Replying to Albert

For purposes of exploration and debate with Parecon’s Michael Albert. See whole debate here.


Hi again Michael,

I think we’re getting into more detail in this thread, so I’ll try to use this rejoinder as an opportunity to explore some of the themes I’ve neglected so far and go a little deeper into those we’ve already broached. You asked:

In reply to:

“why shouldn’t decisions about production, allocation, and consumption be carried out by the actors involved in these functions, organized in councils rooted in both workplaces and regions.”

They should be. We agree that councils have an important role to play in carrying out economic decisions. It is definitely not the case that I “don’t like having workers’ councils”. What I don’t like is having the broad questions of community-wide economic policy settled in workers’ councils. I think that councils are, on the other hand, a very good mechanism for making decisions specific to a single workplace. I also think that councils can be a good arena for formulating the initial versions of proposals regarding broader questions of economic policy. But the final say on such questions should, in my view, belong to the general assembly, which includes all the workers and consumers in a given area. The crucial difference, as I see it, is that a general assembly includes all people as community members (or, in social ecology’s terminology, as citizens), and structurally encourages them to approach policy decisions from this broader perspective. Parecon’s councils, however, encourage people to approach the same decisions as workers and as consumers. I think you see this as one of parecon’s strengths, but I see it as a weakness. It isn’t a matter of “belonging to neighborhoods”, or even of “the insights that arise from being a citizen,” but of the priorities and the outlook that we bring to considerations of community affairs, including economic affairs. Assemblies allow people to draw on their particular experiences and the knowledge gained in their particular line of work, but assemblies also allow people to step back from these particular perspectives and adopt a more general view when trying to decide what’s best for the community as a whole. That’s why I think that assemblies are a better forum for dealing with overarching questions of policy, while councils are a better forum for specific questions of workplace organization and operation.


In reply to:

“Would any social ecologist say that we are wisest in our capacity as citizens so therefore we ought to decide how to arrange our living rooms only in citizen assemblies?”

No. Living room arrangements are not a matter of public policy, so the assembly has no say in them. But how many rocking chairs are produced in the local furniture shop, or what dyes are used in the rugs made at the local textile shop, or how big the living rooms should be in the new housing complex that’s being built around the corner, those are all potentially matters of public policy that may well fall within the purview of the assembly. The workers in the furniture shop or at the construction site participate in making these policy decisions, as members of the assembly, and they also participate in determining how these policy decisions are implemented, as members of their workers’ council. I don’t agree that this approach would “under-represent workplace concerns.” It would give primary responsibility for workplace concerns to workplace bodies, and primary responsibility for communal concerns to community bodies.


In reply to:

“Peter, if you reject workers councils in the belief they would have harmful implications in a parecon, please tell me how would workers gathering in workplaces to assess the production conditions of their workplaces and industries and what they would produce (in light of reactions from consumer councils) lead to biases or negative trends in economic outcomes, or violate values we hold dear, assuming, of course, consumers simultaneously gather in their councils and assess the economic conditions of their own lives and communities (in light of reactions from worker councils), and assuming each negotiates outcomes with all the others via participatory planning.”

I don’t reject workers’ councils, I simply envision a different role for them. I agree that workers should gather in workplaces to assess the production conditions of their workplaces, but “what they would produce” is, to my mind, a question for the general assembly to decide, not just the workers of the particular enterprise.

As for “harmful implications in a parecon,” my concerns are complex. Basically I think that the council model you and Robin Hahnel have developed channels the all-important process of social negotiation into an inadequate framework. Parecon has all of us deciding in limited groups on issues large and small, including minute details of personal consumption as well as major choices about long-term public infrastructure, all at the same time, instead of concentrating collective attention on the decisive questions of investment, public goods, and the overall direction of production. In one of your hypothetical dialogues in Looking Forward, you put this point into the mouth of a market socialist: “By forcing all decisions to undergo public scrutiny you will overload the circuits and won’t get quality deliberation about what matters most.” (Looking Forward p. 62) One of your real live critics put it this way: “Albert and Hahnel encumber the participators with the burden of enormous detail. They forfeit the potential power for focused and limited decision making on crucial issues of investment and policy…” (Roy Morrison, “Notes on Participatory Economics”, New Politics Summer 1992 p. 107) I reject the pro-market assumptions that underlie these criticisms, but the argument holds true from a communist perspective as well, and I don’t think you’ve ever offered a satisfactory response to it.

