Part One of this three part treatment of Participatory Economics discussed Origins, Heritage, and Substance of the vision. Here, in Part Two, the focus is many concerns people have raised with the vision. Here is an outline of the concerns addressed which may help you navigate since the whole essay is necessarily quite long:
Criticisms of Visions Per Se
Visions Are Inevitably Dumb
Vision Is Authoritarian
Vision Takes our Eyes off the Present
Vision Subverts Spontaneity
Vision Is Elitist
Vision Doesn’t Have Short Run Benefits
Vision Is Too Institutional
Criticisms of Parecon’s Heritage and Style
Parecon Is Racist, Sexist, Elitist
Parecon Is Verbally Unappealing
Parecon Is Ahistorical
Parecon Is Productivist
Parecon Gives Me the Willies
Criticisms of Parecon’s Institutions
Parecon Is Capitalism in Disguise
Parecon Is An Ecological Nightmare
Parecon Sacrifices Privacy and Imposes Frenzy
Self Management Is Isolationist
Self Management Will Destroy Good Decision Making
Balanced Job Complexes Will Diminish Quality and Output
Balanced Job Complexes Are Too Unwieldy to Work
Parecon Remuneration Is Unjust
Parecon Remuneration Won’t Generate Merit
Parecon Won’t Induce Sufficient Work
Parecon’s Money and Prices Imply Ecological and Personal Disaster
Criticisms of Vision Per Se
Even before addressing features of participatory economics itself, many critics reject this vision due to rejecting all vision.
Visions Are Inevitably Dumb
This critic says people do not possess sufficient knowledge or intelligence to accurately predict the future. Proposing visionary blueprints inevitably exceeds what we can know. So without even examining parecon or any other blueprint, we know it is flawed.
The critic’s feeling that the future is too complex for us to blueprint without making major errors is inarguably correct as long as we take the word “blueprint” to mean providing an instruction guide that maps the full contours of future societies. So, is parecon a blueprint and therefore flawed?
Parecon advocates say no, participatory economics is not a blueprint. Indeed, because we recognize the dangers of extending beyond what we can sensibly know about, we quite explicitly opt for the minimal list of future institutional features essential for future citizens to enjoy classlessness and informed free association.
Every critic will agree, we think, that a better future will have some requirements that must be met without which it will not, in fact, be significantly better. We should not have slaves. We should not have wage slavery. So the question becomes are the positive innovations that participatory economics – or any other vision – requires essential to attaining a better future?
Suppose critics wanted to make this case by looking at the actual system, rather than making a kind of dogmatic claim that vision is bad. To argue that Parecon’s four positive features, which are its whole agenda, are unnecessary, a critic would have to make a case that we can have classlessness and informed free association without workers and consumers having councils or assemblies through which to develop, express, and manifest their preferences. Or they would have to make a case that we can have classlessness and free association using some remuneration norm other than parecon’s equitable remuneration. Or they would have to show some viable, worthy, and non pareconist approach to the division of labor, and to allocation, that would at least allow classless free association. Or, alternatively, they could forswear classlessness and free association all together.
In claiming to have been minimalist about our vision, parecon advocates argue that without self-managing councils, whatever they are called and whatever detailed nuances might emerge in them over time and through experience, there would be no workers and consumers free association. Not only have these structures always emerged when workers in factories and consumers in neighborhoods have begun to take control of their own lives, but as a matter of logic, if these constituencies are going to exert their will, they must have a way to convene to do so. As far as I know, no critic has said otherwise.
Similarly, parecon argues that without equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, whatever it may be called and whatever detailed nuances emerge in it over time and through experience, there will inevitably be sources of unjust disparities of circumstance and income, as well as perverse incentives that will cause those disparities to multiply and grow while also distorting the allocation of energy, labor, and resources. To remunerate according to property, power, or output – the three mainstream alternatives – would breed violations of everything that we aspire to. And, indeed, this is agreed by critics who do want classlessness, so that the only remaining issue is whether one can dispense with remuneration calculations entirely, or, said differently, whether one can successfully remunerate solely according to need as a feature of self managing classlessness, as many anarchists urge (a matter we will address in detail shortly).
Similarly, the pareconist claims that without balanced job complexes, whatever they are called and whatever detailed nuances emerge in them over time and through experience, there is inevitably a familiar corporate distribution of responsibilities that in turn inevitably produces class division and class rule. As with the above cases, this is virtually self evident by simple assessment of our current work experiences, and is also demonstrated through throughout the long history of capitalist and post capitalist experiments and systems, not least the history of anti capitalist movements, projects, and “socialist” economies. If one opts for jobs that give roughly 20% of the population all the empowering tasks and that leave rote and repetitive disempowering tasks to the remaining 80%, it is easy to predict and explain, and also to see in the evidence, that the former (coordinator class) participants will control outcomes, garner greater reward, and over time rule over the latter (working class) participants. Goodbye classlessness.
And finally, without participatory planning, which is basically cooperative and horizontal negotiation of inputs and outputs in light of true social and ecological costs and benefits, whatever detailed refinements are adopted in light of actual experiences, the pareconist argues that for allocation there will be either market competition or central planning or a combination of the two, and that accompanying each of these modes of allocation taken in any mix there are inevitably incredibly destructive outcomes including class rule and ecological calamities. For most anarchists, who are the most frequent critics of parecon being too detailed, again, there is really no debate about parecon’s rejection of markets and central planning. Like pareconists, such anarchists typically see these ways of determining allocation as inevitably wrecking the environment, imposing harsh inequality, and guaranteeing class division and class rule, even in the absence of private ownership.
Parecon proposes the broad features of an alternative approach to allocation that escapes the ills of markets and central planning and accomplishes the needed allocative functions compatibly with classlessness, free association, and self management. An argument that positing participatory planning as part of an economic vision goes too far and enters into the category “blueprint,” would entail showing that what it says about allocation goes beyond what we can reasonably know about allocation based on historical evidence, current experience, and our own analyses of each, and that in going too far it makes damning errors. That would be substantive.
The only prevalent anarchist alternative regarding allocation that I can find, which would, indeed, by contrast justify a critique of parecon as too detailed if it were enough to be worthy and viable, is, as mentioned earlier, to seek to entirely avoid the complications of allocation by doing away with pricing, budgets, income, and essentially any need for accounting based on preferences and capacities – which is part and parcel of some anarchists’ desires to get rid of income structures by relying on producing according to ability and consuming according to need – which views we will take up shortly. For now, the blueprint rejection can’t be tout court, which is our main point here, but requires actual case by case examination.
More, bearing again on the matter of rejecting a blueprint, the pareconist argues that the four minimalist institutional aims of parecon are not only rather simple and within our intellectual purview as well as essential to having self managing and classless free association, but, taken together, the four institutional commitments also pretty much guarantee the desired results. Even further, the pareconist argues that these minimal features constitute only a fraction of a full economy and are themselves not even “blueprinted” in the participatory economic vision. Instead, parecon forcefully emphasizes that in different places and times, and even in different industries and communities, the implementation of even just the four central features will involve variations for which parecon’s descriptions provide many examples, but no blueprint.
Finally, if vision is inevitably ignorantly wrong due to inevitably going beyond what we can know and what we ought to concern ourselves with, then it ought to be easy to demonstrate that parecon is ignorantly wrong. Such matters will arise soon. But we all ought to be able to agree, already, that short of doing that, the opening criticism is a valid worry to be offset by choices taken, but not itself a damning critique.
Vision is Authoritarian
Some critics – and again, this is often but not only anarchists – argue that all serious institutional vision tends to go too far in a second and still more damning way. The new concern is not the blueprint concern about being right or wrong due to exceeding available knowledge, but concern about being authoritarian due to exceeding ethically warranted scope. These critics say that parecon (or any serious institutional vision) by virtue of seeking to determine the nature of the future usurps rights of people in the future to decide their own lives. A visionary who indicates what needs to exist in the future, even if everything he or she offers is logically and morally sound, is seeking to determine outcomes that should rightfully be decided by our successors. It isn’t that the participatory economics is flawed, in this critic’s view, but that regardless of any merits it may have, establishing participatory economics would violate future peoples rights to make their own future choices and curtail their own discovery process.
Parecon’s reaction to this criticism is to agree that seeking to attain a vision might transgress or even trample the rights and responsibilities of future citizens to decide their own lives for themselves. More, parecon advocates also agree that when talking about economic visions, many visionaries do tend to focus on features that are not their responsibility to decide. But what about advocates of participatory economics, in particular?
What will be future policies about eating meat, or even at what time of day? How much will future people consume, more generally? What will be the future duration of the work day? What scale of operations should the future settle on for workplaces? People ask me such questions, and ones that require even more details as well, all the time – often not ten minutes after they were complaining that parecon is too detailed. But does parecon, as a vision, answer these types of questions and thus transgress future people’s rightful responsibility to decide these matters for themselves?
The answer is no. On the contrary, parecon is very explicit about avoiding doing that, as I and other parecon advocates repeatedly emphasize. Parecon instead seeks to conceive and then enact only those changes that are required so that people in the future can manage their own choices. It rejects making choices for future people, but does provide future people with conditions that permit their making choices as they decide.
When pareconists discuss future policies that are rightly the province of future citizens, I quite agree with the critical observation that they should do so only to offer hypothetical possibilities to inspire or to clarify further thought, but not prescriptions, and certainly not decisions, and they should be very clear about this.
And I do believe that most advocates of parecon are quite scrupulous about trying to do this regarding, for example, work day length, relations to particular species, likely patterns of consumption, or possible investment projects. We do sometimes explain possibilities that might arise, but in that case we also add that it is not our place to decide any of these matters for future citizens. Rather it will be up to them to decide their lives for themselves. We may have a good guess about how they will lean, given our understanding of the very different options they will have compared to now, but that is different from making decisions for them. The same holds for the details of implementation of even the four defining features of parecon. Such details are a matter for the future, depending both on people’s preferences and on lessons we all learn between now and the future. To the extent a parecon advocate ventures into such details it is to evidence possibility and options, not to decide the future now.
Sharing parecon as a vision, people may discover its features, or may hear them, but will then examine and assess them. They will discover the far more complex and specific matters of future conditions, however, and thus actual forms to use in implementations, as well as refinements, only as they proceed. Having a shared vision with this attitude doesn’t diminish the likelihood of wide participation in pursuing vision – nor does it wipe out dissent or creativity along the way. Instead, quite self consciously, it facilitates all that – and not just rhetorically, but also by its organizational and conceptual commitments.
There is a striking irony in all this. As noted above, often the same person who raises objections that parecon is a blueprint will later ask how long will people work? How much will people consume? Will people protect all species? How, precisely, will folks in a workplace measure intensity of work? How precisely will people decide their collective consumption? How long, exactly, will planning take? What oversight laws will be in place? And so on. There arises a kind of Catch 22. If a participatory economy advocate provides plausible answers – which would be guesses as to what future people will themselves likely decide once they enjoy a liberated context and the means to implement their own desires – a critic will typically say, hey, that is going too far. And if one doesn’t provide answers, a critic will typically say, hey, you aren’t answering, I got you. That the same person may pursue both paths makes it all the more strange, and leaves the parecon advocate wondering at their underlying purpose.
Vision Takes Our Eyes off the Present
A person criticizing vision per se will often continue beyond the above concerns by saying that regardless of going too far or not, and regardless of usurping future citizens rights or not, serious institutional vision distracts us from the present. It typically wanders into utopian abstractions and at worst slides into sectarianism that curtails thought and creativity. We do not need a utopia, says this critic. We need to discover the new world in our daily acts and to create it in practice and action, and, above all, through experiment. Parecon, however, is offered from above, says this critic, as a finished conception and emphasizes logic but shows little respect for organic processes and on-going struggles and campaigns. Parecon violates spontaneity.
A parecon advocate will respond that this critic is right that vision often distracts us into mindless abstraction or sophomoric details and that people can get sectarian over such useless and pointless pursuits. And yes, an attachment to vision can curtail creatively thinking new thoughts by closing off options rather than opening them. Parecon advocates take such matters so seriously that we build into discussions of parecon a prioritization of diversity as a central guiding value to help counter just such possibilities.
The critic is also right that we don’t need a vision that is un-implementable – a utopia. And yes, we also agree that we need to create change by our practice, not just our thoughts. And we need to experiment, not just implement. And that logic divorced from experimental testing is insufficient. And that campaigns, struggles, and even spontaneous reflexes or intuitions can be incredibly important and should be carefully addressed.
However, while we parecon advocates agree with the validity of all these concerns, we nonetheless find a rejection of vision on these grounds puzzling and counter productive.
Yes, of course, if having institutional vision is simply unimportant, then we could sensibly avoid the various possible pitfalls by simply skipping having institutional vision at all. But if having a serious institutional vision is fundamentally important for having hope and direction, then foregoing vision will be too costly to accept. And serous institutional vision is indeed that important. That this isn’t widely acknowledged by all leftists is hard to fathom.
For example, almost all anarchists, in particular, routinely and rightly urge that movements should plant the seeds of the future in the present on grounds of needing to test our insights and refine them as we learn new lessons, and of needing to motivate seeking a better future by giving it credibility, and of needing to ensure that what we are doing in the present aids in actually getting to the sought future rather than obstructing reaching that future. Parecon advocates agree with all of this. But we then wonder, how does one embody the seeds of the future in the present in an instructive and inspiring way if one refuses to say even quite broadly what will characterize a better future? We think one can’t.
For example, if pareconists are right about the need for self managed decision making via workers and consumers councils, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning, then at least regarding economics, planting the seeds of the future in the present means that these features, as much as possible, ought to be adopted in our current organizations and projects. If the future we seek is, instead, merely a list of nice values – then we have little if any guidance for what institutional seeds to currently plant.
Let’s take this a step further. Suppose in some country – like Argentina or Venezuela – workers occupy factories with the intent of transforming them. Or suppose that in other countries – like the U.S. or Italy – workers create co-ops with the intent of learning about future potentials and inspiring others to seek a better future. Or suppose in still another country – like Spain or Greece – citizens in neighborhoods decide to create assemblies to begin controlling their own lives. In all these cases, the trend toward democracy, participation, and even self management by way of local councils is virtually automatic. However, the same can’t be said for dealing with the old division of labor and, it turns out, when the old division of labor is left in place without, for example, planting the seeds of a new future that includes balanced empowerment relations, in time the retention of old job ways of defining and allotting tasks will subvert new innovations and ultimately bring back and reinforce “all the old crap.”
The anarchist advisory to plant the seeds of the future in the present is indeed critically important. But, to plant well, it is also critically important to have thought carefully about key future institutions so that we know what it is that we have to quickly and very deliberately incorporate in our current efforts if they are to bear edible and nourishing future fruit.
If, as parecon advocates argue, we can’t do without serious institutional vision because of its important benefits, then what are we to do about quite legitimate worries concerning ills that can accompany being visionary? What should we do about avoiding utopian abstraction and sectarianism, about welcoming thought and creativity, about emphasizing experiment and respecting current struggles, and about not violating spontaneity?
Well, since we must have shared vision, the simple answer is that we have to do vision well, not poorly.
We must make sure that vision is concrete and real not abstract and ethereal. We must make sure it is worded plainly and not buried in rhetoric.
