ParEcon Questions & Answers

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Balanced Job Complexes

This sections includes various q/a from the ZCom forum system, followed by additional q/a manufactured from a section of the book Parecon: Life After Capitalism



fParecon is hard to explain quickly to my friends. Can you cram it into one sentence?

In a participatory economy (1) consumption is according to effort and sacrifice, (2) jobs are balanced for empowerment and desirability, and (3) self managing councils of workers and consumers propose and revise what work and consumption they will do until other workers and consumers agree that the proposals are equitable and make efficient use of society’s resources – through a procedure a self managing called “participatory planning.”


What exactly is a balanced job complex?

A balanced job complex is a collection of tasks within a workplace that is comparable in its burdens and benefits and especially in its impact on the worker’s ability to participate in decision making to all other job complexes in that workplace. Workers have responsibility for a job complex in their main workplace, and often for additional tasks outside to balance their overall work responsibilities with those of other workers throughout society.

The point is, work affects us, not just material outputs, and an economy that seeks to be desirable the people in it needs to pay attention to the apportionment of roles in the economy and their impact on people’s lives both directly, and in the implications those affects have for involvement throughotu society.

Consider the following comment from the playwrite Barbara Garson, noticing what ought to be obvious but what is typically utterly ignored…



“As it happens, there are no columns in standard double-entry book-keeping to keep track of satisfaction and demoralization. There is no credit entry for feelings of self-worth and confidence, no debit column for feelings of uselessness and worthlessness. There are no monthly, quarterly, or even annual statements of pride and no closing statement of bankruptcy when the worker finally comes to feel that after all he couldn’t do anything else, and doesn’t deserve anything better.” 


Can you summarize a little more, please…this isn’t so easy…

Suppose that as proposed we have workers and consumers councils. Suppose we also believe in participation and even in self management. But suppose as well that our workplace has a typical corporate division of labor. What will happen?

The roughly 20% of the workforce who via their positions in the corporate division of labor monopolize the daily decision making positions and the knowledge that is essential to comprehending what is going on and what options exist, are going to set agendas. The pronouncements of these engineers, lawyers, doctors, and other empowered actors will be authoritative. Indeed, even if other workers have formal voting rights in workers councils committed to self management, their participation will be only to vote on plans and options put forth by only this group of privileged workers who I call the coordinator class.

The will of this coordinator class will decide outcomes and in time this elite will also decide that it deserves more pay to nurture its great wisdom. It will separate itself not only in power, but in income and status. In other words, it isn’t enough to have workers and consumers councils and to believe in and try to implement self management along with remuneration for effort and sacrifice. If on top of all those desirable features we have a division of labor which militates against our efforts and imposes class division, our greatest hopes and pursuits will be dashed against the structural implications of our job design.

Adam Smith understood the above very well when he wrote “The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments.” That being so, “the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding…and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be…”

So what is parecon’s alternative to familiar corporate divisions of labor? We seek to extend the insights of William Morris, the noted nineteenth century artist and wordsmith, who wrote: “Now, as to occupations, we shall clearly not be able to have the same division of labor as now: vicarious servanting, sewer emptying, butchering, letter carrying, boo-blacking, hair dressing, and the rest of it will have to come to an end … we shan’t put a pattern on a cloth or a twiddle on a jug-handle to sell it, but to make it prettier and to amuse ourselves and others.”

Morris was right not only about changing the motives of work to meeting needs and developing the potentials of those enjoying the products and those doing the labor, but also about the need to alter the division of labor en route to that achievement.

Parecon concurs with Smith’s perception of the debilitating effect of corporate divisions of labor and with Morris’s aspirations for future work. That is why participatory economics utilizes what it calls balanced job complexes.

Instead of combining tasks so that some jobs are highly empowering and other jobs are horribly stultifying, so that some jobs convey knowledge and authority while other jobs rob mentality and convey only obedience, and so that those doing some jobs rule as a coordinator class accruing to themselves more income and influence while those doing more menial work obey as a traditional working class subordinate in influence and income–parecon says let’s make each job comparable to all others in its quality of life effects and even more importantly in its empowerment effects.

From a corporate division of labor that enshrines a coordinator class above workers, we move to a classless division of labor that elevates all actors to their fullest potentials.

