Monbiot Reply to Albert 1

Dear Michael,

I would like to start by thanking you for the opportunity to debate these matters. One of the developments which makes me most optimistic is that the question our movement is now asking most often is no longer what?, or why?, but how? How do we overthrow those who have seized power? How do we we build a world based on the principles of equity and capable of sustaining future generations? And how do we move from where we are today to where we want to be? We have been restrained in the past by our timidity in tackling this question, and our willingness, as a result, to knock down the proposals people have put forward without replacing them with proposals of our own. Thus we have forestalled the possibility of radical change.

So everything I will say is prefaced by this: thank you for your efforts to concentrate our minds on these questions. I salute you for pursuing an answer and, in doing so, tacitly challenging others to provide answers of their own. If we dismiss an idea without explaining what we would do instead, we expose not only the inadequacy of the idea, but also the inadequacy of our response.

Our different proposals both arise from the same objective: we want to live in a world built on the idea that others should be treated as we would like to be treated ourselves. So my criticism of your approach is in the spirit of one who would like to make it, or something like it, work. I am probing the cracks in the hope that you or others might repair them.

The two big questions we must ask of each other are these: Can your system work in theory? And can your system work in practice? Another way of putting this is: Is your system internally coherent? and is your system externally coherent – can it defend itself from competing systems?

My answer to the first question is possibly. If the world were suddenly to switch from the system we have today to the system you propose, and no competing system existed, had ever existed or could possibly exist, parecon might be able to sustain itself. Its guiding principle, that “people should have a say in decisions in proportion to the degree they are affected by them”, is a sound one, and carries you through some of the problems you seek to negotiate. Before I can be sure, however, I would like to raise two sets of questions.

The first is this. You make what you call the “incredible claim” that the supply of goods and services can be governed by a combination of producers, consumers, third parties and even those deprived of the power of consumption. I would like to give you the chance to turn this into a credible claim. To do so, I think you have to provide answers to these questions:

a. A community is making collective decisions about its production and consumption, in proportion to the degree to which the members of that community are affected by them. But what if the people affected by those decisions are not members of the community? What incentive do the members of that community then have to forgo consumption? You say that “those affected by pollution influence the choice”, but what if the choice is being made in Chicago, and those affected by the pollution live in Bangladesh?

b. I am guessing that most parecon communities will not be self-sufficient, as most parts of the world do not possess the resources required to answer the needs of complex urban communities, which means they are obliged to trade. We all know that some communities in poor nations face conditions so desperate that their immediate self-interest is met by selling cheap in order to find a market. So what is to stop communities with high purchasing power from exploiting them?

c. The broader question I am asking in a and b, in other words, is this: where is the mechanism for distributing wealth BETWEEN communities? If parecon merely distributes wealth within communities, it simply collectivises the gross injustices from which the world now suffers. There may be no more billionaires in Chicago under your system, and everyone there may become moderately prosperous, but what changes the coercive relationship between Chicago and Dhaka?

The second set of questions is this:
What prevents members of a community from cheating, and thus secretly exploiting everyone else?  If someone wants more of something than they have been allotted by the resource-use decision of the community, what stops them from purchasing it, and what prevents those with the ability to produce it from supplementing their official income by supplying it? In other words, how do you prevent a black market from forming in what is essentially a rationed society? All experience in similar situations suggests that a. the incentive is very strong, and b. that incentive could destroy the system you seek to create. So how is it policed, and what is to prevent policing, as has happened so often before, from succumbing to the same kind of corruption?

But these are minor problems by comparison with those which arise in response to the other big question: namely “can your system work in practice?”, or “can it defend itself from competing systems?” And here I have to say, with genuine regret, that, judging by what you have presented so far, the answer appears to be no.

The first issue, of course, is how we get from here to there. I don’t have to remind you that the world today is run by a number of tremendously powerful and greedy men, or that they operate with the active assistance of a second and third tier of less powerful but equally greedy men (and a few women). Nor do I need to remind you that these men own almost everything, operate globally, possess the means of annihilation, and exercise a tremendous amount of social, economic and political control over almost everyone else.

The first task in creating a parecon unit must be to seize for the community the local resources which at present are owned by some of those men. So the first question you must answer is how do you do it?

But let us assume that, by means which at present remain mysterious to me, a community has somehow wrested back the resources it requires for its survival, or even that a number of communities have done so, in different parts of the world, and having begun to trade with each other. Have we not then established the preconditions which led to the Spanish civil war? Will not the owners of property then be mustering their forces to seize back what they believe is theirs? And are not those forces, now equipped with far better technology than that commanded by Franco, far superior to ours, irrespective of numbers? Would the parecon communities not simply be annihilated, as so many communities founded on similar principles have been in the past?

But let us now assume that, again for reasons which at present remain mysterious to me, this somehow does not happen, and the owners of property passively accept its expropriation. Let us assume that parecon communities exist in some parts of the world, alongside capitalist systems in other parts of the world. We know that there is a pay-off between social efficiency and economic efficiency. The better a system provides for its people, the lower its net profit. I am guessing that under parecon there would be no net profit, as all resources are ploughed back into the community. But somewhere else there are capitalist communities generating plenty of profit. What is to prevent those with saleable skills from leaving the parecon communities to earn much bigger incomes in the capitalist communities? What is to prevent the parecon community, in other words, becoming, like so many parts of the world are today, a place where only elderly, dependant and unskilled people live, while the young and independent people go elsewhere? How then does the parecon community survive?

But let us now assume that, once again by mysterious means, the entire planet instantaneously converted to parecon. What then prevents the young and independent, the ruthless and the greedy, from gaining advantage over the elderly, dependent, less ruthless and less greedy, by re-inventing capitalism? What prevents them from breaking away by trading among each other, and with those weaker people foolish or frightened enough to do business with them? What prevents them from redesigning the world from which we are trying to escape?

I would like to emphasise, I want all this to work. I want a world of the kind you describe. But I also want to know how it could happen. If you are asking your readers to invest their time and energy is establishing the system you propose, you need to show them that their time and energy is not being wasted – that this system, in other words, is both plausible and practicable. At present, I just can’t see it.



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