I woke up this past Friday and opened an email from a friend in Japan pointing me to a video of Chomsky. In it, Chomsky answers questions from what appears to be a small gathering in a cafe in Tokyo. The first question comes from a confident activist who reports that he is a member of the Tokyo General Union, whose site is where the Chomsky video first appeared — though the video is now also on ZNet. The questioner speaks perfect English, and is Australian, I learned later. At any rate, here is his question:
“Professor Chomsky, I am a member of the Tokyo General Union, Tozen, and I have a question. One issue that we have in Tozen is the issue that Michael Albert wrote about the coordinator class, the danger of — even in an extremely democratic organization like Tozen — the danger of people getting unwarranted power. And so do you have any advice, in a small union about how to guard against that, and how do you feel about Michael Albert’s ideas about the coordinator class?”
Chomsky’s brief reply raises issues about economic vision, and parecon in particular, that I think worth addressing, which is the reason for this article.
Chomsky replied that the parecon idea for preventing the accrual of power to a sector of the workforce that the questioner (and I) call the “coordinator class” is “to distribute the tasks.” In his reply Chomsky made no mention of the issue of power in Tozen or organizations more generally, nor did he discuss the idea that there is a class between labor and capital, nor that what has been called twentieth century socialism elevated that “coordinator class” to ruling status rather than attaining classlessness. Instead, Chomsky heard the question as being mainly about parecon’s particular method of addressing the class difference, or one element of that method, in any event. Chomsky didn’t elaborate on what the method was, didn’t even use its name — balanced job complexes — but instead summarized the approach for dealing with the issue as “distribute the tasks.”
Did Chomsky think that everyone would understand the meaning of “distribute the tasks,” offered as a summary of parecon’s approach to the problem of coordinator class power? Does “distribute the tasks” convey the idea of establishing balanced job complexes — which is an arrangement of tasks such that everyone does a mix of empowering and disempowering work so that we all have comparable circumstances in the economy rather than some people having circumstances that literally push them toward domination and other people having circumstances that literally push them toward subordination? Only if people understood this could Chomsky seriously address the ideas for dealing with that problem, with everyone knowing what was being discussed. I wish everyone in the audience, not to mention those who will see the exchange on video, were so aware of the parecon perspective that Chomsky’s brief phrase “distribute the tasks” would convey what the questioner and he were talking about, but I rather doubt it.
Okay, let’s set that aside. Chomsky began by acknowledging that to “distribute the tasks” would “be a way of overcoming this [class division].” The acknowledgement only makes sense if by “distribute the tasks” he did indeed mean establish balanced job complexes, since in every division of labor, corporate or otherwise, tasks are of course distributed among actors and if “distribute the tasks” meant only to spread tasks among recipients, obviously it would not “be a way of overcoming” this class division. The issue Chomsky was therefore addressing was how tasks are distributed. Is it into balanced job complexes, or is it into a division between those who do empowering and those who do disempowering work? But even with no one describing the actual attributes of parecon’s approach, Chomsky doesn’t argue that attaining balanced job complexes would be beside the point. He instead agrees that it would work for that purpose.
However, Chomsky then adds that to do it “does run into a barrier.” So, it would work if we could do it, but there are obstacles. Fair enough. I would, however, assume that whatever the barrier might turn out to be, if having balanced job complexes can solve the problem of having a class division even after eliminating owners, and also of having serious imbalances in power and influence even in current movement institutions — which is what the questioner mentioned — then the yet-to-be-identified barrier would be something to try to overcome, not something to immediately accept as permanent. For example, obviously there are serious barriers to eliminating sexism, but we don’t leave the matter there: we devote our efforts to working to overcome those barriers.
However, Chomsky continues, “and the barrier is that certain people like to do some things and not others. Some people are good at some things, and other people are good at other things.”
It is not easy to make sense of why this observation — and it is really the whole of what Chomsky offered — identifies a decisive “barrier” to attaining balanced job complexes. Do “certain people like to do some things, and not others?” Of course. Are “some people good at some things and other people good at other things?” Of course. To deny these claims would be lunacy. But then it would follow that if these claims being true in turn means that there is so great a barrier to having balanced job complexes that we will have to forego attaining balanced job complexes and will even have to accept having a coordinator class above a working class — well, we would just have to acknowledge that sad reality, like we just have to acknowledge death or gravity. But why does Chomsky think the fact that “certain people like to do some things and not others,” and that “some people are good at some things, and other people are good at other things,” throws up a barrier at all? Perhaps it depends on what one means, after all, by “distribute the tasks.”
