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Replying to Reviewers Part Two


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A few weeks ago I published a Reply to Reviewers [of the book No Bosses], Part One. Here is Part Two which addresses six more reviews. I undertook this whole two part project to take seriously the numerous reviewers. I quote selected positive remarks, to make evident the reviewers’ stances if readers don’t read the full reviews, but also to hopefully provide reason to visit the book page at nobossesbook.com where the reviews can all be read. I dwell on criticisms, however, to hopefully learn from them. This means what follows is long, but it treats each review separately and in turn. Here goes:

 

Gavin O’Tooe, *A Muddled Vision*

Early on O’Tooe rightly notes that as I pointed out the idea of the coordinator class echoes the “professional-managerial class” coined by the Ehrenreichs and has anarchist roots.” True. O’Tooe then says, there have been various criticisms of participatory economics but adds, “None of these are insurmountable, yet aspects of No Bosses remain unfulfilling.” Okay, what is unfulfilling?

O’Tooe tells us that “the co-ordinator class deserves more thorough exposition, there is little to explain its historical emergence, and co-ordinators appear to play the same role in radically different societies. Being a boss cannot in itself be a basis for class consciousness.”

Well, more thorough exposition would always be beneficial, given the time and space, I agree. But, that said, the approach to participatory economics I offered didn’t say that “a boss is a boss, because he or she is a boss, so dump the bosses.” It said, rather, that in a corporate division of labor one group of employees monopolizes empowering tasks and another group winds up with disempowering tasks. True or false? It said that due to this structural difference of circumstance, the two groups have quite different interests, even when both are subordinate to owners. True or false? It said as well, that when owners are gone, if workplaces retain this corporate division of labor, not only does this difference of circumstance still exist, now the empowered employees, who I call the coordinator class, rule the disempowered employees, who I call working class. True or false? I don’t know what Otooe thinks of this, or, for example, of the associated claim that the type of economy many call Twentieth Century Socialism, might be better called Coordinatorism because the coordinator class became the ruling class.

Otooe adds that “Albert’s reflections on politics revive anarchist antipathy to the state which, while portrayed by Marx as an excrescence, many Marxists have assumed will prevail in some form.” I believe and No Bosses says a polity will exist in a participatory society because legislation, adjudication, and collective implementation of laws and policies will still exist. I don’t think that accomplishing those tasks will require or warrant having a “state” operating above the population, but I do think it will require and warrant having a polity that embodies the will of the population. I think some anarchists might reject this view, but many others would say of course. Likewise some Marxists would agree, and others wouldn’t. But does the view have merit?

Otooe says, “The pandemic has hinted at the role muscular states can play in supporting workers.” Indeed, and the Mafia can sometimes do something valuable for a neighborhood it rules over. But that correct observation says nothing about the actual role of any state, much less the role of a muscular state in a revolutionized society.

Interestingly, Otooe says, “a vision of a socialist future is already contained within Marx’s writing according to scholars such as Richard Wolff and Peter Hudis.” This observation matters if it is true, and if the vision contained in Marx’s writing is worthy and viable for our future. If that is the case, Wolff, Hudis, and I guess Otooe should have no problem describing the institutions of that vision and their implications. I look forward to hearing where such a description is available. And I look forward even more eagerly to hearing what institutions it proposes, as compared to, say, the institutions that Marxist-inspired movements have universally adopted in practice, such as state ownership of productive assets, a corporate division of labor, remuneration for bargaining power and output, authoritarian decision making, and markets and or central planning for allocation, all of which institutions participatory economics roundly rejects for reasons offered in No Bosses.

Otooe wonders if participatory economics is not widely adopted because it “does not provide a sufficiently enthralling vision of the revolutionary transformation required to conquer the future.” I wonder that too. But I tend to think, instead, that a commons of productive assets, self managing workers and consumers councils, jobs balanced for empowerment, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning as core institutions are, when elaborated so that their implications are clear, plenty enthralling. I think a variety of other factors (also discussed in No Bosses) impede a wider spread of this vision, particularly its relative media invisibility even on the left, on the one hand, and widespread cynical doubt about any alternative economy being attainable on the other hand. Not attainable? No point assessing merit.

 

Systemic Disorder: Envisioning A World Without Bosses

The website Systemic Disorder publishes with that as the author’s name. So herein I will call the author SD.

SD begins, “providing a blueprint is impossible. Having visions is a necessity.” I was hooked already. I share that view, as they say, “a hundred percent.” SD says much else complimentary about or consistent with No Bosses, including interesting commentary of his own, for example about Yugoslavia, but for purposes here it is better to try to find the disagreements.

