Critique Without Comprehension

     For The review this essay replies to
     Please see Schweickart: Nonsense On Stilts

Parecon Phenomenon 1:
Serious Thought Or Manipulated Irrationality?

In David Schweickart’s view, my book Parecon: Life After Capitalism is not just nonsense…but nonsense on stilts. Strangely, Schweickart, though a philosopher, largely ignores the historical and social evidence and argument and particularly the ethical precepts offered on behalf of rejecting capitalism and market economies of any kind. He doesn’t question, or for that matter even address parecon’s injunction to seek economic classlessness via placing solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management at the heart of both judging and choosing economic institutions. Instead, Schweickart overwhelmingly focuses on whether participatory economics can function at all.

Schweickart asserts not only that the Verso published book is “terrible,” but, more important, that the entire economic model called participatory economics is “hopelessly, irredeemably flawed” to the point that any leftist should immediately see it is worthless. Feeling thusly, he doesn’t understand the “parecon phenomena” and he spends time wondering why growing numbers of leftists are urging its merits and trying to refine and improve its substance. I will ignore the odd idea that this growing support and involvement reflects that I am some kind of tireless Svengali who has hoodwinked not only my friends, but the many parecon advocates whom I don’t know, the international publishers, etc., and that I have even hoodwinked myself (out of unrestrained hope), all to a point of slavish fixation that is “immune to common sense or reason.” For Schweickart, we are all advocating something only a deluded fool wouldn’t quickly dismiss. It seems better, as well as less demeaning to myself and others, for me to assume that there is support, and also criticism, and that I and others rationally (rather than slavishly) advocate and are trying to improve the model, even though Schweickart thinks no one rational would do so.

In any event, Schweickart is entirely correct that parecon centrally includes “balanced job complexes” which seek to equilibrate jobs for their empowerment effects in order to eliminate a class division between what I call the coordinator class of empowered employees including managers, lawyers, engineers, etc., and more typical workers. Strangely, Schweickart never mentions this class analysis aspect of parecon, though he, like me, is a member of the class it pinpoints. Schweickart is also right, however, that parecon includes “remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work” in order to attain equitable distribution of income. And he is right, as well, that parecon includes “participatory planning” in pursuit of self managed and classless allocation that reflects workers’ and consumers’ needs. If Schweickart is correct that these three features that he focuses on are not viable and/or not worthy, then he is also correct that the overall model is flawed. Parecon does rest on these legs, which he thinks he has cut out from under it.


Balanced Job Complexes:
Classless Division of Labor or Crazy Chaos?

Schweickart starts with balanced job complexes. He doesn’t question my arguments that they are necessary to avoid class division, nor does he suggest that having balanced job complexes would hurt productivity or treat people unfairly – which are concerns I deal with at length in the book. Instead, Schweickart urges that balanced job complexes are transparently and self evidently impossible to implement. In his view, moreover, this is so obvious that only the deluded (or self delusional) would think otherwise.

To make this case, Schweickart first quotes a passage in which I describe some tasks as being more empowering and others as being less empowering, employing a hypothetical ranking of 1 – 20 to explain the abstract claim. He then ridicules the idiocy of thinking that we could arrive at balanced job complexes in a large firm by showing how at his university, as an example, given the virtually innumerable tasks it encompasses, first carefully ranking every task, and then second, painstakingly combining bunches of tasks to arrive at the same mathematical average for every job we constructed, would be very nearly infinitely time consuming and confusion inspiring. He does note in passing that I made clear in the book that the numeric ranking was only to explain the underlying idea and show the conceptual possibility of jobs composed of bundles of tasks such that each job was comparable in its empowerment effects to all others – and that I did not propose this mathematical ranking description to describe a social procedure for actually arriving at such a goal, which I explicitly said it was not. Nonetheless, Schweickart treated the mathematical ranking example as a social procedure for about 20% of his long review. It was easy to ridicule taken that way, but that ridicule has no bearing on actual parecon prospects.

