Monbiot Reply to Albert 3

Dear Michael,




I would like to preface my remarks with two comments. The first is that my criticisms of your system in no way undermine my respect for you. Your work is of the utmost importance. You have done a great deal to hold our movement together. You have provided a series of invaluable forums for dissenting opinions and permitted the debate on a wide range of subjects to move forward. All those who want a better world owe a debt of gratitude to you.




The second is this: that my questions and criticisms are designed not to undermine our movement’s response to the problems we contest, but to enhance it. Before we ask anyone to try to put the schemes we might conceive – yours, mine, anyone’s – into practice, we must test them as rigorously as we can. If we are to take on capitalism, we must do so in the certain knowledge that any faults in our plans will immediately be apprehended and exploited. Two quite abusive emails I have received from readers of this exchange confirm to me that there is a fear in some parts of our movement of challenges to our doctrines. This is a fear we have to overcome. What counts is what works, and before we launch something as robust as an alternative to capitalism needs to be, we must first take our own hammers to it to see whether it cracks.




We seem to be a bit stuck. You keep asserting that under parecon certain things CAN’T happen, and I keep asserting that certain things not only CAN happen under any system we might devise, whether we call it parecon, or anarchism, or communism, or rationing, but WILL happen unless we know precisely how we will prevent them from happening. You reply with what I regard as a slur: insisting that when I say we should “take into account” human greed, power and cunning, I mean we should reward these attributes. What I mean, of course, is precisely the opposite. We have to devise, if a system like yours is to survive, the means of preventing them from re-asserting themselves. I have been trying to discover whether or not you have done so. As you deny that such a problem can arise, I conclude that you have not.




So let us examine in more detail how such problems could manifest themselves. You use the example of the great tennis player, and claim that, under your system, people cannot pay him for lessons “because non-planned financial transfer isn’t part of the economy”. Sure, it’s not part of the economy you have devised. I understand what you say about balanced job complexes, workers’ and consumers’ councils, self-managed decision-making and participatory planning. But what I am trying to explore with you is whether or not other economies emerge in parallel with the parecon economy, and have the capacity to vitiate it.




Now let’s say that I take black market lessons from the tennis player, and reward him with a fancy watch. Let’s say he already has a watch, so the new one is of no direct value to him. But someone else might want one, so he has an incentive to trade it for something he does want but which parecon has not alloted to him: a gold ring, for example. Already we see the emergence of a market, and the valuation which accompanies that market. Ten lessons are worth a fancy watch, which is worth a gold ring.




Now you would say that he has no incentive to obtain a gold ring, because he won’t be able to wear it, as to do so “would be violating social norms”. But just think how powerful and invasive those social norms would have to be if they were to stop him from wearing it. I have already shown how, even in deeply traditional (ie “norm-dominated”) societies, most social norms have been overridden by the urge to acquire wealth. There are one or two taboos – such as murder and robbery – which are still respected, but co-operation, human decency, solidarity: all have been repeatedly sacrificed on the altar of human greed. I emphasise this not because it’s what OUGHT to happen, but simply because it’s what DOES happen. If social norms are your only defence against excessive consumption, they will have to be very powerful norms indeed. They will have to be more powerful, for example, than those imposed by state communism, which, despite endless propaganda, much of which was widely believed, and massive penalties for non-compliance, failed to prevent the emergence of a black market.




Now I know you don’t want me to keep banging on about the lessons of history, but given that we don’t yet have a living parecon model which we can test, I find it hard to see how else we might assess your proposal. So I hope you will forgive me if I suggest another instance, which, in terms of its social characteristics, perhaps comes rather closer to your system than the others I’ve mentioned. Let’s look at what happened in Britain during the Second World War.




Here we had an instance of undeniable social solidarity around a set of common goals. We had an allocation system (rationing) which was not, of course, participatory, but was surprisingly effective at meeting people’s needs when resources were limited (British people, for example, were better-nourished during the Second World war than they are today). Consuming more butter, sugar, meat, petrol etc than was your due was both a crime and a profoundly anti-social habit, which undermined the common goal of trying to win the war. And yet almost everyone who was able to did so. There was a thriving black market, which employed not only sterling and barter, but the ration book system itself. Many people became wildly rich under this system, and they certainly showed it: the fur coats, the smart cars, the fancy jewellery and all the rest. In doing so, far from reducing their status, they appeared to enhance it. They were routinely denounced as spivs and traitors, but within their own communities they exercised power, for two reasons: first because they were able to provide people with things they wanted and couldn’t otherwise obtain (even though those people already possessed all they NEEDED); secondly because people suck up to the rich.




Now please note that they became rich under a system which forbade them to do so, and by engaging in “a non-planned financial transfer”, and under conditions in which social solidarity was an urgent necessity . Even so, though they were resented and despised, they also acquired status. Indeed, it was precisely because they broke the social norm, and stood outside the socially-agreed economy, that they acquired social status.




So let’s go back to our tennis player. I contest that unless there is an incredibly draconian system to prevent him from doing so, he will flaunt that gold ring. And then he might want to acquire another, and another. Not because he wants to wear them, but because he can exchange them for other fancy goods, which he has not been allotted. He would probably not want to keep all his gold rings under his mattress, in case someone stole them, so he might find a person with access to a strongroom, who could, for a black market fee, store them safely for him. That person would issue him with a receipt, or “promissory note”, saying that he would restore the rings when the bearer wanted them. Next time the tennis player wanted to buy something, especially if it was something that required the expenditure of many gold rings, he would find that it was much safer and easier to give the seller the promissory note than to give him the gold.




What we have here then is the immediate re-emergence not only of a market, but also of a currency. The onus is surely upon you to demonstrate why this should not happen.




With my best wishes, George



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