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Pat Devine on Parecon


I was happy to see a review of Parecon: Life After Capitalism in the journal “Historical Materialism” (Issue 15, 2007). The author, Pat Devine, agrees on the importance of economic vision per se. He is also quite familiar with the model called participatory economics, or parecon. Devine rightly says I reject market socialism and centrally planned socialism, but he fails to mention I do so because each system violates values I find central to liberated economic life, including equity, solidarity, and self management. Each system creates an economy wherein about 20% of the population – who I call the coordinator class – dominates the rest of the population, the working class. Class rule exists in these two so-called socialist economies because they each utilize institutions that inexorably allot a monopoly over empowered labor into the hands of 20% of the workforce, the coordinator class. These so-called “socialisms” get rid of private ownership, and thus they transcend capitalism. On the other hand, they retain corporate divisions of labor in workplaces and either markets or central planning or a combination of the two for allocation. Because of this, they become not socialistic, but instead coordinatorist. Indeed, my concern to envision a new economic model came about precisely because I desired to advocate a classless economy rather than an economy that removes a ruling class based on monopolizing productive property only to replace it with a ruling class based on monopolizing empowering tasks.

 

Devine lists the central institutions of parecon as “participatory self management, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, nested workers and consumers councils, and an iterative allocation process.” This is accurate except that I very explicitly call parecon’s allocation system, “participatory planning.” Devine writes, “Albert rejects central planning and market socialism and does not discuss participatory planning.” Since a large part of the book discusses what I explicitly call “participatory planning,” and since this “participatory planning” is one of the four key institutional features of participatory economics, at first I didn’t understand Devine’s claim. Only on rereading Devine’s words did I realize that the “participatory planning” he was referring to when he says that I don’t discuss it, was his own version of the meaning of that phrase: negotiation of only major investments and perhaps the large scale output of some major industries in a participatory manner, but market allocation for everything else. Devine is right that in this book I don’t explicitly address his version of allocation, especially under his label for it, but I do implicitly make a case in the book that that type of picture is an incoherent aspiration because markets can’t be confined, on the one hand, and because wherever you have markets, you have horrible outcomes, on the other hand.

 

The point is, having markets for some industries, in Devine’s vision for most industries, means that you have market prices in those industries – which is to say you have horribly distorted prices in those industries. Exchanges therefore occur in light of false information. What’s worse, exchanges occur with antisocial motivations – to maximize surplus regardless of losses to others. Making things still worse, if some other industries, using a cooperative negotiation to arrive at choices, utilize market prices for inputs from market-ruled sectors, then they too will arrive at distorted outcomes. What makes the situation abysmal, undercutting nearly all the sought gains of having some participation, is that if markets produce class division and class rule wherever they operate, as I claim they do – an element of the book I wish Devine had addressed – why would we want to retain markets anywhere at all? In this case, having some markets would just be a precursor to having markets for all things. Class difference and class rule would spread at the behest of those in dominating classes who inexorably impose their preferred structures ever more widely, out of both conviction and self interest.

 

In other words, from a pareconist perspective, Markets are harmful wherever they operate and are also imperial in their tendency to spread without limit. Wherever markets operate, they distort valuations, impose crass individualism, bias allocation choices especially for public goods and for goods with affects that manifest on audiences beyond buyers and sellers, and impose corporate divisions of labor and in turn class relations and class rule. So why have markets at all? A ton of arsenic is worse than just a lot of arsenic in your dinner, no doubt, so getting rid of some that arsenic is good, but less arsenic is still bad. Getting rid of some therefore isn’t enough. What tops off the case, however, is that markets spread inexorably. It is as if retaining a little arsenic would breed more, until it was everywhere, killing all but the few who thrive on arsenic, so getting rid of anything less than all of the arsenic would be horribly insufficient. Markets impose their competitive logic and tend to advance their structures into every nook and cranny, at the behest of the elites they benefit as well as structurally on their own account due to the lessons they teach and the motives they impose on everyone, not just elites. Markets are a bit like a virulent disease, in this regard, both deadly and invasive. Putting all this another way, opting for what Devine wants to call participatory planning – which for him is markets for most items and cooperative negotiation only for a few items deemed most central – is a little like saying let’s opt for political dictatorship for all but the biggest legislative decisions (whatever biggest may mean) ignoring that (a) all the other dictatorially decreed decisions would dramatically constrain the remaining few big ones, and (b) that the mindsets and relations and structures emanating and expanding from the sway of permitted dictatorship would pave the way for ever more dictatorship with elites who are created by the former limited dictatorial features expanding their sway to seek the latter ubiquitous dictatorial features, as well.

