avatar
Being Left, Part 4: Debating Vision


In December 2013 David Marty did an extensive interview with Michael Albert. We present it in nine parts – of which this is the fourth. Other parts address: Radicalization, Media, Debating Vision, Venezuela, Occupy and IOPS, Fanfare, Chomsky, and a conclusion. 

 

Parecon and other Visions

What is the relation of parecon to some other approaches that also exist – for example, market socialism, solidarity economics, and community economics?

Like many of your questions, this one, too, deserves at least an essay – and there are actually many essays that Robin and I and others have done on this, and on the other matters you have raised. So I hope people will use this interview as a motivation to explore some of that. Still, I will try to succinctly answer, albeit in an interview kind of way.

For market socialism, while there are things a parecon advocate and a market socialism advocate can agree on – for example, rejecting capitalist private ownership – there are other important matters we seriously differ on. For example, typically market socialists do not favor balanced job complexes, don’t like remuneration only for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valuable labor, and completely reject participatory planning – preferring, instead, either to not talk about job definition which means they implicitly or explicitly accept familiar corporate divisions of labor, to accept remuneration for value of output, and to advocate market allocation. The parecon advocate says in reply that these market socialist choices guarantee class division and class rule, sharp inequality in income and power, and ecological nightmares, among other problems – even if the person holding the views abhors all those results. 

Now the market socialist can rejoin in broadly three ways, I think.

 

They could ignore the criticisms and simply repeat what they like about market socialism.

They could say the criticisms are false because old divisions of labor and markets don’t have the ill effects claimed or admit that the effects exist but deny that they are particularly damaging.

Or they can say, yes, the criticism is valid and the effects are damaging, which is why we incorporate barriers to mitigate the noted ills as best we can. We believe that is our only recourse because we believe the pareconish alternative – balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning – while meant to attain classlessness, would not function, which leaves us having to favor market socialism, because at least it is viable.

 

Then, depending on the stance, a discussion can ensue. The discussion could be about actual claims about institutions – for example can markets function without harming ecology, without unduly distorting motivations and personality, without yielding large income differences, without imposing class rule, and without constantly undermining any structures designed to limit these ill effects – and similarly for corporate divisions of labor – or, on the other hand, can participatory planning and balanced job complexes function without disastrous incentive, information, or other effects? Or the discussion could be about aims and values, for example, do we really want self management and classlessness? In my experience, at least so far, most often the debate with market socialists has been pretty intractable. I have engaged in it, many times, but with little headway in any direction. 

With solidarity economics I think the situation is quite different. Parecon is, I believe, a solidarity economy – solidarity being one of parecon’s guiding values, and the institutions of parecon therefore having been conceived precisely to deliver solidarity, as well as self management, classlessness, etc. So I think there should be little difficulty in these two approaches finding common cause. Even more so, given that the solidarity economy camp offers no stated economic vision that unites its members – or none that I have seen, at least – so one could imagine solidarity economy advocates paying close attention to parecon in hopes that it would fulfill solidarity economy’s aims. 

The problem that seems to interfere with that occurring, however, is that parecon says quite explicitly that some structures are antithetical to solidarity. This is a problem because many or most advocates of solidarity economy don’t want to get explicit about such matters. Some solidarity economy advocates probably don’t agree that markets or corporate divisions of labor or for some of them even private ownership of workplaces, are ultimately anti solidarity. But for other solidarity economy advocates, they actually do agree with these claims but they don’t want to say so for tactical reasons of wanting to include in what we might call the solidarity economy community, workplaces that are privately owned but that take some steps toward solidarity even while still touting capitalism. Likewise, they want to include folks who don’t criticize markets, or who even celebrate markets, but who at least take some steps to ameliorate market ills. So, discussions with the more radical solidarity economy folks tend to be positive, especially in private, but also tend to run up against reticence about public commitments. Admittedly, with other solidarity economy advocates, sometimes talks are not that positive.

Community economics is still another case. This camp, very broadly, emphasizes small scale and local self reliance, and sometimes an idea that technological innovation will simply diminish economic activity to the point of near irrelevance. Again, when the ultimate aim is real classlessness, there should be an easy relationship. Parecon advocates would agree that small capital can have some social benefits over large capital, but will also urge that it is still capital, and that observation shouldn’t occasion any real disagreement. However, for some community economy advocates it does cause tension, because they think the only problem is one of size, or because they just don’t want to have the issue of property per se come up at all, again for tactical reasons. And a similar conundrum arises regarding allocation. The parecon advocate says even with a high level of local self reliance – whose benefits, we should add, are often greatly exaggerated while ignoring equally real debits – there is still exchange and thus there is still need for allocative valuations and desirable decision mechanisms.  The parecon advocate then proposes participatory planning, whereas some in the community economics camp still favor markets or, again, just don’t want to raise the issue.

In some ways the bottom line for me is therefore similar regarding all three approaches. They each consider certain important issues. They each propose and look kindly on various immediate steps. About all this, parecon is largely congenial, and, indeed, I think parecon accomplishes what those who seek classlessness via socialism want, and what those who seek solidarity via solidarity economics want, and what those who seek ecological sanity and mutual aid via community economics want. But the possibility of establishing unity that exists in each case tends to collide with the reality that some people in each of these camps are unwilling to break with, or sometimes even to think about, the abiding and profound implications of private ownership, markets, and/or corporate divisions of labor, and, as a result, at least in my view, those people tend to sacrifice adopting commitments that are necessary for attaining classlessness on the altar of what I think winds up being a false kind of unity with folks who don’t really seek the same ends as them. 

Participatory Society

I have heard you speak about a Participatory Society. Is that just a copy/paste from parecon institutions to the political sphere? 

No. First, participatory society is not just about polity added to economy. Rather, it is about economy and polity, yes, but it is also and equally about kinship and gender, and culture and race, as well as ecology and international relations. In a sense, though, I suppose you might say that participatory society is an application of the particular insights of parecon to each of these other realms, including, however, adding insights that emerge directly from those other realms. However, it is critically important to then realize that one could have started with any of the other realms and done economy later, in which case you would be asking, is the economic vision just applying the lessons and values of parpolity, parkinship, or parculture to economy? 

