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Debate Conclusion


I guess a conclusion for an exchange is mainly a sum up. I am not sure I can do that, and avoid repetition.

 

I advocate participatory economics as a replacement for capitalism and in the opening essay I briefly described the values parecon seeks to implement and the institutions it uses. There follows the exchange/debate with George Monbiot.

 

Parecon is a vision untried in practice, at least beyond some tiny experiments. As such, it needs to be mercilessly assessed against logic and the evidence of our understanding of social structures. If it makes it through that, it should also be tested by use in near-term structures and efforts. But the assessment should in any event be of the system‘s actual features, which has made this exchange somewhat frustrating because Monbiot has given so little time to assessing parecon’s particular institutions. George’s criticisms of parecon, instead, make nearly no reference to parecon’s own structures but offer only general claims about human nature and purportedly inevitable attributes of economic life. That’s fine in the sense of posing problems that parecon has to address…but then one has to look at the specific means of addressing the problems parecon claims to have.

 

George doesn’t specifically say how he feels about council self management, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, or participatory planning. No specific faults are found with any of these features. No virtues of them are noted.

 

I can see one possible logic to debating a model while giving no attention to its specific content, as I think George has done in this exchange.

 

Suppose someone comes to me and proposes a perpetual motion machine. They have dozens or hundreds of pages of description of the proposed machine. Do I then read all that description and explore its nuances, or do I ignore the description and call upon broader knowledge to reject the claim outright without

(needless) close perusal? I would do the latter. My belief in the laws of thermodynamics is that strong. In other words, sometimes rejecting a proposal without assessing its specifics is quite sensible.

To me, it seems that for George an alternative economy that is truly just and equitable is just plain impossible. In any society he (like many other people) feels there will always be large disparities in wealth and power, because even if such disparities were temporarily blasted away, they would inevitably arise anew. Any proposal for a good society must therefore accept as a basic law of social dynamics, call it the “hierarchies abound principle”, that humans will competitively differentiate themselves into rich and poor. If a model doesn’t take the hierarchies abound principle as a foundational fact, taking as a given that differentials will exist and then finding means, presumably, to prevent them from being overly damning, the model will be flawed.

 In other words, if someone like myself proposes a vision that claims to attain a classless condition totally eliminating lasting significant unjust hierarchical differentials, it is enough for Monbiot to repeat that the proposed economy can’t be workable without addressing the proposed economy’s actual features, just like my repeating to an advocate of perpetual motion that the second law of thermodynamics isn’t out of style would be enough in that case, even without making reference to his proposed machine’s actual features.

The trouble with George’s stance, as compared to rejecting claims for perpetual motion, is that there is no first, second, or third law of social dynamics which says that any society will inevitably, by virtue of underlying human attributes or group logic, incorporate class rule of the many by a few, or will inevitably incorporate any other gross and lasting disparities of wealth and power, for that matter. George repeats a few times his thanks for my efforts and I appreciate that, just as I thank him for participating in this exchange and of course for his journalism, but I wish that instead of making this explicit, he had read more closely the descriptions of parecon and either found fault with the actual institutions, or not.

George is right that I keep saying that under parecon certain things can’t, or rather won’t, happen. But I also provide reasons why that is so, which George denies, saying that I don’t.

 

For example, when I say that some aggrandizing person can’t/won’t in a parecon go off and become a capitalist employing wage slaves, I point out that there is no way for such a person to get inputs for a capitalistic workplace, and that no one would have reason to work at it because they couldn’t earn more than elsewhere and would suffer worse conditions and indignities than elsewhere, and that the workplace would have no inputs to use in production since the participatory planning system would not respect its existence. And I of course note there is no way for the aspiring profiteer to buy the productive assets in the first place, and so on, and so forth. When I say, responding to another of George’s concerns, that few people in a parecon would even think to function in a black market so surely those who do could be contained by legal norms, again, I offer reasons why that is the case, for example showing that stealing would not be very lucrative compared to normal legal work of the same duration and that it would be very difficult if not impossible to even carry out much less to benefit from, even before considering penalties for it.

When George says that he begins by taking for granted that certain bad results, like a few people commandeering society’s productive assets to control the rest “can and will happen under any system,” “unless he knows how we will prevent them,” I say, sure, I agree that we need to know what structures prevent class rule from existing or emerging, what structures prevent gluts and shortages,  what structures prevent gluttony or poverty, and what structures prevent even just inefficiency, and more, how proposed new structures produce positive outcomes that we desire.

But that’s why the descriptions of parecon explain how parecon’s institutions preclude diverse kinds of behaviour, making it unproductive, unrewarding, and even too hard to carry out to be a rational pursuit. And that’s why the descriptions show how the institutions make other types of behaviour rewarding and thus prevalent. And isn’t doing all that, which is what the overwhelming bulk of the discussion of parecon does, precisely “explaining what prevents” the bad outcomes George worries about, and what yields, instead, preferable outcomes?

