ParEcon Questions & Answers

Next Entry: Ecological?

ParEcon and Time

 Shortly after the book Parecon: Life After Capitalism appeared, Barbara Ehrenreich interviewed Michael Albert about it. Most of the interview was about markets and efficiency, particularly regarding time…so we excerpt from that interview, below…

  Ehrenreich: The book is incredibly optimistic, some would say utopian. At a time when most on the US left are fighting constant erosions of rights and services — all of which were limited enough in the first place — what do you think the role of a book like Parecon can be?

Of course we won’t attain a participatory economy soon. Bush is seeking international empire and to dissolve social programs domestically. It is the worst of times, in those respects. But it is also the best of times considering international activism’s growing scale, awareness, and aspirations. I think Parecon can help that positive trend, even in the very short run, by compellingly addressing the question “What do we want?

When the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher proclaimed “There is no alternative” she echoed a widespread belief. If we have no worthy alternative to capitalism then asking people to oppose capitalist exploitation feels like an invitation to a hopeless cause. People reasonably fear that short run gains will ultimately only lead back to the same old conditions. Busy people don’t do fool’s errands, which includes fighting the good fight only to lose. For motivation, hope, and to have positive aspirations, people need vision.

I don’t want to seek change just to be on the side of the angels, or to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I want to struggle to win. I want the pressure of having to try to win, not just to show up. We need economic vision so that we can sensibly orient our efforts to take us where we wish to go. Strategy requires understanding not only our present situation, but also what we aim toward, our vision. And, of course, I think participatory economics is a worthy vision to adopt.

Ehrenreich: An eloquent answer, and I fully agree on the importance of keeping our vision in sight even while battling in the trenches. But there are alternatives to the present global power arrangements other than — you might say “short of” — the participatory economics you map out. Bill Greider, for example, has a book on how to make major change within capitalism, using levers like union pension funds. And I, though I call myself a socialist, am unpersuaded of the wisdom of abolishing the market in all areas. Health care, housing, and other basic things should be freed from the market for some kind of public control. But cosmetics, stylish clothing, and other things that could be construed as non-necessities — why not leave all that to the market? Call me a vain, petty, capitalist running dog, but I certainly don’t want a bunch of committees deciding how long skirts will be or what lipstick colors will be available.

Of course capitalism can be better or worse. The relative bargaining power of contending classes determines just how draconian income distribution, concentrations of power, investment patterns, and conflicts among economic classes are. With more bargaining power, we can raise wages, improve work conditions, increase social investments, and win many other innovations. So yes, we can certainly win and defend improvements against capitalism’s socially reinforced greed and power, and we must — but why not simultaneously seek a new system that has desirable outcomes as its norm?

To avoid miscommunicating my desires I don’t call myself a socialist, and I certainly would never call you petty, vain, or a capitalist running dog — but about markets, the big choice is not markets versus a bunch of committees. That’s a false polarity.

The big choice is do we want competitive markets that depend on each actor fleecing the rest, that misaccount the relative value of all items and distort preferences, that lead workplaces to seek maximum surpluses and deliver unjust remuneration, that apportion decision making influence hierarchically, and that produce class division and class rule — or do we want cooperative participatory planning that produces equity, enhances solidarity, enlarges diversity, and facilitates self-management, even as it also helps us meet needs and develop potentials?

Having markets for some items and not for others as you suggest might have relative benefits if markets had significant virtues that no alternative allocation system could match and exceed, and if markets had no huge debits for the proposed items, and if a market in some items but not in others was viable, for that matter.

But markets have no virtues that participatory planning won’t match and dramatically exceed. Markets lack all kinds of virtues that participatory planning incorporates. Markets have numerous disastrous faults that apply not only to markets in labor, or to markets in huge investment projects, but to markets in any item at all, including dresses, all of which faults are absent in participatory planning. And finally, if you don’t have labor markets the entire argument that marketeers put forth for having any kind of markets collapses.

Applying all this to skirts, we should want the tastes and preferences of all workers and consumers and particularly of people who wear and of those who produce skirts to interactively proportionately influence their length and colors, as well as their number and composition, their method or production, and so on — instead of profit seeking determining these results. But to have a market in skirts not only violates these desires, it means skirt prices will diverge from the true social costs and benefits of their production and consumption, that skirt factories will seek surpluses as their guiding motive and will remunerate their workers unjustly, and that these factories will utilize ill conceived methods of production and also incorporate class division, among many other faults.

All the items involved in economic life are connected. Producing more of any one item leaves less assets for producing all the other items. Items that seem relatively simple on the consumption side can utilize all kinds of inputs with wide ranging ramifications. Mispricing any item induces a ripple effect that misprices the rest. Having antisocial motives at play in any one item’s production and consumption skews the context for other items production and consumption. Excessive or inferior remuneration levels generate harmful incentives.

In other words, markets aren’t a little bad, or even just very bad in some contexts. Instead, in all contexts, markets instill anti-social motivations in buyers and sellers, misprice items that are exchanged, misdirect aims regarding what to produce in what quantities and by what means, mis-remunerate producers, introduce class division and class rule, and embody an imperial logic that spreads itself throughout economic life.

If eating, having shelter, and having desirable additional items to express and fulfill our potentials and enjoy life’s options — including skirts — couldn’t be had by some system better in its material and human implications than markets, then, yes, we would have to settle for markets and try to ameliorate their ills as our highest aim. But luckily for humanity, there is a system that is much better than markets, so that we can strive to attain participatory planning even as we also ameliorate current market ills.