Each person has a job. Each job involves many tasks. Of course each job should be suited to the talents, capacities, and energies of the person doing it. But in a parecon each job must also contain a mix of tasks and responsibilities such that the overall quality of life and especially the overall empowerment effects of work are comparable for all.  

A parecon doesn’t have someone who does only surgery and someone else who only cleans bed pans. It instead has people who do some surgery and some cleaning of the hospital, as well as some other tasks – such that the sum of all that they do incorporates a fair mix of conditions and responsibilities.

A parecon doesn’t have some people in a factory who only manage operations and others who only do rote tasks, but instead has people throughout factories who do a mix or conceptual and rote tasks.

A parecon doesn’t have lawyers and short order cooks and engineers and assembly line workers as we now know them. All the tasks associated with these jobs must get done, but in a parecon they are mixed and matched very differently than in capitalist workplaces.

A parecon’s populace all do a mix of tasks in their work such that each person’s mix accords with their abilities and also conveys a fair share of rote, tedious, interesting, and empowering conditions and responsibilities.

Our work doesn’t prepare a few of us to rule and the rest of us to obey. Instead our work equally prepares all of us to participate in self-managing our activities via our councils. It equally readies all of us to engage sensibly in self managing our lives and institutions.

But to move on to our next institutional feature, what happens if we have a new economy with workers and consumers councils, with self-managing decision making rules, with remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and with balanced job complexes – but we combine all this with markets or with central planning for allocation?  Would that constitute a good economy?


Why don’t we forego the balanced job complexes and just have jobs structured like now but paid according to effort and sacrifice?

Parecon opts for balanced job complexes to have equity of circumstances, but also and in fact especially for the empowerment implications. Balanced job complexes are a an essential choice if we want actors to be prepared and able to participate in the decisions that affect them.

It would be materially and socially just regarding the allocation of tasks and of rewards for doing them to do as you say. If someone has an odious and deadening job, and another person has a delightful and enriching one, pay the former person more than the latter – in accord with effort and sacrfice. But if we ignore the empowerment effects of workplace roles we will permit a class division between coordinators (monopolizing tasks that impart power and knowledge) and workers (delegated tasks that disempower), which division would in time yield a redefinition of norms of remuneration until the coordinators had both the desirable work and the higher incomes. Also, even in lieu of this large-scale effect, if you don’t balance for empowerment you can’t have participatory self management because different sectors of people are differentially able to use formally democratic means of influencing outcomes. Think of a bunch of people sitting around to make a decision with equal formal say – but suppose some of them have circumstances that give them required knowledge and skills relevant to decision making, etc., and others are just exhausted and deadened by their circumstances, with no time to assess options, develop agendas, etc. The latter folks are left choosing among options that the former folks advocate, on the basis of arguments the former folks offer…at best.

So, in our view full justice needs at least job complexes balanced for empowerment plus remuneration according to effort and sacrifice. You can have balance for quality of life effects (which will equalize wages for equal hours at a balanced job complex) or not, in this analysis.


Wouldn’t balanced job complexes be unfair for highly trained people? There are quite a few ‘upper-level’ jobs that require years of schooling that actually are really boring and somewhat unpleasant.

Two issues here. Years of schooling. And boring.

Schooling like working, is part of one’s complex assuming it is socially beneficial, once one is beyond the basic graduation age. So that is no problem. If schooling were horribly onerous, then it would be remunerated accordingly, but of course that is generally nonsense. Give anyone the option of going to grad school for living wages or working the same period in a coal mine for – what, double that, triple that, ten times as much – and their choice is pretty obvious. But, hey, however society turns out to assess these options, so it goes. Boring and onerous and dangerous, etc., are remunerated.


If you removed the money, prestige, and opportunity to boss around underlings from jobs, why would anyone waste their youth studying to become an industrial waste engineer when they could study art or hop trains around the country instead?

In a good economy, a parecon, if these types of work (altered as they would in such an economy) are horribly onerous, in fact, fewer people will be doing them because there will be much less demand for the high priced output. I would prefer, myself, when I was a student, to develop my mathematical and scientific talents, not my music (non-talents). And I think this is rather typical – that is, that people would usually (not always) like to do what they are good at, assuming that in later life they could make use of that learning, etc. Another factor is what you can get to do, and its worth to you, later. This can be a quality of life assessment, a service to the community assessment, or an income assessment (in economies other than parecons, anyhow).

