Recently an essay criticizing participatory economics was brought to my attention, via IOPS. "A workers' critique of parecon" appears on the site libcom, at http://libcom.org/blog/workers-critique-parecon-11042012 I quote the piece extensively as I reply.
I should perhaps also note my motivation. While there is nothing in the essay that I and others haven't addressed often before, still, I wanted to respect the effort by addressing the author's comments directly. More, the concerns in the essay keep coming up, seemingly without reaction to each round of replies – so I can only reply yet again. Hopefully someone will put this essay on the libcom site, as well as its appearing here.
The author, Steven Johns is mostly concerned about parecon's remunerative norm – which, as he rightly notes, is that we should, in a good society, receive income in accord with how long we work, how hard we work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we work, as long as we are doing socially valued labor.
Johns prefers, though it is never made very explicit, much less seriously explored in his piece, that we instead work to our ability, and receive to our need, leaving society no need to have remunerative norms other than personal preferences. My most recent round of addressing views like these – which were put forth considerably more extensively than here – can be found in another article: "Querying Young Chomsky," at http://www.zcomm.org/querying-young-chomsky-by-michael-albert If concerns over parecon's remunerative norms and methods concern you, that might be a good additional "exchange" to view for further exploration, as the young Chomsky was a very strong advocate of the "from each, to each" position.
However, for here, as Johns accurately summarizes: "The four main planks of parecon are: Workers and consumers self managed councils, Balanced job complexes, Remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, and Participatory planning."
Johns adds that he finds the third of these "planks" – remunerating duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor – "most problematic," "because the central plank of the communist programme has long been the abolition of wage labour." I hope readers are already a bit alarmed at the formulation that a claim is "most problematic" because it conflicts with another claim that the critic takes as "central." Johns, however, usefully explains further: "parecon … instead of abolishing wage labour proposes a "fair" way of allocating wages."
Whether parecon is wise to do this, we address below. Interestingly, Johns puts the word "fair" in quotes, but never in the essay addresses whether the parecon norm strikes him as anything other than "fair," equitable, etc. That isn't the issue for Johns. The issue for him is instead his concern that having any way of allocating income at all, other than individual's personal preferences deciding how much they work, and what they get, is problematic.
First, Johns is saying, as best I can tell, that to have a fair – and I prefer the word equitable – way of allocating income is already, transparently (he offers no argument, only the statement) to preserve "wage labor." This may be horribly confused depending on Johns precise meaning.
Wage labor, sometimes called wage slavery, is a term most often meant to cover the employment and payment of workers by owners via a system of workers selling their ability to do work for some period of time to owners who in turn extract as much actual work as they can coerce from the workers' time they have bought control over, all for maximizing owners' profits. Okay, Johns says he rejects that. Well, parecon advocates too say, we reject that. Are parecon advocates missing something that means that, no, they really are trying to preserve "wage labor," meant this way? That seems to me to perhaps be what Johns is implying, and certainly something that others have at times asserted.
In fact, however, having a way of allocating income, and thus a guiding norm for income allocation, and a means of accomplishing that norm, whether implicit or explicit, is simply unavoidable. It will exist in every society and every economy that will ever exist because in all such societies people will get a share of the social output. Of course the norms and structures for arriving at how much claim on social product different people have, can be fair, worthy, and viable, or the norms and structures can be skewed to benefit some at the expense of others, or they can even be completely unworkable.
Parecon believes its norm and methods offer a fair, worthy, viable option. Johns' mistake, assuming he believes that parecon's norm means it is preserving "wage labor" as this term is used by critics of capitalism, is to think that the mere fact that people get income – wages – means the system has wage labor, or wage slavery, as it exists under capitalism, or even just waged labor that is exploitative and alienating, as in any class divided system.
In this Johns goes beyond merely being wrong. It is quite like if someone argued that if we have production, then we have capitalism. Or if we have decision making, then we have authoritarianism. Or if we have procreation, then we have sexism. This way of arguing is depressingly widespread, but it mistakes something that we must have but which can be done either equitably or not – in our case, income allocation – for something that is both inessential and also vile, in this case owners employing what are called wage laborers or wage slaves.
The only reply I can imagine from Johns that would reveal that he does not have this particular confusion would be for him to say, wait, I don't mean parecon preserves wage slavery. Nor do I mean parecon preserves wage labor meaning capitalist labor. Nor do I even mean it preserves wage labor meaning exploitative or alienated labor – all simply because it has an allocative norm and methods for income determination. That would be silly. I just mean that parecon preserves workers getting income that is related to their work, and that is what I reject.