I Still Think It's Nonsense
I Still Think It's Nonsense
This essay replies to Albert: Criticism Without Comprehension
It doesnâ€™t occur to Schweickart to even entertain the possibility that just perhaps we are rational, and he has missed some key insights and relations.[i]
Albert is wrong here. It most certainly did occur to me as I worked on my critique that maybe I was missing somethingâ€”although I couldnâ€™t see what. (As I pointed out, Parecon boasts a luminous set of endorsements.) So I read his lengthy reply with care. But you know what? Iâ€™m more convinced than ever that there is something deeply irrational about his project.
Not the general considerations that motivate the effort. I too want to live in a world without exploitation, where everyone has good, empowering work, where income differentials are reasonable, and where consumers are not manipulated into seeking happiness in things that are not good for them as individuals or for our fragile ecosystem. I too believe that a better world is possible, that there is an alternative, not just to the rapacious brand of corporate capitalism that dominates the earth today, but to capitalism itself. I happen to think that our best bet is Economic Democracy--the structure of which I will mention shortly.
What is irrational, or at least wholly untenable, is the economic model Albert defends as a workable means of obtaining these desirable ends. What is irrational (so it seems to me) is his inability to grasp the force of the criticisms of the model.
I have to say, I admire Albert for posting my article on his website. I had thought of asking him to do so, but I didnâ€™t think he would be willing to post so harsh a critique. There arenâ€™t many intellectuals who would take such a risk.
I also admire the tone of his article. To be sure, he gets testy at times, but my article was nothing if not provocative. For the most part his tone was measured and his presentation of my position accurate. I will try to follow his good example in what follows.
An Alternative Model
Before getting to the particulars of my reply, let me sketch the basic institutions of what I take to be an alternative to capitalism different from Parecon that is both feasible and at the same time vastly superior to capitalism: ecologically sustainable, more efficient than capitalism, more rational in its development, more egalitarian, more democratic, more inclined to promote leisure and meaningful work over mindless consumption. I call it Economic Democracy.
I can't defend here the claim that Economic Democracy has the merits just mentioned. I have done so at length elsewhere, most recently in After Capitalism (2002).[ii] Let me simply note that Economic Democracy is a form of market socialism wherein enterprises are managed democratically by their workforces, and investment is allocated, not by market forces, but by democratically-accountable public banks. In effect Economic Democracy replaces two of the three markets that constitute capitalism with more democratic alternatives. It maintains a competitive market for goods and services, but replaces the labor market with workplace democracy and the capital market with social control of investment.
Needless to say, Albert, a self-proclaimed "market abolitionist," cannot endorse this model, but it is important for the reader to understand that there are alternatives to capitalism other than Parecon. Albert often writes as if criticism of Parecon is tantamount to embracing capitalism. Indeed, he is convinced that markets of any kind "inexorably induce a class division in which about 20% of the population overwhelmingly determine economic outcomes and the other 80% overwhelmingly obeys instructions, . . . compel against everyoneâ€™s will surplus maximization and endless accumulation, and . . . make a travesty of democracy," so there is no point in making fine distinctions. [iii] I think there is.
Parecon: Critique and Reply
Let me rehearse briefly the main points of my critique. Parecon has three fundamental components.
· All job-complexes are to be equally empowering, both within enterprises and across the economy as a whole.
· Remuneration is to be based on effort only, not on oneâ€™s contribution to society, for the latter includes such morally irrelevant factors as talent, training, job assignment, tools and luck.
· All elements of production and consumptionâ€”labor, resources, consumer goodsâ€”are to be allocated by participatory planning, not the market.
In â€œNonsense on Stiltsâ€ I argue that
A. Achieving balanced job complexes in the manner suggested by Albert, namely, breaking existing jobs into tasks, assigning each task a numerical rank, reassembling them so that all jobs equally empowering, then deciding who does what, is not even remotely feasible.
B. Remuneration according to effort wonâ€™t work because those making the decisions have neither the means nor the motivation to make accurate assessments.
C. Participatory planning of an entire economy would be a nightmare, for at least four reasons:
- Consumption requests are public, which greatly compromises individual privacy.
- These requests must be made annually by every citizen, each of whom must look at his past yearâ€™s consumption, forecast changes, then make careful, quantitative adjustments. Doing this even once is a hugely tedious undertaking. Doing it several times, as will be required under Parecon, is mind-boggling.
