Replying to Bauwens’ Reactions to Parecon

Michel, you don’t “think the human mind can capture the full complexity of social life.”

True, but parecon proposes alterations in four core institutions, not a detailed map accounting for all complexity.

You doubt that “any approach that starts from ethical principles and then seeks a world that mirrors them, can be successful.”

Why? Surely it makes sense to want institutions that accord with our ethical desires and oppose institutions that routinely violate them, doesn’t it? Yes, someone using ethics to discuss institutions could be totally disconnected from reality, or quite in touch. One has to look to see, I think.

You say, we should “look at reality, and seek out all the patterns that go in the direction of [our] ethics.”

Agreed, but the pareconish approach seeks institutions and practices that move us toward – rather than away from – equity, solidarity, diversity, self management, and tries to enlarge and enhance those trends. Yes, it also tries to create new possibilities, sometimes, even where trends aren’t yet particularly pronounced. What is the problem with that, I wonder?

You say, in advancing patterns, “we can eventually start to discern the seeds of the new system in the old.”

I agree, but societies have been around a long time, and we already have a whole lot of experience of advancing patterns, etc. and in parecon’s view, indeed, we have enough to already see intimations of the future, to enrich what we see, to come up with a vision, and based on it to make certain very critical claims confidently. I offered some such claims in the opening essay. I hope you will react.

I should add that I agree with your implicit message that it could be that we do not yet know enough to get important claims right, but nonetheless, I think we do know enough and I think parecon now offers such claims. So the issue isn’t abstractly debating the foundations, I think, but instead are the claims compelling or not?

Shouldn’t we look at the claims about markets, central planning, corporate divisions of labor, etc., and about participatory planning, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and self management, etc., and think about them, test them, but certainly not dismiss them based on an intuition that valid claims are beyond us?

To doubt that we have had enough experience or yet know enough about people or institutions to make worthy and compelling claims is fair enough – but I admit I wonder, if it were true, even after hundreds of years of investigation, that we didn’t yet have enough data to carefully propose viable and worthy vision, then when would we have enough data, after another few hundred years?

But more, if you are right, shouldn’t you demonstrate that your doubt is valid by showing that in fact parecon’s institutional claims would conflict with human or material constraints or impose harsh and harmful outcomes?

You say, “we also need to see which social forces can bring such a phase change forward.”

Again, I agree, but parecon does explore social agents capable of winning real change and also proposes means to bring their power to bear. Indeed parecon distills a host of strategic insights and implications from its classless vision plus pareconists’ understanding of current relations and trends. As but one example, consider those having to do with addressing working people and not catering to the coordinator class, for example.

You feel “that all deep and transformative social change” requires “both longstanding new social practices, born out of a different structure of desire of new human groups, and a congruent change both from the top and the bottom.”

Nothing about parecon says change will be quick, without struggle etc., nor that it will happen without new desires and people grouped in new ways blazing the way. On the other hand, your reference to “congruent change both top and bottom” concerns me. If that means changes throughout the economy and society have to mesh into a viable whole, I of course agree. But if it means those at the top of society have to be happy with the results of major change including even joining in making it happen, then the advisory would preclude the sought after change causing the elites to no longer be at the top so accepting that advisory, would, I agree, rule out parecon since parecon removes old elites from being at the top. But why accept such an advisory? It is essentially a stop sign that a priori rules out seeking what elites don’t want – no need to examine alternative aims for their merits, they just can’t happen. I have to say, while I know you are not her, this formulation does remind me of Margaret Thatcher.

Suppose Margaret says her reading of all past experience is that justice, liberty, and classlessness is impossible, there is no alternative – for material and social reasons – but offers as the only proof of her claim against liberatory possibilities that, after all, we have never had them before. I suspect that you would agree that Margaret’s proclamation is not an argument – but is, instead, at most, an intuition, a guess, educated by some experience – or more accurately in her case, wishful thinking unconnected to reason or evidence. I have to ask, what changes if Margaret says, instead, my evidence is that I can find a bunch of cases where change happened because those at the top supported it, and I know from history those at the top won’t support real liberation and classlessness for all, therefore, no alternative can be attained. I suspect you would agree that it would still be just a proclamation ruling out options without justification.

To make it an argument, again, I think we would likely agree, Margaret would need to actually give reasons why what hasn’t happened, supposing it was even true it had never happened, can’t happen.

I wonder, are you only critical of or doubtful of parecon because despite its merits Bill Gates or Warren Buffet would not work to bring it about and you think it can’t be won if they don’t? In other words, do you accept its merits, and just doubt our ability to attain it?

