Michael Acuña

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    Michael Acuña

    I’ve also noticed that the forum software only enables a limited time span to edit a post before that option is eliminated. Users like myself, who only noticed typos and errors after reading them posted, may find this somewhat irksome.

    Michael Acuña

    Been reading this and haven’t quite finished as I’m falling asleep (1am here in Melbourne Australia) but just wanna say thanks to both Michaels for the exchange. Lucid questions followed by lucid answers, which will, I hope, be helpful for myself when discussing Parecon with others.

    You’re welcome, James. I’m glad you’ve found this discussion as enlightening as I have.

    Michael Acuña

    I am going to try to shorten things up a bit… and we really do need to do that…

    I apologize for that. I’ve been told that, when writing, I have a tendency to elaborate my thoughts to a superfluous extent. I’ll attempt to be more concise from henceforth, although it’s rather difficult to do when discussing subjects of this magnitude.

    Okay, if we ignore a sense of social responsibility, if we ignore a sense of justice, if we ignore concern about the broader ill effects, and we focus just on an individual – then, yes, Joe might very well prefer a job with only empowering tasks, to any balanced one. I rather doubt, however, that there are any Sarahs who would prefer a job with only disempowering tasks, to any balanced one. So I would say, even if we ignore the larger implications, there is nothing much of concern here – UNLESS one believes that the roughly 80% who do only disempowering tasks in their jobs, do so out of preference and would be seriously oppressed if they had education, training, confidence, etc., and had only balanced jobs to choose from.

    Contrary to the assumptions of neoclassical and Austrian economists, exceedingly few workers under capitalism ended up in their occupations out of preference alone, so I’m definitely not arguing that proletarians are currently where they’d like to be in the division of labor or that they’re employed in professions they freely chose. As is ever the case in class societies, unjust circumstances shaped their decisions.

    To recapitulate, my argument concerned whether society (or a workers’ council) could ever establish a sensible criteria for determining a task’s relative level of ’empowerment’ or ‘disempowerment,’ being that those are rather subjective concepts. For instance, I find cooking a meal well and even cleaning my apartment empowering at times, because it demonstrates that I mastered those crafts, whereas attempting to engage in, say, software engineering would probably feel disempowering, being that I don’t know the first thing about it and the occupation doesn’t interest me enough to care to learn more. But since everyone in parecon would be employed in firms which specialized in things they find agreeable anyway, that matters not. Moreover, being that I affirm that workers should have the right to collectively decide which tasks they’d like perform in their workplace and the manner by which those tasks are to be balanced, my prior misgivings have been extinguished. You succeeded in convincing me of the desirability of the practice by highlighting the many beneficial consequences it would have for society. I maintain that there are more individuals that would find tasks ordinarily considered ’empowering’ to be uncomfortable to engage in than you might imagine, but we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that point.

    Returning to its feasibility.

    So the question is, if we take the 80% and provide education, confidence, comfortable circumstances of upbringing, etc. etc. will there be enough people able and also eager to doctor – one fourth as many per 1000, as in the pool of 20%? Well, I don’t know how to say this gently and be honest. To think not, is makes sense only if one believes, even if only implicitly, that the 20% dominate and the 80% obey because capacities and preferences that cause that outcome are wired into their genetic make up. The reality is, there may be some very modest “meritocratic” effect in current societies – but I doubt even that. I suspect the pool of medical capacity among 1,000 randomly chosen members of the coordinator class pool, and 1,000 selected from the working class pool is very close. So, in fact, we can not only replace the lost medical work, but add to the total if that is what society needs and desires, even as we also reduce the amount of rote, obedient, repetitive work by innovations and eliminating needs for control, etc. I won’t even bother to talk about the increased effectiveness of medical work when the back biting hierarchies of welath and power are removed, not to mention the profit seeking pressures and motivations.

    Being that capitalism is fundamentally incapable of providing the entire populace with an equal environment to develop their capacities in, it would be disingenuous to claim that our current division of labor is meritocratic in any meaningful sense of the term – although you’re correct that it is slightly more so than it had been in previous generations. Be that as it may, one has to meet a certain threshold capacity before being able to competently engage in a trade. And though it’s an imperfect tool for evaluating one’s cognitive ability, IQ is one method researchers utilize to measure this.