If “distribute the tasks” means that someone other than you decides that you will do this, or that you will do that, irrespective of your abilities, interests, and preferences — then of course, that meaning of “distribute the tasks” would be impeded by Chomsky’s observation. Or, if an economy did distribute the tasks in accordance with that meaning (as, I might add, current economies do for most people), then it would create disgruntled people. But why does Chomsky’s observation constitute a barrier if “distribute the tasks” in the context Chomsky uses it means that we all do a mix of tasks that we each choose to do, but with the constraint that the mix we each do includes a fair share of empowering and disempowering tasks, rather than a minority monopolizing empowering tasks and the rest getting stuck with the disempowering tasks?
Does Chomsky think that because “certain people like to do some things, and not others,” some people will say “I want only to do disempowering tasks even though I live in a free and fair social setting, even though I enjoy real educational options, even though I am free to participate, etc.”? I wonder how many students, for example, getting out of high school, anywhere in the world, even in societies that powerfully indoctrinate subordination and rule, would, if asked, say “I don’t want a free college education, I only want to do rote and tedious work, and if to participate in the economy I have to develop my talents and choose a job that includes a fair mix of empowering tasks, I will resist, seeking only subordination”?
Under conditions of freedom and fair allocation, full and inspiring education, etc., does Chomsky really think anyone is going to say, “hey, I don’t want to have any tasks whose characteristics are such that by doing them I gain insights, confidence, influence, and dignity. Instead, I just want to obey rules that others impose and carry out tasks that with each new day further reduce my insights, confidence, influence, and dignity.” Presumably Chomsky doesn’t think that. However, if he doesn’t, then how does the observation that people like different things and have different inclinations and abilities identify a barrier at all, much less one that is so high that we should give up having balanced job complexes even though they can eliminate the class division between an empowered coordinator class and a disempowered working class by comparably empowering everyone?
Well, it could be that Chomsky thinks that some people who believe they are headed for coordinator class comfort and status will feel, on hearing about balanced job complexes, that they don’t want to do any tasks that are disempowering. They want to only do that which they want to do, and what they want to do is only empowering tasks and not anything else. No tedium for me. No grading papers. No dealing with records. Only research. Or no cleaning bedpans for me. Only doing surgery. Okay, that feeling would be an obstacle to people welcoming having balanced job complexes, to be sure. Just like owners saying they want to only own is an obstacle to eliminating the owner/worker class division. And just like men or whites saying they only want to be waited on is a barrier to overcoming patriarchy and racism. These are all barriers, yes, but they are barriers to overcome, not to accept and give up about.
Chomsky might say, but it isn’t just folks who expect to be in the empowered class who won’t rush into supporting this approach. There are working people too who will resist the idea that they should do conceptual labor, labor with responsibility, labor that empowers them but that also involves pressures. And, again, that is quite true. But it occurs for three broad reasons. 1. Not feeling competent and not wanting to fail. 2. Feeling like their agreeing to do empowering work will be a scam to get more work out of them without really transforming their lives. And 3, not wanting to take responsibility for disgusting outputs (in current workplaces). And yes, workers resisting balanced job complexes, too, is a barrier, for sure, but again, it is a barrier to overcome, not one to accept. Just like women or blacks in the U.S. in the past (and even to a degree still) doubted their own capacities or the honesty of those seeking to enlist them to new choices, or even the desirability of being a contributing part of a corrupt society — so too for working people now.
Sixty years ago if you looked at all those doing empowering labor there were few women, indeed almost none. If you asked the men why there were few if any women in these empowering tasks, they would have said, “well, that is who women are. They do what they are good at. And it is what they want to do.” If you asked most women why there were so few women in empowering roles, a great many — and I think in those days even a large majority — would have answered more or less the same way. “It is who we are, what we can do, and what we want to do.” Of course it was in fact not who they were, but rather who they had been compelled to be.
Now someone could say — and indeed many men did say — hey, this feminism stuff is nonsense. It overlooks the reality of human tastes and preferences. Just look. Efforts to overcome sexual hierarchies have failed for hundreds of years. Give it up. Men like to do this, women like to do that — or, in the U.S., “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” Or someone might say, the obstacle to having women do what are currently men’s tasks, and having men do what are currently women’s tasks, or to share all the tasks more equally, is too great to overcome. To seek a different outcome would deny people’s preferences and talents. To make that level of change happen by ale ring institutions would require coercing people, and people would in turn resist, become depressed, become dysfunctional, etc.
