Reply to Staudenmaier 3

For purposes of exploration and debate with Libertarian Municipalism’s Peter Staudenmaier. See whole debate here.


Hi Peter,


We have to stop meeting like this — someone may get ideas…and I may get carpel tunnel…

I guess we had a confusion about our assignments. I thought one thread (this one) was to discuss social ecology’s vision (its whole vision, including politics) and the other was to discuss parecon. This thread, that is, would be you presenting social ecology’s vision and me critiquing and querying what you offered. I have to admit, I was most interested in hearing the political dimensions and trying to learn about them. The other thread would be me presenting parecon and you critiquing and querying what I offered. I think we have been perhaps functioning a bit differently than one another. But, no matter, what’s here is what’s here, and some issues are getting addressed.


Of course neither of us can address or present everything…in this format…


You say in reply to my asking how workers will impact big decisions greatly affecting them in their workplace if those decisions are taken entirely outside their workplace: "That isn’t an objection against an assembly-based model. In both a parecon framework and a social ecology framework, each workplace takes part in a process of negotiation which eventually yields a production goal. The difference between our two proposals concerns the forum for this process of negotiation: general assembly or network of interlinked councils."


The negotiation in parecon involves every producer and consumer in the society–the network encompasses the whole economy. More, they all participate both as individuals and also collectively — due to consuming in groups and also producing in groups, as well as being individuals. They all pay attention to a range of choices in their purview of involvement, not to everything, as well. This occurs because all economic decisions are entwined — each providing implications for the rest, and all together being resolvable only as a system. In the social ecology view, as I have understood it, each assembly is deciding pretty much on its own the activities of its members (consumption) and of the workplaces in its geographic area. The network in parecon has access to the full information — preferences, conditions, possibilities — throughout the whole economy and actors consult and utilize the parts of the whole that bear on their choices. The assembly in social ecology has what the people attending it bring to it, it seems to me. You could argue that the rest of the economy somehow interacts with the assembly providing it information and indicating its preferences, hearing back responses, negotiating, etc., with each and every assembly, but I don’t see how.


The social ecology view of the local geographic assembly as site of a negotiation including workers conjures an image for me of an assembly as having within itself subunits of each workplace (and consumer levels too). Otherwise, how do the workers in some plant negotiate with an assembly, which you say occurs? If this means the workers from each plant function as a unit and do so from outside the assembly and then presumably communicate in some manner with each assembly affected by their work, it becomes essentially workers councils interacting with consumers councils. On the other hand, if they negotiate from within the assembly, which I think is what you are saying, the picture is very hard for me to comprehend.


Thus, we have a big assembly meeting. Every workplace in the assembly’s region has all its folks in that assembly, and operating there as a kind of caucus. But in fact, all workers won’t be in that assembly, many living elsewhere. Also, how can some big assembly negotiate face to face, every workplace’s operations — especially, if the only thing anyone in there is consuming is coming from those workplaces, not any elsewhere, so that there must be a huge number of them? Third, most of the people who are affected by a workplace are in neither the assembly nor the workplace, but are other consumers elsewhere (unless, again, things are very fragmented/self sufficient). They seem excluded by this image unless they don’t exist. Finally, any workplace’s decisions are connected not only via their impact on the local populace around it (all in the assembly) and on its own workers (let’s say mostly in the assembly), and on other consumers elsewhere (none in the assembly), but also on all suppliers and on all workplaces they supply (many not in the assembly) — that is, dependent on or impacting other firms, elsewhere. Finally, it can’t be that an assembly decides much of anything about the economy, alone, it seems to me, because what it decides has to mesh with what is going on in other regions at other firms and for other consumers. If there is a steel plant in my region, how can my assembly decide its output unless we know the demand for steel everywhere else and unless we negotiate with all its sources, unless we know as well the supply coming from other units, particularly the availability of inputs used in making the steel, and so on, as but one example. But none of those other parties can make their decisions before we do, or after, but it all must happen together, as they are all interdependent.


Peter, you say that one can go too far into details and I very much agree with that. For one thing, many features are not fixed throughout a society, so trying to give single answers to questions is often even a waste of time, except perhaps as examples of possibilities. For another thing, we can’t even begin to know everything, of course. And finally, too much detail can stifle rather than propel discussion and participation.


