Addressing More Concerns
By Michael Albert at Aug 25, 2011
I recently received an email pointing me to a web page about anarchist economics that had attracted many comments - almost all of which were about me, parecon, or both. The person who directed me to it asked if I would reply, and I wrote what follows and sent it to him for his use, but also saying that he could post it to the page if he wished. The material on the page was largely from many months ago, and involved many people both critical of and supporting parecon. I can't go through item by item usefully, I think, so I thought I would reply to a few of the most self-contained concerns that seemed to weigh heavily on some people and about which a quick reply, albeit not timely, might clear the air a bit.
So, the first comment I could deal with succinctly, was: "It's pretty ridiculous to call Michael Albert an anarchist. His politics are all over the map, usually clinging to whichever liberal is donating to ZNet this week. Albert may have called himself an anarchist here or there, but his anarchist credentials are pretty thin."
I have no idea what "credentials" are meant here. Is there some text or diploma that conveys legitimacy as an anarchist that I don't know about? Maybe I am just missing something, but what can I make of this word "credentials"? If this commenter said Albert isn't an anarchist because being an anarchist requires x, and Albert doesn't believe or do x, that would be different. Nonetheless, "credentials aside," am I, or am I not an anarchist?
If being an anarchist means wanting to reduce hierarchy to a minimum in all realms of life, then yes, I am an anarchist. If it means wanting to eliminate racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and classism, then yes, I am an anarchist. If it means rejecting having a political apparatus that operates above and is divorced from the bulk of the population, merely imposing on them, then yes, I am an anarchist. If it means seeking a classless economy, participatory polity, feminist kinship, and intercommunalist culture, each of which deliver by their very operations solidarity among actors, diversity of options and outcomes, equitable and just distribution of claims on the social product and of life circumstances at work and otherwise, as well as self management, then yes, I am an anarchist.
However, if being an anarchist means fulfilling someone's litmus test - then maybe not - it depends on whose test, I guess. And if being an anarchist means rejecting political, economic, kin, or cultural institutions per se, then certainly not. I consider that kind of blanket stance to be mere rhetoric and provocation, at best. And if being an anarchist means treating others with disdain whenever they have different views than mine and trying to ridicule them into silence - a trait that a few who call themselves anarchists sadly share with many who call themselves leninists - then no, I would have to reject the label "anarchist," even while retaining all the associated worthy views - which are, in any event, far more important than the label.
If there is something else that bears on the question, "am i an anarchist," then I guess I would need to know what that something else is, to be able to answer.
We also have in this first comment an assertion that my views change each week to accommodate liberal donors. First, taking this at face value as being sincerely meant, I am unaware of any liberal donors to Z's projects. I am also unaware of my views changing weekly, or of my deepest views changing significantly, even over decades, much less of my views changing to appease donors. This type of wide brushstroke defamation, sad to say, some people find witty, or clever, or itself making a point. I find it not particularly witty or clever, and it only asserts a fictitious point - rather like saying of someone, that person molests kids with no basis in fact, at all. To seriously make such a defamatory claim, it should be based on ample verified evidence. Nowadays all too easily people think they can say defamatory things about other people with zero evidence, zero reason, and certainly nothing remotely verified - and that that is just fine to do. It is fine, folks think, even to write such things, someplace.
This approach to debate, or gossip, or whatever one ought to call it, is not planting the seeds of the future in the present. It is instead planting weeds from the past in the present. Such behavior is generally sad, but this "wide brushstroke defamation" is particularly strange because in the past forty years very few folks who routinely need to raise funds for projects, or even who don't, have been as repeatedly, publicly, and militantly critical of donors and the entire funding process as I have - in my case, at the expense of virtually all large donor access we had. It wasn't just that I didn't cater to donors, it was that I routinely criticized the entire donor process, and the power that donors wield, and, not least, what the left approach to donations causes donors and donation recipients to have to do. In fact, I even teach a class on just this, at ZMI. But, okay, maybe this dismissive comment was made sincerely, perhaps due to some wrong information passed on by someone else who was trusted but shouldn't have been.
Another comment in the flow was: "I'm a communist-anarchist and Albert does not "address" Schweickart's argument at all. He obviously does not comprehend the points Schweickart makes. Fair-dos to Albert, he has placed the debate on the Znet webpage:
http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/zdebatealbertvsschweickart.htm Have a look for yourselves. It is pretty obvious that Albert just does not comprehend the points being made -- I guess that is unsurprising because if he did then his pet-project would have to be abandoned."
