Reply to Staudenmaier


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


Peter, you begin by saying we must turn our attention to the social structures that can make a free society more likely. I agree.


You say social ecology favors "people managing their own lives, consciously and collectively, for the good of the communities they are part of." Does it therefore mean that people should to the extent possible impact decisions in proportion to the degree they are affected by those decisions? If not, please tell me why. If it does mean that, we agree.


You say that instead of "handing over decision-making power to experts, professionals, representatives, or bureaucrats, social ecology foresees all people participating directly in the self-management of their communal affairs." One could read that to mean that you wouldn’t have experts and that a group could never agree to abide decisions made by recallable representatives. But I take it that instead social ecology’s concern is how, given that some people will and should develop great knowledge, skills, and insights by pursuing particular fields deeply, decision-making occurs with appropriate inputs by all who are affected and no disproportionate influence for experts. Is that the aim? Are you saying there is no place in politics for representatives deliberating and voting, by some algorithm, even with recall, challenges, and so on — so that all decisions must be by referendum?


You say social ecology "envisions a network of community assemblies" as the foundation of direct democracy. I know the piece was short, but I wonder, what voting procedure do the assemblies utilize? Which assemblies decide what issues? What happens when people in an assembly differ strongly and claim to have rights that might be abridged by a majority? What happens when two or more assemblies differ from one another? Are assemblies courts, as well as legislative bodies? Do they decide disputes and prosecute criminals? If so, how are guilt, innocence, accountability, and redress resolved? Similarly, are there institutions concerned more or less with what the food and drug administration and related agencies supposedly do now, executive functions? If so, are they part of the polity? How are they administered? How are their guidelines set?


I assume you don’t think that a neighborhood assembly should decide whether I have an outdoor barbecue in my backyard tomorrow night, or if I must instead eat indoors. But if the local assembly shouldn’t decide my personal dinner choices, what are the limits on any particular assembly’s jurisdiction, both downward and upward? What decisions are left to smaller units? What decisions must be made in larger units?


Regarding economics, as compared to politics, I wonder why social ecology thinks a geographically defined assembly should be the primary site for making a decision about a workplace, instead of the workers in that workplace? Why should neighborhood assemblies decide the procedures that go on in workplaces without workers there ever meeting as such, voting as such? Or similarly for deciding who produces what items and in what quantities? Or for deciding what each person consumes, for that matter? I didn’t see the rationale for this in your piece, again, perhaps because of length.


Economic decisions most often require the accommodation of many wills often of distant individuals and groups. It seems to me that this should occur preferably through cooperative negotiation, with proportionate input and ample back and forth refinement of wills. I should not have the same say as you about your work day, and vice versa. Most people’s main justification for impacting your work situation, who don’t work with you, that is, will be the extent to which they will be using what you produce or affected by its by-products, and most such people are unlikely to even be in your local assembly. Finally, and I think very importantly, whoever makes decisions will need proper valuations of the implications of alternative choices on workers, on consumers, and on the environment. Where does this information come from for social ecology’s local assemblies unless there is an allocation system to bring it into being and convey it, something social ecology doesn’t seem to address.


You say "local assemblies have the final say in major economic decisions." I imagine we can agree that how many bicycles or tons of wheat or computer chips to produce are major decisions. But how long I am going to work each week is directly related to that type decision and contributes to it, and similarly for how much I am going to consume. Economics is entwined. No mechanism can sensibly decide any single part other than in knowledge of the implications for all other parts. This is what allocation is about. Saying that a geographically defined body should make "major decisions" doesn’t describe actual, desirable and workable institutions for providing the information and dispersing appropriate influence over such decisions.


So, for example, you say, "all members of a given community participate in formulating economic policy, which is discussed, debated, and decided upon within the popular assembly." But does this mean everybody discusses in a local assembly the amount of coal to mine, of electricity to provide, of pianos to build? If so, with what information, which came from where? And why do we all discuss each thing — given that there are hundreds of thousands of such topics.  And then how do we vote on all these things? And do we just vote once, and that’s it, with no process by which our views and preferences are accommodated — much less the views and preferences of people who aren’t in the assembly but who are nonetheless affected?