We must make sure it is argued from experience and uses ideas already familiar to people or at least carefully and clearly explained in terms of known relations, rather than argued only in ways that presuppose movement knowledge and experience.
We must make sure that vision is owned by all movement participants and open to and welcoming of criticism and especially experimentation and refinement as compared to monopolized by a few and treated as a gospel to be worshipped and never refined.
We must emphasize the need to experiment and to hold diverse views, and to not require allegiance and reject dissent. We must celebrate diversity of deed and thought, and not establish narrow identities people must hew to.
We must make sure vision is created and promulgated precisely to serve and benefit from struggles and campaigns, rather than giving status and credibility to a few visionaries.
The implications of these provisos to avoid visionary pitfalls for organization and strategy are plentiful. It would be a substantive criticism of parecon or any other orientation to demonstrate insensitivity and failure regarding any of these matters. But no one even claims to indicate such a thing about parecon.
Vision Subverts Spontaneity
This concern is a little difficult to even comprehend, yet it is very often raised. First, what does spontaneity even mean? Why do many activists feel that whatever is spontaneous is automatically true, valid, or worthy, but that whatever is carefully thought through, is not?
Well, one reason is because a lot of what is thought through is, in fact, not true, valid, or worthy. It is thought through within flawed and even highly oppressive conceptual frameworks. Those viewing this process sometimes wrongly decide it is the thinking, per se, the carefulness, per se, that is at fault – not the actual thoughts. They conclude that they can avoid the problem by being spontaneous. However this throws out the baby, which is careful thought, with the bathwater, which is the use of flawed and even horrible conceptual frameworks. And in fact, excessive reliance on spontaneity has an even worse problem. Even just the slightest examination should clarify that spontaneous reactions will often carry baggage of existing habits even more than carefully considered reactions will. Parecon does not reject thinking – and that one needs to say that is pretty incredible – but instead seeks a better framework for thinking and for sharing thoughts, as well.
Respecting spontaneity but not idealizing it should mean respecting the creative insights that arise from real people in real circumstances who are trying to advance real and worthy interests. It should mean seeing such efforts, assessing them, and learning from them.
However respecting spontaneity should not mean thinking that that which happens spontaneously – meaning without very much planning – is on that account automatically valid, correct, or worthy. Such a view is really rather incredible. There can be spontaneous wisdom and insight, of course. But, there can also be spontaneous vile behavior, or spontaneous confusion, or spontaneous flawed choices.
Seriously thinking about the merits and sometimes the debits of spontaneous activity should lead one to put a premium on dissent and diversity, on protecting minority opinions, on trying to implement multiple approaches whenever feasible, and on seriously assessing options and not acting as though serious thought is somehow automatically either a debit or a guarantor of success. If parecon advocates don’t abide these indicated correctives and positive themes when they try to formulate vision and strategy, that would be a serious failing of their activity, but not of vision itself.
Vision Is Elitist
Another concern that some anarchists, but not only anarchists, raise with vision is elitism. Vision will be held and owned by a few, urge critics who have this inclination, and those few will in turn use their hold over vision to direct movements. The few who own the vision will usurp power based on their monopolization of vision and, as a result, will wind up as a new ruling class or political leadership. Having serious institutional vision, this critic urges, brings with it top down rule. Therefore, we should avoid having even a reasonably clear enunciation of key institutional features that we seek for a different social system, since the cost of having such vision is too high.
Parecon advocates reply that of course this danger exists and is, like all the others mentioned above, incredibly important. That is why we work hard to communicate that one doesn’t need to be highly versed in left history and literature, and in left lingo more generally, to think through what movements want to achieve. It is why parecon advocates urge that writing in ways that imply that great historical or theoretical knowledge is a prerequisite to having an opinion or to being taken seriously, is far more likely to contribute to elitism than is working only from widely shared information and experience.
In other words, this totally legitimate worry about institutional vision provides a very compelling reason why such vision ought to be presented in plain language and without requiring lots of prior knowledge. It ought to be open ended and welcoming of creative assessment. To hear, understand, and refine institutional vision should not require years or decades of schooling in academia or even in left political activist work. All that type of background might, and for the most part will and ought to contribute to the emergence of insights about vision – but to require extensive knowledge of history, theory, or even recent experience, as a precondition for reading, thinking about, owning, and finally using a serious institutional vision is what’s elitist. Whatever is necessary for understanding and participation should be shared. Whatever isn’t, should not be imposed or required.
Vision must be accessible to all who stand to use it, benefit from it, and eventually live it. Parecon advocates urge that the preventive to vision being elitist is not to reject creating and sharing vision. It is, instead, the opposite. We should create and share vision, and welcome others to do so as well, and we should make doing so a pursuit that all can join and contribute to.
Parecon advocates take this even further – some might even say, too far. Someone who writes a conception of viable institutional alternatives for a new society as the last part of a text that requires wading through obscure analysis of the present or the past, or that requires familiarity with all kinds of left jargon and terminology, or that is written in a manner that is intentionally convoluted and unduly difficult – or that is even just in group-ish – is in the eyes of most parecon advocates either hoping for someone else to make what they have said worthwhile by making it far more accessible, or just oblivious to the issues of elitism that rightly concern anarchists. Parecon advocates often wonder why anti elitist advisories are often directed at parecon advocates who are already struggling to make the process of thinking about a better future as accessible as possible, rather than at those who are routinely doing the opposite.
Vision Doesn’t Have Short Run Benefits, So Why Bother?
Many critics question not the possibility of vision, or the validity of its claims, or the danger of its possible by-products, but instead the lack of benefit accruing from having vision now as a reason to not bother with it. This critic might say that serious institutional vision irresponsibly expects working people to sacrifice time and energy they can apply to surviving the hostile present in pursuit of something they have never experienced and that is in any event only in the future.
This complaint, which we think is rather widely held among day to day activists, often takes the form of simply saying, we are too busy for that. To me, I have to admit, this stance seems itself to be oddly elitist. Working people care only about survival, not about dignity, freedom, self management, and solidarity? They can only live in the moment – not also making choices in light of their future and the future of their children? Why can’t immediate program and organization successfully address more than short term needs?
The truth is that working people see that the left has few if any answers regarding a fully transformed society. More, they realize that short of dramatically transforming society. limited changes will be temporary and eventually rolled back. They then reason, if society isn’t ever going to be transformed, worrying about transforming it and even about modestly reforming it is useless and pointless. Time expended in such efforts will prove time poorly spent. But this says it is the absence of inspiring and compelling vision that fuels the absence of belief that time one gives to activism will lead to worthy changes that become permanent. And it is this doubt that makes working people – and indeed pretty much all people – think twice about giving their scarce time and resources to even short run movements seeking change.
What should be the upshot of these observations?
On the one hand, we should try to make vision and strategy convincing. On the other hand, we should to try to build movements that free up time and resources by providing services that aid workers struggling to get by and by winning a shorter work day, week, and year, with increases in income, as well. Finally, orienting vision to be an aid in the present is also critical, and something we will address in detail, by providing examples, in third part of this three part discussion of participatory economics.
Vision Is Too Institutional
This critic says institutional vision – as compared to only presenting a set of preferred values – doesn’t seek to implement or even recognize the ideal that everyone should be free from all constraints. In this view since parecon posits four preferred institutional aims, it involves institutional limits and is for that reason disciplinarian.
The parecon advocate replies that when people make agreements, they should abide those agreements. This is not only a matter of honesty and integrity. It is also a matter of organizational sanity. It is a prerequisite for doing anything collectively, over and over.
Institutions codify agreements so that we don’t have to re-decide all social relations with each new day. In that light, an institution is just a set of social relations which define roles people play to accomplish some shared functions. It could be a family, a church, a legislature, a workplace, or an allocation system.
That clarified, the critic is correct that with institutions come restraints. We agree that we will work together and that we will all abide certain shared norms and rules which in turn require certain acts from us and limit us in undertaking various other acts. We codify these arrangements in the roles of institutions because the continuity that this confers conveys huge benefits by establishing recurring patterns of responsibility and action that we can all rely on. To violate agreements that one agrees to is anti social unless the agreements have become seriously detrimental.
So yes, parecon, as well as the broader notion of a participatory society, is very much focused on figuring out what key institutions we need if we are to accomplish necessary social functions in ways that elevate values we aspire to rather than trampling those values into oblivion.
But then why are some people explicitly anti institutional?
In current society, institutions accomplish various essential functions. This is why we relate to them. For example, we become a wage slave or we starve. Contemporary institutions accomplish their functions, however, in ways consistent with maintaining society’s centrally defining hierarchies of wealth and power. As such, our surrounding institutions are typically alienated and oppressive. People with high hopes for humanity therefore find nearly all existing institutions more or less odious.
The anti institutional critic takes this correct observation that many and even most institutions in today’s world are viciously oppressive, to the unwarranted conclusion that one should oppose institutions per se. This throws away something incredibly necessary in hopes of eliminating admittedly horrible contemporary results.
The real solution to having bad institutions is not to opt for no institutions, but to favor having worthy and desirable institutions that will help us attain truly civilized relations. What parecon seeks for the economy is institutions that accomplish socially beneficial economic functions – production, allocation, and consumption – in ways that generate solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, classlessness, and ecological wisdom, rather than generating relentless oppression and alienation.
Sadly, an anti institutionalist is in practice a kind of leftist alter ego of Margaret Thatcher. He or she agrees with Thatcher that there is no alternative to capitalistic institutions other than to have essentially no institutions at all. When Thatcher looked at those two options – having capitalist institutions or no institutions, she judged that capitalism was better than any variant of prehistoric poverty and brutality. Ruling out that, she arrived at TINA – there is no alternative. When Thatcher’s leftist alter ego looks at the two options, no institutions or capitalist institutions, he judges that prehistory would be better than capitalism. In contrast, when a parecon advocate – or anyone else with a shred of insight and compassion – looks at those options, she says, hold on. I won’t choose from those two options. That is not all there is. I seek better. We just have to conceive it, build it, win it.
There is a final sad point to make about doubting the efficacy of institutional vision per se. When critics rightly recognize the possible debits of pursuing vision, but then foreswear contributing to vision rather than signing on to doing it really well, not only does their abstinence from addressing institutional vision short change prospects for having institutional vision that can compellingly orient current analysis, guide strategic choices and motivate activism – it also leaves the field open for those who do not worry about the possible pitfalls of vision to be the only ones working on it. That is, when anarchists, for example, don’t participate in creating and using institutional vision, those who are less anti elitist, less eager for participation, less sensitive to violations of rights and curtailing creativity, and less worried about elite control over vision leading to elite control over society, will fill the void. And when these non anarchistic folks work on generating vision they will often produce precisely the harmful results that anarchists, by refraining from doing vision, thought they were preventing.
Hopefully, we can soon discuss into complete remission reticence to be institutionally visionary, replacing it with desires to share advocacy for a set of “minimalist-maximalist” institutional features for a new society. Minimalist in favoring a short necessary list of changes. Maximalist in ensuring that the few changes are sufficient to generate classlessness, self management, etc. If so, then the actual substance of parecon becomes an issue, not merely having vision at all.
Criticisms of Parecon’s Origin and Style
Some critics also ignore the actual substance of participatory economics but reject it due to rejecting aspects of what they consider its origin and style.
Parecon is Racist, Sexist, Elitist
Some critics say, in various ways – and I have it heard often, passionately, aggressively – how can anyone possibly think a vision first offered by two U.S. white guys deserves the slightest attention? Parecon violates our understanding of the source of wisdom in race, gender, and class ways. Parecon is elitist.
The parecon advocate answers that this type of concern stems from real insight that these critics have pushed, however, to a quite harmful conclusion. Yes, it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that an economic vision presented by a couple of white guys with lots of schooling in elite educational institutions, and who live in the empire’s home country, may carry baggage that compromises its content.
There is, however, another possibility. Perhaps the white guys were positively schooled by the many people from very diverse movements they have engaged with over the decades as well as by the movements they have been in, as well as by the studies they have undertaken, and are, as a result, no longer carrying quite so much baggage. And perhaps feedback from all those quarters to what they have offered as vision pared away the effects of any remaining baggage.
The point is, whether we are talking about race, gender, class, power, or any other circumstance and background, while enduring the pains and complexities of being on the bottom of associated hierarchies can be a very important asset in understanding those hierarchies, it does not confer automatic insight or wisdom. Some people will get irritated by such a statement, but that says more about them then about the statement, I am afraid. An irony on top of the intrinsic confusion is that often the same person who says oppression is horrendously debilitating will then assert that it automatically confers great wisdom and no confusion. And while being in higher positions vis a vis various oppressive systems can certainly be a horrible debit for understanding their dynamics – and even more so for having good values and insights about alternatives – that, too, does not follow automatically.
So when someone produces a vision, an analysis, or anything else, it is reasonable to be suspicious based on the person’s lack of experiential, movement, or other relevant credentials, including background, particularly when first encountering the person’s vision or analysis. But then one must look at the vision or analysis itself. If the suspicion about origins corrupting creativity is borne out, one will be able to identify all manner of insights that are important but that were left out, or all manner of claims that are unimportant but were overemphasized, or all manner of relations and events that were misunderstood, or all manner of agendas that are biased toward elite interests.
To discern the place of origin or the identity of authorship of current formulations and reject claims purely on that basis is not only illogical, it is a slippery slope to horrendous behavior. Care is warranted, but kneejerk dismissal is not.
If parecon is sexist, racist, classist, homophobic, authoritarian, etc., then that is of course a real and major criticism. If it is, instead, compatible with, and even conducive to and supportive of the best possible innovations regarding kinship, culture, community, economy, sexual relations, and power, then the background of those first proposing it doesn’t constitute a reason for rejection. The issue is, when we look at the substance that anyone presents – whoever they are, whatever their history is – the question to answer is, is what they offered flawed or not. We will return to that substantive question in many forms in coming sections.
Parecon Is Verbally Unappealing
Again, I am presenting what we have heard over the years, not once or twice, but in each case many times. If some criticisms strike you as quite strange, we have often felt that way as well. Still, the best reply is to reply.
So in this case the criticism is that parecon is presented in a new lefty america-centric, culturally insensitive language and cultural framework. These ills compromise its substance – says the critic – rendering support undesirable.
Most parecon advocates have a hard time even understanding what this critic is saying, particularly advocates from other countries and backgrounds. What part of the language is insensitive or offensive, they reasonably wonder. No one ever provides a list. One might examine translations of the main book into Turkish, Greek, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, and quite a large list of other languages to check and see if those parts didn’t fare well in the transition to other languages. If so, let’s eliminate those expressions. One wonders if the translators were offended by “Americanisms.” If so, we would need to fix that.
Suppose it is true that the language of at least some pareconish works is somehow obscure or difficult to comprehend outside the U.S., despite it not requiring extensive background, but simply due to it being written inside the U.S. in an america-centric style. Fair enough. We would in that case need new formulations, written elsewhere, for other audiences, which we of course need in any case. But even if true, this is not a critique of the vision. It is only a sensible request for additional efforts to convey the vision. That people use it for the former purpose makes one wonder whether their hunger to dissent has trumped thought.
Parecon is Ahistorical
These critics say that parecon is detached from history and displays a curious disregard for like-minded voices from the past. Albert and Hahnel write as if they have invented parecon, these critics say, but, as with all insight, it was instead a product of a synthesis of many decades, if not centuries, of anti authoritarian struggle. It is presented more like a mathematical equation, say these critics, than a real life process of social change and construction. Parecon is ahistorical and boring.