Ehrenreich: I don’t want to prolong the skirt discussion (I hardly ever wear them myself), but I am confused about the way you conflate markets with capitalist exploitation. There were markets of one kind or another for thousands of years before capitalism, so they can’t be the same thing. Do you totally reject all attempts to create non-exploitative enterprises within capitalism, for example — like “No Sweat” in L.A., various micro-enterprises throughout the world, etc?

I certainly don’t mean to conflate markets with capitalism. They differ. Capitalism has markets in labor power, and in most though not all goods. But you can certainly have markets without having private ownership of the means of production, as, for example, in Yugoslavia not long ago. I think I was actually quite careful in my list above to pinpoint faults of markets per se, not of capitalist markets. Markets always compel pursuit of surplus for example, but it won’t go to owners as profits if they are not capitalist markets.

Having helped create non-exploitative South End Press among other institutions, I certainly advocate creating better institutions now. Pushing existing institutions in desirable directions as well as creating new and more desirable institutions can make life better for people working in and consuming products from those institutions now, and can make life better later for everyone if we can make the efforts part of a process leading to a whole new economy.

But it is also important to note that when we create desirable institutions like South End Press, if we do it short of winning a whole new economy, they will exist in a sea of counter pressures pushing hard on us to return our activities to an oppressive logic. There is counter pressure on our new institutions – if they are in a market environment — to advertise, to cut and slough off costs and have managers impose the cost cutting and dodging policies, to lengthen the work day regardless of people’s desires for leisure, and so on. Thus we should seek not only reforms, but a whole new economy.

ccEhrenreich: Before proceeding to other matters, my big reason for wanting some things to remain marketized is that it would reduce the burden of planning. As you know, some have complained that parecon condemns us to endless meetings, so why not leave “non-essentials” to the market?

Opting for some markets in order to reduce the burden on participatory planning doesn’t, in fact, reduce that burden. What is planned would have to use items from the marketized industries, and also deliver items to them. Managing those interfaces would add a whole new and disruptive dimension to participatory planning. Moreover, supposing this interfacing could even exist, it would condemn the participatory planning process to arrive at false plans by undermining its capacity to determine true exchange values.

Markets compel competition for market share and revenues. What would it mean to say that some workplaces should compete to sell as much as possible in order to accrue surpluses, but that they then shouldn’t disperse those surpluses to their employees? On the one hand, if they do disperse surpluses to their employees, then the entire remuneration scheme of participatory planning — to remunerate not for output, or for bargaining power, or for property, but only for effort and sacrifice — is laid waste. On the other hand, if they don’t disperse their surpluses to employees, then the firms aren’t really operating in a market fashion and, what’s more, have no basis for deciding their level of production, length of workday, etc.

I therefore wonder what you have in mind when you say you want non-essential production decisions to be decided by markets. It wouldn’t mean that people wouldn’t make choices for those items. It would mean people would make their choices under the institutional pressures of market competition. Why would you want to have allocation decisions made with institutionally imposed surplus-seeking motivations, using wrong prices as guides, engendering unjust remuneration, imposing antisocial behavioral incentives, and with actors exercising inappropriate levels of influence – instead of having participatory planning in which people make the decisions based on true prices exercising proportionate say in pursuit of social well being and development rather than surplus accumulation?

If markets are accompanied by capitalist ownership relations, then the pursuit of revenues that markets induce, after meeting costs and investing in equipment, is largely allotted to profits for the owners. If markets exist with public or state owned property, then the pursuit of revenues they induce, after meeting costs and investing in equipment, is largely allotted to a surplus for what I call a coordinator class. There are elements of progress in this alteration, but much less than I seek as my aims.

When you say we should marketize inessential goods – what qualifies something as being inessential? Inessential goods would include a huge array of items if it includes dresses, but aren’t all products essential if we consider that they are all created by people, headed for consumption by people, utilizing assets which could be put to other (“more essential”) ends, and so on?

Are sneakers inessential – if so, does that mean it is okay for firms pursuing market share and surpluses via cutting the cost of production of sneakers to run sweat shops and spew pollution? Is soda pop inessential? If it is, and we have it operate via market exchange, is it okay for the soda pop firms to gobble up all the available quinine so that millions die of malaria? Is it okay for all the workers in the soda pop firms to be overseen by bosses and reduced to only rote labor just because they aren’t producing milk?

Economies are general equilibrium systems. What happens in one place is inextricably bound to influence and be influenced by what happens elsewhere. If you feel that housing is essential and clothes aren’t, how do planned housing decisions get made unless clothes decisions are being taken interactively at the same time and how can the housing decision be good decisions unless the valuations of clothes are correct? If clothes decisions are being taken by market dynamics, then the planning of housing is undermined by the inaccuracy of clothing choices. Too much or too little productive time, energy, and resources, may be going to clothes instead of housing.

Markets lead to corporate divisions of labor and to remuneration that diverges from measures of effort and sacrifice — which is the type of remuneration participatory planning advocates — even without private ownership of productive assets.

Likewise, markets missprice goods and services due to failing to account for external and public effects, again, even without private ownership. The fact that dresses are “inessential” doesn’t tell us that their production involves no external environmental effects. What if producing dresses uses important resources, or generates damaging pollution? And producing dresses most certainly impacts workers. Markets induce individualist behavior of the narrowest sort, again, even without private ownership. Markets give an incentive to dump pollution and to otherwise ignore the effects of one’s actions on those who aren’t buying and selling. Why do we want people who produce dresses to be motivated by greed, not the fulfillment of themselves and consumers? Why would we want to accept market ills for any item in the economy?

