Beyond Class Rule Is Parecon
By Michael Albert at Jan 23, 2011
This is a draft of chapter eight in a forthcoming - now being written - book titled Fanfare for the Future, presented here for participants in the HelpAlbert ZGroup to evaluate, critique, propose alterations of, etc. Please do not reproduce in any other venue than here...
As per the logic of the past two chapters, our visionary task is to conceive institutions consistent with our values for each major aspect or sphere of society. Dealing with economy, in this chapter, means conceiving economic institutions for production, consumption, and allocation. We call our vision, which has come into being most explicitly over the last twenty years or so, participatory economics, or parecon for short.
Translating our preferred values, which we proposed last chapter, into their meaning in the economic sphere will get us started toward arriving at an economic vision.
The first value we settled on was about relations among people. In capitalist economics, to get ahead, one must trample others. To increase your income and power you must ignore the horrible pain suffered by those left below or even help to push them farther down. This is not rhetoric - it is, instead, the logic of the roles owners and worker - buyer and seller. Greed is good, runs the mantra.
In contrast to the capitalist rat race, in which even the winners are rats, a good economy should be a solidarity economy generating sociality rather than anti social greed. A good economy’s institutions for production, consumption, and allocation, should, by the roles they offer, propel even antisocial people into having to address other people’s well being if they are to advance their own well being. To get ahead in a good economy, should derive from and depend on others getting ahead as well. When we act to better our lot, in doing so we become more solidaritous with others, rather than bending ourselves to be hostile to others.
Interestingly, this first economic value, so contrary to the capitalist logic of “me first and everyone else be damned” because that it my only way to operate consistently with and successfully in the capitalist institutions I encounter, is entirely uncontroversial. Who in their right mind would argue that if we could have the same output with the same conditions and the same distribution of income, an economy would be better if it produced in the process of delivering all that more hostility and anti-sociality in its participants than if it produced more mutual concern in its participants? Who would rather live in a hostile dystopian realm of nastiness than one of mutual aid? Other than psychopaths, we all value solidarity and would all prefer not to trample others. We desire solidarity, not anti-sociality. The irony is, among their own kind, even rats greatly prefer this. Calling the interpersonal hostility imposed by the market and property relations of capitalism a rat race actually does a disservice to rats.
Our second value has to do with the options people encounter in their economic lives. Capitalist market rhetoric trumpets opportunity but capitalist market discipline in fact curtails satisfaction and development by replacing what is human and caring with what is commercial, profitable, and in accord with existing hierarchies of power and wealth. In the process of doing this, market diversity is constrained to not include humane options. We get Pepsi and Coke and so on - but we do not get soda that takes account of the well being of soda producers or consumers, or the environment - and likewise for other products. The tremendous variety of tastes, preferences, and choices that humans naturally display are truncated by capitalism into conformist patterns imposed by advertising, by narrow role offerings, and by coercive marketing environments that produce commercial attitudes and habits. Yes, we are varied in the Mall and the corporate workplace, but their are tight constraints on how varied, ruling out options that account for human well being and development above profit and power for the few.
In capitalism, we seek the one most profitable method instead of many parallel methods suiting a range of priorities. We seek the biggest, quickest, brightest, of almost everything, if that is what we can sell most widely without undercutting hierarchies of power and wealth - virtually always crowding out more diverse choices supporting greater and more widespread fulfillment and, most important, affecting people’s knowledge, skills, confidence, and ties in ways contrary to elite domination.
In the economy that we seek, what we are calling a participatory economy or parecon, given our values, we instead want economic institutions that not only wouldn’t reduce variety but that would emphasize finding and respecting diverse solutions to problems. A good economy would recognize that we are finite beings who can benefit from enjoying what others do that we ourselves have no time to do, and also that we are fallible beings who should not vest all our hopes in single routes of advance but should instead insure against damage by exploring diverse parallel avenues and options. Even when we think there is one best way - most of the time, in fact, it is not the case, or at least will not always be the case that that one way is alone optimal. We should rarely, if ever, put all our eggs in one basket shutting down other options.
Diversity, like solidarity, is also an entirely uncontroversial value. Again, it would be perverse to argue that all other things equal, an economy is better if it homogenizes and narrows options than if it diversifies and expands them. Who would favor that? No one. So we uncontroversially value economic diversity, not economic homogeneity. Though we should perhaps add, this doesn’t imply that we think all thinks are equally desirable, or that adding option after option is better than not ruling out some options. In particular we should rule out options whose inclusion tends to rule out many or even most other options - options that generate homogeneity. And we should also rule out, of course, options that violate others values we hold dear, as well. Not confining ourselves to narrow single conceptions isn’t the same thing as anything is welcome.
The third value we discussed earlier was equity or fairness regarding what each actor enjoys. This value is more controversial and it will need some more attention if it is to become clear and compelling to us.
Capitalism, to start from where we are, overwhelmingly rewards property and bargaining power. It says those who own productive property deserve profits based on the productivity of that property. And it says those who have great bargaining power from a monopoly of knowledge or skills, or from access to better tools or organization, or from being born with special talents, or from being able to command brute force, are entitled to receive whatever they can take.
Obviously real fairness entails eliminating the property and thuggish roads to well being. But more positively, equitable economic institutions should not only not destroy or obstruct equity, they should propel it. A problem arises. What is equity?
Well, it can’t be equitable that due to having a deed in your pocket you earn 100, 1000, or even a million or ten million times the income some other person earns who works harder and longer. To inherit ownership and by virtue of that ownership vastly exceed others in circumstance and influence cannot possibly be equitable.
And it also can’t be equitable to reward power with income. The logic of the Mafia, the same as the logic of Wall Street, the same as the logic of the Harvard Business School, are all that each actor should earn as remuneration for their economic activity whatever they are strong enough to take. This norm promotes not equitable outcomes, but thuggery. Since we are civilized, we of course reject it.
What about output as a basis for income? Should people get back from the social product an amount determined by what they themselves produce as part of that social product? After all, what reason can justify that we should get less then what we ourselves contribute? Someone is taking part of the wealth I create. Or what reason could justify that we should get more than our own contribution? I am taking some of the wealth others create. Shouldn’t we each get an income based on the amount we produce?
This seems obvious to many caring and humane people - including even to most anti capitalists through history. But let’s look closer. Suppose Jack and Katherine do the same work for the same length of time at the same intensity. If Katherine has better tools with which to generate more output, should she get more income than Jack who has worse tools and as a result generates less output even though working as hard or harder? Some may say yes. Others may say no. This is about what we prefer. All we can do to choose a norm for remuneration is look at the implications of any proposed preference and spell them out more carefully.
Okay, should someone who happens to be employed producing something highly valued be rewarded more than someone who happens to be employed producing something less valued, though the latter is still socially desired and important to provide - again, even if the less productive person works equally hard and equally long and endures similar conditions as the more productive person?
Similarly, should someone who was lucky in the genetic lottery, perhaps inheriting genes for big size, musical talent, tremendous reflexes, peripheral vision, or conceptual competency, get rewarded more than someone who was genetically less lucky? You are borne with a wonderful attribute. You didn’t do anything to get it. Why, on top of the luck of your genetic inheritance should economic institutions reward you with greater income as well? There is no earning happening. No high morality is evidenced.
