A friend from Finland, Antti Jauhiainen today sent me an essays by an anarchist rejecting Parecon. I thought it might be useful to respond since the concerns I could discern are typical of many, though not all, anarchists I encounter. I will go on at more length than the author would likely anticipate because the concerns keep surfacing among anarchists, and I should like to try, once again, to get a substantive discussion going, and perhaps arrive at some level of mutual understanding, and even agreement.
The critical intervention is signed Argyris Argyriadis, writing on a site called Anarchismo.net – who I am guessing is from Greece since he or she is reacting to a talk I did in Greece in 2009, but my apologies in advance if I have the residency wrong. I reply to Argyriadis here, saving a reply to the second critic for another blog post.
Under the title "Parecon & Anarchism" (http://www.anarkismo.net/article/13327) with the subtitle "a necessary answer to Michael Albert," Argyriadis reacts to one sentence he quotes from a talk of mine – “If Kropotkin, Bakunin, Emma Goldman and etc. anarchists were alive; they would be in favour of Parecon.” Maybe it is a translation issue, but I am pretty sure I would have said, "I think they would be in favor of parecon" – but, that quibble aside – Argyriadis instead claims that parecon is both flawed and not anarchist: "Parecon may be an alternative thinking to capitalism, however it is not anarchist economics."
Fair enough, but on what does Argyriadis base his assertion that parecon is not anarchist? What is the underlying concern that I can try to learn from or react to?
Interestingly, Argyriadis says not one word – other than the name, "parecon," – about parecon. Literally if you take a look for yourself you will see that Argyriadis neither describes, nor accepts, nor rejects so much as one component, element, thought, or value associated with parecon, though it is a comment titled Parecon & Anarchsm.
Instead, Argyriadis says the Spanish Anarchists did a wonderful and inspiring job – a claim I would certainly not contest though I would not claim they were perfect, either. Then, however, this belief seems to cause Argyriadis to set up barriers around the library of life and learning, leaving only one book accessible. An anarchist cannot offer a vision, it seems, other than something that was signed, many decades back, by a Spanish Anarchist, or at least something that is explicitly culled from their experience.
That might sound a bit harsh, a bit dramatic, but I can find no other logical explanation in Argyriadis’s brief comments (though I would be more than happy for him to offer additional reasons that he did not offer in his text) for his rejecting the one sentence about parecon that he in fact addresses.
What would have logically justified that rejection would have been, for example, if Argyriadis demonstrated that parecon’s attachments to workers and consumers self managing councils, or remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, or balanced job complexes, or participatory planning, were in some serious sense antithetical to some core belief, claim, or commitment of anarchism, so that parecon itself would for that reason not attract support from Kropotkin et al. But Argyriadis doesn’t seem to feel a responsibility to actually discuss parecon as a precondition for rejecting it. He didn’t even mention any of those core features, and they are all the core features, much less evaluate them. Instead, judging by Argyriadis’ "necessary reply," in his view one only has to assert that parecon is in some central way, which itself can also go unmentioned, different than what Spanish Anarchists did decades ago. I hope Argyriadis and others will consider this question that I offer him – how is this type rejection of a proposal for economic relations anything other than sectarian adherence to past deeds as compared to reasoned exploration of current possibilities and realities?
But – I can at least try to read into what Argyriadis wrote, and try to extrapolate form it, based as well on things I heard from other anarchists, to find what may be at root of his rejection (and again, I am sorry if Argyriadis has some other basis in mind).
Argyriadis, in any event, summarizes a couple of substantive attachments from what he takes to be the lessons of the Spanish experience.
One, however, not only would not cause a person to reject parecon, but rather to embrace it. Thus Argyriadis says "Anarchism is different [from other approaches like Leninism, etc.] in this sense: It dictates that the worker should be empowered and released from its oppressor without being one." But this is of course precisely at the heart of parecon’s rejection not only of private ownership of means of production elevating capitalists, but also its rejection of monopolization of empowering tasks in the division of labor elevating what I call the coordinator class – which second rejection I offer as critique of both market and centrally planned socialist economics (and not just dictatorship) and think is completely in accord with anarchist inclinations. More, this insight really harks back all the way to Bakunin, who would, I think, very much welcome the formulation, though of course that is just my opinion, he isn’t here to ask, and his sanctification is unnecessary in any case.