If a particular industry operates on a market, say the dress industry, it means that that industry seeks to sell as many of its products as possible, at as high a price as it can extract as possible, regardless of the implications of those sales on buyers or more broadly. Dress producers will advertise. They will want to buy cheap and sell dear. They will prefer production techniques that cost them less even if they pollute more. The dress industry will produce in light of incorrect valuations of the product. It will cut costs of production regardless of whether doing so hurts workers more than it benefits consumers. The dress industry will do all these things, and much more, to get market share and stay in operation.

When you say leave non essentials to a market — I also think perhaps you have in mind central planning and markets, and you are thinking why not augment one with some of the other, since neither has stupendous virtues compared to the other. But my claim for participatory planning, which I can’t make in full in an interview without abusing length even more than I already am, is that participatory planning does have stupendous virtues compared to either markets or central planning. Participatory planning produces solidarity by creating conditions in which to get ahead actors must take into account the well being of those who produce what they consume or consume what they produce. It facilitates actors having appropriate decision making power by its modes of decision making and proper pricing. It is consistent with and facilitates remunerating effort and sacrifice. It respects and expands diversity. It establishes a dynamic consistent with classlessness by not requiring a layer of coordinators controlling outcomes.

Ehrenreich: Have you ever tried to calculate the human labor costs of all the planning involved in parecon? Or maybe I should say “time” not dollar “costs.”

Yes, in the various books the issue of time allotment is certainly addressed. And the discussions not only look at the time it takes to plan, which is only one side of the coin, but also at the time gained due to eliminating diverse kinds of no longer needed activity when we change to a parecon.

Some people, especially when hearing a brief summary of parecon, worry that self consciously deciding on what to produce and consume by a negotiated cooperative process will take too long. I have two answers. First, no, it won’t. The planning process in a parecon is confined to a couple of weeks and only takes part time attention over that span. But, second, even prior to that answer, we have to decide what would count as being too long. That is, when someone asks me about the cost of planning in time expended, I want to try to communicate that this is at worst a trade off.

Let’s say the total time that you as a consumer have to spend thinking about and implementing your consumption choices would go up in a parecon by a factor of two, or even three or four, depending on how much time you spend now – which, I think is quite exaggerated, unless you spend very little time now. Okay, that would be a cost, to be sure.

But would it be a deal breaker? To know that, you have to look at both sides of the equation. You have to weigh the new time costs (which I deny). But you also have to weigh countervailing gains – such as having no ruling class, having equitable work conditions and income distribution, having accurate pricing, having no drive toward individualism, no poverty, no products designed to wear out, and so on, through many more gains.

Okay, let’s say someone really values time a whole lot. For this person spending extra time on consumption outweighs attaining classlessness and all the rest. Even in that case, he or she would still need to consider the countervailing implications of having participatory planning for time savings and not just its implications for new time expenditures.

For example, parecon affects the length of the workday. Where markets increase workday length by their competitive logic regardless of the wills of actors to have more leisure, participatory planning leaves the choice entirely in the hands of actors in light of their preferences for leisure versus income. Likewise, there are time savings due to the absence of class struggle, the elimination of the IRS, the end of redundant and wasteful production, the end of having to clean up the messes produced by market competition in the ecology, etc. And even regarding consumption itself, there are very substantial time savings due to actors having accurate information, and, in particular, due to sensible collective consumption obviating the need for quite a lot of individual consumption as we now know it, as well as by producing for durability rather than market-induced built-in obsolescence. All this is dealt with in the book, by the way.

So, okay, in light of all this would planning in a parecon take inordinately longer than consuming does now plus the time for other activities that parecon replaces? In a parecon, you have to spend some time over the course of a week or two entering your budget and interacting with the overall process. I suspect this won’t take longer than people now spend doing tax returns, say, and worrying about how to pay bills, or recuperating from purchases made due to false advertising, or having to do personal consumption that would be rendered irrational in a parecon, or producing or cleaning up wasteful and useless outputs, and so on. After the plan exists, time spent making adaptations as the year proceeds really isn’t significantly different than time spent nowadays on consumption or production decisions, though it is carried out very differently, with different implications.

My reaction to averting time expenditures by utilizing is therefore twofold. Markets are harmful. Even if they are utilized for one product, which isn’t what would occur, the price of that product will be wrong and that wrong price will enter in every other industry incorrectly. The workers in the market driven industry will be motivated to seek surplus and will be unfairly remunerated as compared to all other workers who are motivated by fulfilling needs and remunerated for effort and sacrifice. The marketized workplace structure will push toward class division. More, it makes no sense to have an infrastructure for “market exchange” and have only a few goods marketed. In fact, it only has sense to both consume via the participatory plan and also via markets if there are lots of things to buy on the market. But then all the associated ills of markets would be spreading — and we may as well have markets for everything and say goodbye to classlessness. And second, the purported time gain is false, in any event.

cEhrenreich: That response raises all kinds of questions and sets off some alarm bells in my mind. To start with one of them, which may seem trivial, but is actually very central to our differing visions of a utopian arrangement: When you say “let’s say someone, really values time a whole lot,” I cringe. Is there anyone who doesn’t? What’s important to me is my work and time with friends and family. In my vision of the good society, there is more time for these things, not less. So I want as little time devoted to planning as possible. Maybe I’m just a deadbeat, but I do think this issue needs to be taken seriously unless parecon is to be run, by default, entirely by weirdly obsessed nerds.