In light of the implicit logic of all these examples, we should consider the idea that to be equitable, in our view, remuneration should be for effort and sacrifice in producing socially desired items.
If I work longer, in this view, I should get more reward. If I work harder, I should get more reward. And if I work in worse conditions and at more onerous tasks, I should get more reward. However, I should not get more for having better tools, or for producing something that happens to be valued more highly, or for having innate highly productive talents, nor should I get more even for the output of learned skills (though I should be rewarded for the effort and sacrifice of learning those skills), nor, of course, should I get more for work that isn’t socially warranted.
Unlike our first two values, solidarity and diversity, this third economic value of rewarding only the effort and sacrifice that people expend in their socially valued work, is quite controversial.
Some anti-capitalists think that people should be rewarded for the overall volume of their output, so that a great athlete should earn a fortune since people in society highly value watching him or her play, and a good doctor should earn way more than a hard working farmer or short order cook, since an operation that saves a life is more valued than a dinner or some additional corn. An equitable economy, however - or at any rate a participatory economy - rejects that norm.
Participatory economic equity, as advocated in this chapter to accompany solidarity and diversity as our third value, instead requires that assuming comparable intensity and duration of work, a person who has a nice, comfortable, pleasant, and highly productive job should earn less than a person who has an onerous, debilitating, and less productive but still socially valuable and warranted job, due to the sacrifice endured. The participatory economy rewards effort and sacrifice endured producing socially valued labor. It does not reward property, power, or output. You have to produce socially valued output commensurate to the productivity of your tools and conditions, yes, otherwise you are wasting assets and not benefiting society, but you are not remunerated in accord with the value of your output, but instead with the effort and sacrifice you expend generating valuable output.
Two other anti-capitalist stances regarding remuneration claim many advocates, and we should consider those too. The first says work itself is intrinsically negative. Why should anyone thinking about a better economy think in terms of organizing or apportioning work? Why not just eliminate work?
This stance correctly notices that our efforts to innovate should seek to diminish the onerous or otherwise adverse features of work. But it moves from that worthy advisory to suggesting that we should entirely eliminate work, which is obviously nonsense.
First, work yields results we do not want to do without. The bounty that work generates justifies the costs of undertaking it. In a good economy, people would desist from excess work rather than suffer only insufficient returns for it. We expend our effort and we make associated sacrifices only up to the point where the value of the income we receive outweighs the costs of the exertions we undertake. At that point, we opt for leisure, not for more work. I want some stuff, so I am going to work, to be sure, but I don’t want stuff so much that I will work myself all hours of day and night, or at a breakneck pace, or in odious conditions. Nor will I forget that it is desirable to change work to make it more pleasurable and less painful, more interesting and social and less boring and fragmenting, more sustainable and less pollutive, more productive and less wasteful.
Second, though related, as the famed geographer and anarchist Peter Kropotkin argued, “Overwork is repulsive to human nature - not work. Overwork for supplying the few with luxury - not work for the well-being of all. Work, labor, is a physiological necessity, a necessity of spending accumulated bodily energy, a necessity which is health and life itself.” In other words, the merits of work are not solely in its outputs, but also even in the process and the act itself. We want to eliminate work that is onerous and debilitating, yes, but we do not want to eliminate work per se. We need to keep work, partly because of the outputs, partly because of the fulfillment that comes from the labor itself. So often we need to figure out how to do work differently than now, and we need institutions that permit and facilitate such choices. So about the advisory that we should reject work per se, we instead reject rejecting work per se.
The second anti-capitalist remunerative stance that rejects our approach to remunerating only duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, claims that the only criteria for remuneration ought to be human need. We should follow the advisory, “From each according to ability, to each according to need.”
What this stance rightly highlights is that people deserve respect and support by virtue of their very existence. If a person can’t work for reasons of health, surely we don’t starve them or deny them income at the level others enjoy. Their needs, modulated in accord with social averages, should be met. If, likewise, someone has special and high medical needs, these too should be met even beyond the volume, intensity, or type of work the person is able to do.
So far, so good. The problem with rewarding need arises not when we are dealing with people who are physically or mentally unable to work, for which the advisory makes perfect sense, but when we try to apply the norm to people who can work and have no special medical needs.
For example, can I forego work and still benefit from society’s output? Can I forego work and consume however much I choose? If we say yes, then why won’t people choose to work relatively little and yet to consume a whole lot?
Usually what those who advocate payment for need and people working to capacity have in mind, is that each actor will responsibly opt for an appropriate share of consumption from the social total and will responsibly contribute an appropriate amount of work to its production.
But how does anyone know what is appropriate to consume or to produce? And, more subtly, how does the economy determine what is appropriate?
It turns out that in practice the norm “work to ability and consume to need” becomes for those who advocate it, work and consume in accord with social averages unless you have a good reason to deviate from those. Advocates of the norm believe or assume that people will responsibly go over and under social averages only when it is warranted.
But when is deviating from average warranted? Why won’t one person think it is okay for so and so reason, and another person think it isn’t? More, how does anyone even know what the social averages are? If we are all just working to the extent we choose and taking content to the extent we choose, what way is there to measure either? Likewise, how does the economy decide how much of anything to produce? How does anyone know the relative values of outputs to meeting needs if we have no measure of the value of the labor or other inputs involved in their production or of the extent to which anyone wants the outputs? How do we know if labor or other assets are apportioned sensibly and if we need innovations to increase output of some items or we should diminish output of others? How do we know where to invest to improve work conditions, to generate much desired output rather than other stuff that is consumed, but not much appreciated?
Whether one believes that remuneration for need and working to one’s ability is a higher moral norm than remuneration for effort and sacrifice - and this is an open question that reasonable people often differ about - the former norm is not practical unless there is an external measure of need and ability plus a way to value different labor types plus a way for people to determine what is warranted behavior plus an expectation that we will all do so. But all these qualifying requirements are precisely what rewarding effort and sacrifice instead of rewarding need makes real, even as it also enables people to work and consume more or less as they choose, and permits everyone to judge relative values in tune with true social costs and benefits. In other words, the aims lurking behind the desire to remunerate only need and work up to ability are in fact fulfilled most desirably and fully by remunerating for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor.
So, finally, we have our third economic value, a controversial one even among anti-capitalists. We want a good economy to remunerate duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valuable labor, and, when people can’t work, to provide income and health care based on need. Of course as with solidarity and diversity, we have to see if we can conceive institutions to deliver these values - and to do so without incurring mitigating losses. But now we are just arriving at some sharer values - implementing them comes soon.
Our fourth value to translate to economy, and the last we will employ to guide our first try at an institutional vision, leaving stewardship and internationalism for coming chapters, has to do with decisions.
In capitalism, owners have tremendous say. Managers and high-level lawyers, engineers, financial officers, and doctors, each of whom monopolize empowering work and daily decision-making positions, and all of whom together we have called the coordinator class, have substantial say. However, people doing rote and obedient labor rarely even know what decisions are being made, much less being able to influence them.
In contrast, we of course want a good economy to be a richly democratic economy. One way of succinctly saying this is that we want people to be able to control their own lives consistent with others doing likewise. Each person should have a level of influence that won’t impinge other people’s rights to have the same level of influence. We each affect decisions in proportion to how we are affected by them. This is called self management.
