Reply to Review In Global Magazine, Italy

I recently received through the mail a rough translation to English of a review of a book I have published this past April. The review was titled “Post-Capitalism Against One’s Will” and was written by Simona Bonsignori. I though ti tmight be helpful to offer a brief reply.

The book is about economics and offers very specific proposals for how to organize workplaces, consumption, and allocation differently than via current corporate divisions of labor, private ownership of productive assets, top-down authoritarian decision making, pursuit of profit or surplus, and market allocation. The new features of parecon, some familiar from practice, some more original, include workers and consumers councils, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, self managed decision making methods, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning, including diverse features of the latter.

Bonsignori criticizes that the book doesn’t address the issue of “political representation and its crisis.” This is an odd crticism, I think. This particular book doesn’t address lots of very important things — the sex life of teenagers, the intricacies of mothering and fathering, the subtle and powerful dyanmics of cultural identification of ethnic groups and races, political institutions for legislating, adjudicating, or implementing shared programs, and, yes, political representation and its crisis. That is correct. Like most books, this one doesn’t address everything. I recommend to Bonsignori the web site I work on, ZNet, which does address all these matters, and much more, including writings by me on many of them.

Bonsignori says I maintain that Parecon could work in an authoritarian political system, and she wonders if that might be precisely parecon’s worst shortcoming. This concern I can’t quite fathom. I am not sure what she read that led to the worry. I wish she had included a quotation. My own actual view is that an economy, polity, kinship system, and culture exist in a society. Each is inextricably entwined with the others. These systems, in a given society, must be at least largely compatible with one another, or there would be turmoil and change. Parecon’s economic roles require workers and consumers who are ready to participate in decisions and economic activity equally with others and the economic life of a parecon also generates such people, being a kind of school, in a sense, that attunes us to participate in social exchange and especially self managed decision making. It is very hard indeed to imagine a society having a participatory economy alongside an authoritarian polity. The citizens, due to their equal and universally empowering economic experiences, and utilizing their economically grounded solidarity, with their economically secure and just incomes, and anticipating diversity, would rebel against restrictive political relations.

Bonsignori also castigates the book as being divorced from practical experiences. This too strikes me as strange — and I wonder if perhaps there is a translation problem — not least because the introduction does, in fact, right at the outset situate the discussion relative to various current worldly projects.

I wonder what experiences Bonsignori has in mind to assess in our thinking about what we desire for a new economy. Presumably, it is past efforts to transcend capitalism in a whole economy. And it is also partial efforts within institutions inside capitalism that have been undertaken to discover and utilize new and better modes of operation. I agree. I think we should certainly pay close attention to these kinds of experiences.

And in fact, of course, I have paid attention to them. If Bonsignori is interested in the patterns of thought and exploration of experiences that have gone into arriving at parecon, there are quite a few books in which my efforts to understand the Soviet, Chinese, and Cuban experiences, for example, as well as the whole heritages of socialism and anarchism, and more recent schools of thought and practice, are put forth. Likewise, I have myself been involved in creating a number of institutions within capitalism that have embodied new norms and approaches — experiences that have informed the emergence of parecon as an economic vision. In fact, it is hard to see what more an individual could do in the way of paying attention to real events and experiences on the road to offering a vision, than decades of studying and also constructing and interacting within relevant projects.

Does this book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, present all that experiential study and practice in detail? No. This book presents the results of examining and extrapolating from experiences and views of history, not the whole process of doing so. It makes the case for parecon in a way especially relevant to the reader’s task at hand, which is judging the vision, and rejecting it or extrapolating from it.

A vision isn’t good or bad because it emerged from looking at history or from personal or collective experience. Familiarity with experience is very probably necessary to thinking effectively about what we want. I agree. It was for me, certainly. But examining experience, and sharing it, does not guarantee effective thinking about what we want. In fact, I imagine the conceiver’s of every distopia spent plenty of time thinking about experiences.

No, a vision is good or bad because it fulfills desirable aspirations or not. The substance of a vision is what matters in judging a vision. If someone proposes a centrally planned economy, or a market economy, or a hierarchical polity, we don’t claim they did or didn’t examine some past experience or they did or didn’t work in a project embodying their aims as our way of being critical or of supporting the vision they propose. IF they did or didn’t, it might well be evident in their clarity, of course. But to judge their proposals, we look at the vision itself, we determine and examine its properties, and we indicate whether we like those properties or not. Some presentations of a vision may utilize descriptions of how it emerges from history and experiences. Other presentations may emphasize the vision’s components and their logic, more. Presentations of parecon take both forms, though this book is largely the latter. But the issue about a vision is the substance of the institutions and their logic and implications.

Most of the rest of Bonsignori’s review seems to reflect that Bonsignori perhaps read the book a bit quickly, maybe under deadline.

For example, Bonsignori doubts people can work less in a parecon — but of course people in a parecon can work at whatever duration and intensity they choose. In fact, the only professional economist critique I have heard of parecon is precisely about this issue. The professional economists complain, opposite to Bonsignori, that people in a parecon would choose to have a much shorter work week since the compulsion to accumulate has been removed. The economists are correct, they probably would, though of course I think this is a virtue, not a debit, of the system. This issue is addressed in a number of places I the book, including a whole chapter responding to the criticism that at least relates to what parecon in fact implies, the reverse of Bonsignori’s concern.

Bonsignori wonders if having to do a balanced job complex removes some range for the expression of free will. Yes, it does — and the book is very explicit about this, as well. It removes options, that is, just as not allowing murder removes options, or not allowing a person to own slaves or to be a slave. In a parecon, the work options we choose among are balanced for empowerment effects. We can’t choose to do only empowering tasks as our work, or only debilitating tasks, because the available jobs each contain a mix that is average in its overall empowerment and quality of life impact. This is a bit rushed as a presentation, but the point is hopefully clear enough. In current capitalist economies we don’t have the option of choosing a balanced job complex. We must choose a job that fits at some position in a hierarchical division of labor, because that is what the economy offers us. In a parecon, Bonsignori is right, we also have a limit. In a parecon we can’t do only surgery, or only compose operas, or only manage others’ labors. A parecon offers only balanced job complexes, each comparable to the rest in their empowerment attributes. But this means, as well, that no one will be left with only obeying.

Bonsignori says that while the questions “what do we want” and “what should we do to get it” are good ones, I give them too much weight — feeling they are pressing and we need to arrive at compelling shared answers soon. She’s right. I do think having shared answers sooner — answers which we can, of course, improve as we learn more — would be better than having them later. I think vision is needed to provide hope, to orient our critiques of the present, to inform how we organize and the demands we make and how we structure our own projects. It is hard to see how the paucity of attention we in the movement give to answering a question that the public puts to us almost without pause, is overdoing it. But others can judge.

Interestingly Bonsignori urges that it is more reasonable to extrapolate from current experiements in alternative ways of doing things than from past grand undertakings like the Paris Commune or the Spanish Anarchists efforts. Okay, maybe, but why would that be a criticism of parecon, I wonder…since it is largely how parecon has emerged.

I’d be curious how Bonsignori answers people who ask, what do you want? How does she answer people who say, sure, I know poverty hurts. I know war is hell. I know that laboring under the harsh office of managers and owners is debilitating. I know that markets alienate, commercialize, and individuate us. I know that misdirection of production in pursuit of profit rather than personal well being is horrific. I know these things…but what do you want instead? To moan about these pains is like moaning about gravity or earthquakes. If you have no alternative, moaning is useless. So what is your alternative to the workplaces I endure, the markets that crush my spirit, and the income that leaves me so little to consume?

I think we need answers. Parecon tries to provide at least a few.

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