- Unless requests are made in excruciating detail, producers wonâ€™t know what to produce. In any event, they have little motivation to find out what people really want, so production will not come close to optimizing consumer satisfaction.
- A national vote to choose among several highly aggregated final plans is a meaningless exercise, since few if any individuals would have the time, ability or motivation to make an intelligent choice.
Albert's reply to these criticisms may be summarized briefly as follows.
To A: Sure itâ€™s difficult to balance job complexes, but it should be done anyway. Moreover, he never meant his discussion as to how this might be done to be taken literally.
To B: Work must not only involve effort, but it must also be â€œsocially usefulâ€ to merit remuneration. Moreover, each enterprise has a fixed pool of income to distribute among its workers, so evaluators do indeed have an incentive to be accurate and fair. ("I don't know how Schweickart missed all this," he says (CwoC: 9).
To C: Markets are worse. Regarding my specific charges, Albert says:
1. Schweickart is wrong. The process is anonymous.
2. The procedure need not be tedious. General categories may be used. Itâ€™s much less time-consuming than shopping.
3. Producers have a host of ways of determining what people want. It is scare-mongering to suggest that producers wouldnâ€™t do their best to find out what people want and meet their demands.
4. He doesnâ€™t see the problem.
My Reply to His Reply Re. A
Albert acknowledges that balanced job complexes would be quite difficult to achieve and certainly could not be achieved by â€œsome idiotic mechanical calculationâ€ such as the one set out in detail in his major chapter on the topic, which I took seriously enough to think through concretely. That was only a thought-experiment, he now says, a way of explaining the conceptual possibility of achieving such an end.
In fact I stated explicitly that Albert didn't think this procedure could be implemented with precision. I quoted from his book â€œthat in real circumstances the procedures of job balancing are not precisely as we describe above â€ (P: 106). (Notice, he doesnâ€™t call them â€œidioticâ€ in the book, just â€œnot precisely as described.") But I went on to note that he gives us no clue as to what other, more realistic procedures he might have in mind. To the question, â€œIn practical, real world situations, could workers really rate and combine tasks to define balanced job complexes within and across workplaces?" he merely asserts (with great confidence), â€œProvided we understand that we are talking about a social process that never attains perfection, but that does fulfill workersâ€™ own sense of balance, the answer is surely yesâ€ (P: 110).
In his reply to my critique, he takes a small step toward being more concrete. He says we could begin at Loyola (my university) by offering some training to staff so that they could do more empowering work, and that we could let the custodians, "perhaps with a little training, perhaps not even needing that," do some of the empowering tasks the deans now do. (He doesnâ€™t say what "empowering tasks" these might be.)
Thatâ€™s as good as it gets, in concrete terms.[iv]
Let me be clear. I am in no way suggesting that jobs shouldnâ€™t be redesigned so as to spread around the drudgery and to make everyoneâ€™s work as meaningful as possible. One of the great merits of a democratically-run firm (the basic enterprise form of Economic Democracy) is that it allows for this possibility. If firms become all the more productive from doing so, thatâ€™s great. If workers have to sacrifice some efficiency, and hence some income, but feel it worth it, well and good. Thatâ€™s their choiceâ€”as it should be.
If this is all Albert means, finally, by â€œbalanced job complexes,â€ then we are not in disagreement.
In fact, he means more that that. For he wants to insure that job complexes are also balanced across enterprises. But this would require
a) some reasonably objective, quantifiable standard as to the average "empowerment" or "meaningfulness" of every workplace in the country,
b) some sort of "central committee" with the authority to insist that workers in the more empowered workplaces spend part of their work-year in less empowered places, and
c) some means of insuring the people get transferred in such a way that each enterprise in the country winds up with the right number of people with the requisite skills after all the reshuffling has taken place.
I leave it to the reader to decide if these requirements are feasible or desirable.
My Reply to His Reply Re. B
In replying to my objection as to the unfeasibility of rewarding only effort, Albert adds two crucial elements to his model that are lacking in the original presentation. These go a long way toward blunting my objection that within a firm evaluators have neither the means nor the motivation to evaluate their peers fairly. But these additions are both highly problematic--unless one is willing to have the enterprises operate in a competitive market.
Albert now insists that an individual's effort as well as the output of the enterprise itself must be "socially useful." By this he means that production must be organized efficiently.
