ParEcon Questions & Answers

Next Entry: Optimally Innovative?


ParEcon makes us work less long?

This section is adapted from the book Parecon: Life After Capitalism.

fffDoesn’t parecon cause a destructive labor leisure trade off? Why will people work long and hard?

Another fair question. Indeed, one might admire the moral and logical structure of participatory economics, and even the incentive structure of its remuneration scheme, yet nonetheless still have fears about parecon’s output being too low. Will parecon lead to a steadily declining output or even to stagnation and decay due to people choosing to work too few hours? 

The concern is not as odd as it might seem. In a parecon it is true that people self-consciously decide the labor/leisure trade off and do so free from compulsion. That is, in each new planning period each person has two priority decisions. 

1    How much, overall, do they want to consume? 

2    How much, overall, do they want to work? 

These two decisions are connected in that the sum total work in an economy creates the sum total output. In turn, the sum total output determines the average consumption per capita. We each consume that average tweaked in accord with our effort/sacrifice rating. It follows that to consume more either I must work more or harder than average, or the average amount that everyone consumes must rise. Thus, aside from any increases in productivity gained from technical or social innovations, if I wish to consume more, I need to work more, pure and simple. And so, as one of their largest choices, all society’s actors in the participatory planning process decide their own level of work and simultaneously the average level of work and overall productive output and thus the average consumption bundle across the economy. And not only do I have to work more if I want to consume more, but, if I wish to work less, then I will consume less. 

The productivity complaint is therefore that people will collectively work many fewer hours in a parecon than in capitalist economies, and total output will drop compared to what it would have been had people worked longer hours or more intensely. The complaint is likely correct, we think, in that people will probably reduce the average time and intensity they work in a participatory economy as compared to that which they endure in a technologically comparable capitalist economy. But is this alteration worthy of complaint or compliment? It is tempting to answer snidely and leave it at that: Presumably, we should also oppose unions because under their influence workers went from ten-hour days to eight-hour days. Indeed, perhaps we should look back on the twelve-hour day sweatshops of the early Industrial Revolution era as a near utopia. But, setting aside this easy reply, let’s explore further. 

The sense in which the purported complaint is instead a compliment ought to be clear enough. The complaint highlights that parecon is more democratic than existing economies. In a market system more work is compelled even if literally everyone would prefer to slow down. Competition demands that each workplace maximize profits. But profits go up when employees work longer and more intensely. Owners and managers therefore seek to compel, cajole, entice, or otherwise generate longer and more intense work by employees, and endure similar pressures themselves, even if their personal preferences run in the opposite direction. Marx described this central attribute of markets with the pithy admonition that for capitalists their drive was to “accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the Prophets.”

Juliet Schor in her book on work and leisure in America provides an instructive indicator. Considering the US from the period after WWII—the golden age of capitalism—to the end of the twentieth century, Schor notes that per-capita output approximately doubled. She points out that an important decision should have been made in conjunction with that increase in productive capability. That is, should we maintain or even expand the work week to enjoy the much bigger social product that increased productivity made possible? Or should we retain the per capita output level of the 1950s, using the increase in productivity per hour to reduce the work week by establishing a schedule of working one week on and one week off, or working just two and a half days a week, or a month or a year on and a month or a year off, with no reduction in overall output per person. You do not have to decide which option you prefer to note that in fact no such democratic decision ever took place because the issue never arose. The market ensured that work pace and workload climbed as high as they could without causing the system to reach a breaking point. It is the market itself and not a conscious collective and free choice that yielded the outcome.

So the sense in which the complaint about parecon’s citizens making a work/leisure choice that diminishes output is a compliment is that in the transition from markets to participatory planning we recapture conscious social control over determining what labor/leisure trade-off we prefer, rather than having market competition impose on us a singular and very debilitating outcome. 

vvSounds good, but won’t humanity make this labor/leisure trade-off choice stupidly. In other words, given that parecon permits us to choose between labor and leisure, we will opt to work so little that the fall in output will be horribly damaging to the economy as a whole. Either we will not produce enough to have pleasurable lives now—and will not realize that we can rectify that by working more—or, more subtly, while we may ourselves do fine in the short run, future generations will suffer dramatically compared to what might have been with more labor expended on our part today. Isn’t this a fatal flaw?. 

The first half of this logic is not worth serious discussion. It says that given the democratic choice between labor and leisure we will conduct ourselves so moronically that we will starve our stomachs on behalf of our time off, making ourselves suffer more from the hunger than we benefit from the leisure. We need to be compelled— this argument believes—by some outside agency, to work sufficiently to have even the level of short-term consumption that we ourselves desire in order to be presently fulfilled. Even without noting the change in quality of work time and circumstances that a parecon brings, and thus the improvement in work rather than its further debasement, as well as the improved relevance of output to human well-being and development as compared to enhancing firstly profit for the few as under capitalism, this humans-are-idiots logic cannot be at the root of a serious productivity complaint. 