    The mean IQ for doctors today is 130, two standard deviations above the mean IQ for the United States taken as a whole, and ten points higher than the mean IQ for registered nurses. At present, approximately 2% of the population have IQs at or above 130. When we expand the IQ range to account for doctors who can perform the job with IQs lower than 130, the number of people possessing the requisite aptitude for the profession amounts to roughly 13 million. The United States has 661,400 physicians currently practicing. However, we need to bear in mind that those 13 million individuals are also needed in other skilled professions (education, science, engineering, etc.).

    According to Eric Turkheimer’s research (see, for example, his 2003 study “Socioeconomic Status Modifies Heritability of IQ in Young Children,” Psychological Science, Vol. 14, No. 6, pp. 623-628), children born into stable, “middle class” environments are able to cultivate far more of their innate potential than those those born into “low socioeconomic status” households – as socialists have long suspected. We can also analyze the long-term, cross-cultural data – which James R. Flynn has been doing for decades [I highly recommend his recent book Are We Getting Smarter?: Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)] – to see the profound extent by which IQ is malleable. It would therefore be reasonable to conclude that there have been, and continue to be, gifted individuals and even geniuses who live(d) mediocre or awful existences due to never having had the opportunity to be raised in cognitively nurturing environments. We can additionally conclude that the epigeneticists are correct in emphasizing the enormous impact environment has in determining the life outcomes for the masses in general. An egalitarian distribution of resources and greater public investment into education would go a long way in redressing those problems. I believe it would also be beneficial to radically reform our educational institutions along the lines theorists like John Dewey and Alfie Kohn have suggested. Nonetheless, we can’t possibly know in advance whether the IQ distribution under participatory socialism will be such that the supply of skilled laborers will be adequate enough to meet the demands of balanced job-complexes – even when we take into account the elimination of unnecessary tasks skilled laborers (or coordinators) engage in today.

    In my opinion, even in the worst case scenario (i.e., the unlikely event that there aren’t enough individuals in the 80% of the workforce capable of being trained in professions occupied by the 20%), it wouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle. If anything, rates of labor scarcity could serve as yet more data for prioritizing society’s investment decisions. Automation, as we all know, can radically transform the nature of work, rendering formerly highly skilled professions more accessible. (Indeed, we are surely going to witness the of medical procedures even under capitalism.)

    But, again, imagine years back, imagine someone saying the same thing about women and men, as almost everyone did. Can you see how it would be considered by the few who saw reality better as being horribly sexist?

    Of course. As it happens, the IQ gap between men and women was always quite small – certainly nowhere in the range of two standard deviations – and now studies are finding that women are outperforming men on IQ tests, thus demonstrating just how profoundly things can change when opportunities are expanded and discrimination subsides. (Again, I don’t believe IQ is a flawless measure of intelligence, but it is useful for determining the cognitive requirements of a given profession.)

    Everything will be different, of course. But your particular claim, here, arises because you assume classlessness can exist even if we have unbalanced jobs. I think it can’t.

    My conception of class is Marxist in orientation, so I’m of the view that the most crucial factor for determining class is one’s relationship to the means of production. However, your concerns regarding a coordinator elite being a hindrance to social harmony are undoubtedly valid. In the case of market socialism, talented egoists can demand scarcity rents from the rest of the working class in exchange for their labor, which constitutes a form of non-capitalist exploitation, as far as I’m concerned. However, as a result of remuneration being based upon duration, effort, and sacrifice – as in parecon – exploitation would no occur. A monopolization of empowering labor and a greater degree of authority being exercised by a relatively privileged minority, on the other hand, could develop in a participatory economy which lacked balanced job-complexes. Whether that would prove corrosive to the system in the long term, I cannot say. I’m reluctant to call such a phenomenon a class conflict as opposed to an intraclass contradiction, though.

    I think at this point, if you have doubts – fine – write something assessing the claims about the institutions, in an essay, or something.

    I may write an essay on my blog on the subject of parecon’s class analysis at some point, but I suspect our disagreement reduces to little more than semantics, and possibly a difference of opinion concerning the nature of exploitation.

    This is a text book example of what I predicted. It rejects nothing substantively, makes no mention of any argument I make, or of any view I hold, or of any feature of parecon, even. To my eyes, it parades erudition as if that constitutes an argument, which it certainly does not.

    I agree.

    If you are in contact with Herb, tell him I would very happily debate him about the merits of parecon as compared to the merits of whatever economic institutions he favors – I guess, nowadays, some form of capitalist system with various reforms….but I am not sure.