 

Next, after describing the idea of nested councils of various sizes, Divine writes, “There is face to face social interaction within the different levels of worker’s and consumers’ councils, but not between them.” Well, yes, it is true that whole populations of councils don’t square off, so to speak, face to face, person-on person, but this is a truism for all large economies, rather than a revelation. After all, how could it be that whole populations usefully or even physically meet face to face? On the other hand, parecon most certainly does incorporate the means and potential as well as circumstances and times, for workers and consumers to communicate, assess, and refine qualitative as well as quantitative information about their procedures, social relations, and personal preferences both in and across levels and types of councils. It is interesting that in one mood critics of parecon like to say it has too many meetings, which is why we point out they are not ubiquitous or mandatory, and in another mood they like to say that it has too few, which is why we point to the many features facilitating direct exchanges. Critics never seem to bother with what parecon actually incorporates, flexible levels depending on conditions and desires, and most interestingly choose among distorted interpretations, as best I can tell, in accord with which distortion a particular audience might be most expected to dislike.

 

Devine also says a couple of times that parecon has only an unspecified approach for dealing with externalities – but in fact dealing with goods that affect more than just their proximate buyer and seller due to having what are called external effects is a central focus of parecon and there are whole chapters addressing the matter, both early in the book Devine is reviewing, and then also later in the part responding to possible concerns as well. Why not note this? Why not react to what is offered? More, on what possible grounds can someone who thinks markets for most things are okay be concerned about externalities, in any event?

 

Devine also implies that there is some kind of high level council over and above all others, perhaps a hidden manifestation of central planning, but there isn’t, another point addressed directly not only in the body of the presentation, but also in the later reaction to possible concerns. There are other such confusions in Devine’s descriptions as well, all of which, apparently coincidentally, carry a kind of pejorative spin and ignore what the book presents that is, in fact, related to the points raised.

 

To round out dealing with what I find to be unclear points, let’s jump to some concluding criticisms Devine raises. Devine claims near the end of his review that parecon treats people as workers or consumers, but not as citizens. He elaborates about this, claiming it is a serious failing because it neglects the political dimension of society. The problem with this assertion being offered as a criticism of parecon is that of course I agree that indeed this exclusion of politics would be a serious failing if I wrote a book claiming to describe all that is central to a better society and the book ignored political relations. However, Parecon isn’t a book that claims to do that, as Devine certainly knows. Parecon is an economic system and only an economic system. Since societies are more than just economies, having a participatory economy wouldn’t alone define what a society is, or even all aspects of economic relations, for that matter, but would exist along with accompanying political, cultural, and kinship institutions, all of which would together determine the society’s defining features and dynamics. Devine knows that advocates of parecon fully understand this point, and that we are, as a bunch, incredibly anti economistic, not least myself. Indeed, a chapter of this book in the section Devine notes deals with criticisms, makes precisely his point, not peripherally, but as its main focus. If Devine thinks that that discussion fell short of addressing his concern, I wish he would have acknowledged its presence and pointed out how. Devine also knows that in other places such as the follow-up book Realizing Hope and numerous essays, I have written on such matters in considerable detail, as called for in the book Parecon, including advocating a developing political system called participatory polity as another part of what would all together constitute a participatory society. Why does Devine assert that this isn’t the case? Not only is the book that Devine reviews very clear about emphasizing that economy is not the totality of what matters as well as about the need for parecon to be compatible with needed innovations in other also critical parts of social life such as politics, but there are even examples in the book that Devine reviews that explicitly make the point that economic outcomes are subject to constraints that citizens might politically impose, say a law against killing owls, to give a simple example, or health codes, zoning laws, labor laws, trade norms, and so on. Why act as though it all isn’t there when it is, other than because doing so piles up reasons for rejection, even if unwarranted ones?