So far, then, as best I can tell Argyriadis has no problem with my opening quote. But next Argyriadis says that in Spain the norm of remuneration was, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" and that "Economy will always be based on figures and this is an inevitable evil otherwise we may speak for economic fiction (Parecon is still fiction)." Let’s set aside the very peculiar idea that economics requiring figures is an evil, though I suspect this sentiment may actually be quite important to Argyriadis’s views. Notice, however, about the remunerative norm that he attributes to the Spanish anarchist experience, Argyriadis doesn’t bother to say why he thinks it is worthy, much less why he thinks it is essential for anarchism, nor does he even report much less explain how or why parecon deviates from it – but, let’s set all that aside as well, and assume Argyriadis believes both to be the case and that these beliefs fuel his rejection of parecon as being not anarchist, which certainly would seem in accord with his brief essay.
Let’s also set aside Argyriadis’s claim that in fact in Spain this oft quoted almost never analyzed remunerative norm was the actually operative one – since I would say that though it was certainly in the air as a kind of sentiment, and that of course many people rhetorically advocated and asserted it, most assuredly it was not in fact the only or even the main operative norm – and that in fact it could not possibly have been.
For example, suppose I, a Spanish worker at the time, said that I wanted to work two hours and eat and have housing and have other benefits like the rich landowner who I used to be subservient to. Obviously, it wouldn’t happen. Why not? Well, someone else, or some group, or some system, would have in fact determined that some things that I might have asked for, to have – the "to each" part of the norm – were okay, but other things I might have asked for to have were not okay. Does Argyriadis or any anarchist instead believe for a second that my request for an olympic size swimming pool because I need it to salve my desire to swim, in private, would be met, in Spain, then?
Similarly, some levels of work, timing of participation, actual activity, would have been found acceptable, and others not acceptable. If I said I wanted to work two hours, and, moreover, I wanted to do it when no one else was around, and so on, because that would match my ability as I interpreted it – does Argyriadis or any anartchist think this would have been agreed?
There were factors influencing such decisions – about work and consumption – however implicit. They could have been (and I think they in fact were largely market pressures), or they could have been dictates (and I think they were mostly not) from a central authority, or they could have been (and I think they were in part) judgements by my workmates in some broader setting (whether markets or, as was sometimes the case, cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs), but in any event, what wasn’t the case was that each Spanish worker contributed however much labor he or she said he or she was able to, without ratification by or influence from from any other source, or that each Spanish citizen consumed however much he or she said he or she needed, also without ratification by or influence from any other source.
But, okay, let’s ignore our differences about the reality in Spain and make believe, for the sake of discussion, that in Spain, for the period of the revolution, everyone got what they said they needed and contributed what they said they were able to, all offered up so that the result was just and fair levels of work and income that matched up nicely despite that there was, as they would have in this case in this imagined picture, little to no accurate information to facilitate their doing so.
This is a fiction, but still, what would follow if, as Argyriadis says, it was true? Not much, honestly. It wouldn’t tell us that it is the right way, the only way, the best way, or even a good way, even just among possible anarchist ways, to organize remuneration. To draw those conclusions even from it having occurred (if it in fact had occurred) one would have to assess the mechanics and implications – and certainly not just say, well folks who I like who called themselves anarchists did it, for a brief time, and so we must all always pledge allegiance to it, and, more, if you don’t pledge allegiance to it, then without even looking at why you don’t pledge allegiance to it, I can judge that you are not anarchist. That is sectarian, as well as wrong, as well as elitist given that tiny numbers of people even know that Spain had such a period – and finally also based on a misconception, since the assumption about Spain is false.
Still, if Argyriadis could and would say, Kropotkin and Bakunin and so on would all assert only this remunerative norm is anarchist and that any other norm is flawed and anti anarchist – then, yes, he could logically dismiss my one sentence. But what a sad commentary that would be on anarchism, if it were true, which it most certainly is not.
Anarchism at its best is a live body of thought and action hell bent on attaining a liberated society in which people self manage their lives without classes or other constituencies dominating one another. It is not, however, a list of allegiances which cannot be thought about, assessed, much less left behind – supposing that they were even held in the first place. Can we agree on that much? If so, then to say parecon is not anarchist, or is flawed, due to its remunerative norm, you would have to at least say what that norm is, why it is flawed, and why it is contrary to anarchism.
So, now, back to the remunerative norm where we can in fact take a look.
Many anarchists feel, understandably, considerable discomfort with anything that isn’t "you get what you need – and you give what you are able to." Ironically, I would say, instead, that this norm is itself quite an imposition and denial of self management, on the one hand, and, on the other, that it is utterly incapable of guiding economic exchange. I would also say that if we look at the reasons why these difficulties exist for this norm – and if we keep in our hearts and minds the sentiments that cause people to like the formulation even as we try to fix it – we can come up with a norm that is actually consistent with self management and is also capable of guiding economic exchange, and happens to also be in accord with the underlying sentiments that cause many anarchists to favor the flawed norm – and that this new norm that we arrive at is the norm that parecon adopts. Let’s see.
