Albert Replies Anew


[This essay is part of an extended debate with David Horowitz found here.]




Let’s assume all your assertions about the Soviet economy circa 1980 are precisely correct. To have bearing on what I argued about centrally planned socialism’s capacity to accomplish material development despite its other drawbacks, you would have had to compare the Soviet results not to the U.S., but to Brazil. You also ignored the Cuba/Guatemala comparison, the comment about General Motors, and so on. But at any rate, the issue is peripheral because regarding the Soviet economic model, we agree that this system is not one we should seek.


Where we profoundly disagree, which we could usefully debate, is whether folks should accept that capitalism is the best economic system that humanity can aspire too.


Now I could follow your lead and trot out a few hundred pages of statistics, pictures, and all manner of atrocious outcomes found in capitalist economies, and ask how can you be for this? Do you like poverty? Do you like starvation? Do you like war and colonialism? But that would be the same kind of non-sequitor to your argument as your comments were to my (far less consequential) claim. You don’t say that capitalism is without flaws. Only an ignoramus would say something like that. You say, instead, that despite its flaws, capitalism is the best possible option.


So I have to admit that the only way to address that claim…other than to point out that you ought to be agonizing when asserting that “there is no alternative,” bemoaning the horrible implications the assertion would have if it were true…is to offer an economic model that is superior to capitalism, workable, and attainable.


But precisely this has been one of my major pursuits, along with my friend and co-author Robin Hahnel, and the product is an economic model called participatory economics. Despite mainstream media claiming that no one on the left has any economic vision, this model is a well developed and carefully argued model, and is quite accessible, and can be examined via www.parecon.org as well as in various published books, essays, etc.


Regarding this new vision, in response to my enumeration of some of its positive values in my last reply to you, you tell me that “All of your goals Michael are quite noble — and quite impossible — and the effort to achieve them is quite destructive.”


(1) Does your saying my goals are “noble” mean you like the goals I offered? Do you agree that an economic model that promotes solidarity rather than anti-social interrelations, that promotes equity of income correlated to effort and sacrifice rather than astronomical income differentials coupled to property, power, or output, that promotes diversity rather than homogenization, and that apportions influence to people over decisions in proportion as people are affected rather than overwhelmingly to a small elite above others who merely obey, would be superior? Do you agree that more solidarity, more equity, more diversity, and more self-management, other things equal, are better than less? If an economy could accomplish production, consumption, and allocation from the point of view of meeting human needs and expanding human potentials as well or better than capitalism can, and if it could also better propel equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management and related social values, creating no countervailing side-effects, do you agree it would be superior?


(2) On the assumption that you will agree that participatory economics would be superior if it had these desirable qualities, your rejection of it would presumably be because you think, as you say, it is “quite impossible.” But I wonder–have you read one word about participatory economy’s institutions? If you have done so, please make clear what it is about the participatory economic vision that is “impossible.” If you haven’t read word one about it, however, then I am curious how you arrive at your conclusion. For in that case, your claim says we can know about a new economic model, without even looking at it, presumably from our long experience with capitalism’s dominance, that no model offered to supercede it can even be workable, much less superior. What would you have thought if an Egyptian Pharaoh had made the same claim on behalf of his preferred economic system which had been, at that time, 4,000 years in the saddle, and if he had done so without so much as a single argument based on the character of economic institutions or even of human beings? I bet you might have wondered if the Pharaoh felt as he did not out of reason and evidence, but because he felt near zero empathy for the poor souls laboring to build his temples and pyramids and enjoyed his own exalted status. At any rate, I would like to know what allows you to know that Participatory Economics must be impossible, that its institutions can’t be viable and would not operate as claimed, etc., without even looking at it.


More explicitly, what is it about remunerating effort and sacrifice, employing workers and consumer’s councils, utilizing a division of labor built on balanced job complexes, implementing decision methods that apportion influence in accord with the impact decisions have on people, and allocating via participatory planning, that makes participatory economics impossible? Does this array of institutional choices violate some law of physics, perhaps? Or is it contrary to human nature and potentials, perhaps? Or is there some built-in crippling inadequacy or contradiction, that these institutions impose, perhaps? I would be more than happy to hear your view.


(3) As to the effort to achieve noble goals being quite destructive, again, how do you arrive at such a claim? Certainly it isn’t merely be looking and noting that to remove boots from necks often involves disruptions. That is true enough, but then again boots being on necks disrupts lives too. Should we not have had the movement to get rid of slavery? How about overcoming feudalism and ushering in capitalism and representative government, for that matter? Or what about the movement for women’s suffrage? Or to get rid of Jim Crow? Or to win the eight hour day? Or to eliminate dictatorships? Would you dismiss these as destructive? I wonder how you know a priori that any effort to attain a better economy can only lead us to still more pain and suffering. I think, in fact, this comment of yours probably reduces to no more than the view that there is no better economic system so that of course it would be the case that any disruption or pain expended in trying to arrive at a better system would be wasted and “destructive.” But what if a better system is possible?


You add that…you “have written books about this — notably Radical Son and The Politics of Bad Faith — which join a century of critiques of socialism that history has validated and socialists — like you — have steadfastly ignored.” 