 

Devine wonders why parecon has attracted the growing attention it has and figures maybe it derives from support for the nice values parecon offers. I too think that the merits of parecon’s underlying values are part of the reason for the growing and diversifying interest and support for parecon. But then perhaps Devine should have conveyed what those pareconish values and their meanings were a little more fully. More, perhaps Devine should also consider that other readers may actually like the institutional proposals of parecon, its institutional substance, and not just its values.

 

In any event, Devine next disparagingly suggests that parecon “is not situated in the context of the rich historical and theoretical experience of past and present discussions.” This kind of claim seems to resonate with many folks as a definitive reason to ignore some proposed idea or assume it is wrong. In fact, of course, while an idea being divorced from prior experience should indeed make one highly suspicious of its likely worth, in the end, whatever our initial expectations for them might be, ideas should stand or fall on their operational merits, not their lineage. Suppose someone is locked away in solitary confinement from a very young age. She introspects and imagines her way to a vision for some part of society. Yes, we can reasonably anticipate that due to her isolation there is a very strong probability her vision will be quite flawed, but, in the end, the product of her imagination and introspection is what it is – and if it proves to be really good, even against the odds, so be it. But, that truism aside, this claim of Devine’s that parecon is unconnected to recent or past history of events or ideas is misplaced, not only for being not as horrible if it were true as Devine asserts, but also for being transparently false. Devine himself edited a full issue of Science and Society on the topic of post capitalist models in which parecon was central and its co-author, Robin Hahnel and I addressed other models offered, and their authors addressed parecon. As Devine also knows, I routinely and willingly debate just about anyone, anarchist, Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist, corporate advocate, market socialist, libertarian municipalist, etc., trying to explore commonalities and differences with people who currently advocate other views. If it were to turn out that Devine himself had done far less of this interacting in generating and then assessing his preferred vision, would that make Devine’s views subject to Devine’s criticism? Not from me, but maybe he would have to give himself a poor review, to be consistent. Likewise, diverse book and article length discussions of parecon, including the book that Devine reviewed for Historical Materialism, invariably include discussion of market and centrally planned socialism, bioregionalism, and of course capitalism, as Devine even acknowledged in his review. More, I have written extensively about related values, concepts, and historical experiences, both regarding whole countries such as the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, and regarding more specific experiences, such as say, in Latin America and particularly Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela, in East Europe and particularly Poland and Yugoslavia, in Asia and particularly China, in West Europe and the U.S. and other places as well, and also about schools of thought, such as Marxism, Leninism, anarchism, libertarian communism, libertarian municipalism, etc. Saying someone has proposed a vision without attending to history or to related views is like saying someone beats their spouse. The claim, whether or true or false, just in being made, turns heads and swivels opinions. Is that why Devine, like virtually all other critics of parecon, repeats this claim despite its being so obviously false?

 

Of course Parecon wasn’t conceived nor does it exist in a vacuum. It was conceived explicitly in light of the history and thought of current and past times. For that matter, I’ve spent 30 years personally working in institutions rooted in activism, organizing, and social change (SEP/Z) which themselves operate on pareconist principles, learning from the experience, and writing about all the matters Devine says I ignore. So I have to wonder what exactly is the “historical and theoretical experience of past and present discussion” that parecon “ignores”? Devine knows all this to be true, or could know it, at any rate, by paying the slightest attention to the evidence, just as he knows that rather than ignoring participatory planning pareconists make it a centerpiece of the vision, more so, even, than in his own, and just as he knows pareconists call for rather than neglect political vision, and just as he knows parecon facilitates wide and thorough collective assessment and deliberation of conditions and preferences. I wonder why, then, he writes his review as he does.