Your historical examples are about moving from one class dominated situation to a different class dominated situation, and you point out that the class that winds up on top has to favor the new situation. But that is true virtually by definition since if it didn’t, as the new ruling class, it would simply keep on changing things until it did approve. But what if we are talking about attaining classlessness? Then the old ruling class will not favor, at least spontaneously and early on, the new direction. That is correct. So we either figure out how to make change without ruling elites favoring it, or we give up on attaining classlessness or anything else they don’t favor. Do you really prefer the latter path?

You feel that parecon and p2p are quite contrary in terms of attention to reality and the mechanics of change. But peer to peer has principles and values. So does parecon. Peer to peer wants to attain its values in the realms it addresses (and one hopes, gain the benefits in all of society) and this is true for parecon too. P2p identifies bad and good patterns – but so does parecon identify bad patterns (intrinsic to markets, central planning, corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for property, power, or output, etc.) and good patterns that move in positive directions, such as various social movements, reform campaigns, innovations like participatory budgeting, forms of organization like coops, people’s assemblies, pareconish firms, and so on. More, joining the positive patterns into a “common platform” or an encompassing approach, as you favor, is precisely what parecon advocates work on. Parecon and p2p are in fact not different in that regard, but only different in the patterns highlighted and in the vision sought.

Yet you say, “it seems to me that [parecon] proceeds from a very different premise, i.e. an idealized utopia based on ethical principles, which it then seeks to carry out in a recalcitrant reality.”

Honestly, Michel, I think posing our disagreements as being that you use a sensible method – scientific, pragmatic, etc. – and I instead pull things out of an ethical dream, is not only completely false but also reminds me of Marxists dismissing other approaches by saying they aren’t scientific merely because they are different. But suppose you are right. Suppose my way of thinking about economic institutions is idealized and utopian, which is to say unconnected to real experience and history and to real human and material possibilities, and thus could not discern useful “patterns” or aims. Okay, fine, then it would seem you should have no problem showing that living in a parecon would be downright disastrous. And isn’t that the critical task, not dismissal based on name calling – which is honestly what I think saying parecon is “pulled out of an ethical dream amounts to.”

I should add, even if the description that it is merely dreamed up were true, parecon would still be worthy of support or dismissal not because of its origins, but because of its content. However, of course, rather than floating in air, parecon is pulled out of hundreds of years of social struggle and experience, including decades by it current activist advocates, including careful assessment of existing options, other models, historical experiences, fledgling examples, etc.

Parecon proceeds from values, yes, that is true, but so do you and p2p, and anyone else trying to address and display human and social implications honestly. But there is nothing idealized or utopian about parecon – it is carefully conceived to be a practical system operable by real people in real time with real technologies. Yes, many actors won’t want parecon, and not just owners or high level coordinators, at least at the outset of seeking it, but if we only try to attain that which those at the top also want to attain, that would be a very sad and even suicidal limitation on efforts at change – wouldn’t it? There would never have been unions, an eight hour day, an end to child labor, an end to slavery, or apartheid, etc.


Now, getting down to actually addressing parecon – well, you say, “first let’s note that there are many ethical principles in the world, most religiously inspired, and that they differ in different degrees from your own, many of them in very sharp and fundamental ways.” Then, by way of explaining why your observation matters you add that the fact that there are many ethical principles “already means that either you offer them for the minority that is ready, so it becomes a solution for intentional communities sharing your value set, or you would have to coerce the world in following your solution.”

Michel, is it coercive to make murder illegal? Technically, I suppose yes, but it would be a very odd way to criticize laws against murder, don’t you think? Similarly, I assume you are against war, slavery, and perhaps even wage slavery. Would your wanting a world without war, or slavery, or wage slavery, your willingness to seek ways to get to that better world, including struggle, make you coercive? Would you have said the anti apartheid movement, or abolitionists, were crippled by the fact that they had only some values, and others had different values, and those other folks would not get their way if the progressive cause won, so the recalcitrant opponents would thus wind up in some sense being “coerced” by the imposition of the new relations?

Yes, to attain an end to options to glory in owning others or bombing others or to just profit off others, would be eliminated by justice, and people who want those options to persist will resist justice. That is true enough – but calling justice coercive would seem to me to be just a way to bait and scare people away from considering justice, not real criticism. We don’t usually say that bringing an end to vast injustice is coercive because it forecloses people being unjust. So why do you say it regarding parecon? Do you think parecon rules out behavioral options that have merit, options that shouldn’t disappear from history? Okay, if so that would be a real issue, but then please name those options.