Pareconists reply with a quibble and three points.
The quibble first. It is not clear why the plain language formulation of a classless economic vision, even if it is written poorly and without exciting calls to action, would be boring, at least for someone eager for economic institutional vision. But if the style isn’t up to the task in one or another presentation, okay, someone needs to do better.
First point. Let’s assume parecon was conceived with no regard for history. Once again, this would not constitute a criticism of the participatory economic vision. It would instead be an observation that would warrant suspicion that the vision might contain flaws. As that point, one would still have to look to see if the vision is, indeed, ill conceived. Legitimate grounds for doubt would warrant investigation, but not a priori rejection.
Second point. The observation that parecon is ahistorical is in fact absurdly false. What is true is that there are particular books and essays about parecon which don’t talk much, or sometimes even at all, about historical predecessors – ideas of experiences – precisely to keep things accessible. But that is a far cry from demonstrating that the vision was produced with no attention to history. All it shows is that for some audiences at some times, an author – whether myself or some other – thought long forays into history would not be as helpful as looking precisely at proposals and ideas.
In fact, parecon was preceded by works on Soviet, Chinese, and Cuban experiences, works on movements in industrialized societies in modern times, works on feminism and nationalism, and works on pretty much all schools of left thought that one might care to name, with all the investigations of all those areas all oriented toward generating vision and strategy for a post capitalist economy and society. The actual pareconish, and then later broader and more general institutional vision emerged from all this analysis and from related discussion and debate addressing history, past views, and current practices. It was undertaken not only with allies, but also engaging with many different and opposed schools of thought.
Given the above, the critic might reply, okay, then why not present it all, say, in the book Parecon – and in every other substantial presentation as well? Fair enough, and this takes us to the most important part of our reply to parecon being ahistorical.
Third Point. There are two reasons not to have all of the background and derivative content in all presentations. One reason is technical. There is simply not enough room in a publishable and readable book to do everything.
The second reason bears on not only not including all of it in every book, but on sometimes having very little of it. If each book about vision reasons primarily based on extensive discussions of past historical cases and past ideologies, then each book says to readers that wading through a ton of history and endless references to diverse people one has never previously heard of is not only one route to comprehending and having opinions about long term aims, but rather it is the only route to doing so. And that is not a message pareconists want to send, because it is both false and very harmful.
It is false because, as the presentations that utilize everyday life discussions and examples make evident, one can develop, explore, and arrive at viable and worthy vision without becoming a PhD historian, philosopher, economist, political scientist, women’s scholar, cultural scholar, or movement scholar. I routinely develop from no prior assumptions parecon and parsoc views at speaking events for and with audiences who have little or no left background. At the end of such a presentation, their questions and observations are typically as insightful, or often surprisingly more insightful, than those that come from folks familiar with all manner of historical and theoretical references and often mired in them, rather than thinking more freely.
Not only is it incorrect to imply a need for great background knowledge of history and literature, it is harmful to imply that advanced left erudition is needed to relate to economic vision. To imply that one has to be versed in the language and knowledge of decades of left experience implies that developing and sharing vision and strategy is a pursuit open only for an elite with unlimited time to give the task. Luckily, there is no such need. A vision and strategy can emerge over time from the details of a broad range of historical experiences and analyses, yet also, when presented, make clear that one can participate without becoming an expert in the details of all those experiences. In other words, parecon presentation takes an anti elitist route – not an ahistorical one. Mistaking the former for the latter makes one wonder how seriously such critics are examining the issues.
Parecon actually emerged from an extensive and continuing examination and dialog with historical and contemporary events. Parecon regularly pays homage to its own heritage, not least and indeed mainly as a way to bring that heritage to more peoples’ attention. Parecon is not even a little bit ahistorical.
Parecon Is Productivist
There are some folks who condemn Parecon for including work and workplaces, inputs and outputs, production and allocation and taking for granted the continuation of industrial civilization. Such critics feel that without even looking at details they can dismiss the vision because it retains features which they consider the foundation of alienation and oppression.
The parecon advocate responds that of course parecon takes for granted that human societies will continue producing goods and services and that there will be work in workplaces with inputs such as resources, intermediate goods, and labor, as well as people and social relations, and that there will also be outputs in the same categories including produced goods and services – but also people and social relations, waste, and pollution.
Parecon takes these things for granted because to not have these things would kill most of the world’s population and leave the few who survived with horribly restricted existences.
Work, workplaces, and inputs and outputs are essential to social life of all types. To escape alienation, oppression, and ecological degradation by opting to eliminate industry and workplaces – much less all institutions – is to solve one problem by creating even more extreme problems, including a gigantic graveyard of unnecessary corpses.
Is it possible that one day technology will make all the food and other material needs of human beings instantaneously available without an ounce of human effort needing to be expended? To put it gently, I very much doubt it. But at a minimum it is true that such technology will not exist for a very long time, if ever, and that until that time we will need to provide for human needs, and that there are various ways to do so. And while it is true that most of these ways are oppressive, unequal, undemocratic, and non-participatory, parecon is offered as a way to meet needs that has the opposite characteristics. Eliminating the unjust features is what parecon does. Eliminating work and institutions per se is just plain suicidal.
Parecon Gives Me the Willies
This critic says that parecon uses capitalistic language that talks about sacrifice and accounting and that sounds very old left or bourgeois. I think there is baggage hidden in the language, says the critic, that will trump good results. It makes me fearful.
I hear this often. I even understand it. But I think it takes a reasonable approach to having suspicions upon hearing certain terms way beyond what is warranted. First, while sometimes, as shorthand, parecon does say remuneration is for “effort and sacrifice,” it always makes perfectly clear that this means remuneration is for how long you work, how hard you work, and how onerous the conditions under which you work are, as long as you are doing socially valued labor. I would be surprised to hear a worker as compared to a student or a left organizer say that it gives her the willies that she would get income for how long she works, how hard she works, and the onerousness of her work at socially valuable tasks – just like everyone else.
Other than the word “sacrifice” which is, I agree, perhaps a poor choice, I am not sure what words this type of critic may have in mind. Class? Work? Workplace? I assume not. Perhaps “efficiency.” And there again, I understand. The word has two meanings…operationally, in practice, it means maximize output without incurring undue offsetting costs to owners regardless of costs imposed on any others – and, in the dictionary, attain sought goals while incurring as few offsetting costs as possible for anyone at all. The former operational meaning is vile. The latter dictionary meaning is something everyone in their right mind should favor and participatory economics uses the word only in that sense.
Going another step, I think the words inputs and outputs may bother some folks, though I am really not sure why given that we always emphasize that this means everything that goes into and comes out from work – including changed people, social relations, products, etc.
But let’s return to the problem with the word “sacrifice.” What that word is getting at is that remuneration is morally warranted and also economically sound when it offsets burdens associated with work. The bad effect the word can have isn’t just a linguistic overtone, but that people get the wrong impression that remuneration for onerousness means you get more income if you dislike your work more, and less if you dislike it less. People then rightly wonder, how can we possibly measure that, and does it mean I should look for work I don’t like, or just say I dislike what, in fact, I do like?
Well, no, any of that would indeed be perverse. Instead, as noted earlier, a task being onerous and worthy of extra pay is a social determination. Once it is decided that some unusual task, perhaps not even in anybody’s balanced job complex – say, cleaning up after a disaster – is onerous, then whoever does the task gets paid accordingly. It has nothing to do with how much a particular individual likes or dislikes the work. I should in fact want to do tasks which would be paid more than average, due to being considered highly onerous, that I happen to like despite society finding them onerous.
There is no baggage hidden in parecon’s norms, language, or commitments.
Criticisms of Parecon’s Actual Structures
Finally, some critics address the actual substance of participatory economics. They reject it due to rejecting aspects of its composition.
Parecon Is Capitalism in Disguise
A first and frequent parecon focused criticism says that wages imply wage slavery. Remunerating for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work is called capitalistic because it involves wages and is for that reason morally decrepit. To have income for work is bourgeois. A worthy economy would implement, instead, the maxim that we should all work according to ability, and consume according to need. Parecon, with its incomes and budgets, is just capitalism in disguise and certainly not a system that elaborates mutual aid.
The parecon advocate takes this claim quite seriously which means we consider whether the criticism of equitable remuneration being capitalistic or otherwise flawed is true, despite that the reasons are not really indicated, and also whether the from each to each remunerative alternative is as good or better for attaining classlessness and self management as equitable remuneration, despite that it is not really spelled out in any significant degree.
Wage slavery exists when you sell your ability to do work for a wage determined by relative bargaining power. The buyer then tries to extract as much actual labor as possible from you during the hours you are employed. Slavery, for example, is not wage slavery. In slavery you are sold, rather than your selling just a limited number of hours of your ability to do work.
In parecon, it isn’t simply that there are no owners of workplaces, and therefore no one to buy your ability to do work. It is also that after freely becoming part of a workplace, your level of work, your intensity of work, your character of work, and your manner of work are all under the control not of some grand authoritarian buyer – but of yourself and those who you work with. Likewise, the income you get for your work is not a function of bargaining power, but derives instead from a mutually agreed norm that applies universally to all who work.
Suppose you work in a participatory economic firm. You, therefore, have a balanced job complex which means you do a fair share of empowering and disempowering tasks, as does everyone else. Suppose you work for the social average of (let’s guess) thirty hours a week. You do so at average intensity. Also, due to empowerment balancing, your job is, let’s say, of average onerousness. Assuming the firm is producing outputs sought by others in the participatory economy, you will in this case earn the average income for society. You could earn more, or less, however, by working more hours or more intensely, supposing that your workmates agree that there is extra work for you to handle. You could also work less hours or less intensely to enjoy more leisure, supposing that your workmates agree with that choice for you.
Now the critic says. first, the remuneration approach of parecon is capitalistic, meaning it is both morally and pragmatically flawed, with the latter due to perverse incentive effects. And second, the time honored idea that people should work to their ability and receive income based on their needs is in any event a better norm for advocates of classlessness. It gets the job done with less dangers and conveying more personal freedom. So, to reply to these matters, let’s consider the two claims.
First, is remuneration for duration, intensity, and (socially determined) onerousness of socially valued work (and of course according to need if one cannot work or has other special health needs) morally sound, and also sound in the incentives it offers, or is it flawed on either count?
The moral question is not factual. It depends on one’s preferences. But here is the issue at the heart of assessing equitable remuneration’s moral merits.
Suppose two people work at the same balanced job complex in their workplace, which is at the social average as well so they need not have any tasks outside their main workplace. Suppose also that the average weekly duration of work in society, and in their workplace, is 30 hours.
Suppose one of the two workers says I would like to work 40 hours this week, 10 hours more than average, and, indeed, I would like to do this every week for as long into the future as I can. I want to earn one third more because I want to purchase a very expensive new violin.
The second worker, in contrast, says I already have more stuff than I need, but I would like some more free time: I would like to work 20 hours a week, now and for as long as possible into the future, and get a one-third lower income.
Would it be morally okay, assuming it was acceptable to the whole workforce in the sense of not disrupting other people’s situations, to have these two people granted these changes?
What parecon says is that it is not only acceptable but morally warranted and correct that a person who works longer, harder, or doing more onerous tasks one week, and less long, less hard, or at less onerous tasks another week, should earn more for the former than for the latter. On the other hand one should not earn more – which means one should not be able to take more of the social product for oneself – because one has property, or power, or a skill or talent, or luck of position such that one’s product happens to be more valuable.
And of course, precisely how trade offs of duration, intensity, and onerousness and claims on income are mediated, and to what extent any one firm or industry wants to permit diverse and relatively finer gradations, or only less fine ones, are contextual matters for future determination which will occur in light of experience and special features of each firm and industry.
Parecon says, if you remunerate for property, power, or the value of one’s product, it will produce large differentials in income which will, in addition, be translatable into still larger future income differentials in a vicious spiral of inequity. The steadily widening inequality would indeed be “capitalistic” in the critic’s sense, but parecon’s approach precludes such results.
Parecon’s remuneration does nothing unjust and as far as I know, no critic who actually addresses its specific features has said otherwise. We all get a package – the work we do plus the income we receive – and the package for everyone is fairly calibrated by matching debits of work with benefits of income. More work (taking up our time) yields more income. Harder work (yielding exhaustion and preventing social interaction while working) yields more income. And getting stuck with more onerous conditions (taking a toll by their nature) yields more income. In no way can the very modest extra income that one can earn from such differences be turned into assets that would generate still more extra income later. The differentials are relatively small and not able to piggyback. The arrangements of time, intensity, and tasks must be agreed. And the benefits accrued aren’t a bonus, but instead offset the debits endured. The precise details of implementation from workplace to workplace are the purview of the involved workers councils, remembering, however, that to be remunerated, labor must be socially beneficial. There is no moral failing much less a “capitalistic” one.
What about incentive effects?
The pareconist says that with equitable remuneration incentives are just what they ought to be. Income earned for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor provides an incentive to work longer (but not so long that the loss of leisure outweighs the gain in income), harder (but not so hard that the losses due to exertion outweigh the gain in income), and, when need be to complete really onerous tasks that prove necessary outside of balanced job complexes (but not when the pain due to the onerousness exceeds the benefits due to the gain in income).
In contrast, when remuneration is for property, the incentive effect is perversely to exploit others and to amass more property with which to exploit others ever more aggressively in the future – even if one would rather not. Likewise, when remuneration is for power, the perverse effect is that the powerful seek to amass more power and have steadily more means to succeed in that pursuit, in a steadily escalating spiral. When remuneration is for output, it is a mixed bag. Incentives to school oneself and become more productive have a positive aspect, but that aspect is often vastly inflated beyond what is needed for the purpose. And payments for having talents – not for the training that goes into developing talents – has no useful incentive effect. I cannot change my genetic endowment due to the fact that a great singing voice or tremendous reflexes and strength are highly rewarded.
Most of the “it is just capitalism in disguise” critics typically agree that remunerating property, power, and (for many) output, too, is morally horrible and has perverse incentive effects as well. In a very few cases do they look at parecon’s remuneration and actually have a substantive concern and when they do, these typically prove to be misunderstandings. Here are two.
The first goes like this. I work very hard but I don’t think I should receive extra income for it. In fact, I find the prospect of getting extra pay for my hard work degrading. I work because it is a part of being a full and worthy person. I don’t want to sully that motivation with remuneration for the effort that I give because I want to give it.
Well, that’s not a problem. You needn’t take the extra payment you are entitled to. There is no reason lurking in this possibility, however, to want to disallow others from doing more labor to earn a bit more in order to get something valuable that they want.
Will people refuse remuneration in the suggested manner? We can only guess, but in a participatory economy everyone will earn average, and then just a bit more or a bit less than average due to extra or less than average exertion, duration, etc. The (very rare) person offering the above complaint about not wanting more pay for longer hours is typically, in our current society, a person who is making way above average rates of payment and doesn’t feel right getting still more for work they eagerly do. Were their income to become like everyone else’s income, and their wealth as well, and were they to have a balanced job complex like everyone else, it is quite plausible that their and their family’s view of what they deserve for extra efforts would alter, though, again, it is no problem if it doesn’t.