What else is a parecon advocate doing than explaining the institutional factors curtailing negative hierarchies from forming and inducing desirable outcomes for all actors when he or she describes how parecon’s remuneration scheme provides appropriate incentives to elicit useful and humane levels of work, how its allocation methods generate true social costs and benefits and deliver goods and services to meet needs, how its decision mechanisms deliver appropriate influence to actors so they can self manage their affairs, and how all of these structures together equilibrate circumstances and conditions to prevent class divisions while also making violations of the system’s normal procedures counter productive? What else then what George is asking for is the parecon advocate doing when he or she shows how balanced job complexes and participatory planning facilitate bountiful production which however respects desires for leisure, as well, and which avoids class division by removing its basis in the monopolization not only of productive property but also of empowering circumstances?

When George keeps saying that bad results such as (presumably) the emergence of a new class (or rejuvenated old class) of rulers will subvert parecon’s stated aims, and when he at least to my eyes ignores my answers as to why it won’t occur, instead giving new examples of its occurrence in other historical settings, I just don’t known how to take the discussion further other than to repeat myself in brief here, and to recommend whole books on parecon, which of course address all the points more comprehensively and, I think, compellingly, than I can do in this short exchange.

It does seem to me, I admit, that if George or any other critic of parecon claims that its allocation system and production arrangement will inevitably lead to unjust hierarchical arrangements, which we can then perhaps limit but certainly not avoid entirely, but then this critic refuses to address claimed reasons for why hierarchies won’t exist in a parecon, the critic is implicitly treating parecon in the same way I would treat a proposal for a perpetual motion machine. George, for example, seems to me to ignore the content of the parecon proposal, presumably based on some overriding prior beliefs. What can those prior beliefs be? I am not sure, but reading his comments it seems to be that George has come to feel that a social system must take account of not just the possibility of anti-social behaviour, which of course every system must, but also of anti-social behavior’s ubiquitous and largely successful inevitability, if it is to have any chance to work. For George, at least as I read him, a good economy can’t eliminate class division, and can’t deliver self management, etc., because however desirable such attainments might be, they are impossible. Seeking classlessness is a fool’s errand because the best economy we can hope for will inevitably incorporate gross inequalities. The best we can do is incorporate ameliorating structures that manage to avert cataclysm by protecting against our economy’s hierarchies’ most extreme implications. That’s how I read George’s comments, at any rate, but it is not how he sees his own position, I am aware.

 

George says… ”We have to devise, if a system like (parecon) is to survive, the means of preventing (harmful human traits) from re-asserting themselves. I have been trying to discover whether or not you have done so. As you deny that such a problem can arise, I conclude that you have not.”

I think this methodology is fine, but it seems to have nothing to do with George’s own approach to assessing parecon, and of course I don’t deny that the problem of class division and harmful behaviour arises and can reassert, but instead I claim that parecon has “the means of preventing” reassertion that George says he is looking for. I don’t assume classlessness, in other words, I make a case that particular institutions can deliver it.

Indeed, Parecon is conceived overwhelmingly in accord with George’s injunction. For example, I believe that what has been called market and centrally planned socialism have institutions which cause harmful human behaviour patterns to reassert, class division and class rule in precisely George’s sense. But when I make that argument I do it by showing in detail how the market and/or central planning systems and the corporate workplace organization induced by market and centrally planned socialism demarcate its populace into a coordinator class and a working class, including providing the former with means and reason to aggrandise itself at the expense of the latter and indeed virtually compelling that it does so. I show how the institutions of the system, in other words, produce the unwanted results. That’s exactly what George isn’t doing regarding parecon, though it is what his injunction would imply he ought to do, it seems to me.

Parecon is precisely a conception of economics self consciously designed to remove all – not just some – of the institutions that produce class division and to replace them with new institutions which accomplish economics in a liberatory way, instead.

If George said, wait, I think that balanced job complexes can’t eliminate class division for these specific reasons having to do with its implications for people’s interests and behaviors, that would be a case, not an assertion. If he said maybe balanced job complexes and parecon’s other features can get rid of class division, but they would also have these horrible side effects that would dramatically reduce human well being in these particular ways, that too would be an argument. If he said remunerating effort and sacrifice must fail because it has bad incentive implications that would be self destructive in these ways, or because it won’t be abided by the populace for these reasons of their contrary interest, or if he showed that it must have vicious side effects and demonstrated how they would arise, that too would be a case, not an assertion. But there is nearly nothing like that in this exchange and what little there is, I reply to, and it seems to me George simply ignores those responses.