First, how is "from each according to their ability to each according to their needs" a denial of self management?
Well what if I want to give less than my ability warrants? Why does no one ever ask that rather trivially simple question, I wonder? Suppose I am a talented ballplayer, artist, bricklayer, calculator, or whatever, but I would rather do some other type of work. In other words, I want to have society take from me – the "from each" part of the norm – less than my ability would allow me to produce. Does holding this norm preclude that choice on my part? Would the hypothetical Spanish anarchist, or Argyriadis, or any anarchist anywhere in time or space preclude my working at a job I am less good at if I preferred it to another I could do better? If the norm doesn’t preclude that, what does it mean?
Let’s take it further and make it simpler, as well. Suppose I am going to work at least in part in the area of my greatest productive potentials, but that I don’t want to work as long as I am "able" to, but only half that long. Does the norm preclude my making that choice? Would the hypothetical Spanish anarchist, or Argyriadis, or any anarchist anywhere in time or space preclude choosing to work at a job less time than I am able to? If not, what does the norm mean?
Now, on the opposite side – the "to each" part of the norm – suppose I want to receive less than someone claims I need. Can I opt for that? Why not? Suppose I want more than you claim I need, but I claim I need the greater amount? Can I have that? Suppose it is a whole lot more than you think I need – and how do you know, and how do I know, what is needed?
Here is the crux of it. Anarchists who advocate "from each / to each" actually mean that each person should seek and receive an amount, which in context, is needed and warranted – which is to say is fair, just, etc. They also mean each person should offer and deliver labor that is fair and warranted. They don’t like the idea that anything outside the person impacts what the person does – oddly – given that others are also affected – but then what’s left? One possibility is that anarchists think each producer and consumer will freely decide of their own accord, with zero influence by others, to accommodate their requests (needs) and offerings (labor) so that the totals of each are in accord and just. Okay, fine, but how? How does even a highly socially responsible person know what is a fair request and a fair offering, even if we assume that everyone would freely opt to be fair. The "from each / to each" norm does nothing to clarify what is warranted and what isn’t. And every anarchist I have ever talked with about this, when given real examples, comes quickly to the conclusion that other than in cases of disability – where people really do get what they medically need – or in the case of other free goods where they can have as much as they want – people should get an amount that is fair, meaning consistent with their activity, and people should give labor that is fair, meaning consistent with what they wish to consume. And now the word "consistent" is key.
The anarchist is trying to avoid the injustice of people getting too much, or too little, due the dictates of property, or power, or even the value/volume of their personal output. And the anarchist is trying to avoid, as well, any person having to work inordinately, unfairly, too much, or at unfairly harsh circumstances. And, the anarchist is also trying to retain for the individual self managing say for every participant. Well, okay, I agree with all those aims – completely. I want the same things. But I look at it, and to me these aims mean that people should get income in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their labor (plus allowances for medical goods, other free goods, etc.) and likewise, that people should contribute socially valued labor in accord with the income they receive, and that both these accommodations should occur in context of self managed collective, cooperative decisions about the orientation of the economy including what is produced, in what volume, by what means, etc., all undertaken with full and accurate information about the costs and benefits of available options.
Okay, that is part of the problem and it leads right to parecon, ironically, as best I can see. There is another part of the problem that I won’t go into at length here, as it is more technical and not necessary, in any event, for the issues here, though also very important. The "from each / to each" norm not only doesn’t tell us who or what decides by what criteria what warranted need is, and what warranted ability is, nor even why I should only get what I need – whatever that means – and only give what I am able to, whatever that is – it also doesn’t provide a way for society to know how much, relative to other desires, people want one choice as compared to some other choice, or how much they want to replace some onerous work roles as compared to others, etc. In other words, it doesn’t provide needed accounting for making humane investment decisions about what directions to move in. This too leads right to the parecon norm, and to participatory planning, as best I can tell. But for now, the fact is, every anarchist who offers this "from each to each" norm really means I should get an amount that, within the context where I find myself, is fair – and I should give, in turn, an amount that is also fair – which comes down to, in practice, remuneration for onerousness, duration, and intensity or socially valued labor.
If Argyriadis, or other anarchists, for that matter, are serious, and really disagree, okay, he or they should say why and then perhaps we can pursue it.