Doubt, or Denial?

This is part of an exploration/debate regarding parecon and peercommony. The first two essays are Summarizing Parecon by Michael Albert and Summarizing Peercommony by Christian Siefkes. This essay is in response to Siefkes’s Why I Still Doubt.


Christian, parecon rejects private ownership, corporate divisions of labor, competitive market allocation, and wage slavery. Repeatedly associating parecon with capitalism because parecon has incomes and budgets (even though these are profoundly different than prices and budgets in capitalism) is rejection by false association. 

You posit that parecon “considers [prices and budgets] as mere information.” But actually parecon recognizes that prices and budgets not only facilitate informed decisions, but also set boundaries. Why is parecon’s approach to these two functions – socially revealed information plus socially agreed, self managed boundaries – bad? 

You complain that parecon provides “a very impoverished model of social interaction where no other information that could influence such choices is available.” However, parecon actually emphasizes communicating qualitative information via full accounts that provide texture and also check on quantitative summaries, rather than by unsystematic hints. 

You pose that parecon is “a very sad society… where payment is the only thing that makes people ‘responsible and moral’.” However, parecon conveys information about what is socially desired, how much it is desired, and the associated social and ecological costs, all of which help people be responsible and moral. If people would inadvertently make errors or willfully violate equitable choices, then, you are correct that budgets not only facilitate moral behavior, but also impede behaving immorally. But with the norms and methods socially agreed and self managed, why is that a bad thing? 

You and I reject market prices and therefore need a way to facilitate moral choices of desirable outcomes. I favor participatory planning done by workers and consumers self managing councils because it conveys informative prices, supporting qualitative information, and budgets based on remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, plus cooperative self managed negotiations to implement it all. You prefer no prices, no budgets, and that for implementation individuals do whatever work they want and consume whatever they choose, guided, if they so desire, only by hints voluntarily left by other individuals.

You criticize that parecon finds that – in your words – “consumption is good, and hence to be maximized, while work (production) is bad and to be minimized.” However, since I have never in my life said any such thing – I wonder how you deduced it. 

For the record, parecon finds non addictive consumption that is undertaken in light of full social and ecological costs and benefits, where the benefits outweigh the costs, good. Don't you? Parecon also finds work that is not socially desired or is unduly wasteful or harmful to ecology, society, or producers, bad. Don't you? Nothing in these views even suggests maximizing consumption or minimizing work.

The outputs of production and the inputs of consumption in any economy must closely correlate to avoid serious shortages or waste. I assume you agree, Yet you remain distressed that I think if institutions tell people they can work as much or as little as they choose and can consume as much or as little of the social product as they want, people will quite sensibly and reasonably often work too little and consume too much – relative to equitable choices – especially considering that in their leisure time they can sail on yachts, play concert grand pianos, use massive backyard observatories, or do anything else they choose. You don't question that knowing what things are worth and having budgets fosters and even enables making responsible choices, but you nonetheless reject prices and budgets as “brutal” because they deny people what they cannot afford. Oddly, you ignore that in parecon, incomes are fair so that everyone can afford an equitable share of the social output – though not more.

Earlier I gave examples of perfectly sensible reasons why you or I might work too little or take too much if we lacked reliable indicators of what is appropriate and we were even told that it was fine to do so. So why is having indicators and limits “brutal”? 

Suppose we are stranded on an island, each of us similarly healthy. You work five hours a day doing socially useful things the community needs. I work only one hour a day doing the same socially useful things under the same conditions. Why would it be “brutal” for our little society to say that if that is my choice, that is fine, but barring special needs, I cannot have more than one fifth as much consumption as you can have? What harm would preventing inequitable behavior impose?  

I think you take as a matter of faith that in a good society neither I nor anyone else would over consume. You think we would instead freely follow insightful hints left by others. I think this view magically assumes away difficult motivational, incentive, and informational issues – and in any event, still wonder what you don’t like about prices and budgets.

Your ultimate answer seems to be that prices and budgets are coercive. You are right, for a person who by mistake, or due to having different values, or due to narcissistic valuations, or for whatever other reason, would take more than warranted and/or do less than called for, prices and budgets impose limits rather than just offering guidelines. But why is that bad? 

Parecon says your share of the social product – beyond health care – should accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of your socially valued labor. If that is just, I don’t understand your problem with it. If it isn‘t just, why isn’t it?

You reply, “What about socially valued labor that is not onerous?” You say that I “seem to think it doesn’t exist, or only so rarely it doesn’t matter.”