I referred to someone “really caring about time a whole lot” referencing someone valuing time so much that saving even a little would outweigh eliminating class division, exploitation, mispricing, misdirection of motives, and so on. I pointed out that even such a person, and I don’t think that is you by a long shot, would have no reason to worry about parecon’ time implications, because parecon in total frees time rather than robbing it.

To not care about time would be odd, I agree with you. We should value saving an extra hour a week, but not so much as to sacrifice equity, solidarity, diversity, self management, sustainability, and an end to class division to attain that extra hour.

Suppose having a dictator would save time. Suppose allotting supreme power to an owner of some firm and derivative power to some managerial henchmen keeping others completely subordinate would save time. Suppose utilizing markets would save time. Time concerns shouldn’t trump all other concerns. That said, in fact, in parecon to participate in decision making rather than to obey decisions taken by others takes some time, but other time reductions more than offset this.

I indicated diverse factors bearing on time reduction last answer. But let’s concretize one. In the mid 1950s, which was generally considered the golden age of capitalism, as our mutual friend Juliet Shor points out, the per capita output in the U.S. was nearly exactly one half what it rose to about 40 years later. That means by the mid 1990s we could have worked one week on and one week off, or a month on and a month off, or a twenty hour work week, and produced the same total output per person as we had available in that earlier golden age. Market competition ensured, instead, that the total time allotted to work went up instead of down. Participatory planning would have let us choose. And that immense gain isn’t the whole story. Parecon would also save time no longer allotted to producing excess advertising and packaging, to producing shoddy individual goods replaced by collective durable ones, and of course time no longer allotted to military production.

I should add, I don’t think there is anything nerdy about people deciding their own lives.

Ehrenreich: OK, let’s forget about the slackers v. the nerds and approach the time issue in a more socially serious way. On a panel you organized at the 2003 World Social Forum, a former mayor of Porto Alegre described a real-life experiment in something like parecon — the city’s “participatory budget,” introduced by the Workers’ Party (P.T.). For a year, hundreds of ordinary citizens representing different neighborhoods and themes — health, welfare, housing, transportation, etc. (but n.b. — not lipstick colors or skirt lengths!) — met repeatedly to devise the next year’s budget, or at least that half of the budget other than fixed expenses. Then the Brazilian radical economist Paul Singer observed that, if it took hundreds of people a year to plan 50 percent of the budget for one medium-sized city, the process of planning for a nation could be cumbersome beyond imagining. Doesn’t that give you pause?

The Participative Budget project in Brazil is a fascinating and important experiment. But it certainly does not give me pause. It came about because when the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) began to win city and even state government elections, the legislature was hostile and likewise the judiciary. The PT had unchallenged control of only the government budgets where they held mayoralties and governorships, such as in Porto Alegre and the state called Rio Grande Del Sol. When the governor there planned to raise minimum wages, the legislature quickly organized to pass a law that any raise given at the lower levels of income had to be matched by a proportionately identical raise at every other level of income, thus obviating the gain. Given this type of obstruction, the PT decided that a campaign they could embark on without sabotage from other branches of government was to incorporate public involvement in deciding what the PT-led governments would spend taxes on.

So the participative budget program was initiated as a kind of consultation between government ministries and sectors of the populace brought together for the purpose of discussing about 10-15% of the government budgets. It is certainly a pareconish direction to move in, though it didn’t explicitly reject markets or private ownership, or propose any alteration to workplaces, etc. Indeed, it was really a political innovation. It diverged from parecon not only in scale, not only in having no aspect on the producer side — not only isn’t it about numbers of dresses or lipsticks to be produced, it isn’t about deciding any production outputs at all — and not only in being a government project, but also in its entire infrastructure and methodology.

That the participative budget is slow (though I think it actually runs on the schedule set for it, and though much of the slowness may be attributable to the government side of the equation, rather than running long because it must take that long or because the public is the problem) tells us no more about how participatory planning would operate than the fact that a half a bridge won’t get us rapidly across a river tells us about the affectivity of a whole bridge to get us quickly across a river, or then the travails of central planning tell us about participatory planning’s prospects, for that matter.

Skirts, and now you mention lipstick too, keep resurfacing. In participatory planning what is addressed by the cooperative negotiation between consumers and workers during planning is their quantities. Inside firms, rather than a boss deciding their composition, colors, etc., this is handled however workers councils choose, though without class division. Consumers don’t enter consumption proposals enumerating the lipstick shades they want, colors, sizes, etc. Just how many lipsticks, broadly. They later pick what they like at distribution outlets. Teasing details from the amounts they desire is handled statistically.

All this is elaborated in more detailed discussions of the procedures in the book and elsewhere. But parecon doesn’t require that the consumer explore the detailed issues associated with lipstick colors, or even pay attention to lipstick colors other than how they do now – which is by choosing, on the spot in a store, which color he or she likes. And the same holds for skirt sizes, colors, lengths, etc. But to accomplish all this easily, parecon doesn’t make the mistake of marketizing lipstick and skirts (and so much else) and thereby consigning the larger issues of how many to produce, by what methods, using what techniques, and with what remuneration for those doing the work, to market motivations and dynamics. Instead, it uses statistical averaging techniques to avoid nitpicking detail, while keeping the driving dynamics of decision making under the purview of workers and consumers who cooperatively negotiate the outcomes with proportionate influence.

