Nonsense on Stilts

For the reply to this review please see:
Albert: Criticism Without Comprehension

What are we to make of the “Parecon” phenomenon? Michael Albert’s book made it to number thirteen on a few days after some on-line promotion.[1]Eight of the twelve reviewers (when I last checked) had given the book five stars. It has been, or is being, translated into Arabic, Bengali, Telagu, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.[2]The book has been endorsed by Noam Chomsky, who says it “merits close attention, debate and action,” by Arundhati Roy, who calls it “a brave argument for a much needed alternative economic vision,” by Ben Bagdikian, who finds it “a compelling book for our times,” and by Howard Zinn, who sees it as “a thoughtful, profound meditation on what a good society can be like.”[3]Yet it is a terrible book.

To be sure, there are lots of terrible books on politics and economics being written for popular audiences these days, but these are usually right-wing harangues beating up on liberals. They are not endorsed by the likes of the above, who are all very left and very smart. Albert himself is a smart guy. He has incredible energy. Z-Net, Z Magazine and South End Press, all of which he was instrumental in bringing into being, have been important to radical activists and intellectuals over the years, now more than ever. Many of his debates and discussions are insightful.  I don’t always agree with him, but his arguments are often subtle, not easy to counter, well worth pondering. Parecon is a different matter altogether.

I’ve been reluctant to criticize this book so harshly in public, since it is written by someone who is part of the same global justice movement that commands my allegiance. I suspect I am not alone in my reticence. The Left has a bad history of destructive in-fighting.  But Parecon has developed a certain following among younger activists. It now feels to me irresponsible to ignore the book. The intellectual (and moral) integrity of the movement requires that we debate key issues openly. If something is really bad, we should say so.

Before reflecting further on the Parecon phenomenon, let me substantiate my claim that Parecon is a terrible book. It isn’t “morally pernicious,” (as are, say, the works of neo-con intellectuals and the print ravings of the Fox News and right-wing talk-radio crowd), but it can’t be taken seriously on its own terms, intellectually. The book is an elaboration and defense of an economic model that is hopelessly, irredeemably flawed.


The Parecon Model: A Critique

Albert’s book proposes and defends a non-market alternative to capitalism that is radically different from the traditional Soviet model. Parecon (a “participatory economy”) has three fundamental features.

·    All workplaces are non-hierarchical. Everyone, both within a given workplace and in society at large, has a “balanced job complex” that gives everyone a roughly equal mix of interesting, empowering tasks and unpleasant “disempowering” ones.

·    Everyone receives roughly the same income. Income will depend solely on hours worked and effort.

·    There is no market competition in Parecon, no “invisible hand” determining the allocation of goods, services and resources. Instead consumers indicate each year what they would like to consume and in what quantities. Workers indicate what they are willing to produce. If these two patterns don’t match, negotiation take place at various levels, involving consumer councils, worker councils and facilitation boards until a coherent plan is compiled. If there are several such plans, voters choose the one they prefer.


Balanced Job Complexes

Let us begin with the first feature, and ask some questions about details. How exactly are these balanced complexes to be arrived at within a given enterprise? Well, we’ll make a list of the tasks to be done, ranking them, say, from 1-20, “the higher being the more empowering, the lower being the more deadening” (105). We will then create individual jobs for each worker by bundling the tasks so that everyone’s weighted average is the same. (If a quarter of your work time is spent doing a 20-level task and three quarters a 4, your weighted average is 8.)

Who is going to do all this ranking and bundling? The employees themselves, since there is to be no hierarchy here. We will meet and negotiate. We’ll reach an agreement as to what the tasks are, how they should be ranked, how they should be combined and, finally, who will do what. In the end, everyone will be happy. Solidarity will be enhanced. Right?

