Second reply to Richard Burke

Richard, I am glad to hear that the “royal we” you used earlier was misleading and I hope it’s okay that I reply to your second critique as if you sent an email. I am glad you see that I don’t brush off or otherwise ignore criticisms, as you earlier suggested, but tend to give them more visibility than they were likely to otherwise have.  I am not sure I missed your intended point earlier, though I agree your second piece clarifies your concerns. Hopefully your comments will either strengthen parecon’s case, refine it, or lead to other gains. I sometimes give talks in which I say that what was most upsetting about Thatcher saying “there is no alternative”  wasn’t her holding that suicidal view, but her being gleeful about it, sort of like someone saying cancer is forever while sporting a big smile. I am especially glad to hear that unlike with some other folks, you have criticisms of parecon, but hope it can be implemented and succeed. 

You say “not enough evidence has been provided to say with any confidence” if parecon will work in practice. I agree, with a caveat. I would change “any confidence” to “overly much confidence.” I believe there is a very strong case for participatory economics at the level, as you say, of thought and analysis, including the kind of case that economists typically count as compelling, but I agree with you that there is much less evidence at the level of partial implementations showing positive results. And, like you, I wish there was more, and I think it’s important to ask why there isn’t . But I think it is also important to note that there is an unlimited amount of empirical evidence and compelling argument about the incredible ills of what parecon seeks to replace, including private ownership of productive assets, remuneration for property, power, or output, a corporate division of labor, authoritarian decision-making, and either markets, central planning, or a combination of the two for allocation. These economic choices are harbingers of death and destruction, which is why, I presume, you hope participatory economics is not only a desirable but also a viable alternative, and why I would say an important visionary task is to further explore and test it. 

Richard, you want as evidence more examples of projects that have successfully included significant aspects of participatory economics. You suggest the computer simulation called for in an early book on parecon would qualify as evidence, but I actually think it would likely have been helpful, which is why we invited it, but argument, not empirical evidence of your preferred sort. And in fact, as noted in my last reply, parecon has much support of the mathematical type typically used by economists to evidence viability and desirability, but that is technical, and though compelling, I won’t dwell on it because I don’t think it is really to your point. 

You indicate that you became doubtful of parecon due to accounts of some partial projects that reported the difficulties they encountered while instituting their workers doing a mix of tasks so all would be comparably empowered to participate in decisions, while providing income in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of useful work, and while giving participants a say in decisions in proportion as they are affected. 

The  projects that told their story in the book you consulted, Real Utopia, edited by Chris Spannos, were each and all undertaken with nearly no assets in place, with employees having been schooled to anticipate either coordinator comfort or working class subservience, and within a market system that lent no support and was in many respects overwhelmingly hostile. The instance I helped found, South End Press, began and for about five years had people working for room and board, living and working in a single house, unable to get bank support, attacked by the IRS, plus, and this is the odd part that needs further explanation, receiving nearly no visible support or even interest in its decidedly original approaches from the rest of the left. 

More, I think this description of circumstances is accurate for all the self-proclaimed explicitly pareconish projects that reported their endeavors in the Spannos collection, and certainly for those you commented on. Not seen by the rest of the left as important experiments that deserved support much less emulation, and, like small businesses more generally, having an incredibly uphill road to traverse just to survive even if they hadn’t been flying in the face of all norms surrounding them as well as deeply held prior expectations of and life pressures on their proponents, success was at best a hope. Some of these efforts lasted years, one lasted decades. When working, they produced their outputs typically at lower cost to their consumers and with higher quality than comparable more mainstream efforts. None of them led to any damage to their participants, or their audience, or the environment, much less on remotely the scale that is common to existing institutions.  So what does it demonstrate that fledgling institutions, treated with disdain by even most of their anticipated allies, staffed by folks under incredible pressure, having barely any resources, and operating in markets that at every turn pressed them to behave other than they preferred just to survive, did not survive forever? 