SD says, “the core institutions of participatory economics are workers’ councils and consumers’ councils. Workers’ councils in this conception are meetings of all enterprise workers that make all decisions, whether by simple majority or a specified super-majority. (Perhaps it would be better to call these ‘workers’ assemblies’ to match generally used terminology.)” We opted for the label “councils” way back in time, in solidarity with that words prior historical advocates like Anton Pannekoek, among others. But just to clarify or perhaps nitpick, the whole workforce doesn’t together make all decisions. Self management means that sometimes teams, for example, make decisions that overwhelmingly affect them, with broader effects handled by prior decisions of larger constituencies that their included teams abide.

SD says, “These bodies of the whole make all decisions and there are no higher bodies. There are no managers or bosses, not even elected ones. Everybody participates in all decisions.” Again, this isn’t the case. On the one hand, federations of councils for industries, are not really higher, but certainly different and more encompassing than workplace councils, and similarly on the consumer side. Also, not everyone participates in all decisions, rather all those who are affected have a say, but not always by being present. For example, consumers affect production decisions, but not from inside the workers council.

SD says, “Although expertise would be listened to, decisions wouldn’t be devolved to experts; rather these councils would seek to raise levels so that all could participate.” Yes, but again to avoid possible confusion, it is not that everyone becomes expert in all things, but only that everyone becomes capable of responding to expert evaluations and suggestions. Expertise is consulted but not exalted.

SD says “Another key conception is a system of ‘balanced job complexes’ to break down the division of labor. Here No Bosses offers one of the most serious proposals I’ve ever encountered to break down the division of labor, an often under appreciated contributor to inequality. Simply put, if there is not a serious effort to break down the division, inequality will remain. The book conceptualizes balanced job complexes not as short-term stints in alternative circumstances but rather having a set of tasks for all jobs that would enable comparable empowerment in all jobs. Balancing would occur not only within a given workplace, but across all workplaces, to give everybody an equal chance of participating in decision-making.” SD has this spot on.

Next SD considers allocation and says, “here we come to a significant weakness of participatory economics. The plan would require everybody to know exactly what they will need for the coming year — shirts, automobiles, appliances, books, meals at restaurants, even theater tickets. This is impossible!”

Of course it would be impossible, so perhaps it should be obvious to SD who felt that so much else was wise that I could not possibly be saying what he apparently divined, even if he didn’t see that I repeatedly say that we are not saying that. Rather, consumers take their last year’s actual results and propose for this year, but in broad categories, not sizes, colors, every possible item, etc. etc. More, consumers do this knowing that nearly every participant will make changes during the planning process to arrive at a final enacted plan. Still more, people will also make changes during the year due to changed and/or unanticipated preferences and situations. That is, what people actually do during the year will often deviate from their agreed proposals, so the plan will have to update, which process No Bosses indicates and discusses.

SD says, “Most of the books I buy are on impulse when I see something interesting in a bookstore; how can I know what I will find ahead of time?” And he can’t know that, of course. But he can know how many books he got last year. He can know if there are any significant changes in his life or in society bearing on his likely inclination to get books. So he can propose for the coming year. Actually, it is not even particularly hard, as long as we remember that this isn’t some kind of binding choice.

SD says, “Participatory economics presumes that if there are changes, these would cancel each other out and all would be fine in the end.” Well, no, participatory economics says that sometimes changes will cancel out, but other times overall output of some product will need to change to fit new overall demand. More No Bosses describes how that happens. It feels like SD had a concern and started formulating a criticism without reading to see whether the concern was addressed.

SD says, “But, note that we saw earlier that people had to stay within a strict budget.” Yes, people should of course propose in light of their expected budget, though over the course of the year, like their preferences that budget may change somewhat because people want to and are able to work more or to work less than they anticipated, in which case again workplaces would modify their efforts, in accord. And SD says, “Despite the author’s insistence that this system would be freer than capitalist markets or central planning, neither capitalist nor Soviet-style governments constrained consumption into such a straitjacket.” And of course neither does participatory economics. We wouldn’t dream of imposing such a straitjacket…and I admit it is hard for me to understand why SD or any reader would think otherwise.

SD says, “These levels of negotiations would be enormously, and needlessly, complicated. Negotiations would have to begin months before the current plan year ended, so full information would not be available.” I wonder what SD’s reason is for thinking this. It is boldly stated, but without explanation. Actually, I suspect a couple of weeks would likely be enough. But suppose, the planning process required a month of intermittent attention while other work also proceeds. Is this too much time to spend to have classlessness, self managed decisions, equitable remuneration, and so on?