This is a non sequitur, I think. But for the record, I in fact say labor takes time, involves more or less focus and intensity, and is more or less onerous – or even not onerous at all – and that in a liberated society, work might even become, as Kropotkin argued, “life’s prime want.” Yet, it is true, that even in that hypothetical case, I would still point out that work is not the only thing we would want. In parecon even if we all did only pleasurable, empowering, uplifting, work, we would still not want to work 24 hours a day. More, since we will all actually do a fair share of less desirable tasks, we would also very likely not want to work 16, 10, or perhaps even 8, or 6 hours a day. And so I would still ask, “Do we agree there is such a thing as just and unjust allocation so that that a person could get too much or too little of the social product relative to what they have contributed, and that a good economy should equilibrate work/leisure allotments to a fair balance for all?”

This is a question I asked earlier that you were kind enough to answer. You wrote: “No, we don’t agree on that.” To explain this seemingly preposterous answer, you added: “You obviously see contributions as something essentially negative, as some kind of sacrifice that people make for the common good but to their own detriment. Hence they have to be rewarded (by getting more social product) for any contributions they make and punished (by getting less social product) if they don’t contribute enough.”

This ignores that work produces what people consume, and what people consume uses up what people produce. But, again, for the record, I certainly do not think all work is like digging in a coal mine in Northern India, for example, where the shafts are so narrow that only children can do the work. Of course not. But even if the worst work is eliminated and remaining work is fairly allocated among the population, I do believe we will all do some tasks which will not intrinsically enrich and empower and otherwise make us smile. And regrettably, for a long time, there will be many such tasks.

However, to give your concerns the greatest possible power, despite that I think it is ludicrously divorced from reality, I will unrealistically assume (for the moment) that we can soon eliminate everything unpleasant in all work. Yet, even if we do, we will not only like work, but will also also like being with our families, reveling in nature, socializing with friends, reading, playing, etc. Work will mean less time for all that. More of all that will mean less time for work. 

You say that I see contributions as “mere sacrifice” but of course I know that life’s prime want isn’t a “mere sacrifice.” I do think, however, that working longer sacrifices doing other things for that time period. You add that the “mere sacrifice” view, which I do not hold, “might be appropriate for most work in capitalism, but a society that wants to go beyond capitalism should try to do better than that.” However, parecon does “do better than that” – however, not by making believe all tasks will be more pleasurable than anything else we might want to do, but by distributing work and the fruits of work fairly. 

You hope we can “make [all] work so rewarding in itself that it doesn’t require a separate additional reward.” My guess is we cannot do that for all work, and all duration, in my lifetime, or yours, or our kids, or grandkids. However, even if we could, it would still leave the need to correlate the products of work to what people actually desire and would therefore still require that we know what people actually desire and how much they desire it, to achieve that correlation.

You write: “By not even trying to make work something better than what it is in capitalism, parecon is aiming far too low.” 

That you say that is interesting. Parecon eliminates private ownership of property and therefore profit seeking as a motive of work. Parecon makes remuneration equitable, thereby removing inequity from work. Parecon makes each person’s work comparable to every other person’s in its empowerment effects, thereby eliminating the coordinator/working class division from work. Parecon makes work self managed, in that way removing domination and subordination from work. Parecon orients work to consumers’ needs, while also addressing the well being of workers, society, and the environment, thereby removing alienation from work. But, parecon doesn’t entirely de-link work and consumption – an impossibility, in any event – and for that reason, you conclude “parecon is not even trying to make work something better than what it is in capitalism.” Really? 

You helpfully clarify your concern about coercion as the real drawback of budgets and prices when you reply to my calling red lights at intersections desirable, “putting a chain around somebody’s feet is not the same as merely `informing’ them that they should not go too far away.”

Yes, a red light sets limits, and so does a pareconish budget. Both prevent people from behaving inequitably. Both provide a context facilitating moral choices. Both are socially chosen. Neither is remotely like “chains.”

You tell me: “Throughout your text you protest against my using the word `coercion,’ but here [favoring red lights] you talk quite happily about physically preventing people from going somewhere. If that’s not coercion, then what is?”

Seriously? Red lights are an archetype example of coercion? And you think I have happily revealed my coercive commitments by favoring red lights? I am sorry, but to me this is surreal.

You start a new section worrying that in parecon “the more money [a] seller gets, the less the buyer keeps to get other things.” 

More precisely, in parecon the more you consume of one thing the less of other things you can consume and not be taking too much. But, in parecon your income is for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor – not for how much you produce. The output of a firm doesn’t determine its workers’ incomes, though it could determine the size of its workforce. No profits exist in parecon for owners or workers. No workplace competes for market share. Workplaces seek to fill needs by doing socially useful work. 