I agree with you that the examples you cited all struggled, and in time succumbed, and that that could indicate that things were not well with their guiding conception. But I also think it could mean – and in this case does mean – only that a fraction of a bridge doesn’t cross a river and eventually falls. The projects you reference were all fractional. I would say they showed that elements of parecon had merit, but that the absence of other elements – pareconish allocation, for example, but also such things as available finances and prior training – were ultimately devastating. Is this me doing what is called “special pleading,” looking to outside factors like banks and impoverished means, and to residual factors like peoples’ prior expectations and training, but not to internal factors of parecon itself, for why these experiments had limited duration? Maybe, but I don’t think so. 

When you quote a member of the Mondragon Bookstore and Café in Winnipeg, Paul Burrows: “but in practice it has been incredibly difficult to achieve that elusive, pure, and equitable balanced job complex-particularly in areas that require greater levels of skill and training,” does it indicate that balancing for empowerment is impossible, or that balancing for empowerment is quite difficult when employees have very different training and expectations than needed, when surrounding society says your endeavor is insane, and when your business is very small and therefore has relatively few people and tasks, which makes job balancing harder? 

Regarding payment for sacrifice and effort, you quote Burrows again: “Paying people equal pay for equal effort would involve holding one’s coworkers accountable for say, getting things done at agreed-upon times. It would involve more systematic judgment and evaluation of effort on and off shift, than actually happens at Mondragon, precisely because many are reluctant to do so.” Again, in a small, resource-poor workplace there can’t be people with such tasks as part of their job. More, everyone knows and is close friends with everyone else introducing personal tensions otherwise absent. But, beyond such clarifications, you didn’t quote Burrows’ conclusion. He wrote: “Work can be organized  without hierarchy and still be organized, still be efficient, still get the job done. Workers can democratically control their own workplaces, set production goals, decide what is an acceptable average effort and pace, and determine their own wages, without running a business into the ground, as Ayn Rand and so-called coordinator class – managerial advocates everywhere suggest.” If his words and experiences are evidence, how come not those words? I hope those who hunger for an alternative not only to capitalism, but to market and class-divided economies of all sorts will read the entry by Paul Burrows in Spannos’ collection in full, and not just the sentences you quoted. It is, I think, an exemplary account of the complexities of creating classless self management in a sea of hostility with people trained for entirely different futures, in small institutions with few resources – which doesn’t deride the aim, but continues to see it as a priority. 

Regarding the Newstandard, an on-line publication, also with it’s own chapter in Spannos’ book, you quote the chapter’s author, Jessica Azulay: “At TNS we didn’t have the time to get very scientific about it and we also needed each staffer to work on things she was good at when we divided up the work, we tried to make sure that each staffer was assigned roughly the same hours of each kind of work. It didn’t always come out equal, but we tried to address inequities by rotating tasks when possible and assigning new or temporary tasks according to who was low on certain types of work.” Lack of time, due to meager resources, is of course another hardship these projects had to continually deal with. You note, though, that rotating tasks is not the same thing as a balanced work complex – which would be relevant, unless, of course, by rotating one means like Azulay does here, that you do a mix, and there are so few employees and tasks that doing a mix means sometimes people shift through various responsibilities. You have a balanced complex, but also some shifting or rotating on top of that. Regarding payment for effort and sacrifice you quoted Azulay: “All full time staff members were paid the same salary regardless of seniority. Though we started off having to receive pay in the form of “sweat equity,” by the end we were paying $21,000 per year, a living wage in most of the cities from which we worked.” You add that equality of pay is not payment according to sacrifice and effort – and that is correct, unless, of course, people are working at balanced jobs, for the same duration, and with the same intensity, basically all out, all the time, and then it is. Though you were looking for evidence, like with Burrows, you didn’t quote Azulay’s general conclusions. For example, “A parecon workplace is possible. I have experienced one and now I believe we can overcome capitalism.” And “We discovered the parecon workplace to be an inspirational institution. I believe it could be a powerful mechanism through which a movement for radical economic change could facilitate and normalize its most vital values, equity, solidarity, self management, and diversity.” Azulay ends by saying, “[Parecon] encourages individual empowerment and democracy, yet it is rejected by most social change institutions. They see it not as a threat to capitalism, but as a threat to their internal status quo. But, if we must become now what we wish to see in a better society, resistance to true workplace equity and democracy must give way, and non hierarchical workplaces must be implemented.”