Indeed, what would be too much time to spend on planning to attain all that, and to also remove the time wasted in class struggle, the time wasted in producing obsolescence, the time wasted in producing what would no longer be produced, the time wasted in cleaning up ecological nightmares, and so on? In any event, in fact participatory planning does not require overwhelmingly complicated negotiations. It simply requires workers and consumers councils to make proposals about their own activities in light of information, prices, and quantities which are revealed by way of other people’s summed up proposals.

SD says, “The weakness of Soviet-style central planning shouldn’t be glossed over; one problem was that no group of officials, no matter how dedicated or sincere, could possibly possess all the knowledge necessary to make proper plans.” And that would be quite relevant, although perhaps no longer quite as true as earlier, if participatory planning elevated some central planner to examine all information and issue instructions to obedient workplaces, but it doesn’t. Workplaces need to know their own circumstances, their own desires, and the emerging valuations of their inputs and outputs and desires for their products. Consumers need to know their own desires, their budgets, and the emerging valuations of the items they seek.

SD says “Democratic, bottom-up planning would inevitably be a central component of any egalitarian future economy designed to meet social and individual needs and enable everybody to reach their potential.” I agree, of course. And I would add that if participatory planning isn’t capable of worthy, effective, timely allocation, then it would need refinements, adaptations, and perhaps even entirely new features. But saying that a completely different system, Soviet central planning wasn’t capable, and then dismissing participatory planning as if it has the features of that unworthy and ineffective system, which it does not, seems irrelevant to me.

SD says, “I would argue that planning based on negotiations, and that it be bottom-up and not top-down, is a necessity. On that basic concept, I am in agreement with No Bosses. It would be important to know how many shoes would be needed overall; it is not necessary and not possible for hundreds of millions of people to each know precisely how many shoes or theater tickets they will need.” Only a fool would disagree. So perhaps SD might want to take another look at the proposal to discover its actual characteristics.

No Bosses presents a summary description of participatory planning. I think SD, not at all unreasonably, wants more then that summary. If that is correct, I would suggest that he consult Robin Hahnel’s new book, Democratic Economic Planning which addresses in much more detail and in a much more technical mode the points he is concerned about, including, for example, the duration of planning, dealing with externalities and the ecology, providing public goods, and arriving at investment plans. After that SD may—or may not—move from now feeling that “No Bosses is a marvelous contribution to the growing and needed literature on the contours of a better world, of what we believe it should do” to thinking, as well, that its core commitments to a productive commons, self managing councils, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning take us a long way toward having a shared vision of essential features of a worthy new classless, self managing, equitable, ecologically sound economy tha will be efficient at meeting needs and developing potentials—thereby providing a scaffold of proposals to refine and build on but not a blueprint to slavishly install.

I think there is one last matter in SD’s review to address. No Bosses doesn’t say we should reject Social Democracy, Marxism, and Anarchism as in we should dismiss all their thoughts and insights. For example, Social dDmocracy is quite relevant to immediate program, though No Bosses certainly goes way beyond Social Democracy. Marxism is a mixed bag. It has much to agree with, of course, for example its rejection of private ownership of productive assets. But it also has some critically important things to reject, for example its implicit and often even explicit support for the corporate division of labor, markets and or central planning, and its lack of attention to the role of a third class that resides between labor and capital in capitalism and is elevated to ruling status in many post capitalist commitments. And finally, as far as Anarchism, it is another mixed bad. There are again many views to agree with, for example rejecting a state above the population and also some other views to reject, for example celebrating having too vague a vision.

I think participatory economics achieves and goes way beyond Social Democratic aspirations. I think participatory economics accomplishes the best aspirations of what we might call Libertarian Marxism, while it rejects the often not at all admirable aims of other branches of that approach. And finally, I think participatory economics actually manifests the desires of Anarchists, so much so, that I think it is reasonable to say it is an Anarchist economy and I often do say just that.

 

Brian Tokar: Reviewing No Bosses

Brian Tokar, an old friend, begins, “Albert’s latest book, No Bosses, offers a concise, highly accessible account of participatory economics, drawing upon lessons he has accrued over the decades and addressing various critiques that have been raised, both in public settings and in print. The book may well be the best introduction yet to this approach. It has the elegance of a well-honed mathematical syllogism, combined with a conversational style that will engage readers of varied backgrounds. It is necessary reading for all who want to reach beyond the perennial exhaustion of today’s seemingly endless social and environmental crises and consider the potential for a revolutionary transformation of society.”