But, you worry, “if buyers choose another seller instead of me, I don’t earn money.” In a market system, yes, but not in parecon, unless so few want what your workplace offers that producing your product is not meeting social needs. 

You write: “…sellers are forced to compete against each other, trying to outsell their competitors.” Actually, in parecon the price of goods is a function of the planning process and applies across the good’s producers. Innovations also spread across the good’s producers. Producers of the same good, in a parecon, are in the same industry council. If one firm has some clever idea to make their product better, all the firms in the industry adopt the innovation. There is no reason for secrecy because the first firm can’t enrich itself via the idea. Everyone in society benefits by its spread. And outselling other firms, in quantity or in total value, doesn’t convey material advantage.  

Suppose one firm produces bikes in a highly populated or flat terrain area and sells huge numbers. Another firm produces bikes in a less populated or very hilly area, and sells modest numbers. No one in the former unit gains relative to those in the latter unit. All the workers enjoy balanced jobs. All get equitable incomes. Firms do not amass revenues for their workforce, no matter the scale they achieve.

You might then wonder, what if two firms produce bikes for areas contiguous to one another? One firm implements a new brake system. Everyone in its area, and the neighboring area, and even further beyond, wants the bike with better brakes. Isn’t this to the innovative firm’s advantage?

No. The workers at the innovative firm still earn “only” an equitable income and have “only” a balanced job complex. The desire for their product is up – so they may need more workers – or, more sensibly, they will simply show the other bicycle firms how to produce the better brakes. One could have a law requiring this, but there isn’t need because it is in everyone’s interest. Yes, if a firm, or industry, is producing something that people don’t want, they cannot keep using resources in that pursuit, nor receive income for it. The firm, or its workers, must switch to producing something that is wanted. But that is not punitive, or due to competition, it is in pursuit of well being for the whole population.

You feel I didn’t answer your “question whether [I] want prices without values (in the sense of Marx) or values without markets.” I skipped this because I didn’t understand what you were getting at and I didn’t want to spend time deciphering it, explaining it, and trying to be sure we were using terms similarly. 

The underlying point is, however, that a good allocation system needs to arrive at accurate valuations of all inputs and outputs that accord with a full accounting of true personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits. Participatory planning does that. Markets do not. For you, however, parecon’s doing it, or not, is irrelevant because for you no such assessments are needed other than in hints that people spontaneously leave around.

To summarize: You don’t like that parecon’s workers have to do socially valuable work to be remunerated. But this merely says that doing work that is not socially desired – like digging holes and filling them – is not a responsible contribution to society – and that there is need for people to contribute to society.

You don’t like that in parecon, if I am particularly bad at doing some job, I can’t do it for a full income, because some of my time spent at it will not be socially productive. But this merely says that it is not fine for me to use resources to build houses that collapse, care for the sick unto their death, or play basketball for viewers who are not there, as my social contribution. 

You deduce that parecon “not only want[s] workers to compete against each other, with those less skilled dropping out or having to accept a reduced payment…[it] also want[s] firms to compete against each other, just as in capitalism.” But actually, the only time one parecon worker might compete against another is when they both apply for the same job for some firm. Also, being less skilled, or less productive, does not itself lead to earning less, because parecon does not remunerate output. 

What I think you are referring to is that someone who cannot work at a socially desirable level at some task must instead work at something else, or get better at that task, or perhaps do it only as a hobby – I like to play tennis, but I am not worth watching at Wimbledon – or even, if one chooses for a time, and a workplace council will accept it, with reduced income per hour spent, since some time spent is non productive. You describe that limit on available options, like you describe having stop lights, in order to see it as coercive. But actually, it is just good sense. And the alternative, which is to say people can do whatever they like, no matter how badly they do it, and can also consume whatever they choose, no matter how much that may be, not only foregoes gathering needed information about people’s desires, it is also both impossible to fulfill, and, in its impositions on others, horribly inequitable. 

You say that in parecon “the promise of ‘full employment’ becomes implausible too. What becomes of the workplaces that cannot compete and instead `squander valuable assets on insubstantial benefits?’ … To you, that everybody would find work `somewhere’ sounds as implausible as everybody finding a job in capitalism.”

What you are saying, writ large, is that society doesn’t have enough work, even if all its work is divided equally among its people, for everyone to be doing something socially valued rather than wasting their time and society’s resources doing something that is not socially valued. In fact, whatever amount society wishes to consume, that amount establishes a total amount of work, and dividing total amount of work that fairly and sensibly among the population, will lead to a longer or shorter work week, but not to unemployment.

More specific to your comment – first, the workplaces you mention are not competing. The issue is not does one workplace outshine another, but does any particular workplaces use assets socially usefully, or does it waste them either because people don’t want its outputs, or because its work is incompetent (or tools decrepit), etc.? If it’s output is not socially valued, it needs to change. 