You go on, “Personally for example, I agree with your first principle, but disagree with your second one… [which] would for example make peer production, which is based on such non-reciprocal exchange, impossible.”

I think the principle you are agreeing with is solidarity, is that right? And I think you are saying you don’t like pareconish equity. Is that right? But having equitable remuneration not only doesn’t rule out solidarity, it is a necessary condition for having full solidarity as compared to solidarity among only a group of volunteers working together outside the main economy, or only elites. If you are saying, however, that equitably remunerating for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work precludes having no remunerative norm so that with parecon’s approach you cannot just take what you want and give whatever time and capacity you will, that is correct. But what is your problem with that? What do you think we lose by having equitable remuneration? How is it oppressive, or reductive, or otherwise nasty?

(As an aside, p2p ignores most economic life, including of the people doing it – their consumption, etc. It does not in fact give producers whatever they want from the social product, at no cost, and take only whatever they offer. Instead, producers in the peer to peer you describe have to work for income, and only give their labor as volunteers. That p2p says to give public goods free and get rid of copyrights and secrecy is good but only innovative if extended universally, I think, as with parecon. But, I will leave that, for the other strand of debate since this strand is supposed to be about parecon.)

You say to me, while you “would favour a pluralist economy that enables both [my] choices and [yours], [I] seem to offer only a monological choice.”

Monological? Again, I have to tell you, even while knowing it is not your cup of tea, still, it seems like scare tactics to use words that verge on dictatorial, regimented, etc., but offer zero explanation of why you use those words.

While you don’t make it clear, at least to me, I think you have in mind, again, a comparison between parecon and p2p, instead of just looking at parecon. I think you have in mind, that is, people deciding to produce stuff for general social use and self managing their own efforts and not taking income for it – and are feeling that parecon rules that out. But in fact such people need inputs, and they will also have to have income, which is to say a claim on the social product. This will be true in any economy. In what you call p2p it is true, and people buy the inputs and get their income by other means than their self managed voluntary labor, though in some cases connected to their p2p activity and the stature or reputation it conveys. Yes, in a parecon people can volunteer, of course, so that some work doesn’t get income but they will not do this to escape being subordinate and having to compete in a rat race while practicing their craft, because parecon doesn’t impose such debits on anyone.

In parecon, in other words, there is no reason to volunteer so that one’s work escapes alienation because all work is self managed and pursued for its benefits, not for profit, and thus unalienated, and because there is no top and bottom, no rulers and ruled, and no rat race. In other words, when you say parecon is monological I think you mean it rules out the oppressive relations which cause p2p folks to work free in order to have a say over their work, etc., and that is true.  And, indeed, why should an information worker, or any worker, volunteer rather than getting appropriate just income for his or her socially valuable efforts, which is to say one in accord with duration intensity, and onerousness?

It turns out, far from being monological, in a parecon nothing precludes the volunteering you are talking about, that I can see, and the various benefits of p2p are spread among everyone, not just a few. What is different, that is, is that instead of the beneficial aspects of p2p happening only in a narrow realm and only in a manner which requires those doing the work to forego income for their efforts so as to be able to be self managing – which is the case if there continues to be capital and markets – parecon facilitates all people producing with self management and with fair social allocation and equitable income, too. Honestly, I don’t see why someone who wants p2p wouldn’t agree that parecon for the whole economy would elaborate p2p’s benefits throwing while off its self imposed debits, as well as engendering many additional gains. If you don’t agree with that, there must be features of parecon that you dislike or think unviable, but what are they? Or in the opposite direction, what is the virtue, the desirable aim, of p2p, or any other desirable aim, that is violated by having parecon for production, allocation, and consumption?

When you say – and this is another way to dismiss parecon without having to in fact look at its features – that you think we aren’t ready for classlessness, okay, it is fair enough that you have that view, of course. But again, you give no reason, other than to note that the contrary pareconish claims clash with your prior beliefs. What I am left hungry for is your showing me why parecon’s claims of classlessness are wrong. In other words, if you think a classless social structure and economy are somehow beyond human capacity, or beyond material possibility, it ought to be easy to say why parecon falls short. You are rejecting as impossible the highest aspiration of countless critics of alienation, exploitation, and indignity – don’t you think you need to say why?