But it is also true that we can provide too little substance to be able to even arrive at broad defining institutions. In leaving out treatment of virtually the entire array of problems and issues that allocation must deal with, one can make a proposal that is not in touch with what an economy has to achieve, and that therefore posits institutions which have some nice qualities, to be sure, but that fail on numerous other unconsidered counts. I think, regarding the economy, that is the situation for the social ecology view. I also think that when social ecologists do tackle the problems of inter-unit communication of supply and demand, not to mention of qualitative circumstances, or of involving all those affected appropriately in the decisions that affect them including dealing with externalities and public goods, or of having means to value products and inputs at true social costs, as but a few key points, it will become evident that the negotiation that occurs if there is to be a decentralized and democratic settling on a plan has to have certain qualities which can’t be had without various methods of culling information from throughout the economy, involving actors individually and in groups — including among the groups various levels of consumption and production, and so on.


I think your your answer to all the above is that social ecology’s assemblies, and their regions, are essentially operating self reliantly, overwhelmingly not interactively with one another. That is why you go on to say…


"It is certainly true that basic manufacturing spans `the whole country’ (indeed the whole world) today, but there is no economic reason why this must be the case, and there are several political and ecological reasons for considering a less far-flung approach to production."


Actually, there are very good reason why it often should be the case and I suspect there are no political or ecological reasons why it shouldn’t be, other than case by case. That is, should people living in places with less resources suffer by virtue of that fact and those who live in places with more resources enjoy great benefit? If not, then there must be great exchange. How do resources get from where they are to where they are needed? Are there no population centers? If there are, food, garbage, power, all kinds of things have to be used at point x though produced often far away at point y. What about food that requires different climates? And this is all before noting that for many items large scale production is greatly beneficial. Are we going to have planes or some comparable though better means of flight? If so, it won’t be the case that there is a workplace to produce the planes used in Boston in Boston, one for planes used in Syracuse in Syracuse, and so on. Planes and countless other products (think of what you need in a hospital, say…) will be better produced in a few large plants than in an immense number of small ones, even in a wonderful economy. And it isn’t even only that the economies of scale will save labor time and reduce the required inputs — though that would be reason enough. It is also, often, ecologically more sound. Think of a plant to manufacture bicycles. What are the relative merits of having one in every little town producing a hundred bikes a year, versus having some huge ones that produces tens of thousands a year? The latter can have far better controls for waste at far less cost, use far less energy, time, labor, resources, and so on, even accounting for shipping the bikes, I suspect. So what is the choice? Not one we should make a priori by requiring local self sufficiency, certainly.


Mainly, it seems to me that social ecology posits pretty much as an axiom that we must have all socially important decisions about the economy made in face to face geographic assemblies, each dealing with its own range of suppliers that don’t overlap with the rest rest of the country, but are also in the region. This leads to the demand for small scale self-sufficiency, etc., though nothing like it would be remotely attainable even if we did make it a priority. But I still have no idea why you posit the assemblies alone, and largely operating at only one level, as some kind of bedrock requirement. I have no idea what you think they provide that is so valuable that you are willing to forego economies of scale, appropriate decision making input for all actors (that is, workers), accurate valuation, and so on, to have them.


You say, "One of the least appealing elements of your theory, in my eyes, is its postulation of an integrated economy on the scale of the existing United States. Parecon accepts this aspect of current economic reality, while social ecology would like to alter it in the direction of regional and local economies, as far as basic production is concerned, without falling into a myopic insistence on reduced scale or self-reliance for its own sake."


The economy is integrated period. That is a fact of life, not dependent on anyone’s view. Things done in one place impact possibilities elsewhere. Yes, one can reduce it, somewhat, but it won’t go away, nor do I see any reason why we should want it to. That is, why reduce integration, meant here as a flow of products and inputs from area to area? Well, I agree we should reduce it if doing so improves things that we care about. If it improves solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management. If it improves output per assets. If it reduces negative by-products. Social ecology prejudges all this by deciding in advance that we will simply push toward small and self sufficient for what you call "basic goods." I don’t know what "basic" means here, but I don’t see any reason to prejudge it for any product or process because it is possible to have a system that instead let’s us make choices case by case. So, parecon lets us choose to invest in decentralizing to many productive units where that makes sense, and to invest, instead, in large units where that makes sense. If that degree of choice were impossible, if we had to opt either for massive and centralized or for modest and self sufficient, one or the other as an aim to constantly pursue, then I could see an argument that said more times than not smaller is better so let’s err on the side of smaller. But we aren’t in that situation, and often times smaller is worse, and parecon gives us economic means to pick scale and degree of self-sufficiency and/or mutual dependency for each good in terms of its actual properties, availability, processes, and so on.


