Replying to Social Ecology Forum Post 1


For purposes of exploration and debate of Libertarian Municipalism. See whole debate here.


I received a post from Michael Caplan, who is engineering/moderating this debate…I’m not sure who it is from, but hi.

I will try to answer below, including content from the original that I am addressing…


The commenter says "One disagreement to have firmly emerged is about scale" and then notes that I sum it up well, quoting me saying:

"Suppose we are choosing between having ten large plants produce bicycles for the whole country, and instead five hundred small ones, one in each assembly area. Let’s assume, and it will certainly be true for some items if not for bicycles, that it would take considerably fewer inputs, much less labor time, less planning time, and have less damaging ecological impacts as well to take the former larger-scale approach. You are then saying, and I actually agree, if there would be other social benefits outweighing those debits in favor of the decentralized model, then we should go for the five hundred firm approach. But I think that you think there probably would be those other benefits, whereas I think there wouldn’t and would have different ones in mind, anyhow. For example, I wonder whether the work in the smaller units might be more artistic and diverse. But let’s assume it wouldn’t be and that, in fact, this would be another bonus of the larger plants, being far better able to explore diverse innovations and supply varied models for different needs, and so on. So we are down to your participation issue — does smaller and more decentralized mean more participatory and more self managing? Now here is the nub of a big difference. No, for me it doesn’t. In both variants in a parecon the workers and the consumers participate directly through self-managing vehicles of the development and expression of their views and preferences, have appropriate input levels, receive just remuneration, and so on. Small is not apriori better vis a vis democracy or participation."

I am going to go out on a limb and bet that you aren’t going to address any points that are in the above paragraph…but will, instead, act as if I have somehow come out in favor of large scale as opposed to being in favor of small scale, which, of course, the above in no way even suggests.

Let’s see…

The commenter asks…

"I am also interested as to whether Michael views agriculture in the same way."

Yes. That is, there are many variables and a good economy should let us account for them, and then freely decide.

And asks

"Does he believe, for example, in the law of comparative advantage, where, because one area is particularly suited to growing apples, it is therefore ideal to grow thousands of hectares of them so as to provide them to the entire American continent?"

Look at what I wrote earlier? Does it imply what you attribute to me? I don’t think so.

Why does the fact that one growing area is better for x imply that only that area should do x, or that it should do it beyond the degree to which there are gains from its relative advantages? It doesn’t. What implies all that is market logic, which, of course, parecon eliminates.

Yes, I think it is wiser by far to produce apples where they will grow, oranges where they will grow, and so on. I don’t think, for example, that it would be wise to spend gargantuan resources generating food and sun and whatever else in places where they are largely absent, as compared to "trading." Sure.

If we have a thousand plots, and if they all produce all possible agricultural items — a ludicrous hypothesis, but okay — and we thereby get a certain amount — whereas if they each specialize in just a few we get a lot more — and if the lot more exceeds in value other costs such as transport, and if the benefit also outweighs any social costs (reduced diversity of a population’s local focus, if there is any) then yes, of course it should be done. And it isn’t a counter argument to say that we shouldn’t go beyond what is sensible and rewarding…which no one has suggested that we ought to.

The commenter continues:

"Put differently, does he give any credit to the idea in Permaculture as well as Social Ecology that agriculture is healthier and less costly in all sorts of ways (pollution, pests, transport, fertilizer) if it is integrated locally, with systems of multi-species orcharding (still organized for mechanical harvest) and grazing livestock."

I have no doubt this is in many respects and cases true…sure, maybe always — how would I know the relative benefits of different choices for all products? But I suspect it is also true that if Alaska has to use only food grown in Alaska, it will suffer a great loss in quality of life and possibilities. But I don’t want to debate that fact – or guess. Who cares? That is to say, the economy should deal with the reality, whatever it turns out to be.