 

The last paragraph of Devine’s review of parecon presents what Devine believes a good set of concepts for a new economy would include. In Devine’s own words, he seeks “social ownership, defined as ownership by the different groups affected by the use of the assets involved in proportion to the degree they are affected.” Well, with a little caveat, I wholeheartedly agree with this. That is, I agree that people should influence the choices about the use of assets according to the degree they are affected, which is what parecon calls self management and is a norm that to my knowledge parecon first and alone made so explicit. But I don’t agree that people should accrue the product arising from those assets according to degree of involvement but, rather, that they should earn income in proportion to how long they work, how hard they work, and the onerousness of the conditions of their work, assuming, of course, that their efforts are socially useful. I think Devine would probably agree with this caveat, or at the very least would agree that of course the people who work in a hospital or for an oil rig shouldn’t on account of being most involved in those workplaces get huge wealth due to those institutions producing outputs of huge value – while folks who instead are most involved in workplaces producing much less valued outputs only get to scrimp by. In a parecon, people influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by them, yes, as Devine says he finds desirable, but people receive claims on output in proportion to effort and sacrifice. In fact, I think Devine’s preferred conception regarding how to think about control over assets is precisely what the chapter on ownership in the book Parecon proposes, albeit with the necessary caveat.

 

Next, and also in his concluding paragraph, Devine says he favors negotiated coordination defined as a process through which “social owners negotiate the production or investment plan for their enterprise or industry” (plus having a democratic political realm for exploring and agreeing on shared values, etc.). Here, however, there does arise a real difference, I think. If Devine wants workers and consumers to have a say over social assets in proportion they are affected by them as his definition of social ownership implies, which desire I heartily agree with, he can’t then say that he wants the production or investment plan for a workplace or industry to be negotiated by solely the workers in that workplace or industry. Nor can he say he wants most workplaces to operate in context of market competition, because these latter choices would obstruct and even obliterate the former desire.

 

The fact is, what is done in a workplace can also affect and generally does also affect the neighborhood it is in. So local residents would need to have a share of say as well, to accord with Devine’s social ownership sense of self management. More, when a workplace produces some output, say bicycles or heart transplants, obviously the consumers who will wind up with those outputs are considerably affected too, not just the producers of the outputs or the people in the area of the workplace. So the consumers of the products too, must have a degree of say. What’s more, if we sincerely care about giving people appropriate say over decisions that affect them, then we have to acknowledge that when a workplace uses some input, whether labor or rubber or electricity or whatever else, of course that particular set of inputted items cannot be used, instead, for something else. The rubber that is embedded in a bicycle’s tires can’t simultaneously be used in basketballs. This means that the decision to produce, say, 10,000 bicycles in fact affects the availability of rubber for every other item rubber is used in, and, taking it even a step further, affects the availability of all those items for other items they may go into producing, and thus the bicycle choice influences everyone in society, at least to some extent. And the same goes for other amounts not only of massive dams or electrical grids, we produce, but also toothbrushes or pencils, across every other industry, rather than just a few. Yes, what goes on in a particular bicycle factory affects workers in that bicycle plant most. And it affects bike riders, at least in sum total, next. And it affects the residents of the neighborhood of the plant, next, unless there is some especially egregious impact, making the affect on them much greater. But what goes on in the bicycle factory also affects Devine, say, even if Devine doesn’t work on bicycles and lives across country from the plant and doesn’t even ride a bike. Devine, in that case, may have preferred that some of the rubber going to bikes, go, instead, to basketballs, because Devine, let’s say, is an avid basketball player. The point of all this is that economics is an entwined system in which all aspects depend at least to some extent on all other aspects, and in which, therefore, all actors need to have a way to manifest their preferences to influence outcomes across the whole economy, though with no more or less say than befits the degree they are affected. What this comes down to is that I like Devine’s first formulation about deciding on asset use, and I thus propose not only self management norms inside all workplaces and all councils and federations of councils, but I also propose a participatory planning process so that workers and consumers can collectively, with appropriate levels of influence, cooperatively negotiate an overall economic plan in every corner of the economy, not just at its highest reaches.

 

And this brings us back to the center of Devine’s review, his overriding concerns about parecon’s approach to allocation.

 

Devine seems to think that participatory planning as undertaken within parecon is in some sense a manifestation of “neoclassical” economic thought morphed through a central planning element. I don’t know why he in particular thinks this nor do I know why, as with his other concerns, he makes no reference to the sections of the book that respond to people feeling more or less as he says he does about parecon. But the serious points at stake are as follows, I believe.