It is possible to imagine such a process at South End Press, which has five employees.[4]But let’s think about it at my place of work, a medium-sized university with about a thousand faculty members and an equal number of staff. Faculty Council (an elected body currently existing at Loyola) together with Staff Council (also an existing body) will be charged with drawing up a list of all the tasks the two thousand of us perform over the course of a year, then ranking them in order of “empowerment”. This will be, as Albert admits, “a long list . . . hundreds, perhaps even thousands of stripped down tasks” (105). We’ll assign empowerment numbers to our thousand or so tasks. We’ll then estimate how many hours per year each task will need to be performed. From these tasks, we’ll construct two thousand bundles, each bundle representing the tasks one of us is be expected to perform over the course of a year. We will construct them so that each bundle is equally empowering. Then we’ll assign everybody one of these “balanced job complexes.”

Okay, suppose I’m on Faculty Council. Where to begin? First of all, we’ll have to have a joint meeting of the Faculty and Staff Councils to decide what tasks our colleagues perform, and how empowering they are. The tasks will include tasks typically done by faculty members– attending various departmental and university meetings, preparing for courses, classroom time, doing research, writing papers, advising and counseling students, etc.–as well as staff tasks–secretarial, housekeeping, security, mail room, buildings and grounds, food services, etc. We’ll have to construct this list, which will be rather long, then assign numbers from 1-20 to each task, depending on the degree of empowerment each task involves.

Then we’ll have to determine how many hours our two thousand colleagues currently spend, collectively, on each task. The only way to do this, it seems to me, is to send out a survey to everyone, and ask each person to indicate how many hours of each task they typically perform in year. (We should remind them that the total time should come out to forty hours a week, more or less, just to be sure that they fill out this survey conscientiously. We’d better give them a deadline–and think about some penalties to impose for people who don’t comply.)

When the survey results have come in and have been vetted for reasonable accuracy (presumably by a subcommittee that will send back the sloppy ones to be redone), the Faculty-Staff Council will reconvene. We’ll now bundle the tasks together into equally-empowering jobs. What should the empowerment average be? That’s easy enough to determine. If we had, say, three tasks, X, Y and Z that needed to be performed for x, y and z hours, respectively over the course of a year, and if they were weighted 1, 2 and 3 respectively, then each job complex should have a rating of (x + 2y + 3z)/2000. (Of course we have a lot more than three tasks–maybe a thousand–but the principle is the same.)

Now we must construct two thousand bundles. We have some options now–quite a few, in fact. Suppose there are only three tasks, as in our hypothetical example. We could ask everyone to perform x/2000 hours of X, y/2000 hours of Y and z/2000 hours of Z each year. Or we could construct bundles that have different proportions of the three tasks. Some tasks might involve more hours of X, in which case they would also have more hours of Z (to counterbalance the low empowerment of X with the high empowerment of Z), and, consequently, little or no Y. In playing around with numbers, we realize that there are, in fact, an infinite number of ways of constructing bundles having average empowerment. And if we have more than three tasks, we have even more options. An embarrassment of riches!

From the infinite number of possibilities, we’ll select two thousand. This won’t be so easy to do. We can’t just pick any set of two thousand. All of these “balanced job complexes” are equally empowering, but whatever selection we come up with, the total number of hours devoted to X by our two thousand colleagues must be x, the total number of hours devoted to Y must be y, etc. We also have to take care that the qualitative mix is right. Suppose we need a half a million person-hours of clerical work done per year. (That’s five hours per week, per person–a plausible figure.) But that clerical work is spread all over campus, and takes many different forms. We have to break up those 500,000 hours into bundles of tasks that one person can perform conscientiously over the course of a year. (If I am assigned five hours of clerical work a week, I’d like it to be in the same office and involve the same basic tasks. I don’t want to be running all over the place each day or week or month, trying to do a hundred or so different things. I need time to get comfortable with my job.) And we have to insure that we have the appropriate number of people assigned to all the tasks that need to be done at the appropriate time and place. (We don’t want two people showing up in the same office at the same time to do xeroxing, leaving another office shorthanded.) This is a very big job, constructing two thousand jobs, which, when performed conscientiously, will accomplish what our faculty and staff currently accomplish in a year.