These are not matters of principle, that is, but of assessment of real conditions. I want an economy that doesn’t prejudge but that actually permits and facilitates discovering the truth — about pollution, output, social implications, and so on, and then facilitates people making the choices they prefer, not ones that I pre-ordain. Yes, if I had to choose between employing extremes I might lean your way…indeed I probably would with a bit more knowledge that I don’t have now — but I don’t have to choose between extremes. I can opt for an economy that will permit us to make case by case choices, which is obviously preferable. In reply to: Likewise, do home and community gardens, which have social and aesthetic benefits, play a role in Albert’s agricultural economy?

Sure, why not? I don’t understand why you would ask these questions. It is as if you feel there are only two possibilities, corporate gigantism/accumulation/profit-seeking and small scale for everything, a priori — so since I don’t advocate the latter, then my rhetoric aside I must advocate the former, and therefore it makes sense for you to ask me even whether I would have gardens, etc. Otherwise I can’t see why you would ask the question based on my words…just as you quoted them at the outset.

The commenter writes:

"For Social Ecologists, part of the balanced job complex of most people would involve organic agriculture, with a consequent educational, ecological and almost spiritual benefit to the population – part of the process of the community comprehending the ecological problems that must be grappled with, as much as anything else. Does this mean everyone has to be involved? Of course not. But no one will need books to know how animals have babies."

Actually, people will need books if they are interested in how more than a modest number of living things have babies. There are a few million species, I would imagine.

That aside, I don’t prejudge but a very very few things. To say that everyone must do or even should do one thing, x — in your case agriculture — well, the only thing for which i say that is making decisions. A future society may decide in your direction, or may not, it seems to me.

I don’t see any reason to think, myself, that in a desirable future everyone will do agriculture or should, any more than that everyone should clean the streets or do medicine, or anything else. But if it turned out that having eliminated the oppressions we endure and having produced a liberating set of social relations, everyone or most everyone felt that it was critical to have an agricultural aspect in their work complex, then, yes, there would be a huge impetus toward all kinds of local growing patterns, etc. But this isn’t a matter to prejudge. It goes way beyond what we can reasonably know about the preferences of free people, it seems to me. And there is no reason to prejudge it. What we want is an economy that would permit people to freely make this choice, or others. That’s what parecon does, without imposing an institutional bias itself.

The commenter writes:

"Anyway, bicycles. Firstly, lets not be silly. To say that massive plants of workers are not necessarily appropriate is not to suggest that every town must have a bicycle factory. "Comprehensibility of scale" is an important part of the raison d’ etre of the neighborhood assembly as a political unit. A political community must be small enough that its population (the decision makers) can more or less comprehend it."

I don’t understand the above at all. Do you think the U.S. will stop being a political community, the world will stop being one, other units that are larger than what you have in mind? Why is your view on this so apocalyptic — either we all understand and know everything, or we simply don’t understand? I don’t see anything like that as the reality…

The commenter writes:

"While I agree with Michael that Social Ecology has not adequately discussed the economic questions, I think it is reasonable to suggest that workplaces (especially as workers are to play a huge role in the running of them) should also be of a scale that does not require a huge bureaucracy to comprehend and manage."

You are presuming when you make the entreaty that scale is alone can determine that production units will have a fixed hierarchy. I think that is a very conservative attitude, in fact, and luckily, also, that it is false. Not only is it false, I doubt anyone has ever made a remotely coherent argument that it is true.

Yes, if it were the case that above a certain size any institution would inexorably become hierarchical, etc., then obviously we would want to stay below that size unless there was a very pressing reason why we had to put up with the debit. (Parecon, by the way, would rule it out far more decisively than social ecology, it seems to me, since such a unit wouldn’t have balanced job complexes and there is no unit in a parecon that doesn’t have balanced job complexes). But it isn’t the case that scale imposes hierarchy…as far as I can see. And I don’t think anyone has ever offered an argument linking scale, per se, to hierarchy and class division, and so on.

