Answering Anarchist Critics: Part 1
Vision Per Se?
Addressing previously assembled anarchist concerns about participatory economics turned out to require too much space for one essay so I broke it into five relatively short parts. Please skip around however you like... (links will appear in coming days, as articles are uploaded)
- Vision Per Se? - addresses concerns about having any institutional vision at all
- Origin and Style? - addresses doubts about the source and approach that generated Parecon
- Too Capitalist? - addresses concerns that pareconish remuneration and other features are capitalistic
- Intellectual, Structural, and Strategic Flaws? - addresses concerns about features anarchists find flawed or deficient and implications for strategy
Each part begins with a scene-setting section so that each can stand alone. There is no need to read it repeatedly.
Setting the Scene: Finding Unity
I assume serious anarchists of all persuasions reject all structural hierarchies of power and reward based on position in the economy, culture, polity, or kinship, and also support, when possible, free association of informed actors exercising a self managing say over decisions that affect them.
Below I answer a set of various accumulated concerns and criticisms of parecon, rendered at various times and places by at least some and often a good many anarchists. For reasons of space, I do not repeatedly recount the basics of parecon other than to say here at the outset that the institutions parecon deems necessary for a fulfilling, free, informed, self managing and classless association of workers and consumers, are:
- workers and consumers self managing councils in place of private ownership and top down decision making
- remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work (plus need when medical or other reasons warrant) instead of remuneration for property, power, output, or only need
- balanced job complexes equalizing the empowerment effects of jobs instead of corporate divisions of labor that include monopolization of empowering positions by a few
- and participatory planning (or cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs) instead or markets, central planning, or combinations of the two, for allocation
Fuller presentations of parecon's logic and its short list of defining features are available in many forms, including the Parecon Site.
Criticisms of Vision Per Se
Even before they directly address parecon, many anarchists reject having any substantial future institutional vision at all. Their rejection rests on a few key observations.
Anarchist Criticism: Many anarchists feel that people do not and cannot possess sufficient knowledge or intelligence to predict the future with much confidence. Proposing visionary blueprints, therefore, they rightly say, nearly always exceeds what we can now know. It tends to saddle us with likely wrong commitments. Blueprinting tomorrow will typically make serious errors. Parecon is too detailed.
Pareconist Response: The first thing to note is that "anti vision" anarchists are not actually anti vision. No one is. They are "anti blueprint." More, their feeling that the future is too complex for us to blueprint it without making major errors is obviously correct, assuming the word "blueprint" refers to a detailed description or even to an instruction guide mapping future societies. So the issue becomes: Is parecon a blueprint?
Parecon advocates say no and deny that parecon goes too far. Instead, Pareconists, recognizing this danger, opt for a kind of “minimalist maximalism.” That is, we seek the minimal list of future institutional features essential for future citizens to maximally control their own destiny with classlessness and informed free association.
Every anarchist will agree, I think, that a better future has some requirements that must be met, since without those requirements met, the future will not be better. We should not have slaves. We should not have wage slavery. So the question becomes: Are the positive innovations that parecon calls for, the four institutional aims noted above, necessary for a better future?
To argue that Parecon's four positive features are not necessary, an anarchist would have to make a case that we can have classlessness and informed free association without workers and consumers having councils or assemblies through which to develop, express, and manifest their preferences. Or they would have to make a case that we can have classlessness and free association using some remuneration norm consistent with anarchist desires other than parecon’s equitable remuneration. Or they would have to show some anarchistically viable and worthy and non pareconist approach to the division of labor, or to allocation, that would yield classless free association.
In claiming to have been minimalist about their vision, parecon advocates argue that without self-managing councils, whatever they are called and whatever detailed nuances might emerge in them over time and through experience, there would be no workers and consumers free association. Not only have these structures always emerged when workers in factories and consumers in neighborhoods have begun to take control of their own lives, but as a matter of logic, if these constituencies are going to exert their will, they must have a place to convene and do so.
Similarly, parecon argues that without equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, whatever it is called and whatever detailed nuances emerge in it over time and through experience, there will inevitably be sources of unjust disparities of circumstance and income, as well as perverse incentives that will cause those disparities to multiply and grow while also distorting the allocation of energy, labor, and resources. To remunerate according to property, power, or output - the three mainstream alternatives - breeds violations of everything that anarchists and pareconists aspire to. Indeed, this is for the most part agreed by anarchists so that the only remaining issue is whether one can dispense with remuneration calculations entirely, or, said differently, whether one can remunerate solely according to need as many anarchists urge (a matter dealt with extensively in part three of this series of essay series).
