally, again, I really think if you want to explore your concerns and these ideas further, the best way would be to examine a book like Parecon: Life After Capitalism – or if you want shorter, perhaps the economics part of Occupy Vision, and then formulate questions – and I would be happy to try to answer, or to change my views, should your arguments prove powerful.

                  • avatar
                    Ira Woodwa April 1, 2014 9:03 pm 

                    I wrote out a reply but didn’t get to a point where I felt it was ready to post. I will work on it again soon.

                    • avatar
                      Michael Albert April 2, 2014 4:25 pm 

                      Perhaps it would be better to realize that I wrote an essay, I have answered at great length your particular comments, and I just can’t keep doing that….beyond a certain point. ….

  6. avatar
    Andrew Knight March 20, 2014 10:57 am 

    Robin Hahnel’s ‘Of the People, By the People,’ does a great job at responding to views like mine and showing how parecon as a system can accommodate them while still promoting its goals. Chapter 11 is on Balanced Jobs. Easy to read and pretty short, highly recommend it.

  7. avatar
    Andrew Knight March 20, 2014 2:46 am 

    I’m no expert on parecon, but find it quite interesting and think there’s a lot of great ideas in it from what I’ve seen. The biggest hang ups I have with parecon is the balanced job complexes and the notion of the 20% coordinator class. On the balanced job complexes and trying to more equally distribute ‘empowering’ and ‘disempowering’ work I guess I just think at the core of it the notion of ‘empowering’ and ‘disempowering’ work is too subjective.

    Like the idea of the work of a janitor being ‘disempowering’ versus the work of a doctor being ‘empowering.’ I just don’t buy into that, that the doctor’s work is just intrinsically more empowering. To keep a hospital up and going I feel you absolutely need both and that you shouldn’t value one more than the other. Kinda like when Chomsky talked about the mechanic versus an ‘intellectual,’ and how in a lot of people’s minds that work is for a simpleton, yet for many it is very uplifting satisfying work that could be that much more so if they had more control on their conditions, hours, and pay. Being a mechanic requires intellect, maybe just a different sort than being a professor. Being a janitor requires intellect, maybe just a different sort than being a mechanic. If a hospital’s janitors all went on strike and they couldn’t find any replacements or scabs things would run a lot less smoothly and get pretty nasty in a hurry. Same goes for garbage disposal workers and just about any other job there is, outside of like corporate lawyers, telemarketers, things of that nature, lol, for example:

    http://www.strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/

    Some people may have more of a knack or passion for being a doctor and others for being a janitor. I think in such a workplace what would matter most is having as much democracy as possible on pay, physical conditions, hours worked, and the strategic overall direction and mission of the workplace. When most people hear of balanced job complexes even among the more radical I think something like this pops into their head:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCcaDPzcK7M @11:30-12:00

    Bear in mind it’s just a joke, with a lot of exaggeration, but something along these lines is probably about what most people think when they hear this sort of thing proposed.

    In a hypothetical democratic workplace I think everyone should sit down together and basically, be like, okay, so right now doctors make $250K and janitors $20K. Is this okay? Is it fair? I think if most people could vote to even those out they would and they would come together to the point that the pay and conditions would become pretty fair. Maybe not perfectly equal or just but pretty good. Then in my head after this is done in an individual’s workplace it should be done across the broader society. So the hospital workers (doctors, nurses, janitors) power, pay, and conditions aren’t overmatched or undermatched with say automobile factory workers (engineers, production workers, janitors) or credit unions (loan officers, tellers, janitors).