This is just another version of the other kinds of apocalyptic arguments that abound — technology, science, exchange, institutions, scale — in and of themselves, regardless of social relations, induce oppression. All these claims are horribly unsound, to be generous…

The commenter writers:

"For Social Ecologists, part of the equation of alienation is hugeness of scale, which causes people to be so daunted that they can’t envisage actually participating equally in management. Anyway, that’s a philosophic point, but an important one I think."

Notice what you are saying — you reject something that precludes participation…well, so does parecon, and not just rhetorically.

But I don’t think it is a philosophic point — I think we are disagreeing about what the reality is, and also about what the visionary task is. I also don’t think it is an ecological point you are raising- quite the contrary, it seems to me. I always felt a central ecological insight was precisely the wisdom to understand that all things are entwined and mutually influential even when they don’t seem to be. That being the case, and it is the case, of course, it seems to me the task for caring humans is to find ways to comprehend the interconnectivity and nurture and benefit from it, without, however, imposing on ourselves hierarchies of power, wealth, etc. This is what parecon does — whereas, almost like the primitivists, I have to say — it seems social ecology simply accepts that it is impossible and opts, instead, for small, as if to sunder connectivity.

The commenter writers:

"In my mind Michael has not fully considered the costs and benefits of huge scale."

No. In this discussion that isn’t even an issue — or shouldn’t be. And if you go back to your opening quote I think you will see I am cognizant of the issues.

As soon as one sees that scale can matter, sometimes greatly, the point is to have economic institutions which arrive at desirable scales for production units, etc. You even agree with that point above — noting that obviously we don’t a priori decide to have a bicycle plant for each person or neighborhood — and presumably also we don’t a priori decide to have one for the whole world, or for a whole country. Okay, then where in between the extremes do we settle?

Our difference is that I do take the issue seriously and have proposed an economic model that can deal with it in tune with values we both hold. You and social ecology say you take the issue seriously, but you don’t propose institutions for addressing it, you merely prejudge it, in words…

In other words, I say issues of scale are real and consequential questions, and that the answers to what scale to choose varies from case to case, so that an economy needs to be able to assess the relevant information, value the implications, and make choices — with appropriate input for all actors. That’s what parecon does. Participatory planning generates true social costs and benefits and employs and facilitates self management. That is taking the issue seriously, I think. Vaguely talking about preferring small scale or thinking that smaller will be preferable more often than larger is simply irrelevant. It reveals your intuition, that I more or less share — but we have nowhere near the information to make such choices in advance, much less all in one direction, even for production methods and institutions that we have now much less ones that don’t even exist yet.

The commenter writes:

"He has noted elsewhere that fuel is hugely under priced. A massive factory requires a massive transit system – to obtain raw materials, to distribute the finished goods, to mobilise the workforce. It also requires a massive water supply – smaller tanks and dams are fast being recognised as more ecological and in the long term a more efficient way to collect and store water than massive dams. It requires a massive power supply – smaller plants would be better able to utilise local energy possibilities like solar, wind and small-scale hydro (the latter as part of a water supply system). It requires a massive sewerage and tailings control system – wastes in smaller quantities can far more easily be put to good use elsewhere in an economy."

None of this has anything to do with describing an economic model. This is at best trying to decide what future people will find to be most desirable and choose. At worst, it is trying to decide now what they ought to choose. I don’t think either undertaking is useful, save when qualified to be a hypothetical description to indicate possibilities that may be pursued.

I don’t pretend to have remotely the information needed to make such broad judgments about specific outcomes, but even if I felt that I did, I would still think it was mere guessing, though informed, and useful perhaps as a descriptive indicator of possibilities, but bearing on a description of institutional relations only in showing one possible outcome they might facilitate.