I also think that parecon’s council model gets the process of social negotiation more or less backward. You start out by having individuals and councils formulate proposals, which then get combined and refined through a series of anonymous and isolated iteration rounds. Only after this process is well advanced, with most of the principal questions already decided, is there an opportunity for everybody to consider comprehensive economic proposals as a whole (you describe this as “the seventh planning iteration” on p. 104 of Looking Forward). These comprehensive proposals are only put forward for public consideration “when the major part of the plan has already been settled on. We are talking about final moves after the essential outcome is no longer in doubt.” (Looking Forward p. 126) You mean this as a safeguard against potential meddling by members of the iteration facilitation boards, but the whole approach strikes me as topsy-turvy. Under parecon, real public contestation over broad economic priorities only kicks in after most of the substantive issues have already been decided in a fragmented and dispersed process restricted to ‘consumer’ and ‘producer’ roles. I think it ought to be the other way around: first we decide in the public sphere on the general outlines of economic policy, via a process of direct deliberation and the contestation of alternative proposals, in our capacity as citizens. Once we’ve agreed on a basic plan, then we flesh out the subcomponents and details in smaller collectivities like our workplace or our residence, in our capacity as producers and consumers.

But you and Hahnel seem to view this moment of public deliberation, which to my mind is the very core of democratic economic coordination, as a liability. In response, once again, to somewhat misguided criticism by market socialists, you actively downplay the role of direct, face to face discussion and negotiation within parecon, and advocate “a simple up or down vote” on prepackaged proposals rather than “a rancorous meeting.” (Thinking Forward p. 197) You emphasize that “rather than have delegates from federations meet to hammer out the ‘end game’ of the planning process, we proposed that after a number of iterations had defined the basic contours of the plan, the professional staffs of iteration facilitation boards would define a few feasible plans within those contours for constituents to vote on without ever meeting or debating.” (ibid.) I consider these elements of parecon to be significant drawbacks.

Regarding social ecology’s alternative model of community assemblies, you asked:


In reply to:

“Do you really feel that everyone should articulate their distinctive views and desires about what will go on where they work in such geographic units?”

If you mean what they produce at work, then my answer is yes. But the point of assemblies isn’t that they are “geographic units”, but that they include everybody who is primarily affected by the community’s economic choices.


In reply to:

“And that this group should vote (somehow) on each workplace’s total output, work choices, investment projects, and so on?”

Yes to total output and investment projects, no to work choices.


In reply to:

“What if I am in your assembly but a majority of my workmates are in another one, for an extreme case?”

Then you’d be aware from the start that you’ll have relatively little say in the production goals for your workplace. This needn’t be an insuperable problem if your views on the topic are similar to those of your workmates, and there’s always the option of moving or switching jobs. In any case the dilemma would arise infrequently in the scenario I outlined.


In reply to:

“How does anyone know what the whole wants or desires unless each actor in it voices their preferences, firstly and then mediates them in light of what others desire?”

This is, in part, what happens in the course of assembly deliberations, though not nearly in as detailed a manner as in parecon. Collective public discussion allows us to define and refine our own preferences while considering and assessing other people’s preferences. We can then work towards a general interest that incorporates and integrates particular interests to the extent possible.


In reply to:

“Social ecology seems to me to seek a way of gathering people to engage in exploring options and making decisions so as to ensure that all interests and insights are brought to bear. That’s a good goal, but we can’t achieve it just by saying we all decide, together, as citizens, it seems to me.”

I suppose we can’t achieve this just by saying it, but we could achieve it by actually doing it, couldn’t we? Do you think it is impossible for all of us to decide together as citizens on the best course of action for our community?


In reply to:

“We do have different positions and those differences matter, both in generating different insights and different preferences, and at mediating them into shared agendas.”

Yes indeed. I think assemblies offer a good way to articulate these differing positions and to accomplish this mediating function. The assembly’s deliberations are meant to yield just such a shared agenda.


In reply to:

“And since making economic decisions involves mediated various views, insights, and preferences, it can’t sensibly be done without providing (1) means for the views and preferences to come into existence, and (2) means for them to come up against each other, learn contrasting,u>ires and insights, and respond by adapting into a mutual accord.”

Agreed. Do you think assemblies are incapable of fulfilling these goals?


In reply to:

“If one county can make good chairs cheaply, but another county can’t, should the latter have to endure few chairs? Or should the collective benefits of society accrue to all?”