Would a working participatory planning be efficient in reaching decisions and in getting them to reflect self managed preferences in light of the true social costs and benefits of competing options? I have said that yes, it would, and I have offered some modest evidence for it, but the real and compelling case requires presenting and assessing the full participatory planning model as, for example, in the book, Parecon.

I guess what I would say here is that if readers would like there to be an alternative to class-dominated market or centrally planned allocation, and if they would like to be able to advocate such an alternative knowing its properties (or improving them as they see fit), they ought to look at the more complete description of participatory planning’s procedures and institutions and judge its properties for themselves.

Ehrenreich: Singer also asked, what do you do when changed conditions, say a natural disaster, require instant decision-making? How do you answer this question?

The question about responding to changes in people’s preferences or in material conditions, whether modest or major, is very important, of course. Any economy needs to be flexible or it will be disastrous in various respects. Indeed, there is a full chapter in the Parecon book, even after the full presentation of the model, exploring this issue in detail. Both markets and participatory planning have to reply to changes and shocks. Markets do it by actors seeking to exploit the new situation to increase profits or surplus using prices that reflect bargaining power rather than social costs and benefits and little concerns for who goes without missing outputs or other possible ramifications. Effects ripple out from the affected industry. Results accrue. And this takes time and involves diverse implications, often moving outcomes even further from just and desirable results.

In participatory planning, effects are also systemic, and also ripple outward from centers of change. Sometimes they are modest and have damped ripple effects, as when slack planning covers the changes or when industries in question can increase output with overtime. Sometimes, as with a big disaster or a major breakthrough in productivity, real juggling and resetting of options must occur, or if it is more efficient and desirable, changes must wait a new planning period.

There are many ways this can happen. It can be that valuations of items change and that some people go without affected items when prices climb, shifting their expenditures elsewhere, while others get what they sought, though at increased cost. It can be that, instead, valuations are held steady but some people go without due to shortfalls — either randomly or perhaps in accord with assessments of need — as production comes back into accord with desires. The details of alternatives and why one or another would be preferred in different situations would take too long to elaborate here. The point is, the norms guiding the situation are workers and consumers preferences. The process is self managed. And the results occur with only modest dislocation, even in difficult cases.

I guess the answer for this interview, then, is yes, responding to shocks is very important. If it turns out participatory planning is inadequate in this regard, it would certainly need refinement, though it certainly wouldn’t be an argument to employ markets or central planning, which react to shocks like they react to everything else, in the interest of dominant classes and therefore with horrible repercussions. As to whether participatory planning has failings in this regard, I think when readers examine the whole parecon system they will see that it very closely addresses these issues, and can handle them adroitly as well as in accord with parecon’s guiding values.

cEhrenreich: You say your notion of parecon was influenced by your experiences with real “alternative” organizations like South End Press. Can you tell us something about these experiences and how they shaped your thinking?

Parecon emerged conceptually from examining the experiences of many post capitalist economies and efforts, of course. And very central to that were some of our own experiences. When we formed South End Press, for example, we wanted it to implement our values, not only in the books we chose to publish, but also in how we structured our workplace. We knew we wanted real democracy, but when we sat around to talk about how to achieve that, serious issues arose.

First, what did it mean? Was everything to be decided by a vote of everyone with fifty percent plus one winning? And second, however decisions were to be arrived at, we realized our procedures wouldn’t matter all that much if we came to the meetings to discuss them with very unequal preparedness, motivation, and insights to offer.

So, regarding the first point, we realized that we wanted to discuss and make decisions in a way that gave appropriate say to each person involved, but we also realized that how much say that was would vary from case to case since impact and importance would vary from case to case. We were allergic — like you — to spending long amounts of time on low importance choices. And no one wanted others telling them what to do when it was largely a personal choice.

As we worked out rules, hiring and firing became a consensus decision because of the powerful effect a new employee might have on each person who might not like that new employee. Many broad issues were fifty percent plus one, though of course we would seek overall agreement first — salaries, hours, definitions of jobs, and so on. Accepting a book was two thirds needed in favor with recourse for opponents to delay decisions. Choices about how specific members or teams would organize their own time were made by those folks, not by everyone.

In short, we worked out in practice the processes and norms of self management including learning the efficacy of using different modes of decision making for different issues, and of allotting different numbers of people to making different choices depending on who the choices affected and to what extent. The norms regarding parecon decision making emerged naturally from all that. Similarly, while the council commitment of parecon has a long pedigree on the left, it was reinforced by the South End Press experience.

The payment approach in SEP wasn’t so directly related to parecon’s exact commitments, but indirectly it was. We had almost no resources for the first few years so people worked for room and board and no more. Everyone worked very hard, well over the usual full time job, but even given that, some people worked longer than others. There was no difference in pay, however. We all got room and board, period. When there was sufficient income to have salaries, we put upper limits on them — in accord with our respecting social averages. It was still true, however, that we all got the same pay. Everyone put out intensely, and everyone worked a long week, and for those who worked extra there simply was no more pay to be had. So the extra was just considered volunteering. But for me, being part of SEP and trying to learn from what we were doing while also thinking through other experiences, what I and Robin Hahnel, my partner in developing the parecon vision, teased out was the remuneration for effort and sacrifice idea.