In making one’s choice in a parecon, there is no way to make a financial killing. You are correct about that. And if you would prefer to develop fewer of your talents, or develop them less fully, so it goes. There is nothing to prevent it…

As to now, I would wager that there isn’t a coordinator class person around who would switch to an assembly line job, say, even if offered a higher wage then their current one. Not one. But please consider, what makes their jobs boring and rote and unrewarding, to the extent they are? Isn’t it in large part their limited say (capitalists still rule, not them) and on the other hand the pains associated with the power over others that they do have, as well as the often inane character of the things they produce for another’s profit?

I believe that you are right that a great many people occupying what I call coordinator class jobs are currently horribly distraught at their circumstances and activities – think of artists doing idiot ads, which is what most do, for example. But I think they also recognize that compared to folks with rote jobs, less status, even less power, they are quite privileged.

The main thing is that what I think are the origins of the alienated character of work at every level, disappears in parecon. Some things are still onerous, but nothing is alienated, nor are is there unfair remuneration.

People will utilize their skills and capacities because it is fulfilling of their natures to do so and because there is pleasure to be had in contributing at a higher level to the social product (by choosing to do so where one has most ability). But you are right they won’t earn more for doing so…


Wouldn’t it be horribly inefficient for Doctors and other highly trained professionals to be required to do unskilled work like changing bedpans?

This isn’t true, depending, as always, what you mean by efficiency. For Mozart to do unskilled work instead of writing music costs humanity every time it occurs far more than for me to do unskilled work rather than, oh, whatever I may do that is skilled. This is true enough…

The question is what happens when we talk in terms of large numbers of people, on the one hand, and what is at stake beyond merely the material or service product of each person’s labors, on the other. Thus, for whatever losses society incurs for some people spending some time not utilizing their greatest and most revered talents, even in the case of geniuses – how much is gained by the release of new talents and genius from constituencies previously dumbed down to fit rote work slots? And how much is gained, in a social and other sense, from attaining equity of circumstances and empowerment? It is pointless to look at one side of a trade-off without attending to the other side.

In parecon, the point is that each actor occupies a balanced job complex of his or her or choosing, from among all those available that he or she is qualified for. To prepare for this, each actor’s education needs to leave them capable of informed and effective participation in decision-making. As well, the economy can only benefit from each actor using, as they choose, their educational experience to enlarge their potentials and capacities, and from the education system promoting this result for everyone. This is quite the opposite from now. In capitalism the economy needs workers suited to the available job offerings (this much is always true, in any economy) and capitalist offerings are highly skewed, requiring that most actors are accustomed to boredom, have no expectations of controlling their circumstances, have no related skills or knowledge, and so on. In other words, the economy needs the school system to dumb people down in order that they fit its limited role offerings – precisely the result that we see. In parecon precisely the opposite obtains.

So, even if we ignore the increases in justice and sociality, etc., from having balanced job complexes – the question over output becomes do we lose more by the fact that Mozart and some great surgeon have to spend time on tasks that are onerous or boring than we gain by the fact that (a) there are many more Mozart’s and people of great surgical talents discovered due to a school system and culture that promotes excellence in all and (b) across the board we are getting more capacity-enrichment and utilization from everyone previously dumbed-down and consigned to have their talents hidden and made dormant and dead?


If everyone did what they love to do, rather than what they love plus a few unpleasant duties, would the “goods and services produced” be sufficient to provide a decent, sustainable living for everyone?

It is not the right question. The answer is no, quite obviously, they wouldn’t be available but still it is not the right question. Why wouldn’t they be available? Because no one would choose to do onerous and debilitating tasks if told, for example, these are not necessary, they don’t have to be done, there is no reason or need for you to worry about their being done – the only reason for you to even think about doing them is if they happen to fit you personal, singular, desires – if you would do them even if the outputs were redundant because you will enjoy doing them.

Now in reality, mature and thinking folks might apportion themselves, would apportion themselves, to those tasks, I think, rather than seeing everyone suffer. But that is simply unfair because in that case the childish and/or anti-social dead-beats get a better existence for no morally justifiable reason. There is another problem, as well. Suppose everyone is mature and thinking, not deadbeat. How do they manage to apportion the onerous work fairly among themselves…rather than haphazardly? As soon as you seek fairness, justice, a sensible outcome in accord wtih values you aspire to, you are back to balanced job complexes. So society doesn’t leave it all to chance, society develops, over time, a set of jobs incorporating the needed tasks in a balanced way.