Imagine that a worker wants to place a picture of his daughter on the wall in his work area. Who should make that decision? Should some owner decide? Should a manager decide? Should all the workers decide? Obviously none of that makes much sense. The worker whose child it is should decide, alone, with full authority. He should be a dictator in this particular case. The wall of my office or work area - my daughter, my eyes viewing it, I decide. Sometimes making decisions unilaterally makes sense.
Now suppose instead that a worker wants to put a radio on her desk to play loud, raucous, rock and roll all day long. Who should decide? My office, my desk, my ears, I decide? No. Obviously not. Because it isn’t only my ears that will hear it. We all intuitively know that the answer is that all those who will hear the radio should have a say, and that those who will be more bothered or more benefited should have more say. The worker no longer gets to be a dictator, nor does anyone else.
At this point, we have implicitly arrived at a decision making value. We easily realize that we don’t want a majority to decide everything all the time. Nor do we always want one person one vote with some other percentage deciding. Nor do we always want one person to decide authoritatively, as a dictator. Nor do we always want consensus, or any other single approach to discussing issues, expressing preferences, and tallying votes. All the possible methods of making decisions make sense in some cases, but are horribly unfair, intrusive, or authoritarian in other cases because different decisions require different approaches.
What we hope to accomplish when we choose from among all possible institutional means of discussing issues, setting agendas, sharing information, and finally making decisions, is that each person influences decisions in proportion to the degree he or she is affected by them. And that is our fourth participatory economic value, economic self management.
Problems with Our Values?
Before moving on to try to implement our values via institutions, we should consider whether they have any damning problems. Let’s take each in turn, even if only briefly.
Is there any problem with an economy generating solidarity among its actors. Well, someone could say it will make us uncritical, so that we interact with one another only with praise, only with flattery, and so on. But of course that isn’t solidarity - which is, instead, premised on honesty and only including, in addition to that, concern, empathy, mutual aid, and, in particular, at rock bottom, shared interests.
Diversity? Well, someone might say if you emphasize diversity you might add options ad infinitum crowding out the excellent with the mediocre. True enough. Sort of like objecting to saying Vitamin C is good for you by nothing that if you have a pound of it a day you won’t last long.
Maybe someone can find something sensible to worry about regarding solidarity or diversity, but I can’t.
Equity is another issue. However. Here reasonable sensible people are going to very quickly have severe doubts. The argument goes like this. If you remunerate for duration, intensity, and onerousness, why will I become a surgeon? I can make as much, in fact I can make more working in a coal mine, say - so I will opt for that, or something like that. And so will everyone who would have been a surgeon in a capitalist economy. And we will all die for want of medical care. If this is right, our value is suicidal, so we have to access this objection. Expressed in more fancy technical language, the critic says parecon’s equity value generates insufficient incentives to produce what society needs.
The rest of the logic, when pursued a bit deeper, goes like this. Becoming a surgeon takes so long and is so difficult, I won’t do it unless I get rewarded appropriately. I have spoken with all kinds of audiences, all over the world, and this objection always arises, always in virtually the exact same form, as abovem and always with absolute confidence. So I tend to do a little thought experiment with folks, to test the logic of their claim.
I point to two folks in the audience and say, okay, you (the first one) are just getting out of high school and going to work in a coal mine, or something comparable, for, let’s say, $50,000 a year. You (the second one) are also just getting out of high school but are going to go to college, then medical school, and then be an intern for a couple of years, and then be a surgeon - earning $500,000 a year. What you are telling me is that going to college is so much worse than being in the coal mine for those four years, and then going to medical school is so much worse than being in the coal mine, and then being an intern is so much worse (and here there is at least some minuscule possibility of it being at least plausible), that after those years, for the next forty, you need to earn ten times what the coal miner earns. I say it is total malarcky. I say you earn more only because you can take more. I say you don’t need it as an incentive, or wouldn’t, if things were arranged differently. So let’s test it.
And then I say to person two, suppose I drop your income as a surgeon to $400,000 will you forego college, medical school, and being an intern, as well as then being a surgeon, to instead go into the mine, or work on an assembly line, or cooking burgers, or whatever? No? Okay, how about $300,000, $200,000…$50,000, $40,000 - and with every audience, not most, everyone one, I get the same result. The person asks me, what’s the minimum I can survive on. I am going to be a surgeon, or lawyer, or engineer, or whatever - not a coal miner, or short order cook, etc., down to whatever pay level I can manage to survive on. And there goes the objection.
The truth is, what we need an incentive for is to do that which is more oppressive to us - so, to work longer, harder, or at worse conditions. And some hold out says, what about medical school? And I answer, we get income according to effort and sacrifice while in school, of course. But please, don’t make believe that would be higher than for digging coal.
I typically also point out, just to round out this account of the thought experiment, that being an intern in a hospital has almost zero to do with good health care - being up for thirty hours and handling emergencies? - and almost everything to do with socializing the new doctor into the community of doctors - willing to pursue profit for the hospital and riches for self even at the cost of health care, of course. Indeed it is quite like fraternity hazing, or, more aptly, book camp in the army, getting soldiers ready to kill without remorse. And it generally takes only minutes to achieve consensus on what being an intern is about too, even with medical students - or lawyers, who go through a similar hazing/socializing process - which says something about the extent to which, indeed, everyone knows that everything is perversely organized on behalf of elite benefit no matter the cost to others.
So what about the fourth value? Self management. Here too, there is a quick and almost but not quite as universal objection. If all people, save presumably those in a coma or literally unable to cognitively function, have a say in proportion as they are affected, we will get horrible decisions, says the critic. His logic is that decisions involve serious cogitation and some people are much better at making decisions than others - and if we are all deciding we will get bad decisions compared to if we have just the experts decide.
In response, first, while the critic may think they are just rejecting self management, in fact their complaint also rejects democracy, and even, arguably, makes a case for dictatorship. Thus, if Joe Stalin happened to be the best decision maker in society, than by this critic’s logic, why shouldn’t Joe Stalin decide everything? The point of this aspect of my reaction is that the quality of decisions is important, but so is participation, for many reasons, of course. We don’t argue against having a dictator solely on the grounds that Joe isn’t omniscient and or is malevolent.
But then I also say to the critic - however, I want to make very clear that I agree that expertise is of course very important to good decisions. And then I ask the person, “who is the world’s foremost expert - the foremost expert in the whole world - regarding what your preferences are?” The person invariably replies that he is (although, every so often, someone will answer my mother is). And I then point out that by that stated logic, that means that when it is time to consult people’s preferences, to tally those preferences into our decision, he (or his mother) is the person to consult as the best expert in his preferences - it is he who should be counted.
Next, since that isn’t alone enough to seal the case, I tend to give some example of a simple decision. For example, I will say, imagine we are a workplace. We are going to paint the walls and we need to decide the paint to use. There are three cans, one of them is lead based. That, however, happens to be the one that most people like the look of. We agree that the impact of the paint on the wall on each is such that in this case majority rule makes sense. We are all very comparably affected. So we vote and the lead paint wins. In fact, only the expert chemist who knows about lead in paint - this is twenty years ago - votes against using that one. We screw ourselves. What’s the lesson.