I can’t help but admit I like how he gets into the topic. And I was also happy that many subsequent paragraphs aptly and supportively summarized views offered. But the point of replying to reviews here is to find the disagreements or concerns, and see if I can briefly either clarify or correct my views to accommodate them.

Tokar likes rejecting markets and central planning but isn’t fully convinced by the discussion of participatory planning, nor should he be. It is a proposal, and in No Bosses only a summary at that. If the proposal is worthy and viable, as I believe, it will only become fully compelling as certain of its details are debated and even more so, as patterns of behavior and experiments demonstrate its validity.

But Tokar has another concern that no other reviewer has raised, so I think perhaps I should focus on that. He writes, “The chapter that outlines the ways this approach can help advance liberatory models of politics, kinship, and other areas of life raises even more questions. Most notably: Should economic arrangements continue to be foregrounded to this extent in our overall vision for human liberation? Are we bound to always be divided between our roles as workers and ‘consumers’ of economic goods? What of the economic historian Karl Polanyi’s ideal of re-subordinating economics within broader social and cultural values rather than allowing it to continue to dominate our lives, as it has since the origins of capitalism? Is politics a subset of economic relations, or should it be the other way around? The literature on participatory kinship relations has evolved quite substantially through the work of Lydia Sargent and several feminist colleagues, but how might the feminist ethics of care be moved to the center of social relationships rather than continue to be subsumed by economic considerations?”

And Tokar adds, “Albert suggests that it’s fine for others to focus on such questions while he continues to elaborate the economic vision, but I’m not convinced this is sufficient to overturn 200 or more years of economics dictating the terms of our lives.” Nor am I, which is why it isn’t my view.

Honestly, I don’t understand how these impressions arise. Perhaps my writing isn’t as clear as it ought to be. What I do say, however, and what I have said for decades, is that economics is one centrally important part of life. Other centrally important parts include what I tend to call kinship, community/culture, and politics. Each of the four of these impact the other three. Each of the four needs vision that is not conceived independently of realizing the intertwined ways in which the four spheres exist, but, instead, is conceived to have compatible and mutually supportive elements. The sense in which I think it is okay that I happen to write more about economics than about the other areas of focus, is that neither I nor anyone else is likely to be simultaneously highly productive regarding all four of these areas. I repeat endlessly that I write about economics not to forefront it, and not because I think it is more important, but simply because it is where my thoughts and involvements have left me able to make a contribution. So I highlight economics in No Bosses while I also urge the equal importance of the other focuses, and indeed I have offered it that way for my entire political life. I don’t think Tokar would pick up a work on kinship vision, racial and community vision, or political vision, and feel by virtue of having its focus (even if it didn’t have a chapter addressing relations with the other three areas), it was making a case that its focused area was somehow paramount (even if it didn’t repeatedly say the opposite.)

 

Will Froberg: Review of Michael Albert’s No Bosses

Source The Detroit Socialist

Detroit Democratic Socialists of America

Will Froberg begins: “In his new book, No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World, Michael Albert lays out a concrete vision for a new economy called participatory economics (parecon). The system was originally created by Albert and Robin Hahnel, with its first formal presentation in 1991 in the (popular) book Looking Forward (free online here and (the move technical)The Political Economy of Participatory Economics (free online here. This vision deserves to be widely recognized as an equitable, liberatory, and practical alternative to capitalism, and in No Bosses, Albert cogently and captivatingly explains why.“

Froberg then summarizes various points about the stated underlying values of No Bosses and moves on to envisioned structures. First comes the idea of a productive commons and he quotes the book:

“All these productive assets are either gifts of nature, like warmth from the sun and resources from beneath the ground, or they are products of a long history of human creative activity, like technology, knowledge, and skills. They are parts of a natural and a built Commons which should together be respected and used responsibly for the benefit of all society. To misuse or waste them is a sin against nature and our own history that diminishes our future.”

Froberg next mentions No Bosses rejection of the corporate division of labor and its argument that “if this issue is not resolved, it will subvert otherwise well-founded plans to institute self-management.” He quotes the book, approvingly, that “…even without owners present, and regardless of contrary hopes, the 20 percent coordinator class will dominate the 80 percent working class. Even with self- managing intentions, the trajectory of change will become out with the old boss, in with the new boss.”

Then Froberg summarizes the concept of balanced job complexes wherein he notes “every worker would have a balance of empowering and disempowering tasks, in a mix that is broadly like that of all other jobs” and he reports that No Bosses argues in considerable detail how balanced jobs would release new productive potentials even as they also make classlessness possible.