For  your third example you note “the enterprise that seems to have come closest to realizing parecon norms was South End Press,” where I happen to have worked. Then, regarding payment for sacrifice and effort, you quote Lydia Sargent’s entry in the Spannos collection : “Salary Equalization, with provisos for assistance for those with dependents, special needs, or pegged to extreme effort” – and you again note “that equality of wages is not exactly the same as payment for sacrifice and effort.” Except, of course when required duration is the same for everyone as it was at South End Press and when paying for full duration, which was sometimes 80 hours a week due to poor tools, in any case, at anything beyond a ridiculously low hourly amount, was utterly beyond available resources, so we made a basic week mandatory for all, and called everything beyond that voluntary and therefore a donation to the effort. This is simply tough conditions at work, not a problem within parecon. You add, “assistance for those with dependents or special needs, while admirable, is nowhere mentioned as a principle of parecon.” You are right that in parecon such assistance isn’t a responsibility of individual workplaces. Rather, in a participatory economy, those who cannot work, including dependents, or those who have special health needs, or both, are given their share of income and what they need to cover special needs by society as a whole out of the full social product. So absent that social support for people in need due to our working in a capitalist and not a participatory United States, South End Press tried to cover for it.

Regarding balanced work complexes you quote Lydia Sargent again: “Other jobs, like phone answering, chairing meetings, opening mail, cataloguing incoming manuscripts and cleaning the office were rotated on a monthly or weekly basis. The results of this arrangement of tasks would be, we hoped, that everyone would have a relatively balanced job complex…”  The additional feature not indicated in this excerpt, was that everyone mainly did editorial work and one or another other area of empowering work like finances, promotion, etc. You say that, “rather than achieving balanced work complexes or payment according to effort and sacrifice, what we actually find is heavy reliance on rotation of tasks and equality of wages or salaries. In the literature of parecon neither do I find balanced work complexes defined as simple rotation of tasks, nor payment according to effort and sacrifice defined as simple equality of payment.” 

First, you don’t mention that interestingly South End Press (SEP)actually preceded the formulation of participatory economics and informed it, rather than manifesting it.  Also, while you are correct that parecon literature says simple rotation is not job balancing, by simple rotation it means a doctor doing an occasional bed pan, a lawyer spending a day a month doing something rote, and so on. At SEP, each person’s daily job was a combination of tasks balanced for empowerment and they typically did this balanced mix for a year, and then, for variety, did a new mix. It was on top of that that we rotated through mail, phone answering, and cleaning weekly, to reduce boredom that would arise from having to do only one such task, always. Also, remunerating for effort and sacrifice does yield equal incomes when a workplace has equal durations (unduly and often ridiculously, long), equal job quality (balanced due to the balancing for empowerment), and equal intensity (again about as high as people could manage). With a large and well-off workplace one can anticipate many deviations from such a situation, such as people preferring to work longer or less long than others, harder or less hard, and thus earning somewhat more or less than average, but not at SEP, because SEP wasn’t large and well off. We all had to endure incredible work loads to make up for crippling lack of resources. 

You also point out that various parecon advisories are incomplete or “vague.” In your first essay, however, you were critical of parecon being a blueprint, which is to say, over specified, to which I replied that no, it proposes broad and even skeletal key elements of a few essential central institutions, leaving the rest for determination in practice to suit different scales, contexts, and preferences, all to supply future citizens means and circumstances facilitating their deciding their own outcomes, not our blueprinting them now. In other words what you call “vague” comes from parecon’s commitment to future freedom and recognition that there are many options, and is in that sense a strength, not a weakness.