    I think that I get that a big part behind advocating balanced job complexes is that without them those that have the jobs that deal more with strategic tasks will basically be able to game the system and become entrenched separate classes. In a talk I heard Robin Hahnel give on Youtube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjJn0G2HLx0 @ 30:00-44:00)

    he answered a self-posed often heard hypothetical on typical anarchist concerns and fears on Iteration Facilitation Boards in parecon and how if they bothered people too much they could be replaced with an algorithm. Even with that I think some anarchists would still have a problem along the lines of ‘who writes the algorithm?’ How is it put in place and voted on? In such a scenario could perhaps the crafters of such an algorithm make it benefit them in some way that only they understand? I think this problem mirrors much of the concern and rationale behind emphasizing balanced job complexes. I think in such dilemmas the answer to both lies in insisting upon transparency, making the onus on the material being relevantly understandable on the presenters (be they economists, doctors, engineers, lawyers, loan officers, whomever in a ‘coordinator’-like position), and having the power reserved to greatly restrain these workers if necessary. By restrain I mean vote on their pay/consumption, sphere of influence, the ease and accessibility of becoming one (education or job training), etc.

    Onto the 20% coordinator class. I agree roughly with much of what I’ve read and heard with parecon on it but I think too much emphasis is placed on it and its power and what should be done about it. I think a better way of confronting the coordinator class rather than advocating or emphasizing balanced job complexes is to get them to better realize that they are actually not that much more better off and in such a different place of power than the other 80% and should join the 80% in seeking radical system change toward a more democratic one. Sure, an engineer has a lot better pay, physical conditions, and autonomy than say a janitor or a production line worker. Compare that engineer to an owner or top management or a trust fund kid or heir/heiress however and I think that the engineer has much more in common with the janitor than they do with the owners or management (what I roughly imagine is the top 1% or 0.01%). I don’t think most of the salaried engineers, financial analysts, doctors, and so on really are happy and fulfilled with their life and work. Time might arguably be the most precious asset there is and many, if not most, in the coordinator class greatly lack it:

    http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2014/01/27/140127ta_talk_surowiecki

    Though their relative economic position is considerably greater than the rest of the 80% how much real political power and meaningful control or influence do they wield over the rest of society? It seems that the 1% are constantly looking to reduce their number and power, look at the current state of work life in academia, being a professor, thought crafter, is historically probably one of the more coordinator-ishy of all occupations:

    http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/on-academic-labor/

    The recent revelations on Silicon Valley leaders colluding to keep down engineering salaries is another illustration of this:

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/03/google-apple-silicon-valley-free-market-joke
    &
    http://pando.com/2014/01/23/the-techtopus-how-silicon-valleys-most-celebrated-ceos-conspired-to-drive-down-100000-tech-engineers-wages/

    So, all in all, I’m very much an admirer of parecon and especially like its critique of markets, inequality, and the handling or lack thereof of externalities in the capitalist market framework. Despite my misgivings or misunderstanding of balanced job complexes and the concept of and response to the coordinator class I have great hopes for parecon and feel it is a great tool and template for future discussions and actions.

    • avatar
      James Wilson March 20, 2014 11:11 am 

      Hi Andrew,

      I guess balanced job complexes often cause a bit of angst among people. Difficulties in implementing them, how to measure jobs/tasks against one another etc.. The thing is doctors and lawyers aren’t always doing the things we think they are doing or should be doing while janitors on the other hand are pretty much doing the same thing day in day out. I’ve done it. There is plenty of stuff by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel on this sort of thing. Not to mention Michael’s little scenario, or test, he tries out during talks, contrasting working in a mine and working as doctor and how much one would have to lower the salary of doctors before those wishing to be doctors would eventually give up the idea and go work in a mine. Usually the salary, the person wishing to be a doctor would accept, falls below that of those working in a mine! Quite interesting. Also, why is it those used to running a business or being self employed often quite categorically state that they would never go work for someone else again. They could never be a wage slave! I always find that one illuminating.