Next, Froberg turns to allocation, which, he says, “concerns how an economy apportions resources to its members. For example, an economy has to have a mechanism for determining how much income individuals receive and how prices of goods and services are determined. Participatory planning involves neither markets nor central planning. Instead, it proposes a form of decentralized, democratic planning.”

After summarizing some aspects of participatory planning, Froberg reports that “unlike many works on economics, No Bosses also argues that a participatory economy on its own is not enough. The political system, community/culture, and kinship are also important aspects of any society. Albert does not put economics above these other sides of life, and explains why all four of these areas need to be actively worked on if a truly desirable society is to be achieved.”

Froberg continues, “The last chapter of No Bosses gives answers to 15 questions about participatory economics. Albert does not shy away from asking the hard questions and answers them in depth.”

Froberg sums up that, “Overall, No Bosses does an excellent job of answering the questions: “If you don’t like capitalism, what would you replace it with? Why would your postcapitalism be worthy? Why would it work?” Activists have struggled with these questions, and No Bosses provides robust, concrete answers worth fighting for.”

I said I was going to find points of disagreement in the reviews, and clearly I have not done so with Froberg’s piece. It is because there were none that I could see. But, there was something different that distinguishes the context of Froberg’s review from the rest. Here is how Froberg concluded:

“Detroit DSA has a parecon group that advocates for the system and is in the initial steps of forming a project based around creating a transitional parecon system in Detroit. For the latter project, we are looking for possible participants in the system. Are you a member of a co-op? Are you self-employed? Or do you create products as a hobby at home? Email Travis Froberg at travis.w.froberg@gmail.com to learn how you could be involved! You do not need to be a member of DSA or even have leftist politics to participate.

“The parecon group meets biweekly on Sundays at 2 pm. Our meetings are posted in Detroit DSA’s Slack in the announcements channel, but you can also get the meeting Zoom link by emailing travis.w.froberg@gmail.com.”

I doubt it will come as a surprise that I thought those two paragraphs were the most important in the whole collection of reviews.

 

Caed Stephenson: Review of No Bosses – or actually not a review

Caed Stephenson starts off: “My aim here is not so much to write a review of No Bosses as to offer up something to go with it, something which makes fuller sense of it for me…. My purpose from here, instead, is to put parecon alongside dialectical materialism.”

This poses a problem for me. I am not going to pursue all agreements or differences about underlying philosophy. That could go on forever. I will instead look for representations of or criticisms of participatory economics I might relate to.

But just to see how lengthy recounting all our differences could get, here are the first three bullet points Stephenson offers after he notes and rejects concerns some have that “dialectical materialism…talks a language no one understands”, and my reactions to each.

Stephenson: “Honestly trying to work things out is even more important than speaking plain English. If the results of being true as you can be to your times are a little verbose, this is a better starting point than peddling something plain-talking but lightweight.”

Albert: “This assumes that dialectical materialism is saying something important that can’t be said more simply, and that being clear can’t be more than lightweight. I disagree on both counts.

Stephenson: An important aim in the workers’ movement is to take possession of analytical language and ideas. If we are going to be in a fight, we may need these.

Albert: This again assumes important analytical ideas cannot be expressed using language people can take possession of and make their own. I disagree.

Stephenson: “Dualist right-wrong thinking is more mainstream than dialectical thinking and therefore everyday language has wrapped itself around dualist logic. The expression of dialectical thought is likely to be on the clumsy, confused side sometimes as a result.

Albert: Apologies, but I think there is not something called “dialectical thinking” that some people do, and some other kind of thinking—“dualist”?—that other people do, where the former folks are well prepared and the latter are poorly prepared to understand the world and its potentials. Shorn of obscure terminology, I doubt there is a difference at all.

Before long, though, Stephenson gets back to the review: “Returning to parecon and No Bosses, Albert builds his system on the values of “self-management, equity, solidarity, diversity, sustainability, internationalism, and participation”.

And then Stephenson adds: “Especially in view of Albert’s practical elaboration of each, I am in whole-hearted agreement with all of them. I feel many of them in my gut.” We apparently have like minded guts.

He continues, and it seems his celebrating dialectical materialism and me finding it incomprehensible, is a bit less than pivotal because Stephenson winds up where I do: “The practical defining pieces of parecon are self-management, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes and participatory planning. Again, a big yes to all of these…”

But then Stephenson gets back into philosophy mode, now presenting his view of Marxist understandings of capitalist economics and then Marxist economies. I don’t think there is point in going over all our differences, but maybe I should address one. I think Stephenson finds the denial of control over their working lives that workers suffer even once there are no owners, to be a function purely of the central planning that Marxist economies have most often employed.

