I Still Think It’s Nonsense

This essay replies to Albert: Criticism Without Comprehension


It doesn’t occur to Schweickart to even entertain the possibility that just perhaps we are rational, and he has missed some key insights and relations.[i]


Albert is wrong here.  It most certainly did occur to me as I worked on my critique that maybe I was missing something—although I couldn’t see what.  (As I pointed out, Parecon boasts a luminous set of endorsements.)  So I read his lengthy reply with care.  But you know what?  I’m more convinced than ever that there is something deeply irrational about his project. 


Not the general considerations that motivate the effort.  I too want to live in a world without exploitation, where everyone has good, empowering work, where income differentials are reasonable, and where consumers are not manipulated into seeking happiness in things that are not good for them as individuals or for our fragile ecosystem.  I too believe that a better world is possible, that there is an alternative, not just to the rapacious brand of corporate capitalism that dominates the earth today, but to capitalism itself.  I happen to think that our best bet is Economic Democracy–the structure of which I will mention shortly.


What is irrational, or at least wholly untenable, is the economic model Albert defends as a workable means of obtaining these desirable ends.  What is irrational (so it seems to me) is his inability to grasp the force of the criticisms of the model.


I have to say, I admire Albert for posting my article on his website.  I had thought of asking him to do so, but I didn’t think he would be willing to post so harsh a critique.  There aren’t many intellectuals who would take such a risk.


I also admire the tone of his article.  To be sure, he gets testy at times, but my article was nothing if not provocative.  For the most part his tone was measured and his presentation of my position accurate.  I will try to follow his good example in what follows.


An Alternative Model


Before getting to the particulars of my reply, let me sketch the basic institutions of what I take to be an alternative to capitalism different from Parecon that is both feasible and at the same time vastly superior to capitalism: ecologically sustainable, more efficient than capitalism, more rational in its development, more egalitarian, more democratic, more inclined to promote leisure and meaningful work over mindless consumption.  I call it Economic Democracy.


I can’t defend here the claim that Economic Democracy has the merits just mentioned.  I have done so at length elsewhere, most recently in After Capitalism (2002).[ii]  Let me simply note that Economic Democracy is a form of market socialism wherein enterprises are managed democratically by their workforces, and investment is allocated, not by market forces, but by democratically-accountable public banks.  In effect Economic Democracy replaces two of the three markets that constitute capitalism with more democratic alternatives.  It maintains a competitive market for goods and services, but replaces the labor market with workplace democracy and the capital market with social control of investment.


Needless to say, Albert, a self-proclaimed “market abolitionist,” cannot endorse this model, but it is important for the reader to understand that there are alternatives to capitalism other than Parecon.  Albert often writes as if criticism of Parecon is tantamount to embracing capitalism.  Indeed, he is convinced that markets of any kind “inexorably induce a class division in which about 20% of the population overwhelmingly determine economic outcomes and the other 80% overwhelmingly obeys instructions, . . . compel against everyone’s will surplus maximization and endless accumulation, and . . . make a travesty of democracy,” so there is no point in making fine distinctions. [iii]  I think there is.


Parecon: Critique and Reply


Let me rehearse briefly the main points of my critique.  Parecon has three fundamental components. 


·         All job-complexes are to be equally empowering, both within enterprises and across the economy as a whole. 


·         Remuneration is to be based on effort only, not on one’s contribution to society, for the latter includes such morally irrelevant factors as talent, training, job assignment, tools and luck.


·         All elements of production and consumption—labor, resources, consumer goods—are to be allocated by participatory planning, not the market.


In “Nonsense on Stilts” I argue that


A.    Achieving balanced job complexes in the manner suggested by Albert, namely, breaking existing jobs into tasks, assigning each task a numerical rank, reassembling them so that all jobs equally empowering, then deciding who does what, is not even remotely feasible.


B.     Remuneration according to effort won’t work because those making the decisions have neither the means nor the motivation to make accurate assessments.


C.     Participatory planning of an entire economy would be a nightmare, for at least four reasons:


  1. Consumption requests are public, which greatly compromises individual privacy.


  1. These requests must be made annually by every citizen, each of whom must look at his past year’s consumption, forecast changes, then make careful, quantitative adjustments.  Doing this even once is a hugely tedious undertaking. Doing it several times, as will be required under Parecon, is mind-boggling.


  1. Unless requests are made in excruciating detail, producers won’t know what to produce.  In any event, they have little motivation to find out what people really want, so production will not come close to optimizing consumer satisfaction.


  1. A national vote to choose among several highly aggregated final plans is a meaningless exercise, since few if any individuals would have the time, ability or motivation to make an intelligent choice.     


Albert’s reply to these criticisms may be summarized briefly as follows.


To A:  Sure it’s difficult to balance job complexes, but it should be done anyway.  Moreover, he never meant his discussion as to how this might be done to be taken literally.


To B: Work must not only involve effort, but it must also be “socially useful” to merit remuneration. Moreover, each enterprise has a fixed pool of income to distribute among its workers, so evaluators do indeed have an incentive to be accurate and fair. (“I don’t know how Schweickart missed all this,” he says (CwoC: 9).


To C: Markets are worse.  Regarding my specific charges, Albert says:


1. Schweickart is wrong. The process is anonymous.


2. The procedure need not be tedious.  General categories may be used.  It’s much less time-consuming than shopping.


3. Producers have a host of ways of determining what people want.  It is scare-mongering to suggest that producers wouldn’t do their best to find out what people want and meet their demands.


4. He doesn’t see the problem.


My Reply to His Reply Re. A


Albert acknowledges that balanced job complexes would be quite difficult to achieve and certainly could not be achieved by “some idiotic mechanical calculation” such as the one set out in detail in his major chapter on the topic, which I took seriously enough to think through concretely.  That was only a thought-experiment, he now says, a way of explaining the conceptual possibility of achieving such an end. 


In fact I stated explicitly that Albert didn’t think this procedure could be implemented with precision.  I quoted from his book “that in real circumstances the procedures of job balancing are not precisely as we describe above ” (P: 106).  (Notice, he doesn’t call them “idiotic” in the book, just “not precisely as described.”) But I went on to note that he gives us no clue as to what other, more realistic procedures he might have in mind. To the question, “In practical, real world situations, could workers really rate and combine tasks to define balanced job complexes within and across workplaces?” he merely asserts (with great confidence), “Provided we understand that we are talking about a social process that never attains perfection, but that does fulfill workers’ own sense of balance, the answer is surely yes”  (P: 110).


 In his reply to my critique, he takes a small step toward being more concrete.  He says we could begin at Loyola (my university) by offering some training to staff so that they could do more empowering work, and that we could let the custodians, “perhaps with a little training, perhaps not even needing that,” do some of the empowering tasks the deans now do.  (He doesn’t say what “empowering tasks” these might be.)


That’s as good as it gets, in concrete terms.[iv]


Let me be clear.  I am in no way suggesting that jobs shouldn’t be redesigned so as to spread around the drudgery and to make everyone’s work as meaningful as possible.  One of the great merits of a democratically-run firm  (the basic enterprise form of Economic Democracy) is that it allows for this possibility.  If firms become all the more productive from doing so, that’s great.  If workers have to sacrifice some efficiency, and hence some income, but feel it worth it, well and good.  That’s their choice—as it should be.


If this is all Albert means, finally, by “balanced job complexes,” then we are not in disagreement. 


In fact, he means more that that.  For he wants to insure that job complexes are also balanced across enterprises.  But this would require


a)      some reasonably objective, quantifiable standard as to the average “empowerment” or “meaningfulness” of every workplace in the country,


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