      You are right regarding Chomsky’s little anecdote about mechanics and “intellectuals”. But it is easy to find singular professions like these to highlight one’s point. Not everyone can be a mechanic, let alone an intellectual and the difference between someone who cleans all day or all night, day in and day out, and a mechanic, is quite stark. Maybe the janitor reads, is even smarter than a doctor or lawyer, understands quantum mechanics and such. Perhaps they may be happy as a janitor, working by themselves, away from people(maybe they’re a little anti-social and don’t like groups). Perhaps their talents are being wasted while they persist at being a cleaner. Perhaps this is inefficient, but more than likely, perhaps, it is even highly unlikely to happen in the real world unless it was somehow forced on them in some way! As so much “work” is on many nowadays. Let’s say, rather, they are of average intelligence. Over time, one’s sense of self worth and confidence can disintegrate quite considerably doing the same repetitive rote work, day in day out, over and over. Not many or no-one to talk to. Physically demanding which gets worse as one ages. Not the sort of job people really respect to tell you the truth. Breathing in chemicals all day. Being told off for not doing a good job. And vacuuming bloody tough work over time.

      Further, and most importantly regarding the idea of balanced job complexes, even being a mechanic isn’t necessarily going to give that person the skill set that may be required to participate confidently in the democratic process. Participatory democracy kind of demands that all people, at least to a certain degree, feel confident to participate in the decision making process. It is not just a matter of having access to information or transparency. A doctor, lawyer, intellectual, engineer etc., usually has the necessary traits to participate in the decision making process, to conceptualize and understand available information, in spades, in comparison to say, the mechanic. But again, what about ALL the really shit work that is being done NOW, all over the world, that causes unbelievable mental debilitation and lack of confidence. Will all of it be eliminated in the new world? Really, all of it? Some maybe,but I doubt all of it. People talk of rotation of tasks but that doesn’t really cut it necessarily. Jobs balanced for empowerment doesn’t have to be perfect but is something that points to possible problems if it isn’t at least tried. Maybe participatory planning, with NO market allocation, would help to lessen the possibility of a coordinator class rearing its ugly head, but there is much evidence that Michael and Robin point to, that highlight the problems that can arise if hierarchical divisions of labour, not divisions of labour, persist. Even in Mondragon there have been blowouts of salary differentials from 3-1 to 9-1 within some worker owned/run coops (3-1 is bad enough!). Market pressures obviously, but much to do with consciousness as well- the way managers or professionals perceive themselves compared to say a janitor!

      I mean, set aside whether a doctor’s work or a janitor’s, is disempowering or empowering. Why does the doctor deserve more than the janitor, if they are actually working, I mean WORKING as in the amount of ACTUAL WORK over the same length of time. One hour’s janitoring is the same amount of WORK as one hours doctoring! It’s just that the tasks and skills are different. One hour of sitting down and thinking hard about recursively generated hierarchically structured expressions, is one hour of WORK for the linguist. In that time a picture framer makes six picture frames. The linguist can’t think faster than she does, nor can the framer physically work harder or faster than they do, so remunerate them the same. All things being equal that sounds OK, it’s just that all things aren’t equal. The linguist gets to think, discuss, teach, read some more, think some more, discuss, have lunch with other linguists and intellectuals and discuss interesting stuff, teach, write, read some more, talk, lecture, travel, teach, travel,get quoted in books or by others, attain a degree of fame, discuss,travel, teach and read some more ad infinitum. The picture framer makes fucking picture frames, over and over, and I can tell you, it aint as fantastic as it sounds (not that you may have thought it would be FANTASTIC). It certainly doesn’t possess an intellectual component that comes remotely close to that of the linguist or the doctor or the lawyer or the philosopher. Seeing original art work, talking for short periods to artists is kind of alright but it doesn’t suffice to equate it with the intellectual. Plus,there is a HUGE difference between working FOR a picture framer and owning the business. Then you are a picture framing wage slave. In fact, you work FOR the REAL picture framer!