Could we conceive of a universe in which the actual capacities and inclinations of men and women were such that women had to be passive housewives and, if they wanted to do anything beyond that, it could be only menial tasks because that was their preference and also their capacity? Yes, we could conceive of such a universe. But even while nearly everyone thought that was the actual explanation for the disparity in women’s and men’s situations sixty years ago, there was of course another possibility. It could be that what men and women at the time considered a virtually inevitable outcome of human attributes was, instead, a virtually inevitable outgrowth of the daily dynamics of certain social arrangements that were in fact alterable.
Now consider all the coordinator class folks who do empowering work and who have lots of power and considerable wealth — and who will have more of each, relatively, if they manage to get rid of owners above while retaining workers below, those who are doing almost exclusively tasks that disempower them.
Now ask the coordinators — why are all those others doing disempowering work? There are four of them for every one of you. The answer will be, “well, that is what they are capable of. That is what they like.” And then ask the working class members why only one fifth of the population does empowering work. “That is what they are capable of. It is what they like. It is what we are capable of. It is what we like.”
Could we conceive of a universe in which it was true that 20% of the population likes to be empowered and has the ability to be, and 80% both wouldn’t like it if they were empowered, and couldn’t be empowered in any case? Yes, we can conceive of that. Is it our universe? I hope you will agree that it is not. I hope you will agree that the reason for one fifth on top and four fifths below is because a set of institutions (including the corporate division of labor but also, of course, prior schooling, socialization, income distribution, etc.) skews the apportionment of information, knowledge, confidence, and skills in a way that creates that result. It is thus our institutions at fault, not our stars or our genes.
We on the left all reject as mere propaganda the idea that since certain people like this and other people like that — and since some people are good at this and others at that — sexism, racism, and having an owning class is justified. Yet, oddly, and without seriously assessing the underlying logic of the claim or of any alternative possibilities, this same reasoning regarding the economy rises to the level of a justification for not overcoming classism with balanced job complexes.
That could only make sense if there were something about trying to “distribute the tasks” into balanced job complexes so as to overcome the problem the questioner broached of class division and class rule — which Chomsky agreed it would do — that would cause the result to fail or be abysmal despite the good it could achieve. In that case, we would have to forego balancing job complexes and find some other approach to the issue of coordinator class rule.
Chomsky realizes this and so he continues: “And the result [of trying to distribute tasks to solve the problem] is that when you get a group that works like that, it moves toward paralysis. South End Press began like that. But it declined.”
Chomsky is here referring to a radical publishing house founded in Boston in the 1970s typically involving some half dozen workers at any one time. I was part of it for the first 10 years. It thrived for about 25 years, roughly.
Suppose it was true that for this particular institution that operated in a sea of capitalist shoals and also on a small scale which makes having rewarding balanced job complexes tough, it declined because of its inability to maintain balanced job complexes against the preferences and capacities of its members. Would that be a serious argument for junking the approach? No, it wouldn’t, for lots of reasons. For example, did the members have adequate training? Was the institution able to pay enough to sustain them? Was a balanced job complex inside the institution — in a world with coordinator class options all around — desirable enough to retain people who could enjoy those options outside (even while others could not, of course). And so on. But in fact the claim isn’t true.
Chomsky’s explanation for SEP’s decline overlooks so many other factors: its adherence to balanced job complexes faded when new people were involved; it had few resources, few material supporters, and thus very limited means of doing its work or paying its staff; the distribution of books of the sort it was committed to was never easy, and changing times made it steadily less possible; its books were never reviewed in the mainstream, and, to a considerable degree, even on the left; a lot of writers that it made very visible then took their talents to mainstream presses that could pay better; the rest of alternative media institutions would never take seriously its approach, discuss its methods, etc., not because SEP was failing, but because it was succeeding so well but was also anathema to people leading those other institutions because SEP’s success threatened their claim on control over those other institutions. Instead of acknowledging any of these sources of difficulty, Chomsky tells us that SEP declined because of balanced job complexes. On the contrary, it was precisely because of the balanced job complexes that, for the ten years I was there, it was, I would guess, relative to available resources, and despite all the above obstacles to success, the most effective and productive small press around — even without noting the quality of its books.
Chomsky goes on, “I think people are just too different for them to be able to accept that kind of a structure.”