When you say "Each assembly establishes the production goal for the workplaces within its boundaries, with other nearby assemblies participating at the confederal level when appropriate. When inputs are required from other locales, direct trade can be arranged through the larger confederal networks to which each assembly belongs," this is an example of what I mean when I say you are assuming your results but not presenting any case for them. To me this is minimizing the whole economic problem of allocation. It will be appropriate lots of the time, almost all the time, to have broad inputs from many sources affecting decisions, and a great deal of the time to have items from area x winding up in area y and vice versa.


You say: "This does not require considering `worker and consumer preferences from all over the country,’ unless you assume a single bicycle factory supplying the entire country, which we do not." Where does any bicycle factory gets its steel from, its rubber or finished tires, the gears it uses, the tools, and so on? What you are saying, or implying, is that everything that the workplace uses comes from within the geographic confines of the assembly it is in…which is just not reality.


You say "assemblies are … the pre-eminent place where everybody can think comprehensively and collectively about economic options and debate them fully. I think that kind of holistic perspective is much more difficult to attain in a council model." It sounds good, but what it really says, it seems to me, is that assemblies of some rough size — let’s say 50,000 people — are virtually the sole place for deciding economic choices. This underplays larger units and smaller. It says I can do a better job thinking about my workplace in a big assembly than in my workplace with my workmates. It says I can do a better job thinking about the whole country in the assembly, than in a process involving the whole country. Again, if the choice is either we do it all in yoru preferred size assembly — or we do it all in just a workers councils, or just a national scale assembly or just our living units, etc., maybe I can see saying do it all in your size assembly. By why do we have to do it all in any one place? Why is any one place made preeminent? Why can’t arriving at an economic plan involve activity in many places and at many levels, occurring interactively?


When I say "I don’t see any mechanism that permits social ecology’s geographic assemblies to amass relevant information," you answer "I haven’t described such mechanisms because I am happy to adopt yours, with the exceptions I have already noted in previous posts."


I am happy to hear that, but parecon’s mechanisms involve an exchange of information that occurs on a national scale, involving units of many different sizes, involving negotiation among them, and so on. You rule all that out. But that’s where the information comes from and it is because the units are engaging in the determination of their activities and doing so in context of certain incentives and responsibilities that the information is valid and arrives at accurate representations of true social costs. If you say you accept it but then in fact, that you do not accept it — I am left saying you have no mechanism.


You say, you "want `each level of concern’ to be addressed simultaneously and in light of the other levels, to the extent possible," and we agree on that. But each level is the individual consumer, the living unit, the neighborhood, the county, the state, the region, the country — and the individual worker, the work team, the department, the division, the workplace, the industry, and the whole country’s economic production capacity. You can’t have one-size assemblies, each operating largely unto itself, simultaneously address all that, or even much of it. Even if we ignore the absence of information and of means to accommodate the choices of each assembly with the rest. What parecon does to deal with all that at once is to have a planning process which interactively involves units of all levels and arrives at final decisions about each level only in the final plan — with every refinement along the way providing context for each actor’s deliberations and choices.


When you say "The virtues and faults of the product, and how much total social labor is allocated to its production, are not the sort of thing that the current workforce can `know best’. These are social decisions that involve the general interests of the whole community; they are not the special province of those immediately engaged in the manufacturing process." You are part right. They are the kinds of things that involve workers and consumers, not either or. So they need a method that incorporates the information, preferences, and will and desires of both workers and consumers. I very much agree. But I don’t think social ecology’s conception does that, excluding many consumers of the products, many affected by by-products and externalities, many suppliers impacted by or impacting the choice, and under representing the wills of the workers involved, as well.


In social ecology an assembly decides for the firms in its region. All of them. The decision-making problem is that many affected are excluded, as noted earlier. And the workers in the plant have too little say but basically must simply abide the decision which they have impacted marginally. The efficiency problem is that there is insufficient information and no accurate valuation. As to parecon, allocation decisions there are not made in any specific place. Allocation occurs as an entwined cooperative project. The plan emerges from the whole negotiation. There isn’t some place where some set of people say, okay, we have decided–other than the whole society.