The second confusion is more subtle. If you can earn more for working longer, or for working harder, or for working at more onerous tasks, the critic says – you have a reason to do all those things. As a result there will be a drift toward a longer work day, more intense labor, and toward worse working conditions. This is a perverse incentive implication, the critic says. It will lead to long work days, harsh work conditions, and speed up.
Parecon’s answer is that in an established participatory economy we all have balanced job complexes, comparable status and influence, and, let’s say at time zero, equal incomes because we all work the same average work week. With our average income we get a share of the total social product that is worth that average.
Now suppose all of us want more income than the current average. Is that conceivable? Yes, it is, and if it was the case, we would need to produce more stuff, which means we would need to work longer, or harder, or perhaps at some additional sufficiently productive tasks that were quite onerous. This result, if it were to occur, is not perverse. If we all want more product, as a whole tendency/desire of the broad population, then we all want more leisure. The allocation system lets us know the human and social and ecological effects, and if we still want more, even taking those into account, and despite having to work longer to generate it, so be it.
Now, will we all want more? The fact is, and this is actually the one criticism of parecon leveled by mainstream economists who do understand the point even if they have really jaundiced moral standards, under parecon people are highly likely to want more leisure (just as people now do) rather than more stuff – and there is nothing in parecon, unlike capitalism’s drive to accumulate – that prevents parecon-ers from deciding to have relatively more leisure than now by working less than now, in turn causing total output to drop. We can see this is highly likely even without taking into account what will be accurate considerations of ecological impact and even ignoring the impact of near equalization of shares of the product, and of revamping the product to not squander gigantic productive capacity on weapons and other anti social products, and of having sensible collective goods, and of having no pernicious status effects of consumption, and no narrowing of non consumption means to fulfillment.
But what about a particular individual? Can I work longer, or harder, or perhaps even doing some onerous tasks, to get more income? Yes, in a parecon I can. Is there anything morally or economically wrong with that? No, the extra income is warranted by my actions and has no ill effects on anyone’s behavior. For example, does it mean I will drive myself to dissolution in a mad pursuit of additional income? Of course not. Does it mean I can work as long or as hard or at whatever tasks I want without anyone else having any influence? No, because my choices have to coordinate with other people’s choices.
Many “it is just capitalism in disguise” critics, don’t see the need for remuneration norms and methods and so don’t actually think about the above issues very much. There is no need for them to do so, they think, because they avoid the hassle of tracking values by saying that we should each work to our abilities and receive for our needs – and that’s it. Thus, we come to the second aspect of the critic’s case.
That is, even if parecon’s remuneration isn’t horribly flawed, and indeed even if it is sound and moral, the critic thinks the from each according to ability and to each according to need is better. Is that the case, or is the from each to each norm flawed?
The critic says, using a familiar phrase, that we should all work to our ability and receive for our needs. The phrase is long enshrined in a few different political heritages as the height of radical, socialistic, anarchistic wisdom and desire. But what does the phrase actually mean? If we go beyond banners, beyond connotations, to substance, what do we find? Well, there are a few possibilities, though they are rarely, if ever, fully described by advocates of the view.
Suppose I am working in a system operating under the “from each to each” norm. How long will I work next week? If I work to my ability, odds are that I could manage to work 60 hours at a balanced job complex or even 70 or 80 or even more. Should I do that? Is that what working to my ability means? And should I work as hard as my ability permits as well?
It is incredibly unlikely that any advocate of this norm, much less those concerned about people overworking, has in mind the above literal meaning. But what else might the norm mean?
It could mean that I should work up to what someone else says is my ability. But again, surely no “from each to each” advocate favors that kind of authoritarian interpretation.
Finally, it could mean, instead, that I should work the average amount and intensity for society unless I feel able and willing to work more or feel I should work less. But then, on what basis do I arrive at such conclusions? If the only issue is the effect of the work (or alternative leisure) on me, I will likely wind up working less than I would otherwise have done. If the only basis or even part of the basis is the effect on others, then I need to have some way of sensibly gauging those effects. How do I do that? We will return to that question in a moment.
Now what about consumption? With “from each to each” operating, I have to determine what I wish to have from the social product. According to the norm, if we take the words literally, I should pay no attention to anyone else’s situation, and no attention to my level of work, and instead, just address my needs. I ask myself – not someone else, since that would convey absurd authority to that other person – what do I need?
One interpretation of needs is that I need what is physically needed for survival. So this would mean that with this norm everyone would be surviving on bread, water, and vitamin pills – hardly an attractive prospect. Alternatively, at the other extreme, my needs might be taken to mean whatever I would like to have. And that literally means, as best I can see, that I should ask myself what do I like, and then I just take that.
Well, I can’t believe any “from each to each advocate” actually favors this either. Even if we ignore the (and it is often the same) critic who, just minutes ago thought that if we remunerated for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, the hunger for consumption goods would be so great that people would press on to longer and longer hours and higher and higher intensity, anyone being even a little consistent, would surely have to agree that told they can have whatever they ask for, a person will want a lot more than is good for the overall society and a lot more than everyone can have. Why not? If nothing says having less is better and my desires say having it all is better, I would be mashochistic to not take it all.
All right, let’s ignore the two extreme understandings of consumption according to need. Suppose the norm means, instead, as I assume it must for those who favor it, that each consumer should use his or her best judgment to consume the social average, and then consume somewhat more or somewhat less based on whether they have seriously pressing additional needs or not. We should each restrain ourselves, presumably, out of a social impulse. I do wonder why it is okay to assume not only that everyone will try to do this, automatically, but will succeed but even assuming my desire to be responsible, how will I know how much is appropriate for me to take?
This is essentially the same information problem the worker had. Whether the issue is a worker setting his or her level of work responsibly or a consumer setting his or her level of consumption responsibly, being responsible requires knowing what is average, and then knowing whether one has legitimate grounds to deviate from that average.
Here is the crux of it. First, by assuming there is a known earlier average we are assuming that in the past people have functioned with this norm and arrived at something sensible as an average. There is no reason to assume that unless we say how it happened. Second, the “from each to each” advocate clearly wants people to engage in some kind of social exchange that provides them information enabling them to settle on responsible levels of work and consumption. This is what it means to say that they will be responsible. They will have information and will act responsibly in light of it – though there is no pressure to do so. The irony is that that is precisely the type of information and setting that participatory planning was conceived to convey, and, in fact, does convey. It provides a collective process of exchanging statements of desire about both work and consumption, personal and collective, where one learns what is socially warranted and what isn’t, and settles on socially desirable and warranted choices in order to be able to proceed.
The only thing the “from each to each” advocate wanting people to freely arrive at their own agreed levels of work and consumption could reasonably take issue with would be whether or not the information conveyed by participatory planning is the best that it can be, and whether trying to arriving at responsible choices and succeeding with a norm and institutions geared to helping one do so is worse than trying to trying to arrive at responsible choices and failing, due to lacking a norm and institutions able to help.
Think about a busy intersection. We want every driver to navigate it making responsible – safe – choices about when to proceed and when to wait. If we just have people drive to it and look around as best they can and do as they will, not only will traffic be a mess but every so often there will be a crash even if people only have honorable intentions. Now consider we try to improve things with a stoplight system – go on green, stop on red. Someone might say complain that the system is authoritarian, because it constrains behavior. One might answer, the goal is for people at intersections to get through without crashing and with a relative minimum of disruption of a steady flow of traffic, and that that is what the light system facilitates. And if it does facilitate it, it would be truly weird to reject the lights as an authoritarian imposition, preferring that everyone approach each intersection doing whatever they choose with the resultant level of safety and flow depending on how well they coordinate without having any shared agreements or information to use in the process.
The allocation situation is similar though actually far less manageable in the absence of helpful aids. The problem with remuneration for need and work to ability is that such a norm is either utopian on the consumption side and draconian on the work side, or it involves someone other than those involved determining need and ability, or – and this is the most likely intention of advocates since the other two interpretations are so completely devoid of positive aspirations – it assumes a mechanism which conveys to each worker and consumer personal and system-wide information that allows him or her to make responsible choices without imposing class divisions, violating the ecology, enriching the few, or unnecessarily hurting him or herself. Of course the irony is that what can provide that, and was literally conceived to provide that, very explicitly, is participatory planning with remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor.
There are other problems with the need/ability norm, but to keep this treatment a manageable length, suffice it to say that to sensibly know how to invest for the future, to know what we should prepare to produce more of or what we should cut back to produce less of, one has to know the relative desires for things – not simply that people would like them, or not. But you can’t know relative desires – do we want this more or more of the other – if the only information conveyed by the system is that people want things, but not how much they want things.
What about the critic’s last point, that parecon isn’t an economy based on and also creating mutual aid? Well, it is true that parecon doesn’t assume saintly people. On the contrary, it has institutions which would accept rather selfish and self centered people – such as the people who we are now by our training and habits – and lead them/us to becoming more empathetic practitioners of mutual aid.
Here is the idea. In a participatory economy for me to economically benefit – and let’s say I am by virtue of prior training, or even genetic disposition (supposing that that possibility even exists), a very selfish fellow . I can gain by enjoying less difficult burdens at my work, or I can gain by enjoying a greater share of the social product in my consumption.
How do I seek to gain? Well, on the work side, I must have a balanced job complex so the only way the quality of my work day is going to improve is if the quality of the socially average work day improves, or if I find a socially average job I happen to like better than the one I already have. The second route to a better work experience is straightforward. I seek a new job, I get it or not. There is nothing special involved and nothing anti social or, for that matter, particularly solidaritous, either. But the first route is interesting.
For my average job complex to improve entails that the socially average job complex improves – which is to say that everyone’s complex improves. Mine doesn’t get better on its own, but only if others do too. How do they all get better and thus how does mine get better? Well, it happens most dramatically when changes in the ways we work, or in the tools we use, or in the social arrangements at work, make the worst tasks less bad, for example, since that can significantly improve the average across all tasks. That is, the average typically goes up most when the worst jobs are dramatically improved. So my personal and even selfish desire to have a better experience during my work days leads me to want the same types of labor saving and workplace improving changes in the most onerous workplaces, as everyone else wants in them – the kind that a sense of solidarity and mutual aid would also favor, the kind that makes everyone benefit. I don’t benefit most by advocating modest changes in my own workplace. Rather, I benefit most if I am alert to everyone’s situation and advocate changes wherever they will have the largest impact. This is precisely an economic system generating solidarity by the responsibilities and options it gives people. Mutual aid becomes the natural way to get along, not something special that one must struggle to attain against one’s surroundings.
What about the consumption side? Well, my fulfillment from consumption depends largely on my private consumption choices, and there is nothing special in that, other than that when I consume individually in a participatory economy, I do so knowing that my acts require work to be done and use up resources, etc. My choices in those ways affect society’s average job complex and work duration. They affect the workers who produce what I consume, and, by social averaging, also my own work situation and everyone else’s. Likewise, when I take from the social product, it leaves less for others.
And, again, there are two ways I can get more consumption. I can raise my income by working harder, longer, or at more onerous tasks if my workmates agree on an arrangement of activities that is good in our workplace. That route teaches solidarity somewhat because I know, via the planning process, the human implications of my choices. But I can also get more if the total social pie enlarges and, indeed, that is a more likely route to more income for me and for everyone in society. And this route is one of solidarity and mutual aid. We all benefit together rather than competing for benefits. Making some change that increases productivity in my work place isn’t the point. That doesn’t lead to workers in my workplace and myself getting greater income. The point is raising the social output in sum total, and thus the fair share that we all receive.
The key observation is that in a participatory economy there is no way to improve one’s consumption or one’s work life at the expense of others. There are no opposed classes, nor even opposed individuals, at least in any damaging structural sense. This is not market allocation where everyone buys cheap and sells dear and nice guys finish last. And it is not central planning where we do what others decide we must do. It is, instead, participatory economics, where we all cooperatively negotiate to enjoy gains and endure losses together, even as we also seek work and consumption that is best suited to our personal fulfillment. Parecon turns out to produce solidarity and to make typical kinds of anti sociality literally irrational – two desirable traits for a desirable economy and precisely what we mean by saying participatory economic institutions literally propel the values we favor.
Parecon Is Just Another Ecological Nightmare
In this case the critic says Parecon is productivist and whatever parecon’s other merits may be, parecon would do little or nothing to slow the slip slide of society toward ecological disaster. Parecon is like the Titanic. It might provide some nice food and entertainment for a time, but it would ecologically sink. As with other concerns it is a bit hard to know why the critics thinks this. What it is about participatory economics that seems to the critic to imply inattention to ecological costs and benefits.
Nonetheless, the parecon advocate takes the claim seriously and reasons about it. How does an economy affect the environment? Other than minor ways, the major means is that the economy uses up resources and spews out byproducts that alter environmental relations. Thus, the economy can squander assets and/or despoil nature with harsh or even catastrophic results.
Is it the mere fact that an economy produces stuff that is at fault? Yes, in one limited sense, because all production uses stuff, and all production has at least some side effects that are undesirable. But here we have another case of the baby and the bathwater. Throwing away production, per se, as compared to producing outputs sensibly, needlessly foregoes a whole lot of what we mean by progress and civilization.
Instead of talking about eliminating production, why not think about undertaking production with the purpose of benefiting all people – not profiting only a few – and, as well, with close attention to all the social and also ecological effects of the activity so that the choice to produce or not is taken in light of a full understanding of the implications?
If an economy can settle on production that way, then of course sane people will opt against production which threatens their existence, or even, short of that, production which unduly harms the ecological context we live in. This requires an economy which accounts for the long term and not only the short term implications of choices. It must be able to tally the true social and ecological costs and benefits of options. It must deliver decision making in a manner that doesn’t give any constituency a way to escape the costs of, or to overly benefit from, unwise production.
To say an economy is productivist can therefore have some real meaning. Capitalism, for example, does have a built in drive to accumulate regardless of benefits to the population. The pressure of market competition and profit seeking literally propels firms to enlarge and accumulate or they will fail – and this is true even when the side effects of enlarging and accumulating are horrendous. Capitalism also has a built in means for some constituencies to pawn off environmental costs on others while accruing production benefits for themselves. In fact, in capitalism corporations are literally driven to this behavior because competing for market share requires optimizing profits regardless of impact on others and taking every opportunity to do so is necessary lest others follow paths you reject and out compete you by doing so. Capitalism also has allocation that conveys a ridiculously short time line of assessment, and that mis-values inputs and outputs especially concerning their ecological implications. In short, capitalism is, by its structure, anti ecological – a far more telling and accurate descriptor than “productivist.”
In contrast, parecon, with participatory planning, is virtually the opposite. It generates as accurate and full personal, social, and ecological valuations as existing knowledge permits. It conveys appropriate influence. It has the right timeline – short and long term. And, as mainstream economists like to point out – though ironically and sadly they think it is a flaw – parecon has no built in drive to accumulate. Indeed, parecon is, in these senses, anti-productivist, though certainly not anti production, much less anti civilization or anti progress.
Parecon Sacrifices Privacy and Imposes Frenzy
Any economy is on at least some counts good, of course, but if that economy is really bad on other counts, it can lose much of its luster. Does parecon achieve equity and its other virtues by sacrificing people’s privacy or by imposing unreasonable pressures on people to participate when they would rather be doing other things?