In other words, the vision could have begun in any key area of society. It did begin in the economy, it is true, but that was not due to the economy somehow being prior or more important than the rest – but was instead due to the accident of Robin and I having become more experienced and knowledgeable about economy, and, I suspect, because in certain respects economics is easier to think about due to being more well defined and having more easily indicated defining parts to consider. 

Regarding parsoc, can you summarize some of its aspects?

Well, in economy, polity, culture, and kinship, the idea is to determine the minimum institutional commitments a new society would have to have to allow participants to collectively self manage their lives consistent with the fullest elaboration of their collectively compatible wishes and aims. 

For politics this likely requires a set of basic structures for legislation, execution of shared plans, and adjudication of disputes. For kinship, it likely requires basic structures for procreation, nurturance, socialization, etc. For culture, it likely requires basic structures for establishing communities, preserving them, intermingling them, etc. And for economy, I think it requires basic structures for production, consumption, and allocation. I would suggest looking into some essays by Stephen Shalom about parpolity, Cynthia Peters about parkinship, and Justin Podur about what might usefully be called intercommunalism – as well as by various folks about economy – or perhaps considering the book titled Realizing Hope, that I did, or the book Occupy Vision, that I did with the British activist, Mark Evans, for more about each area.

How do you implement self-management when passing laws where how much each of us is affected is very hard to determine? Are you suggesting we should reboot centuries of legal, political and moral philosophy? How would a debate on, for instance, abortion take place in parsoc?

One way to see into this is to first realize that parecon isn’t even a detailed exposition of all economic relations. In fact, one can imagine diverse countries, each with a participatory economy, but in which each country differs in many ways from the next. Parecon is only about the core economic institutions – just a very few – and surrounding those, and even concerning the details of those, there is plenty of room for diverse solutions and approaches. In fact, even inside one economy, each pareconish workplace is not a replica of every other. Rather, due to producing different products, of course, but also due to differences in their workforce’s desires, or the audiences for their products, or their locale – different workplaces will have their own particular attributes, albeit on top of the basic structures that are common throughout a participatory economy. 

Okay, once we realize that much for the economy, it is a small step to realize that the same thing is true – perhaps with even more variation – for polity, and even more obviously, for kinship and culture. That said, if you look at, say, Stephen Shalom’s effort to describe political institutions you can see how for legislation – which is what you are asking about – there is a basic underlying process of deliberation and decision making that allows and elicits participation from those concerned, and that tallies and implements preferences with an eye toward accounting for depth of concern. There are however, lots of possibilities one can imagine for how to tally preferences for any particular decision, depending on how people in a society see the issues involved, and also in light of rights for dissenting minorities – usually based on some people being more affected by some options than other people are. 

There is no argument that parecon, or parsoc, eliminates disputes, leaves room for no conflicts, or constantly arrives at consensus. That kind of homogeneity isn’t even a goal, much less attained. So how does debate in a participatory society occur? Well, the way you would expect. People on the various sides make their case – through media of a new sort, self managed, etc. 

Criticisms

To go back to parecon, you have been developing and introducing these ideas throughout the years through books, interviews, and talks in the U.S. and around the world. How have these views been received by people generally? How about on the left?

It varies quite a lot – not so much over time, or by locale, as due to the backgrounds and experiences of those one is talking with. For example, mainstream economists are very nearly hopeless. It isn’t that they have strong criticisms – there has been just one criticism that I can remember, that I will mention in a minute. It is that mainstream  economists just can’t hear the views to take them seriously enough to arrive at agreement or criticism. It is wholly outside the range of thought their minds can accommodate. They simply take as given, as the basis on which they think about any economic issue, a set of assertions that parecon (and attention to reality) rejects outright – and they just can’t even entertain that rejection, much less the structures it offers to replace their views. 

I should say, this kind of censoring out contrary views is sometimes a natural dynamic for those holding strong beliefs. Who wants to spend a lot of time on something that seems to be obviously absurd? If you tell a physicist that particles make quantum leaps because a deity forces them too, the physicist is rightly not going to give the claim attention. But strong dismissiveness or an inability to even hear what is offered is also, other times, not just due to a reasonable calculation of likely returns on investing effort in understanding very foreign claims such that we might reasonably dismiss a theory of politics that was based on heartbeat rates, say, but is instead due to seeing ideas as unworthy of attention because giving them attention, much less finding them compelling, would seriously damage one’s own self image or certain social relations on which one depends. This is more like doctors in the employ of cigarette companies not being able to hear claims that cigarettes cause cancer – or like global warming deniers ruling out the observations of virtually the entire scientific world. I think a bit of both dynamics – a rational calculus which is, however, not based on real features – and a self interested censoring – are at work for mainstream economists who encounter parecon.

That said, the one critique I have heard from mainstream economics is that in a parecon there is no intrinsic pressure built into the dynamics of the institutions to continually seek growth. This is instructive. First, the claim about parecon is absolutely correct. As they say, indeed, there is no such institutional pressure in a parecon. The economists deduce that in a parecon, because of the absence of such an institutional pressure, workers and firms would be free to choose their level of productivity, and, as a result, there would be a much shorter work day and work week, for example, than if the economy forced greater output within its own logic, as does market competition. And that is true too, I believe. Work is a prime want of life, to be sure, but not the only one, and currently too much of it often crowds out things which, given a free choice, people would prefer. But the economists then go on to assert that this feature is a flaw, whereas, of course, parecon’s advocates see it as a virtue. People are free to decide how much growth they want rather than being compelled into a maximalist pursuit, and people are able to take into central account ecological, social, and personal implications, rather than having all those made peripheral by pressures to “accumulate, accumulate.” You decide: good or bad?

What about reactions on the left?

On the left, it turns out that some similarly dismissive dynamics exist. So, if a person on the left is highly wedded to a particular leftist intellectual framework and typically a very vague associated vision that parecon seems to him or her to clash with, there is a very strong disposition to ignore parecon or to reject it without serious attention. If there is, instead, no such prior intellectual commitment, or if there is a strong commitment to finding new vision wherever that may take us, then there will be serious attention to parecon, whether critical or supportive. 

At times, this gets very strange. So, while an anarchist is very likely to favor broad aims pretty much identical to self management and classlessness, as well as to solidarity – which anarchists call mutual aid – and equity, or allocative fairness, and while you would think anarchists would therefore want to look very closely at the participatory economic vision in hopes it is well conceived, for many anarchists, it doesn’t turn out like that. Instead, they discover, or more likely they hear from others, that parecon includes some features they have long been saying ought to be rejected – such as budgets and prices – and that parecon rejects as dysfunctional a feature that they have long felt was absolutely fundamental – the norm “from each according to ability to each according to need.” 