You say that in social ecology "workers at a particular enterprise will typically live in the same municipality where they work." This is largely true now, except for unusual cases but why is it even a positive aim? One scale or degree of dispersal will be better than another in any particular case, if it has better implications for utilizing assets to produce desired outputs in accord with values we hold dear. An economy needs to let people arrive at proper judgments about these matters case by case, and without a priori bias. Descriptions of institutions with such flexible capacity seems to be missing from social ecology.


You say you "also foresee a continual voluntary rotation of jobs, tasks, and responsibilities." I don’t understand why. Do you mean I do one job, then I switch to another, then I switch again, over some period of time? That might be something I’d want to do, but I also might find it a horrifying suggestion. For example, maybe I want to keep doing surgery for decades, or musical composition, or house building, or taking care of kids, or whatever else. If I switch from managerial position to managerial position, or from rote and obedient position to rote and obedient position, for example, what does that accomplish? Rotation is a wrong solution, I think, to the problem of fixed hierarchies. It doesn’t necessarily even address the problem and it certainly creates others.


You say, "Along with the rejection of bosses, profits, wages, and exchange value, we seek to overcome capitalism’s reduction of human beings to instruments of production and consumption."


What do you mean by rejecting "exchange value"? If you mean you want to get rid of market prices that reflect bargaining power, I certainly agree. But if you mean you want to eliminate indicators of the relative social worth of economic inputs and outputs, then I would have to disagree. Indeed, one of our large differences may be that social ecology ignores the need for an economy to have means to establish the relative value of all the different uses to which assets can be put, if people are to choose among those uses.


You say "specific tasks can be delegated to specialized committees, but substantive issues of public concern are subject to the discretion of each popular assembly." The problem with this is that almost every decision regarding allocation is of public concern, so what does it mean to say that public concern issues have to be dealt with in a public assembly? With what mechanism for arriving at views, for expressing them, for determining which ones to abide, for accommodating with other parts of the economy, and for getting anyone to abide the decisions, are they to be dealt with?


You say "direct democracy encourages the formation and contestation of competing views and arguments, so that for any given decision there will be several distinct options available, each of them crafted by the people who will carry them out." This seems true for a workers council addressing a proposal about workplace organization, or for a consumers council addressing a proposal about its neighborhood consumption. But I don’t see how it works for a geographically based public assembly addressing issues of workplace organization, output levels, or remuneration. The workers in question are the centrally affected constituency, but in geographic assemblies they wouldn’t be centrally collectively engaged in the process, .


You say "social ecology’s vision of a moral economy centers on libertarian communism, in which the fruits of common labor are freely available to all. This principle of from each according to ability and to each according to need is fleshed out by a civic ethic in which concern for the common welfare shapes individual choices."


I think there is a lot of confusion about what it means to say remuneration should be to "each according to need"? Does it mean for social ecologists that I should get what I say that I need even if I am perfectly able to work and I choose not to do so? What if I say I need way above the social average consumption but I work well below the average level of effort? Is that okay?


If we say what we really want, what we all want to consume will exceed greatly what we all want to produce. If we expect this won’t happen, or will be negotiated away, then we are assuming that everyone will regulate his or her statements of need to be responsible. We’ll get get what we say we need, yes, but somehow we will all only say that we need what, in fact, it is fair for us to be getting. But how do we all manage to regulate ourselves so wisely? How do we know how much to seek such that we don’t ask for more (or less) than the amount it is appropriate for us to receive? How does the economy provide us information and contexts that let’s us determine what is appropriate, and that even compels us to do so?


An allocation system needs to hear, in some manner, what people want to consume and what they want to do at work, so that it can determine the relative values of economic options and so actors can then make decisions in light of those relative values. To ignore all this, and say only that people will get what they need, seems to me to dodges economic reality.


The real allocation question is how can a system note people’s preferences and facilitate their accommodation with one another without subjugating people to commodity fetishism or imposing on them alienated motives? I don’t see that social ecology is even aware of these issues, much less offers solutions.