Parecon recognizes that economic decisions about both consumption and production affect more than the immediate consumer or producer. And parecon also asserts that those affected by decisions should have proportionate influence over them. Does this yield a situation in which everyone is so continually subordinate to oversight by others that privacy disappears? Does it empower only those who enjoy being involved in making decisions and disempower those who are less socially concerned? Does it impose too many meetings and, even after reducing the work week, leave us all spending too much time hassling over economic choices?
For us it is important to distinguish between misgivings that any and all participatory processes may be too intrusive into people’s private lives, and the criticism that particular measures which may or may not be adopted in a specific parecon are more socially intrusive than they need to be. First, let us reiterate features of participatory economics designed to protect the citizenry from tyrannical busybodies.
Beside being free to move from one neighborhood (or job) to another, and besides being able to make consumption proposals anonymously, consumption proposals justified by one’s income cannot be easily vetoed. While there is always, of course, nothing but a motion to close debate or at least silence the loud mouth to prevent a busybody from carrying on uselessly about some consumption request, it is difficult to understand why people would choose to waste their time expressing or listening to views that had no practical consequence. And the fact that individuals can make anonymous consumption requests if they do not wish their neighbors to know the particulars of their consumption habits keeps this from becoming a serious problem at all.
All societies have to face a tension between leaving people alone and taking care of those who need help. Should a society sponsor public service announcements pointing out the harm of cigarette smoking, for example?
People with strong views will hope to persuade other people to do what they think is in their best interest even if they cannot (and would not even want to) force them to do so. In a parecon, animal-rights folks, if they live in a community with meat eaters, may get up at meetings and urge their fellows not to slaughter innocent, sentient creatures for their “Big Macs.” If the meat-eaters respect others they will listen to their arguments, though perhaps ultimately reject their views. But neither side will go through this over and over, and no doubt political or economic deliberative assemblies in a parecon might establish guidelines to separate out serious timely issues from perpetual harassment. But the same problems exist in a capitalist democracy: I can picket outside a McDonald’s denouncing meat-eating or outside a fur-coat store, or outside the Gap for selling items using child labor, even confronting buyers personally. Would we rather a society that was less intrusive even than that, and that did not permit picketers to criticize buyers and sellers at all for their choices?
In workers’ councils balancing job complexes for empowerment should alleviate one important cause of differential influence over decision-making. Rotating assignments to committees also alleviates even temporary disparities of authority. On the other hand, parecon stops short of calling for balancing consumption complexes for empowerment and refuses to endorse forcing people to attend or remain at meetings longer than they find useful.
An apt analogy is the saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Parecon has every intention of leading people to participate, but no doubt, some will drink more deeply from the well of participation than others, and those who do, will – other things being equal – probably influence decisions disproportionately. And likewise, folks who continually have very good ideas about decisions might have their ideas adopted more often (which is not the same, however, as having more weight in the decision-making itself and in a parecon people have proportionate say). But even those who are more sociable, or who regularly have good ideas and who as a result more often influence the views of others and thus the outcomes of decisions, would have a difficult time benefiting materially from their efforts, and the less social should suffer no material penalty as a result. In any case, while parecon advocates typically find the complaint more amusing than worrisome, certainly even someone who agrees with its orientation would have to also agree that it would be better to have a dictatorship of the sociable with no material privileges accruing to them, than a dictatorship of the propertied, of the bureaucrats and party members, or of the better educated, all with great material privileges accruing.
Parecon advocates also fail to understand why parecon does not seem to all who consider it as thoroughly libertarian as intended. People are free to apply to live and work wherever they wish, and society may have very stringent rules against rejecting people on unwarranted grounds (such as race, gender, etc.). People can ask for whatever consumption and services they desire and can distribute their consumption over their lives however they see fit. People can apply to whatever educational programs they want. Any individual or group can start a new living unit, a new consumer council, or a new worker council, with fewer barriers to overcome than in any traditional model. The only restriction is that the burdens and benefits of the division of labor be equitable. That is why people are not free to consume more than their sacrifice warrants. And it is why people are not free to work at job complexes that are more empowering than others. It may be that some chafe under these restrictions or consider them excessive. Once upon a time people chafed at the idea that slavery would be abolished and their “freedom to own slaves” eliminated. We believe the logic of justice requires the participatory economic restrictions on “individual freedom” just as the logic of justice places restrictions on the freedom to profit from private ownership of productive property or of slaves.
It is not uncommon that when told that workers and consumers will cooperatively plan economic outcomes in their own workplaces and consumption councils as well as interactively for the whole economy, people throw up their hands and say—sure being more just, more equitable, more this and more that is nice, but not if I have to live my life in interminable meetings. That is jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
Part of the reason for this reaction may be that people are already enduring too many meetings and that the meetings people now endure are horribly alienating. Paraphrasing Pat Devine, a radical economist from England, currently a large and perhaps increasing proportion of social time is spent on administration, negotiation, organizing and running systems and people. More, in existing societies much of this activity is concerned with commercial rivalry and the management of the social conflict and consequences of alienation that stem from exploitation, oppression, and inequity. Devine reports that, “one recent estimate has suggested that as much as half the GNP of advanced western countries may now be accounted for by transaction costs arising from increasing division of labor and the growth of alienation associated with it.”
In sum, “meeting time” is far from zero in existing economies. But for a parecon we can divide the issue into meeting time in workers’ councils, consumers’ councils, federations, and participatory planning.
Conception, coordination, and decision-making are part of the organization of production under any system. Under hierarchical organizations of production relatively few employees spend most, if not all, of their time thinking and meeting, and most of the rest of the employees simply do as they’re told (or try not to do as they are told). So it is true, most people would spend more time in workplace meetings in a participatory economy than in a hierarchical economy. But this is because most people are excluded from workplace decision-making under capitalism and authoritarian planning. It does not necessarily mean, however, that the total amount of time spent on thinking and meeting rather than on working would be greater in a participatory workplace.
To assess that, it is important to remember that in a participatory economy decisions are taken at appropriate levels of organization. The whole workplace doesn’t meet to decide everything, of course. Rather some things are decided widely, others more narrowly, though each within a framework established at a more inclusive level. And while it might be that democratic decision-making requires somewhat more overall meeting time than autocratic decision-making, it should also be the case that a lot less time is required to enforce democratic decisions than autocratic ones. It should also be clear from our discussions of the daily circumstances and behavior in participatory workplaces that workplace meeting time is part of the normal parecon workday, not an incursion on people’s leisure.
Regarding the organization of consumption, parecon does entail that these decisions are arrived at with more social interaction than in market economies. But in our view one of the great failures of market systems is that they do not provide a suitable vehicle through which people can express and coordinate their consumption desires to everyone’s greater good.
When you enter a five-story apartment building with no elevators and see old people on the top floors and young ones on the lower floors, when you enter a community and see huge numbers of appliances that are rarely used with the redundancy of their parallel dormancy eating up budgets and preventing people from having the wherewithal to get more fulfilling luxury items, and when you consider what can be accomplished by replacing isolated individual choices with mutually supportive collective ones, you get a feel for the material reason—in addition to the participatory and self-managing reason—for consumption councils.
It is through a layered network of consumer federations that parecon overcomes alienation in public choice and the isolated expression of individual choices that characterizes market systems. Whether this will take more time than the present organization of consumption will depend on a number of trade-offs, but in any event, in our view this would not be too high a price to pay.
Presently economic and political elites dominate local, state, and national public choice. For the most part they operate free from restraint by the majority, but with periodic time-consuming campaigns mounted by popular organizations to rectify matters that get grossly out of hand. In a parecon people would vote directly on collective consumption issues. But this would not require a great deal of time or mean attending endless meetings. Expert testimony and differing opinions would be aired through democratic media. People would become empowered through participation, and meetings would have concrete outcomes so that most people would want to participate. If it turned out that most people didn’t bother to attend (like typically occurs now in union meetings) then we could conclude there was something wrong with the institutions. But still, people would be free to pay as much or as little attention as they wished.
We actually believe the amount of time and travail devoted to consumption decision-making in parecon would be less than in market economies. Consumer federations could operate exhibits for people to visit before placing orders for goods that would be delivered directly to neighborhood outlets. Research and development units attached to consumer federations would not only provide better information about consumption options, but a real vehicle for translating consumer desires into product innovation. While the prospect of proposing and revising consumption proposals within neighborhood councils might appear to require significant meeting time, with the aid of computers and rather simple software packages, this need not take more time than it takes people currently to prepare their tax returns and pay their bills. In any case, nobody wouldn’t have to attend meetings or discuss their neighbors’ opinions regarding consumption requests if they chose not to; individuals could choose whether to utilize or ignore the greater opportunities for efficient social interaction prior to registering consumption preferences; and time necessary for consumption decision-making would be treated like time necessary for production decision-making—as part of one’s obligations in a parecon, not part of one’s leisure time. And perhaps most intangibly, yet very importantly, the core activity of life would no longer be to “shop till you drop,” including finding stores, comparing competing items with negligible differences, fighting traffic, and making purchases for reasons having little to do with real freely-developed needs and desires. This might make sense in a capitalist society that curtails other options for fulfillment and lumps social intercourse and modes of attaining dignity and status overwhelmingly into market mediated consumption. But it would make no sense in any sensibly-organized society. Reducing the centrality of atomized consumption-related activities in people’s lives should more than compensate for any additional time required for consumption decision-making, even ignoring other benefits.
But how much meeting time does participatory planning require? Contrary to critics’ presumptions, we did not propose a model of democratic planning in which people or their elected representatives, meet face-to-face to endlessly discuss and negotiate how to coordinate all their activities.
Instead we proposed a procedure in which individuals and councils submit proposals for their own activities, receive new information including new indicative prices, and submit revised proposals until they reach a point of agreement. Nor did we suggest meetings of constituents to define feasible options to be voted on. Instead we proposed that after a number of iterations had defined the major contours of the overall plan, the staffs of iteration facilitation boards would (mechanically) define a few feasible plans within those contours for constituents to vote on without ever having to meet and debate these at all. Finally, we did not propose face-to-face meetings where different groups would plead their cases for consumption or production proposals that did not meet normal quantitative standards. Instead we proposed that councils submit qualitative information as part of their proposals so that higher-level federations could grant exceptions should they choose to.
But while we do not think the criticism of “too many meetings” is warranted, we do not want to be misleading. Informed, democratic decision-making is different from autocratic decision-making. And conscious, equitable coordination of the social division of labor is different from the impersonal law of supply and demand. We obviously think the former, in each case, is greatly preferable to the latter. But this is not to say we do not understand that this requires, almost by definition, increases in meaningful social intercourse.
Self Management Is Isolationist….
This critic says that people having a say in decisions proportionate to the extent they are affected by those decisions violates personal prerogatives and prevents real solidarity. Parecon ghettoizes each of us off from those who are distant from us, says this critic. It sunders mutual connectivity.
I admit to finding this concern hard to even formulate so perhaps there is something here I am just not getting. The person who feels this way is thinking, I believe, though I am not quite sure, something like the following. Nowadays I often make decisions about what to do and what ought to be done that are not so much about impact on me as they are about right and wrong. For example, I oppose drone murders. I am not under the bombs, but I oppose the injustice. It is a matter of principle. The self management norm takes away morality and concern for others and leaves me only to assess that which impacts me in a self interested manner. It also seems to limit what I can have influence on. And it seems to reduce my attention to overall justice.
I admit to not getting how one can arrive at this view of self management even though I think the critic’s stance no doubt stems from fine sentiments and an insightful way of thinking about solidarity. First, in the example that is given, what the norm does is to deliver a say proportionate to effect to the people of the countries assaulted by drones – and thus it immediately ends the practice. Of course, if those folks are either ignored or cannot register their desires, the norm is not being applied and one has to function outside its logic, albeit, trying to move toward it.
For that matter, even if, as now occurs, one made the decision only inside the U.S., literally ignoring those outside who are also affected – even then, it would deliver a say to those who suffer due to the misallocation of resources, to those who are likely to die or lose loved ones, and to those who have their psyches blasted by being part of a war machine. Thus, instead of the decision being nearly entirely in the hands of rich and powerful elites who profit from war, it would be in the hands of the population who suffer the costs of war. Again, thus ends drone assassination.
Moreover, this norm doesn’t cut folks off into isolated pockets, which would indeed be bad, but actually sensitizes us to our interconnections. It is also, and this seems to be completely misunderstood by the critic, only about how much say one has, not about what should govern one’s priorities or choices. The norm says I have some say, it does not say what should guide the preferences I register – which can of course be moral assessments. Moreover, like all other norms, the self management norm doesn’t operate alone, nor is it to be considered something like a norm of engineering. Instead it is a social norm, as is remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor. Thus, in a participatory economy (or polity) we approximate the sought outcome as best we can within the limits of not wasting undo time and energy for a fictitious and needless perfect accounting accuracy. Also, there are sometimes competing norms, or parallel norms, that also operate.
Still, as a guideline for establishing decision making influence for different constituencies in diverse contexts, as well as for how to conduct associated deliberations, challenges, etc., self management seems as good as one can find. Pure democracy, one person one vote majority rule, simply should not always apply. One issue is the tyranny of the majority imposing its will on a minority. One way around that is protections and overarching laws. Another way, however, is a decision making process that gives highly affected minorities more say, which is, indeed, what the protections would be trying to accomplish. The same holds in the other extreme. There are many decisions that are nobody’s business but your own – or very nearly so. They are not properly handled – whether as a matter of morality or as a matter of efficiency – by everyone voting and a majority ruling.
If a critic wants to say that in practice self management will look more fuzzy and complex than a simple minded engineering rendition in which we get perfectly equal levels of influence for all participants for every choice – an advocate of parecon will immediately agree. But to dump the norm entirely or claim it is somehow contrary to desirable decision making methodology seems to us to be pursuing anti authoritarian ideals in what will turn out to be a manner generating authoritarianism.
Is there anything more at the core of freedom than the idea that people should control their own lives and circumstances up to the point that our actions or choices disrupt others from having the same level of control over their lives and circumstances? That is what parecon’s self management seeks to achieve. Yes, there are limits on actions – but without those minor limits there would be actions taken which would create worse limits. And, in any event, nothing precludes my having opinions that are based on principles and feelings of empathy, etc., as compared to atomistic self interest.
Self Management Will Destroy Good Decision Making
This critic says that having each person who is affected by decisions involved in them will reduce the quality of decisions. Some people are simply better decision makers, argues the critic, and we should allow them to have more say. Parecon advocates offer two replies. First, supposing the claim was true, why would one want to have the aim of attaining somewhat better decisions overrule the aim of having people have a fair say? This is a value issue – if Joe is the best decision maker in society, should we make him dictator to get the best decisions, always, or is the cost of that in alienation, hostilities, exclusion, and so on, too great to bear?
But second, the claim is wrong. Typically the opposite is more often the case. Of course, if we include all who are affected in making decisions but have a social system in which many who are affected lack the confidence, information, and skills to participate sensibly, then yes, their inclusion may reduce the quality of decisions. But if folks are prepared and able, then their inclusion ensures that all interests are reflected, all preferences accounted for and given appropriate influence, and also, all good ideas heard. This is to the good not just in being inclusive, participatory, and non alienating, but also in having decisions incorporate all relevant insights.
