Second Reaction to Parecon

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your comments, I’m responding in line, putting your comments between <>.
<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.>

It’s indeed a complex issue, since most people probably do not agree with your ethics, nor with mine. The ethical issue is really the one being followed by religious institutions throughout history, including by the great religious/spiritual reformers, and you’ll probably agree that the record is mixed as best. Designing institutions to ethical requirements is no guarantee that they will function that way. But I agree that it is worth trying to ethically improve our institutions and behaviors and to find mechanisms that help us in this.

<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?>

I know you would like me to go in more detail, but before, I want to make a general point. I’m opposed to monological blueprints as a matter of principle and instead, favour pluralist social, political and economic structures, that grow organically from  within the old, though I obviously believe that the next stage will coalesce around the peer to peer logic, i.e. it will have at its core open design communities related to an ecology of ‘more equitable and sustainable production organizations’.

  • So a little more in detail, my first reactions to your integrated set of proposals:

    participatory planning: as part of a pluralist economy, sure. First, I do not think that exchange can be abolished as long as we have relative or absolute scarcity, and see the market as one possible way that humanity has devised to deal with exchange. But markets need to be divorced from the infinite growth mechanisms of capital, and need to be more equitable; where markets do not work, we certainly need other mechanisms, and voluntary federations could practice participatory planning. It can and should be applied to the public sectors. But a general and obligatory planning, however participatory, of the whole economy under one system, that could only be coercively imposed, no, I do not favour it.


  • balanced job complexes: I see this as a very difficult issue. Take the age old gender division of household tasks, and how difficult it has been for the women’s movement to obtain a greater role for men; many communes have floundered around this issue, and the ones that survived usually coercively impose workloads, usually in a division of labour; we’re making some progress, but it is extremely difficult; people who have spent their whole life fighting to escape the dreary tasks now devolved to the low-paid workers will be loathe to take it up; so, I don’t really see it happening without coercion on a large scale; but can we make progress towards it? Probably yes, if a community of equals decides to create a parecon company, they may want to proceed that way, it’s a matter of social experimentation, but I’m assuming rather slow progress on this front. Now, in the last part of your text, you actually go in greater detail about how you want to achieve it, and indeed I see there that you imagine different pathways, indeed in the context of a non-coercive emergence. Since I share the desirability of the principle, I think you should start specifically documenting progress on this important principle, thereby strengthening hope that it can indeed be achieved.


  • equitable remuneration: yes, we may want to proceed with a ceiling and progressive taxation, and upping the minimum wage, with also a basic income; right now the political power to do this is absent, but voluntary parecon institutions could proceed right away


  • self management: again a very difficult issue, the record of self-managed companies is very mixed, but some are successful; but as a general principle, I favour it, though again, in a pluralist economy.
    <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.>
    The comparison with Thatcher is not helpful. I’m not saying there is no alternative, but I do have a reading of history. My reading of the phase transformations that happened previously, i.e. the transformation from slavery to feudalism, and from feudalism to capitalism, happened in this way, through a congruence of bottom up and top down re-alignments around new social patterns, which proved more ‘productive’ than before. The record of the Marxist interpretation and prediction of a takeover by one class only, is pretty clear: it didn’t work out that way at all. Of course you can always tell, but it will in the future. But allow me to remain skeptical about something which never happened before in human history.

Please note that I’m not saying at all that the people ‘at the bottom’ should nicely ‘ask permission’ from those at the top, or only do things that are agreeable to them. Not at all. I’m saying that, as the producing classes are changing their productive practices and structure of desire (slaves into coloni/serfs, farmers into workers), because they see an advantage in doing so, so, concurrently, sections of the managerial classes (slave holders into domain lords, feudalists into capitalists), also changed their practices.

So far, this has been done from one class configuration to another, and you can always debate whether that was ‘progress’ or not (the answer is, yes in some ways, no in others, but overall it was always a step forward in social productivity).

You are saying that a transition towards classlessness is possible through a bottom up only change, if I’m correct. I’m saying, in this case like Marx, that I don’t believe in a direct transition to classlessness (if at all possible, I don’t know, it’s an open question), but I do believe in a transition towards a new class configuration that will be based not on the contradiction between capital and labour, but between netarchical capital and peer producing communities. I see this future as open, but only minimally described the next phase as being dominated by the core logic of peer to peer. And I say it will happen because a section of capital sees its advantage in a new way of producing that is hyper-productive compared to traditional capital, while at the same time, peer producing and sharing communities are being formed on a massive scale, because it corresponds to the wishes and desires of the producing classes.

So when you ask:

<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?>

My answer would be: classes, the state, ( and the human ego for that matter), are not things that can be abolished, only outgrown, and the way they can be outgrown is to engineer relative scarcity into relative abundance. Peer production is a abundance producing system, the market is a scarcity regulating, and capitalism a scarcity creating mechanism. My purported insight and key idea is that this particular historical configuration sees a congruence into the interests of some section of capital to move towards the hyperproductivity of sharing platforms, a global potential for small entrepreneurs to move into distributed manufacturing connected to open design communities, and the possibility to move towards combining open design with equitable exchange and market mechanisms (including participatory planning and the possibility for resource based economics bypassing exchange)

<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.">
That is indeed my general impression of Parecon, and indeed I could be wrong in this interpretation.