Social ecologists argue that regional disparities should be actively compensated at the confederal level, according to what we call an ethics of complementarity. Indeed this same principle underlies our commitment to libertarian communism. So yes, I very much agree that the collective benefits of society should accrue to all, and I recommend making this precept the basis of allocation across the board.


In reply to:

“To me, to say that we attain a good economy by universally breaking locales apart from one another and asking them to operate mostly in isolation, self-sufficiently, shrinking all productive units, not sharing each other’s economies of scale and beneficial assets, just doesn’t make any economic, social, or ecological sense.”

I don’t believe in local self-sufficiency as a value in itself, and I didn’t argue for economic autarky. Isolation is a recipe for parochialism, not for liberation. But I do think there are very compelling reasons for shrinking productive units, and even for foregoing the advantages of economies of scale, if doing so yields greater participation and increases the effectiveness of directly democratic self-management. Far from “reducing interactivity”, this sort of decentralization can greatly enhance interactivity.


In reply to:

“But to say that all people should always have the same influence in every decision, well, I just don’t understand that.”

I think you mean that you disagree with it, not that you don’t understand it, but I’ll try one more time to make my position clearer. I think that some decisions affect large groups of people, and when that is the case, I think all these people should participate in shaping the decision, if possible. In addition, I think that for most collective decisions, everybody who participates in them should do so on an equal basis, with each person having the same degree of formal power. Here is how one of the more insightful contemporary theorists of democracy, Iris Marion Young, puts it in her recent book Inclusion and Democracy (p. 23): “a democratic decision is normatively legitimate only if all those affected by it are included in the process of discussion and decision-making. […] When coupled with norms of political equality, inclusion allows for maximum expression of interests, opinions, and perspectives relevant to the problems or issues for which a public seeks solutions. […] Not only should all those affected be nominally included in decision-making, but they should be included on equal terms. All ought to have an equal right and effective opportunity to express their interests and concerns.”

In reference to South End Press, you asked:


In reply to:

“is careful prejudging of types of decisions and application of different methods of arriving at conclusions when the type comes up, a deviation from direct democracy that we shouldn’t have been party to?”

No, I wouldn’t say that. The method you describe for hiring new members, for example, is the same one used by the collective house I live in, and I think it can be generally appropriate in those situations. But making decisions in a household or a workplace of a dozen people is a very different process from making decisions with hundreds of people in an open assembly. For these latter kinds of public decisions, I think that “different levels of influence” is normally a bad idea.


In reply to:

“What’s preferable is to have a dynamic process which yields a decision that mediates interests and arrives at accommodations such that, in the end, actors have had proportionate influence. To argue against such a process, it seems to me, one should point out how it would lead to bad results.”

The problem, as I see it, is not that such a proportional process would necessarily lead to bad results; the problem is that this approach mixes up process and results. With just about any decision-making process, it’s possible to get either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ results, depending on the choices made by the participants. A particular decision can be ‘wrong’ for either of two very different reasons: 1) it fails to reflect the considered judgement of the participants; or 2) it succeeds in reflecting the considered judgement of the participants, but this judgement was mistaken or misguided or malicious. I think you want to get rid of the second kind of bad decision by attempting to fix the first kind of bad decision, and I don’t think that will work.


In reply to:

“How can views about the outcomes of a decision not impact the decision’s resolution?”

They can and should, but they should do so through deliberation and argument, not through changing the decision-making procedure. If I believe that a particular outcome is crucially important and vastly preferable to the alternatives, then I should make a strong case in favor of that outcome and try to convince my co-participants of its merits. What I should not do is try to re-arrange the decision-making process in order to make my preferred outcome more likely. I think that the proportionality principle, in the form that you have articulated it, misses this distinction.


In reply to:

“I don’t see that you explained how remunerating effort maintains a decisive feature of capitalism”

I think that remuneration for effort is an attenuated form of wage labor. The whole notion of individualized differential material rewards is diametrically opposed to the ethics of complementarity I mentioned earlier. Moreover, I am not persuaded of its virtues as an economic incentive. I think your theory was better off before you introduced the maxim of remuneration for effort, indeed before you made individual remuneration itself a central element of parecon. In your early essay on “Participatory Planning” you and Hahnel wrote: “Under socialism workers will work because they understand the importance of their tasks and the ways they interrelate with other people’s efforts, because they self-manage their own labors, and because of the direct rewards of socially valuable, self-managed, collectively shared creative activity.” (Socialist Visions p. 271) No mention of remuneration here. That was twenty years ago, of course, and I don’t know if you still agree with those sentiments, but I continue to find them credible.