My firm has to provide outputs to society commensurate to its labor and technical assets, inputs and time spent, if all its effort is to be judged socially useful. If my firm doesn't do that, the overall remuneration for my firm's employees will go down, because not all its labor was socially useful (CwoC: 8).[v]
He also now insists that each enterprise is given a specific pool of money to pay out in wages, so that the enterprise evaluation committee does indeed have an incentive to be honest and fair, not simply give everyone high evaluations. (Parecon-Wobegon)
Let me focus my response here on the enterprise. Albert states repeatedly in his reply that enterprises received a fixed sum--a "pool of payments that the firm's output warrants" given the assets under its control. He notes that "total remuneration available to our workforce would be reduced [if] some of the labor we did was socially useless, or was carried out at low intensity relative to average" (CwoC: 8).
He wonders how I could have missed all this.
Well, for one thing, the fact that each enterprise is be allotted a fixed pool of money to be allocated among its workers is nowhere mentioned in Parecon. Or at least I've not been able to locate any such mention. I reread Chapter 7 (Remuneration). There he raises the question, "What's to prevent the whole workforce from exaggerating their effort?" He says he'll take that matter up in the next chapter. I reread Chapter 8 (Allocation). No mention of the problem in the section "Measures of Work," or anywhere else in the chapter, so far as I could tell. Maybe this crucial stipulation is given somewhere else. If so, I would be grateful to Michael if he would, in his reply to this, supply me with the relevant quote.
As for labor needing to be "socially useful," he does say that "by effort we mean anything that constitutes a personal sacrifice for the purpose of providing socially useful goods and services" (P: 152), but he says nothing about the labor counting as less socially useful if it is performed inefficiently. Nor does he say anywhere in Parecon that a firm will be penalized if its level of effort is less than average intensity.
I suspect there is a reason for these omissions. If enterprise incomes are to be allocated according to the double criteria, social usefulness (efficiency) and degree of average effort, two troublesome questions emerge.
1) How is the degree of social usefulness and the degree of average effort to be determined? Notice, we are speaking here of a quantitative measurement, not just a loose qualitative judgement. If the workers in Enterprise A and Enterprise B all put in thirty hours per week, but those in Enterprise A receive, say, $40,000 per worker and those in Enterprise B receive $50,000, those in Enterprise A are entitled to know the precise reason for the precise penalty. Was their workplace inefficiently organized by industry standards? Were they slackers by society-wide standards? How was the $10,000-per-worker penalty calculated?
2) Who is going to make this determination? Workers within an enterprise may well capable of monitoring the efforts of their cohorts--particularly if they are allowed to take output into consideration--but they are in no position to assess the efforts of workers elsewhere. Nor are they in any position to say whether or not their efforts have been, collectively, as "socially useful" as those of other firms.
With Albertâ€™s new stipulation, each person's income in Parecon depends, not only on the evaluation one receives from one's peers, but also on the judgement of a national board, located far away, which must pass judgement on the collective efforts of oneâ€™s peers and the degree to which the firm's output was socially useful.
A brief comparison with Economic Democracy on this point is in order. Workers under Economic Democracy, like those under Parecon, have a fixed pool of income to allocate among their peers. Their pool, however, is the net profit their enterprise has made. It is not determined by a central allocation board off in
To be sure, firms under Economic Democracy compete with one another for customers, and hence may be tempted to mislead consumers and avoid the true costs of production--a market drawback--but at the same time they are not subject to the judgments of far-removed authorities as to whether they are working hard enough or with the appropriate degree of efficiency. Which means they will not be tempted to cook their books or use other means to induce their external evaluators to give them high marks for effort and social usefulness.[vi]
My Replies to His Replies Re. C
Let me reply briefly to each of the four issues listed above.
1. Albert says that my concern about lack of consumption privacy is misplaced, since all consumption requests will be anonymous. Again I couldn't find him saying that anywhere.
· He does say that "every consumer participant negotiates through successive rounds of back and forth exchange of their proposals with every other participant" (P: 128).
- He does say that "individuals present their consumption requests to neighborhood councils which collectively approve or disapprove the requests" (P: 130).
- He does say that "while no consumption request justified by an effort rating is denied by a consumption council without a very good reason, . . . neighbors could express an opinion that a request was unwise" (P: 152).
Maybe this could all be done without revealing the identity of the individuals involved, but that seems unlikely. It's certainly not an issue Albert addresses.