This causes him to quote No Bosses favorably that, “Even if planners start out honest and are not immediately corrupted by their power, over time they come to view those they administer as subservient. They come to view themselves as worthy and exceptional. They then reward themselves, and also people like themselves, more than workers below. “ He doesn’t, however, see that this kind of pressure on those who monopolize empowering positions also occurs inside workplaces. Planning abets it, but the corporate division of labor is the soil from which coordinatorism sprouts.

Stephenson says, “Ironically, the final great defining moment for Albert’s coordinator class, under socialist “coordinatorism” at least, has been its betrayal of Marxist-Leninism along the path towards becoming new capitalists.” This is strange. I don’t think the coordinator class betrayed Marxism Leninism. Rather, I would say Marxism Leninism attained, every time, what was inherent in its logic and concepts, coordinator class rule.

Stephenson quotes approvingly “…markets…produce decision-making hierarchy and squash self-management. This occurs not only when market-generated disparities in wealth give different bargaining power to different actors, but also when market competition compels even council-based workplaces to cut costs and seek market share.”

But an interesting difference arises when he continues: “This is to say that under market socialism, as we can see empirically in the Yugoslavian example, allocation still rules over workplaces from outside and consequently over workers inside. Thus, market socialism appears to be another opportunity for Albert’s coordinator class, likewise ready in waiting within capitalism as a roughly 20% professional managerial contingent, to take up the helm of social leadership.”

I agree that markets tend to produce class division and class rule, and in No Bosses I explain how, but, I add that inside workplaces so too does the corporate division of labor produce that class division and so that division of labor also needs change. Stepenson seems to have his eyes perhaps a little too fixedly or solely on allocation.

Again, despite that I find dialectical materialism to be a miasma of verbiage that I can’t begin to penetrate and I wouldn’t know an instance of dialectical thinking from whatever other kinds of thinking it might believe it is transcending, I seem to arrive at views not hobbled by that. Stephenson quotes favorably:

 

“Our contemporary allocation problem is that (as could be seen in the old Yugoslavia and Soviet Union) even without private ownership of the means of production, markets and central planning each subvert equitable remuneration, each annihilate self-management, each horribly misvalue products, each grossly violate the ecology. They each relentlessly impose antisocial motivations. They each unavoidably impose class division and class rule. This is precisely the kind of dynamic our approach to thinking about economics attunes us to. Particular institutions—in this case markets and central planning—impose role attributes that violate our aims. They are leaky life rafts. A worthy vision must transcend them.”

However, No Bosses also notes that we must find all the institutional causes of class division, and offer alternatives to all of them. At this point Stephenson seems to launch a survey of future trends or possibilities I won’t comment on. After some of that, which I admit I could not really follow, Stephenson returns to No Bosses.

He writes, “The point is that participatory economics fills a common hole in many stories,” but when he tries to explain what he means and why it is so, and while I tend to think he is being supportive, honestly, this material was Greek to me.

 

Martin Parker: Between Rocks and Hard Places

Parker begins, “readers who have been interested in alternative economics will doubtless be familiar with Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s work on participatory economics, or ‘parecon’. Over the last 30 years they have both written a lot, both together and apart. Albert is more of a political theorist and has tended to write books that are more polemical, and for radical publishers. Hahnel is the economist, with more scholarly publications, often for academic publishers (see, e.g. Albert, 2004 ; Albert and Hahnel, 1990 ; Hahnel, 2005 ). It’s a tremendously impressive body of thought, one that attempts to systematically work through the idea that an economy can be planned from the bottom up, by the people, for the people. …One might have thought that such ideas would be of interest, but I can think of no serious engagement with parecon by critical organization theorists, hence this review.”

So Parker is actually doing a joint review of the two books, each recent, at the same time. He writes: “‘Planning’ has been through a difficult time over the last 50 years, somehow associated with brutalist underpasses in post-war cities and stories about Soviet shoe factories. This is top-down planning of course, based on the idea that someone in an office somewhere in London could decide whether I would be likely to want a new pair of flip flops this year. Parecon starts from the assumption that planning could be a bottom-up affair, and that democratically controlled workplaces could make their own plans about how many hours they want to work and get paid, who does which jobs, what they make and what they use. Then the plans of all these workplaces, and of the communities that they are part of, could be aggregated into larger plans, based on the idea that those affected by any decision have the right to [impact] it. The result, Albert and Hahnel assert, would be an economy which produces what we need, within natural limits, and rewards everyone more equally.”