What should happen, in my view, then, is that they should think, well – these parecon advocates have the same overall ultimate aims as us, but they think a different set of institutions are necessary to attain those aims than the institutions we favor. We should look closely at their criticisms of our favored institutions, and at the logic of theirs, and see what emerges. Instead of that, however, often the discovery of there being a difference turns into a rationale for looking the other way after uttering some dismissive comment about parecon being bourgeois, or some other silly epithet. And what is most odd about that dynamic, is that some (and I suspect most) anarchists who make this dismissive choice, often very aggressively, do so without ever having read, say, a serious presentation of parecon, much less having fully understood its logic. In fact, if they have read anything at all about parecon, it is often a review or commentary from someone who was rejecting it, and who also paid very little attention to its actual features, instead, just saying it has budgets, it has prices, it rejects from each to each, so it must be bourgeois drivel. This kind of knee-jerk rejection, which avoids any kind of serious exchange about the issues and arguments, ought to be anathema to anarchism, but for many, sadly, it isn’t.

And ironically, something strikingly similar happens with Leninists. Those who want real classlessness should hear about parecon and think to themselves, well, these guys think they have insights about how an economy can be classless, so we should look closely and see. And some Leninists do that. But other Leninists hear that parecon advocates are critical of leninist interpretations of history, and that parecon advocates have a markedly different view of class than Leninists, and that’s the end of it. They can’t take that seriously. The red pen of rejection lashes out at the challenge.

So, we come back to your question – sometimes there is serious and reasoned assessment which may lead to agreement or may instead yield thoughtful disagreements. Other times, however, disagreement is written in stone and is based on little to no familiarity with the actual vision called parecon. In that case, which is sadly far more frequent, no assessment of ideas with the possibility of agreement or advance is even allowable. 

Many Debates

You have done a lot of debating with folks and I would like to bring some attention to those and to ask you a bit about them, as well. Is that okay?

Yes, sure. I think a book is actually being made including a bunch of them – though, and they are pretty much all online, already.

And if I ask your reactions to the people you debated with?

Well, that is less comfortable – but, I can try.

First, why do you do so many debates – often in many parts, in considerable depth, etc. 

I think it is the same for me as for anyone else. I debate people who are serious and who want to explore different views or concerns in hopes that the debate or exploration we do will convey useful insights to me, to my partner in the debate, and mostly to whoever encounters the material. 

Maybe your most well known debates are over post modernism. In retrospect, any new feelings about all that?

This actually has quite a few components. I wrote a bunch of articles critiquing the notions and there were exchanges with many people as a result. Then there was also an extended engagement involving numerous folks on both sides. My views haven’t changed. I think the general drift of pomo studies, writing, etc., while sometimes containing insights here and there, is overwhelmingly unproductive and even counter productive. As Chomsky, who was also in the debates, would say, post modern literature is pretty much a collection of truisms (stuff that is transparently the case) dolled up in fancy language that makes it hard to even realize it is trivially true but instead makes it seem – at least to some folks – like wisdom; claims that are patently false and even ridiculous; and claims that are literally neither true nor false, but meaningless. The essence is that the absurdly complex language, when all is said and done, has as its purpose is to make the mundane, the false, and the meaningless – and every so often something that is clever and of value – appear to be incredibly astute, to the benefit of the discipline and its practitioners who emerge as essentially incomprehensible high priests of (phoney) wisdom.

I know that is harsh, but it is what I thought back when those exchanges occurred, and it is what I think now, and it is also what I think the exchanges showed. I know however, that the participants on the other side thought the exchanges showed, instead, the mental laziness and incomprehension of myself, and, for example, Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich, who were also involved. You and others can check for yourselves.

You debated George Monbiot, the very prominent journalist from the UK. Reactions?

I have met George two or three times, and emailed him some, as well as doing the debate. I quite liked him and found his journalism committed, militant, and uncompromising. As a result I was at least a little surprised by the debate, via which it became quite clear that while horrified by capitalist injustices, for example, George seems to harbor no inclination to conceive much less to seek and win an alternative to capitalism. That is how I remember it, anyhow, and again it is all online for anyone interested. 

A debate I was shocked to first see was with David Horowitz, the right wing hit man, at least in my view. How did that happen? And what was your reaction?

The question: ‘Is Socialism Still on the Agenda?’ was put by the New Left Review in 2001. I wrote an essay, and a debate ensued between myself and some other left commentators on the subject. Months later, Horowitz discovered the essay and wrote a brief note to me. I wrote back suggesting we do a debate for online and to my surprise an extended many-part email debate ensued and ended up being mostly about participatory economics. It is all online. 

What can I say? I think his views and even more so his behavior have been utterly atrocious for a long time. It was interesting debating such a right winger, but it certainly seemed to me that his views were less coherent than I thought they might be. You may not know, but he had a considerable history on the left, before racing off to the right.

The exchange was civil however, and he even ended up saying “I will say this for you; you have shown a greater capacity for civility and a more genuine intellectual passion in these emails than I would have expected would be possible from an editor of Z. Would that there were more leftists like you.” My reply to that was, “Don’t take the wrong implication. I debated Hubert Humphrey during the Vietnam War. I don’t think it would have been possible for me to feel more antipathy to another human being and all that he was involved in and stood for, but I was civil, though aggressive. Your life trajectory strikes me as residing well beneath contempt, but that doesn’t impact the desirability of taking ideas you offer, even silly ones, unresearched ones, and knee-jerk ones, at face value and responding civilly to their content.”  

Okay, I get the picture – but it seems like the substance likely was interesting.

Well, it is easily seen, now. There are eight essays in the whole exchange, not counting the initial piece that Horowtiz went off at. More, they are quite long and so I think, while it may bore some folks to see right wing attacks addressed, for others it may be quite helpful. 

Another big debate you had was with a fellow named David Schweickart, a market socialist who was and I guess probably still is really very hostile to parecon. How did that debate come to be? How did you feel about it?