So how do balanced job complexes persist year to year, in a parecon? Well, as Schweickart notes, in a functioning parecon we have balanced job complexes already and so for maintenance we are only talking about changes to preserve or to realign their balance from year to year. Suppose a new technology is put in place, or some new realization about existing options regarding work arises. If the change is significant in its empowerment implications, we must then shift a few tasks in accord, in some division inside some workplace, or perhaps for a whole workplace, or even across workplaces. This is obviously not so difficult. Jobs alter all the time in any kind of economy, much more so than this. A yearly or bi-yearly session of a workers council in an industry, a workplace, or in a division, guided by reports from workers who are assigned to assess changing conditions as part of their overall responsibilities, could certainly non disruptively propose such refinements to workers councils. But this isn’t what Schweickart found fault with. Rather, he doubts the possibility of getting balance the first time around, at the outset, from what we have now. And Schweickart is quite right that that isn’t easy, which doesn’t mean, however, that it shouldn’t be done.

One way to think of this is to realize that the pre-capitalist system of artisanal craft power was unraveled by Taylorist practice, breaking down skilled (somewhat balanced) jobs into their minute tasks, in order to re-construct them on the basis of the hierarchical control requirements of a class system. If capitalism can adapt jobs to increase inequality and especially control by a few, why can’t a post capitalist economy re-combine components to make up new jobs that balance empowerment effects of work to produce social classlessness? For example, consider bus drivers and transit planning. Why couldn’t bus drivers or other transit workers have training to do transit planning as well as to drive? It really isn’t hard in industries to see steps on the road to generating balance.

Take, as Schweickart suggests, his own university, Loyola. If, we assume it is as now, but one wishes to move from that corporate structure to an array of balanced job complexes, what has to happen? Well, quite a lot. We can even make it more urgent. Take the Bolivarian University in Venezuela set up precisely to evidence new ways of organizing an educational institution. Suppose they want to eliminate internal class division. What should they, or Loyola, do?

Well, for people who have had a lifetime of rote and tedious work to begin doing more empowering work, may entail, in part, some training. So one quick and relatively straightforward innovation is to institute classes for employees, not just for students. The students and faculty can pick up some of the then unassigned labor due to gardeners, custodians, waiters, and secretaries, taking some classes. Professors, can immediately do some or all of their own phoning, Xeroxing, and so on, so their secretaries can have time to pursue other tasks. For that matter, professors can even wield a broom, not just a computer mouse or joystick.

But how does the division of labor get to be not just somewhat improved, but fully balanced? Not in a gigantic rush, that’s for sure. And not by some idiotic mechanical calculation process, that’s also for sure. Transition involves experimentation in job definition. It involves a flow of changes that give those doing only cushy and empowering work steadily more of the socially necessary but rote tasks, while giving some of their cushy and empowering labor over to those who were previously excluded. Does this entail that the custodian teaches quantum theory, right off, or even ever? No. But the custodian may well, perhaps with a little training, perhaps not even needing that, do some of the labor that deans or heads of faculty now do – or would do once the university is more libertarian about education and other functions – and perhaps in time she might also teach, in one department or another, or not.

The point is, if you look down the road some years from when serious redesign in pursuit of balanced job complexes begins, balanced job complexes can be attained and, moreover, the people who work at the new Loyola can have had enriching education in their youth – rather than about 80% being taught mostly to endure boredom and take orders, and 20% being taught productive skills and also to feel superior. In the new Loyola all who work there are equipped to participate cooperatively and equitably in balanced jobs, and a few will not dominate the rest. And the same goes for other workplaces. We don’t all do everything, of course. None of us do things beyond our capacities, naturally. We all do, however, do some activity that is empowering and some that is not, in a socially balanced mix.