When I questioned social ecology’s having relevant information you say "You and I disagree about what `appropriate’ means in this context (because we disagree about how to determine what individuals "deserve"), but we don’t disagree on the information required." Correct, we agree on the information required. But what I am saying is that social ecology’s local geographic assemblies have no mechanism to gather the information required. Yes, if we have in essence a huge number of tiny countries, each not trading with the rest but operating self sufficiently, each with a relatively small number of products, not a hundred thousand or more, then, yes, an assembly could simply book-keep the information, sure. But that has nothing to do with a real economy, in my view.


Suppose we were talking about how a hundred people stranded on an island would operate. They divide up tasks and responsibilities and as a result have working units. They have living groups, too. But I wouldn’t say the working units and the living units, in layers, should each find a separate corner and then communicate info around to each other, using a multi-iteration negotiation, to arrive at a plan for their small economy. I would agree with you that they could do this in a big assembly, all there, dealing with everything. Sure. And that would be more efficient and quick and also perhaps more engaging than the "parecon" approach for this group, for economics. But, Peter, a society with a hundred million people is not like that. And to make it like that, by dividing it into little units in order for each sub unit to be able, in its impoverishment from the rest and the opportunities the larger scale afforded, just so economic decisions can all be made in one place makes no sense to me at all.  


In response to my saying "social ecology seems to me to assume a can opener regarding economics" you say: "No, we assume the ability to act intelligently and responsibly and to devote collective attention to varying needs and potentials. This is not substantially different from what parecon assumes. I think you harbor these suspicions toward social ecology because we haven’t yet produced a detailed economic vision, but that is not at all the same thing as simply wishing away difficult economic questions."


No…I really did mean what I wrote. Yes, the fact you haven’t produced a full vision is a factor, of course. But Peter, my honest problem is having not done so, I don’t understand how you can be so attached to particular points you currently feel might be right. In other words, until you do show how the main features work and yield desirable results, how can you propose them and call them a vision? To say workplaces will operate thusly, and assemblies will operate so and so — for example to say assemblies make the defining decisions for economic units in their locale — and to say this is a serious vision means, it seems to me, that you believe it works. But you can’t believe that until you see whether it really does. A half a bridge can’t really be evaluated. Does social ecology’s approach yield accurate valuations. Does it gives people proper input? Does it have workable incentives? And on and on…not into picayune details, but at the level of broad economic operations. You are right, I don’t see any of that dealt with…and yes, I think it is because you all haven’t done it. But I just don’t understand how you can be strongly wedded to a feature you think might be part of a whole vision without having a case that it works in toto, in a whole vision. So I assume you believe it works in toto — and in the absence of having even raised the relevant questions, I’m sorry, but to me that equates to your assuming a can opener.


Other than the economics of allocation, another big issue for us seems to be decision making. In putting forth social ecology you say "I do not agree with your proportionality principle. I think that people affected by a decision should impact the decision equally."


You are surprised at my incredulity over this, but I am in turn surprised you say it, because, I contend, in point of fact you do not actually believe it — indeed, I think no one does, anywhere. What you may believe, instead, is something like this: Among all those who make any decision, all should be affected by it, and all should impact it equally. But this will not be everyone affected by it, to be sure, and those ruled out will have been ruled out, by and large, precisely on grounds they aren’t affected as much.


So…every decision in every workplace, every decision by every consumer, every economic choice anyone makes, has at least some impact on virtually everyone else. This is just a fact. I think we agree on it. Yet you don’t say every decision should be made by everyone and with all having equal say.


I gave lots of specific examples bearing on this issue, I think I remember, and you haven’t responded to any of them, at least yet. Why not? I have a yard. If I water it, it is that much less water available to the rest of society. Does the whole society vote in an assembly? If not, then you have some kind of lower bound on who should be in on any vote, and if the affect is less than that, people don’t participate in the decision. Okay, I am going to drive my car. The pollution will affect everyone, likewise the maintenance of roads and so on. In fact, in sum total, the affect on others begins to approximate the affect on me. What allocation procedure do you favor that will let everyone affected impact the outcome, and how much impact should each have? I am at work. I want to listen to music in my work space. Do I decide alone? Do others have a say? Who? Is everyone involved to have one vote. I and my neighbor to my left love heavy metal. The neighbor to my right can’t stand it. Do we get to out vote him and party on? These aren’t little matters…if you favor equal input into decisions than you can’t have some actors having more say and others less say, if you are able to avoid that.