    My only contact with Mr. Gintis is on Amazon, when he happens to have reviewed a book I’ve read. Should we quarrel again on the issue of participatory socialism in general, or your work in particular, I will be sure to inform him that you’re willing to debate the subject with him.

    As for his political philosophy today, he’s a self-proclaimed advocate of “liberal democratic capitalism,” though his commitment to even bourgeois democracy isn’t that resolute. He disagrees with the Democratic and Republican parties, but only insofar as he believes the correct path would be a synthesis of the two. The reforms he’s keen on are extending state subsidized loans to poor and minority groups for home ownership and businesses start-ups, as well as to maintain welfare provisions for families with children.

    This is not a criticism of parecon because the severe problems he has in mind, have nothing to do with parecon and do not apply to it, I would wager, and in any case, he has not suggested that they do. He just assumes them for parecon, if in fact he thinks he is talking about parecon at all, which I doubt. Then to dismiss the offsetting benefits of participation, etc. he resorts to discussing calling something a fundamental value, or an instrumental value, without explaining why that is relevant, or even what it might mean.

    The reason I cited that paragraph as being of relevance to parecon theory is because Herbert is basically arguing that self-management lacks any intrinsic value whatsoever, so the only reasonable method for evaluating principles of that variety is in a consequentialist fashion. And when they are examined through that lens, it turns out they yield no substantive benefits to humanity because, as he has said elsewhere, “people don’t want to control their workplaces. . . . and don’t particularly care about solidarity with other workers.” He also frequently argues that people are indifferent to inequality. “Humans,” he believes, “have goals that conflict with, and often are more salient than, egalitarianism and community values.” We just have to accept that our beliefs, while “very humane and touching” are “not shared by most people at all.” Moreover, “The notion that people should not be allowed to benefit from their natural capacities” – as is the case with parecon’s remunerative norms – “is equally repugnant to the individualist values upon which contemporary democratic ideals and support for human rights are based.” In his opinion, we libertarian socialists possess an atypical “highly specialized morality that is neither better nor worse” than others. We celebrate but “one side of human capacities, the side that cherishes affiliation and group solidarity,” but we’re “completely unaware of the equally important side in which individuals strive for excellence, seek victory through competition, and spurn the mass psychology of the crowd in order to innovate and create.” Presumably, he feels we are aberrations (that perennial, eccentric 10% of humanity Robert Nozick claimed would be attracted to socialism) and that, no matter how intellectually and ethically compelling our arguments are, we will fail to convince the masses of the desirability of greater autonomy, solidarity, and equality.

    Setting aside his philosophical arguments, his technical critique of parecon would likely include his aforementioned belief that “The knowledge of production possibilities unleashed through market competition cannot be revealed in any other way that we know of,” and that, sans capital management, free riders will be more difficult to locate and discipline – thereby leading to a static efficiency loss. On the bright side, according to Robin Hahnel, Gintis acknowledges that participatory planning “generates higher quality estimates of true social costs and benefits [of production], more effortlessly than any economy ever designed,” despite the fact that Herb “hates participatory economics”. So, apparently, Gintis had specifically evaluated parecon at some point.

    Michael Acuña

    *NOTE: Although I’m not quoting each of your paragraphs, I hope to address the substance of all of them*

    First, I think that with only a few grotesque exceptions, there is no such thing as a job that has only one task that is completely obedient. On a really harsh assembly line and in other such situations this exists. A person does literally just one thing, all day, every day, over and over. I find it hard to imagine any human would prefer that to greater diversity of actions.

    I apologize if I gave the impression that I prefer jobs which comprise of literally one task, for that is not actually the case. You’re correct that what I meant was that I prefer a job which features one range of tasks, be they cognitive or physical in nature. What I dislike is having to rotate between jobs that consist of radically different tasks, as I’m currently having to do.

    I suspect, honestly, that your concern isn’t a real one, in practice. In a rich workplace, with lots of tasks, much less throughout all of society, a balanced job complex you would opt for would be one where you are doing things that you find amenable or really like – otherwise you would opt for some other job – in which your time for things that are more complex and demanding is ample for being good at those tasks (otherwise your work is not socially valuable), and thus, all is well.

    You may well be right that my concern is more a failure of imagination than anything else. I realize that extrapolating from my personal experiences as a wage laborer under capitalism to what my preferences could be within a more liberated context is problematic for a variety of reasons, but it’s difficult to refrain from doing that at times.