In other words, if the Bolivarian University says it wants self management and equity – or a bit further in the future if Loyola does – but it keeps a division of labor in which 80% of the workforce obeys orders and follows agendas and 20% gives orders and creates agendas, then day by day, even in large and formally democratic assemblies, the 20% will dominate outcomes, and they will also aggressively reward themselves, seeing themselves as more worthy. To avoid that class division and all the alienation, subordination, and travail that goes with it, one wants to create a situation in which all the employees by virtue of their balanced work conditions – as well as sensible prior training – are comparably empowered. One does not want to create a condition in which some employees are highly empowered and others are overwhelmingly made passive. That’s the reason for balanced job complexes. Expertise is not eliminated, or reduced, but is expanded by greatly enlarging society’s interest in giving all its citizens serious educational opportunities. What is eliminated is some people monopolizing empowering tasks, while other people are made subordinate by their solely rote and repetitive labors. Without balanced job complexes, and supposing capitalists are out of the picture, it seems to me that we necessarily have coordinator class rule. With balanced job complexes, we can have classlessness. The task, if this claim is correct, is, to my eyes, not to belittle the possibility of balancing job complexes by magnifying unreal weaknesses, but to refine parecon’s logic and methods so they become ever more viable. Saying that we can’t eliminate monopolization of empowering tasks into few jobs is tantamount, I think, to saying TINA, there is no alternative – not there is no alternative to capitalism, but there is no alternative to class rule. Schweickart is right that my tendency is to work damn hard to discover ways to thwart that claim, though I don’t think that means I am delusional or irrational.

Are balanced job complexes hard to reach from the capitalist economies that we now inhabit? Of course they are. Does one reach them by some kind of mechanical process that seeks mathematical perfection over night, of for that matter, ever? Of course not. Nor have I ever suggested it, though I welcome Schweickart’s review for making me be very explicit, again. We move toward balance by making changes in a social adjustment, many steps undertaken over considerable time, first won by movements seeking reforms, but then later enacted by self managing workers’ and consumers’ councils. And we don’t fetishize some kind of abstract perfection at any point in the process, of course, but we stop adjusting when workers collectively (in each venue) feel that any further tinkering would be a waste of precious time relative to minor gains still to be had.

Once we have balanced job complexes, are they hard to maintain and adjust? No, there is no reason to think that is the case. In fact, it is instead plausible that it is far harder to continually realign jobs to keep most people subordinate and a few people empowered, roughly in a four to one ratio, despite that doing so diminishes productivity as well as being horribly unjust, than it will be to keep all jobs equitably balanced up to a socially agreed condition conducive to self managed participation, and which enhances productivity and attains classlessness. So, balanced job complexes will not only be vastly more just and humane than corporate divisions of labor (whether the latter are chosen on their own “merits” or imposed by markets or central planning or just grudgingly accepted as “unavoidable”), but, as a bonus, and contrary to Schweickart’s ridicule, balanced job complexes will also be easier to maintain.

Schweickart rightly notes that even beyond seeking balanced job complexes inside each firm, parecon requires that job complexes also be balanced across them. He points out that Loyola is “a clean, comfortable environment, with lots of stimulating intellectual activity. That’s not fair. Something needs to be done.” I think he means this to be sarcastic, but I agree with the sentiment, something does need to be done, and for two reasons.

First, if we are going to have some people doing much cleaner, more comfortable, and more stimulating labor, and other people doing more debilitating, dangerous, and rote labor, we should not pay the former more, as now, or even pay them all the same, as many progressives might suggest. To have remuneration that is equitable, we should pay the folks who endure worse conditions more to make up for the greater sacrifice involved in their pursuits. Second, even if we initially decided we would remunerate justly, a group of what I call coordinators with significantly and consistently more empowering economic conditions would tend to socially and organizationally dominate workers who were in contrast made menial and subservient by their more rote pursuits. Such a dominant class would steadily and increasingly push the economy toward their own advancement, including subverting the prior socially valid payment decision until it was literally reversed – as we see all around us and throughout history, in all market systems.