Now some critics who dismiss self management do so because they think it means we will ignore expertise, but of course that would be utterly moronic. No, what it means is that experts should provide information and insights relevant to decisions, but then those affected should decide. That Joe is a chemist and can tell his workmates that using a particular ingredient will have a bad side effect needs to be noted and the information included in people’s deliberations. But that Joe provides this information in no way implies he should then make the decision for everyone else.
To reject self management on grounds it won’t yield optimal decisions involves elitist suppositions about people’s capacities plus a harsh devaluation of participation. It is a mindset that would, to be consistent, also have to reject democracy.
Balanced Job Complexes Will Diminish Quality and Output
The critics in this case claim that by saying the someone trained in surgery should do surgery but also clean bed pans to arrive at a balanced mix of tasks, we are foregoing contributions that person could make, and that doing so is a major drawback.
Again there are two main replies. First, let’s suppose that, overall, having balanced job complexes would reduce output per hour. So? Is optimizing output per hour such a priority that we ought to accept class division and class rule to attain it? But second, the worry is unwarranted.
Suppose we consider all current doctors in the U.S. and suppose we look at them after establishing balanced job complexes. Let’s say they now each do half as much doctoring per week, due to having to do various other tasks to arrive at a balanced mix. Indeed, says the critic, in that case we just lost half the doctoring in the U.S. and of course that is not acceptable, they add. But wait, we lost half the doctoring that these particular people did, true. But how about making up for it with new doctors, also doing balanced job complexes, but adding the needed amount of doctoring to the mix. Even if we ignore improved health for an incredible array of reasons in switching to a classless and self managing economy, why doesn’t this answer the critic?
The critic replies, wait a second, we are talking about doctoring, engineering, accounting, and on and on. Where are all the people who are going to fill in for the displaced hours at these activities coming from?
Answer – say the parecon advocate – those who were previously doing only rote disempowering work now do a share of empowering work.
The critic is incredulous. You must be kidding. They can’t do all this.
Actually, we who favor balanced job complexes are not kidding at all. If you think the reason that 80% of the population are currently doing rote and disempowering work is that they are genetically equipped for no more than that, then the worry about not enough doctors if we balance jobs is real. But why would anyone think that?
The truth is, of course, the actual reason why we have 80% who have human genes appearing to be incapable of empowered tasks, and 20% who have human genes seeming to be quite capable of doing those tasks, has nothing to do with the people’s genes and everything to do with the structure of the economy and society and its classist preparation of some to endure boredom and obey orders and of others to give orders.
There is an easy thought experiment if you doubt this. Think back fifty years. Virtually all U.S. doctors were men. Everyone thought it was because women couldn’t be doctors. This limitation was wired in. Everyone agreed, including, most women. But now, women are a bit over 50% in medical schools. Nothing changed about intrinsic capacities. The only thing that changed was attitudes toward women and, even more so, access by women to both training and positions. Widespread belief that working class people lack capacity to do empowering work is no different than widespread belief that women lacked capacity to do empowering work – a product of repressive social arrangements.
In other words, belief that balanced job complexes would reduce output due to a lack of quality work in empowered positions is elitist nonsense. Sometimes it is sincerely though ignorantly believed. Other times it is just self interested deception. In any event, the criticism falls apart because (a) attaining classlessness is far more important than maximizing output, and (b) in any event, instead of losing output balanced job complexes would release a huge pool of currently submerged talent and energy into productive use.
Balanced Job Complexes Are Too Unwieldy to Work
This critic says if we have to do a mix of tasks to attain balance in empowerment effects our jobs will be too unwieldy to do well. But does this critic really believe, having thought seriously about it, that a human being will be more productive doing a single task over and over, or doing a rich mix of tasks? The former certainly ensures greater passivity, obedience, subservience – all wonderful for elites trying to maximize profit, but productivity? And does the critic really believe that the mix required to attain balance would be so complex – ten minutes this, ten minutes that, ten minutes the other, all day long running from task to task like a chicken with no head? Of course not. This is just coordinator class rationalization trying to find some way to justify privileged monopolization of empowering circumstances. In this sense, it is no different than the kind of thing an owner says to justify their total domination of work, or for that matter a slave holder, in days past, said to justify owning people, and so on.
We have to have a corporate division of labor, says this critic, because it would be too unwieldy for the 80% who now do no empowering tasks to do fewer disempowering ones and some empowering ones, or because it would be too unwieldy for the 20% who now do overwhelmingly empowering tasks to do fewer of those, and some that are disempowering. Clearly not. I hope I don’t have to belabor by this point. To me this sounds like the critic doesn’t like the idea that he or she will have to do a fair share of disempowering work…nothing more, nothing less.
Parecon Remuneration Won’t Generate Merit
The idea here is that if you receive income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, no one will want to become a doctor. Doctoring requires too much attention, time, etc. So, we will have fair incomes if we have equitable remuneration, but we will have no medical care.
The reply is that this just parrots what econ 101 tells everyone, and what all of popular culture ratifies, but what is also self evidently false. Doctors, for example, earn, say, $500,000 a year. This critic claims the high income is not because doctors have the bargaining power to take it, but because we would have no doctors if they earned a fair salary in accord with duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor.
The observation gets repeated so much, or just taken for granted so much, that people come to sincerely believe it, but just ask yourself, if you could choose between a rote and repetitive job, say on an assembly line, or being a doctor in a hospital, or some other coordinator job, which would you prefer even without a salary difference?
Suppose you were just getting out of high school and deciding whether to report for work on the assembly line or to go to college and then medical school, before becoming a doctor, with the schooling paid for, and a welcoming environment. Do you need to get ten times the income to suffer the incredible hardships of college and medical school en route to working in a hospital and not on an assembly line (not to mention that such training would be free, in fact would earn an income, in a parecon)? To ask the question is to answer it – but no one asks because every message in media from cradle to grave tells us not to think carefully about such matters.
Parecon’s Money and Prices Imply Ecological and Personal Disaster
Related to some other views already addressed, this critic maintains that participatory economics retains the war of all against all. Parecon trumpets solidarity but preserves a rat race. After all, “money doesn’t talk, it swears” and parecon retains money.
Well, to start we ought to ask what should prices be all about? They should indicate the relative valuations of items in the economy and, depending on the allocation system that generates them, prices will be more or less accurate in taking into account with a sensible weight for each person, all people’s actual preferences and assessments, as well as all social and ecological effects.
In a centrally planned socialist (or more accurately, coordinatorist) economy, prices largely manifest the will and desires of the planners. At a caricatured extreme, imagine one person literally putting a price tag on everything. The allocation system has in that case set relative values, but surely they will not accurately account for all people’s views, much less render appropriate weight to each. This is not capitalistic at all, but it is nonetheless horrendous.
Now consider a market socialist (more accurately called market coordinatorist) economy. The market is in many respects like that under capitalism. Buyers and sellers try to fleece one another. Those who aren’t literally buying or selling barely influence the transaction’s outcome, and, as a result, prices which are set competitively do not address all implications of exchange for those beyond the most immediately affected, nor do they accord proper weight to anyone, which, with markets, is determined mainly by bargaining power. Yes, without owners, in market socialism or more accurately market coordinatorism there is no capital labor relation and much about the exact logic of workplace dynamics and surplus seeking alters, but the competitive dynamics and distortions of markets remain.
Now consider participatory economics. It is quite true that there are prices – meaning convenient indicators of the relative valuations of items. Parecon’s prices emerge, however, from a cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs by workers and consumers who are all accorded the same rights of influence, with the amount for each actor varying as they are affected. There is no profit seeking nor even surplus seeking. The situation intrinsic to capitalism and even market coordinatorism is fundamentally changed. To say it is the same, or nearly the same, simply because there are prices in capitalism and prices in parecon is no more sensible than to say these two systems are the same because there are weights in each. Actually, arguably less so, since weights are at least the same in each, whereas prices are fundamentally different.
In both systems money facilitates keeping track of accounts. But in capitalism money is also amassed as capital, or profits, while in parecon it really is just a placeholder. In capitalism, like prices, money has a perverse logic rooted in power and profit – but in parecon, the logic is positive, rooted in people’s desires and social cooperation.
Money and prices per se do not bring the ills of competition when one has an economy that operates cooperatively and collectively. Nor do they bring disdain for and violation of the ecology when one has an economy that systematically includes attention to environmental impact and has no in built drive to violate the environment.
But is parecon a rat race economy, as the critic suggests? Well, in a participatory economy, while there may be human rats brought to adulthood by some pathological process, it will not be due to the dictates of economic life which produce, instead, sociality. And, more, self aggrandizing or even narcissistic or pathological humans functioning within the economy will have no avenues for advancing themselves materially or socially by being anti social. Quite the contrary, doing well in the economy will require them to relate supportively to others.
Of course the full case for participatory planning requires a full examination of parecon’s allocation system in context of its other institutions. But what should by clear here is that the types of concerns many critics claiming to want something more radical raise are not unearthing some kind of flaw that parecon advocates either welcomed or overlooked. Rather, transcending such flaws in current systems was the point of participatory economics. Worry about such matters was why parecon was created, and such worries guided its logic and choices.
Looking at capitalism and seeing prices, money, and budgets and thinking, well, to have a good economy we must not have any of that is no more sensible than looking at capitalism and seeing that the economy has buildings, or workplaces, or large scale, or small scale, or production, or consumption, and saying, hey capitalism has it, we must avoid it.
The informed position is that capitalism has class rule. We must avoid that. Capitalism has allocation that is blind to broad ecological effects and has an internal dynamic that accumulates environmental decay. We must avoid that. Capitalism has wage slavery, is exploitative, is alienated. We must avoid that. Capitalism produces anti social individualism. We must avoid that. But not, capitalism produces stuff, consumes stuff, notices relative values, we must avoid that.
Participatory Planning Will Destroy Efficiency
This critic says having a participatory economy will cause our economic lives to involve too much waste of effort. We will either fail to produce what we want, or we will produce it, but with too much waste, utilizing capacities poorly, etc. This is a very fair concern which, however, does overlap with some we have already addressed. If an economy wastes our talents, energies, resources, that is a flaw. If it happens systematically, not simply by mistakes in judgment, and excessively, it is a damning flaw. Thus, at the risk of some repetition from of early commentary, we would like to deal in some depth.
Efficiency means not wasting assets even as we pursue desirable ends. In economics, we do not want institutional arrangements that squander resources, time, labor, talents, or any other assets used to produce outputs to enhance people’s lives. That doesn’t mean we want to exploit all assets mercilessly with no concern for the values we hold dear. It means we want to meet needs, develop potentials, and foster preferred values, and also avoid wasting assets.
The dictionary tells us an incentive is “something, such as the fear of punishment or the expectation of reward, that induces action or motivates effort.” The linkage between not wasting assets and good incentives is simple. The threat or reward of incentives should be precisely meant to induce behaviors that utilize assets appropriately. Good incentives will yield efficient actions. Bad incentives will cause perverse results.
Even among those who accept that rewarding duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor is morally superior to other alternatives, many might reasonably wonder if there is an unfortunate trade-off between rewarding effort to attain equity and having appropriate incentives to attain efficiency. Is this a trade-off that we must navigate by adopting a reasonable system of rewards that strikes some kind of compromise? Does parecon do that? Do we need to moderate our desire to remunerate only equitably by incorporating other incentives that less admirably promote our equity values but that better motivate laboring activities to avoid wasting assets?
The question is fair but a little surprising because it turns out that the case for rewarding only duration, intensity, and onerousness on efficiency grounds is, if anything, more straightforward than the case for rewarding only effort/sacrifice on grounds of equity or morality.
Differences in productive outcomes arise from differences in talent, training, job placement, tools, luck, and effort. Once we clarify that “effort” includes personal sacrifices incurred in training, and we stipulate that training is undertaken at public rather than private expense, the only one of these factors influencing performance over which a person has any individual discretion is his or her own effort.
By definition, a person cannot enlarge his or her innate talent or luck to get higher income. Rewarding the occupant of a job for the contribution inherent in the job itself or for the good tools employed in that job also does not enhance the occupant’s performance, so long as productive jobs and good tools are promoted by the economy more generally. Thus the only factor we need to reward to enhance individuals’ performance is their effort.
This claim certainly turns common wisdom on its head. As we revisit below, not only is rewarding only duration, intensity, onerousness consistent with efficiency (assuming appropriate accompanying methods exist to elicit good allocation of energies and tools and so on), but rewarding either talent, training incurred at public expense, job placement, or tools has no positive incentive effects. These rewards are literally wasted. We cannot change our genetic endowment because someone offers us a salary incentive for our output, nor can we change our luck, nor the quality of our workmates, nor the tools available.
As a practical example, in a very inexact but nonetheless revealing analogy, suppose we wanted to induce the fastest race we could from runners in a marathon. Our goal is to get everyone in the race to run as fast as possible so the total time spent by all runners taken together is as low as possible. Should prizes be awarded according to outcome, rewarding those who go fastest the most, down to those who go slowest, or according to effort, perhaps by examining improvements in personal best times?
Rewarding outcome provides no incentive for poor runners with no chance of finishing “in the money” and no incentive for a clearly superior runner to run faster than necessary to finish first. In fact, no one has any incentive to go much faster than the person they are barely beating, assuming they cannot beat the person finishing ahead of them. On the other hand, paying in accord with improvements in personal best time—that is, paying in accordance with effort as measured by this or any suitable index—gives everyone an incentive to run as fast as they can and in that way produces the fastest overall time. So why, we might wonder, do so many people believe that seeking equity by rewarding only duration, intensity, and onerousness conflicts with attaining efficiency and productivity? Three reasons typically arise. People tend to believe that:
- If consumption opportunities are equal other than for differences in effort expended, people will have no reason to work up to their full talents or capabilities.
- If payment is equal for equal effort, there is no incentive for people to train themselves to be most socially valuable.
- Since effort is difficult to measure accurately, while outcome is not, rewarding performance is the practical option.
Responding to reason one, in situations where solidarity or pride in one’s work is insufficient to elicit effort without inflated reward, and where greater consumption opportunities are the only effective rewards, it will be inefficient to award equal consumption opportunities to those exerting unequal effort. That much is correct. But that is not what we have proposed.
We do not rule out correlating consumption opportunities with effort made at work, but precisely the opposite. The parecon approach is that everyone should have a right to roughly equal consumption opportunities because the parecon vision of production is that all should exert roughly equal effort in work. To the extent job complexes are balanced so that no one is required to make greater personal work sacrifices than anyone else, effort is largely equalized and therefore consumption should be largely equalized as well. But this is not to say that variations cannot occur.
Individual variations of effort and therefore consumption are perfectly acceptable and anticipated in a participatory economy. People can choose to work harder or longer, or perhaps to take up some onerous tasks that have not been allotted but need doing. Alternatively, people can choose to work less hard or less long to earn less. In short, people can work less and consume less, or work more and consume more, in each case in proportion to the effort/sacrifice involved.
But if there is no sky to reach for, you may be asking—if there is no vast advantage in consumption opportunities to be sought and won—will people lift their arms to work at all? It is one thing to say it is morally proper to remunerate only duration, intensity, and onerousness. It is another to say that doing so will elicit enough effort to yield efficient productivity. Would effort incentives elicit efficient productivity?