The commenter writers:

"The argument from Permaculture, which cleverly defines pollution as any element in a system that is not advantageous to an adjacent or downstream element, is that smaller economic units, with varying needs and outputs, can benefit from the existence of a variety of other economic units. "

No doubt true, and no doubt they need to be entwined sensibly and effectively, ala participatory planning, I think.

The commenter writes:

"Just as an organic farm does not have to produce every type of food, but just a usefully integrated variety of foods, an organic community does not have to produce everything, but benefits from producing smaller quantities of a greater variety of things."

No one has said anything that remotely contradicts this as a possibility — in my view a very likely one. But it is important for people to understand that drawing nice pictures is not the same as describing institutions which support those nice pictures having any chance at all of existing.

The commenter writes:

"Residential and transport infrastructure can then also be more integrated. Education – in a much more complete sense that we normally use the term (Bookchin uses a Greek term Padaeia to distinguish a special meaning) – is crucial to any real idea of people managing their own society, and this sort of localised variety in the economy is an important part, once again, of a rounded civic education. Social Ecologists do not want "factory towns" for more than merely economic reasons."

All this, again, is just adjectives. It is what visionaries have done for a long time. Yes, it tells us something about the values of those putting forth the images…but it is not a discussion of underlying economic institutions — it is rather a description of predicted outputs of those institutions. I can imagine someone saying they think the future will have all the features you desire, but that it will come by way of markets and profit seeking. You’d laugh, or cry, me too — because the person doesn’t understand that the institutions they are presuming don’t have the capacity to deliver on the images they are presenting, but quite the opposite. Okay, you guys reject many institutions incompatible with your hopes and desires — which is good. But you haven’t adopted institutions consistent with them — and parecon would provide just that, for the economy.

If we are going to talk about economic vision, seriously, the issue is not our prognostications about what outcomes the institutions will yield in years to come — other than as hypothetical tests of their worth — but firstly about what the institutions are and why their features are compatible with people choosing among options sensibly, freely, and rationally.

You’ll notice, here, that I am not answering you with comments specifically about parecon — because you aren’t asking me anything about it. Or about any institutions…really.

The commenter writes:

"The flipside of economies of scale is the rural problem. In Australia (and I’m sure the US has a parallel phenomena) many towns have become so small that running everyday social services is extremely inefficient, and have to be massively subsidised where they are maintained at all."

If we have an economy that values towns and communities then the choice between more output — assuming that is even in the cards via more centralization which sometimes it would be and sometimes it wouldn’t — and greater civic diversity, less pollution, and so on — assuming these were in the cards via more decentraliation which sometimes they would be and sometimes they wouldn’t — is one that an economy should facilitate people making — not that I should pronounce my intuitions about, as if they matter much. And that means the economy needs to be able to find the truth of the implications of choices, values the implications, and give people appropriate input in the decision between choices.

I hope this doesn’t seem harsh — I am trying to make clear how different our approaches are…I am dealing with economic functions and means to accomplish them consistent with propelling values that we both hold dear. You are, I think, in contrast, wondering what the results of our decisions using those institutions will be. You seem to be afraid that because parecon doesn’t prejudge matters of scale it will become divorced from concerns about scale. I see no argument offered here or elsewhere that that is the case. In contrast, I feel that social ecology, having self-consciously prejudged in favor of a very vague definition of localism, and having said nothing substantive that I can find about how to value the totality and material and social inputs and outputs of economic activity, will in fact prejudge, and sometimes do damage on this score, as a result.

The commenter writes:

"Well we need agricultural communities, and farmers deserve basic social services. If we are to talk about efficiency across an entire society there is an arguable case that a degree of decentralisation of light industry maintains the viability of agricultural communities with their schools, clinics etcetera. Obviously these towns cannot be self-sufficient, but a local product or two would add to the overall viability of the town, not least, once again. educationally. Some industry and craft would give the citizens a bigger sense of the world and some insight into the problems of other communities. In other words, variety is a partial inoculation against ignorance and parochialism."