2. Albert fails to see any problem with each individual, at the beginning of each year, having to pull up her list of all the things she consumed last year, then adjust it for the coming year. And then revise it several times, as prices change, due to imbalances between proposed supply and requested demand. He thinks this would be much better than "shopping and escaping ads."[vii]I'm not so sure everyone would agree. (What would be done with those people who fail to turn in their lists or fill out the forms sloppily or keep turning in requests that exceed their budgets. Let them starve? Talk to them nicely? Shoot them, when patience runs out?)
He adds that not everyone need submit detailed consumption proposals. For those not wanting to go to all that trouble, they can just focus on a set of categories, not specific items. You need not specify how much chicken or duck you'd like to consume during the coming year, he says. You can just note (pounds of) poultry or just say (a hundred pounds of) "meat."
But it's not clear that this helps much. Albert seems not to have noticed that when one uses general categories, one must still specify a quantity. I can't just say "meat," or "vegetables," or "office supplies." Facilitation boards need to know how much of these items are needed--which means units need be specified. Pounds may work well enough for "meat," but what units are appropriate for vegetables or office supplies or clothing or car repairs or birthday gifts? These lists are going to have to me far more detailed than Albert imagines.
Having last year's list on hand doesnâ€™t help much. I look at the first two items on my list. Last year I consumed 286 pounds of "meat" and ate sixteen avocados. How much meat do I want to consume this year, and how many avocados? I fill in the data, and continue through the thousands of items on the list, "massaging the numbers" so that the total amount I want to spend corresponds to the total amount of income I expect to receive. Of course, if I expect my life--and hence my consumption patterns--to be exactly the same the coming year as it was last year, I can just fill in the same numbers as last year. I may still have to adjust things a bit, at least on the later rounds, since prices will change. But what if my life is not the same? What if I don't want it to be? How do I forecast my future consumption wants? Albert assures us that we can make adjustments along the way--which means calling up those lists again, redoing them, sending them off to facilitation boards, who convey the changes in demand to producers, who must decide if they want to work more (or less) in this area or that so as to accommodate the changes.
3. Here we are at the heart of the matter regarding non-market allocation. Albert doesn't seem to recognize--despite my pressing the point in my critique--that if consumers don't specify in detail what they want, then producers--who must produce specific items, not general categories--will have great difficulty in knowing what to produce. Worse still, they will have little incentive to find out.
Albert tells us that in Parecon "there are no competing companies producing products, only 'product industries' creating diverse styles and qualities of different goods for different purposes, all with the intention that everyone gets what best meets their needs" (P: 217).
He asserts that "statistical studies enable facilitation boards to break down total requests for generic types of goods by the percent of people who will want different types of records, soda or bicycles" (P: 217). In his reply to my critique he says that producers will be "sensible at what they do, and therefore have a host of ways of knowing the proportion of people in various sizes, and favoring various colors" (CwoC: 14). He adds that consumers "can adapt their choices as the year progresses and so too can producers adapt their products."
This is a shockingly inadequate answer to what has long been recognized as two of the most basic problems with comprehensive economic planning:
· Without detailed information from consumers, producers cannot know what people want. The fact the goods are purchased is not, in itself an indication. â€œIf parecon producers offer up skirts or sweaters people donâ€™t like, people wonâ€™t purchase them at distribution centers and styles will be changed,â€ he says (CwoC: 15). But if nothing else is available, consumers will take what they can get. The drab, ill-fitting clothing offered to citizens of the
· Moreover, producers have no motivation to figure out what consumers really want. Enterprises in the
Will nail factories--and all other enterprises--in Parecon be given production quotas from â€œfacilitation boards?â€ If so, why should they not try to satisfy the quotas as conveniently for themselves as possible? Alternatively, enterprises can be told to decide as best they can what and how much to produceâ€”and that their income will depend on how well their products sell. That is to say, Parecon must cease to be a parecon and become a form of market socialism.
Albert's hostility to markets blinds him to the astonishing amount of information that markets collect and synthesize, and the degree to which markets motivate enterprises to respond to consumer demand. People don't have to plan their consumption a year in advance--or even a day in advance. There is no need for facilitation boards to collate these lists, decide which enterprises should be asked to produce which goods, in what quantities and for delivery on what dates. We do not need to rely on the good will of the producers to make an effort to disaggregate the quotas assigned them in such a way as to maximize consumer satisfaction.
In a market economy each purchase is a signal to the producer that the article in question is in demand, where it is in demand, and when it is in demand. Producers are highly motivated not only to satisfy these demands, but to introduce new or improved products that people might come to prefer.