What kind of structure? The structure is never described at all. If Chomsky has accurately in mind balanced job complexes, then it is a structure that would give most people way more daily variety and of course more influence and stature, than they would otherwise have access to. And it is a structure in which the difference between what one person does and what the next person does is as large as people’s different tastes and inclinations make desirable — unlike with a corporate division of labor where, regarding the level of empowerment, there is no diversity at all for about 80% because for all of them it is near zero, while for about 20% it is relatively unlimited. So what changes when we switch from a corporate division of labor to “that kind of structure”?
Besides eliminating class division, class rule, and not just poverty but unjust inequality, and not just authoritarian imposition but anything short of self management, under parecon the big difference relevant to this discussion is that the empowerment level of work is essentially the same for everyone. It is empowerment effects on workers that balanced job complexes balance.
So we are back to our initial query. How does the fact that people differ from one another tell us that a corporate division of labor will be doable, but a division of labor that eliminates class difference won’t be? The only answer I can discern would be that differences among people are such that rather than a result consistent with human needs and abilities being that we all are essentially equally empowered, instead, to be consistent with everyone’s human attributes, about 20% should wield almost all power because that is their need and capacity, whereas the other 80% should do rote and repetitive tasks, because that is their need and capacity. This, for class, is like saying women get what they want and are capable of under patriarchy.
People now accept, though in fact they do not welcome or celebrate, a structure in which 80% are disempowered by their labor. Their jobs differ from one another in what rote tasks they do, but not in the level of empowerment those roles convey. A disempowered worker can choose to do disempowering job A, or to do disempowering job B, but cannot choose to do a job that is empowering. Does Chomsky really want to say that human nature is such that those 80% would, given the opportunity for change, reject a structure that provides them education, influence, dignity, and better income? I doubt it. So maybe he is saying the way in which “people are just too different for them to be able to accept that kind of a structure,” anticipates that the 20% who now monopolize empowering work have some difference from other people that will cause them to reject balanced job complexes. Well, yes, to an extent I agree that that is true. And that difference is called class interest and class-bred habits. But that needs to be overcome — just like the resistance of men to eliminating sexism, or of whites to eliminating racism, or of owners to eliminating private ownership, needs to be overcome.
Chomsky goes on, “my own guess is that any kind of organization is going to have representation but with constant recall and control from below, such as monitoring what the coordinator class is doing.”
This says, at least to my ears, that we will have a coordinator class inside our own organizations, and presumably in a new society. The best we can do to mitigate ill effects is try to restrain any violations of freedom, dignity, etc., that stem from the class hierarchy. To do that we can employ representation and recall. Really? We are going to conceive of engineers, doctors, managers, etc., as representatives. We are going to recall them into rote labor if we don’t like their acts? Can one even imagine Chomsky saying the same thing but replacing the coordinator class as the sector to keep within limits with the capitalist class as the sector to keep within limits? I don’t think so. Can we imagine him saying that to deal with the pains that society’s evident gender hierarchy creates, we should have men overseen and recallable, or some such thing.
Of course restraining power and privilege is better than letting power and privilege operate without restraints. But better still is an end to the structures that create excessive power and privilege in the first place. So perhaps Chomsky doesn’t mean what to me his few words seem to say. I feel certain, for example, that he would not say that worker resistance to monitoring their own bosses counts as an argument against the merits of doing that, which Chomsky here recommends. I also doubt he would suggest that if a firm that included workers monitoring bosses, but that had virtually no resources and sold goods that appeared to most of the public to be from Neptune (like SEP), failed after thirty years of success, he would feel it was evidence against workers monitoring bosses being a valuable reform. Of course not. So why does Chomsky offer arguments like that against balanced job complexes, I wonder.
That any large organization, or society, requires lots of structures if it is to function well, including elements of participation and representation, is, like Chomsky’s earlier observation about people being different, of course, true. But why is it relevant? Jumping from that observation to dismissing a method for preventing about 20% of the population from doing all the representing and deciding — and about 80% from at best keeping watch on them from below, is an unwarranted leap. With the corporate division of labor in place, a division of labor that gives 20% of the workforce a monopoly on relevant information, confidence, access to levers of power, etc., plus giving them a mindset that they have their advantages because they are more capable of initiative, creativity, insight, etc. as well as because they want to do the associated tasks while everyone else, below, is incapable of such activity and happy not doing the associated tasks (happy slaves, anyone?), so that those above should also get the lion’s share of income, does it make any sense to think it will be kept in check by some formal recall power? I don’t think so.
Chomsky continues, “It is kind of striking that after about thirty years of hard theoretical work, there are still no organizations that illustrate the parecon system. Theoretically it is well thought out. Lots of good discussion, thinking through the possibilities, but can you think of organizations that work like that? There is a proliferation of worker owned and worker managed enterprises but they don’t go that far.”