Similarly, the pareconist claims that without balanced job complexes, whatever they are called and whatever detailed nuances emerge in them over time and through experience, there is inevitably a familiar corporate distribution of responsibilities that in turn inevitably produces class division and class rule. As with the above cases, this is virtually self evident by simple assessment of our current work experiences, and is also demonstrated through all history of capitalist and post capitalist experiments and systems, not least the history of anti capitalist movements, projects, and "socialist" economies. If one opts for jobs that give roughly 20% of the population all the empowering tasks and that leave rote and repetitive disempowering tasks to the remaining 80%, it is easy to predict and explain, and also to see in the evidence, that the former (coordinator class) participants will control outcomes, garner greater reward, and, if not immediately, then over time, rule over the latter (working class) participants. Goodbye classlessness.
And finally, without participatory planning, which is basically cooperative and horizontal negotiation of inputs and outputs in light of true social and ecological costs and benefits, whatever detailed nuances emerge in it through experience, the pareconist argues that for allocation there will be either market competition or central planning or a combination of the two, and that accompanying each of these modes of allocation taken in any mix there are inevitably incredibly destructive outcomes including class rule and ecological calamities. For most anarchists, again, there is really no debate about parecon's rejection of markets and central planning. Like pareconists, anarchists typically see these ways of determining allocation as inevitably wrecking the environment, imposing harsh inequality, and guaranteeing class division and class rule, even in the absence of private ownership.
What parecon does in light of the shared critique is to propose the broad features of an alternative approach to allocation that escapes the ills of markets and central planning and accomplishes the needed allocative functions, all compatibly with classlessness, free association, and self management. An argument that parecon goes too far and enters into the category “blueprint,” would entail showing that what it says about allocation goes beyond what we can reasonably know based on historical evidence, current experience, and our own analyses of each, and thus makes damning errors. That would be substantive. I would hope that anarchists would hope that participatory planning is worthy and viable, and therefore that they would look at it, experiment with it, and not dismiss it pretty much reflexively.
The only prevalent anarchist alternative regarding allocation that I can find, is, as mentioned earlier, to seek to entirely avoid the complications of allocation by doing away with pricing, budgets, income, and essentially any need at all for any sort of accounting - which is similar to some anarchists’ strategy of getting rid of income structures by relying on producing according to ability and consuming according to need - which views we will take up a bit later.
More, bearing again on the matter of rejecting a blueprint, the pareconist argues that the four minimalist institutional aims of parecon are not only essential to having self managing and classless free association, but, taken together, that the four institutional commitments also pretty much guarantee the desired results. Even further, the pareconist argues that these minimal features constituting only a fraction of a full economy, are themselves not even "blueprinted." Instead, parecon forcefully emphasizes that in different places and times, and even in different industries and communities, the implementation of even just the four central features will involve different detailed patterns for which parecon's descriptions provide many examples but no blueprint.
If vision is inevitably ignorantly wrong due to going beyond what we can know and what we ought to concern ourselves with, then it ought to be easy to demonstrate that parecon is ignorantly wrong. Short of doing that, the opening criticism is certainly a valid worry to be offset by choices taken, but it is no more than that.
Criticism: Some anarchists argue that all serious institutional vision tends to go too far in a different way. Their concern is not about being right or wrong - the blueprint concern - but about being authoritarian or not. They say that parecon (or indeed any serious institutional vision) usurps rights of people in the future to decide their own lives. Describing what will be around in the future, even if everything that is offered is logically and morally sound, will exert authoritarian control over outcomes that should be rightfully the purview of our successors. It isn't that the vision is flawed, but that it violates peoples rights to make their own choices and curtails their own discovery process.
Response: My reaction is that the feeling that in proposing a vision we might transgress or even trample the rights and responsibilities of future citizens to decide their own lives for themselves is absolutely correct. More, I also agree that when talking about economic vision, including parecon, many advocates tend to focus on all manner of features that are not their responsibility to decide.
What will be future policies about eating? How much will future people consume more generally? What will be the future duration of the work day? What scale of operations should the future settle on? I am asked such questions, and ones that require far more details as well, all the time - often by people who ten minutes before were complaining that parecon is too detailed. Does parecon, as a vision, answer these types of questions - and thus transgress future people's rightful responsibility to decide these matters for themselves?