To be sure, the mechanism is not perfect. "False needs" can be created. The true costs of production (especially to the environment) can be understated. But these defects, which can be addressed with suitable regulation, pale in comparison with the defects inherent in trying to regulate an entire economy via the allocational mechanisms proposed in Parecon. (Note--the markets whose virtues I am touting are markets for goods and services, not labor or financial markets. Economic Democracy proposes alternative to these latter, far more pernicious markets.)
4. Finally, there's the matter of that final vote. Recall the procedure. Everyone--each of our 150 million or so households--fills out an annual consumption request and makes a commitment to work the hours necessary to balance that request. Communities and enterprises also submit requests--for infrastructure improvements, for funds to purchase new technology, etc. Since overall supply and demand don't balance at first, these proposals are sent back several times for modification. Then the top facilitation board sends out to all of us five plans. "What would distinguish the five plans is that each would entail slightly different total product, work expended, average consumption and average investment" (P: 138). We are then asked to vote. Which one of the five would we prefer? In his reply to me he sees no problem with "choosing modest differences in some key large scale variables by vote" (CwoC: 23).
I am truly baffled by Albert's inability to grasp the issue, his inability to put himself in the place of an average citizen, presumably conscientious, who wants to make an intelligent choice. How would she decide which of slightly different sets of total product she prefers? ("Total product" refers to the total output of goods and services for the year.) Which amounts of "total work expended" would she prefer? Which levels of "average consumption" and "average investment" seems best to her? Presumably, she can go into the data base with her computer and see what each of the five plans means for her own consumption allocation and work requirements, and whether her enterprise's new investment proposal was funded, and whether her community's requests have been honored. That is to say, she must pour over five different plans, each with (at least) four different categories, all of which "differ slightly" in general, but may differ significantly in their impact on her. Then she must vote. Or, if she is truly public-spirited, she will worry about the differing impacts of the differing plans on other people also, other enterprises than her own, other communities. Back to the computer. More comparisons to make.
Why does Albert want to put people through all this? Because he doesn't want markets to play a role in translating consumer and worker choices into total output, nor does he want the top facilitation board to impose a final plan--as was done under Soviet central planning. He wants the citizens of Parecon to be able to say they chose their own plan, democratically. Let me reaffirm what I said in "Nonsense": such a vote is a meaningless exercise.
Which is not to say that there should be no democratic control over the overall direction of the economy. I think there should be--which is why investment funds are generated via taxation in Economic Democracy and plowed back into the economy via a network of democratically-accountable public banks. The point is, it is not markets in toto that need be replaced by democratic mechanisms, only certain markets--e.g., the financial markets.
In Conclusion: Three Final Points
Let me conclude with three points of a more philosophical nature, the first concerning Albert's conception of human nature, the other two concerning ethical matters.
1. There is a deep contradiction at the heart of Albert's project. On the one hand, Parecon requires a massive amount of effective, conscious coordination (committees, councils, facilitation boards, etc.)â€”yet Albert is deeply hostile to â€œcoordinators.â€
This hostility may derive from Albert's view of human nature. At first sight, Albert seems to be deeply sanguine about human nature. If there is no "coordinator class" twisting everything to their advantage, people will cooperate willingly, develop their talents appropriately and take on major responsibilities without the incentives of status, power or extra income. Yet, on closer investigation, we see that his view of human nature is not so sanguine. For he is convinced that any group of people who come to exercise authority on a non-rotating basis, even when subject to democratic accountability, will inevitably abuse this authority and consolidate themselves into an exploiting class. That's just the way people are, he seems to think. Therefore, we must design our economy so that no one is ever in a position of authority long enough to consolidate his grip on power.
Albert appears not appreciate the skills involved in managing complex enterprises, working effectively in democratic assemblies, making difficult decisions in such a way as to minimize resentment and promote the common good. Like Lenin, Albert assumes that managerial tasks are now so simple that almost anyone, with a little training, can do them.
All citizens become employees and workers of one national "syndicate." All that is required is that they should work equally, should do their regular share of the work and should receive equal pay. The accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to the utmost, till they have become the extraordinarily simple operations of watching, recording, and issuing receipts, within the reach of anybody who can read and write and knows the first four rules of arithmetic.[viii]
That's what Lenin thought before the revolution. Not quite Parecon, but not far removed. Trying to manage an actually existing economy proved to be not so simple.