So now your person has only one big choice – to participate by working at some available job or not;





Some q/a based on excerpted material from Parecon: Life After Capitalism 

What is a balanced job complex?

We have established that workplaces should be organized and run by workers’ councils and that these councils will also be the vehicle through which workers manifest their preferences regarding how long they wish to work, what they wish to produce, what tools and methods they wish to use, and so on. We have said that workers in their councils at various levels from small teams to whole industries will have appropriate say. But, there is a wrinkle to work out. What does it mean to suggest that an assembly worker toiling at a repetitive task all day, a financial executive overseeing workplace information and budgeting, and a manager overseeing the activities of dozens of rote workers, should have equal say in the activities of the company for which they all work? 

Not all tasks are equally desirable, and even in a formally democratic council, if some workers do only rote tasks that numb their minds and bodies, and other workers do engaging and empowering tasks that not only brighten their spirits and attentiveness, but also provide them with information critical to intelligent decision-making, saying that the two should have equal impact on decisions denies reality. Democratic councils help create conditions that enable participation and give people appropriate impact over decisions, but something more is needed to equalize daily work assignments vis-à-vis the impact people’s work experience has on their capacity to participate and render informed judgments. If some workers have consistently greater information and responsibility in their jobs, they will dominate workplace decisions and in that sense become a ruling “coordinator class,” even though they operate in democratic councils and have no special ownership of the workplace. 

Parecon’s antidote to corporate divisions of labor imposing class division is that if you work at a particularly unpleasant and disempowering task for some time each day or week, then for some other time you should work at more pleasant and empowering tasks. Overall, people should not do either rote and unpleasant work or conceptual and empowering work all the time. We should each instead have a balanced mix of tasks. 

This does not say that every person must perform every task in every workplace. The same person need not work as a doctor, an engineer, and a literary critic, much less work at every imaginable task throughout an economy. Those who assemble cars today need not assemble computers tomorrow, much less every imaginable product. Nor should everyone who works in a hospital perform brain surgery as well as every other hospital function. The aim is not to eliminate divisions of labor, but to ensure that over some reasonable time frame people should have responsibility for some sensible sequence of tasks for which they are adequately trained and such that no one enjoys consistent advantages in terms of the empowerment effects of their work. 

We do not mean that we have doctors who occasionally clean bed pains, nor secretaries who every so often attend a seminar. Parading through the ghetto does not yield scars and slinking through a country club does not confer status. Short-term stints in alternative circumstances—whether slumming or admiring—do not rectify long-term inequities in basic responsibilities. We do mean, instead, that everyone has a set of tasks that together compose his or her job such that the overall implications of that whole set of tasks are on average like the overall implications for empowerment of all other jobs. 

Further, for those doing only elite work in one workplace to do only rote work in another would not challenge the hierarchical organization of work in either one. We need to balance job complexes for desirability and empowerment in each and every workplace, as well as guarantee that workers have a combination of tasks that balance across workplaces. This and only this provides a division of labor that gives all workers an equal chance of participating in and benefiting from workplace decision-making. This and only this establishes a division of labor which does not produce a class division between permanent order-givers and order-takers. 

Since disparate empowerment at work inexorably destroys participatory potentials and creates class differences, while differences in quality of life at work could be justly offset by appropriate remuneration, we will focus more on empowerment for the rest of this chapter. In practice, there probably is not much difference since balancing empowerment likely takes us a long way toward balancing quality of life, and in any event, broader issues will resurface as we proceed in other chapters. 

To start, almost everyone is aware that typical jobs in familiar corporate contexts combine tasks with the same qualitative characteristics so that each worker has a homogenous job complex and most people do one level of task. In contrast, seeking appropriate empowerment, a participatory economy offers balanced job complexes where everyone typically does many levels of tasks. Each parecon worker has a particular bundle of diverse responsibilities, and each person’s bundle prepares him or her to participate as an equal to everyone else in democratic workplace decision-making. 

Can you clarify a bit more, comparing perhaps, capitalism and parecon regarding jobs?