Having constructed two thousand balanced job complexes that will get all the work done that needs to be done, we move on to the next step. We now have to decide which people will do which jobs. Doubtless we’ll ask people what they prefer, and try to match people to preferences as best we can. Presumably we will also pay some attention to skills people have. I’m not sure how we will do this. There are two thousand people and two thousand balanced-job-complexes.  Perhaps we’ll shuffle the faculty names into a random list, ranked 1-2000, then have whoever gets the number one pick the job she wants, then have number two pick from the remaining jobs, then number three, etc. I’m not sure what we will do with those who are unhappy with their assignments. We can tell them wait until next year. (There will be another drawing.) I’m not sure what we will do with people who pick jobs they can’t do very well. (I thought it would be fun to run a physics lab, but I’m confused by all the equipment.) Of course we can allow people, once assigned a job, to negotiate with colleagues, trading this or that task for another. The Faculty-Staff Council will have to approve any such switch, however, to be sure that the overall empowerment averages of the resulting jobs are still equal. (We don’t want anyone trading a high empowerment task for a low empowerment one. That can lead to a concentration of empowering tasks in the hands of a few, and the emergence of a “controlling class.” We don’t want that to happen.)

Maybe there is some other way that all this can be done. I’ve been trying to follow Albert’s suggested procedure, but the procedure is, as you see, rather complicated. Can we really expect an enterprise to undertake such a process? Every enterprise in the country? Albert is reassuring. In real circumstances, he says, things might be done differently: “In real circumstances the procedures of job balancing are not precisely as we describe above, but involve a steady meshing and merging of tasks into jobs, with workers grading overall combinations and bringing these into accord with each other by tweaking the combinations far more fluidly than parceling out all tasks as of from some gigantic menu.”

Hmmm? How exactly is this meshing and merging and tweaking going to take place? Will it be done by a subcommittee of the Faculty and Staff Council? By all of us? How? Albert doesn’t tell us, but he is supremely confident: “Short of perfection, we can easily balance job complexes in each workplace quite well” (107).

Let us give him the benefit of the doubt. We’re still not done, not by a long shot. For Parecon requires not only that job complexes be balanced within enterprises, but across enterprises as well. Loyola is only one university. There are thousands of universities in the U.S. There are also coal mines, construction companies and several million other firms.  These may not all have comparable levels of average job empowerment. Indeed, the average at Loyola is likely high relative to all the other enterprises in the country. It’s a clean, comfortable environment, with lots of stimulating intellectual activity. That’s not fair. Something needs to be done.

Not to worry. In Parecon there is a “job complex committee for the economy as a whole” (109). This committee will take people who are working in below-average enterprises, and let them work part of the year in above-average enterprises. That sounds simple enough. To quote Albert, “If you work in a coal mine that is a 4, you get to work considerable time outside the mine in another venue, raising your average to 7.”[5]

Since enterprises have different job-empowerment averages, this committee must now move people around, allowing everyone working in a lower-than-average empowerment enterprise average to work part of the year in a higher-than average empowerment firms, while compelling those in higher-than-average empowerment firms to work part of the year in lower-than-average empowerment firms. (If Loyola has an above-average empowerment average–which is likely–all of us will likely be transferred elsewhere for part of the year, to make room for those in less empowering institutions to work at Loyola. Hopefully those firms won’t be too far away. Hopefully the newcomers will master our tasks quickly.)

 Sure, there will be complications. “It should be clear,” says Albert, “that creating perfectly balanced job complexes is theoretically possible. But can it be done in real life situations?” “Of course not,” he sensibly replies, “we are not talking about pure geometry or even the engineering of plastics. We are talking about people and social arrangements.” Still, he is undaunted. “The point is, it can be done quite well” (109).

Is there an argument to back up this bold assertion?  Sort of. It can be done quite well, he says, for “there is no elite that bends everyone else to their will” (109-110).


Equal Reward for Equal Effort


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