No. On the contrary, as a vision parecon is very explicit about avoiding doing that, as I and other pareconists repeatedly emphasize. Parecon instead seeks to be minimalist maximalist, as noted above - meaning it seeks to define and then enact only those changes that are required so that people in the future can manage their own choices. It rejects making choices for future people, but it does feel a responsibility to provide future people with both opportunity and conditions permitting their making choices as they decide.
When pareconists discuss future policies that are rightly the province of future citizens, I quite agree with the anarchist observation that they should do so only to offer possibilities as informative and sometimes inspiring or clarifying examples, but not as prescriptions, and certainly not as decisions, and that they should be very clear about this.
And I do believe that most advocates of parecon are quite scrupulous about trying to do this regarding, for example, work day length, relations to particular species, likely patterns of consumption, or possible investment projects. We sometimes explain possibilities but in that case we also add that it is not our place to decide any of these matters for future citizens. Rather it will be up to them to decide their lives for themselves. The same holds for the details of implementation of even the four defining features of parecon. Such details are a matter for the future, depending both on people’s preferences and on lessons we learn between now and the future.
As far as people discovering for themselves...with a parecon vision, for example, people may discover its features, or may hear them, but then examine and assess them. They will discover the far more complex and specific matters of vision, however, actual forms to use in implementations, as well as refinements, as they proceed. Having a shared minimalist/maximalist vision doesn’t diminish the likelihood of wide participation in pursuing vision - it facilitates it.
There is a striking irony in all this. As noted above, often the same person who raises objections to parecon for being a blueprint later asks all kinds of questions that violate minimalist maximalism. They will ask, how long will people work? How much will people consume? Will people protect all species? How, precisely, will folks in a workplace measure intensity of work? How precisely will people decide their collective consumption. How long, exactly, will planning take? What oversight laws will be in place? And so on. And there is a kind of Catch 22. If one provides answers - which would be guesses as to what future people will themselves likely choose to decide once they have a liberated context and the means - Joe the critic will typically say, hey, that is going too far. And if one doesn't provide answers, Jim the critic will typically say, hey, you aren’t answering, I got you - parecon must do the wrong thing in that regard. That Joe and Jim might actually be one and the same person makes it all the more strange, and leaves the pareconist wondering at their underlying logic.
Criticism: An anarchist criticizing vision per se will often continue beyond the above concerns by saying that regardless of going to far or not, or usurping future citizens rights or not, serious institutional vision distracts us from the present. It often wanders into utopian abstractions and at worst slides into sectarianism that curtails thought and creativity. We do not need a utopia, says this anarchist critic. We need to feel the new world in our daily acts and to create it in practice and action, and, above all, through experiment. Parecon, however, is offered from above, says this critic, and emphasizes logic, but shows little respect for organic processes and on-going struggles and campaigns. Parecon violates spontaneity.
Response: Yes, anarchist critic is right that vision often distracts us into mindless abstraction or sophomoric details and that people can get sectarian over such useless and pointless pursuits. And yes, an attachment to vision can curtail creatively thinking new thoughts by closing us off to options rather than opening us to them. Pareconists agree with these concerns. Indeed, we take such matters so seriously that we build into discussions of parecon a prioritization of diversity as a central guiding value to counter just such possibilities.
And of course the anarchist critic is also right that we don't need a vision that is unimplementable - a utopia. And yes, we agree that we need to create change by our practice, not just our thoughts. And we need to experiment, not just implement. And that logic alone is certainly insufficient. And that campaigns, struggles, and even spontaneous reflexes or intuitions can be incredibly important and should be carefully addressed.
However, while we pareconists agree with the validity of these concerns, we nonetheless find rejection of vision on these grounds puzzling and counter productive.
Yes, of course, if having vision is unimportant, then we could avoid the possible pitfalls by simply skipping having institutional vision at all. But if having a serious institutional vision is fundamentally important, foregoing vision will be too costly. And serous institutional vision is indeed that important. That this isn't widely acknowledged by all anarchists and other leftists confuses us greatly.
For example, almost all anarchists routinely and rightly urge that movements should embody the seeds of the future in the present on grounds of needing to test our insights and refine them as we learn new lessons, of needing to motivate seeking a better future by giving it credibility, and of needing to ensure that what we are doing in the present aids in actually getting to the sought future rather than obstructing reaching that future. Pareconists agree with all this. But we then wonder, how does one embody the seeds of the future in the present in an instructive and inspiring way if one refuses to say even quite broadly what will characterize a better future? We think one can't.
