Economy or Not?
By Michael Albert at Mar 27, 2008
In a recent blog a ZCom sustainer, Charles Dickey, commented on an article of mine - and by extension on parecon as a whole, in a way that I find exemplary of the views of quite a few young people, and a few not so young people, too. I thank him for taking what he read seriously enough to comment. I expect any serious back and forth pursuit of the ideas with him or with others will need to occur in the Forum system, but I thought I would ring up a blog on the topic, too., trying to provoke such a discussion from those who share Dickey's views, and there are plenty who do, or who just find the sentiments I will offer here off base.
Dickey starts by saying, "I just read Michael Albert's essay "What Are We For?" trying to get the broad overview of Parecon, and I have to ask, what are we for, indeed? It's odd. When I read that title I thought it meant what are we for as in what are people for?"
Well, actually, people haven't yet, in large numbers, evidenced allegiance to any particular visions and what I had in mind being for was vision - as in alternative social structures. More, the article was written quite some time ago, in context of the antiglobalization movement, so what it was really about was what are we for given that we are actively opposing corporate globalization. But this is quibbling, so far so good.
Dickey continues: "But it turns out Albert is asking what are we for as in what are we not against?"
Hmmmm, if so, I certainly didn't know it. Proposing the institutions of parecon is not merely saying that I am not against them, or at least I thought that was the case. I thought it was instead saying I think these are worthy, desirable, the stuff of economic classlessness, of economic liberation.
And Dickey adds: 'The assumption seems to be that `we' are a cohesive group of ideologues, and the question being asked is framed as: well, we know what we are all against, but what are the constructive principles of our ideology?' This is about right given that the article was about the `we' in we who are actively opposing corporate globalization, if I remember right. "And boy howdy does Michael Albert have a plateful of constructive principles to dish up." I'm not sure what that means, it sounds potentially appetizing though...
But, Dickey reports, "I have to say I found it boring, dry reading." Fair enough, I guess maybe I overdid the appetizing bit. But, more seriously, as to writing style, it is pretty hard to make a quick overview of alternative international and domestic economic structures too exciting - indeed, it is probably beyond my writing ability. Others will do better, I hope. More, however, I should admit that wouldn't want to convince anyone based on elegance of style or scale of emotion. Ultimately, judgements about alternative institutions have to rest on an assessment of the underlying values of those institutions and the nature of the institutions themselves. It seems to me, therefore, that the critical thing is to spell out the values and structures clearly, though I agree that good prose can't hurt and wish I was better at it.
Says Dickey "I can appreciate what he is trying to do, you know: lay out some broad concepts about how a large, integrated, humane economy might work. But it strikes me as false and contrived, not organic enough." That is fair enough too, as a claim, but it would help if there was a reason given. Dickey continues, "Maybe that's just a problem inherent with theories, and if the concepts are developed further and put into trial and practice, good things can result." Actually, many in fact even most and perhaps all of the concepts have been put into practice, albeit in limited ways, and good things have resulted. But I should also note that I don't think it is inherent in theories that they must sound contrived - and I do not even know what "organic enough" might mean. I hate to be flip but what comes to mind is "grown without fertilizer" and I just don't really see the connection.
But now we get to the more widely relevant substance, I think. Dickey says, "But back to my question: what are people for? Are we workers to be arranged in a system? I think that is what I find offensive about economics, and Parecon doesn't seem to be an exception. Screw economics. People are not for economics. People are for experiencing life, and fuck all the artificial constructs."
I find this kind of sentiment rather incredible and it seems to me, at bottom, intensely defeatist. That people work and will work in any conceivable society, is simply true, not artificial and not socially imposed, but a fact of life and life only. That any society will have an economy - which is to say a part that accomplishes production, consumption, and, in between those two functions, allocation, is also true. People cannot subsist much less thrive without utilizing human capacities to enhance our worldly conditions.
So, yes, parecon is an economic vision rather than a vision rejecting economics, and it certainly does incorporate "people working." But moving from the fact of people working, as Dickey rhetorically does, into the image of people as nothing but cogs arranged into slots in a system - seems to me to be an incredibly defeatist leap. Many folks look around and see that "work" now and "jobs" now are largely the stuff of cogs and contrivance, with outputs that are nearly always alienated and often incredibly destructive, including subordination and boredom, and so on. And on seeing this so widely, such folks somehow leap from their accurate observation to the suicidal conclusion that these and other debits are intrinsic to work and economics per se. This is often not just illogical - no evidence is ever offered - it is also incredibly sad that young minds should traverse such a path so readily, and often so aggressively.