In this case, he wrote an essay titled “Nonsense on Stilts” about parecon. I thought the title was really clever. Indeed it made me laugh – though later I realized it was Jeremy Bentham’s and not Schweickart’s. The essay was quite nasty, however, but nonetheless I wrote him and suggested we might do an extended debate on ZNet with him defending and me criticizing his market socialist views, and with me defending and him criticizing parecon views. He was astounded at the invitation, and, in light of it, even apologized for the nasty tone of the essay, but, sadly, reverted back to that tone in the debate and in one or two speaking debates, too, if I remember right. 

In any case I thought the debate we together put on ZNet would be useful for folks who like market socialism or parecon or who dislike one or the other, or even both. But, to be honest, he is a philosopher by trade, and I felt his comprehension of certain economic issues, not vocabulary, but actual issues, was a bit thin – not because the issues were too hard but because he simply ignored their texture. I also thought his nastiness and tendency to ignore substance and, to be gentle about it, to misconstrue what I was saying, got in the way. Others might see that differently. Still, on balance, I think it is a very revealing exchange. 

You have debated with Michel Bauwins and then also, separately, with Christain Seifkes. How did those come about? What did you think of them?

I spoke in Finland at an event where Bauwins also spoke. We got along well, discussed many things, and decided to do the debate, at my suggestion. Seifkes name was sent to me by someone urging that I take his views seriously and address them, so I wrote him, and like with Bauwins the email exchange was very positive and cordial and we undertook the debate. 

In both cases I think someone interested in either participatory economics or peer to peer economics, free software, or other related orientations would find much of interest. My own feeling was that the desirable aspects of their aspirations are structurally part of parecon aching been literally built in to the implications of its institutions role structures, rather than assumed more or less as a gift of technology, even as the not so desirable aspects and mainly the holes in their aspirations are also fixed by parecon. They haven’t agreed.

What about your debate with Alex Callinicos from the British SWP – actually, I think he is their main theorist, so to speak – and then also one you did with Alan Maass, from the U.S. ISO. How did they happen? And how did you feel about them?

I don’t remember with Alan, which may mean he initiated contact, but with Alex I think I wrote him. 

At any rate, both happened and they are both quite long and address many matters – both participatory economics and participatory society and related views, and also marxist and leninist ideas and related views, all unite seriously, and rather in depth. 

I never actually met Alan directly, but I have met and spent time with Alex and found him very nice and serious. We disagree about a lot – but that’s okay, and, indeed, on a trip to the UK, speaking at his university, Alex gave me one of the most thoughtful and also generous introductions I have ever had. I honestly think with both of them it may be that differences have much more to do with abstract albeit very strong allegiances to past practices and maybe also to personal priorities that they and I are tied to, then they have to do with actual assessments of current prospects and proposals. Of course, again, they might not agree and those examining the debates can decide for themselves, in any case.

 

You have had many debates with anarchists, as well – Wayne Price, Peter Staudenmaier, Zerzan, I think – and various less known critics, as well – have their been any that stand out either negatively or positively?

Well there are differences here. I think Zerzan is monstrous, honestly. I met him once when I was speaking in Olympia, or near by. After the talk, outside, literally standing on a lawn, we almost got into a fight, not simply a debate. His willingness to talk rather gleefully about cutting back the population of the planet to a few hundred million, or less, I found objectively genocidal and thus morally and personally horrifying. You can imagine where it may have gone from there. In print I tried to deal with him civilly, I think, but with him it is difficult. I never personally met Price, I think, and met Peter only in passing. The exchanges are useful, I hope, for anarchists to try assess the various views, and really, what a worthy anarchist path through the issues is – reject parecon, or find in it an anarchist economic vision?

One last question about debates – though I know there are many more. You have had one, I think, with Chomsky too, over the years, about economic vision. What is that about? How do you feel about it?

You are right that this is still on-going and, of course, about this as with most of them, there are lasting disagreements. In short, I think I am right and he thinks he is. But the actual public debate aspect, other than when we talk privately, has been minimal, so far. The issues, however, are quite important.

Can you summarize? 

Noam believes largely in the worth of the famous phrase, “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” I don’t, or, more accurately, while I like the sentiment and its usual underlying desires, I feel that if we give the phrase actual substance consistent with what the words suggest, then the message is not viable and in some respects would not even be desirable even if it were viable. 

This is a big dispute, but one that Noam has avoided taking up in a public debate – even after I wrote a public piece, Querying Young Chomsky. Perhaps Noam feels the issue just isn’t worth the time, or perhaps he doesn’t want to thrash my views in public, whereas I think the issues, the logic, and the possibilities surrounding possible resolutions matter a lot and ought to be hashed out. If I was thrashed, so be it. But, I admit, I don’t think that would occur.

So what is the issue, albeit truncated by space considerations – though I think fully elaborated in the essay I mentioned above? 

Those who favor the “from each, to each” norm feel that it removes constraint and pressure – thus achieving greater freedom than any other, such as remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of social valued work. Following the “from each to each” norm, people will work as they each individually, free from any external limits, decide to. People will enjoy, as their consumption, what they each individually, free from any external limits, decide to. Person by person, there is no required connection between our work and our consumption. You take what you want from the social product. You give what you choose – the type of work, amount, etc. – again, as you choose, consistent with your capacities. An implicit assumption is that our separate choices will sum up such that the work we all in total do will provide the goods and services we all in total opt to have – and that, as well, it will be a sensible and worthy allotment of talents and resources. 

The parecon advocate says, hold on. I respect the desire that people should act freely, but the norm “from each to each” ignores the need society has – even assuming we will all be well motivated – for accurate information about the relative benefits and costs of possible choices if we are all together to make wise and fair choices. 

First, how do we each know how much it is fair to take from the social product, as compared to it being too much or too little? If we don’t know, we will err. Worse, if the norm says the answer to how much we can take is whatever we choose, then there is no reason not to err. (On the other hand, if to each according to need does not allow us to take whatever we choose, then it gives no clarity into what the limits are, and is too vague to be meaningful.) 

Second, how do we know what it is fair for us to contribute, or what work we can reasonably do and in doing it contribute well to the social product by our efforts? Again, if we don’t know, we will err. Worse, if the norm says it is just up to us, then we will certainly err. (On the other hand, if from each according to ability doesn’t mean we can do whatever we choose, then it gives no clarity into what our responsibilities are, and is too vague to be meaningful.) 

