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Chapter 18 

Privacy / Frenzy 

Do Parecon’s Citizens Lack a “Room of Their Own”?
Does Anyone Have Time for Anything But Economics? 

People’s lives are in turmoil. There is a sense of crisis for men as well as for women, and for children too. Do we have an idea or even a glimmering about how people can and should live, not as victims as in the past for women, nor as atoms just whirling around on their own trajectories, but as members of a human community and as moral agents in that community?
— Barbara Ehrenreich 

 

Any economy on some counts is good, of course, but if it is really bad on other counts, it can lose much of its luster. Does parecon achieve equity and its other virtues by sacrificing people’s privacy or by imposing unreasonable pressures on people to participate when they would rather be doing other things? 

In “A Roundtable Discussion on Participatory Economics” in Z Magazine (July/August 1991), Nancy Folbre referred to this problem as the “tyranny of the busy-body” and the “dictatorship of the sociable.” In a class my frequent co-author taught at American University, this issue came to be known as “the kinky underwear problem.” Folbre also cautioned of the potential inefficiency of groups dominated by the sentiment “Let’s not piss anybody off.” David Levy observed in a Dollars and Sense (November 1991) book review that while the 1991 book on parecon that Robin Hahnel and I authored, Looking Forward, reminded him in some respects of Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed, readers should be warned that LeGuin’s subtitle was “An Ambiguous Utopia” because “reliance on social pressure rather than material incentives create a lack of initiative, claustrophobic conformity, and intrusiveness.” In comradely private communication, radical economist Tom Weisskopf cautioned against “sacrificing too much individuality, specialization, diversity, and freedom of choice.” What is the source of these misgivings, and how do we respond? 

Parecon recognizes that economic decisions about both consumption and production affect more than the immediate consumer or producer. And parecon also asserts that those affected by decisions should have proportionate influence over them. Does this yield a situation in which everyone is so continually subordinate to oversight by others that privacy disappears? Does it empower only those who enjoy being involved in planning and making decisions and disempower those who are less socially concerned? Does it impose too many meetings and, even after reducing the work week, leave us all spending too much time hassling over economic choices?

 

A Busybody Economy? 

For us it is important to distinguish between misgivings that any and all participatory processes may be too intrusive into people’s private lives, and the criticism that particular measures which may or may not be adopted in a specific parecon are more socially intrusive than they need to be. First, let us reiterate features of our model designed to protect the citizenry from tyrannical busybodies. 

Beside being free to move from one neighborhood (or job) to another, and besides being able to make consumption proposals anonymously, consumption proposals justified by one’s effort rating cannot be easily vetoed. While there is always, of course, nothing but a motion to close debate or at least silence the loud mouth to prevent a busybody from carrying on uselessly about someone else’s consumption request, it is difficult to understand why people would choose to waste their time expressing or listening to views that had no practical consequence. And the fact that individuals can make anonymous consumption requests if they do not wish their neighbors to know the particulars of their consumption habits keeps this from becoming a serious problem at all. 

All societies have to face a tension between leaving people alone and taking care of those who need it. Should a society sponsor public service announcements pointing out the harm of cigarette smoking, for example? People with strong views will hope to persuade other people to do what they think is in their best interest even if they cannot (and would not even want to) force them to do so. In a parecon, animal-rights folks, if they live in a community with meat eaters, may get up at meetings and urge their fellows not to slaughter innocent, sentient creatures for their “Big Macs.” If the meat-eaters respect others they will listen to their arguments, though perhaps ultimately reject their views. But neither side will go through this over and over, and no doubt political or economic deliberative assemblies in a parecon might establish guidelines to separate out serious issues from harassment. But the same problems exist in a capitalist democracy: I can picket outside a McDonald’s denouncing meat-eating or outside a fur-coat store—or outside the Gap for selling items using child labor, even confronting buyers personally. Would we rather a society that was less intrusive even than that, and that did not permit picketers to criticize buyers and sellers at all for their choices? 

 

Dictatorship of the Sociable 

In workers’ councils balancing job complexes for empowerment should alleviate one important cause of differential influence over decision-making. Rotating assignments to committees also alleviates even temporary monopolization of authority. On the other hand, we stopped short of calling for balancing consumption complexes for empowerment and refused to endorse forcing people to attend or remain at meetings longer than they found useful. An apt analogy is the saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Parecon has every intention of leading people to participate, but no doubt, some will drink more deeply from the well of participation than others, and those who do, will—other things being equal—probably influence decisions disproportionately. And likewise, folks who continually have very good ideas about decisions might have their ideas adopted more often (which is not the same, however, as having more weight in the decision- making itself—in a parecon people have proportionate say). But even those who are more sociable, or who regularly have good ideas and who as a result more often influence the views of others and thus the outcomes of decisions, would have a difficult time benefiting materially from their efforts, and the less social should suffer no material penalty as a result. In any case, while we find the complaint more amusing than worrisome, certainly even someone who agrees with its orientation would have to also agree that it would be better to have a dictatorship of the sociable with no material privileges accruing to them, than a dictatorship of the propertied, of the bureaucrats and party members, or of the better educated, all with great material privileges accruing. 