 George, in other words, doesn’t talk about what people would or wouldn’t do in context of parecon due to its incentive effects and role structures, or talk about bad effects these would have, but instead only asserts that there are things people will do in any system and that since I claim these behaviours would be essentially absent in a parecon, I am unrealistically assuming my results. But in fact, I argue why the behaviours would be largely absent in parecon, I don’t assume it.

In his final response, however, George gets down to at least a few specifics. We have a whole participatory economy with vast networks of workplaces and allocation in which classless economic life goes on. In response to his general worries about people behaving in ways that would subvert parecon, I described to George in my last message what is arguably the one realm in which one could self-interestedly find a way to engage in black market exchange inside the system – the realm in which the obstacles would be least, that is — which is illicitly bartering tennis lessons (or other personal talents that don’t call for much equipment to utilize), supposing one was really good, of course. I also explain, however, that given the debits doing so would not be lucrative enough or otherwise rewarding enough to attract folks, even before considering outlawing such behavior with penalties, and I note that this would be the case even if the tennis star didn’t give a damn about being moral. George contests my claims.

George says: “So let us examine in more detail how such problems could manifest themselves. You use the example of the great tennis player, and claim that, under your system, people cannot pay him for lessons `because non-planned financial transfer isn’t part of the economy’. Sure, it’s not part of the economy you have devised.”

 Correct. And that is what we are discussing, isn’t it? A parecon and whether it could work.

 George continues, “I understand what you say about balanced job complexes, workers’ and consumers’ councils, self-managed decision-making and participatory planning.”

 I think what George means is that he sees how these structures would have nice collective qualities for people who abide them. But, I don’t think he sees how these structures create a context in which individually not abiding them becomes essentially irrational.

But what I am trying to explore with you is whether or not other economies emerge in parallel with the parecon economy, and have the capacity to vitiate it.”

Which is certainly fair enough, though I feel I have answered this a few times already.

George continues: “Now let’s say that I take black market lessons from the tennis player, and reward him with a fancy watch. Let’s say he already has a watch, so the new one is of no direct value to him. But someone else might want one, so he has an incentive to trade it for something he does want but which parecon has not allotted to him: a gold ring, for example. Already we see the emergence of a market, and the valuation which accompanies that market. Ten lessons are worth a fancy watch, which is worth a gold ring.”

It’s sort of a minuscule market exchange, yes, a black barter exchange, but please note that the person exchanging the ring for the tennis star’s watch has zero reason to do so if the ring is worth as much as the watch, because if the person wants a watch not a ring, they could have gotten the watch in the first place, legally. The only incentive anyone would have to barter for the tennis star’s illicitly gained watch is if the tennis star is giving them the watch cheap – at which point they of course immediately know it is illicitly gained. In other words, the black marketeer has to reduce his benefits and reveal his practice, if he is to barter the watch, or at least if he is to barter lots of watches. More, unless the watch is worth quite a lot more than the appropriate income for the labor time of those lessons, the black marketeering tennis player is a moron since he could have done better or at least nearly as well, with no hassle, no risk, and no opprobrium, working legally for the same hours. So let’s say it is the best Rolex available because this tennis star is so great a tennis teacher that folks are really eager for his instruction beyond that of regularly available lessons within the system.

What does the tennis star do with what he accumulates? Does he wear it? If this is a serious issue for parecon, he will be doing this over and over and accumulating a lot of contraband. How does he explain to everyone his excessive wealth? How does he explain, moreover, that he has no real job (or is he doing all this on top of his regularly balance job complex employment)? It is not a watch he has garnered, presumably, but many watches, and rings, and big TVs, and whatever else he accumulates for his efforts. But this kind of significant extra wealth cannot arise legitimately within the parecon. So if our tennis star is doing something substantial, he is a crook and everyone knows it. More, where is he giving these lessons that are presumably going on outside the normal work day? What courts are allotting time to him to use for black market exchange – certainly none that are in the planning system. Even assuming this great tennis player doesn’t give a damn about social solidarity and morals, etc., and wants only to materially aggrandize himself, it turns out that black marketeering to any significant extent is a foolish pursuit even in this special case which is optimally suited to it, and this is so even before we consider possible penalties.

George replies, “Now you would say that he has no incentive to obtain a gold ring, because he won’t be able to wear it, as to do so `would be violating social norms’.”]

 

Well, no. What I said was pretty much what I said above, which is that if our tennis star did this to any significant degree it would reveal to all and sundry that he was a crook. In capitalism you can steal gargantuan amounts and flaunt it because being wealthy can arise in many ways. In a parecon, even supposing you could get the tennis courts to use them for illicit lessons, and could get the customers surreptitiously as well, and even if you could trade the lessons you give for material items from your students, and then trade the items you get for items you really want without too much loss in value, supposing that your undertakings are significant, you can’t flaunt or even make visible what you wind up with – because the only way such wealth could be gathered is by being a crook.