    Just to clarify before proceeding, my misgivings regarding balanced job-complexes isn’t out of some desire to maintain a rigid division of labor wherein a privileged minority are shielded from having to do any ‘dirty work,’ or what have you. I find that notion absolutely repellent. My concern was primarily directed at the notion of people being forced to be proficient in a wider variety of tasks than they would otherwise prefer. With that said, you have convinced me that the social benefits that would accrue as a consequence of implementing balanced job-complexes outweigh whatever discomfort it may cause individual workers.

    Regarding the feasibility of the proposal, I do believe that by providing the entire populace with publicly subsidized higher education the number of skilled workers (doctors, engineers, etc.) will increase. Whether that expansion will prove significant enough for society to afford to have, say, surgeons participate in disempowering labor as often as the rest of the workforce is an empirical matter. I believe it should be, but the theory of intelligence I espouse is such that it renders an outcome of that sort possible – those who adhere to more hereditarian views (which includes approximately half of the psychologists currently involved in intelligence research) would probably be more pessimistic. But even if, for whatever reason, the percentage of the population endowed with the potential to acquire the requisite skills isn’t adequate enough for balanced job-complexes to be a viable option for each collective, I still don’t believe it would prove detrimental to the rest of the parecon model. We would simply have to resign ourselves to the disappointing realization that, for the time being, some workers would be immune from having to rotate tasks as often as others.

    I find this example weird. It looks at a hypothetical situation, now, and extrapolates to a criticism of a possible future type of economy, but pays zero attention to the actual reasons for choices.

    The purpose of the hypothetical situation wasn’t to focus on choice, but rather the subjective nature of perception. My point was merely that even professions many people regard as being empowering contain onerous qualities (the psychological stress a surgeon may feel having a patient’s life in his hands, as per my example), while some individuals can find fulfillment in jobs that aren’t ordinarily considered particularly attractive. I’m sure it’s rare in the latter case, due to the manner by which workers employed in those industries are treated (unfairly remunerated, micromanaged by managers accountable to capital, etc.), but that would obviously change upon the establishment of socialism.

    As for choice, I think it is clear to all but the most deluded bourgeois ideologues that brute luck (in the form of a person’s environment and genetic endowment) and transparently unjust property relations are the chief determinants of one’s lot in life under capitalism.

    Ask such a person whether he or she would like his or her child to grow up to be an ice cream vendor, or a doctor.

    The careers people consider desirable vary throughout history. Recall that in ancient Rome jobs related to entertainment (acting, music) were considered humiliating, whereas today they’re revered. In class societies people primarily judge the relative attractiveness of a job by its rate of remuneration, which helps explain those variations in time and place. And since ice cream vending yields very little in terms of monetary compensation today, it doesn’t command much respect. In a classless society, as a result of resource distribution being fairly egalitarian, I suspect humanity will devise a new method of evaluating professions.

    One of the problems of thinking about balanced job complexes and really every part of parecon is thinking that it is some kind of perfect, crystalline, system in which everything is always perfectly tuned, and everyone is getting perfectly equalized benefits, and so on. If it diverges from that, it is flawed. No. Nothing is that perfect.

    Fair enough. I’m not one to think participatory socialism (or any human construct, for that matter) can be a panacea. Kant put it best when he wrote “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” I certainly don’t mean to juxtapose parecon with some abstract flawless system, as the free access communists are wont to do. I’ve always sympathized with the core tenets of parecon and only seek to be able to better defend the vision against the criticisms I’ve encountered of it over the years.

    Actually, whether society can do that or not depends on its institutions. In a parecon it can – and it automatically does. The self managing councils plus participatory planning identify where individuals should get more or less income, and the planning process identifies where it is desirable to invest for the purpose of making jobs more fulfilling, or products, or cleaning the environment, and so on. But with corporate divisions of labor, markets, etc., society cannot, and does not do these things. The institutions not only don’t provide the information that would be needed, they propel contrary choices, viciously contrary. The gap between the approaches is enormous.

    Agreed. When I wrote that society can objectively determine which trades are the most dangerous and adjust worker compensation and automation priorities accordingly, I didn’t mean to suggest that it is doing so at present. Institutional arrangements are undoubtedly crucial to facilitating or restricting that possibility.

    You write: “The general assumption these individuals have is that human beings are inherently lazy and will always view labor a disutility. They aren’t considering how radically different employment could be after transitioning to a life of directly social labor , i.e., democratically planned, self-managed production.” And I would add, in which the apportionment of circumstances and income is just. And would add that the claimed self management can’t be had if there is a class division between empowered and disempowered workers.

