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Burke Doesn’t Support Parecon, but why not?


Kim Scipes generously wrote a review of *Practical Utopia* that Green Social Thought (GST) published. We republished it on ZNet. I wrote a reply, again posted on ZNet, hoping to generate on-going discussion. I sent my reply to Scipes and he kindly sent it on to GST, which promptly rejected it. GST then published a piece by R. Burke, titled “Why We Don’t Support Parecon.”

Burke jumps right in: “The basic problem we have with parecon as advocated by Michael Albert is that we think he proposes blueprints for society without attempting to provide anything empirical to back up his claims.” Does “we” encompass GST? I hope not.

Burke continues, “Whenever a criticism is raised, Albert’s response is to assert the beauty and elegance of his model, or to claim he has already considered this or that objection, so why are we being so critical?” And, “What he does not give us is any evidence that his model can and will function in actuality, nor does he seem to recognize the need to provide any.”

Someone reading Burke’s piece might be excused for wondering what specifically Burke is rejecting since “Why We Don’t Support Parecon” contains not a single reference to, much less summary of, or comment on participatory economics itself, the proclaimed subject of Burke’s essay. Additionally, if the author was reading his own piece, and saw fit to apply his own standards, he might be excused for wondering why he has not one quote evidencing what he repeatedly says I always do, in addition to not one comment about parecon itself.

Is the argument that income should be for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor a “blueprint” – or is it a remunerative norm toward which we want to progress? Is the advocacy of collective self management via workers and consumers councils a “blueprint,” or is it a decision-making norm plus support for a form of organization that has been widely favored by leftists through history and today too? Similarly, is advocacy of balanced job complexes as a corrective for worker/coordinator class hierarchy a “blueprint,” or is it too a norm, seeking classlessness, plus a quite specific and limited claim about an essential aspect of achieving that norm, which is to balance jobs for their empowerment effects in order to eliminate 20 percent of employees doing nearly all the economy’s empowering tasks while leaving 80 percent with overwhelmingly rote, repetitive, and otherwise disempowering tasks? And, finally, is participatory planning a comprehensive “blueprint” of how things must be, or is it a skeletal look at some core features of how a new way of economically allocating can avoid the ills of markets and central planning while fostering equity and self management?

In other words, does parecon “blueprint” how the future must look, or does it propose a few institutional features around which countless variations are possible? Burke asserts, without providing evidence or argument, that it is the former. To the contrary, I reply parecon is trying to determine the minimum features needed to allow future citizens to decide their own preferred outcomes as they see fit in light of their actual future circumstances and preferences. Ironically, just this difference between declaring detailed future outcomes for future citizens as compared to seeking conditions facilitating future citizens freely deciding as they choose, was the basis for one disagreement I had with Scipes‘ review. And contrary to what you might expect from reading Burke, I advocated for future freedom against “blueprinting.” However, this was in the reply of mine posted on ZNet, that GST rejected.

Burke says I routinely dismiss criticisms by claiming that parecon is “elegant.” I agree with Burke that “elegance,” even when it is present, doesn’t itself imply worthiness or possibility. However, I don’t think I have ever described parecon as elegant, much less done so repeatedly, much less done so to ward off criticisms by others. If Burke thinks showing I did would somehow make a case against parecon – which, even if true, it would not – why doesn’t he quote a few instances?

Burke says I dismiss the importance of evidence and think that evidence is useless. Did I do this responding to Scipes? Have I done this ever, much less all the time? Again, why not quote me doing this, if Burke wants to make this case about my approach to critics – as compared to actually addressing anything at all about the vision he is rejecting?

As to my having heard most criticisms multiple times, that is true, and when asked, I would say as much. However, it is also true I tend to answer over and over. Indeed, I have responded to questions about and debated parecon dozens of times, in recurring exchanges at great length and in many venues, with economists and non-economists, philosophers and non-philosophers, Leninists, Marxists, Anarchists, Greens, Social Democrats, anti racists and racists, anti feminists and feminists, liberals, and reactionaries. I have even replied to hatchet jobs that dismiss parecon without a single reference to the actual claims they reject. I address each critical assertion or, when available, substantive argument. GST decided not to publish my reply to Scipes. Okay, that’s their option, but, will this reply to Burke run on GST?

What about Burke’s actual critique that parecon proposes “blueprints” without evidence that what is proposed would work?

Well, first, as noted above, there is no blueprint, but, instead, a set of claims about a few institutional features deemed necessary to have an economy that would eliminate class division and deliver equity, self management, etc. In fact, arguments for parecon often explain why it is wrong to offer a blueprint, and emphasize the huge space in parecon requiring diverse additions. If Burke doubts this, I would love to know why.