You say "As I’ve said in previous rounds in our exchange, two norms are guiding for me: inclusion and equality." I don’t think this is coherent. It must be, instead, inclusion of all those affected above some level — but even then, it just can’t be true in your system. Workplaces have by-products. They aren’t confined in their impact to a single geographic region. Therefore there are people all over, not just locally, who are affected by workplace decisions — output decisions and technology choices and so on. But you have people only in the hosting assembly of the region making the decisions. So your inclusion norm is violated. When you say that the workers will decide their local choices, which choices? Not how much to produce — but why not? Because you feel it impacts others. Okay, what about which ingredients to use? Well that impacts others too, via by-products. In fact, everything impacts others, more or less.


What a system that seeks to broadly abide both your norms in spirit has to do, it seems to me, is to include people in decisions that affect them, and give people equal power in the sense that for each decision they all have the same standard applying — impact in proportion to the degree affected.


There is to be a new dam. It affects all of the country by impacting the price of electricity as well as many other variables. In general it will be very beneficial. The dam will flood an area where some people live. Does everyone get an equal say so that those people are just screwed by being a small minority and losing the vote? I don’t believe that you mean that, but it is the implication of what you are saying, it seems to me. More, what assembly is this decided in, in any event?




I wrote "I hope social ecology arrives at a political vision that I can adopt, to go with parecon." you replied "Aye, there’s the rub. You’re looking for somebody who can do for ‘the polity’ what you and Hahnel have done for ‘the economy’. But social ecology means something qualitatively different by politics, and as a consequence it can’t and won’t fulfill your expectations. For social ecology, confederally affiliated direct democracy is politics, and economics is simply one aspect of communal self-management."


I am not entirely sure what the above means — but surely you would agree, wouldn’t you, that part of politics is adjudication of disputes, legislation, implementation of shared program and maintenance of the means, among other features. That’s why I asked you if your assemblies are also courts, among other questions. You are right I would like to see a political vision in more depth. I want to see someone say here’s broadly the institutions that would replace (or augment or refine or whatever) our judicial system, our legislative system, the police apparatus, the executive and its branches. I noted that I think assembly democracy is very good as a start regarding legislation, but it isn’t a whole picture, even at a broad level.


I asked about a lot of this and you didn’t answer specifically. Am I to understand that you don’t think these are real issues?


I wrote "social ecology doesn’t seem to say how what is legislated would be enforced and how disputes would be dealt with or how rights would be defined and preserved, punishments determined, redress arrived at, justice defined and attained. It doesn’t say how what is called for by assemblies (such as large projects and things like, say, a health agency, etc.) would be implemented and then overseen, even broadly. If I had a feeling for these matters I could indicate my general agreement (as with assembly direct democracy) or disagreement, but I don’t."


Are you saying I shouldn’t have a feeling for it. That is, that social ecology’s political vision is silent on such matters because it thinks such matters shouldn’t be addressed, or will disappear, or something?


I raised very specific examples with a case study — I wish you would answer it. I really want very much to know how social ecologists think about these political matters.


So, I wrote, "Take a very simple example. Presumably our new society has vehicles, or let’s say it does, anyhow. Are there speed limits? If so how are they legislated? What happens to a violater? Are there penalties, if so how are they decided and enforced? What if there is a dispute, how is that settled? This example involves legislation — setting the norm or law and establishing the agenda for the agencies involved in executing it. It involves implementation — the agencies must exist (police?) and operate and be overseen. And it involves adjudication (courts?, methods?) in the case of disputes and in the determination of guilt, redress, and so on. I just don’t have a feeling for how social ecology’s political aspirations lead to institutional structures affecting even these matters, much less more complicated matters, like abortion or euthanasia or what to do about drunks, even, and so on."


These are among the questions I have when someone tells me they have a political vision. Do you think they are inappropriate? If you think they are reasonable, then what are social ecology’s views on such matters, even broadly?


I don’t understand, either, why the issue of remunerating need largely disappeared from the exchange. Have we resolved anything, there?


I said it was "(a) utopian in that we can’t all have what we want if we say everything we would like to have without any restraints, and (b) if we are instead supposed to limit our requests this approach includes no means by which we can know what limits are appropriate — includes no means to know what we deserve based on our work or anything else, for example."


I don’t know your answer.


I am not sure how much further we are taking this — I have a feeling it is too long and has too much assumed for this format for others to benefit much from — but for myself, I would like to know more about these last matters…social ecology’s political vision.

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