With a typical capitalist approach to defining jobs we can imagine someone listing all possible tasks to be done in a workplace. We can then imagine someone giving each task a rank of 1 to 20, with higher being more empowering and lower being more deadening and stultifying. So in this experiment we have hundreds or perhaps even thousands of stripped-down tasks from which we create actual jobs. No single task is enough to constitute a whole job. Some jobs may take only a few tasks, some many. When the corporate approach is adopted, each defined job is a bundle of tasks, but each task in that bundle has very nearly the same rating as all the others. As a result, the corporate job bundle may come up with a 1, a 7, a 15, or a 20 as its average empowerment rating. The average could be any number on the scale, but the job itself will be comprised of a fairly homogenized bundle of tasks all rated about the same. In other words the job will be pegged to a position in a 1 to 20 hierarchy and all its component tasks will be at that rank or just a bit above or below. Rose gets mostly 5s, some 4s and 6s. Robert gets mostly 17s, some 16s and 18s. 

Now suppose we switch to the participatory economic workplace. There are quite a few differences in tasks due to the transition to a new type of economy, for reasons to be discovered as we proceed, but still it is a long list. The tasks are of course still differentiated in terms of their empowerment effects, just as in the capitalist economy and we again rank each one of them from 1 to 20 (though there are fewer at the low end than before). However their combination into parecon jobs changes dramatically. Instead of combing a bunch of 6s into a 6 job, and a bunch of 18s into an 18 job, every job is now a combination of tasks of varied levels such that each job in the workplace has the same average grade. Maybe the workplace is a coal mine and the average is 4 or maybe it is a factory and the average is 7 or it is a school and the average is 11 or it is a research center and the average is 14. Whatever the average for the unit is, everyone who works there has a job whose combination of tasks yields the same average. In the coal mine, where the average is 4, jobs may have tasks that are all rated 4, or maybe a job has some 7s, 4s and 2s but it averages to 4. In the research plant someone may have all 14s, or maybe a 4 and 5, a bunch of 13s, 14, and 15s, and a 19 or 20. The point is that every worker has a job. Every job has many tasks. The tasks are suited to the worker and vice versa, so the tasks combine into a sensible agenda of responsibilities. The average empowerment impact of the sum of tasks in any job in any workplace is the same as the average empowerment for all other jobs in that workplace. When the workers come together in their workers’ councils, whether for work-teams, units, divisions, or the whole workplace, there is no subset of workers whose conditions have prepared them better and left them more energetic or provided them greater relevant information or skills relative to everyone else, such that they will predictably dominate debate and outcomes. The preparation for participation owing to involvement in the daily life of the workplace is essentially equalized. Of course, in real circumstances the procedures of job balancing are not precisely as we describe above but involve a steady meshing and merging of tasks into jobs, with workers grading the overall combinations and bringing these into accord with each other by tweaking the combinations far more fluidly than parceling out all tasks as if from some gigantic menu. But the graphic image conveys the relevant reality. 

Now, whether having balanced job complexes is efficient or not, whether it can get economic functions completed with a high level of competence or not, and whether it is compatible with the other institutions of a participatory economy or not, are all matters that have to wait until we have provided a more complete picture of the overall system. But what should be clear already is if it turns out to be preferred and desirable, there is no law of nature or of “job definitions” that precludes doing as we have suggested to a reasonably high degree of attainment of the end sought. Of course it cannot be perfect. There is no perfect grading of tasks, no perfect meshing of graded tasks into balanced jobs, and thus no perfect balancing. This is a social dynamic enacted by human beings in complex circumstances. But short of perfection, we can easily balance job complexes in each workplace quite well, tweaking the results over time to get an ever more just allocation. Still, even recognizing that we could achieve this, and even assuming efficiency and compatibility with the rest of the economy (to be addressed later), there is a problem. 

We should add a clarification to avoid a possible confusion. Balancing empowerment across jobs is not the same as balancing the amount or type of intellect required for that job. That is, if you do some highly abstract theoretical physics that only two other people on Earth can understand, your activity is not necessarily immensely more empowering than my helping decide how we can best build automobiles or when the chef at a restaurant decides how to best cook a meal. If it were simply a question of intellect, then arguably no amount of balancing is going to get me and Hawking equalized. Thinking about unified fields requires too much intellect to balance. But when we are talking about empowerment, there are empowering tasks in all kinds of workplaces, including those that involve figuring out how to best do other jobs, how to best satisfy consumers, how to plan for the future, etc., and thinking about elementary particles or cosmic black holes actually is not all that socially empowering. 