For example, if pareconists are right about the need for self managed decision making via workers and consumers councils, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning, then at least regarding economics, planting the seeds of the future in the present means that these features, as much as possible, ought to be adopted in our current organizations and projects. If the future we seek is, instead, merely a list of nice values - then we have little if any guidance for what institutional seeds to currently plant.
Let's take this just one step further. Suppose in some country - like Argentina or Venezuela - workers occupy factories with the intent of transforming them. Or suppose in other countries - like the U.S. or Italy - workers create co-ops with the intent of learning about future potentials and inspiring others to seek a better future. Or suppose in another country - like Spain or Greece - citizens in neighborhoods decide to create assemblies to begin controlling their own local lives. In all these cases, the trend toward democracy, participation, and even self management by way of local councils is virtually automatic. However, the same can't be said for dealing with the old division of labor and, it turns out, when the old division of labor is left in place without, for example, planting the seeds of a new future of balanced empowerment relations, in time the retention of old approaches to labor subvert other new innovations bringing back a lot of, or even all, the old crap.
The anarchist advisory to plant the seeds of the future in the present is indeed critically important. But, to plant well, it is critically important to have thought carefully about key future institutions, so that we know what it is that we have to quickly and very deliberately incorporate in our current efforts.
If, as pareconists argue, we can't do without serious institutional vision because of its important benefits, then what is an anarchist to do about his or her quite legitimate worries concerning ills that can accompany being visionary? What should an anarchist do about avoiding utopian abstraction and sectarianism, about welcoming thought and creativity, about emphasizing experiment and respecting current struggles, and about not violating spontaneity?
Well, since we must have shared vision, we have to do vision well, not poorly.
- We must make sure that vision is concrete and real not abstract and etherial.
- We must make sure it is worded plainly not buried in rhetoric.
- We must make sure it is argued from experience and uses ideas already familiar to people or at least carefully and clearly explained in terms of known relations, rather than argued only in ways that presuppose movement knowledge and experience.
We must make sure that vision is owned by all movement participants and open to and welcoming of criticism and especially experimentation and refinement, not monopolozied by a few and treated as a gospel to be worshipped not refined.
- We must emphasize the need to experiment and to hold diverse views, not require allegience and reject dissent.
- We must celebrate diversity of deed and thought, not establish narrow identities people must hew to.
- We must make sure vision is created and promulgated precisely to serve and benefit from struggles and campaigns, rather than give status and credibility to a few visionaries.
The implications for organization and strategy of these provisos to avoid visionary pitfalls are plentiful. It would be a substantive criticism of parecon, or any other orientation, to demonstrate insensitivity and failure regarding any of these matters.
But what about spontaneity?
First, what does spontaneity even mean? Why is there very often a feeling among activists that that which is spontaneous is true or valid or worthy, and that which is carefully thought through is not?
Well, one reason is because a lot of what is thought through is, in fact, not worthy. It is thought through within flawed and even highly oppressive conceptual frameworks. Those viewing this process sometimes wrongly decide it is the thinking, the carefulness, that is at fault and deduce they can avoid the problem by being spontaneous. This throws out the baby, which is careful thought, with the bathwater, which is the use of flawed and even horrible conceptual frameworks. Parecon opts, instead, for a better framework.
Respecting spontaneity but not idealizing it, should mean respecting the creative insights that arise from real people in real circumstances who are trying to advance real and worthy interests. It should mean seeing such efforts, assessing them, and learning from them. I think pretty much all anarchists will agree.
However respecting spontaneity should not mean thinking that that which happens spontaneously - meaning without much planning - is on that account automatically valid, correct, or worthy. Such a view is nonsense, as I am sure any anarchist would also agree. There can be spontaneous wisdom and insight. But, there can also be spontaneous vile behavior, or spontaneous confusion, or spontaneous flawed choices.
Seriously thinking about the merits and sometimes the debits of spontaneous activity should lead one to put a premium on dissent and diversity, on protecting minority opinions, on trying to implement multiple approaches whenever feasible, and on seriously assessing options and not acting as though serious thought is somehow a debit. If pareconists don't abide the indicated correctives and positive themes noted above when they try to formulate vision and strategy - that would be a serious failing.
Criticism: Another concern that some anarchists raise with vision per se, is elitism. Vision will be held and owned by a few, urge the anarchist critics who have this inclination, and those few will in turn use their hold over vision to direct movements. The few who own the vision will usurp power and as a result wind up as a new ruling class or political leadership. Having serious institutional vision brings with it top down rule. Therefore, we should avoid having even a reasonably clear enunciation of key institutional features we seek for a different social system, since the cost of doing so is too high.