Finally, when you correctly observe that creating and running a pareconish firm in a capitalist sea entails great focus and commitment, and ask, “Can we expect an entire society to maintain a high degree of ideological mobilization over an indefinite period of time?” I think in this concern you are confusing the ease of being a pareconish workplace in accord with a surrounding participatory economy, with the difficulty of being a pareconish workplace against the grain of a surrounding capitalist economy. The latter certainly takes the mobilization you speak of, but the former would be natural day to day life. 

For you, the fact that the three efforts you comment on didn’t last forever reduces your confidence in the viability of parecon. I am not sure how to respond other than to note that others consider lasting while so totally contrary to society’s grain for even just a year a major feat, and doing so for thirty years beyond imagination. You are right, though, I should have referenced Spannos’ book, which contains a great deal more than what caught your eye, in reply to your first piece, except I was caught up in other aspects.

I should also note that evidence from experience need not be confined to projects that explicitly call themselves pareconish, or that have even heard of it. Thus, participatory budgeting in many cities around the world, many communes, worker controlled co-ops, production units mutually planning their endeavors, and even the examples you think provide evidence for Devine’s model – not to mention workers councils and neighborhood assemblies throughout history, the experiences of Spanish anarchism, the failures of coordinator economies, and much more, for example – all provide evidence for parecon’s cooperatively negotiated planning and other features. 

But now, to conclude, I want to agree with you about a much more powerful criticism I think your essay includes, even if perhaps only implicitly. In well over two decades of parecon existing as a vision, you ask why so relatively few folks who want change and who reject capitalism apply themselves to exploring or refining parecon’s logic, to trying to test its formulations, and to trying to incorporate its lessons for strategy into activism. Though I think the number doing so may well be more than for the other visions you mention preferring, and is global and not confined to the U.S., still it is undeniably low. Why?

First, if parecon is obviously worthless as a vision, or if we just don’t need vision, or if my and other people’s efforts to communicate about it have been inadequately clear or convincing or even actively off-putting, it would clearly make sense to not pursue parecon with further analysis and real world projects. Indeed, I suppose you could even then make a case that its advocates are acolytes and I am a diehard defender, as one critic put it, of nonsense on stilts, or that it is not silly, but only an academic exercise. But second, if instead parecon makes a whole lot of sense as a much needed vision and has some evidence in its favor, other factors must obstruct folks from undertaking ample efforts at elaboration or partial implementations. 

To the extent the second case applies, a problem arises. What other factors? One that I think operates to prevent attention to implementing and exploring not only parecon, but any economic (or social) vision at all, is simply an underlying doubt about the efficacy of proposing and advocating long-term vision due to thinking we don’t need vision in the present and in any case vision will arise when needed automatically. Or, I think even more powerfully, an underlying doubt that we can win at all which removes the need for spending time on a vision that we can never implement. 

Another factor I think operates differently. It is rejecting parecon because parecon is felt to threaten relations that one supports. This is what Azulay was alluding to in what you quoted earlier: “[Parecon] encourages individual empowerment and democracy, yet it is rejected by most social change institutions. They see it not as a threat to capitalism, but as a threat to their internal status quo.” The idea, in this case, is that many people approach parecon hoping and in fact even a priori assuming that it is worthless not out of careful analysis showing flaws, much less due to damning evidence, but because parecon has features countering coordinator class dominance in ways that threaten relations they don’t want to do without. 


  1. avatar
    Michael August 2, 2018 10:36 pm 

    Parecon is an immense concept and it is Michael is undertaking a vast enterprise in developing it and writing his book.

    I think it needs much more consideration. Just as we need to individually find out about and understand Mondragon in Spain more and better.

    Onward! Or, ¡Adelante!

    • avatar
      James August 6, 2018 9:39 am 

      And also perhaps more publicity and awareness of the Next System Project is needed. They do have their finger on the pulse of a lot of shit going on, a lot of ideas, visions, good and maybe not so good, including Parecon (which they tend to ignore more than not which Zi think is not so good) and Mondragón and much else. Like the Preston model in England which has caught the eye of Corbyn and the Labour Party over there. Perhaps Sanders could take a squiz at the Next System Project for ideas. Perhaps Z could promote the NSP more, just out of solidarity. Who knows.

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