Reply to Albert 2

Dear Michael,

It seems to me that in responding to my questions, you have restated your wishes, but have failed to demonstrate how those wishes might be fulfilled.

You claim, for example, that people will "modify [their] requests" for goods and services according to "other people’s preferences": in other words, that if the people of Bangladesh don’t want us to raise sea levels by consuming too many fossil fuels, we will respond to that request by raising the price and reducing our consumption of fossil fuels.

By why would the communities consuming fossil fuel do this? What is their incentive to modify their demand?  I have chosen my example carefully, because just this request is being made by countries like Bangladesh today, yet even those people who care about what is happening – in other words people of the kind you assume will be inhabiting your parecons – have not responded to that request. Have you stopped flying? Have I? When our impact on the environment is considered, just about all that distinguishes you and I from most other people is that we feel guilty about the way we live. But it hasn’t stopped us from living that way. And for every one of us, there are ten, twenty, perhaps one hundred who couldn’t care less about the distant consequences of their actions, and many who even appear to take a perverse pleasure in consuming scarce resources and stuffing the poor. 

Yet, under parecon, you assume that everyone will volunteer to live as if the lives of other people are as important to them as their own. Why will they do so?

It seems to me that you are making the grand error that Ernst Callenbach made in Ecotopia, of assuming a world inhabited by "people like us"; only in this case you take it even further, to assume a world inhabited by people like us living as we know we ought to live, rather than in the hypocritical way in which we do.

You tell me "it is important to realize that parecon is a very different animal than prior economies. Incentives, rewards, options, and possibilities are all dramatically transformed." But the human beings who inhabit your parecon are not "very different animals", unless you have found some means of dramatically transforming us.

Are you, in other words, proposing to alter human nature? If so, how? By mass indoctrination? If that is that case, the indoctrinators, like Aldous Huxley’s controllers, become all-powerful. By goodwill to all mankind? If so, then you are talking about a dreamworld, for history shows us that goodwill, such as the goodwill shown by many of the Native Americans to the white settlers, merely provides opportunities for exploitation.

You respond that I am "taking lessons from history and seek[ing] to determine if they create a problem for parecon." Well yes I am. Can you suggest a better guide to the likely outcomes of a system? It is because of the persistance of certain human characteristics that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

The underlying problem with your system, in other words, is that it does not anticipate, still less counteract, the obvious human responses to the opportunities for power and exploitation it creates. It takes no account of human cunning, human greed, the human appetite for power. As a result, and I am deeply sorry to say this, it cannot possibly work.

You dismiss the lessons of history with a flick of the wrist here, a flick of the wrist there.

You claim that under parecon, there is "not a market. No one is competing." But history show us that wherever there is the opportunity for a market to form, it will do so and people will compete within it, unless (and even when) totalitarian measures are applied. Indeed, you go on to show that in your system a market exists and has to exist. Only you don’t call it a market: you call it "institutions of international exchange". What is an institution of exchange if it is not a market?

You claim that under parecon, "there is no cash", so people cannot accumulate value. But history shows us that whenever money is useful to them, people will create it. Indeed, your system requires a unit of account (the "income" which people earn from their "balanced job complexes"), a unit of exchange (the means by which communities value and swap resources) and a store of value (without which distribution cannot take place across time). In other words, it demands all the three functions currently fulfilled by money. It cannot function without money or something which, if called by a different name, does what money does today.

You say that people would have no incentive to cheat because they already have "desirable income and conditions". But have you not seen that "desirable" in human society means more than the next man has? That human beings understand many things, but not the concept of sufficiency? 

You assume that people will not cheat because "it is against the social grain of the system". But history shows us that cheating happens precisely because overt action runs against the social grain. In mediaevel Europe, usury (charging interest on loans) was not just "against the social grain of the system"; it was punishable by excommunication and eternal damnation. But did that prevent usury? The hell it did. People just found means of disguising what they were doing, from other people and even from themselves, and reinvented under a different name the prohibited system. Exactly the same thing happens in the Muslim world today.

In the north-east of Brazil and in Kenya and Tanzania, I worked for years with communities whose social grain, arising from hundreds of years of community life, was far deeper and stronger than that of any community we might create. There I saw some of the grimmest examples of exploitation I have ever come across: of Maasai elders using the opportunities they perceived to steal the land belonging to their own communities; of peasant farmers staking a claim to common land and hiring gunmen to torture and kill those who challenged it (they very nearly killed me). This is the reality of how people even in the strongest communities behave when they have half a chance. Yet your system, as far as I can see, proposes no means of preventing them from doing so. Indeed it does not even appear to envisage that they might.

In capitalism we confront a formidable enemy. It is so effective because it responds to and exploits those human characteristics you overlook. It works because it relies upon the greed and the dreams of ordinary people. This is why it has reinvented itself, in modern times, more often and more effectively than monarchy, feudalism and classical slave-based systems (indeed, where monarchy, feudalism and slavery persist, they do so as capitalism’s vassals). Under monarchy, no one imagines he will be king except the heirs to the throne. Under capitalism, almost everyone dreams that one day, somehow, he will be king.

Any non-capitalist system we devise must, if it is to persist, be stronger than capitalism, stronger, in other words, than the most robust, resilient, adaptable and ingenious system humankind has ever created. I freely admit that I have not devised, or even attempted to devise, an alternative to capitalism, so I expose the weakness of my own thinking even as I expose the weakness of yours. I commend you and thank you for seeking to fill the gap.

But if the hopes you have expressed here are the only fortifications your castle possesses, I fear that it will fall apart at the first whiff of human nature. Unless you can show how you have taken the endlessly-demonstrated, endlessly-repeated instances of human cunning, power and greed into account and how you will counteract them, you have simply written a prescription for the tyranny of the cunning, the powerful and the greedy. You may unwittingly have devised a world even worse than the one we have today.

You talk of "attaining parecon" much as Buddhists talk of attaining Nirvana, and I fear that this is what it is: a system which describes how human beings OUGHT to live, but not how they could or would. I’m sorry Michael. I really wanted to believe it could work, I really wanted to place parecon among the possible worlds we could inhabit. But a system which takes no account of human weakness is a system which might work for another planet, inhabited by the good and pure beings we ought to be. It cannot work for ours.

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