And everyone says, well, we should have found out the expert’s knowledge and taken it into account. And I say, of course, and that seals the deal. We don’t let the chemist decide for us. But we do consult the chemist. We don’t let experts decide everything, but we do consult experts, and then they, and we, self manage our circumstances.
When people ask, what do you want for the economy?, at this point we can reasonably say we want solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management, but that is not alone sufficient to answer their question. If we advocate institutions whose logic leads to outcomes contrary to those values, such as markets, corporate organization, and private ownership, what good is our rhetorical attachment to fine values? Bill Clinton and Bill Gates would probably say they too like solidarity, diversity, equity, and maybe even self management, but really requires some minor compromises - leading to wars, starvation, indignity, etc., plus their enrichment and empowerment. So we need to advocate the values, yes, but we also need to advocate a set of institutions that can make our favored values real without compromising economic success.
Workers and Consumers Councils
Workers and consumers need a place to express their preferences if they are to self manage their economic actions, as our values advocate. Historically, when workers and consumers have attempted to seize control of their own lives, they have invariably created workers and consumers councils. So too in a participatory economy, except that in the parecon case workers and consumers councils include an additional explicit commitment to self management. Parecon’s councils use decision-making procedures and modes of communication that apportion to each member a degree of say in each decision proportionate to the degree he or she is affected.
Council decisions could sometimes be resolved by majority vote, three quarters, two-thirds, consensus, or other possibilities. Different procedures could be used for different decisions including involving fewer or more participants and using different information dispersal and discussion procedures or different voting and tallying methods.
Consider, as an example, a publishing house. It could have teams addressing different functions, such as promotion, book production, editing, etc. Each team might make its own workday decisions in the context of broader policies decided by the whole workers council. Decisions to publish a book might involve teams in related areas, and might require, for example, a two-thirds or three-quarters positive vote, including considerable time for appraisals and re-appraisals. Many other decisions in the workplace could be one-person one-vote by the workers affected, or could require slightly different vote counts or methods of challenging outcomes. Hiring might require consensus in the workgroup that the new person would join, because a new worker can have a tremendous effect on each person in a group that he or she is constantly working with.
The point is, workers decide in groups of nested councils and teams both the broad and the narrower workplace decisions, including both the norms and the methods for decision making, and then also the day to day and more policy-oriented choices.
It really isn’t very complicated in practice as compared to in brief description. Obviously we could usefully assess ease of operations, efficiency and quality of outcomes, etc. and we will come back to those matters later. But for now, the reader may note that for full self management the decisions of a workplace regarding what to produce must also be influenced by all other people affected by that production, not solely be the workers themselves.
Those who consume the workplace’s books, bicycles, or band-aids are affected and must in turn have some say. Even those who are unable to get some other product because energy, time, and assets went to the books, bicycles, or band-aids instead and not to produce what they wanted are affected and so must be able to affect the choice. And even those tangentially affected such as by derivative pollution also have to have influence, and sometimes a lot of influence. But accommodating the will of the workers with the will of other actors in appropriate balance is a matter of allocation, not of workplace organization, so these matters will enter a bit later.
Remuneration for Effort and Sacrifice
Parecon’s next institutional commitment is to remunerate for effort and sacrifice, not for property, power, or even output. But who decides how hard we each have worked? Clearly our workers councils, which is our fellow workers, must decide within the context of the broad economic norms established by all the economy’s institutions.
If you work longer, and you do it effectively, you are entitled to more of the social product. If you work more intensely, to socially useful ends, again you are entitled to more income. If you work at more onerous or dangerous or boring but still socially warranted tasks, again, you are entitled to more.
But you aren’t entitled to more income by virtue of owning productive property because no one will own productive property in a parecon. Productive property is all socially owned. And you won’t be entitled to more income because you work with better tools, or produce something more valued, or even have personal traits that make you more productive, because these attributes don’t involve effort or sacrifice but instead luck and endowment. Your work certainly has to be socially useful to be rewarded but the reward is not proportional to how useful it is. Effort, duration, and sacrifice producing outputs that aren’t desired is not remunerable labor.
Greater output with less waster is appreciated, of course, and it is important that means of accomplishing it are utilized, but there is no extra pay for greater output. Yes, my working longer or harder yields more output, and greater output can even be a revealing indicator of my greater effort. But while output is often relevant as an indicator, the absolute level of output is beside the point as a means of establishing the level of remuneration, other than perhaps helping indicate how long I worked or how hard.
Rewarding output is not only morally unwarranted, it is far from the best way of providing people with an incentive to increase output, since output depends on tools, genetic endowment, colleagues, and other factors we have no personal individual control over. If one is concerned with increasing each workers output by offering incentives, one should remunerate effort expended in producing socially valued labor. Effort is the variable the worker controls that impacts output. It’s as simple as that.
But what about the workplace as a whole? Is it functioning wisely? The way it works is pretty straightforward. The workplace has certain assets - building, equipment, workforce, the inputs in the form of resources or intermediate goods, etc. For the work that is done in the workplace to be considered socially useful, those assets have to wisely used. Suppose my workplace has assets such that with an average outlay or duration and intensity the output level should be X. Suppose instead the output level is 90% of X. We can’t claim average income, but only 90% of average income, for the whole workforce. How we divide that up internally depends on how long you worked, how long I worked, how intensely, etc. But the total amount we have for the workforce depends on the workplace using its assets well. The need for work to be socially valuable to be remunerated is what provides the whole workplace incentive to use good equipment well, organize and operate wisely, etc. The remuneration for effort and sacrifice for each person provides incentive for needed labor. The whole calculus follows our values, being equitable, yet also elicits desirable behavior making proper use of equipment, the talents of workers, etc.
Both morally and in terms of incentives, parecon does what makes sense. We get extra pay when we deserve it for our sacrifice at work. The economy elicits appropriate use of productive capacities by providing incentives to properly utilize technology, organization, resources, energy, and skills, so that the work that is done is all socially useful. And as for how in each workplace the duration of our work, its intensity, and its onerousness is determined by the worker’s council, that is under the purview of the workers themselves, of course, and will take many possible locally determined forms, though the essence of it is clear enough.
Balanced Job Complexes
Suppose that as proposed we have workers and consumers councils. Suppose we also believe in participation and even in self management. But suppose as well that our workplace has a typical corporate division of labor as our institutional way of apportioning tasks. What will the roles associated with a corporate division of labor do to our aspirations for our workplace?
There will be roughly 20% at the top of the corporate division of labor who will monopolize daily decision-making positions and also the knowledge essential to comprehending what is going on and what options exist. These folks, who we have chosen to call the coordinator class, will set agendas. The decisions these managers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, and other empowered actors make will be authoritative. Even if workers lower in the hierarchy have formal voting rights and even if the whole population is in principle sincerely committed to self management, still, the more rote workers’ participation will only be to vote on plans and options put forth by the group of more empowered workers who I call the coordinator class.