But the second half of the logic is more disturbing. Consider ancient Egypt, that is, in 4,000 BC or so. At its outset, Egyptian society was remarkable in many respects relative to others at the time, but over a period of roughly 4,000 years it was overwhelmingly stagnant. Life was essentially the same for each new generation as in the past, with little application of human insight to creating new conditions better than those enjoyed by one’s parents, or grandparents, or even great great (and repeat that word great 100 times or more) grandparents. The lack of change in ancient Egypt is literally mind-numbing in its scale. For a comparison, in 1900 the average life expectancy in the US was approximately 45, and in 2000 75, and we had gone from just a few people having barely functional telephones to omnipresent high-tech labor-saving and sensory enhancing tools throughout society. Of course the lack of change in Egypt had nothing to do with a labor/leisure trade-off since most people worked horribly long proportions of their bitterly short lives, but it does show at least the possibility of the condition of large-scale and enduring stagnation that parecon’s critics fear. That is, the complaint’s supposed dreaded condition, stagnation, is not impossible in real historical situations. In fact, it existed for most of human history so we must take seriously the accusation that stagnation could arise again with transition to a parecon. So would parecon be stagnant or not? 

The complaint assumes that without the compulsion of competition to propel productivity, humanity will fail to recognize the benefits of increasing output, seeing only the debits of increased workloads. This is an assumption, and a poor one at that. First, work is part of what makes us fulfilled humans. We do it not only to meet immediate needs, but also to express potentials and to open new future opportunities. In parecon, there will be people whose work is to focus on innovation via investment. They will not earn if they do not work, with duties that would include clarifying the benefits of innovations to society to induce willingness among people to undertake them. 

Most people under capitalism hate their jobs—and with good reason. But some auto workers who hate their jobs enjoy working on their cars after hours; some people with deadening careers serve in the local volunteer fire department. People don’t mind work—it gives their lives meaning—what they hate is alienated labor. And jobs in parecon are designed precisely to minimize the alienation of labor and maximize creative and empowering work. Moreover, do parents not understand that the lives of their children will be improved by contemporary investments and will they not, therefore, allot some of their energies to improving future prospects? Consider how parents now choose to spend their meager incomes as between their own pleasures and those of their children. Is it remotely plausible that with improved conditions of work, improved dignity at work, improved quality of life from the products of work which are justly distributed, and greatly enhanced educational opportunities turning us all into confident agents and decision-makers, that we should decide not only to work less—which is reasonable enough— but, year in and year out, to work so much less that we and our children will suffer because of the choice? Is this a serious prospect at all, much less one that should cause us to doubt the desirability of replacing markets with participatory planning as a means to increase equity, solidarity, diversity, and in particular self- management? 

Everyone has to decide for themselves, of course, but suppose in 1955 the US had adopted a participatory economy. What would have been the impact on total volume of work and output—and derivatively on progress— even ignoring other benefits? The quality of work for 80 percent of the workforce would have improved greatly. Waste production of all kinds would have diminished and disappeared. Needless and excessive production would have disappeared as well. Innovations would have aimed at bettering the quality of work and consumption, not maximizing profit. And then there would have been the reductions in military, advertising, and luxury expenditures, and the gains in education and talent thereby made available for scientific, engineering, artistic, aesthetic, and other advances.

So let’s call the total output in 1955 Y. What would have happened in the 40 years after WWII if we assume a parecon rather than a capitalist economy? Productivity per person would have doubled in our hypothetical example (though in reality it would do much better, not least because of increased creativity and talent devoted to the issue, but also because instead of innovation aiming at profit it would aim directly at fulfillment). As well, there would have been more public goods, of course. Less output need have been devoted to cleaning up pollution and curing socially caused diseases and to managing resistant workers, because all these adverse features would have been diminished or eliminated. Less would have gone into advertising to sell goods for reasons that have nothing to do with benefiting those who buy them because there would no longer have been any interest in doing that. Less would have gone to projecting military power, and to providing luxuries to the rich, and to incarcerating the poor, for similar reasons.

This would all have occurred, in other words, because there would have been less pollution since we would have assigned proper values to external effects, fewer conditions that sicken citizens for the same reason, no managers above workers or workers below managers due to parecon’s balanced job complexes, no incentive to produce and distribute other than to meet real needs, no accumulation compulsions, no world to subjugate in order to profit by ripping off resources and energies from other countries, no rich to luxuriate, no poor forced to steal, and so on. The point is, in addition to per-capita productivity doubling (or more) in the forty years in question, since much of Y in 1955 had nothing to do with human well-being in the first place and would have been replaced by new outputs that do benefit human well-being, not only would output per person have doubled due to technical innovations, but the relevance of output to fulfillment would have also gone dramatically upward, let’s say, very conservatively, by another 25 percent due to useless and pointless and even destructive production being removed, and desirable production put in its place. With just distribution it then would follow that the population could have opted to work in 1995 not only half as long as in 1955, as Schor suggested, but a bit more than a third as long, and still have the same per capita output relevant to meeting real needs and to expanding worthy potentials. At the same time, investment in innovation could have gone on all along at the same rate it did in 1955 under capitalism. So the workweek could go from 40 hours to about 13, in that scenario, over a run of 40 years, with no loss in fulfillment or in output earmarked to engender socially beneficial progress.

Does anyone think that humanity is so blindingly lazy that it would opt to cut back work that is no longer alienated even that far, much less to cut it back still further? Isn’t it far more plausible that humanity would, in fact, opt for a lesser cutback, say from 40 to 30 or perhaps 25 hours, with, as well, a considerable number of those saved hours going to highly productive hobbies, volunteer pursuits, and self-education? In short, looked at in full context, the productivity complaint is not a serious one, but instead a compliment in disguise.  

 Next Entry: Optimally Innovative?

Leave a comment

Skip to toolbar