 

Any economy will have production and consumption, and broadly, between the two, items will arrive at destinations, which is to say there will be inputs arriving at firms that produce, and outputs leaving them and arriving at other firms or at consumers – who could be individuals or groups. Different items will have different relative valuations as evidenced by the final quantities produced and consumed overall. How the economy decides how much of different items are used in production or emerge from production, and where it all winds up, is called allocation.

 

Broadly, in a centrally planned economy a set of agents called central planners do the deciding, though in possession of various sorts of information culled in diverse possible ways – watching store shelves, polling people, getting reports from managers in plants, introspecting, and even imposing facts by fiat. There are diverse reasons to reject this approach but mainly it is authoritarian due to placing vast influence over outcomes into few hands. A derivative problem, of course, is that the deciders will advance their own interests disproportionately, and will have flawed information to work with, as well, but even if these problems didn’t corrupt outcomes, those who favor self management, or even just democracy, still would not want planners alone deciding.

 

The allocation approach most often employed, both within capitalism and also beyond capitalism, is markets. Separate actors choose their own behavior in a competitive struggle for material advance. Buyers try to buy cheap. Sellers try to sell dear, as well as to reduce costs of production by all available means. Each tries to fleece the other and indeed has no other way of acting that isn’t both infeasible for want of information to guide it and, in any case, inadvisable due to being competitively suicidal. You can’t act on behalf of other parties in market exchanges even if you want to because you don’t have information about their conditions and preferences. And you won’t even think to do so, or want to do so, because you must seek to advance only your own market share, regardless of impact on others, lest you suffer calamitous failure. In a competitive allocation system, producers caring about others and acting for the social good deters their material advance. Corporate thuggery, in diverse forms, prevails not due to in-born depravity, but due to thuggery being structurally the only available option for attaining success.

 

Along comes parecon’s participatory planning. Is it different or is it just a blend of two flawed systems, central planning and markets? Well, parecon’s participatory planning has workplaces and consumers and relative valuations (prices). It has inputs and outputs. It has communication of information. It has supply and demand. Its participants try to do well. If you look that far and you look no further, then, yes, markets and central planning and parecon’s participatory planning, and Devine’s favored allocation method as well, and every other conceivable allocation method, are all the same. All have all those general features and if we look for no other attributes, then there are no grounds to claim the options are different. It is a bit like seeing a house and a garbage can and saying they are the same as one another because they both have metal, both have open space between bounding walls, both have a top and bottom, and so on. It is, in other words, nonsense, because it leaves out most of what matters. What in fact distinguishes various approaches to allocation is how their decisions are reached, how their prices emerge and what attributes they have, what the motives of their actors are, and lots of derivative features such as the likely trajectory of their outcomes, and in particular the class relations present or absent among their actors.

 

In parecon’s participatory planning, producers and consumers exchange information about their preferences for inputs and outputs as well as about their local conditions and the conditions’ implications, and step by step arrive at an initial economic plan. They later negotiate changes in that plan, as well, step by step, arriving at the year’s actual choices for inputs and outputs, and also accurate relative prices. This step by step cooperative negotiation of contributions and benefits is conducted by those doing the activity, both individuals and groups. More, each actor is not out to fleece the rest, but to generate an agenda that is broadly optimal for all. Is this last optimistic prognosis because I assume everyone in parecon is suddenly a saint? No. It is made because I believe the participatory planning allocation mechanism, coupled with balanced job complexes and remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, creates a context in which each person seeking to advance their own well being has no choice but – if he or she is to succeed – to act in accord, as well, with advancing the well being of others. Unlike in a market process, in a parecon you don’t get ahead by someone else doing worse, but only by the collective results of the economy getting better – whether enlarging its overall output or improving its overall quality of work roles – or by your choosing to do more at no cost to anyone else. Finally, also, while parecon arrives at an initial plan at the beginning of a year, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t refine and adapt the results over the course of the year. Of course it does, as the book Parecon, for example, describes. I won’t even bother to run through all the misleading spins of Devine’s descriptions of parecon’s participatory planning, as I don’t think it would be very fruitful, and it would in any case take pretty much presenting the whole model as the book does in the first place. What really matters in all this, however, is understanding that a set of allocation institutions can have broad implications for economic life, for example contouring the motives and in turn the largely emergent personalities of people, biasing valuations and thus skewing the make-up of inputs and outputs, improperly accounting ecological implications and giving motives to producers to violate the ecology thus destroying the planet, and for that matter also motivating producers to violate consumers and other producers as well, all to cut costs, including imposing class differences.