Economic Democracy does not underestimate the need for talented, conscientious, socially-responsible managers. (Having taught at
Economic Democracy does not underestimate, either, the importance of giving upper management a significant degree of autonomy. If administrative decisions are second-guessed and vetoed at every turn, few people will want to assume responsible positions--and those that do will tend to be far from the most competent. The trick to effective worker-self-management is not to abolish professional "coordinators," but to strike the right balance between administrative autonomy and democratic accountability. Albert thinks human nature stands in the way of avoiding exploitation this way. I disagree.
2. Albert chides me, a philosopher, for not paying enough attention to the ethical underpinnings of Parecon. I did remark on what I take to be the "obsessive egalitarianism" of his project. He doesn't see anything "obsessive" about his egalitarianism. He wonders if I feel good about NBA players making fifty, even a hundred times what I do. He wonders if I would feel good working in a plant where managers exist and make ten or twenty times more than me.
The fact of the matter is, it bothers me not at all that NBA players make so much. These people have talents I can't dream of possessing. Such high incomes may not be good for their character, but--this is the important part--their incomes in no way detract from the quality of my life; indeed watching them in action enriches it.
As for managers, I think good ones are essential to an efficient enterprise. I think their skills and dedication should be honored and rewarded. I don't think that managers of an enterprise need make ten or twenty times what average workers make, but there is little danger of that happening in a worker-run enterprise, where salary differentials have to be approved by the firm's members. If in fact managerial skills are so scarce that workers have to pay such salaries to retain good "coordinators," they should have the right to do so, but there is no reason to think that managerial talent (although real and important) is in such short supply.
I dream of a society without poverty or involuntary unemployment, where opportunities for meaningful work and significant leisure are abundant, and consumption patterns are sustainable. If there are still hierarchies of authority in such a society and material inequalities unrelated to effort, so be it. I think that a political project that focuses on abolishing hierarchies of authority and all inequalities unrelated to effort is deeply misguided. It has lost sight of what is really important. Hierarchies and inequalities need be kept in check by democratic procedures, but they are not, in themselves, the enemy.
3. Let me conclude by considering another ethical matter, one that was included in an earlier, much longer version of "Nonsense on Stilts" than the one posted by Albert. Letâ€™s call it â€œdemocratic alienation.â€
Albert stakes almost everything on the notion of participatory democracy. Parecon, he claims, will avoid both the authoritarian structures of Soviet planning and the coercive laws of market competition. Democracy is the antidote to both these moral poisons. But Albert seems not to understand that democracy does not necessarily promote solidarity. Democracy, even the most participatory, can itself be deeply alienating.
First of all, there's the problem of "democratic distance." There are no hierarchies in Parecon, says Albert; there is no "controlling class" of experts or managers. Instead, Paracon is awash with democratic assemblies: consumer and worker councils at the neighborhood, city, county, state and national levels, where important decisions are to be made. But such nested series of councils imply that a citizen votes for people (neighborhood level) who vote for people (city level) who vote for people (county level) who vote for people (state level) who vote for people (national level) to make binding decisions. Either that, or each citizen votes for her preferred candidates at all of these levels. In either case, the average citizen is far removed from the various loci of power, which are, in fact, hierarchically arranged. The plain truth is, there is no avoiding hierarchies of power in a large, complex society--or the discontent, at least among some, that these hierarchies inevitably breed.
Secondly, there's the "inequality of democracy." All participants in the various assemblies (and in society at large) face each other as equals in Parecon. But as anyone who has participated in a democratic assembly knows, all are not in fact equal. Some are quicker on their feet than others, some have more rhetorical skill, some are better adept at the formal rules of the game, some are more intimidating, some are more stubborn, some are more at home in the dominant culture of the assembly, etc. (I suspect that Albert is well-endowed with these advantages, which perhaps makes him more sanguine about democratic decision-making than is warranted.)
Please notice, these inequalities exist quite apart from the power-inequalities that so corrupt our present political system. Albert is sensitive to the latter inequalities, but he seems blind to the other kinds of inequalities that exist among human beings.
Thirdly, there is the fact that democratic decision-making, even among people of good will, even when the participants are equally endowed with the skills necessary for effective democratic participation, can be (and often is) experienced negatively. Inevitably, people will have different views concerning economic priorities. Debating these differences endlessly, particularly the minor points, can often feel like--and be--a waste of time. Such debates can engender cynicism, apathy, even bitterness. (Allowing a majority or supermajority cut off debate, which Albert does, does not solve the problem. It might even intensify the discontent if those cut off feel themselves to be an aggrieved minority.)
