Comment On Albert 2

Dear Michael,

Because lots of things are going on, I’m having to write two responses to you simultaneously and hence am making a division of labour (spare the jokes about balanced job complexes). So: if I don’t comment on everything in your first rejoinder here, my other piece should fill in the gaps.

1. Justice: You ask: ‘How does your norm [i.e. the claim that everyone should have equal access to the resources they need to live the life they have reason to value] differ from rewarding effort and sacrifice plus providing full income for those who can’t work?’ The answer is that it provides a principled justification for what in your system are two apparently independent norms. Egalitarian justice as I interpret it says:

Resources should follow needs: hence people who can’t work should receive an income;

Everyone should be given an equal chance to fulfil themselves. The problem that you highlight of what happens if realizing your needs is more expensive than fulfilling mine has been much discussed among egalitarian philosophers. Very quickly one element of a response are that equality as I understand it is about equalizing opportunities: in other words, it’s about giving me as much chance of fulfilment as you, which means that giving me the same range of alternatives as you sets limits to your demands for extra resources to satisfy your more expensive tastes;

Opportunities should be equalized, not outcomes. As I have already said, this is consistent with remunerating people’s work according to the effort they make: in that sense your norm of remuneration is implied by my more general principle of justice. (Also, just to repeat, because this doesn’t yet seem to have sunk in: like you – and Marx and Rawls – I don’t think that people should be rewarded for the genetic accident of the natural talents they inherit.)

 2. Parecon: You ask if I ‘agree that if participatory planning can efficiently handle not only short-term but also long-term economic choices without having to establish a power centre other than the horizontal self-managing communication of councils, it would be good for it do so’. Of course I do. The last thing I want is a Gosplan – in other words, a bureaucratic planning centre that seeks to monopolize information and power. My question about parecon was a friendly one concerning the nature of ‘the horizontal self-managing communication of councils’. More specifically, what are the mechanisms through which this communication produces decisions about the global allocation of resources?

Your account in Parecon seems to me rather ambivalent. On the one hand you reject the claim that parecon will mean endless meetings on the grounds that ‘after a number of iterations had defined the major contours of the overall plan, the staffs of iteration facilitation boards would (mechanically) define a few feasible plans within those contours for constituents to vote on without ever having to meet or debate these at all’ (p. 260). That does sound a bit atomistic: even if OK for ongoing economic self-management, it isn’t a plausible mechanism for making ‘parametric’ decisions about the overall allocation of resources. On the other hand, a few pages later you refer to ‘federations of councils’ in the context of long-term planning (p. 263). But this is pretty vague. I don’t see how we can dispense with some sort of large-scale (ultimately global) decision-making process involving representative assemblies (whether directly elected or composed of council delegates).

Please appreciate that these comments are not intended in a hostile spirit. I really want participatory planning to work and am trying, with this in mind, to understand the nature of your proposed model.

 3. Marxism: I’m afraid I still feel deeply unthreatened by your theoretical criticisms of Marxism. They come down to the oldest charge in the book: economic reductionism. I don’t have time or space to deal with the philosophical issues involved so let me just make two points:

(i) Early on Marx defines his objective as ‘human emancipation’, which he understands as a total liberation from all the different forms of oppression and domination experienced by humankind. So Marxists aren’t only interested in economics. To give the removal of class (specifically capitalist) exploitation a particular strategic significance isn’t to deny the distinct character, quality, and logic of each different form of oppression. Rather, it is to say, unless we dismantle the present economic system our chances of getting rid of these oppressions is zero – and also to conjecture that the struggle against that system is likely to promote, and in any case could not succeed unless it was sustained by, struggles against the whole gamut of oppressions. The way in which the contemporary anti-capitalist movement embraces a bewildering range of specific struggles supports the first part of this conjecture at least.

(ii) You say: ‘we … confront economic issues in a social, political, and cultural environment shaped by patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism’. Sure, but are we to conceive these oppressions as autonomous of capitalism? Can we understand what you (I think misleadingly) call ‘patriarchy’ without taking into account, for example, the commodification of women’s bodies in late capitalism? Or racism without looking at the historical inheritance of slavery and empire and capitalism’s continued reliance on immigrant labour and on divide-and-rule. The different ills involved aren’t the same and they each require attention in their right, but their causes aren’t simply independent of one another. Isn’t the basis of the present movement a growing realization that we confront, not (as postmodernists claim) a cluster of autonomous oppressions, but a single system?

 4. The Coordinators: You resist these conclusions in part, I think, because you think Marxism is blind to the existence of a ‘third class’, the coordinators – a claim that, whatever its merit, takes us back onto the terrain of political economy that you criticize we Marxists for being bogged down in.

You ask: ‘Do you agree that roughly 20% of the workforce in advanced capitalist societies monopolize empowering conditions, tasks, etc., and that by virtue of this, they enjoy far more control over their lives than those below, than holds for the bottom 80%?’ Yes I do, but I don’t see these people as a homogeneous class but rather as a spectrum of social strata that differ in the precise mixes of the properties of capital, labour, and even in some cases the petty bourgeoisie that they combine.

For example, both a university professor and a senior manager belong to these strata. A professor is privileged compared to the mass of wage-earners because of the relatively high salary she enjoys but also because of the relatively high degree of control over her work that she has, but she may not have much or even any control over other employees. The manager, by contrast, does exercise power over routine workers, and will probably be better paid than the professor, but may have less discretion in how he exercises this power.

You go on to ask: ‘And in an economy with central planning or markets, plus corporate divisions of labour, plus remuneration for power, do you agree that this 20% becomes the ruling class?’ Certainly not. The ruling class, in the sense of the group that makes strategic decisions about how resources are allocated is a much smaller group. One sociological study of the upper classes in Britain published in the 1980s estimated that the people who controlled the 1000 top companies that dominated the British economy plus their families amounted to between 25,000 and 50,000 people, less than 1 per cent of the population. Similarly, not every bureaucrat in the old Soviet Union belonged to the ruling class. The central political bureaucracy that controlled the levers of power and consequently enjoyed immense material privileges was probably an even smaller group than the British economically dominant class under Thatcher.

Once this essential point is clarified, there remains the question of whether agents from the intermediate strata whose social power doesn’t derive from property can become a ruling class? Of course they can, as the history of both Stalinism and many post-colonial states show. But I don’t see this as a result of the relentless march of the coordinators to power. Rather, particular historical constellations of circumstances where the old propertied classes have been destroyed and the workers and other oppressed classes lack independent organization can provide opportunities for elements of the intermediate strata to constitute themselves as a new ruling class. That does mean, in response to your last question, we need to promote self-organization and more broadly democratic and egalitarian practices. But we also need to understand these historical circumstances better. I shall say more about this when replying to your latest comments on my opening statement.


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