Third, how does a workplace know how much of x or y it makes sense to produce given social desires for these products and the costs in materials, labor time and effort, and in pollution, of creating them?  What stops us from producing too much, or too little, if it is simply up to us? (And, the minute one says it isn’t just up to us, the minute one says what we do needs to fit, then the issue arises, fit how – and from each to each provides no answer.)

Fourth, how do we know whether to invest in being able to produce more x, or more y, as a society? How do we know the relative costs and benefits of the choices, to individuals, to the whole community, and to the environment – and then how do we arrive at a decision with everyone having self managing input? Again, from each to each either assumes a magic resolution, or it leaves the how completely open.

Even skipping the usual (perfectly reasonable) focus in a discussion about this matter on people tending to take more than their efforts warrant, or people tending to work less than social need requires, the pareconist emphasizes the need for an allocation system that conveys information needed if people are to freely make fair and wise choices – and, simultaneously, to provide fair influence to all participants. 

The bottom line is that the pareconist likes, typically, the underlying aspirations of the “from each to each” advocate – such as Noam – that people should collectively manage their own lives in free associations, but also thinks the phrase and its implied behaviors and social arrangements are incredibly vague, and that if given real operational meaning they would actually horribly short change those aspirations; whereas parecon’s equitable remuneration and participatory planning would actually implement the aspirations consistently for everyone.

Okay, that is a brief summary of your side of the debate – what about Noam’s side, and where does it stand?

Well, the article I mentioned earlier presents Noam’s side, I believe, as he elaborated it in the longest piece he ever did on the issues – a long interview he did decades back and which he has reiterated many times since, including in our personal conversations. 

The essence of his view is to say “from each to each” would be very nice if it can be done without ill effects – which is certainly true, and then to urge that it can be done, successfully, and to also argue that having everyone get income in accord with their effort expended (duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially useful labor) makes work into a kind of means to an end (that is, a means to get income, and to generate outputs) instead of recognizing and respecting that work is, or will be, “life’s prime want” for its own intrinsic value to the worker. 

One of us is horribly wrong, because I honestly find his view to verge on being absurd – and coming from Noam, absurdity is certainly not typical. My reply which makes me feel that is that “from each to each” would certainly have ill effects, massive ones, of the sort mentioned above, and that equitable remuneration is in fact fully consistent both with work being a prime aspect of a full life, and also with its being a means to generate outputs that benefit us all as well as with the need for our labors and the collective outputs to both be allocated justly. As to work being “life’s prime want” rather than one prime want – that seems rather clear to me, too. What about wisdom, love, dignity, contribution to others, play, or – well – whatever? Surely the work we do is part of who we are, and part of our fulfillment and self expression, and thus a prime want – but so is much else about life. 

My guess is that Noam is befuddled as to why I persist in my view, just as I am befuddled in why he persists in his. I suspect under it all, we each probably have the same answer about the other. Thus, my guess is that if he was really pressed as to his understanding of why I cling to pareconish remuneration he might say, well, Michael is very smart and knowledgeable about these matters, and of course he has great ultimate goals that I admire and share, but he is also, due to his past allegiances and writings, subjectively wedded to parecon, and because of that when defending equitable remuneration he sometimes drifts a bit beyond reason and into dogma. The one other thing that I think Noam sometimes may entertain as an explanation of my rejecting from each to each I find so ludicrous that I think it is simply reaching despite all evidence due to not wanting to arrive at the first explanation. That is, that somehow I have been infected with a little bit of mainstream economics that is clouding my views. 

And similarly, if I am really pressed, as I have been often at talks, etc., I tend to say, well, of course Noam is brilliant and also knowledgeable about these matters, and of course he has great ultimate goals that I admire and share, but he is also, due to his past allegiances and writings, subjectively wedded to a particular anarchy syndicalist heritage, and because of that, when defending elements of it – in particular “from each to each” – he tends to drift a bit beyond reason and into dogma. 

There is a possibly instructive point to be made about that standoff and its possible explanations, which is why I actually related it. When two people disagree about something basic but which seems to each of them to be utterly obvious, and the two each know that the other is more than able to comprehend the issues raised, then there are only three broad ways to explain the impasse. Either one side is seeing something that the other side is just not yet seeing, and hasn’t been presented with, clearly, and so hasn’t yet agreed. Or one side is prevented from seeing the full issues or thinking them through due to commitments that get in the way. Or the two debaters actually, in fact, have different goals and are thus using completely contrary metrics. This type of standoff is frequent in all sides of life, but particularly regarding social issues and politics. Each party thinks he or she is right. Each thinks what the other is saying is either absurd, or missing the point. Each also thinking the other is well informed and capable then often leads people to question motives, rather than keeping to issues. In that case it would be, he wants to do x, where I want to do y, and his x intent prevents his comprehending my y intent. But in our case, Noam and I have the same aims. So we have to look elsewhere, and thus the above hypothesis regarding each and both of us possibly letting long standing identity commitments cloud our perceptions. 

In any event, for now the debate stands, I guess, at the place it ended up, in the above mentioned essay. I think it would be very interesting and productive if Noam were to engage in it more directly, further, but his priorities are different, and reasonably so, given all he undertakes.

Addressing Criticisms

I would like to have you address some of the most common criticisms one hears when dealing with Participatory Economics. Some on the left say, for example, that however one feels about the vision, it is not up to us to decide what the future should be. In other words they say, and I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, that parecon is a blueprint for the future and therefore contrary to, ironically, self-management, because it oversteps into features that affect future generations. How intrusive is parecon?

Yes, I do hear this often, and also, that whether it would be good for us to have a vision or not, we should not, and cannot, because we don’t know enough. And I find that the two concerns are related.

So, first, I very much agree that for activists and revolutionaries to try to pre-envision in great detail future society would be both morally wrong and a fool’s errand. 

It would be morally wrong because it is the prerogative of future citizens, by way of their own mechanisms, to decide their own dealings. How long will the work day be? How many days a week? What time will people have lunch? Will there be few or many different kinds of vehicle produced – in fact, will there be personal vehicles at all? What size will workplaces be? And for that matter what will be the details of the implementation of self managing councils, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning in specific contexts, times, and places? (And likewise for other parts of society than the economy, as well…)

I get asked such detailed questions all the time, ironically often by people who ten minutes earlier said they didn’t like parecon because it was a blueprint, but of course in a good economy (and society) these types of choices will be made by those affected in accord with maintaining self management, equity, etc. For people today to decide for people of the future, even if we could totally know all the future conditions and ramifications, which of course we cannot, would violate future peoples’ rightful role. Blueprinting the future is therefore doubly a fool’s errand – ignorant and imperial.