Response: Of course this danger exists and is incredibly important. That is why pareconists work hard to communicate that one doesn’t need to be highly versed in left history and literature, and in left lingo, to think through what movements want to achieve. It is why pareconists urge that writing as though great historical or theoretical knowledge is a prerequisite to having an opinion, or to being taken seriously, is, ironically, far more likely to contribute to elitism, than is working only from widely shared information and experience.
In other words, this totally legitimate worry about institutional vision provides a very compelling reason why such vision ought to be presented in plain language and without requiring lots of prior knowledge. It ought to be open ended and welcoming of creative assessment. To hear institutional vision, understand it, and alter it, should not require years or decades of schooling in academia or even in left political activist work. All that type of background might, and for the most part will and ought to contribute to the emergence of insights about vision - but to require extensive knowledge of history, theory, or even recent experience, as a precondition for reading, thinking about, owning, or using a serious institutional vision - is what's elitist.
Vision must be accessible to many and indeed to all who stand to benefit from it, use it, and eventually live it. Pareconists urge that the preventive to vision being elitist is not to reject creating and sharing vision. It is, instead, the opposite. It is to participate in creating and sharing vision, and to welcome others to do so as well, and to make doing so a pursuit that all can join and contribute to.
Pareconists take this even further. Someone who writes a conception of viable institutional alternatives for a new society as the last part of a text that requires wading through obscure analysis of the present or the past, or that requires familiarity with all kinds of left jargon and terminology, or that is written in a manner that is intentionally convoluted and unduly difficult - is either hoping for someone else to make what they have said worthwhile by making it far more accessible, or doesn't give a damn about the issues of elitism that rightly concern anarchists. Pareconists often wonder why anarchist anti elitist advisories are often directed at pareconists who are already struggling to make the process of thinking about a better future as accessible as possible, rather than at those who are doing pretty much the opposite, including among anarchists.
Criticism: The anarchist critic sometimes shifts gears to question not the possibility of vision, or the validity of its claims, or the danger of its possible by-products, but the lack of benefit of vision as a reason to not bother doing it. In this mode the anarchist critic of institutional vision might say that serious institutional vision irresponsibly expects working people to sacrifice time and energy they can apply to surviving the hostile present in pursuit of something they have never experienced and that is at best available only in the future.
Response: This complaint, which we think is not very widely held, seems itself to be oddly elitist. Working people care only about survival, not about dignity, freedom, self management, and solidarity? They can only live in the moment - not for their future and the future of their children? Really?
The truth is that working people are far more typically uninterested in being "leftist" because they have little or no reason to think that the left will deliver anything they need then because they don't care about large scale matters. Working people see that the left has few if any answers regarding a fully transformed society, and realize that short of dramatically transforming society all limited changes that are won will be temporary and likely eventually rolled back. They thus anticipate that the time they expend in such efforts will prove to have been time poorly spent. However, this doesn’t indicate that vision is inconsequential. Instead it shows that the absence of inspiring and compelling institutional vision, and the absence of belief that whatever time one gives will lead to worthy changes that become permanent, make working people - and indeed pretty much all people - think twice about giving their scarce time and resources to movements seeking change.
What should be the upshot of this observation?
On the one hand, we should try to make vision and strategy convincing. On the other hand, we should to try to build movements that free up time and resources, by providing services that aid workers struggling to get by and also by winning a shorter work day, week, and year with increases in income, as well.
There is a final ironic, and, in fact, even quite sad point to make about doubting the efficacy of institutional vision per se. When anarchists rightly recognize the possible debits of pursuing vision, but then foreswear contributing to it rather than signing on to do it really well, not only does their abstinence from addressing matters of institutional vision short change prospects for having institutional vision able to compellingly and anarchistically orient current analysis, guide strategic choices, and motivate activism - it also leaves the field open for those who do not worry about the possible pitfalls of vision to be the only ones doing it. That is, when anarchists don't participate in creating and using institutional vision, those who are less anti elitist, and those who are less concerned with participation, less worried about violations of rights and curtailing creativity, and less worried about elite control over vision leading to elite control over society, will fill the void. And when these non anarchistic folks work on generating vision they will produce precisely the harmful results that anarchists, by refraining from doing vision, thought they were preventing.
Hopefully, we can discuss into complete remission anarchist reticence to be visionary, replacing it with desires to share advocacy for a set of "minimalist-maximalist" institutional features for a new society.