Won’t some workplaces, even if all are averaged internally, be more empowering than others?

In balancing job complexes within each workplace for equal empowerment, the goal was to prevent the organization and assignment of tasks from preparing some workers better than others to participate in decision-making at that workplace. But balancing job complexes within workplaces does not guarantee that work life will be equally empowering across workplaces. One workplace could average out at 7, another at 14, to use the hypothetical example from earlier, or at 3 and 18, for that matter. In such cases, those in the more empowering industries would be far better able to manifest their preferences throughout the broader economy. Indeed, over time, they could further polarize workplaces in the economy, with a subset of workplaces housing all the most empowering jobs and with the least empowering work ghettoized off into (huge) disempowering and menial workplaces—with the former of course overseeing and ruling the latter. Since this is obviously not our aim, we deduce that establishing conditions for a truly participatory and equitable economy requires cross workplace balancing in addition to balancing within each workplace. 

The only way to balance for desirability and empowerment (or even for either alone) across workplaces is to have people spend time outside their primary workplace offsetting advantages or disad- vantages that its average may have compared to the overall societal average. If you work in a coal mine that is a 4, and society is a 7, you get to work considerable time outside the mines in another venue, raising your average to 7. If you work in a research facility that is a 13 in a society whose average is a 7, you would have to work outside that facility a considerable chunk of each week at rather onerous tasks to get down to the overall average of 7. How does a participatory economy calibrate these balances? For that matter, how do people wind up working in a particular workplace in the first place? 

Though the full answer requires a full picture of a participatory economy, including its means of allocation, we cannot reasonably go any further regarding job complexes without providing at least some clarification. In a participatory economy, everyone will naturally have the right to apply for work wherever they choose, and every workers’ council will have the right to add any members they wish (using appropriate decision-making methods, of course). We have no choice but to wait until after describing participatory allocation to analyze when and why workers’ councils would wish to add or release members, but for now it is sufficient to know that once the economy has a work agenda for the coming period, each workers’ council may have a list of openings for which anyone can freely apply. So any worker could apply for any opening and move to a new workers’ council that wants them should they prefer it to their present council. 

In this respect, parecon job changing is superficially like changing jobs in a typical capitalist economy. But while the situation looks a bit like a traditional labor market, it is ultimately quite different. First, in a traditional labor market, people generally change employment to win higher pay or to enjoy working conditions generally considered more desirable, not solely conditions they themselves prefer. But since a parecon balances job complexes across as well as within workplaces, and since it remunerates effort and sacrifice (as we will soon describe), people will be unable to attain these traditional goals by changing workplaces. Instead, everyone already will have average job quality and income conditions, and thus also an instance of the best available income and job conditions. On the other hand, if a person would prefer a different group of workmates, or working at a different combination of tasks due to his or her personal priorities and interests, of course she or he might have a very good reason to apply for a new job, perhaps even at a new workplace. However, to the extent that job complexes are balanced and pay is for effort and sacrifice only, personal reasons will be the only motives to move. Conversely, people’s freedom to move to other workplaces will provide a check on the effectiveness of balancing job complexes across workplaces. Higher pay will not be available by changing jobs, nor will objectively better work conditions, since pay and conditions will be balanced. 

Just as workers must balance jobs internally in each workplace through a flexible rating process (whose exact character would vary from workplace to workplace), so will delegates of workers from different councils and industries develop a flexible rating process to balance across workplaces. As one plausible solution, there could be “job complex committees” both within each workplace and for the economy as a whole. The internal committees would be responsible for proposing ways to combine tasks and assign work times to achieve balanced work complexes within workplaces. The economy-wide committees arrange positions for workers in less desirable and less empowering primary workplaces some time in more desirable and more empowering environments, and vice versa. Within a workplace, it would become clear that more fine-tuning of job assignments was required when more and more or fewer and fewer members of a workers’ council apply for one job or another. Similarly, the need for better balancing of conditions and job complexes across workplaces becomes evident the same way; that is, through excessive (or minimal) applications to switch to one workplace or another.  


cHow much balance are we talking about here? Surely trying to balance perfectly would be futile, no?

It should be clear that creating perfectly balanced job complexes is theoretically possible m some abstract sense, but you are quite right that it can’t, and also would be a waste of time to try to do in real life situations. We are not talking about pure geometry nor even the engineering of plastics. We are talking about people and social arrangements. There is no such thing as perfection, absolute precision, etc. It is not math. It is social interaction.