    You add, “but even after I describe the myriad ways in which labor would be transformed, and cite the empirical studies which routinely find that workers who possess greater control over their work lives are happier than those who don’t, they maintain their skepticism…after all, it’s one thing to say workers in self-managed firms are happier than those in hierarchical ones, but it’s quite another to say that the former set of workers are just as productive.”

    Take into account larger scale variables – wasted labor on oversight, resistance, strikes, etc. etc. Take into account that in fact income in parecon depends on doing socially valued labor, which means given social assessments, desires, capacities, etc., a firm can’t under utilize its assets and have it employees get full incomes. The next evaluation is parecon would be far more productive, actually – for hours worked, though people may opt for shorter works weeks, and the like. Then include that instead of the economy needing 80% of the population to enter it with near no initiative, with capacities smashed, etc., it needs and expects everyone to be fully developed in whatever directions they desire – and the productivity gap, per hours of human labor, is growing immense. Now get rid of idiotic redundancies, built in obsolesence, etc. etc. and the gap grows still more.

    Thank you for the suggestions. I will be sure to include those considerations when conversing with people on the benefits and productivity gains we can expect in a participatory economy.

    And these are not, by and large, remotely self managed in parecon’s sense. Just like you would not call bourgeois democracy participatory democracy.

    True, but we shouldn’t diminish the implications and utility of the data, either. At the very least it conclusively demonstrates that (non-worker) private ownership and capital management are unnecessary for enterprise productivity. Moreover, even the relatively limited democratic rights workers at a firm like Mondragón possess is a significant improvement over the conditions workers like myself have to endure.

    About Gintis, if you could send me anything he wrote about parecon, that would be nice to see. I am guessing that Herb, who really is very very smart and capable, did not, in fact, address it carefully, but rather just threw out the usual kinds of scare terms – impractical, impossible, etc. etc – without saying why…

    Sure. On one thread he wrote “I am not a reactionary at all. I am just an economist who knows the literature – a lot better, I might add, than Michael Albert.” (The literature he’s referring to concerns workers’ self-management.) “I love Michael like a brother,” Gintis goes on, “but he has a blind spot when it comes to reality.” He proceeded to describe the difficulties he sees inherent in a socialism consisting of worker-owned, self-managed firms – none of which especially pertain to parecon. The comments he has made that are of consequence to parecon are as follows:

    “If the contribution of workplace democracy to social welfare were sufficiently great, perhaps some of these severe problems could be overcome. But in fact, workplace democracy and popular ownership of capital are not fundamental values, but rather are instrumental values. Of course, in the minds of truly committed socialists they become ends in themselves, but I do not think such an idea can be sustained, even using Sen’s notion of capacities.”

    Here he fails to describe why socialism’s egalitarian vision cannot be sustained.

    “Socialists talk of ‘wage-slavery,’ but working for a boss is not slavery by a long shot. There are good and bad bosses, good and bad workplaces, but there are also good and bad teachers, and this does not imply that all authoritarianism should be abandoned in the educational process.”

    Herbert neglects the fact that there were also “good and bad” slave masters, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the practice of chattel slavery was fundamentally exploitative, just as wage slavery is.

    “The absolutely central and bottom-line problem is that an economy consisting of worker-owned and democratically controlled firms would impose a significant static efficiency loss on the economy and would severely retard scientific and entrepreneurial innovation. I say this with pain and regret.”

    He estimated to me once that labor management, applied across the entire economy, would result in an static efficiently loss somewhere in the range of 40%-50% This is, of course, little more than conjecture which stems from his belief that capital management is more effective at maximizing worker output. As for scientific and entrepreneurial innovation, I suppose he means that individuals find no intrinsic gratification in those pursuits and are spurred only by the prospect of becoming fabulously wealthy that capitalism offers. He even went so far as to argue “innovation would cease” under socialism.

    Gintis again: “More important, I don’t believe any sacrifice would be worthwhile. People generally do not want to run their firms, and I’m not sure it would create more social equality anyway. If you allow entrepreneurship, the individuals who want to run their work-life will put the worker-controlled firm to shame, at least for the most part.”

    This assertion flies in the face of the empirical evidence. And who is he to presume what people want? Most people haven’t even been made aware of the option.