But suppose we take seriously, as I do, that future people should decide via self managing say their own future outcomes and relations. Okay, in that case, if we are serious, then we have to ask, what are the implications of having that commitment? For example, can we have a small number of folks who own and oversee the means of production, and still have self management for all? Of course not. That is not possible. So we know if we are serious about future people making their own choices, we have to be against having that kind of property relationship in a future society. It is not an act of hubris to say that. It does not overstep what we can know. And it does not make decisions for future citizens that they should make for themselves nor force anything on them. We can legitimately say we don’t want future people to live in the midst of private ownership of the means of production, and thus that our vision for a future economy that we are working to implement includes getting rid of private ownership of the means of production, precisely because we want future people in position to decide their own lives. 

This is analogous to saying we can rightfully and sensibly reject dictatorship or slavery or whatever else, and that our doing so is not an authoritarian act vis a vis future generations. You can sensibly criticize rejecting a proposed future system on grounds that you prefer dictatorship, or slavery, or in the case here, private ownership, to what that system promises, but not on grounds that rejecting such relations limits options or imposes choices. So now we have established a very good guideline for thinking about an economic vision. What are the minimal features that a future economy needs to include if it is to attain and maintain self management? And what must it have eliminated?

And, indeed, after incorporating some additional focuses, this is exactly the kind of thinking that guides and informs participatory economics. Parecon says a good economy has to be equitable in income distribution and circumstances. It has to be self managed by its workers and consumers. It has to be non wasteful in its application of human energies and talents to meeting needs and developing potentials. It has to be solidaritous in the sense of people being mutually supportive by virtue of their roles in economic life. And some people would add to clarify that list, that a good future economy has to be without class divisions and class rule. And the reason parecon says a good economy has to have all this is because any economy lacking any of these attributes will impose all kinds of life denying and integrity violating limitations and detriments on most of its population.

Next, having established what we value, which means having established what we want an economy to achieve, we ask, okay, what institutional features are needed to attain those results? And at least in the case of Robin and I, we arrived at the four institutions I mentioned earlier, and they became the basis for our vision of a better economy. 

Indeed, I have recently taken to saying the list we settled on is minimalist meaning that it does not overstep what we can reasonably know and is also the minimum required for classlessness, self management, etc. But I also add that the list is maximalist meaning that it provides a foundation that is indeed sufficient for classlessness, self management, etc. If one wants to sensibly criticize that set of claims, one has to argue, it seems to me, that the set of desires for a new economy is flawed – which is to say, we don’t want self management or solidarity or some other feature. Or that the list of institutions is wrong – which is to say it would corrupt the aims or is excessive, in that we could accomplish the aims with less. But what I don’t think one can sensibly do is to say that I like the values – self management, etc. – but I reject the institutions on grounds that I can think of someone who might want something that the institutions preclude.

This is self evident in many other domains. I have never heard anyone say a social rule and practice that precludes murder limits murderers’ options, so we should not have it. Nor that a social rule and practice that precludes rape limits rapists, so we shouldn’t have it. Nor that a social rule and practice that precludes child labor or slavery precludes capitalists or slave holders, so we shouldn’t have it. No one ever says that to favor these changes violates democracy for all, or self management for all. 

Why don’t I hear that, often? Obviously, because it would be patently idiotic. It would either reveal that the person asking was confused about what murder, rape, child labor, and slavery are, or that they wanted them present in society. I think the analogy is disturbingly strong. Corporate divisions of labor and inequitable remuneration are massively destructive for most people, and beneficial – and even that in a rather warped manner – for only a few. Does it really make sense to talk about rejecting those institutions as impinging the rights of those few? 

Can we get more specific about some of the related criticism? It may repeat some from we covered earlier, but I think it is worth it. 

Sure.

I have heard people say, how can you claim to be for self management, yet also want to force people to work at balanced job complexes, or want to force people to receive income for effort but not for output? Why can’t workers decide what they want in these regards, too?

Well, yes, it does repeat and is analogous to someone saying how can you claim to be for self management and want to force people to not own the means of production, or to not own other people, for that matter. These kinds of questions and concerns leave me confused as to what exactly the questioner means and who he or she thinks is going to be upset, and why their discomfort would be warranted. 

We have capitalism, now. Let’s very optimistically say we attain participatory economics twenty years from now. The question makes it sound like someone, or some group, will have imposed that outcome on workers. But that has literally zero to do with a participatory economic and participatory society approach, on the one hand, and has zero prospect of happening, on the other hand. 

Rather, achieving parecon will mean that workers and some people in the coordinator class – indeed, hopefully many – will have come to the conclusion through their experiences and their thought and actions, that they want participatory economics, and will have fought to attain it. 

During the twenty year struggle (in this example) there will have been some workplaces opting for the new structures, and many still having the old. This balance will likely have shifted over time, as workers take over workplaces or start new firms and make (or win) changes in some old ones, and perhaps also as society-wide movement wins new laws pertaining to work day length, minimum and perhaps maximum wages, taxes, information transparency, job definitions, and even decision making, thus making changes that apply to all firms. 

So, what about once the new society exists? Well, then, my prediction would be that in a workplace with balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration, while of course someone could get up and say I think I shouldn’t have to do anything other than empowering tasks because I am so smart – and I think I should get as my share of the social product 400 times what anyone else gets, or five times, or even just twice what anyone else gets, because my output is greater, the person will be looked at as more or less delusional, pathological, and anti-social. Just try to imagine it, with workers in this unit who are all confident, all well schooled, all used to doing empowering work and to having equitable incomes, etc. 

But, okay, let’s say I am wrong. So, in some workplace some individual or group stands up and says, let’s dump balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration and, instead, me and some of my buddies will do the empowering work and the rest of you can enjoy doing only disempowering work, and my buddies and I will take from the total earned for all workers a big bonus on top of what would be our share under parecon’s norm, with the rest of you taking less than would be your share under that norm. And now suppose – and I believe this is absurd – everyone in the firm agrees. Then they can do it. And no one outside would interfere. 