And Parker continues, “No Bosses, with prefaces by allies Noam Chomsky and Yanis Varoufakis, is a book designed to persuade. It begins with a statement of values and then gently, but relentlessly, builds a future around them. Always being careful to stress that this is not a blueprint, but a scaffold (p. 17), Albert works through just how equality and self-management might be embedded into economic decision making. It’s an exercise in saying ‘if you believe in this particular value, then this is the sort of economy that we should work towards’. Firmly pushing back against the idea of needing a ‘coordinator class’ or a ‘corporate division of labour’ Albert shows how a system of job balancing, consumer councils and a board for keeping tallies of who makes what and who wants what (unfortunately titled an ‘Iteration Facilitation Board’) can address most of the functions that we might imagine to be necessary to produce a sophisticated worker-controlled economy. The administration might look daunting, but as he says ‘This is not introducing unnecessary complexity. It is addressing actual complexity responsibly’ (p. 156).”

I quote Parker at length because he expresses his take accurately and clearly. He next turns to Hahnel’s book and writes “with some chapters cowritten with various colleagues, [Hahnel’s book] is a more detailed attempt to work through the economics of parecon. Indeed, the ‘readers guide’ suggests that some ‘technical’ sections can be skipped by readers without the training to understand them. It’s a cooler and more scholarly presentation of the ideas that underpin ideas about democratic planning, largely aimed at convincing the sceptical academic reader. Textually, this means lots of subheadings, maxims, ground clearing ‘preliminaries’, theorems, appendices and quite a few pages of equations. Intellectually, the pivot is the ‘socialist calculation debate’, and there is a lot of detail about who argued what, particularly around the role of states and markets. There is also quite a lot of refutation of misunderstandings, and evidence (from both simulations and economic modelling) that parecon really could work and is not, as one hostile academic said, ‘nonsense on stilts’ (p. 171). As is clear, most of the critics just haven’t really bothered to read the work, even to the extent of assuming that parecon is really about state central planning. It isn’t. For this reviewer, Hahnel was at his best when presenting the central ideas, such as the lucid overview in chapter five, or the really important similarities and differences between parecon and community economy or post-capitalist versions ofisprice a future economy (306 passim).”

Parker continues: “These are great books, inspiring and based on years of thought and activism. I suspect most readers of this journal would agree that the market fundamentalism of the last 50 years has increased inequality, weakened regulation, increased corporate power and damaged attempts to combat climate change. But would you also agree that markets have no place in an economy that seeks to be kinder to people and planet? Rejecting market socialism, as Albert does in his chapter six and Hahnel in his chapter two, seems to mean that bottom-up planning will never have recourse to markets, and neither I (or Varoufakis, in his preface) are entirely convinced that all markets are bad all of the time. Neither am convinced that consumers should be capable of deciding how many theatre tickets they propose to consume over the next year (Albert 146). Or that the use of the term ‘self-management’ would not be more helpfully phrased as ‘self-organization’ (see  Klikauer, 2021 ). Neither am I convinced that we can get to parecon without first developing social democracy, which does mean thinking about the state as an intermediate institution, shadowed by Engels’ hopeful promise that it would gradually wither away, something that Hahnel seems to acknowledge.

Ah, okay, differences to address. Briefly, markets are imperial, they intrinsically spread. But more, if markets misprice things, then if we use them for some things and they misprice those things, those wrong prices will enter and distort all other interactions. Likewise, if markets distort preferences, bias away from collective consumption, ignore externalities, and impose warped motivations including the worst kind of individualism. they will do that for whatever they are used for. What can I say in few words – how about, a little arsenic is still arsenic? How much you like going to theatre shouldn’t be a problem, I would think, though it likely isn’t necessary in that form, at all. Nor binding. More important, we have a state now, and also markets, and also a corporate division of labor. And we will have those structures at least to some extent right up until we have fully new relations. So of course those seeking participatory economy and participatory society will be battling those old structures and then developing new ones for quite some time, and during that period there will no doubt be lots of social democratic reforms won, feminist reforms won, intercommunalist reforms won, economic reforms won, internationalist reforms won, and so on. And indeed, all that may yield something that could reasonably be called social democracy on the road to participatory society. No Bosses is but for a chapter only about the logic and structure of the key elements of the new economy we propose. This concern of Parker’s would arise and even be a considerable part of a book instead about strategy now, or about transition to this new style economy, or both.