Second, if society needs an average of five hours a day from all folks able to work to generate the output its members collectively want – then in a parecon there will be no difficulty in everyone working five hours a day. If you want to work more (or less), it will be because you want more than an average income (or you want less to have more leisure). In contrast, under capitalism, work is allotted so that some people work ludicrously long, and as a result, others are under or unemployed – because that arrangement best benefits owners. 

I summarized that “in parecon a process of cooperative negotiation equilibrates what firms offer to produce and what consumers seek to enjoy. The prices that emerge from this cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs numerically summarize true personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits.” You replied that “that negotiation seems to be basically the same process that underlies exchange in capitalist markets every day.” 

That it seems similar to capitalism, to you, is interesting. In capitalism buyers and sellers directly involved in a transaction try to fleece each other, lest they be fleeced. The results manifest relative bargaining power, ignore effects on people beyond the buyer and seller, violate self management, and involve a narrowly self centered accounting of needs that destroys solidarity. In parecon, in contrast, transactions occur via a cooperative negotiation that involves all who are affected. No one can fleece anyone else because incomes can’t be enlarged at the expense of others, and the resulting prices summarize social and ecological effects as well as worker and consumer preferences. These are not similar.

Christian, it seems that because parecon has valuations (prices) and budgets (income), to you it “looks like capitalism.” But capitalism is private ownership, competitive markets, corporate divisions of labor, and remuneration for property and power, and parecon eliminates all of that – so that its prices and budgets, and everything else about it, is profoundly different.

You continue: “You don’t want to pay person A for ten hours when person B could do the same job in five.” Rather, I would like person A to do something he or she can do well enough to be not wasting society’s valuable assets. It still may be, often will be, that person A produces less per hour than person B doing similar but still socially valuable work. 

You next inform me that “when one enjoys doing something, there is no reason to minimize the time spent doing it.” And you repeat the canard that you think I am “unable to conceive `socially valuable work’ as anything else than a sacrifice.”

In fact, however, if you enjoy doing something but your doing it uses resources, time, and other people’s products, and also spews pollution, etc., there most certainly can be very good reasons to reduce your time spent doing it. I am quite sure you understand, for example, that even if we all greatly enjoy consumption choices that pollute, we should not do them overly much. Why would you understand that for consumption, but not production? I am tempted to think it is because when you think about what work is, you think of someone sitting in a chair writing computer code – without even using up pencils and electricity, much less other inputs, and generating many by products.

Christian, to say parecon wants to organize everything that is socially valuable (such as your examples of reading books, caring for family, or having sex) according to remunerative and planning norms operative in participatory planning, is ridiculous. But even for the economy itself parecon doesn’t say we should operate in the myopic manner of simply reducing much less minimizing time spent. Instead, parecon says that to be socially valuable, work needs to meet needs and develop potentials both of consumers and also of workers, and has to do so without wasting valuable assets that could be better used elsewhere or having other harmful social or ecological effects that outweigh its benefits. 

In a brief escape from your priority concerns about remuneration, you “wondered why `balanced job complexes’ are necessary in the general case.” You quote me answering that “parecon balances job offerings for empowerment effects because if jobs are unbalanced regarding empowerment, then after people choose among them, some people will be subordinate to others in a class hierarchy.” I would have thought that would clarify, but you now ask, why I “think that some tasks are inherently disempowering and prone to cause subordination….if I like doing something, how can just doing it cause me to become subordinate to others?”

Again, some tasks convey information, skills, and expectations relevant to assessing options, setting agendas, and making decisions. Other tasks involve only rote and repetitive and otherwise disempowering activities that reduce capacities and even inclinations to make decisions. A person might like the disempowering tasks, to an extent – I can daydream while doing them, etc. But the empowering tasks, if done nearly exclusively by typically about 20% of the workforce – and the disempowering tasks, if done nearly exclusively by about 80% – are such that by virtue of the effects of the two types of tasks on those doing them, the 20% will then dominate the 80%. Balanced job complexes are part of parecon precisely to prevent this class hierarchy.

You also wonder, doesn’t parecon “needlessly make everyone spend a long time in planning meetings, and isn’t there the risk that a privileged class of bureaucrats would emerge?”

Parecon does allot time for people controlling their lives, but isn’t that a good thing, especially compared to the same or more time going to reinforcing subordination, war making, keeping secrets, etc.? However, parecon does not allow a class of bureaucrats to emerge because in a parecon, we all have equitable income and balanced job complexes, and we collectively self manage outcomes. No one operates above the rest because there are no positions above other positions that one can rise into. 

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