The main impact on parecon of the SEP experience, though, was about the division of labor. We realized that if some people were editors or handled the finances, and other people just typeset the books or cleaned the office, no matter what initial pay structure we set up, and no matter what initial voting and discussion procedures we chose, in time the former folks would dominate all outcomes and the latter folks would become typical employees. The former would raise their own incomes and lower that of the subordinates. The hierarchies of power, income, and circumstance that we dreaded would worm their way back into our project. So we incorporated what we later refined and called balanced job complexes to insure that our work impacted us all in ways that facilitated all of us being able to participate and have a motivated and informed say in the decisions affecting us.

It wasn’t easy to do because it was a small operation with not all that many tasks to do so that apportioning tasks in a balanced way was difficult. Ignoring details, everyone did editorial, everyone did typesetting (which was backbreaking and hugely time consuming) and then some people did some functions like promotion, others did other functions like organizing production and fulfilling purchase orders, but with everyone doing a balanced mix in their overall job. This set of choices about how to organize SEP was, I think, a huge impetus to the parecon idea of balanced job complexes, though it became refined when thinking about applicability to a whole economy rather than just a single small workplace.

Ehrenreich: Why don’t you call yourself a socialist? It seems to me Parecon is well within the socialist tradition. Are you uncomfortable with being associated with that tradition?

Is the socialist tradition about fighting against domination and hierarchy in pursuit of classlessness and self management? Or is the socialist tradition about crushing grassroots direct involvement in economic and social life and imposing domination from above?

The fact that you and I prefer the former tradition doesn’t negate that the latter tradition has been a ubiquitous outcome for projects called socialist. And I think that we have to pay attention to that. And that we have to pay attention to common usage among the constituencies we wish to talk with, and also to the impact that using labels can have on narrowing our own thinking.

When applied to economics the word socialism means state or public ownership, market or centrally planed allocation, remuneration for output (or arguably for power), and corporate divisions of labor. These features have been present in every economy that has labeled itself socialist. They have characterized the design and logic of almost all movements that have called themselves socialist. They are present in nearly all written accounts of a socialist economic model that go beyond espousing values to actually specifying institutional aims. And finally, these are features that I reject the same as I reject private ownership of productive assets.

In the past, I have spent considerable time calling myself an unorthodox Marxist, or a libertarian socialist. I wrote books like Socialism Today and Tomorrow that rejected aspects of today’s models of socialism but advocated other models for tomorrow. But I think there comes a time where we have to admit that we have lost the war of words, or at the very least we have to recognize that it is a battle with diminishing returns, and move on to the real substantive issues without conceptual baggage.

I am anti private ownership of means of production, anti profit, anti market, anti central planning, and anti remuneration for output. I am anti corporate divisions of labor and anti coordinator class rule. I favor specific institutions contrary to all those characteristics. That means I reject much of what has gone under the name socialism and instead advocate things like balanced job complexes and participatory planning that have not gone under that name. I guess I think that worrying about whether other leftists will think we are rejecting what is good in the heritage when it is utterly obvious that that we aren’t should not be a concern for advocates of parecon. I think our concern should be whether people who seek classlessness and who advocate institutions to attain classlessness can communicate effectively with the rest of the world.




Related Q/A built from some excerpts from the book Parecon: Life After Capitalism

Any economy on some counts is good, of course, but if it is really bad on other counts, it can lose much of its luster. Does parecon achieve equity and its other virtues by sacrificing people’s privacy or by imposing unreasonable pressures on people to participate when they would rather be doing other things? 

In “A Roundtable Discussion on Participatory Economics” in Z Magazine (July/August 1991), Nancy Folbre referred to this problem as the “tyranny of the busy-body” and the “dictatorship of the sociable.” In a class my frequent co-author taught at American University, this issue came to be known as “the kinky underwear problem.” Folbre also cautioned of the potential inefficiency of groups dominated by the sentiment “Let’s not piss anybody off.” David Levy observed in a Dollars and Sense (November 1991) book review that while the 1991 book on parecon that Robin Hahnel and I authored, Looking Forward, reminded him in some respects of Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed, readers should be warned that LeGuin’s subtitle was “An Ambiguous Utopia” because “reliance on social pressure rather than material incentives create a lack of initiative, claustrophobic conformity, and intrusiveness.” In comradely private communication, radical economist Tom Weisskopf cautioned against “sacrificing too much individuality, specialization, diversity, and freedom of choice.” What is the source of these misgivings, and how do we respond? 

Parecon recognizes that economic decisions about both consumption and production affect more than the immediate consumer or producer. And parecon also asserts that those affected by decisions should have proportionate influence over them. Does this yield a situation in which everyone is so continually subordinate to oversight by others that privacy disappears? Does it empower only those who enjoy being involved in planning and making decisions and disempower those who are less socially concerned? Does it impose too many meetings and, even after reducing the work week, leave us all spending too much time hassling over economic choices?


But is it a busybody economy, intrusive?

For us it is important to distinguish between misgivings that any and all participatory processes may be too intrusive into people’s private lives, and the criticism that particular measures which may or may not be adopted in a specific parecon are more socially intrusive than they need to be. First, let us reiterate features of our model designed to protect the citizenry from tyrannical busybodies. 

Beside being free to move from one neighborhood (or job) to another, and besides being able to make consumption proposals anonymously, consumption proposals justified by one’s effort rating cannot be easily vetoed. While there is always, of course, nothing but a motion to close debate or at least silence the loud mouth to prevent a busybody from carrying on uselessly about someone else’s consumption request, it is difficult to understand why people would choose to waste their time expressing or listening to views that had no practical consequence. And the fact that individuals can make anonymous consumption requests if they do not wish their neighbors to know the particulars of their consumption habits keeps this from becoming a serious problem at all. 