Parker next gets into matters no one else goes near, and quite perceptively, I think. He writes, “It’s easy to try and pick holes, and that’s often what reviewers are supposed to do, but I want to gesture towards something bigger here. There is something oddly old fashioned about these books, but perhaps that’s all to the good. They take very seriously the project of building a new world, which shouldn’t be old fashioned, but requires patient and detailed work of the kind that is rarely encompassed by ‘critique’, and is more common in pre-twentieth century utopian writing. Contemporary critical writers often finish their jeremiads with the equivalent of a self-righteous ‘something ought to be done!’, but just what should be done is rarely specified, or who should do it. Intellectuals, as is so often the case, are happiest when complaining from the comfort of their desk. Or, as Albert puts it, most books don’t ‘propose’, they ‘declare’ (p. 17). I haven’t got space here to unfold their arguments about reproductive labour, the environment, education and international trade, but its enough to say that they have really thought this stuff through, and have built a very impressive vision of a social order I wouldn’t mind living in. (Which is not something I would say about most utopias.)”

And then Parker continues, “But perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of these two books is just how different they are in style and imagined audience. Hahnel, as his uncompromising title clearly indicates, is writing for the academic crowd. The price and language of his book is not meant for the unschooled reader, and his wager is clearly that by changing the way that students and academics think, this will filter through to policy makers and politicians. In other words, he is assuming that what academics write gets read, and perhaps even, some way down the line, has some influence.”

I should interject that I think that is basically true of Hahnel’s intent, at least in this particular book. And I think it is a sensible strategy understood in Hahnel’s particular way. That is, I think the book hopes to reach economists who may play a significant advisory role in future situations where left movements are in position to construct new relations. Talking to academics Hahnel is trying aid change not just theorize it.

Parker next notes: “Albert’s book is more populist, in language and price, and he comments on Hahnel’s strategy, gently, at the end of his book, No Bosses in a question and answer chapter that he works through, debating with an imaginary interlocutor as if he were a communist Socrates trying to persuade the reader of the moral and practical power of his arguments. Where Hahnel uses equations and references, Albert uses rhetoric and imaginary examples, and a really beautiful discussion of political strategy towards the end of the book.”

Parker then asks, “So which is the most effective way of thinking about political writing? (Assuming that effectiveness is measured in actually getting things done.) Books like The Wretched of the Earth, Silent Spring, One Dimensional Man, The Female Eunuch, No Logo have certainly sold a lot of copies, but the collective work of the Mont Pelerin Society has had more of an influence on how our world is organized since the 1970s. This isn’t to say that books have no influence, but rather that it seems that more work is needed to get those ideas to travel in the world. Albert certainly understands this, and he has been heavily involved in promoting radical ideas through the various elements of his Z Communications media project (with Lydia Sargent until her death) since [the mid seventies]. Indeed, I’m not sure he has had an academic position since being kicked out of MIT as a student in 1970. [I was a TA and I had a job for a time teaching in prison, but that is all]. Hahnel spent his career as an academic, always connecting with various radical causes, but staying within the university system and trying to persuade with the force of the better argument. Parts of his book read very much as if he is puzzled that, with so many publications and no really convincing counter-arguments, the world hasn’t changed in the direction he proposes. The books argue for the same things, but in rather different ways.”

I think Parker is correct in this assessment, though Hahnel has also written popularly. But I think the question of what works best probably has no answer, or has an answer that is sometimes one way works best, sometimes another way does, but all the time books augmented by organizing work better than books sitting idly or being read only by lone individuals. Readers who think similarly might want to check out the site RealUtopia.org

Parker continues, “In his wonderful chapter nine ‘Winning a New Economy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place’, Albert considers the trade-off between ‘vision’ and ‘organization’, by which he means something like ‘purism’ and ‘pragmatism’ and uses some dilemmas in his own Z project as the example. But what role do books like these play in this set-up? As I said in my admiring review of Klein’s No Logo 20 years ago ( Parker, 2002 ), books need to be beautifully written, well marketed and distributed and timely in order to provide inspiration for a movement, and many movements don’t need books at all. Albert nudges up against this question when he asks, towards the end of No Bosses, about different audiences for writing on parecon—left activists or professional economists (p. 206). He wonders why, given the paucity of reasoned critical response to their ideas, parecon is not more widely discussed in sympathetic circles (p. 212). This a great question, and it’s one that should resonate with any critical academic who writes in the hope of changing the world. For myself, I think this takes us into the domain of political strategy, which is only loosely related to the sort of ‘debates’ that academics invest so much in. I wonder if there is any necessary relationship between the quality of critical thought and writing, and effective political change? It would be nice to think so, but the story of parecon so far suggests otherwise.”

I like Parker’s review but regarding his closing worry, on one side you can’t spread an idea you don’t try to spread and “You lose, you lose, you lose, you win.” Rosa Luxembourg said that. But also, if you find a wall that you pound on unyielding, it does make sense to not only pound harder but to also pound differently…

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