It is hardly the case that a communist distribution system “destroys the capacity to make rational choices among options.” The options are chosen collectively, in consideration of their various impacts on the rest of the economy; when shortages arise, that’s a signal that re-prioritizing the options may be in order. There are any number of practical examples of this even in our current capitalist context. The way we feed ourselves at the Institute for Social Ecology, for instance, follows a partially communist model that is familiar to many people: rotating meal teams collectively prepare each meal, which is then served buffet style; each person serves herself or himself, and comes back for seconds, until the food is gone or everybody’s done eating. If we run out of the main course too early, then we know to make more the next time. The kitchen staff keep track of what’s in the pantry and estimate bulk buying needs each week. The cooperative household I live in has worked in this same way for decades. These are limited examples, of course, and perhaps you think there is some economic reason why they can’t be generalized beyond the culinary realm. But I don’t see how tabulating individual consumption proposals would generate superior “rational allocative choice.”


In reply to:

“how does anyone in the social ecology framework know how much to work or how much to consume, to be making an appropriate choice? How does a workplace know how much to produce?”

Because everyone has participated in publicly discussing and choosing comprehensive economic proposals for their community, all of this information is readily accessible to everybody upon request: how much of a particular item is available, as well as how much has already been used and when we can expect to get more; workplaces know how much they are expected to produce and where their inputs are coming from; the wider social and ecological impacts and repercussions of each economic activity have been taken into account. As I said in my earlier rejoinder in the other thread, I think that many of the concrete mechanisms parecon proposes could be adapted to a social ecology framework. The major institutional differences are that the eventual “plan”, in your terms, would be determined by the general assembly, and that individual consumption estimates would not be calculated as such.

I think you’re trying to say that this latter difference makes social ecology’s version of ‘participatory planning’ economically impossible. But in fact, a communist approach to personal consumer goods could even be compatible with your own model, it seems to me. In parecon, when a neighborhood consumers’ council forwards its bundle of proposals (including summed individual proposals) to the ward-level or county-level consumption council or federation, the individual break-down of requested items is of no consequence for the planning process during any particular iteration round; what matters are the aggregate figures. Thus there is no planning reason why a communist distribution system at the local level would be a hindrance to rational allocation. Do you dispute this?


In reply to:

“if you think that in some distant future economic bounty will be so plentiful and popular consciousness so broad and deep, and popular morality so refined, that remuneration for need alone will make sense, that’s okay with me. But I think parecon’s institutions are precisely what is needed to move in that direction, starting with real people as we know them now and, in my view, in the future too. What would be imprudent, on this score, it seems to me, would be for us to cloud our thinking with vague aspirations unconnected to viable institutions that can manifest them.”

As far as “moving in that direction” goes, I might agree with you, though it scarcely seems obvious to me. But in any case, communist aspirations, and the “popular consciousness” that accompanies them, aren’t really all that vague. The libertarian communist tradition (including several figures who have influenced your own work) has generated “viable institutions”, albeit on a small scale and for relatively brief historical periods, and I think these can be built on and improved. Communist institutions do not depend on naïve assumptions about human nature, and they are not intrinsically economically nonviable, in my judgement. As far as I can tell from your published work, I think you haven’t given them an entirely fair hearing. In Thinking Forward, for example, you pretty much disregard the communist option without a second thought as if it were self-evidently infeasible. The same is more or less true, if I recall correctly, of the treatment you and Hahnel give to “distributive maxim four” (the communist postulate) in The Political Economy of Participatory Economics. As a long-term potentiality, at least, I think the libertarian communist ideal is worthy of more attention than that.


In reply to:

“It seems to me the role of economic structures is to facilitate producing, allocating, and consuming, all in light of the full social and ecological consequences of the processes involved in each and of their outcomes.”

Sounds good to me. But decisions about what to produce, how to produce it, and how to allocate it are, to my mind, eminently political questions. They are questions that the entire community ought to address through a public and directly democratic process. I think an assembly model is a better framework for this process than a council model precisely because it allows us to reflect on these questions in an extra-economic context, so that we can bring non-economic criteria to bear on our economic choices. I don’t think that parecon prevents this, but I do think that some of parecon’s proposed institutions and methods, in their current format, discourage this sort of community-wide political thinking about economic matters. In this respect, I think that social ecology’s proposed structures are more promising.


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