    In a short paper released in 2013, entitled “Why Existing Models of the Socialist Economy are not Economically Feasible or Desirable,” Gintis expresses further criticisms of market and planned forms of socialism. I will quote only those sections germane to the latter:

    “Because information necessary to set prices and allocate investment capital. . . . is private, it must be elicited from those who control production. These individuals, however, have no incentive to either systematically collect or report truthfully such information [in planned economies]. Markets are the only known way to generate such public information.”

    This is the classic Austrian theory of the market qua information-revealing institution. It has since been refined by contemporary Misesians, like Bryan Caplan, in the form of “rational ignorance” theory. The latter theory is often employed to discredit all forms of democracy, including the workplace variety. In short, the notion is that private owners have the greatest incentive to become informed about the minutiae on their firms because they have the largest steak in the outcome of the enterprise – whether in the form of profits or loses. Once you begin to decentralize that steak, as in the cases of worker or social ownership and self-management, the incentive for one to spend the time necessary to make truly informed decisions is reduced, thereby leading to suboptimal outcomes. Reactionaries like Hans-Hermann Hoppe have used the same rationale to argue against representative democracy and in favor of monarchism. Suffice it to say, it’s unfortunate that Prof. Gintis is following in this ignoble tradition.

    Nevertheless, I would be interested in hearing your counterargument to this line of reasoning.

    On the subject of democratic allocation of investment capital and social ownership, Gintis writes:

    “The democratic political process does not generally produce economically rational outcomes. . . . The idea that [a planning bureau] could allocate investment in promising directions is implausible because the [bureau] does not know what directions are promising. This too is private information that agents will not truthfully reveal, and it is widely distributed over the population of economic agents. . . . The major problem with the public ownership of capital, however, is simply that it fatally exposed to corruption and political influence. The private ownership of capital promotes the process of ‘creative destruction’ of industries and job categories that have become technologically or otherwise economically superannuated. This process is brutal but absolutely necessary to avoid bureaucratic ossification and decline. Firms in decline are powerful and their rising alternatives are small and weak. All political influence resides with the former. The logic political democracy dictates that they will defer change with impunity.”

    This Schumpeterian critique is similar to the previously cited criticisms of democratic economic planning leveled by Geoffrey Hodgson.

    Yes, exactly, but this isn’t academic – it is mammoth. Even if every concern anyone has ever voiced about parecon had some merit – which I don’t think many do, at all – this would dwarf all that. Every system one can envision will have situations of imperfect functioning, etc. With some systems this does serious harm, with others not so much. But then there are systems where it isn’t just imperfect functioning that is a problem, but, instead, the proper functioning, by the system’s logic and dictates, is the real problem.

    Well said. People often fail to realize the gravity of that fact.

    My own view is that a participatory society, with a participatory economy, or even a country that is remotely well on the way – would be hugely resistant to temptation and that the impact toward change would run in the other direction.

    I tend to think so, too. Although surmounting the problem of false consciousness is no easy task.

    Michael Acuña

    Thank you for the prompt reply, Michael. I really appreciate it.

    You mentioned some problems with balanced job complexes – perhaps you could raise them? Happy to hear…

    As a worker who has been involved in menial labor my entire adult life (which, admittedly, hasn’t been that long – I’m 27 years old), I’ve discovered that I harbor a number of work preferences. For example, I’m currently employed in a job which requires that I frequently rotate tasks. All of the tasks entail customer service in one form or another, but each one could probably be assigned a rank of relative ’empowerment’ or ‘disempowerment’ by parecon’s criteria. However, even though my job features an atypical balance of cognitive and rote work, I would much rather specialize in just one task. I’m of a disposition which desires regularity and the prospect of mastery (even of rote tasks), and balanced job complexes just seem at variance with that. I realize that my preferences are, to a certain extent, exogenously influenced, but I can’t help but think that even within the context of unalienated, self-managed work, I would still prefer the stability specializing in one job offers; and I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with that.

    Furthermore, I question whether one could ever fairly rank tasks according to their degree of empowerment (or lack thereof). The nature of how people perceive work just seems too subjective for that. A surgeon, for instance, may find the notion of having peoples’ lives in his or her hands each day psychologically trying, whereas – to use Chomsky’s old example – an ice cream vendor may find his job quite fulfilling. Consequently, determining onerousness seems rather complicated. And even if society democratically decided on the matter, some people would always feel cheated. What society can do objectively, however, is examine trades wherein the very lives of the workers are a stake and compensate the individuals involved in those dangerous professions accordingly. We can also prioritize our investments in automation with that information.