The will of this coordinator class will decide outcomes and in time this empowered group will also decide that it deserves more pay to nurture its great wisdom. It will separate itself not only in power but in income and status. When giving public talks I often divide the room up into four fifths workers and one fifth coordinators in a hypothetical workplace we are creating. Every time when I ask the groups how they will act - what they will feel and do - I get the same answers. The outcomes arise not only in thought experiments but in actual cases, as well. Communes, collectives, worker run factories, and so on. It isn’t enough to have workers and consumers councils that seek to implement self management and remuneration on the basis of effort and sacrifice if, on top of those features, we have a division of labor which sabotages the enlightened efforts and imposes a coordinator class of empowered employees above a working class of disempowered employees. In that case, even with the councils and comittments, our greatest hopes will be dashed against the structural implications of our job design.
As Adam Smith harshly argued, since “the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments, the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding...and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be." Even if sometimes the effects are less disastrous than Smith predicts, surely the person repeatedly doing “a few simply operations” will not be an equal arbiter of economic outcomes as those whose work daily inspires, informs, enlightens, and empowers them. It is important to realize that while this picture horrifies a caring human being, it is quite congenial to an owner or coordinator class manager who wants obedience and passivity from the workforce.
So what is parecon’s alternative to familiar corporate divisions of labor? We seek to extend the insights of William Morris, the noted nineteenth century artist and wordsmith, who noted that in a better future we would not be able to have the same division of labor as now. We would have to get rid of “servanting and sewer emptying, butchering and letter carrying, boot-blacking and hair dressing, as jobs unto themselves.” He felt we would apply ourselves to production not so as to sell things, but so as to make things prettier and to amuse ourselves and others.
Morris was right not only about changing the motives of work to meeting needs and developing the potentials of those enjoying the products and also those doing the labor, but also about the need to alter the division of labor en route to that achievement.
Parecon concurs, therefore, with Smith’s perception of the debilitating effect of corporate divisions of labor and with Morris’s aspirations for future work. That is why participatory economics utilizes what it calls balanced job complexes.
We don’t want the monopolization of empowering work to impose a coordinator class above a working class, in turn eliminating self management, equitable remuneration, etc. So what do we do to have a better situation? When I ask audiences that question, there is generally a lot of silence, and then maybe someone says how about we rotate jobs. We all do everything. I say if you live in a run down ghetto and I live in a glorious suburb, rotating every so often won’t fundamentally change much, except you will likely, and understandably, leave each time with as much as you can carry. And we can’t all do everything. Large workplaces have thousands of tasks - each person doing a little of all of them is not just silly, but absolutely impossible. Blank faces typically result.
Then I say, imagine another planet you are visiting. You go to a few workplaces and you see the same thing in each. One in every five workers has way better conditions and income, and those workers dominate all decisions. You also notice that before each work day the one in five who dominate eat a chocolate bar, and the others don’t. You assume that is just another privilege they have, but then you investigate and discover that on this planet eating chocolate gives one knowledge, skills, information, confidence, etc. In fact, the one in five dominate precisely because they eat the chocolate and the rest do no. And then I ask, what do we need to do in the workplaces on this planet to avoid a fifth dominating four fifths. And of course, everyone says, share the chocolate. In fact, they would also say that even if I were given the talk to fourth graders. It is not rocket science.
Well the same thing applies to dealing with the corporate division of labor. And at this point everyone gets it. Instead of combining tasks so that some jobs are highly empowering and other jobs are horribly stultifying, so that some jobs convey knowledge and authority while other jobs convey only stultification and obedience, and so that those doing some jobs rule as a coordinator class accruing to themselves more income and influence while those doing more menial work obey as a traditional working class subordinate in influence and income - parecon says let’s make each job comparable to all others in its quality of life and even more importantly in its empowerment effects. We don’t have to share chocolate. We have to share empower tasks and in doing so from suffering a corporate division of labor that enshrines a coordinator class above workers, we move to enjoying a classless division of labor that elevates all workers to their fullest potentials.
In a parecon with balanced job complexes, each person has a job. Each job involves many tasks. Of course each job should be suited to the talents, capacities, and energies of the person doing it. However, in a parecon each job must also contain a mix of tasks and responsibilities such that the overall empowerment effects of work are comparable for all.
In a parecon there won’t be someone doing only surgery and someone else only cleaning bed pans. Instead people who do surgery will also help clean the hospital and perform other tasks so that the sum of all that they do incorporates a fair mix of conditions and responsibilities, and likewise for the person who used to only clean rooms.
A parecon doesn’t have some people in a factory who only manage operations and other people in the factory who only do rote tasks. Instead people throughout factories do a balanced mix of empowering and rote tasks.
A parecon doesn’t have lawyers and short order cooks or engineers and assembly line workers, as we now know them. All the tasks associated with these jobs must get done, of course, but in a parecon they are mixed and matched very differently than they are in capitalist workplaces. Parecon has a new division of labor.
Each parecon worker does a mix of tasks that accords with his or her abilities but that also conveys a fair share of rote and tedious but also interesting and empowering conditions and responsibilities.
Our work doesn’t prepare a few of us to rule and the rest of us to obey. Instead, our work equally prepares all of us to participate in collectively self-managing production, consumption, and allocation. Our work equally prepares all of us to engage sensibly in self managing our lives and institutions.
When I have presented balanced job complexes as an idea to diverse audiences I have always and only had three objections. After the chocolate example and some other moving descriptions of experiences of my hearing workers who have occupied factories report on the devolution of good feelings and equitable and democratic relations due to - on examination it always turns out - the people who monopolizing empowering work becoming the new boss, in place of the old boss, audiences accept that to eliminate the coordinator above worker situation - this type step is required. However, they wonder if there are offsetting debits that outweigh the benefits.
The logic always follows this path. Either someone spontaneously yells out, or I provoke someone to do so by asking if there are any medical students in the house who want to contest the desirability of balanced job complexes, that this would be a calamity. If surgeons have to clean bed pains, we will have way less surgery done - and while we will have eliminated class division and the obstacle that poses for self management and equity, we will have done so at the cost of losing essential output - surgeries - and, in other fields, poems, calculations, research, legal work, and so on.
I answer that in one respect the complaint is exactly right. To make it simple I say suppose current surgeons work a forty hour week doing nothing but surgeries the whole time. And suppose it wound that in a parecon the work week got shorter (which it quite predictably would) and after balancing off surgery with other less empowering tasks, the 40 hour a week surgeon in the old economy was only doing 15 hours a week in the new one. Well, that is a dead loss, looking at that one person, of 25 hours or five/eights of all the surgery by that person. And it would be true for all surgeons, so the previous surgeons would only be doing three/eighths as much as they were before. We would all be royally screwed if that was the end of the story, and it was also true for engineers, scientists, artists, managers, accountants, and so on. However, it overlooks a very important point. We don’t settle for the drop in empowered work. Instead, those who previously were doing none, make up the deficit. Audiences tend to go berserk. Impossible, they say. Why, I ask. Because nurses and custodians can’t do surgery - law clearks and typists can’t go lawyers, and so on.
Is that so? Well, actually, no. Imagine it is fifty years ago. You take all the surgeons in the U.S. And put them in a stadium, a big one, what do you see that is striking. Someone quickly says, they are all men. Yes, I reply, and every one of them would have said, women can’t do this. Impossible. And we of course recognize that that was gross sexism, not least because we are sensible, but in any event because medical schools in the U.S. are currently, for example, almost precisely fifty percent women.