 

If you transcend private ownership of means of production but choose authoritarian institutions for allocation you get results reflecting the will of authorities and you have most people relegated to passive obedience. Both Devine and I reject that. If you choose competitive allocation institutions, instead, you get a war of each against all. Not only does solidarity get obliterated, so does equity (as power determines incomes and produces huge differentials), and so does self management  (with coordinators dominating choices and markets horribly constraining the range they can take). All hope for classlessness is buried under the domination of coordinator class members above workers. With markets there are many other problems as well, not least misvaluing virtually every item in the economy due to misaccounting external effects. I reject all this. Devine rejects it too, at least for what he deems most important in the economy, investment, but he retains markets and their implications, in my view without explanation, for everything else.

 

The cooperative negotiation of outcomes by workers and consumers councils, with no center and no top, with participation by individuals and by groups in accord with how people are affected, with as much or as little discussion and deliberation as sensible choices and the desire to get on with life warrant, with accompanying structures that deliver equitable incomes and circumstances to all participants and that deliver, as well, both accurate valuations and self managing say in councils to all participants, all taken together, according to parecon’s advocates and also according to the book Devine reviewed, overcome markets’ various problems. In reply, Devine’s forays into socialist calculation problems, the Austrian School, etc., as best I can tell, have just about zero to do with any of this – in part because those formulations didn’t have much to offer in their own right, and in part because they simply aren’t germane to participatory planning. To argue, for example, that the need to incorporate tacit knowledge in decision making reveals a basis for rejecting parecon, is to me incredible. The correct ideas embodied in this stance are that the knowledge of workers is essential to sensible decisions and that that knowledge won’t be wholly available to central planners. These true observations become an argument for markets, however, only by joining them with the additional idea that markets involve the local worker (and consumer) directly. The trouble with that claim is that markets only in part involve workers and consumers directly and, in any case, provide no mechanism for what is important about their local knowledge, tacit or otherwise, to enter the allocation process.

 

First, on the production side, markets involve the workplace directly, yes, but that turns out to mean markets consult the owner and coordinators, or just the coordinators, but not the workers per se, much less workers who by their position in the economy have been prepared to develop and communicate useful tacit knowledge effectively.

 

Second, since the owners and coordinators, or just the coordinators, have as their only possible market mediated motive the amassing of surplus via growing market share, most of their tacit knowledge or any that they manage to cajole from workers below, is dysfunctional to and censored by the process. That workers know the impact of their labors on themselves is barely utilized at all, and likewise that they know the impact of their labors on the local environment, or even on consumers – save to utilize it in antisocial ways seeking profit for a few.

 

On other words, market motives, despite markets being a decentralized institution, preclude humane use of workers’ tacit or explicit insights. What participatory planning does, in contrast, is create a context in which workers and consumers councils can and in fact must consult their own tacit knowledge, of which they have more because of their increased participation, and the tacit knowledge  of others in the economy as well, conveyed by mechanisms suited to that task, if they are to optimally operate for themselves and simultaneously for others. Ironically, therefore, what Devine is agitated about, in his Austrian mode, implies, as with his other concerns, a reason to advocate parecon’s participatory planning, not an argument against it. More, Devine’s concerns are, if valid, a good reason to decide against having cooperative negotiation for only a subset of economic inputs and outputs – say investments – while leaving the rest to markets, which is what Devine inconsistently favors, since markets in fact subvert rather than facilitate the use of worker’s tacit knowledge. Thus, the actually quite limited insights the Austrian school has about information militate for cooperative, participatory allocation for all goods in the economy, not for markets for all or even just some goods.