      And my experience is that there is a substantial difference between the professional managerial classes mindset, confidence and sense of self worth and that of the wage slave who does repetitive rote work (Jeff Schmidt, who wrote Disciplined Minds, and who has read Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s The Professional-Managerial Class, questions the existence of the coordinator class). The phrase, “so and so has done well for themselves” also can be enlightening. It’s usually reserved for a certain type of work.

      There has to be a way to balance it all. It does still seem that balanced job complexes are very very controversial however. But they point to something very important – that of breaking down the barriers, many of them psychological (confidence related), to participation in the decision making processes that a bottom up, participatory self managed society may have in place.This is a very important aspect of balanced job complexes that often gets overlooked.

      http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1125403552886481.pdf

      Cheers. That’s my two bobs worth!

      • avatar
        Andrew Knight March 20, 2014 11:25 am 

        James,

        Good points and interesting link. Appreciate reading your two bobs worth, :)

        • avatar
          James Wilson March 20, 2014 12:40 pm 

          No problem Andrew. These discussions keep me honest! :)

    • avatar
      Michael Albert March 27, 2014 2:27 pm 

      Andrew,

      Thanks for your long and considered reaction. I will try to reply, but please understand, when someone reacts to an article seriously, the real next step is to look at a longer presentation. To raise lots of points, and ask me to react to all of them, on the face of it for one person is fine – but if everyone does it…well… And, as well, even if I give a lot of time to replying, as below, it won’t be as good as carefully developed and more complete presentations. So, I have to suggest, take a look at a book – say, Parecon: Life after Capitalism, as one option…

      > I’m no expert on parecon, but find it quite interesting and think there’s a lot of great ideas in it from what I’ve seen. The biggest hang ups I have with parecon is the balanced job complexes and the notion of the 20% coordinator class.

      Okay, lets’ try and clear up some…even in this comment space.

      > On the balanced job complexes and trying to more equally distribute ‘empowering’ and ‘disempowering’ work I guess I just think at the core of it the notion of ‘empowering’ and ‘disempowering’ work is too subjective.

      Everything in social life has elements of judgement, subjectivity. There is no avoiding that. But when you talk about a broad social policy, it becomes largely moot, once can assess reasonably…

      > Like the idea of the work of a janitor being ‘disempowering’ versus the work of a doctor being ‘empowering.’

      First, that is an idea that you proposed. How about the work of standing at an open furnace and doing a few movements over and over, all day…and being a doctor, or a custodian responsible for all kinds of decisions, which some are?

      > I just don’t buy into that, that the doctor’s work is just intrinsically more empowering.

      Here we have to understand what empowering means? It doesn’t mean more important in its outputs, it may or may not be. It means, instead, that the work done conveys to the person doing it, confidence, skills, knowledge, etc., conducive to participating in decisions – as compared to the work that conveys to the person doing it exhaustion and a generalized situation of obedience and subordination, literally, quite typically, diminishing inclinations to particpate, or having means to do so.

      > To keep a hospital up and going I feel you absolutely need both and that you shouldn’t value one more than the other.

      In the old Soviet Union there would be posters celebrating the importance of working class products, etc. etc. This did zero to change the reality of working class subordination. Not surprisingly. It is better to work for a kind slave owners, than a despot – to be sure. But one remains a slave even in the latter case. There are better and worse folks to have as bosses and designers and determiners, above oneself – but one remains below…

      > Kinda like when Chomsky talked about the mechanic versus an ‘intellectual,’ and how in a lot of people’s minds that work is for a simpleton, yet for many it is very uplifting satisfying work that could be that much more so if they had more control on their conditions, hours, and pay.

      Think it thorugh. You are saying, if one has control over one’s circumstances the quality of one’s situation improves. Okay, let’s take someone who does rote back breaking tasks, at the will of others. Suppose that person really has control over their circumstances… Consider the result. Balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration, I would say… in time.

      > Being a mechanic requires intellect, maybe just a different sort than being a professor. Being a janitor requires intellect, maybe just a different sort than being a mechanic.