For example, I would love to live in a society of absolute plenty where there were no economic requirements, etc., but in fact I think a society where everyone can have what they want and do only what they choose is beyond material possibility. I also think such a society would function without rational choices regarding directions of development. Similarly, I think having a society where people fly by flapping their wings or where they live forever is also impossible, this time biologically. But I would not call such visions utopian or unreal, etc. to critique them without offering supporting argument. I would, instead, show the flaws of each such vision. Analogously, if for example, you say you think classlessness is impossible, whether materially or biologically, that’s fine – but then when I say here is an economy that would be classless, shouldn’t you be able to easily say, well, no, it wouldn’t be – and here’s why – or to show that yes, it would be classless, but it would crash and burn, and to show why.

You add: “I note that you say `Parecon delivers’, but does it really do that. Can you point to substantial realizations, or are you rather just proposing, that if applied, it may deliver these points. I indeed believe you mean the latter.”

If someone says a vision delivers it means they believe that if implemented it would have certain implications they list – just like if someone says a bridge (as yet un-built) would deliver – they mean it would get people across a chasm, or whatever. That said, in fact we have an incredible amount of piecemeal experiential evidence of countless kinds that self management, equitable relations, etc. can deliver solidarity, appropriate influence, high productivity, etc. – indeed, you reference all manner of such evidence yourself, often, I suspect. And yes, beyond actual examples, we can also just think about it with our minds, like we would think about a new building, and then we can say it can stand, and so we ought to cautiously embark on building it, learning as we go,  and then seeing indeed that it does stand. If you think parecon can’t deliver something that it claims, okay, that’s fair enough, but please point out what it can’t deliver and explain why.

For example, if you were to suggest that we could have an economy in which everyone gets what they need and gives what they choose I wouldn’t just say, no, that is utopian, though I would indeed think it would be. I would instead make a case for why it would have all kinds of unintended harmful results and fail for why people could not act as indicated and enjoy life or even survive – and for why, even if they could restrain and compel themselves sufficiently to avoid catastrophe, nonetheless it would establish irrational relations delivering less fulfillment and self management than would be optimal. Without making that case, just calling the proposal utopian would only evidence my doubt about it with new words, disparaging ones, but it wouldn’t do any more than that.

You say, “Let me note that I do support self-management, but do not necessarily favour a monological system that runs the whole of society, but rather pluralist forms of economic production and governance.”

Again, I think while no doubt not your intention, this is merely baiting and scaring, assuming I know what it means. Parecon is not a monological system – meaning one that rules out ALL other approaches, etc. – but yes, parecon clings to certain key tenets – (just as p2p does) and then, beyond those, parecon incorporates virtually limitless diversity. What is it that parecon rules out that you think would be better kept in a new type economy? Wage slavery? Private profit from property or power? Market allocation? Saying that parecon rules out these institutions doesn’t mean parecon is “monological” – any more than saying capitalism rules out Kings and Serfs means it is “monological” or, for that matter, that p2p wants all information and design and so on to be free and public means it is “monological.”

You ask “how would you achieve balanced job complexes?”

Michel I appreciate this reference to parecon’s actual institutional commitments, but there is no single answer.

Sometimes it would occur in the creation of new firms – rather like creating new p2p firms with properties p2p celebrates. This can happen very self consciously, or can just emerge without explicit reference to parecon (or p2p). There are instances of this, not enough, but a growing number, already.

Other times it would occur differently – a firm might be failing (as in Argentina not long ago, and elsewhere too) and instead of shutting down the workers take it over. The old coordinator class members might leave, or perhaps stay, but in either case, the division of labor might be altered to utilize balanced job complexes. This too happens, often, worldwide, though most often the firms change many things but not the division of labor, not least because no one involved urges, as a pareconist would, that it is a centrally important thing to do.

A different situation would be a firm that is profiting well, but still taken over. In that case the owner doesn’t leave to escape failure, but is simply thrown out, losing the ownership. Similarly, the coordinator class members could stay, helping to design and develop new structures and winding up with balanced job complexes, or they might leave, preferring to retain their elite advantages elsewhere…though that becomes problematic if all of society is transforming.

Next you say, “Most of us are loathe to do certain jobs, and would not do them without coercion. Again, apart from intentional communities, how would you achieve it?”

Most of us, about 80%, are stuck, due to systemic coercion, with the tasks that others loathe. When someone takes a debilitating rote job, now, they make the choice, and owners call it their free will. In fact, of course, they are only choosing alienated work rather than starvation, the real choice of balanced job complexes and self-management being structurally absent. So your way of asking that question strikes me as missing a key point. Attaining balanced job complexes is diminishing coercion and creating a situation of just options. Likewise, once you have them, all who work will freely choose among them one that is most personally appealing, and doable.