You are correct that I haven’t read these books by you. Your reputation precedes you nowadays, and doesn’t lead me to believe they would be edifying. But you are wrong about my views. I am a critic of the thing you mean by socialism, which was evident even in the short essay you chose to criticize at the outset of this exchange, and I have been a critic of that system since my very earliest political days. I think you are perhaps a few years older than me, but back before your spots changed I wrote my first book on this topic. It was titled What Is To Be Undone…and it was a very harsh critique of Marxist and Leninist theory and practice. I reject systems that combine public or state ownership of means of production, corporate workplace organization, and central planning or markets for allocation (with or without horrendous dictatorial states), so if you want to debate, let’s not attribute to me views I don’t hold and haven’t ever held…for that matter.


You say referring to me: “`Socialism is dead. Long live socialism,’ is your rallying cry.”


But, no. What you call socialism I call coordinatorism, and were I too live in a country with such an economy, I would be a revolutionary and I wonder if in that case you would tell me efforts on behalf of noble aims were destructive. More, my reaction to the demise of the Soviet system was, in fact, “one down one to go.” And what I would like to see born in its place is a system of economic cooperation and participation that I call participatory economics, a vision which was conceived as much as an answer to centrally planned and market socialist models as to capitalist ones.


You say: “Each generation of you thinks it’s smarter than the ones that preceded it, but you are only kidding yourselves.”


I am not aware of anyone who thinks that new generations have more brain power than past ones. Such a notion is absurd, of course. But the idea that new generations know things which past ones didn’t know is, of course, very often the case. Do I think that in advocating participatory economics I am advocating something that past generations didn’t have in mind? Of course I do, it’s a fact. You are saying that past anti-capitalist movements had the same “noble aims” I do, but in practice produced flawed system, thus so would I. But no. While a great many of the rank and file of past movements had similar broad aspirations to mine, and while those movements were against capitalism, as I am, at the top, in their organization and agendas, the movements aimed for what they attained, centrally planned and or market allocation with state ownership, corporate workplace organization, and a one party state. I of course seek none of these things. Indeed, I reject them all. Participatory economics is a very very different entity, as is its logic of creation and maintenance. You can’t lay a critical glove on it by critiquing what it rejects unless you can show that that the rejection is mere rhetoric and whether willfully or not, the institutions of participatory economics would lead to the ills you fear. I await you even attempting such an argument.


You say: “If you want to take on my critique of socialism as an impossible dream, I’m happy to respond.”


If you mean “If you want to take on my rejection of centrally planned and market state ownership system,” no, I have on interest because I reject those systems too. If you mean “If you want to take on my claim that there is no better economy to be sought than capitalism, I’m happy to respond,” then, sure, I would love to. The issue couldn’t be more important.


But of course there is only one way to “take on” such a claim.


(1) We must decide what we mean by better and worse economic functioning. We have made a little progress, already, with you noting that my offered criteria are noble.


And (2) we must offer a model that we claim to be better, and then assess it.


I have done both these things, with Robin Hahnel. If you want to reject what we offer, that’s fine, but an argument would be good. If you want me to summarize the model for you, i am willing, but, again, full descriptions are easy to come by at www.parecon.org.


You say: “But I have no desire to critique the work of any socialist who hasn’t first answered Von Mises and Hayek, or who thinks that socialism in Russia or Cuba has worked, or that the failure of Soviet socialism is irrelevant because it is “authoritarian.” (It is relevant because the Marxists who fell into this trap — from Lenin to Lukacs — were at least as intelligent as you.) If you find these terms interesting, I’m game.


Actually, none of this bears on me, so the terms are no problem. I don’t call myself a socialist, as the essay you replied to made clear. I don’t think socialism in Russia or Cuba worked per se, only that in both places, especially the latter, there were (and continue to be) great accomplishments even though also horrible failings. By the by, I would say this same thing about capitalism — accomplishments and also failings. I don’t say the failure of the Soviet system is irrelevant because it is authoritarian. I say I reject the Soviet system because it is authoritarian, not because an instance of it failed in various material respects, but because all instances of it will always fail regarding economic participation and self management. And in a Princeton University book titled Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics (also online at www.parecon.org) if you are interested in technical details, you will find replies to Von Mises and Hayek, though the more relevant reply for our concerns is precisely our presentation of a new viable vision with worthy properties.


What you claim, I think, is that because anti-capitalists have in the past implemented systems that have had flaws, all efforts to supercede capitalism must have these same flaws. This could be the case. but it also could be quite false, of course, merely reflecting that to this point in history anti-capitalists have sought new class divided and flawed systems, not something classless like participatory economics. What you would have to do to speak to my views is make a case that no alternative to capitalism is possible other than centrally planned or market socialism. If you did that, yes, then we would be left debating whether humanity would be better off with one flawed system or the other, and what kinds of structures we might advocate to reduce the impact of the flaws, in either case, a very sad discussion. But I offer instead a new model hostile to all these past ones.


Do you want to reject this new model a priori  — like the Pharaohs saying that nothing could supercede them? Or do you want to address its actual content?


If you offer a substantive argument on either account, I will happily reply in turn.

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