 

George replies, “But just think how powerful and invasive those social norms would have to be if they were to stop him from wearing it.”

 

Sure, if we are talking about someone amassing minimal gains – it could go unnoticed, just like now people can steal candy in the corner store or cheat a little on their taxes, say, and if no one notices the act, no one would know it had occurred merely by seeing them day to day. But George is presumably talking about people becoming so wealthy they can hire wage slaves and not even a fraction of that kind of wealth would go unnoticed, even with no one looking closely for it – not to mention that no such possibility of buying workplaces and hiring laborers exists in any case.

 

Why is anyone going to violate the norms of social life, which reward them quite well, for minimal gain or for gains that have to be hidden?  That is what I asked earlier, and what I repeat now. And if some people will try to do it, for whatever reasons, and some will even find a way to do it, then like in any society, there can be laws and penalties and I can’t see why laws against theft that are a small fraction as draconian as those we have now wouldn’t be a more than sufficient deterrent even to people who are profoundly anti-social. It is very rare, I think, that you find well-off people stealing low volumes of wealth in highly risky circumstances, even in our honesty-abusing society. It probably occurs when the person is basically a kleptomaniac, motivated by the actual desire to be anti-social, not by the gains to be had.

 

George says, “co-operation, human decency, solidarity: all have been repeatedly sacrificed on the altar of human greed. I emphasise this not because it’s what OUGHT to happen, but simply because it’s what DOES happen. If social norms are your only defence against excessive consumption, they will have to be very powerful norms indeed.”

 Well, would you try to cheat, in a just and equitable and classless economy, for minimal gain, requiring great manipulations, at risk of your dignity or even of material penalties, or even without the risk for that matter? If not, is it because you have different genes than other people?

 

But in fact the norms and structures preventing antisocial behaviour in a parecon are very powerful ones indeed. They are a little like (but I think actually more powerful than) the norms in our society that you can’t own a slave. I don’t even know if there is an explicit law against owning slaves now, probably there is, but surely it is largely irrelevant. People don’t seek to own slaves in any event, so that what was once a mark of great achievement and a road to great wealth is now virtually a non phenomenon simply because the structures and values of our economy make it almost impossible to even think of slave owning, much less viable to carry out slave-holding – and that’s true even in a society as oriented to individual greed and violation of others as ours is. Thus by this example we see that it is more than possible for institutions to reduce or even essentially preclude certain patterns of behaviour by making the choices involved in those patterns socially ostracized, personally counter productive, and virtually impossible to carry out in any event. That is what parecon does for personally accumulating wealth or power at the expense of others. And then, as need be, you can add on laws against theft, just like you can have laws against murder, rape, etc.

 

How does parecon work this structural magic? Again, it isn’t by assuming saintly people. It is by removing the structural features that permit self aggrandisement at the expense of others, including removing private ownership of productive property, monopolization of empowering positions in the economy, remuneration for anything other than duration and intensity of socially useful labor, and market allocation.

 George says, “Now I know you don’t want me to keep banging on about the lessons of history, but given that we don’t yet have a living parecon model which we can test, I find it hard to see how else we might assess your proposal.”

 

History is relevant and must be consulted, I very much agree. I do it all the time. What I don’t want anyone “banging on about,” however, is wrong assertions of the meaning of history. I think many real lessons of history – such as that markets and central planning breed class division even among people who would rather have equity, and that corporate divisions of labor and remunerating output do likewise — are tremendously germane. These lessons, for example, teach us not to seek to improve on capitalism via a path that leads to a new kind of class divided economy (which I call coordinatorism and others call market or centrally planned socialism). Yes, I agree, we should learn from history.

 

Learning from history, however, doesn’t mean looking at it, seeing some recurrent patterns, and claiming that as a result of their prevalence up until now we can deduce that they are permanent. Once upon a time, one could have used that flawed methodology to show that cannibalism was permanent, or feudalism, or slavery, or women having no say in social outcomes, and so on and so forth. What learning from history instead does mean, is looking at history to find patterns and also their institutional and social causes, and then presumably proposing how social conditions could be changed to yield different patterns.

 

George says the onus is on me to show why in a parecon a great tennis player won’t give lessons on the sly, be paid in watches or gold rings or other paraphernalia, accumulate these goodies and exchange them and thereby gain such great wealth that he will be able to then broker luxuries to his neighbors in a way that enriches him still further, all of this eventually to the point of being able to subvert parecon by paying wages – in items – to wage slaves.

I believe I have done that, among many other tasks bearing on making a case for parecon. More, I hope folks will feel like just maybe parecon is an economy that could meet needs without class division. If folks do feel that way, even just maybe, then I hope you will take a look at a full description of parecon. Surely that would be worth your time, given the importance it would have for us all if, in fact, parecon does prove to have the claimed attributes.

 

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