So let me ask you a very plain question, because I don’t see it really addressed in the Parecon literature I have seen: what are the signs, emergent patterns, which show that any of the Parecon proposals are making progress? What would you say to your troops to give them strength and hope that things are or could move in that ‘right direction’? Where is the directory of Parecon companies and institutions? In contrast, regarding open design communities, here is a list at
<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?>

I totally agree with this Albert, my arguments against coercion are not meant to be absolutes. Obviously, coercion is part of human life and sometimes necessary. But specifically, I’m talking about how to obtain a thing like balanced job complexes outside of voluntary agreement. Since there is not much evidence that it is happening, I can only imagine it happening by a revolution, and one that is under the exclusive control of say the bottom 20%, since the others would want to escape from it. My argument is really about radical ideas that go ‘against the grain’ of generalized human practice. Peer to peer would work slightly differently in my opinion: since most conceptual and design work would be done through the voluntary contributions to open design communities, and since at some point a basic income would make sense, automatically, the lower end jobs would get higher pay, and effort sharing schemes like the ones proposed by Christian Siefkes, would be set up to solve the problem. The difference is one between a gradual approach based on relative maturation of the social system, versus instituting them ‘by fiat’.
<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?>

I agree with the need for equitable remuneration. In the p2p context, the following is the problem: open design and peer to peer producing communities are naturally occurring, but they exist within an overall context of lack of equity. Hence, the logical conclusion is to try to link up open design communities with equitable exchange and remuneration. This is why I believe there is a natural linkage between the peer to peer movement in the narrow sense, the global justice movement for equity, and the movements for environmental sustainability. P2P does not see itself as a full solution for all human problems, but as ‘part of the solution’, because it will be the core pattern for social innovation. If a large pareconish movement would exist that could instantiate such equitable remuneration, it would be naturally welcomed by important segments of the peer producing communities as a natural extension of the p2p ethos.

<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.>

I use it in a very specific sense, you are offering a full system for the whole economy; while I see p2p occurring amongst a plurality of economic forms. This difference stems from your belief in the attainment of a classless society from the get go; while I see a rather long transition process, in which different class configurations will continue to exist, but nevertheless, substantial social progress can be achieved. So my problem with Parecon is that I can’t see any realistic transition from here to there, apart from a necessarily violent takeover. I’m not denying revolutions won’t or can’t happen, they obviously have in the past and will in the future, but I question where the social agent is that will want to impose over the whole society, the whole gamut of parecon solutions, which is an integrated system. P2P is not an integrated in that sense. It has a core logic of voluntary aggregation in the field of immaterial innovation, but co-exists with a variety of mechanisms in the field of relative scarcity. It is possible that one configuration will predominate, but it is not possible to say that with any certainty yet, based on observation (though some patterns are observable already). Again, the difference arises because I do not believe that phase transitions occur by social movements with a clear and definite social project, but because existing patterns of an already existing new subsystem, take over from a previously dominant system. Since I cannot clearly see any pareconish emergence, but see plenty of evidence of p2p-related emergence, I clearly believe the new meta-system will emerge from the presently existing innovative patterns.
<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?>
As I said above, I indeed think that classlessness is very unlikely. Even the record for the ‘working class gaining power’ is extremely negative. It actually never happened, as the revolutions in Russia and China happened in countries with an extremely weak working class. But because of the necessity of balanced job complexes, your problem is even greater, since the majority of the working class tries to relatively escape the worst kind of work.

Your example of private ownership is a good one. I think abolishing it is indeed a recipe for extreme social strife. At least in the West, most people, including especially workers, are very protective of their private ownership. So indeed, I‘m in favor of proposals that ‘hack’ and outgrow private ownership, rather than abolish it. Of course, ideally, land ownership, is not a ‘good’ thing, since it’s something that is already out there as a commons for humanity. But I think we can do many things to go beyond the most limiting forms of private ownership. Innovations like the General Public License and the Creative Commons licenses allow communities and individuals to bypass private ownership of intellectual property; cooperatives can be created; common assets such as air, water, national parts can be protected through forms of “Trusts”; corporate law can be reformed; there are many experiments with carsharing, fractional ownership etc… In other words, many things can be done creatively around ownership, without assuming and provoking an all-out class war that is detrimental to everybody. I’m not saying the latter won’t or can’t happen, but historically, the record is not very good, so I say we avoid it when we can, and use non-coercive hacks to the fullest extent.
<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.>

P2P is a really existing practice, and indeed, most practitioners do not really care about the larger social context, or at least do not see it as necessarily directly connected to their p2p practice. They adhere to various philosophical and ideological paradigms, even as they are engaging in free software, open design, etc.. Paradoxically, I see this as a strength rather than a weakness, since it means that the practice is not growing because they think it is a ‘ethically nice thing to do’, but rather as a practical necessity that delivers results. And this is precisely why I think it will grow, beyond my or your wishes. I propose a next step, which is the one you call for, i.e. I connect this really existing practice, with the overall necessity for social change towards more equitable and sustainable society. The question is: will those proposals and that vision will be taken up, and that is indeed an open question. But I see many signs of such socialization and politicalization of the projects. Overall, as I said before, I see the emerging p2p movement not as a sole player, but as one that will influence the social justice and sustainability movements, as part of a global coalition for change. Unless Parecon becomes a mass movement or a real practice itself, it will be one of the marginal players in this global transformation, inspiring some of the actors to go further in the creation of alternatives modes of social organization, and thus part of a wide panoply of social experimentation. But nothing more and that will be an achievement in itself.

But please be ‘realistic’. Until today, Parecon ‘delivers’ only a vision, nothing else. If there are indeed practices out there, I really recommend you start documenting them in earnest, as this is the only thing which will in the end bring your ideals forward. P2P Theory similarly delivers a vision and a narrative of change which can hopefully inspire some people to go further. That’s the only thing it ‘delivers’. However, peer producing communities are and have delivered major social innovations already, such as the internet which could not have existed without the free software movement. For that, we have to be extremely thankful to this really existing social movement.
Albert, with this contribution, I hope to have finally engaged more with the details of your own Parecon proposals.

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