    As to “productivity” the first thing is to ask why the person who is concerned thinks parecon would be less productive? And also, what the person thinks constitutes productivity, while we are at it.

    The general assumption these individuals have is that human beings are inherently lazy and will always view labor a disutility. They aren’t considering how radically different employment could be after transitioning to a life of directly social labor, i.e., democratically planned, self-managed production. But even after I describe the myriad ways in which labor would be transformed, and cite the empirical studies which routinely find that workers who possess greater control over their work lives are happier than those who don’t, they maintain their skepticism – and I can’t say that I fault them for it. After all, it’s one thing to say workers in self-managed firms are happier than those in hierarchical ones, but it’s quite another to say that the former set of workers are just as productive. As it happens, they are (self-managed firms even rank as slightly more productive in many studies) – which I hasten to point out – but that evidence only extends to labor-managed firms operating within the confines of market economies. In other words, I cannot use that data when advocating on behalf of parecon because we simply don’t know if that fact would obtain within a democratically planned socialist commonwealth as well. I happen to think there are reasons to suspect that it would, but it’s merely speculation on my part. And therein lies the problem I was getting at in my last post. It’s difficult to get people to join you in a movement which is struggling for institutional changes they feel are infeasible. And, in my experience, even when I cite specific cases of more limited forms of successfully self-managing entities, such as worker cooperatives, they retain their pessimism; which is why I feel it may be necessary to go through a transitional period wherein we expand democratic projects to demonstrate that humanity is, in fact, capable of achieving considerably more than bourgeois ideologists would have us think. ‘Seeing is believing,’ as the old cliché goes.

    With respect to what the skeptics have in mind when they discuss productivity, it’s usually material output per worker. Without hierarchical, detached managers overseeing the shopfloor, they believe workers will shirk.

    But parecon, you should keep very much in mind, is not JUST self management.

    I understand that, in addition to self-management, a parecon would feature remuneration based upon effort and sacrifice, balanced job-complexes, and participatory planning – all of which I support, with the aforementioned exception of balanced job-complexes.

    Herb is a friend of mine, and was a teacher of mine, too. But we haven’t had contact in a long time, now. It is interesting to hear that he has criticisms though I believe he has never broached any publicly, or to me…

    I have debated Mr. Gintis (whose early work on economic democracy I admire) on few occasions on Amazon.com. As you are doubtless aware, he underwent something of a philosophical metamorphosis in the ’90s and basically abandoned socialism in toto. Prior to that he did a lot of theoretical work on labor-managed firms, which he now regards as economically inefficient and ethically undesirable – a detailed example of this can be found in his Amazon review of Theodore Burczak’s Socialism after Hayek (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006). When the issue of your own work was raised, he basically dismissed it as impracticable.

    Ever since he started working in behavioral economics and began entertaining sociobiological notions, his views have become quite reactionary. It’s unfortunate because he’s very intelligent and we on the left would do well to keep individuals of such a caliber in our ranks. But I digress.

    So, regarding your concern, is parecon less conducive to experimentation and innovation than a market system? Well, again why would it be? The first thing to notice is that in a market system almost all the fruits of a successful innovation go to owners, not those who actually conceive, test, and implement the ideas. So the owners have an incentive to push workers, I suppose you might say – but that is not highly desirable, to say the least, and workers tend to resist – and that is best case, when, in fact, owners want to innovate in some useful manner – which is actually rather rare.

    Second, in reality, that is, most innovation, by far the lion’s share, I suspect, in market systems comes from the largely or even entirely planned sectors – like NASA, research institutes, etc., and from the human curiousity and drive of individuals. It is actually where risk is relatively low – due to financing and insurance from the government – that innovation occurs, I bet, so that market competition has nearly nothing to do with generating it. Likewise for hierarchical oversight, which barely plays an y role at all, say, in labs.

    I fully agree that the vast majority of research and development presently occurs within the state sector and is primarily driven by the scientists’ curiosity and creativity. The problem that Hodgson sees isn’t necessarily that rate of technological innovations will reduce within a planned economy, but rather that workers will be hesitant to invest in new technologies and/or incorporate those technologies into the labor process.

    Suppose, for example, there was a plant manufacturing cellular telephones in a parecon and an inventor came up with a way to dramatically increase the number of phones produced with a fraction of the labor currently employed. Demand is high for this particular product, so it would significantly benefit consumers. Moreover, none of the environmental externalities would be different under the new method. But the workers employed in the manufacturing collectives enjoy the traditional production techniques they employ and don’t want to search for work elsewhere. A tension, as you can see, arises. How is the matter to be settled?