In a society that makes every attempt to deprecate the esteem that derives from anything other than conspicuous consumption, we shouldn’t be surprised that many people feel that great income differentials are necessary to induce effort. But to assume that only the accumulation of disproportionate consumption opportunities can motivate people because under capitalism we have strained to make this so is not only unwarranted, it is self-deceptive.
In the first place, very few people attain conspicuous consumption in modern capitalist societies. And those that do not are, for the most part, among the hardest working in the level of effort expended. Normal working people currently work hard in order to live at a modest level of income, not to consume conspicuously. People can therefore obviously be moved to exert effort and endure sacrifice, often even sacrifices greater than they ought to have to put up with, for reasons other than a desire for immense personal wealth. Moreover, family members make sacrifices for one another without the slightest thought of material gain. Patriots die to defend their country’s sovereignty. And there is good reason to believe that for non-pathological people wealth is generally coveted overwhelmingly as a means of attaining other ends such as economic security, comfort, useful artifacts for pursuit of desirable hobbies, social esteem, respect, status, or power. If economic security is guaranteed, as in a parecon, there will be no need to accumulate excessively in the present out of fear for the future.
We need not debate this point at length, but wish merely to note that if accumulating disproportionate consumption opportunities is often a means of achieving the more fundamental non-material rewards, as we believe, then there is every reason to believe a powerful system of incentives need not be based on widely disparate consumption opportunities. If expertise and excellence are accorded social recognition directly, there will be no need to employ the intermediary device of conspicuous consumption to get people to engage in areas of work where their talents are best displayed. If people participate in making decisions, as in a parecon, they will be more likely to carry out their responsibilities without recourse to excessive external motivation. If the allocation of duties, responsibilities, sacrifices, and rewards is fair, and is seen to be fair, as in a parecon, one’s sense of social duty will be a more powerful incentive than it is today. And if a fair share of effort is in any event demanded by workmates who must otherwise pick up the slack, and additional effort is appreciated by one’s companions, recognized by society, and also awarded commensurate increases in consumption opportunities, why should anyone doubt that incentives will more than adequately elicit needed involvement and effort? The fact that there won’t be motivation to undertake excessive production for useless or egotistical ends would be a gain, not a loss.
But what about reason two? What incentive will people have to train themselves in the ways they can be most socially valuable if remuneration is only for effort/sacrifice, not output? And, for that matter, what is the real issue lurking in this concern?
Since Mozart could contribute more by composing than being an engineer, it would have been inefficient for society in terms of lost potentials had he studied engineering. And if Salieri – a less successful composer from the same period – would have made an even worse engineer than composer, the same holds true for him. Society benefits in accruing more valuable products if people develop the talents in which they have comparative advantages, and this means society benefits if its incentive systems facilitate rather than obstruct this outcome. If Mozart would be inclined to pursue engineering over composing by preference, it would be desirable that society provide enough incentives for him to compose concertos rather than design bridges so that he would happily follow that path. But the query embodied in issue two is how will a parecon do that if by composing Mozart would get the same rate of pay for the same effort as he would for designing bridges? Won’t we lose out on the remarkable compositions we could get from someone with the innate talents of a Mozart, with society suffering thereby?
First, there is good reason to believe that people generally prefer to train in areas where they have more talent and inclination rather than less—unless there is a very powerful incentive to do otherwise. Does anyone truly think that offered the same pay for using a lathe or using a piano, Mozart would choose the lathe unless someone threatened convincingly to make his life utterly miserable were he to opt for the piano? In other words, in most instances, incentives are not even needed to get people to utilize their greatest talents, we just have to avoid disincentives, and there are no such disincentives in a participatory economy. Those who could become wonderful composers, playwrights, musicians, and actors (or dentists, doctors, engineers, scientists, or what have you), will not pursue other avenues of work in which they are less apt to excel in pursuit of greater material reward because there is no greater material reward elsewhere. Nor will people in a parecon shun training that requires greater personal sacrifice since this component of effort will be fully compensated.
Second, for those cases where a little extra benefit of some sort would be needed to propel a person into his or her most productive pursuits, a parecon increases direct social recognition of excellence as compared to other economies. In a participatory economy, indeed, the best, and in some sense, the only way to earn social esteem related to one’s economic activity is to make notable contributions to others’ well-being through one’s efforts. Since working in accord with one’s talents can best do this, there are powerful incentives to develop innate talents. The only thing a parecon prohibits is paying ransoms to superstars. Instead, a parecon employs direct social recognition and thereby avoids violations of our deeply held values. Will some prospective Mozart or Einstein, knowing their potential in their optimal pursuit, opt to become an engineer or a violinist rather than a composer or physicist? It could happen, but it seems unlikely. Would this happen more frequently than in class-divided economic systems which squash most people’s talents due to imposing on people harsh poverty and robbing them of dignity and confidence? To ask this is to answer it. Not to mention that in capitalism many people with great potential squander their talents anyway by opting for the huge rewards they can gain from doing things like becoming a corporate lawyer whose main function is to help big firms avoid paying taxes – or a doctor whose main function is to provide liposuction treatment to rich people who can pay for it – choices that are socially harmful, though of course beneficial to those with money.
What about reason three, the difficulty of measuring effort as compared to performance? While economic textbooks speak blithely of marginal revenue product in infinitely substitutable models, the real world of social endeavors rarely cooperates. There are many situations where assigning responsibility for outcome is highly ambiguous, and where determining who really contributed what to output is effectively unknown. As those who have attempted to calibrate contributions to team performance can testify, there are some situations where it is easier than others. Sports teams are certainly more suited to such calibration than production teams. But even there it is more difficult to calibrate individual contributions in football and basketball than in baseball. And even in baseball, arguably the easiest case of all, there are never ending debates over different ways of measuring direct contributions to victory in individual games, not to mention the difficulty of assessing a player’s impact on team chemistry.
Nor is measuring effort always so difficult. Anyone who has taught and graded students knows there are two different ways – at least – to proceed. Students’ performances can be compared to each other (output), or to an estimate of how well the student could have been expected to do (effort). Admitting the possibility of grading at least in part according to personal improvement (grades are not, in fact, rewards, but measure absolute attainment as in mastery of some subject matter) is tantamount to recognizing that teachers can, if they choose to, measure effort – and they can do it even though they are not in the dorm rooms of their students, monitoring their hours of study.
Now consider your workmates. They not only know your past productivity, which means they can compare your efforts to your past by comparing its product, they can also actually see you exert each day. So co-workers are in a far better position to judge each person’s effort than a teacher is able to judge the effort of students. Indeed, who is in a better position to know if someone is only giving the appearance of trying than people working with him or her in the same kind of labors? It is actually not only more just to remunerate effort than output for all the reasons we have explored, but particularly in an economy with balanced job complexes, it is quite a bit easier. Errors will by definition be much smaller. Methods of assessment can be, and in a parecon would be, democratic and mutually acceptable. Entanglement of effects and factors is not a problem. And it is not nearly so easy to pull the wool over the eye’s of one’s workmates as it is to do so with a supervisor, as people do today.
Participatory Planning Will be Too Inflexible to Succeed
Our last critic accepts that parecon is a fine idea. She accepts that markets and central planning are horribly flawed. She accepts the desirability of councils, balanced job complexes, self-management norms and procedures, as well as remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor. She accepts that participatory planning fosters all those features and has additional virtues as well, and she supports it for those reasons. But, even with all that celebration, she worries about parecon being too doctrinaire.
Okay, markets for all our allocation is a horrible idea, says this critic, but why not just for some of it? Why not try to capture the benefits markets have for those items where its benefits will be greatest and where we can curtail accompanying debits? The critic claims markets are responsive. They react to shocks quickly and they can update weekly, daily, or even hourly. In contrast, participatory planning cannot re-plan repeatedly, so can’t we therefore benefit by using markets to augment or along with or even in place of pareconish approaches, at least for the items where speed of reaction is needed?
In other words, can’t we have a somewhat mixed economy? Can’t we take the essence of participatory economics and strengthen it by adding some limited attributes of other approaches and, in particular, some market mediation of exchange?
Consider some product that you know will have frequent innovation. When you plan it in the participatory planning process at the outset of the year, you get a very good assessment of its true costs and benefits (or exchange value) at the start of your year. The procedures support the economy’s broad values. They respect and foster self- management, and so on. But what happens when innovations occur for the item in question well before the next planning period comes around, say only two or three months into the year?
I know the system handles modest typical preference changes fine, says the critic, including those arising from changes in the product, but what if there is a really large change because an innovation makes the product really much easier to produce or perhaps due to a massive fire destroying lots of production potential, and, as a result, many more people want the product than planned to get it (well beyond what slack planning can handle)? Wouldn’t it be good to let the consumers and producers of the item operate as they would via a market, so that the price would move quickly and in the correct direction, and so that demand would properly fall? Wouldn’t this improve on having to re-plan the whole economy?
Our answer to this very fair question comes in two parts.
First, if in such cases the only option was to persist with the plan as conceived in the initial planning period or to incorporate market features, we would favor the former. The loss in efficiency induced by having to wait to adjust until the next planning period would be quite modest compared to the debits of ushering market allocation back into the system. The short of it is that moving quickly by markets from wrong prices to still wrong prices by methods that subvert all the values we hold dear is not improving matters.
But, second, this is not the actual situation. There is no reason why parecon consumers should have to sit tight with the initially planned exchange rates and allocations rather than correct for surprising innovations or calamities, even for large ones such as the critic hypothesizes. To compare, suppose an innovation or a calamitous destruction of productive potential occurs in a market economy. The conditions prevailing have changed. Old prices would no longer clear markets properly. How do prices and material choices by actors respond?
With markets, buyers and sellers try to get as much benefit for themselves, regardless of the effect on others, of the new situation, just as they did in the old situation. The market response, in other words, will likely go in the right direction, but the motive driving the correction, as at all times with markets, will be pursuit of profit/surplus and advance of competing actors via enlarging market share. The process will ignore the will of agents not directly involved in the exchange. It will impose antisocial motives and other failings, as with markets in general.
Additionally, the idea that markets respond well to shocks and changes is, in any event, only a mathematician’s assumption. In fact, the rippling changes percolating from an unexpected major change in demand or supply take time to unfold and the assertion that they will inevitably occur quickly and accurately (even if we set aside other reasons for market prices diverging from true costs and benefits and market outputs diverging from accurate representations of people’s unbiased preferences) conveniently ignores a host of disequilibrating dynamics that actually afflict market systems and that may mean that the initial markets affected by the shock do not re-equilibrate quickly, or at all; and/or that interactions between interconnected markets produce a disequilibrating dynamic that pushes all markets farther from a new equilibrium.
Thus re-equilibration in a market economy typically requires a change in some initial market affected by the unforeseen event followed by changes in any markets where supply or demand is affected by the change in the first market, followed by changes in other markets where supply and demand is affected by changes in the second tier affected, and so on. How much of this re-equilibration takes place how quickly is anybody’s guess. Market enthusiasts assume it all happens very quickly, and that market prices are good in the first place and good after re-equilibration as well. Of course in reality only some of it happens. None of it happens instantly. And worst, market prices diverge from accurate valuations of true social costs and benefits both before and after any shock. In sum, to the extent that re-equilibration does not reach all markets, and to the extent that markets which do eventually re-equilibrate do not do so instantaneously, market systems will perform inefficiently and inequitably in response to the unforeseen event even if its prices were efficient before and wound up efficient after the shock. Of course, when its prices aren’t efficient before and don’t wind up efficient afterward, things are that much worse.
For such reasons, we would not want to have some items handled by market processes in a parecon even if it were an otherwise plausible option, but more, we really could not sensibly do so even if we wanted to. Having a little markets in a participatory economy is a bit like having a little slavery in a democracy, though even less tenable. The logic of markets invalidates the logic of participatory planning and of the whole participatory economy, and it is also imperial. Once markets operate they try to spread as far and wide as they can. You cannot have some workplaces seeking market share, trying to induce purchases regardless of impact on consumers and society, ignoring external effects, trying to elevate remuneration according to power or output or surpluses, and expect those firms to interface congenially with the rest of the participatory economy. So, in contrast to markets, if we have to live or die with it in full, what about participatory planning’s responsiveness?
Again an innovation occurs, this time in a parecon. Suppose the unforeseen event significantly affects demands and valuations so that the original plan—which was efficient and equitable before the shock—would be no longer efficient and equitable. The optimal solution, considering only the choice of material inputs and outputs and their valuation and thus distribution, is to redo the entire planning process and arrive at a new plan perfectly efficient and equitable in light of the new conditions. Doing so is in that sense the analog of a market system jumping from allocations before the shock all the way to allocations after all of the interconnected markets re-equilibrate, without any misallocations in the interim.
But wait says the critic, this answer won’t do because re-planning is impractical except in cases of huge unforeseen events with large enough impact to merit that big an undertaking, even if I will admit that in such cases nothing would prevent redoing the plan. My point is, says the critic, most of the time deviations are important yet not worth cranking up the entire planning process involving all workers and consumers councils, federations, and so on. To appease me regarding parecon’s flexibility, you need to have something more convenient, even if a little less perfectly efficient and equitable, than entirely re-planning the whole economy.
In short, when a shock requires significant adjustments, how do we tide over with appended alterations until the next scheduled planning period fixes things “perfectly” – never more than 12 months away? The answer is that different instances of parecon might have different approaches to doing this. Here is one.
Workers in an industry notice markedly changed demand or valuations. Many more people than planned come to want some product. The easiest adjustment is if the original plan allowed for production of a certain amount extra of the good in question, so that unexpected increased demand can be met by actualizing this extra potential. The name for a plan with no extra potential built in is a “taut plan,” and the name for a plan with extra potential built in is a “slack plan,” with the amount of “slack” varying for the economy and its industries. This is exactly analogous to business inventories in a market system, whether kept on hand, or able to be generated.
But suppose workers notice that the increased demand will take them beyond the available slack. As a result, they begin to contact facilitation boards seeking extra workers and begin consulting suppliers for additional inputs. If this can be had to the extent needed, they report the results and the facilitation boards calculate the effect on final prices. The predictions are made available to all consumers. If assets for the desired production can’t be had, supply won’t rise sufficiently and, instead, decisions will have to be made regarding allocation of the limited available products. Of course all the usual methods and motives of parecon operate at each step, whatever specific approaches a particular parecon might employ.
Let’s pick a simple unforeseen event. An unprecedented warm spell dramatically increases people’s desires for air conditioners beyond what was planned plus available slack.
An easy possibility is to ration the existing supply of air conditioners at the level set by the original plan. This could be done in a variety of ways. (1) Give everyone seeking air conditioners only X percent of the what they they asked for, where X equates demand with available supply. Of course, this is not possible for items that are not divisible. So (2) give air conditioners only to those who asked for one in the original plan and only in the quantity they asked for. Do not accommodate new demanders or increased demands until th next period. But another option is (3) raise the price of air conditioners until the excess demand disappears, i.e. employ increased prices to ration air conditioners. In this case, we would have to have an IFB in place to adjust indicative prices during the year. Or we could have the national consumer federation and the national air conditioner industry federation make the price adjustments. If we adjust the price of air conditioners to eliminate the excess demand we have to charge users the higher price or their demand will not fall to the existing level of supply. Those who get the air conditioners and are charged the higher price now must either reduce the amount of some other goods they consume—not picking up all they ordered in their original plan—or they must increase borrowing which is monitored in a participatory economy by their consumer federation.