These three points do not constitute an argument for authoritarianism. They do, however, caution against over-reliance on an important yet delicate tool that can be damaged by careless use. The same is true for the market. The same is true for planning. All three of these mechanisms must be handled with care if they are not to lead to consequences quite other than those intended. If we want an economic system to be both economically viable and ethically desirable, we must use all three of these instruments judiciously, employing them in such a way that the strengths of each offset weaknesses of the others. Markets must be utilized to counteract "democratic overload." Planning must supplement markets, to offset their irrationalities. Democratic assemblies must set the rules for markets and hold the authoritarian tendencies of planners in check. An efficient, rational, humane economy must be a three-way dialectic (a "trialectic?) of plan, market and democracy.
[i] Michael Albert, "Critique without Comprehension: Responding to David Schweickart Regarding Parecon," February 24, 2006. This posting replies to my article, â€œNonsense on Stilts: A Critique of Michael Albertâ€™s Parecon,â€ which Albert also posted on the Z-Net website on the same date. Both are currently available on the Parecon website, zmag.org/parecon, under the heading "Schweickart Lambasts/Albert Replies." They have also been posted on the Solidarity Economy website, www.solidarityeconomy.net.
[ii] For a more technical defense, both economically and philosophically, of basically the same model, see my Against Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1993). This latter work also includes a critique of the model that he and Robin Hahnel were advocating at the time, which is now called â€œparecon.â€
[iii] "Critique without Comprehension" p. 21. (Henceforth I'll give the page numbers in the text of this reply, preceded by either "CwoC" for "Critique without Comprehension" or "P" for Parecon.) I have truncated Albertâ€™s long list of market defects, which is repeated like a mantra throughout CwoC, and indeed throughout Parecon and his other writings on the subject. One might suspect he doth protest too much. Vehement repetition should not substitute for careful analysis. â€œMarketâ€ consequences depend on which markets operate and on the network of regulations and mechanisms of redress within which they function.
[iv]Albert is not at a loss for abstract suggestions: "We move toward balance by making changes in a social adjustment, many steps taken over considerable time, first won by movements seeking reforms, but then later enacted by self-managing workers' and consumers' councils" (CwoC: 4). I don't find this sort of handwaving helpful. Nor do I find helpful his extended argument that if we managed to set up an economy of balanced job complexes, it wouldn't be hard to maintain that balance. I'm skeptical of this conclusion, but it's not worth arguing about if no plausible story can be told as to how we might get to our happy state in the first place.
[v] I don't think Albert intends "socially useful" to be a moral category, in the sense that caring for the sick is more "socially useful" than, say, brewing beer. It would blatantly contradictory to insist that effort is the sole criteria for remuneration and at the same time say that the more socially useful forms of effort be rewarded more.
[vi] It is open to Albert to reply that the pool of income available to an enterprise is simply the "value-added" to the final product by its workforce, i.e. the difference between the cost of the inputs and value of the output. But this raises the question: how is the "value" of the output to be determined? There are two possible solutions. If our widget factory makes N widgets, and the Parecon price for a widget is $p, we can simply multiply these numbers. The value of the output is $pN. The firm gets this whether or not everything that is produced is sold. The other is to simply let the enterprise keep the money they receive from the sale of their products. If they can't sell all N of their widgets, the labor expended in producing them is deemed less socially useful, and so their incomes drop. Each of these solutions is problematic. If the first is adopted, then workers have no incentive to be sensitive to consumer preferences or produce quality products, since their income is independent of sales. (More on this in the next section.) Moreover, their output will have to be carefully monitored to insure that they are indeed producing as many widgets as they say they are. If the latter, which is essentially the market solution, firms will have to compete with one another for sales, and hence be tempted to mislead and manipulate consumers--precisely the sort of behavior Albert rails against. Notice too, in either case, enterprises will try to avoid the "true costs" of their production, since these costs, if assessed, will diminish their "value-added."
[vii] Albert doesn't say so explicitly, but apparently there won't be any "shopping" in Parecon. Presumably, one simply goes to the local distribution point once a week or so and picks up the items one requested for delivery on the dates specified in your annual proposal.
[viii] V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution, (New York: International Publishers, 1969), pp. 83-4.