You say, "because [preparing proposals] can subtly influence the eventual outcome of any decision, the responsibility for [doing so] should be a rotating task entrusted to a temporary commission chosen at random from the members of the assembly." I greatly sympathize with this, but note that it seems to imply that we should all become engineers able to make engineering proposals, health workers able to make health proposals, and so on. If I can be randomly chosen to make any kind of proposal, that is, I basically have to make myself competent at making every kind of proposal, or else I will make inferior ones when I am chosen. For that matter, why would we want proposals to be made by randomly picked people, as compared to enlisting highly competent people who make exploring and comprehending the particular issues in question a priority of their lives? Now the choice between well articulated and researched proposals, that may be more suitable for random representatives to decide.


You say "if obstacles or disagreements arise that cannot be resolved at the immediate level of a single enterprise, institution, or household, they can be brought back to the full assembly for discussion and resolution." But in fact every decision has to be made in light of all other decisions, at every level of an economy. If we allot some of our time and assets to producing x, then we are not allotting them to y. It we give a whole lot to x, we can’t give a whole lot to y, perhaps. What is being produced must be wanted, or it goes to waste. What is wanted must be produced, or it goes unmet. What is made here, may have great ecological impact far away over there, and will certainly have at least some impact virtually everywhere. What occurs over there, may limit availability of things we need greatly right here and will certainly have some implication here. It isn’t to a local assembly that a workplace’s desires have to go to be cooperatively refined into workable agendas in light of relevant feedback of all affected, but to the entire economy.


You say "since the assembly includes all members of the community on equal terms and operates through direct participation rather than representation, it offers the best opportunity for extending collective self-management to all spheres of social life." My household is going to be making decisions about its internal operations, not some assembly, I assume we would agree. The exception will be when my household wants to do something internally that would impact others significantly, such as to violate the living norms of a neighborhood with excessive noise. In such a case, a larger decision making body would have sway, I imagine we would agree, precisely because its members, and not just my family, are so heavily impacted.


It follows that it wouldn’t make sense to say my household decisions should be made in the neighborhood assembly because everyone in the neighborhood is equal in the neighborhood assembly. It not only wouldn’t be an argument for deciding my inner household decisions in the assembly, it would actually be an argument against doing so. It is because most decisions in our house affect overwhelmingly we who live there that not everyone in the neighborhood should have the same say as we do over such decisions, or even have to hear about them.  I think the same holds for a workplace. It doesn’t make sense to say a workplace’s decisions should be made overwhelmingly in a neighborhood or city-wide or national assembly where the most impacted constituency is at best diluted among much larger sectors and its members as a result have too little say relative to the degree they are affected as well as too little means of interacting with their direct cohorts. At the other end of your claim, are there never cases where it would be desirable to gain the efficiency of representatives deliberating and perhaps even voting, rather than everyone having to partake?


Finally, in summary, I think my confusion and concern with what you describe as social ecology’s vision is at base that I don’t see the structures that make the vision substantive.


Regarding polity I understand social ecology favors layers of popular assemblies. But I have no idea how those assemblies arrive at decisions. Is it consensus, majority rule, or do we agree, instead, that different decision methods are needed in different cases to attain proportionate self management? What happens when the members of an assembly differ sharply internally, or when different assemblies differ from one another? Can majorities violate minorities? If not, what prevents it? Also, it sounds like these assemblies are supposed to accomplish all political functions. I see that they are intended to legislate and perhaps also to oversee collective projects. But I don’t see how they adjudicate disputes, deal with criminality, prosecute criminals, fulfill other possibly needed police functions, etc. Is all this assumed away by social ecology, or assumed unimportant? I think the idea of face to face assemblies as one part of a political vision makes sense. i just think that presented with lots of fine values but few structures, it is too vague to call a political vision.


Regarding the economy, my differences are greater, but I hope they are also more constructive. I think social ecology wants participation, solidarity, equity, fair and just remuneration, real participation, ecological sustainability, and self management. If so, we agree. I just don’t think saying that local assemblies are going to be deciding economic outcomes offers a serious explanation of how these fine values are to be attained while also orienting production to meet needs and fulfill potentials. However, unlike for politics, for economics I don’t just have criticism, Rather, I do think parecon does what you are seeking and offer it as a positive alternative.

Leave a comment