Let’s not even bother mentioning that most small groups of friends operate very much like this. And that there are also experiments that try to do so. Let’s also ignore that to create and maintain any small business, even if you have ample resources, even in an arena where there are no difficult obstacles to your product being wanted, is a very hit or miss affair. Let’s also suppose there was no pareconish experiment now flourishing — after the gargantuan span of thirty years. I agree that it could arguably be taken as a sign that one should be careful. Maybe in theory parecon is solid, but experiments haven’t blossomed because they cannot for reasons we don’t yet understand. Yes, maybe that depressing explanation is accurate. But before embracing the permanence of class division, and hoping better representation and recall will prevent the associated ills of coordinator class rule, here is a very different explanation for the relative dearth of pareconish experiments.
Maybe it is because we are trying to plant innovative seeds in a tremendously hostile environment. And here is another. If those who monopolize information, confidence, and access to communications don’t want something to happen and don’t even want an approach to be seriously discussed — then getting that approach on the table, much less getting it implemented even in experiments, is going to be very difficult. Wouldn’t this explain why, as Chomsky notes, it has taken people like me thirty years not to think up the stuff — that was actually not particularly hard other than that it was so contrary to prior beliefs we all learn — but to spread the ideas against the barrier of contrary biases and despite media silence in the mainstream and on the left? And when the ideas incredibly do spread, at least somewhat, after tremendous effort, and tend to reach new audiences — say in Tokyo — wouldn’t the fact that they get deemed impossible to implement by august personages who, however, offer no real substantive reasons for the dismissal and don’t welcome any debate, as is the case with Chomsky’s comments on parecon, help explain the difficulty, too?
For example, does Chomsky think the activists in that room in that bookstore in Tokyo, or those hearing him online via the video of the session, are going to run out and try to create an underfunded, unsupported, pareconish project after he tells them any such effort is doomed, in any case, because — well — “people are just too different from one another to accept it?” And I also wonder whether Chomsky would accept the argument that the fact that we haven’t had a lasting anarchist polity as yet, despite many times thirty years of effort for that goal, demonstrates that anarchist political aims are nonsense. I don’t think he would. I don’t think he should. So why in this case does he seem to accept that kind of argument?
Chomsky closes his answer to the question about the coordinator class, “you really ought to invite Mike Albert to advocate it. He is a smart guy, has thought about it, but to actually implement it has been extremely hard.”
Indeed it has. Not least because very few people with access to means of communication at their disposal, and with time and energy for assessment will even remotely give the ideas a try — though they are quick to dismiss them (at least when I or others like me aren’t around to debate the point). And because there are not funds to finance efforts to implement experiments, and, when an effort is tried, which quite a few have been, often way outside the purview of my awareness, the effort therefore not only has to overcome an incredible paucity of resources, and all sorts of built-in bad habits that we all carry, but also the dismissal or hostility of most people, even on the left, even people who one would think would give it serious attention.
The webpage of the Tokyo General Union, the organization of which the questioner was a member and that posted the video, has a description under it. In that description there is only one mention of substance that occurred during the hour long video — literally, only one. It goes like this: “Tozen member Matthew Allen discussed the dangers of union leaders becoming a `coordinator class’ with unwarranted power. Chomsky suggested that efforts to eliminate all division of labor have failed.” My guess is that was simply what the person who wrote the description thought Chomsky was saying, absent more clarity. Hopefully this essay will help.
Sadly, though, this is the usual level of discussion of issues surrounding the possible role of the coordinator class, possible solutions, and parecon. Pose or at least imply that what is being suggested is something absurd — for example parecon denies that people have differences, or parecon seeks to “eliminate all division of labor” — and then dismiss the absurdity of that straw formulation.
Some time back I published an article titled Querying the Young Chomsky. In it, I very critically addressed Chomsky’s own views of an economic alternative to capitalism that he expressed many years back in his most extensive interview on the subject that I could find. I took it very seriously and tried to open space for discussion and debate. Chomsky ignored that essay. I hope he won’t ignore this shorter one that again indicates differences. He has a number of reservations about participatory economics. That is fine. But it would be very helpful to explore them, carefully, to see if they are valid (in which case we would learn that corrections to parecon are needed), or if they are misunderstandings (in which case we would learn that clarifications are needed), or if they are simply wrong (in which case Chomsky could presumably happily revise his stance).