Okay, so what about lack of evidence? Burke is correct that a full implementation of an economy incorporating pareconish features does not exist. And he is also correct that I cannot say, therefore, that we have experience with such a full economy and it shows the following empirical outcomes for Burke to assess. But this also cannot be done for democratic socialism, or anarchism, or arguably even for a system free of racism and/or sexism since all those, too, are not yet in place to extract evidence from. Burke, it turns out, repeatedly berates me for the fact that I don’t offer what he admits cannot be offered, and on this basis rejects the vision. If we accept this argument, all proposals for future aims with new and as yet unimplemented features for economy, and for any large-scale aspect of society, must be rejected. So if we instead think having proposals for what we want in place of capitalism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism is critically important to generate hope, motivate activism, and orient actions, what can we say?

First, advocating a future desired economy (polity, kinship, culture, or what have you) with new attributes makes no sense unless existing economies, polities, etc., and other offered new models, are seriously flawed. So making that case about what already is, and about what has been proposed, is part of making a full case for something new. I doubt Burke thinks I have not worked hard on offering critiques of existing systems and of the logic of their underlying models, and also of other proposed visions – for example centrally planned and market coordinatorism, and also bioregionalism.

Interestingly, Alec Nove, who Burke offers as an exemplary instance of thinking empirically about vision, in fact argues that there is no allocation system possible other than markets, central planning, or a combination of the two, which is not only a false but also an impossible claim to prove with evidence, whereas I – with Robin Hahnel – have devoted incredible space to popularly and technically demonstrating that neither markets, nor central planning, nor any combination of the two, can allocate in a manner yielding classlessness and self management or equity. So the dividing line between these efforts is mainly about what we want from an economy, Nove on one hand, and Hahnel and I on the other, and not about correct and poor methodology. If there is something wrong with either the empirical or logical side of the case Hahnel and I offer about existing and other proposed economic systems, I would love to hear it since our intent has been to open the door to possibilities that Nove attempted to shut.

Second, honestly, openly, and forthrightly advocating a future economy with new attributes requires knowing the values we want the economy to advance and demonstrating the merits of those values. In our case, Hahnel and I proposed equity, diversity, solidarity, and self management, among others, and spelled out why these values are desirable for social outcomes, why people can be expected to flourish with them, and why they can sustain a viable effective economy including providing needed incentives and rewards, eliciting quality, avoiding breakdown, generating good decisions, and so on.

Third, if a vision for an economy is to motivate and inform struggle in the present, it needs to make a case for its institutional merits and viability, and also needs to help us see how to have our demands and organizations prepare the way for the future we want, rather than lead elsewhere. Technically, one can treat the new proposals to the same type of analysis mainstream economists make for markets and central planning, and try to show that parecon succeeds better even in their own way of accounting success. We do that, equations and all. Then one can apply more encompassing leftist standards and argue the case again, technically, but even more so, in plain language for activists. We do that too. Burke may not have read any of the technical works, I don’t know. Popularly, one can argue the social feasibility and implications of an approach by describing it, indicating its implications, giving examples of how it might look, and testing it against possible problems and criticisms, all as accessibly as possible, and we do all that. Then one can try to draw strategic lessons, which is what the book Scipes reviewed, Practical Utopia, among others, sought to do.

Fourth, while there is no full participatory economy, we do have partial implementations of partial aspects out there in the existing world, and we can draw evidence from those. This is certainly problematic. Not all things scale up. Not all things that work, or nearly work, in one context will work in another different context. To the extent we can, both from personal experience and from limited examples, we use the limited empirical evidence available to draw lessons and construct an argument based on more general insights about people, motivations, needs, etc. On the other hand, we have virtually unlimited evidence of what harm the absence of the features we advocate causes, and examining this evidence was the primary guide for parecon’s initial development.

The danger of vision not recommending itself to popular movements strikes me as important, which is why I prioritize addressing activists, and even not yet active but concerned folks, when I write and speak. Perhaps I fail, but I certainly try to present what I favor as accessibly as possible, with as little jargon as possible, and with none that goes undefined, and to address virtually every concern anyone, regardless of background, raises. I wonder why Burke says otherwise.

If Burke or GST would like to explore any aspect of the substance of participatory economic or related strategic claims, I would be more than happy to do so. However, if Burke only wants to ridicule the approach I take to critics, I think he should evidence rather than merely assert what he thinks I do, and then I would be happy to discuss that too.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Paul D July 31, 2018 2:03 pm 

    Thank-you Michael, for your detailed response to a smear piece that, you could have simply dismissed more briefly as without merit and not worth a response as it did not even critique Parecon, but rather was just an extended personal attack.

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