      First, you shift from empowerment to intellect. Second, it depends. Being a mechanic who merely follows instructions – not so much empowerment. How about flipping burgers, working on an assembly line, or in a field, picking stuff…etc.?

      If doing certain tasks of a janitor or mechanic are empowering, than those can be part of the empowering part of a balanced job complex. But if others are debilitating and disempowering, then they can also be part of a balanced job complex, but off set…

      > If a hospital’s janitors all went on strike and they couldn’t find any replacements or scabs things would run a lot less smoothly and get pretty nasty in a hurry. Same goes for garbage disposal workers and just about any other job there is, outside of like corporate lawyers, telemarketers, things of that nature, lol, for example:

      You could say the same about slaves – it is just irrelevant. It lets one put up a poster saying the working class is society’s bakcbone or whatever – but it does nothing for their income or participation.

      > Some people may have more of a knack or passion for being a doctor and others for being a janitor.

      Again, it just isn’t relevant. I would never be a surgeon, say- no matter how good society was – even as a part of my balanced job complex. So? I can, however, do a balanced job complex with elements suited to my desires and capacities, just not surgery. That some people don’t want to be, or couldn’t be, a surgeon as part of their work load – even in the best imaginable society – says nothing, literally nothing, about balanced job complexes. Those who could, and want to, likely would be surgeons, in their balanced job complex. Those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, would not be.

      > I think in such a workplace what would matter most is having as much democracy as possible on pay, physical conditions, hours worked, and the strategic overall direction and mission of the workplace.

      But you are simply ignoring the issues. The claim is, corporate divisions of labor, guarantee the opposite of what you say you want. That is where the idea of balanced job complexes is sound, or is vulnerable – but it is also the aspect of it no critic ever addresses…

      The fact that many people initially react negatively to balanced job complexes – and it isn’t remotely clear that is true for working people and a clear and full exposition of the idea – says virtually nothing about the merits of the idea – just as the fact that slave owners (and even many slaves if asked in their slave context) would react with horror at the idea of abolition, said nothing about the merits of ending slavery.

      > In a hypothetical democratic workplace I think everyone should sit down together and basically, be like, okay, so right now doctors make $250K and janitors $20K. Is this okay? Is it fair?

      It is a separate issue – but if you are going to have folks doing operations and medical disgnosis and treatment and so on – mainly – and others cleaning bed pans, etc., mainly – I think what is fair is that the latter would get higher income than the former, not less.

      > I think if most people could vote to even those out they would and they would come together to the point that the pay and conditions would become pretty fair. Maybe not perfectly equal or just but pretty good. Then in my head after this is done in an individual’s workplace it should be done across the broader society. So the hospital workers (doctors, nurses, janitors) power, pay, and conditions aren’t overmatched or undermatched with say automobile factory workers (engineers, production workers, janitors) or credit unions (loan officers, tellers, janitors).

      The trouble is, you are talking about decisions taken without addressing the context in which they would be taken. Just make analogies to saying similar things about people in a dictatorship, say, or working on slave plantations, and so on.

      The issue is, does the doctor, lawyer, etc. etc. think that balanced job complexes are a horrible idea out of sincere belief that all those not doing empowering work are incapable of it, or wouldn’t want any of it – or simply to defend their advantage. The thing is, it doesn’t matter. The latter reason leads to a person also trying to defend income, etc. etc. But so does the former. Because the former reason leads one to believe one is superior, able to enjoy the finer things in life money can buy, and on and on. This is a class issue, a class hierarchy…

      Can people in it, reject it? Of course. But doing so, like rejecting slavery say, means deciding to overcome institutions…in the case we are discussing, the corporate division of labor.

      > I think that I get that a big part behind advocating balanced job complexes is that without them those that have the jobs that deal more with strategic tasks will basically be able to game the system and become entrenched separate classes.

      It is not gaming the system – it is, instead, acting precisely and fully in accord with the system – if the system includes a corporate division of labor – among other accompanying features.