All societies have to face a tension between leaving people alone and taking care of those who need it. Should a society sponsor public service announcements pointing out the harm of cigarette smoking, for example? People with strong views will hope to persuade other people to do what they think is in their best interest even if they cannot (and would not even want to) force them to do so. In a parecon, animal-rights folks, if they live in a community with meat eaters, may get up at meetings and urge their fellows not to slaughter innocent, sentient creatures for their “Big Macs.” If the meat-eaters respect others they will listen to their arguments, though perhaps ultimately reject their views. But neither side will go through this over and over, and no doubt political or economic deliberative assemblies in a parecon might establish guidelines to separate out serious issues from harassment. But the same problems exist in a capitalist democracy: I can picket outside a McDonald’s denouncing meat-eating or outside a fur-coat store—or outside the Gap for selling items using child labor, even confronting buyers personally. Would we rather a society that was less intrusive even than that, and that did not permit picketers to criticize buyers and sellers at all for their choices? 

Does it, however, create what we might call a dictatorship of the sociable? 

In workers’ councils balancing job complexes for empowerment should alleviate one important cause of differential influence over decision-making. Rotating assignments to committees also alleviates even temporary monopolization of authority. On the other hand, we stopped short of calling for balancing consumption complexes for empowerment and refused to endorse forcing people to attend or remain at meetings longer than they found useful. An apt analogy is the saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Parecon has every intention of leading people to participate, but no doubt, some will drink more deeply from the well of participation than others, and those who do, will—other things being equal—probably influence decisions disproportionately. And likewise, folks who continually have very good ideas about decisions might have their ideas adopted more often (which is not the same, however, as having more weight in the decision- making itself—in a parecon people have proportionate say). But even those who are more sociable, or who regularly have good ideas and who as a result more often influence the views of others and thus the outcomes of decisions, would have a difficult time benefiting materially from their efforts, and the less social should suffer no material penalty as a result. In any case, while we find the complaint more amusing than worrisome, certainly even someone who agrees with its orientation would have to also agree that it would be better to have a dictatorship of the sociable with no material privileges accruing to them, than a dictatorship of the propertied, of the bureaucrats and party members, or of the better educated, all with great material privileges accruing. 

We also fail to understand why parecon does not seem to all who consider it as thoroughly libertarian as we intended. People are free to apply to live and work wherever they wish, and society may have very stringent rules about rejecting people on unwarranted grounds (such as race, gender, etc.). People can ask for whatever consumption and services they desire and can distribute their consumption over their lives however they see fit. People can apply to whatever educational programs they want. Any individual or group can start a new living unit, a new consumer council, or a new worker council, with fewer barriers to overcome than in any traditional model. The only restriction is that the burdens and benefits of the division of labor be equitable. That is why people are not free to consume more than their sacrifice warrants. And that is why people are not free to work at job complexes that are more desirable or empowering than others. It may be that some chafe under these restrictions or consider them excessive. Once upon a time people chafed at the idea that slavery would be abolished and their “freedom to own slaves” eliminated. We believe the logic of justice requires the pareconish restrictions on “individual freedom” just as the logic of justice places restrictions on the freedom to profit from private ownership of productive property or of slaves. 

Are there Too Many Meetings occupying too much time? 

It is not uncommon that when told that workers and consumers will cooperatively plan economic outcomes in their own workplaces and consumption councils as well as interactively for the whole economy, people throw up their hands and say—sure being more just, more equitable, more this and more that is nice, but not if I have to live my life in interminable meetings. 

Part of the reason for this reaction may be that people are already enduring too many meetings and that the meetings people now endure are horribly alienating. Pat Devine, a radical economist from England who proposes a more mixed approach to allocation than we favor but encounters a similar complaint, reports that: 



In modern societies a large and possibly increasing proportion of overall social time is already spent on administration, on negotiation, on organizing and running systems and people. This is partly due to the growing complexity of economic and social life and the tendency for people to seek more conscious control over their lives as material, educational, and cultural standards rise. However, in existing societies much of this activity is also concerned with commercial rivalry and the management of the social conflict and consequences of alienation that stem from exploitation, oppression, inequality, and subalternity. One recent estimate has suggested that as much as half the GNP of advanced western countries may now be accounted for by transaction costs arising from increasing division of labor and the growth of alienation associated with it. 

The implication of this insight is interesting. Perhaps a good economy can not only increase equity and self-management but even reduce the aggregate time devoted to running the economy, though, in Devine’s trenchant words, “the aggregate time would be differently composed, differently focused, and, of course, differently distributed among people.” 

David Levy reviewed Looking Forward in Dollars and Sense (November 1991). He makes a similar point to Devine. 



Within [current capitalist] manufacturing firms we find echelons of managers and staff whose job it is to try to forecast demand and supply. Indeed, only a small fraction of workers directly produce goods and services. The existing system requires millions of government employees, many of whom are in jobs created precisely because the market system provides massive incentives to engage in fraud, theft, environmental destruction, and abuse of workers’ health and safety. And even during our `leisure time’ we must fill in tax forms and pay bills. Critics of Looking Forward’s complex planning process should examine the management of a large corporation. Large corporations are already planned economies; some have economies larger than those of small countries. These firms supplant the market for thousands of intermediate products. They coordinate vast amounts of information and intricate flows of goods and materials. 

In sum, “meeting time” is far from zero in existing economies. But for a parecon we can divide the issue into meeting time in workers’ councils, consumers’ councils, federations, and participatory planning. 