And then I explain that what makes people think those in the working class - people not doing any empowering tasks - cannot do any empowering tasks is classism, quite analogous to sexism. Instead of realizing that the reason people are unable to do certain things is that they are not only denied the training, but even more, forcefully robbed of initiative and confidence and access, we attribute the failing to their inadequate capacity. It is precisely analogous and equally delusional or self serving, as the case may be. In fact, of course it takes time and training, but a random set of twenty people chosen from workers, and a random set of twenty chosen from the coordinator class - have, pretty much exactly the same general capacity to do empowering work of one kind or another, a claim we have come to understand about women, and various racial and cultural communities, and now we need to come to understand about working people, as well.
But wouldn’t it be inefficient for output to have to train so many more doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. Well, I say, no. Not at all. In fact, on the contrary, getting all we can be from everyone is the exact opposite of inefficient. We just need to see it. To have a tool lie fallow, that is inefficient. Same for a person. And yet, I note, even if total output would drop, and in fact it would climb dramatically due to new contribution from more people, not to mention the gains that accrue from not having an elite defending its privileges and those below being recalcitrant about cooperating, I would still be for the changes. My values - and the ones we have settled on, said nothing about maximizing output - rather, the aim was to conduct economic life to meet needs and develop potentials while advancing solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management. And balanced job complexes would do all that plentifully, even if they were not more productive, which of course they would be.
Well, there is more to say, of course, as with every other issue we have raised, as I warned in the introduction. What we have here is a failure to communicate enough - however, there are plenty of avenues to explore further, if the appetite is once aroused. So, it is time now to move on to our next institutional feature. It arises the minute we ask what happens if we have a new economy that has workers and consumers councils, self-managed decision-making, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of productive labor, and balanced job complexes - if, however, we combine all this with markets or with central planning for allocation? Would the sum of those components constitute a good economy?
Allocation: Markets and Central Planning
So we hook up our fledgling firms with each other via market competition. First, markets would immediately destroy the remuneration scheme. Markets reward output and bargaining power instead of effort and sacrifice.
Second, markets would also force buyers and sellers to try to buy cheap and sell dear, each fleecing the other as much as possible in the name of private advance and market survival. Markets, in other words, generate anti-sociality not solidarity. We get ahead at the expense of others, not cooperatively with them.
Third, markets would explicitly produce dissatisfaction because it is only the dissatisfied who will buy and then buy again, and again. As the general director of General Motors' Research Labs, Charles Kettering introduced annual model changes for GM cars. He put the point: business needs to create a “dissatisfied consumer”; its mission is “the organized creation of dissatisfaction.” The idea was that planned obsolescence would make the consumer dissatisfied with the car he or she already had.
Fourth, prices in a market system don’t reflect all social costs and benefits. Market prices take into account only the impact of work and consumption on the immediate buyers and sellers but not on those peripherally affected, including those affected by pollution or, for that matter, by positive side effects. This means markets routinely violate ecological balance and sustainability. They subject all but the wealthiest communities to a collective debit in water, air, sound, and public availabilities.
Fifth, markets also produce decision making hierarchy and not self management. This occurs not only due to market generated disparities in wealth translating into disparate power, but because market competition compels even council based workplaces to cut costs and seek market share regardless of the ensuing implications. To compete, even workplaces with self managing councils, equitable remuneration, and balanced job complexes have no choice but to insulate some employees from the discomfort that cost-cutting imposes, precisely those people who they earmark to figure out what costs to cut and how to generate more output at the expense of worker (and even consumer) fulfillment.
In other words, this last point deserves some further exploration, to cut costs and otherwise impose market discipline there would emerge with markets, due to market logic, even with councils and balanced job complexes (at first) and so on, a coordinator class located above workers and violating our preferred norms of remuneration as well as accruing power to themselves and obliterating the self-management and equity we desire.
That is, under the pressure of market competition, any firm I work for must try to maximize its revenues to keep up with or outstrip competing firms. If my firm doesn’t do that, then we lose our jobs and have only equitable poverty. So we must try to dump our costs on others. We must seek as much revenue as possible even via inducing excessive consumption. We must cut our costs of production, including reducing comforts for workers and unduly intensifying labor to win market share regardless of costs to others.
To relentlessly conceive and pursue all these paths to market success, however, requires both a managerial surplus-seeking mindset and also freedom for the managers from any suffering the pains that their choices induce. So even in a firm that is committed to self management and balanced job complexes, if we must operate in a market context our roles will impose on us a necessity to hire folks with appropriately callous and calculating minds such as those that business schools produce. We will then have to also give these new callous employees air conditioned offices and comfortable surroundings. We will have to say to them, okay, cut our costs to ensure our livelihood in the marketplace. Fuck us, in our interest.
In other words, we will have to impose on ourselves a coordinator class, not due to natural law, and not due to some internal psychological drive, but because markets will force us to subordinate ourselves to a coordinator elite lest our workplace lose market share and revenues, and eventually go out of business.
There are those who will claim that all these market failings are not a product of markets per se, but of imperfect markets that haven’t attained a condition of perfect competition. This is a bit like saying that the ills associated with ingesting arsenic occur because we never get pure arsenic, but we only get arsenic tainted with other ingredients.
On the one hand, calling for perfect markets ignores that in a real society there is literally no such thing as frictionless competition so of course we will always get imperfect markets. But even more important, it also ignores that the ill features of markets we have highlighted do not diminish when competition is made more perfect but instead intensify. And all this is not just true in our thought experiment, but also in past practice.
Historically, the closer economies have come to a pure market system without state intervention and with as few sectors as possible dominated by single firms or groups of firms, or with as few unions as possible, the worse the social implications of the sort we describe above have been. For example, there have rarely if ever been markets as competitive as those of Britain in the early nineteenth century, yet, under the sway of those nearly perfect markets young children routinely suffered early death in the pits and mills of the time. The point is, well-functioning markets get various economic tasks done but otherwise do not promote excellence in any form. They do not resist and they even facilitate cultural and moral depravity. As a result, seeking an economy fulfilling our values means rejecting markets as a tool of allocation.
Moreover, the same broad result of market allocation destroying the benefits sought via councils, including destroying equitable remuneration and balanced job complexes, has historically held for central planning allocation as well, though for different reasons. Thus, central planning elevates central planners and their managerial agents in each workplace, and then, for legitimacy and consistency, also elevates all those actors in the economy who share the same type of credentials.
In other words, the central planners need local agents who will hold workers to norms the central planners decide. These local agents must be locally authoritative. Their credentials must legitimate them and must reduce other actors to relative obedience. Central planning thus, like markets, also imposes a coordinator class to rule over workers with the workers in turn made subordinate not only nationally, but also in each workplace.
The allocation problem that we face in trying to conceive a good economy is therefore that (as could be seen in the old Yugoslavia and Soviet Union) even without private ownership of means of production, markets and central planning each subvert the values and structures we have deemed worthy. They obliterate equitable remuneration, annihilate self management, horribly mis-value products, impose narrow and antisocial motivations, and impose class division and class rule - which is to say, they trample and destroy the values we wish to elevate and advance.
This is precisely the kind of thing our overarching theory attunes us to. It is a case of particular institutions - markets and central planning - having role attributes that violate our aims. The same held for the corporate division of labor, discussed earlier, and for private ownership of productive assets. The associated roles of those institutions too, obstruct, and actually obliterate, the values we favor. That is why we had to transcend them. And now we see the same implication for markets and central planning.