      They don’t somehow cheat or engage in some vile violation of social norms to become a separate class – rather they are a separate class by virtue of existing social norms.

      > He answered a self-posed often heard hypothetical on typical anarchist concerns and fears on Iteration Facilitation Boards in parecon and how if they bothered people too much they could be replaced with an algorithm. Even with that I think some anarchists would still have a problem along the lines of ‘who writes the algorithm?’ How is it put in place and voted on?

      The point of the algorithm comment is to show that what is done by these boards is mechanical, not laden with value judgements.

      > In such a scenario could perhaps the crafters of such an algorithm make it benefit them in some way that only they understand?

      Take someone flying a plane with passengers. Imagine the power. Take someone conducting a surgery. Imagine the power. Take someone fixing – or not, the electricity flowing through a building. Imagine the power. In each case, in a parecon, for the person to hurt others is possible – but for the person to aggrandize themselves is virtually impossible. So if some maniac has such a job, they can hurt, and there therefore would have to be judicial response. The same goes for someone working at a facilitation board – they can’t increase their own income, etc. etc. I suppose they could disrupt the system – if they were pathological, and on one noticed – but every conceiveable system has such possibilities – although, the algorithm answer does deal with it…

      > I think this problem mirrors much of the concern and rationale behind emphasizing balanced job complexes.

      If there is a community of planners – as in central planning – who literally are deciding economic outcomes in concert with similarly elevated people inside firms – then, yes, it is the same issue. That is called centrally planned socialism – and it is, in fact, a coordinator class ruled economy. But all the while, those with the power will tell themselves they are exerting it in the interests of all, even as they get richer and more powerful – after all, they deserve it, and others are doing what they can and what they deserve.

      > I think in such dilemmas the answer to both lies in insisting upon transparency, making the onus on the material being relevantly understandable on the presenters (be they economists, doctors, engineers, lawyers, loan officers, whomever in a ‘coordinator’-like position), and having the power reserved to greatly restrain these workers if necessary. By restrain I mean vote on their pay/consumption, sphere of influence, the ease and accessibility of becoming one (education or job training), etc.

      This is no different than saying the same thing – restrain those with power to diminish the harm – about slave owners, men, whites in white supremacy, owners, etc. It says, let’s allow the disparity in circumstances that yields the disparity in power/influence, and also income, etc. but lets put in guards against the worst violations. That is better than having no guards. But it is very very far from freeing slaves, eliminating patriarchy, elevating minorities, getting rid of owners, etc. etc.

      > Onto the 20% coordinator class. I agree roughly with much of what I’ve read and heard with parecon on it but I think too much emphasis is placed on it and its power and what should be done about it.

      Do you think maybe you feel that way because you expect to be, or hope to be, or are, in that group? That is why owners would say the same thing about owners, and so on…

      > I think a better way of confronting the coordinator class rather than advocating or emphasizing balanced job complexes is to get them to better realize that they are actually not that much more better off and in such a different place of power than the other 80% and should join the 80% in seeking radical system change toward a more democratic one.

      First off, they are in an incredibly different place. And if you don’t believe that, I can see how it might lead to some of the opinion you are voicing. But, I hate to tell you, it is very similar to happy slave conceptions, in the past.

      Second, when that class is motivated to seek change, it can be one of there types – put restraints on owners, eliminating owning, or eliminate class hierarchy. The first is typically some kind of social democracy. The second seeks a coordiantor economy and often has the shape of Leninism – though not always. The third, I would argue, will include, as a key component, replacing a corporate division of labor with balanced job complexes.

      > Sure, an engineer has a lot better pay, physical conditions, and autonomy than say a janitor or a production line worker.

      You say that as if, well – big deal. But it is a big deal….

      > Compare that engineer to an owner or top management or a trust fund kid or heir/heiress however and I think that the engineer has much more in common with the janitor than they do with the owners or management (what I roughly imagine is the top 1% or 0.01%).