I second the commenter's advice, though not his assessment. Indeed, anyone who wonders about this should have a look for yourselves. Schweickart's points, are quite consistent with mainstream attitudes toward self management and allocation, and market socialist attitudes toward economic allocation, and not even a little unfamiliar or innovative - and think I comprehend not only his points, but his politics and aims which as I have heard them enunciated by him are market socialist, overwhelmingly, and arguably to some extent somewhat social democratic. It is quite striking indeed to have some anarchists so hostile toward parecon that they would at least seem to be drawn into the "my enemy's enemy is my friend" logic, but that does seem to be what has happened here. Schweickart is a nice guy, a philosopher, albeit with a rather nasty approach to debating, and I would wager dollars to donuts that there are very few anarchists on the planet, particularly among those who really don't like parecon, who would find his formulations even a little attractive, other than when looking for something, indeed for anything at all, with which to bludgeon parecon for reasons I admit, I continue to not understand. Again, anyone interested can read the exchanges and decide for themselves whether (a) the parecon case is compelling, (b) the market socialist stance has anything to warrant it for people seeking classlessness, much less for anarchists.
But what I really wonder about, regarding this particular comment, not least because this point can be addressed succinctly, is why would a communist anarchist - and I guess this fellow, whose name I don't know, gets to decide what he is even if I don't get to decide what I am - use a phrase like "pet project" to refer to another person's beliefs regarding economic vision?
Some readers may just jump right over that phrase, "pet project," but I think it deserves attention. Is it just that people thoughtlessly bludgeon one another thusly without realizing how off putting it may be to other people looking on and wondering about the tone leftists take with each other? Or is the use of the phrase "pet project" intentionally nasty? I spend time on this because whatever anarchism is, this way of communicating doesn't help.
Much of the exchange I saw on the site I visited is about whether Parecon and I are somehow neoclassical. This is very odd, too, since again, it is hard to find people more critical of both markets and neoclassical economics, in a more sustained and more militant fashion - who are actually trained in economics - than I. The commenter's confusion seems to arise because in a book written about twenty years ago, for an audience of professional economists, and published by Princeton University Press, we labored to use mainstream language so as to be understood by mainstream economists, not least, hoping to see what their criticisms would be. Anyone reading the book, who actually knows something about mainstream economics - and there is no reason anyone on the left should - ought to be able to see our work as the opposite of accepting that school of thought. Indeed, at the same time at the book people commenting refer to, we published, also with Princeton, a book that closely addresses - and rejects and tries to replace - mainstream economic theory. Interestingly, at the time, we simultaneously released a book from South End Press also on Parecon. That book not only doesn't have any of the professional economics terminology, it is completely plain spoken and relates not at all to professional economic norms - but, as I was continually at pains to explain, nonetheless it was a superset of the Princeton book, not a subset. In other words, there are only two ways to come away thinking Hahnel and I are typical mainstream economists. To ignore what we write, or to take someone else's saying that we are mainstream economists as gospel.
Third Comment: "I have never thought that Parecon was anarchist. Yes, it has anarchistic elements in it but the overall model is far from libertarian. So, perhaps Albert thinks he is an anarchist but, personally, I'm not convinced. If he is a libertarian, he seems unaware of the non-anarchist nature of his economic utopia."
It is again hard to reply to this, without having some kind of indication of the "non anarchist nature" mentioned. Parecon delivers self management, eliminates classes, and as far as I can tell, is an economic vision singularly true to serious anarchist aspirations. But at least in this comment, while I am allowed to think parecon is anarchistic, I am woefully wrong about that… though there is actually no reason given, just the assertion. Maybe someone can list some reasons, and we can see. The reasons would have to reside in our choice of guiding values for a desirable economy, or in our choice of defining institutions for that economy. That is all parecon is.
So here, I will make this very easy. Is favoring solidarity, diversity, equity, or self management - including, of course, classlessness - somehow non anarchist? Which value, in what ways? Perhaps the values are not non anarchist - but their implementation is. Okay, if so, are workers and consumers self managing councils, equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, balanced job complexes, or participatory planning, non anarchist? Which institutional commitment, in what ways?
I more than welcome anyone clarifying what is non anarchist about parecon. I claim parecon was conceived to and does fulfill anarchist desires to foster mutual aid, eliminate class division and class rule, convey to people self managing say over their economic lives, and generally meet needs and develop potentials without inducing hierarchies of wealth or power. And I might add, I would argue, as well, that corporate divisions of labor and market or central planning allocation, implicitly or explicitly favored by some anarchists, are both intrinsically antithetical to anarchist desires - while another oft favored aim among anarchists, consumption according to need and work according to ability, is both impossible and, even more important, contrary to attaining actually anarchistic results, as an economic guide or commitment, and I might add that a final sometimes anarchist advocated aim - an end to industry, workplaces, work, etc. - is just plain horrific in its casual dismissal of human life and desires.
Another commenter, I think Anarchos, wrote "In addition, I am more than willing to be convinced of my wrongness -- if someone provides a source/argument which addresses my concerns, I will read it and if it seems convincing then I will change my mind! Simple. So far, nothing -- although I was once denounced as being a would-be "co-ordinator"! Which was drole, considering Parecon's hosts of facilitation boards…"
Okay, I have no idea what this person has read or not read and how much he gets or doesn't get. In the exchange a number of people tried offering views, all pretty summarily dismissed. But the last phrase suggests perhaps he doesn't know too much about parecon, since having what we call facilitation boards in no way introduces the slightest coordinatorist aspect to parecon, but maybe I am wrong about a lack of familiarity. This critic rightly urges that to involve economic producers and consumers in the decisions that affect them, they have to cooperatively negotiate their individual and collective actions. He also rightly notes that of course it isn't that each actor just gets to do or have anything. Rather, their preferences must be accommodated to other people's, and vice versa. This, of course is precisely the thinking behind participatory planning.