Okay, now let’s say in fact they don’t all agree. Some naysaying worker stuck with the short end of the deal says, hold on, I want to do a fair mix of empowering and disempowering tasks and I want my equitable income and not less than that so that some of you can have more – and she even says, I don’t want to have to see this kind of injustice in a firm where I work. Everyone else says tough, suck it up and deal, you lost the vote. Well this naysayer could go outside the firm – at least in my view of parecon – and appeal this decision because the firm is exploiting him or her. And he or she would win, and the firm would have to comply. Of course the firm could say, hey, we all like the exploitative solution, so why don’t you please go work elsewhere instead of dissenting, and that is a possibility, too.

Now consider the reverse case. The firm has balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration for everyone and some anti social – sorry, I can’t help myself – miscreant says, hold on, I want more empowering tasks and more income, and agitates for the change, but loses. So now reinstating the old ways is the view of a tiny minority – not an overwhelming majority. The majority group says, tough, suck it up and deal, you lost the vote. The person who is denied enlarged income and purely empowering circumstances can’t appeal outside to society – because society doesn’t favor that person’s preference. 

Now suppose in the firm it is about fifty fifty in desires for doing things the old way or doing them the new way. If only one firm has that situation, the above still applies. But if that split, or anything remotely like it, whoever has the majority, is the case throughout society, then we are still struggling to attain a new economy, and a new society, and not there yet.

So let’s make the the question more accurate by having it read, “how can you claim to be for self management and favor an economy which limits the options even some workers and consumers have by ruling out anything they might want – in your case, by ruling out corporately defined jobs (unbalanced for empowerment effects) and inequitable distribution of the social product (people getting remunerated not only for duration, intensity, and onerousness of their socially valued labor, but also for the value of their personal output or just their wanting more)?”

Now the answer is obvious. It isn’t ruled out by some kind of external imposition. It is ruled out by agreed social norms and choices, and even then, if some particular group in some particular workplace decides to do things differently, with all there agreeing, that too can occur. But just as some majority in a workplace, or even some super majority, currently wanting to employ child labor, or to have slaves, or even to be slaves, is illegal and as soon as people complain, society will intervene on their behalf, so too in a parecon, forcing people to accept only disempowering labor or unjust remuneration is also illegal and as soon as people complain, society will intervene.

There is another version of the same criticism – how can you tell workers and consumers they have to forego market exchange, rather than allocating however they may prefer, for example, opting for some markets, some central planning, and then also some participatory planning? It is coercive.

The answer is the same as above. Markets are everywhere. They are totally ubiquitous. In the long struggle for a better economy and society, if participatory economic outcomes are won, then allocation will be by participatory planning. So the question is, with participatory planning in place, if I and some others want to propose using a market to allocate something – say shoes, or labor – can I do so? 

Of course you can propose it. A good society has the most advanced levels of free speech that anyone can conceive of, so, sure. 

The question would become, in that case, why not say, as an advocate of parecon, that you favor a new economy that combines markets where they will be better, and participatory planning where it will be better, rather than prejudging that one, participatory planning, will always be better?

There are two main reasons why this approach, for me, would be pandering to the current tastes of some, or the confusions of some, and being quite dishonest in order to do so. 

First, I don’t think there is any item or set of items for which using market allocation – while using participatory planning for the rest – makes any sense at all, much less that it would improve results. 

 

The particular market, even if it could operate identically in the mixed context as it would in a full free market context, will yield different results than the participatory plan would have arrived at because it’s prices will differ and therefore people’s choices will differ, and this will be worse, not better, because the market prices will not have accurately reflected ecological and social implications of outcomes. 

The particular market will be less democratic, not more, both because it is subject to power relations and also because… 

The particular market will induce perverse motives and behaviors in the exchanges it regulates. with those in turn pushing people away from solidarity and cooperation. 

The particular market won’t even be easier to deal with, but will simply add a discordant new set of activities without much altering the set of activities participatory planning involves. 

 

And I could go on…

But second, even if a market approach to shoes, say, or whatever else, was more convenient for that particular item, and did not seriously disrupt broader allocation, and could function in context of that broader allocation, still, I would not favor it. 

Why? Because, as noted above, a market calls forth anti social motivations and behaviors. And, a market has an inbuilt logic to spread, like a malignant tumor, because markets operate best (in their own logic) when they are ubiquitous, not isolated and partial, and because the motivations markets induce are contrary to those needed for participatory planning.  

Suppose someone said, okay, we have a just polity, let’s call it participatory democracy, that is nice in so many ways, but it would be a little more familiar and a little more efficient or convenient or less demanding if we also allow some dictatorship, at least for some political matters. Does that sound absurd to you? It certainly does to me.

First, yes, dictatorship is more familiar now, but later it will be more foreign – like say slavery now is more foreign but in the past was quite familiar. Dictatorship would also not be more efficient unless one ignores its impact on behavior, dignity, and so on, even if dictatorship yielded the same decisions, and did so quicker. But of course it wouldn’t do that either, because the dictatorial decisions would bias toward the interests of the dictator and elite supporting actors. And, of course, the dictatorial realm would try to spread, like a cancer. So most leftists would find the query morally strange, or feel that it reveals a serious lack of understanding of dictatorship. And this would be so unless one could make a case that the new polity’s participatory democracy and self management would be even worse than dictatorship at handling x. But to urge retaining some dictatorship on grounds that having one person make the decisions is more convenient for the rest of us who can then ignore them – or, more aptly, who then have no choice but to ignore them, since we could choose to ignore some decisions in the new polity too, with others taking up the choice, but not a dictator – would be politically and socially perverse. 

I am sorry, but that is how queries about participatory planning that say let’s opt for markets, instead, or in addition, because they are more familiar or more convenient, sound to me – as well as being wrong about the convenience…

What Is New about it?

If you look at anarchist literature, one might find all of these ideas, one way or another. So what is actually new about parecon?