We also fail to understand why parecon does not seem to all who consider it as thoroughly libertarian as we intended. People are free to apply to live and work wherever they wish, and society may have very stringent rules about rejecting people on unwarranted grounds (such as race, gender, etc.). People can ask for whatever consumption and services they desire and can distribute their consumption over their lives however they see fit. People can apply to whatever educational programs they want. Any individual or group can start a new living unit, a new consumer council, or a new worker council, with fewer barriers to overcome than in any traditional model. The only restriction is that the burdens and benefits of the division of labor be equitable. That is why people are not free to consume more than their sacrifice warrants. And that is why people are not free to work at job complexes that are more desirable or empowering than others. It may be that some chafe under these restrictions or consider them excessive. Once upon a time people chafed at the idea that slavery would be abolished and their “freedom to own slaves” eliminated. We believe the logic of justice requires the pareconish restrictions on “individual freedom” just as the logic of justice places restrictions on the freedom to profit from private ownership of productive property or of slaves. 

 

Too Many Meetings? 

It is not uncommon that when told that workers and consumers will cooperatively plan economic outcomes in their own workplaces and consumption councils as well as interactively for the whole economy, people throw up their hands and say—sure being more just, more equitable, more this and more that is nice, but not if I have to live my life in interminable meetings. 

Part of the reason for this reaction may be that people are already enduring too many meetings and that the meetings people now endure are horribly alienating. Pat Devine, a radical economist from England who proposes a more mixed approach to allocation than we favor but encounters a similar complaint, reports that: 

In modern societies a large and possibly increasing proportion of overall social time is already spent on administration, on negotiation, on organizing and running systems and people. This is partly due to the growing complexity of economic and social life and the tendency for people to seek more conscious control over their lives as material, educational, and cultural standards rise. However, in existing societies much of this activity is also concerned with commercial rivalry and the management of the social conflict and consequences of alienation that stem from exploitation, oppression, inequality, and subalternity. One recent estimate has suggested that as much as half the GNP of advanced western countries may now be accounted for by transaction costs arising from increasing division of labor and the growth of alienation associated with it. 

The implication of this insight is interesting. Perhaps a good economy can not only increase equity and self-management but even reduce the aggregate time devoted to running the economy, though, in Devine’s trenchant words, “the aggregate time would be differently composed, differently focused, and, of course, differently distributed among people.” 

David Levy reviewed Looking Forward in Dollars and Sense (November 1991). He makes a similar point to Devine. 

Within [current capitalist] manufacturing firms we find echelons of managers and staff whose job it is to try to forecast demand and supply. Indeed, only a small fraction of workers directly produce goods and services. The existing system requires millions of government employees, many of whom are in jobs created precisely because the market system provides massive incentives to engage in fraud, theft, environmental destruction, and abuse of workers’ health and safety. And even during our `leisure time’ we must fill in tax forms and pay bills. Critics of Looking Forward’s complex planning process should examine the management of a large corporation. Large corporations are already planned economies; some have economies larger than those of small countries. These firms supplant the market for thousands of intermediate products. They coordinate vast amounts of information and intricate flows of goods and materials. 

In sum, “meeting time” is far from zero in existing economies. But for a parecon we can divide the issue into meeting time in workers’ councils, consumers’ councils, federations, and participatory planning. 

Conception, coordination, and decision-making are part of the organization of production under any system. Under hierarchical organizations of production relatively few employees spend most, if not all, of their time thinking and meeting, and most of the rest of the employees simply do as they’re told (or try not to do as they are told). So it is true, most people would spend more time in workplace meetings in a parecon than in a hierarchical economy. But this is because most people are excluded from workplace decision-making under capitalism and authoritarian planning. It does not necessarily mean the total amount of time spent on thinking and meeting rather than on working would be greater in a participatory workplace. It is important to remember that in a parecon decisions are taken at appropriate levels of organization. The whole workplace doesn’t meet to decide everything, of course. Rather some things are decided widely, others more narrowly, though each within a framework established at a more inclusive level. And while it might be that democratic decision-making requires somewhat more overall meeting time than autocratic decision-making, it should also be the case that a lot less time is required to enforce democratic decisions than autocratic ones. It should also be clear from our discussions of the daily circumstances and behavior in participatory workplaces that workplace meeting time is part of the normal parecon workday, not an incursion on people’s leisure.  