More, part of the loathing of disempowering tasks is precisely that the tasks are subordinate and alienated. Parecon does away with that aspect of all work. The other part of the loathing is however simply not liking, rote, tedious, repetitive, debilitating, uninspiring, tasks. Sure. And the point is, no one likes that, so all should have only a fair share of it, or some are stuck with more less fulfilling work – more onerous work – they should get more income for it. The real reason for balanced job complexes, however, is the empowerment effect of empowering tasks. Balanced job complexes eliminate the monopolization of empowering tasks so as to eliminate the basis for the class division between workers and coordinators.

But next you point out, rightly, that to have balanced job complexes throughout an economy means that working people “would have to take power, against the coordinator class itself.” Well, partly against that class, yes, but partly not – as in the people who are currently doing coordinator jobs will actually benefit too from just circumstances, equitable relations, control over their lives in community with others, etc., etc., and many will come to understand that. If, however, the permanent situation is going to be crummy disempowered and thus lower paid conditions and desirable empowered and thus higher paid conditions, of course those who currently have the latter won’t want to switch to the crummy conditions. But if the sought change is from alienated hierarchy to liberated self management, more and more coordinator class folks will get on board, and there is evidence for this too, not least May 1968 in France.

You say you “find such a class movement unlikely, because the very organization of a transformative social movement requires its own coordinating leadership.”

To me, this is another familiar claim offered as if it is a transparent truth. But also to me, it isn’t. Why does a mass movement of working people HAVE TO have a layer of coordinator class leadership which, I certainly grant you, if it exists and dominates in the movement, as with Leninist organizational approaches, is also overwhelmingly likely to wind up dominating the new economy? I can see no reason why it has to be this way – rather, I can see reasons why one should work hard to prevent it from being this way, and parecon very centrally informs such efforts.

Your conclusion is “So any social movement would for me entail a necessary alliance between many different layers, making a victory of the lowest rungs alone unlikely, and therefore, a coercion of balanced job complexes unlikely.”

You are saying, I think, that major systemic change that does away with class rule can’t come about unless the working class gains power, and in turn that can’t happen unless elite elements support it and not only support it, but don’t oppose or co-opt it. And then, as the concluding claim, you add that don’t believe that that is possible. And you then conclude that classlessness is impossible.

Well, why not use the same reasoning to say that private ownership won’t give way, either? Earlier you were concerned about my “approach.” Now I am concerned about yours. I don’t think we should put up signs saying x is impossible, based on very little logic or evidence, when x is so incredibly desirable and in this case, even critical to long term survival, much less liberation.


Michel, I hoped you would engage with parecon’s institutions – saying what you liked or didn’t like, what you thought viable or not viable, about balanced job complexes, participatory planning, equitable remuneration, self managing councils, etc. Maybe you are saying that, but so far unless I am missing something I feel like you have simply argued that (a) an approach based in values must somehow fail, a priori, so the vision can’t be worthy. Or (b) if a vision embodies values that some don’t like, and others do, there is no non coercive path forward, implicitly undermining the validity of the aims, or (c) in any case, we can’t win change without allies at the top, and we can’t have allies at the top without preserving the advantages of those at the top, so parecon and classlessness more broadly is impossible. Beyond those points, which make virtually no reference to anything specific about parecon, you made many claims about p2p, which I will hopefully address in the other strand of discussion.

Finally, you say, if Parecon proves a successful pattern in the context of growing technical relevance of p2p, “it could perhaps become more important, but I personally suspect it will be one of the plural forms emerging in that field, along with cooperatives, open capital partnerships, and many more possibilities.”

If markets persist, if private ownership persists, if remuneration for property and power persist, they will imperially subsume and contour most all economic life and ruling elements will rule. A “not in my backyard approach” is possible, up to a point, for certain sectors, at certain times – especially if they are willing to suffer considerable costs for very partial gains. But for information workers to engage in market relations and wage slavery – or domination – to get their incomes – plus to engage in volunteerism regarding their craft, all with little or no attention to material production and allocation more broadly, would in my view be barely progressive at all. On the other hand, if p2p projects embraced the idea of p2p as a contextually dependent set of practices aimed ultimately at generalized social change, perhaps toward parecon, then p2p could be socially and morally responsible, rather than narrowly elitist.

I am inclined to believe, at this point in our discussion, that parecon delivers every real benefit p2p delivers, and many others as well, but does so for all economic actors rather than only a narrow subset, and for the activity associated with all products – not just public goods that require only modest inputs – thus going way beyond p2p. Peer to peer, then, could be a partial effort, like participatory budgets, say, that is moving toward parecon, and seen that way p2p could attain a level of moral and social responsibility that will be lacking otherwise. I wonder what you think about those beliefs.

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