This is again, talking about outcomes, not about the institutions that will facilitate them. It is as if I wrote about economic vision, and like many others, talked about new technological marvels — it is simply off topic, I think, in that respect. Yes, social ecology does describe some institutions — but I have tried to indicate why they are very far from a serious effort to grapple with how an economy can accomplish production, allocation, and consumption in tune with true valuations of all inputs and outputs and to propel both preferred outcomes and values we hold dear. It does better, I think, regarding legislative aspects of political life — though I wish it tackled other political dimensions as well.

The commenter writes:

"These are all principles. There is no hard and fast rule against massive economies of scale."

These are insights about the frequent implications of scale…and there others that go unmentioned here…and yes, that means that they are brought to bear, case by case, to decide issues, which is what a good economy ought to facilitate, rather than prejudging.

The commenter writes:

"In short Social Ecologists feel that the massiveness of factories and farms along with the massiveness of social infrastructure which goes with it has a lot more to offer centralised power structures than it does everyday people."

I don’t remember saying that I thought massive was good – or bad. It is neither. The world is massive, and there is and will always be a massive world economy. It isn’t good or bad, per se, due to being large, but just like the economy of a country…it is good or bad depending on the institutional relations and associated role structures and dynamics.

The commenter writes: "The Community Assembly is by no means a complete vision for an alternate society, but for Social Ecologists it does have one importance that I think Peter has done little to elaborate. It is our strategy. The plan of attack on capitalism involves developing these institutions in communities just as workers have developed workplace institutions as a strategy in the past (which in itself has failed for various reasons). The sort of economic and infrastructural decentralisation which we ultimately believe is important for a healthy society can only be begun after a process of political decentralisation. It is, to mix vernacular, the shop-floor meeting of the community – an "everyone" which was never quite achievable in any given workplace."

If you are saying that you feel that part of a strategy for going forward ought to involve trying to develop local assemblies, I quite agree — political structures — and I think also consumer councils. But surely that is not the only feature of a strategy for going forward… Parecon suggests many others, also important — such as working toward balanced job complexes, new remuneration, workplace councils, even fledgling forms of participatory planning, and so on — that’s just bearing on the economy.

The commenter writes:

"Albert also objects that, "I and my hundred workmates could be in five different assemblies". Most workplaces will be contained within a community, just as they already are in thousands of small towns. This feature could have been part of the definition of ancient cities and most cities up until quite recent times. Even today farmers overwhelmingly identify with a given infrastructural centre (town or village). That many cities are simply too big for this to be the case today is, for Social Ecologists, part of the problem which needs addressing in the long term."

Supposing that you are right and free people would opt to have small workplaces and living areas…which I think is quite false even if there were no productivity and no cological debits making that an unwise choice…it would be in the quite distant future.

But, more, you can’t talk about rich and diverse lives in small communities, where the local assemblies plan the entirety of economic inputs and outputs at local assemblies of all citizens — unless you feel that in this hypothetical future, where people have opted for this — they will be happy with a very narrow range of consumer items.

How many workplace do you think such a community will have? 100, 1000? Okay, there are about 200,000 produced items in the U.S. economy, I believe. And it isn’t merely that your community has to give up most of that — or else has to be part of a national allocation system and there goes your assembly deciding anything unto itself — it is that your 100 or 1000 firms will also be dysfunctional, lacking critical parts, machinery, tools, and so on, unless, again, they are entwined with all other producers.

I am debating primitivists at the same time as social ecologists. I have to day that you guys have a little more in common, I fear, than you each think, very oddly.

The commonality is a tendency to set aside reality when you have a value you want to pursue, as if it is impossible to examine real possibilities more broadly and still arrive at outcomes and structures you will value. It is the slippery slope rejection of something — technology, science, civilization, large scale…because we look around and see that the thing now has, often, very horrible attributes.

I hope that isn’t unfair…if it is, I apologize in advance.


Leave a comment