Regarding the organization of consumption, we plead guilty to suggesting that these decisions be arrived at with more social interaction than in market economies. In our view one of the great failures of market systems is that they do not provide a suitable vehicle through which people can express and coordinate their consumption desires to everyone’s greater good. When you enter a five-story apartment building with no elevators and see old people on the top floors and young ones on the lower floors, when you enter a community and see huge numbers of appliances that are rarely used with the redundancy of their parallel dormancy eating up budgets and preventing people from having the wherewithal to get more fulfilling luxury items, and when you consider what can be accomplished by replacing isolated individual choices with mutually concerned collective ones, you get a feel for the material reason—in addition to the participatory and self-managing reason—for consumption councils. It is through a layered network of consumer federations that we propose overcoming alienation in public choice and the isolated expression of individual choice that characterize market systems. Whether this will take more time than the present organization of consumption will depend on a number of trade-offs, but in any event, in our view this would not be too high a price to pay. 

Presently economic and political elites dominate local, state, and national public choice. For the most part they operate free from restraint by the majority, with periodic time-consuming campaigns mounted by popular organizations to rectify matters that get grossly out of hand. In a parecon people would vote directly on collective consumption issues. But this would not require a great deal of time or mean attending endless meetings. Expert testimony and differing opinions would be aired through democratic media. People would become empowered through participation, and meetings would have concrete outcomes so most people would want to participate. If it turned out that most people didn’t bother to attend (like typically occurs now in union meetings) then we could conclude there was something wrong with the institutions. But still, people would be free to pay as much or as little attention as they wished. 

We actually believe the amount of time and travail devoted to consumption decision-making in our model would be less than in market economies. Consumer federations could operate exhibits for people to visit before placing orders for goods that would be delivered directly to neighborhood outlets. Research and development units attached to consumer federations would not only provide better information about consumption options, but a real vehicle for translating consumer desires into product innovation. While the prospect of proposing and revising consumption proposals within neighborhood councils might appear to require significant meeting time, we tried to describe in detail how, with the aid of computers and rather simple software packages, this need not take more time than it takes people currently to prepare their tax returns and pay their bills. In any case, nobody wouldn’t have to attend meetings or discuss their neighbors’ opinions regarding consumption requests if they chose not to; individuals could choose whether to utilize or ignore the greater opportunities for efficient social interaction prior to registering consumption preferences; and time necessary for consumption decision-making would be treated like time necessary for production decision-making—as part of one’s obligations in a parecon, not part of one’s leisure time. And perhaps most intangibly, yet very importantly, the core activity of life would no longer be to “shop till you drop,” including finding stores, comparing competing items with negligible differences, fighting traffic, and making purchases for reasons having little or nothing to do with real freely-developed need and desire. This might make sense in a capitalist society that curtails other options for fulfillment and lumps social intercourse and modes of attaining dignity and status overwhelmingly into market mediated consumption. But it would make no sense in any sensibly-organized society. Reducing the centrality of atomized consumption-related activities in people’s lives should more than compensate for any additional time required for consumption decision-making, even ignoring other benefits. 

But how much meeting time does participatory planning require? Contrary to critics’ presumptions, we did not propose a model of democratic planning in which people or their elected representatives, meet face-to-face to endlessly discuss and negotiate how to coordinate all their activities. Instead we proposed a procedure in which individuals and councils submit proposals for their own activities, receive new information including new indicative prices, and submit revised proposals until they reach a point of agreement. Nor did we suggest meetings of constituents to define feasible options to be voted on. Instead we proposed that after a number of iterations had defined the major contours of the overall plan, the staffs of iteration facilitation boards would (mechanically) define a few feasible plans within those contours for constituents to vote on without ever having to meet and debate these at all. Finally, we did not propose face-to-face meetings where different groups would plead their cases for consumption or production proposals that did not meet normal quantitative standards. Instead we proposed that councils submit qualitative information as part of their proposals so that higher-level federations could grant exceptions should they choose to. 

But while we do not think the criticism of “too many meetings” is warranted, we do not want to be misleading. Informed, democratic decision-making is different from autocratic decision-making. And conscious, equitable coordination of the social division of labor is different from the impersonal law of supply and demand. We obviously think the former, in each case, is greatly preferable to the latter. But this is not to say we do not understand that this requires, almost by definition, increases in meaningful social intercourse.