I think it would be hard and perhaps impossible to find the idea of balanced job complexes so clearly enunciated in prior literature – or prior practice – and similarly for the explicit formulation of having a new way of handling allocation to prevent there being rule by a class that monopolizes empowering circumstances, but I agree with you that the underlying value commitments even of these ideas were present all the way back in Bakunin’s work, for example, and for all I know, probably earlier, too. Similarly, the idea of people controlling their own lives is of course highlighted in many schools of anarchism, but the pareconish formulation of self management makes that idea much more precise and better able to, as a result, inform institutional choices. Councils are certainly also familiar in anarchist and also libertarian socialist literature and practice. However, participatory planning and the very explicit approach to remuneration that we favor are largely new, I think, at least in their careful and full presentation, though again, the underlying values are familiar. 

So, there is some that is new but mostly in that parecon elaborates with much more care more or less familiar ideas. I should say, I don’t really see why any of this matters. The real issue that matters is not what is new, or old, but is the vision called parecon worthy and workable – not where did it come from or when was it conceived – but is it worthy and viable.

A comment that is often made is “How different is parecon from what has been called ‘socialism’? Haven’t people seen this story a few times too many to believe that this time it’ll be different?” Basically, the idea is that human nature perverts the best intentions. What do you respond?

Parecon profoundly differs from what has been called socialism. That vision – and especially that practice – certainly had public or state ownership, rather than private ownership. However, it retained markets or introduced central planning. It retained the old corporate division of labor. It retained hierarchical decision making. And while it eliminated remuneration for property, it retained remuneration for power and output. All these features are gone from participatory economics, precisely to avoid the ills of the old systems.

I think people should not believe that the same recipe will give new results – but not because human nature perverts the best intentions. That claim is nonsense. Rather, the good intentions of many advocates of old socialism – a system I like to call coordinatorism – were trumped, right from the start, not by human nature but by institutions that imposed class division and class rule even against more enlightened desires. So if someone comes along and says we will use the old institutions – but we will have better people, and in that way we will get better outcomes – that shouldn’t be very compelling, to say the least. First, why should we assume better people? Second, the central problem wasn’t flawed people in the first place. 

Imagine someone saying we will have dictatorship, but we will have better people in power so malevolent inclinations won’t pervert the system. Even though better people are preferable to worse people, the prediction is nonsense because it isn’t dictatorship that is perverted by human nature, or even just perverted by some bad people, it is dictatorship per se, acting as it is designed to act at its best, that is vile. More, it is dictatorship that perverts people, not vice versa. 

The same holds for old style socialism, which I call coordinatorism. It has economic institutions that apportion ruling influence to about twenty percent of the workforce who, as a built-in feature of the institutional relations, monopolize empowering work. They are the ruling class in those systems. There are also some gains, and diverse other serious problems, but that particular problem even if it is taken alone is more than enough to be damning. It isn’t that a vile gene in people perverted the implications of the economic changes that old socialists favored. Rather the changes that the old socialists favored inexorably produced some benefits, but also the vile debits. 

So the reason why parecon is different than what has previously taken the name socialism is because people with the same underlying human nature, in context of parecon, will behave in different ways than people behaved under the old systems – not because the people operating in parecon have some different human nature, but because of parecon’s different institutions.

Is there one question you fear being asked when talking about parecon? What is the best criticism you’ve heard about it? Do you have doubts yourself when thinking it through?

Honestly, it has been a long time since people have asked anything that I and Robin haven’t dealt with over and over. More important, if I did fear a question, it would mean I knew the question and I didn’t have an answer – and instead of fearing such a question, I would be trying to understand it and see what the answer is. The better the questions are that people raise, the better the vision will be. 

At the level of values, developing parecon didn’t hold many surprises, really, and was never anything but quite straight forward. We knew what we valued – what the left typically valued – and we simply had to find ways to say it very clearly and to also clearly reply to concerns that people would raise. That we were so clear and compatible on the ethical matters – which is a hard place to arrive starting from a position inside capitalist institutions – was because Robin and I had been immersed in the New Left, and the broad aspirations were very much in the air and therefore came to us very naturally. We did work hard to think through every criticism we could conceive, and to welcome criticisms in many different ways and places – talks, forums online, etc. – and that certainly required care and sometimes traversed new ground for us, but for us, at least, the values were never in any real doubt. 

As for the institutions, pretty much the same was true until we got to participatory planning. Once we had the values clear, arriving at institutions was a matter of sticking to our aims and going where the logic led. This took time and wasn’t always easy, but finding worthy institutions for the division of labor, decision making, and remuneration wasn’t logically or creatively difficult, save for the difficulty of being sufficiently disciplined to escape both explicit and implicit assumptions from the past. Not constantly falling into old patterns is hard. I encounter this also when I give seminars or classes on the topics. The hardest thing for people isn’t the actual ideas themselves, but rather a kind of dissonance that keeps making them say things they have thought before and see things in that prior light, rather than actually thinking about the issues at hand, wherever doing so might take them. 

The only difficulty anyone has displayed understanding equitable remuneration or balanced job complexes is due to holding views that imply that such features must be insane. If you get past knee-jerk doubt of something so contrary to prior assumptions, people easily comprehend the logic and recognize the viability. The only obstacle after that seems to be whether personal interests cause them to not want the outcomes – or whether skepticism about the possibility of ever winning such relations deters their working for them. 

Participatory planning, however, was a bit different. It took more effort to conceive and then quite a bit more to explore its implications and be sure all was well. And it is also much harder to explain. But the former happened, and the latter is getting better all the time, I think.

As to the best criticisms we have encountered – well, I don’t know quite how to answer that without it seeming a bit parecon serving. That is, a criticism is particularly good if it is correct and it overthrows a framework, in turn leading to something new and better – or, short of that, if it leads to further careful thought yielding elaborations that improve the framework. The former hasn’t happened. The latter has certainly happened, but I wouldn’t single out any instance as better than all the rest.

As to our having doubts about parecon – not about the vision but about our ability to communicate it convincingly, and about the possibility of its being taken seriously – I have those doubts all the time, including right this very minute!

So, do you think future people will live in a participatory economy? 

Einstein was once asked what he thought World War Three would be like. How would it be fought, etc. He said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Very clever – but also insightfully accurate, I think. 

So yes, I do believe future people will live in an economy without class division and class rule, which I believe means an economy with workers and consumers self managing councils and some variant of balanced job complexes and participatory planning. Or – if not, then future people will be impoverished without limit, despairing, as well, their ancestors’ idiocies, assuming future people exist at all.

Leave a comment