The point is, if an economy has some workplaces that are highly empowering, though with average job complexes inside, and other workplaces that are highly disempowering, again with average job complexes inside, in time we will have a class that occupies the former workplaces, doing little but empowered labor, and a class that inhabits the latter workplaces, doing little but rote labor. In this socially unbalanced situation, instead of a university’s custodians being part of the university staff so that balanced job complexes in the university incorporated a share of rote tasks – they would be employed in a custodian’s firm and would work in the university only on contract. And more, the custodian’s firm’s managers would be contracted day workers there, hired from a firm that is composed only of managers. Once again, we would have the class division between the empowered and disempowered, though now they would be officially employed in two entirely separate sectors of workplaces, though they would do their functions throughout the economy.

In other words, if we want an economy which doesn’t elevate one sector to a dominant position above the rest by virtue of unequally empowering economic roles, which is to say, if we want an economy without class rule, then we need to have a division of labor which gives everyone sufficient confidence, social skills, and habits of involvement and of decision making, of one sort or another, to participate fully and fairly in overall decision making. We don’t want a coordinator class who overwhelmingly set agendas, design conditions, administer outcomes, govern information flow, and pay themselves far more, while everyone else labors below.

I agree with Schweickart that most professors at Loyola will likely at first resist the idea of balanced job complexes, and also of remuneration for effort, exactly as Schweickart rejects them. Some will do it out of sincere conviction that these approaches can’t work or would lead to bad outcomes. For others their response will reflect their class interests narrowing their gaze, juggling their thoughts, and biasing their values.

Schweickart ridicules having balanced job complexes, saying that to fully have them “since enterprises have different job-empowerment averages,” some method would have to “move people around, allowing everyone working in a lower-than-average empowerment enterprise to work [part time] in a higher-than average empowerment firms, while compelling those in higher-than-average empowerment firms to work [part time] in lower-than-average empowerment firms.” I am tempted to say, and this kind of reply is possible over and over to Schweickart’s concerns, is this really so bad, even as Schweickart tilts it, as compared to having a corporate division of labor where 80% must be structurally compelled to obey and endure? But, in fact, parecon doesn’t have to justify itself only by virtue of how abysmal the corporate, market, alternatives are. Attaining cross firm balance not according to some mathematical perfection, but in a social manner acceptable to the population involved, really isn’t unduly complex.

There are plenty of examples in the book. Imagine, for one, a coal mine. Let’s suppose that technical innovations haven’t yet significantly improved the empowerment implications of working at the coal mine so that working there still involves doing tasks way below the social average empowerment level. What happens?

Well, you can’t work in the coal mine full time. Let’s say society has a thirty hour week, or whatever the population of worker/consumers arrives at given its desires for consumption as against its desires for leisure – which, by the way, is a self managed choice in a parecon whereas market systems compel accumulation and steadily increase workloads regardless of desires. In addition to working in the coal mine part time, you will work elsewhere, perhaps in your neighborhood, perhaps in any of a number of firms that are paired off with the coal mine, part time as well. These other pursuits will be at higher empowerment levels, allowing a cumulative average. And the same goes in reverse, if you work at Loyola, assuming it has significantly excessive empowerment effects in its balanced job complex, you can also only work there so many hours a week. You would have to fill out your work load with other tasks, less empowering, maybe in your neighborhood, or in nearby firms, etc. Of course scheduling is flexible, it isn’t as if you have to work in two places each day, or even each week, but only on average over time. Once we have balanced job complexes across firms, is there need for a change in people’s overall jobs at times? Sure, suppose in a parecon new technologies significantly raise the quality of life and empowerment effects of working at a coal mine, which presumably would be a priority not only for the miners, but for the whole population in order to most effectively raise the social average job complex across all society. In that case, the workers in the mine would face new conditions and their overall job would adapt.

What makes all this seem absurd to Schweickart, assuming it is not class blinders, is his thinking that balancing jobs involves some kind of precise mathematical equilibration – despite what I tried to convey in the book. Once that char


  1. Benson Bear June 29, 2015 8:36 am 

    Hard to believe Parecon advocates could get parecon computing systems working when they can’t get their own articles printed in entirety!

  2. Brent Irving December 15, 2014 12:37 am 

    What happened to the rest of the article?

    Last sentence: “Once the char” then nothing?

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