Conception, coordination, and decision-making are part of the organization of production under any system. Under hierarchical organizations of production relatively few employees spend most, if not all, of their time thinking and meeting, and most of the rest of the employees simply do as they’re told (or try not to do as they are told). So it is true, most people would spend more time in workplace meetings in a parecon than in a hierarchical economy. But this is because most people are excluded from workplace decision-making under capitalism and authoritarian planning. It does not necessarily mean the total amount of time spent on thinking and meeting rather than on working would be greater in a participatory workplace. It is important to remember that in a parecon decisions are taken at appropriate levels of organization. The whole workplace doesn’t meet to decide everything, of course. Rather some things are decided widely, others more narrowly, though each within a framework established at a more inclusive level. And while it might be that democratic decision-making requires somewhat more overall meeting time than autocratic decision-making, it should also be the case that a lot less time is required to enforce democratic decisions than autocratic ones. It should also be clear from our discussions of the daily circumstances and behavior in participatory workplaces that workplace meeting time is part of the normal parecon workday, not an incursion on people’s leisure.  

Regarding the organization of consumption, we plead guilty to suggesting that these decisions be arrived at with more social interaction than in market economies. In our view one of the great failures of market systems is that they do not provide a suitable vehicle through which people can express and coordinate their consumption desires to everyone’s greater good. When you enter a five-story apartment building with no elevators and see old people on the top floors and young ones on the lower floors, when you enter a community and see huge numbers of appliances that are rarely used with the redundancy of their parallel dormancy eating up budgets and preventing people from having the wherewithal to get more fulfilling luxury items, and when you consider what can be accomplished by replacing isolated individual choices with mutually concerned collective ones, you get a feel for the material reason—in addition to the participatory and self-managing reason—for consumption councils. It is through a layered network of consumer federations that we propose overcoming alienation in public choice and the isolated expression of individual choice that characterize market systems. Whether this will take more time than the present organization of consumption will depend on a number of trade-offs, but in any event, in our view this would not be too high a price to pay. 

Presently economic and political elites dominate local, state, and national public choice. For the most part they operate free from restraint by the majority, with periodic time-consuming campaigns mounted by popular organizations to rectify matters that get grossly out of hand. In a parecon people would vote directly on collective consumption issues. But this would not require a great deal of time or mean attending endless meetings. Expert testimony and differing opinions would be aired through democratic media. People would become empowered through participation, and meetings would have concrete outcomes so most people would want to participate. If it turned out that most people didn’t bother to attend (like typically occurs now in union meetings) then we could conclude there was something wrong with the institutions. But still, people would be free to pay as much or as little attention as they wished. 

We actually believe the amount of time and travail devoted to consumption decision-making in our model would be less than in market economies. Consumer federations could operate exhibits for people to visit before placing orders for goods that would be delivered directly to neighborhood outlets. Research and development units attached to consumer federations would not only provide better information about consumption options, but a real vehicle for translating consumer desires into product innovation. While the prospect of proposing and revising consumption proposals within neighborhood councils might appear to require significant meeting time, we tried to describe in detail how, with the aid of computers and rather simple software packages, this need not take more time than it takes people currently to prepare their tax returns and pay their bills. In any case, nobody wouldn’t have to attend meetings or discuss their neighbors’ opinions regarding consumption requests if they chose not to; individuals could choose whether to utilize or ignore the greater opportunities for efficient social interaction prior to registering consumption preferences; and time necessary for consumption decision-making would be treated like time necessary for production decision-making—as part of one’s obligations in a parecon, not part of one’s leisure time. And perhaps most intangibly, yet very importantly, the core activity of life would no longer be to “shop till you drop,” including finding stores, comparing competing items with negligible differences, fighting traffic, and making purchases for reasons having little or nothing to do with real freely-developed need and desire. This might make sense in a capitalist society that curtails other options for fulfillment and lumps social intercourse and modes of attaining dignity and status overwhelmingly into market mediated consumption. But it would make no sense in any sensibly-organized society. Reducing the centrality of atomized consumption-related activities in people’s lives should more than compensate for any additional time required for consumption decision-making, even ignoring other benefits. 

But how much meeting time does participatory planning require? Contrary to critics’ presumptions, we did not propose a model of democratic planning in which people or their elected representatives, meet face-to-face to endlessly discuss and negotiate how to coordinate all their activities. Instead we proposed a procedure in which individuals and councils submit proposals for their own activities, receive new information including new indicative prices, and submit revised proposals until they reach a point of agreement. Nor did we suggest meetings of constituents to define feasible options to be voted on. Instead we proposed that after a number of iterations had defined the major contours of the overall plan, the staffs of iteration facilitation boards would (mechanically) define a few feasible plans within those contours for constituents to vote on without ever having to meet and debate these at all. Finally, we did not propose face-to-face meetings where different groups would plead their cases for consumption or production proposals that did not meet normal quantitative standards. Instead we proposed that councils submit qualitative information as part of their proposals so that higher-level federations could grant exceptions should they choose to. 

But while we do not think the criticism of “too many meetings” is warranted, we do not want to be misleading. Informed, democratic decision-making is different from autocratic decision-making. And conscious, equitable coordination of the social division of labor is different from the impersonal law of supply and demand. We obviously think the former, in each case, is greatly preferable to the latter. But this is not to say we do not understand that this requires, almost by definition, increases in meaningful social intercourse.

Next Entry: Ecological?

Leave a comment

Skip to toolbar