Allocation is the nervous system of economic life. It is both intricate and essential. To round out a new economic vision we must conceive a mechanism that can properly and efficiently determine and communicate accurate information about the true social costs and benefits of economic options, and that can then also apportion to workers and consumers influence over choices proportional to the degree they are affected. “True social costs and benefits”? What is that? Well, suppose we make a car. What does it cost, truly? What are the benefits, truly? If we don’t know, how can we decide it is a good idea to make the car, instead of something else? If we don’t know, how can we decide if we need more cars, or fewer? The costs we take into account, go beyond those that the current capitalist owners of automobile plants consider. They want to maximize profits - while retaining the rights to accrue those profits themselves. We want to advance our values while meeting needs and developing potentials of those involved. Very different. They take into account, the amount they have to pay for resources, intermediate goods, technologies employed, rent, electricity, and the wages they have to pay - as well as if there are any significant effects on their balance of power, their ability to keeping taking their preferred giant share of revenues. We take into account the costs of producing, transporting, and consuming cars including impact on the environment, on workers, on consumers, on bystanders, and communities, etc. We also take into account the benefits for those same affected constituencies - both individual and collective. So true social costs and benefits is an accurate measure of the gains and losses associated with the production and consumption of the car - in social relations, in the material and moral and psychological condition of workers and communities and consumers, and the environmental impact.
Desirable means of allocation, then, must also allocate resources, labor, and the products of labor in a flexible manner that is able to realign in case of unexpected crises or shocks. It must not homogenize tastes but instead abide diverse preferences, preserve privacy and individuality, engender sociality and solidarity, and meet the needs and capacities of all workers and consumers rather than aggrandizing a few. Desirable allocation must operate without class division and class rule but instead with equity and classlessness, and it must operate without authoritarianism and disproportionate influence for a few people but instead with with self management for all. Finally, in deciding what to do with any particular asset - whether people’s labor or a resource like oil or copper, or some technology - whether to do one thing with it or another thing with it - it needs to take into account the true and full material and etherial social and environmental affects of the contending options.
Self management of allocation is clearly no little ambition given that virtually everyone is to at least some degree affected by each decision made in an economy so that in any institution - whether a factory, university, health center, or whatever - many interests ought to be represented in decision-making. There is the work force itself, obviously affected by their actions each day - whether they are deadened or enlivened, made sick or uplifted, and so on. And there is the community in which the workplace is located, polluted, for example, or uplifted, and there are the users of its products or services, presumably benefitting by their consumption, or losing because they were not put to a different use that they would have preferred. If society is making cars instead of public transport, I may gain from having a car, but I will also lose due to the lack of public transport. To have democracy, much less self management, entails that there are structures that displace and eliminate any influence for private owners of the means of production and resources, by ensuring that that type ownership no longer exists - but that also consult all affected parties appropriately in determining outcomes.
In other words while private ownership is disastrous in its effects on economic outcomes, as critics of capitalism have always claimed, the deeper and arguably even deadlier villains, as we have all too briefly indicated above, are markets and central planning. We not only need “directly democratic” workers and consumers councils, but we also need allocation connections between workers and consumers that preserve and enhance informed, insightful, self managed decisions.
Suppose in place of top-down allocation via centrally planned choices, and in place of competitive market allocation by atomized buyers and sellers, we instead opt for informed, self-managed, cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs by socially entwined actors who each have a say in proportion as choices affect them, who each have accurate information to assess, and who each have appropriate training, confidence, conditions, and motivation to develop, communicate, and express their preferences.
That choice of allocation attributes, if we could conceive institutions able to make it real, would, as we seek, compatibly advance council-centered participatory self-management, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and balanced job complexes. It would also provide proper valuations of personal, social, and ecological impacts and promote classlessness.
Participatory planning is conceived to accomplish all this. In participatory planning, worker and consumer councils propose their work activities and their consumption preferences in light of continually updated knowledge of the personal, local, and national implications of the full social benefits and costs of their choices.
What does it look like?
Workers and consumers cooperatively negotiate workplace and consumer inputs and outputs. They employ a back and forth communication of mutually informed preferences using what are called indicative prices, facilitation boards, rounds of accommodation to new information, and other participatory planning features which permit people to express and refine their desires in light of feedback about other people’s desires.
Workers and consumers indicate in their councils their personal and group preferences. I say I want such and such. My workplace settles on a proposal that we can and wish to produce thusly. We learn what preferences others have indicated as they learn ours. They and we alter and resubmit our preferences keeping in mind the need to balance a personally fulfilling pattern of work and consumption with the requirements of a viable overall plan. Each participant as worker and as consumer seeks personal and collective group well being and development. However, each can improve his or her situation only by acting in accord with more general social benefit. New information leads to new submissions in a sequence of cooperatively negotiated refinements, until settling on a plan.
As in any economy, consumers deciding on what they want for their share of the social product, take into account their income (from the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their socially valued labor) and the relative costs of available products that they desire. This occurs not only for individuals deciding personal consumption, but also for households or communes, neighborhoods, and regions, all through consumer councils, up to the cumulative demand put forth by all of society. Workers in their workers councils similarly indicate how much work they wish to do in light of requests for their product as well as their own labor/leisure preferences. While workplace proposals are collective - for the whole workplace - they are arrived at with input from each individual in the workplace, of course.
In a participatory economy no one has any interest in selling products at inflated prices nor in selling more than consumers actually need - because imposing high prices and inducing purchases beyond what will fulfill people are not how income is earned.
Even if I could set some false inflated price for what I was selling, my income would not climb as it doesn’t depend on the overall sales revenue. And the same goes for somehow getting people to buy what they don’t really need. In fact, why would I want to produce anything - taking my time and energy - that wasn’t actually going to benefit folks? I wouldn’t, not in the participatory economic institutional setting.
Nor is there any need to compete for market share. Individuals and units do not advance by way of beating others in any manner. Rather, motives are simply to meet needs and to develop potentials at whatever level turns out to be preferred without wasting assets, which is to say, to produce what is socially acceptable and useful while compatibly and cooperatively fulfilling one’s own as well as the rest of society’s preferences. This is true not because people are suddenly saints. It is because cooperation is lucrative for all. Merciless mutual fleecing simply has no place in a parecon because there is neither means to do it, nor gains to be had from doing it.
Preferences for desired production and consumption are communicated by means of special mechanisms developed for the purpose. Negotiations occur in a series of planning rounds. Every participant has an interest in most effectively utilizing productive potentials to meet needs, because everyone personally gets an equitable share of output that grows as overall social output for all grows.
Each person also favors workplaces and all of society making investments that reduce drudge work and that improve the quality of the average balanced job complex, because this is the job quality that everyone on average enjoys.
Plans for the economy are of course continually updated and refined. It isn’t that there are no errors or imperfections in the day to day and year to year operations of a participatory economy. It is that such deviations from ideal choices as occur arise from ignorance or mistakes and not the system itself, by its logic, causing such deviations - and so in no way systematically benefit one sector above others. Mistaken choices and deviations don’t snowball or multiply in a manner that continually benefits some (in a ruling class, for example) to the detriment of others.