So here we are. Now what? He/you (if you read this) has concerns. That is fair enough, of course. I would wager the concerns are addressed in lots of places online already, since Parecon has been around for awhile now, and it is rare that anyone raises a concern someone else had not already raised before. However, to just tell this concerned anarchist to go read more - would probably not he helpful, I think. So how about this. You could pose your concerns to me as questions - strong ones, of course - in an email interview. Ask a question, I will answer, you can follow up, I will reply, and so on. We can go through your concerns. As per your above comment, we will both hope that you find my replies convincing, but, if not, perhaps the exchange will be productive for others to read and for me to learn about failings that need correction.
Someone wrote: "Okay, provide me with a quote where Albert proclaims he is an anarchist. A `cursory reading' should provide a host of them, after all…"
I would guess there aren't too many such phrases since I don't often define myself as in some school or other, though there probably are some, and many more saying I think parecon is an anarchist economic vision, and parpolity, for that matter, is an anarchist political vision. My not saying - I am an Anarchist - often is because, depending on the context, (a) it means so many different things to people, some of which I definitely do not agree with, and (b) I think that what one is, so to speak, ought to be determined based on what one does, says, writes, etc. However, this one time, in response here, I hope the above commenter will agree I did a bit better, above, than providing a brief affirmative statement. But of course, there are those for whom what I say I am, or think I am, won't matter. They know better - which is fair enough, if they have good reasons. So, repeating a point made earlier, I would simply ask them to please let me know what is it that is required for someone to rightly consider him or herself an anarchist, which I don't have any reason to think is true of myself. I admit to also being curious if people who run around saying they think we should return to the stone age, and who then also say "I am anarchist" - are true to the tenets you have in mind, or people who favor markets, say.
Someone else wrote: "I think I've become a bit sick of Albert cropping up in places as some sort of spokesperson for anarchism -- his article on primitivism was included (for obvious reasons, i.e., to make us look bad) in a book by the SWP on tendencies on the anti-globalisation movement."
I am curious where I appear with such a role - spokesperson for anarchism? Certainly, it isn't my doing. I don't even know about the SWP book and haven't seen it, but my closest interaction with them was speaking at their yearly large London gathering. They invited me, had me speak in numerous venues, including the largest, debating, presenting, etc., and in all cases I savaged Leninist and Trotskyist and to a degree Marxist concepts, aims, and methods. They listened, some were moved, some not. No one was nasty, all were cordial. At the time, I was quite struck, and even saddened, by realizing that while they were willing to have a staunch critic debate their key advocates in front of a gathering of their members and supporters, i didn't think any large anarchist gathering would give a similarly prominent place and hearing to, say, a major critic of anarchism. I admit to worrying considerably about that and I hope it isn't true. But back to the essay mentioned in the comment, of course the problem with primitivism is not that I critiqued it but that it is grotesque, and many serious young people regard it as insightful, more so back when I wrote the piece. Primitivism hurts anarchism, but I think indicating its faults - helps rather than hurts.
Another commenter writes (and of course there were many commenters advocating for parecon but I am ignoring those): "To continue on from this debate, I had a look at the The Political Economy of Participatory Economics webpage that was previously quoted. It is all based upon neoclassical equilibrium economics! What is even more ironic is that Albert and Hahnel continuously critique equilibrium theory throughout the book but in order to model Parecon, they utilize the same theory in order to justify its apparent efficiency. For instance, take a look at the welfare section and the equations they use - one could pull them straight out of a neoclassical journal, the type of abstract non-empirical maths and models that the conventional economics profession uses."
What we did was to show that even using their tools and their assumptions - other than a centrally important couple that we very carefully disposed of - parecon comes out as well or better than what they claim is required of a good economy. Then, with the minor change in assumptions we offered, which anyone sane would admit the truth of, we showed that while parecon retains its virtues the same does not hold for the market models mainstream economists favor. Other than that, once again, you would have a hard time finding people as disparaging of neoclassical economics, in a serious and careful manner, as myself. It feels like some anarchists, for some reason, want to dismiss parecon and so, without looking too closely, grab whatever comes along that might be marshaled to the cause and just throw it out there, hoping it makes debating points. They see some equations of a sort they ordinarily don't like. They deduce, parecon must be somehow neoclassical.
There are other points raised in the exchange, meant to be more substantive - mainly about allocation - but I thought they were not presented as well or as clearly as someone having the concerns would want in a serious evaluation of them. Thus, I welcome someone presenting additional concerns more carefully. One thing might be to take a look at the q/a sessions that are on line, or perhaps at the interview with Barbara Ehrenreich who had, I think, similar concerns. But if someone just wants to ask without further ado, that would be fine too.