      I am not clear why you think that because there is an owning class above coordinators – the fact that coordinators are above workers is moot. The point is, one can seek to overcome capitalists norms in ways that eliminate class division – or in ways that get rid of private ownership but retain class division.

      > Though their relative economic position is considerably greater than the rest of the 80% how much real political power and meaningful control or influence do they wield over the rest of society? It seems that the 1% are constantly looking to reduce their number and power, look at the current state of work life in academia, being a professor, thought crafter, is historically probably one of the more coordinator-ishy of all occupations:

      Again, that there is a class above the coordinator class, which the coordinator class struggles with – which is true, in part – doesn’t mean that their own huge advantage over those below them – is somehow moot.

      This is the bottom line.

      To have people able to own slaves – yields horrible results – for house slaves, and even more so, field slaves. Thus, abolition is sought by some, even as others seek, instead, rules that will diminish the most horrible effects of slavery particularly on behalf of the house slaves…but also to a degree the field slaves.

      To have capitalists able to own the means of production and hire wage slaves – yields horrible results – for those in the coordinator class (at least in certain respects) and for those in the working class. Thus a new classless economy is sought by some, even as others seek, instead, changes that will diminish the most horrible effects of working for a capitalist, particularly on behalf of the coordinator class… but also, to a degree, the working class.

      If the above is insufficient for you – which I could well understand – and you want more – great. But in that case please concult a full length book, then if you have questions that take into account what it says, I will be happy to answer.

      • avatar
        Andrew Knight March 28, 2014 2:35 pm 

        Thanks MIchael, you make great points. I feel like a teetotal corporate lackey now, haha. As I made sure to preface at the beginning of my little comment I am most definitely no expert on parecon. By ‘hang ups,’ I was trying to convey more just a sense of unease or worry than like outright opposition. I was just posting from the perspective of someone who is only very casually familiar with parecon and who is more of a commoner, giving my 2 or 3 err 10 cents worth.

        I’m definitely not in the coordinator class, but do wish I got paid a lil more like they do. Don’t see that ever happening though, lol!! Right now I’m working as a clerk making $9.00 an hour. For two years before I worked as a production worker in a factory on an assembly line putting together hard disk drives and their boxes making about the same. Having balanced job complexes at the computer factory would’ve been awesome, but just seems so utopian. I hated that f’en job, it was like walking into an Orwellian hellscape every morning.

        I got Parecon:Life After Cap, The Political Econ of Parecon, and, for good measure, and the pictures, Parecomic on their way in the mail to try to look into parecon, balanced job complexes, the coordinator class, and all a bit harder and more in depth. Thanks again, and keep on keeping on!!

        • avatar
          Michael Albert March 28, 2014 2:43 pm 

          Hi again Andrew,

          I understand, and posting your concerns makes good sense, of course!

          An Orwellian hell scape indeed – but why would getting rid of that seem utopian – meaning impossible. Imagine being a slave on a plantation – feeling it was permanent, and thus trying to make do, is a sensible short run reaction. But – it has the downside of making the long run prophesy more likely…

          When you get the books – and if you have time to read them – tough in our world, I know – and then have some continuing concerns, by all means bring them up. Either as a comment, or perhaps it would be better to use the new forums…

  8. avatar
    Tj March 18, 2014 9:57 pm 

    There’s a huge amount of managerial lit that goes into organizing today’s world. Whereas few have written Parecon lit. Many innovations on top of Parecon are possible.

    And Parecon doesn’t have to run perfectly. Parecon firms won’t all be the same. (Even now, capitalist firms fail all the time; people change, a competitor destroys them, etc. Tech startups are even proud of their enormous failure rate.)

  9. avatar
    Alex Kramer March 17, 2014 2:48 pm 

    Thank you, Michael, this is very helpful.

Leave a comment