But the point is, it can be done quite well, and most important, with deviations and errors being only deviations and errors, not systematic biases. Over time errors will not multiply or snowball, but will instead be corrected. And most important, the entire process is democratic, in fact, in a parecon, self managing. There is no elite that bends everyone else to their will but rather each person winds up in circumstances collectively agreed upon by procedures respecting their appropriate input.

If we combine our best effort at creating balanced job complexes with well-designed self maanging councils, we attain a venue favorable to non-hierarchical production relations that will promote equity and participation and will facilitate appropriate voting patterns. Still, you may reasonably wonder, in practical real world situations, could workers really rate and combine tasks to define balanced job complexes within and across workplaces even reasonably well, much less very well as we suggest? 

Provided we understand that we are talking about a social process that never attains perfection, but that does fulfill workers’ own sense of balance, the answer is surely yes.


The idea is that workers within each workplace would engage in a collective evaluation of their own circumstances. As a participatory economy emerged from a capitalist or a market or centrally planned socialist past, naturally there would be a lengthy discussion and debate about the characteristics of different tasks. But once the first approximation of balanced complexes within a workplace had been established, regular adjustments would be relatively simple. For example, if the introduction of a new technology changed the human impact of some tasks, thereby throwing old complexes out of balance, workers would simply move some responsibilities within and across affected complexes to re-establish desirable balance, or they might change the time spent at different tasks in affected complexes, to attain that new balance. 

The new balance need not and could not be perfect, just as the old one wasn’t, nor would the adjustments be instantaneous, nor would everyone be likely to agree completely with every result of a democratic determination of combinations. And of course individual preferences that deviate from one’s workmates preferences would determine who would choose to apply for which balanced job complex. If I am less bothered by noise but more bothered by dust, I will prefer a complex whose rote component is attending noisy machinery rather than a complex with a sweeping detail. You may have opposite inclinations. 

In practice, balancing between workplaces would be a bit more complicated. How would arrangements be made for workers to have responsibilities in more than one workplace? Over time, balancing across workplaces would be determined partly through a growing familiarity with the social relations of production, partly as a result of evaluations by specific committees whose job includes rating complexes in different plants and industries, and partly as a result of the pattern of movement of workers. That all this is possible within some acceptable range of error and of dissent ought to be obvious. Those wanting to see a more detailed description of the specific division of tasks into jobs in and across some hypothetical workplaces will have that chance in part III of this book, and can do so at the parecon website (, as well. 

Basically, participatory economic job complexes would be organized so that every individual would be regularly involved in both conception and execution tasks, with comparable empowerment and quality of life circumstances for all. The precision of the balance would depend on many factors, and would improve over time. At any rate, no individual would ever permanently occupy positions that would present him or her unusual opportunities to accumulate influence or knowledge. Every individual would be welcomed to occupy positions that guaranteed him or her an appropriate amount of empowering tasks. In essence, the human costs and benefits of work would be equitably distributed. Corporate organization would be relegated to the dustbin of history, with council organization and balanced job complexes taking its place. The question that remains, of course, is whether—in concert with other essential innovations of a participatory economy—employing balanced job complexes would have as much positive impact for solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management as we seek, whether this would permit effective utilization of talents and resources to produce desired outputs, and also whether it would have other undesirable effects that mitigated these virtues. We address these questions in upcoming chapters. 

vIn summary, can you just briefly defend the idea of workers councils and particularly balanced job complexes, please?

As we have described thus far, in a parecon, democratic workers’ councils would carry out production. Everyone could freely apply for a job and membership in the council of their choice, or form a new workers’ council with whomever they wish. Decisions within councils would be self-managed. Appropriate information dispersal, means of expressing preferences, and decision-making processes would ensure as best as possible that each individual influences outcomes proportionately to the effect of the outcomes on him or her. To facilitate this, parecon would balance individual work assignments for desirability and for empowerment within and across workplace units. 