    But still more, capitalism, in fact, incredibly distorts and circumvents innovation and experiment – because the idea is to profit and there are lots of ways to do that without, in fact, risking failure. Innovate to fragment workers and control them, sure, but not to make their work day more fulfilling. This is no small observation.

    Indeed. I found David Noble’s Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation particularly enlightening on the many ways capitalism distorts our investment and R&D priorities.

    The underlying issue here, though, is what is a good innovation? You tell me, in a workplace, what type innovation should be implemented, what type should be rejected – then it is possible to ask whether parecon or a market coordinator or capitalist system would function better.

    I suppose Hodgson’s response would simply be that the ease by which market economies accommodate the introduction and adoption of new consumer products, technologies and/or methods of production renders them more technologically dynamic than planned economies, since the latter require a greater amount of time being spent on deliberating the costs and benefits those new products and technologies will have for society. But, as you said, that is a perfectly justifiable process.

    The problem I see, however, concerns a hypothetical democratically planned country operating within global capitalism. Will the ethos of the masses in the socialist nation be sufficiently transformed that the temptation of more frivolous consumer luxuries being produced in foreign capitalist states not jeopardize the stability of the system? If it’s true that market economies (be they capitalist or market socialist in orientation) possess a great technological dynamism, they may well produce flashier devices and in a greater abundance.

    Anyway, thank you, again, for taking the time to thoroughly respond to my posts.

    • This reply was modified 7 years, 6 months ago by avatar Michael Acuña.
    • This reply was modified 7 years, 6 months ago by avatar Michael Acuña. Reason: Typos
    Michael Acuña


    Let me preface my questions by saying that I think it’s great you’ve established a forum on ZNet and are willing to converse with ordinary users.

    I have been following your work closely for quite a while and agree that a participatory economy is ethically desirable and humanly feasible – save for a few misgivings regarding balanced job complexes. However, in the course of my activism I have a had an extraordinarily difficult time attempting to convince people that workers’ self-management operates as productively as bourgeois hierarchical management using empirical evidence, so attempting to convince them that an entirely self-managed economy (while lacking any evidence of such an economy ever existing) is within the realm of possibility is an especially difficult exercise. So, my first question is: what is the best method you’ve found for addressing this understandable skepticism? Personally, I’m of the view that the only way for the mass of people to overcome their pessimism is for them to actually witness self-management at work, or at least know of people who have participated in the organizational form. If that is indeed the case, it would seem that a proliferation of worker cooperatives and other radically democratic projects is necessary before society can make the transition to a comprehensively planned economy.

    My second question is of a more technical nature. I’ve debated several learned individuals (e.g., Herbert Gintis) on the viability workers’ self-management and participatory planning over the years, and I’ve encountered several detailed criticism of your proposals, a few of which I found rather difficult to counter. The one I would be interested on hearing your response to today comes from Geoffrey M. Hodgson’s 1998 paper “Socialism Against Markets? A Critique of Two Recent Proposals” (Economy and Society, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 407-433). His argument concerns the relative dynamism of a participatory economy. It is his contention that the trouble with planned economies, of any variety, is that they lack the incentive to experiment and innovate which competitive markets feature. In short, workers within a (non-market) socialist commonwealth would likely be averse to adopting or investing in new technologies because doing so would disrupt the working environment they’ve become accustomed to. I find this prospect particularly troubling because, if a participatory socialism is ever to be constructed, it is inevitably going to begin on a national scale and therefore exist in a world still dominated by capitalist economies. And if the capitalist world continues to exhibit technological dynamism while the hypothetical socialist nation quickly falls into stasis, it’s difficult to imagine how the latter could maintain itself for long.

    I can, of course, conceive of mechanisms which could be implemented within a participatory economy that could, as it were, compel collectives to adopt newer, more efficient technologies; perhaps consumer councils could play a role in the process. However, one of the interesting things about living in a non-alienated society is that you can personally see the individuals attempting to alter your work life. Thus, if an agency was to be established which compelled workers to adopt new technologies, it could prove corrosive to social harmony. Firms operating within alienated market economies, on the other hand, can always blame the mysterious, impersonal forces of the market for their decisions to modify the production process, and therewith disrupt the lives of their workers.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

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