Dickey wonders why a set of proposed alternatives to the WTO, World Bank, and IMF, that he acknowledges strive for self management, participation, equity, ecological balance, etc., "should be necessary." He explains his query thusly: "I envision an organically patterned world of interdependent communities with enough sense and humanity to understand that cooperative effort and constructive, creative work are good for everyone. This is probably incredibly naive and unrealistic, because the world is full of conniving, greedy assholes. And I appreciate that Parecon wants to alleviate some of that greediness and asshole-ishness by implementing a hierarchal/non-hierarchical global structure. But I don't have any faith in that."
I hope Dickey will read a bit more about parecon and perhaps his reasoned support for it will grow - given that I think it aims at implementing values he in fact holds dear since it is precisely a set of institutions that facilitates - rather than merely paying lip service to and then crushing - people accomplishing economic functions in ways consistent with and indeed promoting "an organically patterned world of interdependent communities with enough sense and humanity to understand that cooperative effort and constructive, creative work are good for everyone."
But even if Dickey doesn't give parecon a more complete look, I hope he and others who might feel similarly, will think some more about what the word "interdependent" implies. I think it implies lasting relationships of responsibility and organization built and preserved among people, communities, workers, and consumers - that it implies, in other words, an economy - and regarding other sides of life other structures, as well, of course. And given that, I hope that he will agree that if we want our economy to be classless, to generate rather than trounce solidarity, to apportion to people proportionate control over their lives and conditions, to deliver diversity and, yes, to also deliver a rich existence - then, of course, we have to think carefully about its component structures. We can't just wish away the complexity of production that is done in one place aiding people that exist in another place far away, millions of times over, where what is produced connects to what people desire, where lots of intermediate inputs and outputs exist as well, and where there are a multitude of decisions affecting a plenitude of people.
But I have to address another aspect of what Dickey wrote above - that the world "is full of conniving, greedy assholes." I hope and will assume that what he means is, if spelled out more fully, that the world is full of people who by virtue of the conditions they find themselves in have virtually no alternative but to behave in ways that he finds greedy and conniving - which, of course, then raises the issue, is the solution to "screw economics," thereby implicitly agreeing with Thatcher that there is no alternative to capitalism (short of a return to discombobulated underdevelopment), or is the solution to conceive and implement an economy that doesn't produce such conditions. What really upsets me when folks put forth views like Dickey's isn't at all not being convinced by parecon - especially when they read a couple of thousand words mostly about something else - but that they are so ready to dispense with industry, scale, etc., having given it so little serious thought. This seems incredibly sad to me.
Dickey says, "What I do have faith in may be impossible. The only sensible possibility to me seems to be an organic one: an anarchy of interdependent individuals and communities that understand that it is in the best interest of us all to freely associate and cooperate." This is fine, rhetorically, but to make it real entails describing how such people, with I think probably much higher degrees of entwinement than Dickey may have in mind, are to in fact interact.
Dickey says "There is no need for global top-down structures," and I quite agree, which is why I think we need to explain entwinement of a self managing sort and how it succeeds both internationally and domestically.
Dickey says, "The past five thousand years of empire-building have driven that point home for me, at least." Well I wonder how that intellectual hammering, occurred. Why does the fact that system x, capitalism, empire, etc., etc., produces horrible results preclude the possibility of a different system, y, in this case, parecon, doing much better? If Dickey made a case, shedding tears and moaning effusively at the horror of his conclusion, that the very act of people joining in large numbers in well defined structures with clear and mutually established responsibilities, inevitably means something utterly horrific - that would be one thing. I still doubt it would be remotely enough to convince anyone beyond a small circle that we ought to literally dispense with organized economic life - but at least it would be an argument. But as far as I can tell neither Dickey nor anyone else with views like this even tries to make such a case. They just assert it. It is sort of like looking and seeing that a whole lot of sexual interactions are fraught with bad dynamics, and in many cases seriously horrible dynamics, and then concluding that having sex inevitably imposes all that, so we must dispense with sex. To me it is really, that absurd, yet many people attach themselves to these "anti-economy" notions, and so I would like to understand why. What am I missing about this type allegiance?