But of course as this example intentionally makes evident, a more desirable adjustment to the unforeseen event would be increasing production of air conditioners. We now know that more of society’s scarce productive resources should be devoted to air conditioners than the original plan called for, and therefore, by implication, less of society’s scarce productive resources should be devoted to producing other goods and services.
Adjusting production of air conditioners is in this event more complicated than simply rationing the existing supply in any of the above ways, but to do so also better meets real needs and is therefore ultimately more efficient.
The simplest way to increase production is to ask the air conditioner federation to increase output via overtime. If the workers can produce more by working more hours without needing significantly more inputs, the only remaining issue is an equity matter—how much to compensate them for their extra sacrifice. They will re-rate themselves and presumably claim sacrifices equal to the extra hours plus extra sacrifice they consider the after hours nature of their work to entail.
But what if more air conditioners cannot be produced without more non-labor inputs which must be obtained from other workers’ federations? Then a fuller and more efficient mid-plan adjustment requires renegotiation between the air conditioner federation and the workers’ federations who supply them. This is just the percolating and spreading implication of a shock in an entwined economy, the same as would occur were allocation handled by markets. And in all cases of all involved parecon firms the choices about (1) rationing and (2) adjusting production schedules, simply repeat themselves. How much mid-term adjusting to do—rather than just waiting for the new planning period to get inputs and outputs all “perfect” again; and then how much of that mid-term adjusting to do simply by rationing, i.e. adjusting consumption only; how much to do by adjusting production of the initial item affected and/or of other items that are inputs, etc.; and which of the various options to use in any part of an adjustment, including whether or not to recalibrate prices, are all practical issues to be decided by those who work and consume in a participatory economy following general norms and procedures applicable in specific cases, though not via one single right norm or procedure that must be followed always in all cases and in all parecons, we would guess.
In any event, there is no reason to think that the proliferating adjustments in a participatory economy are any more difficult or cumbersome than analogous adjustments in market economies—unless one makes the unrealistic assumption that markets adjust infinitely quickly to arrive at new equilibria. And so the overall difference from a market system is increased rather than diminished flexibility, in that options can be consciously chosen, the elimination of various (competitive) causes of spiraling divergence from equilibrium can be respected, plus, of course, that the procedure’s guiding motives are social rather than profit seeking, the valuations are accurate rather than distorted, and the influence of actors is proportionate to the degree they are affected rather than enormous for ruling classes and minuscule for subordinate classes.
Thus, with a large change in desirability of a product or some other major shock in a parecon that goes beyond what slack can accommodate, everyone who wants some affected good could be supplied, or only those who originally placed orders could be, or only those willing to pay a new higher price could be. In any of these events, there would be some change in the real price, rising above or falling below the planning period’s indicative price. A parecon can handle all these matters in numerous ways.
Indeed here is another angle from which to think of the whole situation. Think in terms of the year’s end. Suppose you got everything you sought, exactly as you sought it. But suppose the total value assessed at year’s end was less than the total you allotted from your budget—final prices for the year changed from planned prices so that the total cost of all that you consumed was less in final fact than it was in your initial planning. Then you would be entitled to a refund, or else you would have unfairly lost out. Or suppose the total value of what you consumed in final prices turned out higher than originally indicated in planned prices. Then you would owe some, or would have received more than you deserved. But parecon has no trouble correcting in regard to either result. It can properly allot credit or debit to your account for the next period.
The only difficulty in the above trivially simple approach is that you would not have had a chance to reassess your choices based on the accurate prices. But a parecon can meet this problem too. It need only provide monthly updated price estimates based on the year’s unfolding patterns, so that you can, in fact, continually reassess your remaining choices against slightly altering price projections. With slack and the averaging of different consumers’ choices, the amount of re-planning would likely be very modest.
The main point of all this, however, is that speed of response is not all that much of a virtue in the first place, nor do markets possess as much speed as people think, nor do they speedily arrive places where people should knowingly wish to go in any event – and certainly that speed of response should never be “bought” by incurring costs that are way more damning than the modest gains achieved.
Parecon fetishizes the idea of a third class.
This critic says participatory economics worries way too much about avoiding a socialism that isn’t really socialism. Parecon’s commitment to balanced job complexes generates sectarian negativity about potential allies. Parecon gets class wrong.
The idea of a third class between labor and capital actually has a long anarchist and libertarian lineage leading back to Bakunin and even a bit further to others less famous. Of course that doesn’t make the idea right, but it is interesting to note.
Yes, advocates of participatory economics worry about mistakenly winding up with something called socialism which isn’t classless, self managing, etc. We don’t want to give our lives to efforts to improve society only to wind up with results we would rather never have ushered in – something all too familiar from history. We do not want a new society that is not classless, that lacks free association, that is less than we desire.
What parecon says in these regards is that between labor and capital in a capitalist economy and still operating above labor when the owners are eliminated but real classlessness is not achieved, there exists a third class – which we call the coordinator class.
The participatory economic claim is that while capitalists are defined by having a monopoly on productive property – which is to say they own it all and others don’t own any – the coordinator class is defined by monopolizing empowering work. They do that type of work, and others don’t. Further, the work this third class does educates and elevates them in such ways that they are well prepared to develop and argue for agendas within workplaces and in the broader economy whereas workers, operating below, are not.
In other words, those who do rote and repetitive tasks each day lack essential information, confidence, and social skills – which are all blasted out of them by the disempowering work they do – to participate effectively in decision making, and are even disinclined to do so. Those who instead do empowering tasks learn in the process about the overall work situation, engage with others, and have time and energy to apply to decision making, all of this being enhanced each day by the work they do. Coordinator class members, as a result, are able to participate effectively and are also inclined to do so.
Twenty percent of the workforce, roughly, are coordinator class and they dominate 80 percent, roughly, who are working class. In capitalism owners reside above the coordinators. In what has been called market and centrally planned socialism, owners are gone and coordinators are on top.
The pareconist says:
1. The institutions of a classless economy need to replace whatever causes class divisions.
2. Whatever in past efforts to win a new society has caused the old coordinator class to retain its position above workers has to be avoided, as well.
Its visionary commitment to avoiding coordinator class rule contributes to parecon’s reason for adopting its preferred institutions. Parecon avoids private property to remove the capitalist class from dominating and even from existing. That doesn’t mean there are no workplaces and resources, it just means workplaces are not owned by a few. But parecon goes further, realizing that to eliminate the basis for an owning class is not the same as to eliminate all basis for all classes, it has two more key steps to take. First, it must change the division of labor so that empowered tasks are not monopolized by a few. And second, it must change allocation so that it does not pressure actors by its roles into recreating that same division of classes even if initially it was replaced. Thus, as noted earlier, parecon advocates balanced job complexes and participatory planning.
Now, what about the criticism? Well, yes, it is quite true that parecon is concerned about avoiding a “false socialism” that is really better named coordinatorism. But in this pursuit, parecon doesn’t get class wrong. Rather, it is typical Marxist formulations that emphasize only property as a basis for class division and thus arrive at only two centrally important classes, that gets class wrong. Yes, of course capital and labor are important. But no, they are not alone important. The coordinator class matters as well – not just because its particular structurally imposed motivations complicate capitalist existence (though they certainly do), but because this third class between labor and capital can have its own agenda, contrary to capital but also contrary to labor, leading to what we might usefully call coordinatorism.
Now, does aiming for balanced job complexes generate negative sectarian attitudes about a potential ally – empowered workers, which is to say, members of the coordinator class – as the critic claims? Yes, applied mechanically it can certainly do so. But it doesn’t have to be applied mechanically. We have an analysis that tells us a group is likely to have certain attitudes, values, habits, that are harmful, not generetically, but due to their circumstances. First, we don’t have to treat each member of the group, apriori, as if the insight necessarily applies to him or her. It doesn’t. And second, even if it does, there is no need to treat the person as some kind of enemy, we just don’t want to cater to the harmful views, values, habits. This is all quite analogous, say, to how social movements relate to or in any event ought to relate to, say, men, or members of a cultural majority, and so on.
But doesn’t seeking balanced job complexes mean that some members of the coordinator class will be more or less horrified by a pareconist project, and that they will deem it utopian nonsense, and try to seriously oppose it? Yes, we know it does, indeed it already has. The position and circumstance of members of the coordinator class will certainly lead many coordinator class members toward such a stance. However, is it also possible for people doing empowered work to feel that a change to balanced job complexes and classlessness is morally right, socially desirable, economically necessary, or all three? Of course it is possible. And in fact this also often happens.
Even when that does happen, however, is there still a set of habits and dispositions associated with the coordinator past that can dominate movement efforts and drag them, even against everyone’s will, toward old patterns? Of course there is.
So what needs to be done is not crass and mindless name calling but to be clear about the issues and to seek balanced job complexes to overcome coordinator rule and attain conditions of classlessness, and, as well, to seek those new relations in ways welcoming coordinator class members to participate, but without their dominating the process and results. This means organizing methods and movement organizations should not replicate old coordinator worker arrangements but should instead overcome the classist assumptions and attitudes characterizing and continually abetting and reproducing coordinator domination of working people. The analogy to dealing with racism and sexism without becoming mechanically opposed to whites and men per se is rather strong. These are strategic issues, but centrally important ones.
An analogy can help. Workers by their position daily succumb to owners and coordinators including carrying out policies and acts that are heinous in their results. When an anti capitalist opposes wage slavery, it doesn’t mean he or she must have sectarian hostility toward working people who are not yet rejecting their plight. Indeed, to the extent it drifts into such a stance, it becomes self defeating. So an anti capitalist should oppose private property, yes, but not the people compelled by its existence to act harmfully. Some of their actions will have to be opposed at times, but not the people themselves, and especially not workers.
Well, the same logic broadly holds for the coordinator/worker relation. The parecon advocate should reject and seek to replace corporate divisions of labor. But the parecon advocate should not argue that having had the benefits of being born and raised or otherwise occupying coordinator class slots makes one the devil. Rather, it most likely gives one some classist habits, mannerisms, and beliefs that need to change, but also some skills, talents, and knowledge that can be used very helpfully, if the other changes are occurring.
Parecon Is Economistic
This critic says that participatory economics puts too much emphasis on the economy and too little on everything else. Parecon will sublimate or violate needs and potentials born outside the economy.
If the only thing parecon advocates were seeking was a participatory economy, this criticism would have real merit. In fact, even if one was seeking mainly a participatory economy while desiring gains in other parts of life as well, but while assuming they would follow pretty much automatically from economic gains, this criticism would be damning. However, the reality is that Parecon was conceived via an approach that takes for granted that not only economics, but also kinship, culture, and polity – as well as ecology and international relations – are all paramount. A serious societal vision will address all these dimensions of social life, not just one or another. Indeed, I don’t know of a single parecon advocate who isn’t also a participatory society advocate, seeing parecon as just one part of a larger undertaking. In short, as with quite a few other concerns about participatory economics, the reality is nearly the reverse of what critics claim.
Claim: Parecon is economistic.
Reality: Parecon advocates, perhaps more than any other activist constituency one might name, are explicitly scrupulous in their commitment that any singular conceptual attitude – whether it is a radical feminism, or a cultural nationalism, or a mainly political anti authoritarianism, or a mainly economic anti capitalism – which elevates one aspect of life above all others – is a recipe for visionary and strategic disaster.
So how does this particular concern that parecon advocates are economistic arise, if it is so clearly off base?
The answer is that there are certainly books and talks and presentations that are overwhelmingly or even very nearly entirely about parecon, and just parecon – with little reference to other spheres of social life. This is true in part because it is pretty much impossible to simultaneously address all sides of life fully in one work – though some works at least do so in an overarching way – such as the book Realizing Hope – and in part because of the aspects of life so far addressed, much more work has been done on economics than on other aspects. This asymmetry is little more than an artifact of creation and the times and history and mainly who got started first, and so on. Certainly it is not a statement about importance. If the authors of kin vision, or political vision, or cultural vision, had come first, and if those domains lent themselves as easily to a fuller presentation, then one or more of those would have the bulk of coverage to date, and not economy.
Still, I agree that so far the participatory society effort has had too little attention given to the non economic aspects of society. This is not built into its concepts or values, however. Quite the contrary. Rather, so far folks best able to extend the insights in many other domains have been too busy with other pursuits or perhaps made skeptical of vision, or of this overall approach, etc., by false concerns. At least some folks with a prior economics focus, have had time to pursue that domain more fully.
Parecon Is Gradualist/Reformist
This critic says participatory economics does not advocate an essential break in the here and now. Parecon is not revolutionary but will lead to a never ending limited pursuit ultimately going nowhere significant. Parecon is reformist.
However, to say one wants a new economy that is fundamentally transformed in its defining features is certainly saying one wants an essential break – even before talking about breaks in other dimensions of life as well. That others say they want a break, so to speak, but say nothing about what it would mean, and that parecon advocates say they want a break, so to speak, and say exactly what they mean, somehow diminishes the latter?
Do participatory economy advocates fight for and hope to win diverse reforms? Yes. Absolutely. Does that make them reformist? No. Absolutely not.
The point is trivial and has been repeated over and over. That it is still contentious seems to parecon advocates quite strange. Their response goes like this. Reforms are changes in the here and now which don’t fundamentally alter society’s defining relations, which means as well, they don’t usher in a participatory economy or society. So far, so true.
But, if one wants to usher in a participatory economy, should one be against higher pay for striking workers, a raise in minimum wages, a change in government spending, an end to a war, and so on? Of course not. One should be for these gains and countless others that people pursue, but also for winning a new economy, and, more broadly, a new society. So one should fight for those gains and others, but should do so in a way conceived not only to win the short run changes for their immediate benefits, but in a way conceived to increase the likelihood of further struggles that win further benefits. We should fight for reforms in a non reformist manner that creates organization, consciousness, and desires that ensure that upon winning reforms people want to win more and are in better position than earlier to do so.
I don’t believe the above reactions will satisfy all who register the claims and concerns indicated. In fact, to be honest, in some cases I don’t think anything would suffice to reduce concerns since in some cases I don’t think the concerns are held based primarily on reasoning or evidence, but, instead, merely as a means to defend some other long favored view or heritage, or to dismiss this one for reasons of distaste or defense of current relations, not dispute. This type of intellectual rigidity is not unique even to political dispute but occurs in every field, at least at times. It is, however, why it is particularly important for debate to engage more than just initial advocates and critics. It is the discipline that multiple serious participants can bring that can facilitate disputes being resolved – that, and history.
Hopefully this second part of the three part exploration of participatory economics will induce some more participation in these matters. As frustrating as I and some participatory economic advocates find some critics’ thinking, far more frustrating and disturbing is the response of others – bored aloofness or overt dismissal of matters that are, ultimately, of profound importance.
If Parecon is determined unworthy or un-implementable, okay – it should be dismissed as a vision and used only as a source of possible partial insights. But if it is both worthy and viable, it should be shared widely as a vision, and, in that capacity, help movements to win a better world. We should all be prepared to carry on if the former proves true, in that case working to find new vision. We should all also be prepared to carry on if the latter proves true, in that case building consistent movements and organizations, and winning that better world.