 

When Devine writes that the book Parecon doesn’t explore highly technical debates among economists that are largely peripheral to its contents, he is correct. But I think Devine knows that another book by myself (and Robin Hahnel), Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics, goes very deeply into all these issues, including the technical aspects. More, when Devine says that the underlying logic of parecon is neoclassical economics, he is either spinning reality madly or he can’t distinguish a thing from its opposite. In fact, for what it is worth, I am about as anti neoclassical economics as anyone could possibly be, maybe too much so, some would argue. I am a market abolitionist. (Imagine claiming that a vigorous fighter for the abolition of slavery was motivated, in fact, by the philosophy of slaveholding. It would seem you should have very good evidence to say such a thing, since it would be just about the worst and most degrading thing you could say to such a person.) In fact, I think that the concepts of neoclassical economics are designed to rationalize market profiteering, not to explain their full implications, much less to transcend their failings. Devine says he wants me to interact with the world of other approaches, but then he castigates me for sometimes using words that people with other approaches will actually understand and relate to, something which I try to do, however, only when interacting with those audiences. Devine says “parecon is wholly neoclassical.” This is beyond strange. The model is wholly that which it is aimed dead on to eliminate? Anyone who actually understands and critically rejects neoclassical economic concepts and results would, at least in my view, also reject, as horrific, the use of markets for allocation, as I do. Devine, however, miraculously, does not. Apparently Devine rejects neoclassical economics, though I am not sure about that, but nonetheless embraces the markets it reveres for most of the allocation that will occur in his image of a better world. In contrast, I reject neoclassical economics for reasons that are spelled out in enormous detail in many places, and for reasons that are also implicitly evident throughout the book that Devine reviews and that are particularly evident in its discussion of markets as well as participatory planning,, mainly the fact that its concepts leave out most of what matters about economics such as its impact on people’s personalities and motives, class relations, social relations, etc., and then I reject markets too. But somehow Devine nonetheless thinks it is okay to try to tar parecon with this label, “neoclassical.” Likewise, Devine calls parecon conceptually “individualistic.” This is also incredible, at least to me. I understand the point of levying this calumny as a good way to tar the system to someone who knows nothing of it. But other than having that intent, what could the formulation mean? The model called parecon is built around collective councils not individual people. The model called parecon makes self management by collectives virtually unavoidable, as compared to elevating egocentrism and obliterating solidarity as do the markets that Devine largely favors. The model called parecon creates a context in which my gain is a function of your gain, rather than my gain being a function of your loss, so that solidarity is built in.  This is all the opposite of individualistic in the pejorative sense, so what reason is there for Devine to dismissively call parecon individualistic?

 

Finally, Devine says another problem with parecon is that it lacks pluralism and diversity. This is another claim which, if true, would be very serious. But in fact, diversity is one of the four primary values of parecon. Yes, it is true that a participatory economy will not include markets, a corporate division of labor, or private ownership of means of production, and will not include remuneration for output or power, either. A participatory economy will instead include participatory planning, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and workers and consumers councils as agencies of self managed decision making. Does this mean that on these particular points parecon is not pluralist? Yes, I suppose it does mean that, in the same way that modern bourgeois society does not pluralistically include slavery, say. Does that mean however, that parecon lacks diversity? No, that’s absurd. Parecon is not a blueprint, but is instead a description of some core values and a very few centrally important institutions that appear to parecon’s advocates to be necessary to guarantee respect for and fulfillment of those core values. Beyond that, everything in a participatory economy is determined by workers and consumers on the scene, including many and diverse ways of arranging their choices, opting for outcomes, mediating relations, measuring effort, dividing up jobs, etc. In a society with a participatory economy, different workplaces and communities will be incredibly varied one from the rest, in an endless list of ways. But, yes, this variation won’t include incorporating a small set of people dominating the rest and in that one respect, therefore, it is true that some options are indeed prevented in a parecon, though thereby making a host of other options such as fulfilling work, equitable remuneration, and self management possible. Does it make sense to call ruling out horrendously oppressive structures an absence of pluralism and diversity? I don’t think so. I appreciate Historical Materialism giving space for a review of Parecon. I appreciate Pat Devine taking the time to write one. I wish it had better addressed the actual system.

 

 

 

 

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