To choose what role and position to occupy in a participatory workplace, each person of course consults his or her own personal tastes and talents. Of course each person will be better suited and more likely to be happy at some pursuits than at others and will naturally opt for the former. However, each person’s job search is solely about meeting personal preferences equitably. There is no choice that one can individually make or that a group can collectively make that would accrue what other members of society would deem unjust power, wealth, or circumstance.
Participatory economics social solidarity. In a parecon I can get better work conditions if the average job complex improves. I can get higher income if I work harder or longer with my workmates’ consent, or if the average income throughout society increases. I not only advance in solidarity with others, I also influence all economic decisions in my workplace and even throughout the rest of the economy at a level proportionate to the impact those decisions have on me.
Parecon not only eliminates inequitable disparities in wealth and income, it attains just distribution. Parecon doesn’t force people to undervalue or violate other people’s lives, but produces solidarity. Parecon doesn’t homogenize outcomes and even underlying preferences, but generates diversity. Parecon doesn’t give a small ruling class tremendous power while burdening the bulk of the population with powerlessness, but produces appropriate self-managing influence for all.
Parecon’s economic viability and worthiness are argued in much greater detail in various places then we can allot to it here, in this more encompassing discussion that addresses all sides of life, not only the economy - including, for example, in the book Parecon: Life After Capitalism (Verso Press) as well as on the parecon web site at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/topics/parecon. There, if you want to pursue the issues further, you will find talks, essays, books, interviews, q/a, addressing detailed concerns about productivity, efficiency, incentives, social relations, etc. Moreover, in the electronic or ebook version of this work - Fanfare the ebook - a considerable selection of extra material and examples accompanies the text you are reading in this print version, including multimedia, etc. Readers who aren’t familiar with parecon’s features and who haven’t yet thought through their logic can certainly do so based on this chapter, but may wish to consult those other sources to do so more quickly and easily.
However, for the sake of the discussion here, suppose you have decided at this point that yes, it seems that parecon can produce goods and services to meet needs and that it can allocate them justly while also supporting values you hold dear. Should you become a strong advocate of parecon, while also trying to improve its features with your own insights? An argument against is that it could still be that while parecon works in the abstract, it would fail in reality due to incompatibilities with other parts of social life. Another doubt could be that while parecon is nice in theory, in practice it is unattainable due to strategic obstacles.
In other words, are the implications of a parecon for the rest of society desirable or are there broader social problems that undercut the worth and viability of parecon? And can we get from where we are to parecon? Assuming, at least for now, economic worth, those are some of the broader questions we will have to address in coming chapters. There is, however, one last thing to make very explicit here in this chapter.
Class and Participatory Economics
The title of this chapter of Fanfare is “Beyond Class Rule is Parecon.” Okay then, does participatory economics in fact get beyond class rule, and if so, what features are critical to that accomplishment?
To get rid of an owning class above all others - the only recourse is to not have individuals, or even groups, own productive assets, meaning workplaces, resources, equipment and so on. This has been known since there have been anti capitalists, and at no time has anyone remotely made a case it isn’t true. It is basically a kind of truism. If owning a workplace is allowed and conveys to the owner control over it and a claim on its revenues - after paying costs - we are doomed to the owning class being a ruling class, above workers and even those I have called coordinators. It isn’t that the later have no recourse, no power - it is that the former, insofar as the system persists, are, within the system, dominant. Coordinator class members can use their relative monopoly on empowering work and, derivatively, information and skills, to attract high, and sometimes extremely high incomes. They can also bargain for outcomes, therefore seriously influencing decisions even beyond those they in fact make by virtue of their positions. Workers can withhold their labor or otherwise act in concert to try to attain at least living and even bearable incomes, and to try to ward off the most egregious violations of dignity, etc. But, unless the hold on property by a few is eliminated, there will be a ruling class of property owners.
So what does parecon do about owning productive property? Really, the issue isn’t “owning” since the word doesn’t mean much without being filled out with its rights and privileges. Suppose you own General Motors or Microsoft - the whole thing, either or both. However, also suppose ownership conveys no rights whatsoever. You get no income by virtue of it. You get no decision making say by virtue of it. You get nothing by virtue of it. Then there is no owning, ruling, class - and so this makes clear what must be done, and what is one, in parecon. It isn’t just that no one has a deed that says I own such and such resources, or productive tools, or workplaces, etc. It is that no one has any claim over any such property for any reason at all, other than that which derives from the parecon norm for income and for decision making influence.
You could think of it as everyone owns an equal share of everything productive, and it conveys nothing - or as society as a whole owns all that - and, again, it conveys nothing. It doesn’t really matter which view of it you have, parecon eliminates an owning class by eliminating the roles and requisites of ownership of productive property.
Okay, but what about the coordinator class that exists, inside a capitalist economy, between labor and capital and that is defined by its relative monopoly on empowering work that in turn conveys to it skills, information, confidence, and even energy essential to decision making, while other workers doing disempowering tasks are, in contrast, relatively de-skilled, dis-informed, and made passive and exhausted by their activities, all interfering with their being able to or even wanting to participate in decision making. This too create class division, and in the absence of an owning class, a new class rule, now of coordinators over workers - as we have seen in what has been called twentieth century socialism.
Does parecon retain this class hierarchy? Is parecon just a familiar kind of coordinator ruled economy? Or is it truly classless?
The claim is it is classless. The claim is that in the combination of workers and consumers self managed councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning, there is simply no locus of creation of class difference, much less class rule. These institutions do not treat one sector/class differently than another sector/class such that they have opposed interests and one advances from the decline of the other, much less such that one rules the economy above the other.
The first step in checking this claim is to ask, is there an owning class - and a class that doesn’t own. If so the claim will be false. As noted above, parecon passes this first test. The second step is to ask is there a coordinator class above a working class - the one empowered and high stepping, the other disempowered and low slung?
Well, what we can say is this. The most direct cause of existence of this division is eliminated entirely, root and branch, by incorporating balanced job complexes. This gives each participant comparably empowering circumstances. The next most direct avenue to even this type division - simply affording to one group dominance over another which they then parlay into all kinds of advantages - is eliminated by adopting self managed decision making and equitable remuneration. And finally, most subtly, the only known indirect source of this class division, the presence of an institution chosen for entirely other reasons (simply to distribute labor goods and services) that by its logic and role implications subverts self management and equitable remuneration and even enforces for success the reinstitution of a coordinator/worker division of labor, is eliminated (in both its market and central planning variants) by adopting participatory planning.
Can we say there is no other danger we have missed. No - not definitively. But we can say, if there is, and if anyone can find it, then a good economy must take that into account and deal with it, and parecon advocates would certainly move to do so.
I have posed the above very simply, some will say too simply - but in fact I do not think it is oversimplified at all. Of course as with anything, one can explore much much further into the details, but the essence is as stated.
We want classlessness because with classes, and class rule, our values will be violated. To get classlessness we simply must reject private ownership of productive property and the corporate division of labor. If we reject those, but retain markets or central planning, they will overthrow our intentions and reimpose the old structures - certainly the division of labor, and over time, at least with a significant probability (see Soviet and Yugoslav history) private ownership as well. Thus, we must adopt, on top of our other commitments, participatory planning.
That is the logic, and the claims, or participatory economics. What about participatory politics - the next stop on our visionary circuit?