Dickey says, "There can be no arm twisting, no `regulatory institutions' and no `binding Code of Conduct,' because these things undermine self-determination." Well, yes, these things can have horrible effects, and certainly arm twisting is pretty vile in any event. But I think Dickey is saying something more - and others are too - put positively, something like this. Each day when we awake is a new experience for us all. Each day we should be free of responsibilities and expectations and should engage however we wish to engage, freely, starting anew with others, or not, as we decide. If I want to work today, I do. If not, I don't. And so on. Well if that is what folks with Dickey-like views have in mind, it is tantamount, in my view, to saying that people are about as complex, and have about as much potential, as earthworms or gold fish, who do indeed, function, I suspect, sort of like the injunction.
Dickey says, "We get all bunged up around codes of conduct and regulations, no matter how well-intentioned. Parecon, practically instituted, would lead to simply another slew of nation-states governed by some high-minded global institutions that may be altruistic, but no less susceptible to corruption than the IMF itself. What kind of people do you think would get involved with such global regulatory commissions as the snazzy, hip, and progressive International Asset Agency, Global Investment Agency, and World Trade Agency? Even as shiny new (not merely reformed) institutions, the damn things would be populated by elitist ofays whose vision would be completely compromised by the global binoculars, telescopes, and blinders that they would have to constantly wear All the cool grassroots organizations would be tiny little gps points on topographic globes viewed from these centralized command centers. Or am I jumping to conclusions? Would the bankers be out working the fields, too? Which fields, on whose topographic map?" Apparently turning phrases counts, in some contexts, as insight. I think, instead, that it is just turning phrases, emptily, even if not boringly.
Here is the nub of it, and why I get so agitated when I encounter views like those in Dickey's blog coming from what are quite obviously socially concerned young folks, eager to make the world better, committed and often courageous, smart, and also insightful in many respects. The views are either incredibly divorced from reality, or they recognize the reality, and are incredibly callous. How do people not only get sucked into or otherwise arrive at such stances, and then even into aggressively dismissing those who see things differently?
To me, those who say they reject economics per se, or, more coherently, that they reject anything other than local folks daily revisiting and reaffirming or altering their choices, with no long term responsibilities, and with minimalist relations beyond the reach of their eyes and voices, are saying they think a desirable alternative world is one in which about two thirds - who knows, perhaps 90% - of current humanity and its future offspring are dead, and in which the remainder live short and brutish lives without, for example, medicine, distant travel, food or any items produced far away, communication beyond those in ear reach, and on and on...and they take this stance, incredibly, based on the assertion that to have "economics" means, intrinsically, class division, exploitation, etc. Of course the truth is, even if their claim about economics per se were true, no one with a degree of humanity who understood the implications of it would argue for no economics, but would instead opt for retaining economics and ameliorating as much of the pain associated with it as we can, since no economics would be worse than all those ills, by far. But the claim isn't even true. It is not remotely true.
These folks - I don't know about Dickey, I hope not - often, very oddly, pronounce their formulations with a degree of glee, no less, pugnacious about how anyone that dares to try to come up with a way out of the scylla and charybdis of underdevelopment and capitalist (and/or what I call coordinatorist) horror is somehow elitist... no matter that the priority is incorporating self management, solidarity, classlessness, etc. Honestly, it all boggles my mind. What is it in our water, air, or, of course, social structures, that has caused a not insignificant number of caring humans to come to such odd and suicidal conclusions?
Dickey ends his essay: "I'm tired of systems and ideologies. I feel like I'd rather welcome the permanent blackouts of the collapsing capitalist economy, and take my chances with my neighbors as we are forced back to the land. At least then, things will quiet down, and there won't be so much asinine posturing and theorizing, elitism parading as the common good." It would be disingenuous of me to offer anything less than my honest reaction. Yes, things would be quiet, quiet like a coffin.
What causes good people, with good hearts and values, to conclude that thinking long and hard about how to do essential human functions in a self managing way and then working to bring it about is elitist - but in contrast consigning most of humanity to death, disease, and decay based on, a little thought rooted in personal frustration, is liberatory? It is not a rhetorical question. It is how I see this stance. And I really do want to know why some folks arrive at it.