To revisit this key point in more detail: every economy organizes work tasks into what are usually called “jobs” that constitute all the tasks a single individual will perform. In hierarchical economies most jobs contain a number of similar, relatively undesirable and unempowering tasks while a few jobs consist of relatively desirable and empowering tasks. Why should some people’s work lives be less desirable than others? Doesn’t taking equity seriously require balancing jobs, or work complexes, for desirability? Similarly, if we want everyone to have equal opportunity to participate in decision-making so that the formal right to participate translates into an effective right to participate, doesn’t this require balancing work complexes for empowerment? If some people sweep floors all week while others review new technological options and attend planning meetings, is it realistic to think the former will all have equal opportunity to participate as the latter simply because they each have one vote in the workers’ council and a chair at the decision table? 

Balanced job complexes do not entail an end to specialization. Nor do they deny the need for expertise. Instead, as we have described earlier, each individual in a parecon—including specialists and experts—will do a modest number of tasks some of which will be more enjoyable and some less, and some of which will be more empowering and some less, such that over a reasonable period the overall average empowerment impact for each job will be the same as that for all other jobs. 

The usual arguments against balanced job complexes are: 

1    Talent is scarce and training is socially costly, therefore it is inefficient for talented people or people with training to do menial tasks. 

2    Requiring everyone to participate equally in economic decisions ignores the fact that some can do a much better job than others. 

In brief, previewing a more comprehensive treatment to appear later in this book, how does a pareconist reply to these objections? The “scarce talent” argument against balancing work complexes is generally overstated. If one assumes most of the work force has no socially useful, trainable talents, then the conclusion follows. If one assumes we could not have more people doing skilled tasks, it follows. But these assumptions are false. It is true that not everyone has the talent to become a brain surgeon and also that there are social costs to training brain surgeons. But it is not true that everyone who can do it is doing it. And as well, most people have some socially useful talent whose development entails some social costs. An ideally efficient economy would identify and develop everyone’s most socially useful talents. If this is done, then there is a significant opportunity cost no matter who changes bedpans and the conclusion that it is grossly inefficient for brain surgeons to change them no longer follows. When Joe, who is currently a surgeon, has to also change bedpans, we may lose some of the possible output we could enjoy from Joe’s training and talents—assuming he could instead do complex surgery all day long. But we do not forego the surgery entirely, of course. We just have more people who do surgery less time each. And when Sue—who now only changes bedpans goes through a process of socialization and schooling and on-the-job experience that elicits her best capabilities, we gain those best capabilities from their having been suppressed in the older model. 

What is the trade? Well, before tallying, we have to also consider moving from a situation of injustice and its resulting oversight and resentment to a situation of solidarity, and take into account the impact of that change on morale and output, and also on social relations more broadly. The argument against balanced job complexes on grounds that on average in switching from our current society to the proposed one we will lose huge quantities of needed output is racist, sexist, and classist because it asserts that those displaying few talents in contemporary hierarchical corporate work arrangements actually have few talents, rather than having diverse talents that were buried by debilitating social structures and mind-numbing work. It is also myopic, or perhaps more accurately, profit-centered or productivist, in discounting the benefits of self- management, solidarity, diversity, and equity, which would all be enhanced by incorporating balanced job complexes even if society does get less output as a result from some particular Mozart or Einstein (though also very likely discovering others of comparably immense productive talent who would otherwise have subserviently swept floors forever or, for that matter, died at any early age of malnutrition). 

Of course in circumstances where the consequences of decisions are complicated and not readily apparent, there is a need for expertise. But economic choice entails that we both determine and evaluate consequences. Those with expertise in a matter may well predict the consequences of a decision far more accurately than non-experts could. But those affected by a matter will know best whether they prefer one outcome to another. So, while the need for efficiency requires an important role for experts in determining complicated consequences, efficiency also requires that those who will be affected determine which consequences they prefer. And of course experts don’t just decide things, they also have skills—like precise hands for doing brain surgery, so I do not want a surgeon to decide for me whether I should have surgery, but I do want the surgeon to do the cutting, not myself or another citizen. 

This means if we seek to attain optimal choices, it is just as misguided to keep those affected by decisions from making them (after experts have analyzed and debated consequences) as it is to prevent experts from explaining and debating consequences of complicated choices before those affected register their desires. 

Self-managed decision-making, defined as decision-making input in proportion to the degree one is affected by the outcome, does not eliminate experts but does confine experts to their proper role and keep them from usurping a role that it is neither fair, democratic, nor efficient. That it obstructs proper attentiveness to experts is not a viable critique of establishing balanced job complexes, because it does not, in fact, do so.  

Next Entry: Participatory Planning


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