Ideology Over Reality
By Michael Albert at Jun 07, 2008
This is the final piece, at least for now, in the debate about parecon that is largely contained in my immediately prior post.
I have to admit that the experience of interacting with leftists wedded to particular ideologies is, every time, a daunting one, even for a leftist who is also quite strongly attached to a particular set of views, such as myself.
For people trying to change the world, holding some shared concepts, goals, etc., is essential and not per se a problem. But beyond holding shared views, when encountering views contradicting ours perhaps we can agree that our attitude ought to be:
- first, we want to seriously understand those different views on their own terms
- second, we want to see how those different views are contrary to the ones we hold
- third, we want to see if the different views are better in some ways, rather than reflexively rejecting them with a stored up barrage of rhetoric born of entirely different circumstances, and then,
- fourth, if we do find that the different views embody improvements, we should happily adopt them, since the goal is not to be right, but to attain a better world, and better ideas mean more likelihood of doing so. And finally,
- fifth, if we decide the different views are instead flawed, we should try to explain why they are based on evidence and logic, not simply repeating that we believe differently.
Now I suspect that the editors and/or reviewer engaging with me in this exchange think the above has been, in fact, their approach to the different ideas found in the book Parecon...but I would have to say otherwise, that they instead didn't take it even a little seriously, didn't try to understand what was being said, didn't ever even contemplate the possibility that it has valuable insights, and didn't try to actually explain, since they thought it was the case, why its specific views and proposals were flawed.
Readers will have to judge, I guess, remembering that the topic is parecon...as presented in the book, Parecon, and as begun in the original review.
In any case, here is my reply to the last editors comment...
The editors start their final reply in the debate, the last entry in the prior post, with what I guess they think is their knockout blow for parecon: "It is only under capitalism that the social surplus takes the form of a monetary surplus value and, as you admit, this is what will exist in parecon."
My reaction is that they are knocking themselves out, not parecon.
Why is anything true only under capitalism, and no where else, one wonders - is it because that is rule written somewhere? And what is it that I admit, in any case - we have to wonder.
The editors have a set of concepts - value, surplus value, prices, and apparently money, among others. More, they have a set of expected relations among the real world referents of those concepts that they take for granted will exist in every conceivable system other than, perhaps, a very vague one that they favor, identifiable mainly by their favoring it. In my reading of their words, at least, they simply don't seem to be able to see anything other than what they already believe, and they make what at least seems to me to be no discernible effort to do so.
I am sorry that this is harsh, but I should be honest about my take, even at the risk of offending. In short, it is hard for me to understand how someone highly trained in left thought, editors of a Socialist periodical, could read Parecon, or even just this exchange, and then say what they do, other than if they are functioning rather reflexively and routinely and repeatedly imposing on my words meanings that not only aren't there, but are explicitly denied.
It isn't, of course, that I don't think anyone could sensibly dislike the book or disagree with the model, etc. It is that I think the editors are doing these things without more than superficial reference to what is being said in the book or the model, but instead only in accord with doctrine that is already in their heads.
Again, I am sorry for being harsh, but...well, let's see. (By the way, I have no problem continuing this in the pages of their periodical, as well as here on ZCom, if they wish to.)
When the editors say "monetary surplus value," well, okay, what is in their minds? I admit that I am not entirely sure because this is the kind of technical phrase (to be kind) or obscurantist jargon (to be not so kind) that people use, though in this case I think it may be a bit idiosyncratic, each user molding it in accord with their other views, so that communication becomes quite difficult, like talking with Humpty Dumpty, I think it was, in Lewis Carroll's parable, changing meanings as he wishes.
I think, judging from context, that most likely "monetary surplus value" they have in mind a sum of money, or what that is the same thing - claims on social output, also called income - that is going to someone at the expense of someone else - thereby being exploitative.
Why this could only occur under capitalism, or put differently, why any system it occurs in is for that reason usefully called capitalism, isn't explained. If a system has exploitation in this broad sense, but has no private ownership and no markets, for the editors it is capitalist. For me, this is humpty dumpty word play with a vengeance, but it isn't germane to parecon which doesn't have this kind of exploitation, and it arises again below, anyhow...
So what is germane regarding economic surpluses and parecon? A parecon firm produces. I covers its costs (hopefully all of them, costs of production and byproduct costs, etc.). The value of the outputs exceed the value of costs. That surplus is converted, I assume the editors are thinking, into cash (income, claims on consumption) and then goes to someone - and here is the crucial part - at the expense of someone else.
Okay, if that last part were true, that would certainly be bad, I agree with the editors about that. Saying that if it were true it would imply the economy is capitalist I however find ludicrous. It makes the word capitalist and the word exploitative synonymous so that feudalism suddenly is capitalist, so is pharaonic Egypt, so is the "socialist" Soviet Union, etc. Still, if the benefits of production were going to people based on owning the means of production of the workplace, then it would rightfully be called profits, in the Marxist terminology and in the mainstream too, and that would be bad. If the benefits were going to people based on their having more bargaining power and being able to grab it away from others, then that too would be bad, I agree, though it would not be profits in the sense any marxist or other economists use the term. Rather, the second kind of exploitative allocation occurs in many economic systems, but perhaps most important it occurs in what has been called socialism heretofore - both market and centrally planned. And it is still bad, yes.
However, parecon doesn't have either of those bad results. So far from admitting what I think the editors have in mind, I explicitly say it is false, the book's presentation says it is false, and the above replies say it is false, and at least in the longer formulations, it isn't just said but demonstrated. Thus, people get income for how long they work, how hard they work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which they work. They do not, and even cannot, in a parecon, get more than that - not due to property relations, not due to bargaining power - it is even quite hard to do it by theft.
So why do the editors say I agree with them in their portrayal of parecon embodying exploitation? I think they deduce parecon must be exploitative because because parecon tracks relative values (prices) and has income shares as well. I say it is not exploitative because in parecon the income you get is for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which you do useful work, which is equitable remuneration, and has nothing to do with property ownership or bargaining power. They say prices and income based on what you do means exploitation. I say that is utter nonsense... You judge who is right. But, regardless of who is right, you might wonder, how can the editors possibly interpret my words as saying I agree. Well, my guess is that this is how.
I say that pareconist firms produce more value than the sum of all associated costs. I say that in parecon there are prices and income, as well, thus in some sense money, or exchange values, and there is a way to track our rightful claims on social product via budgets based on income. The editors in turn KNOW, however, without even looking and because their concepts tell them so (and of course in my view wrongly), that if firms produce more value than the associated costs, and if there is income in any way correlated to work, and there are relative prices, and there tracking of all that, and budgets, even if all these things are very different than in other systems, then the surplus will inevitably become what they call "monetary surplus" by which they mean to imply, I think, a surplus accruing to some instead of others. This claim, that x implies y, is never remotely explained but is, instead, an axiom or unchallengeable belief. It simply must be true. The editors don't have to think about it, or look closely at parecon, for that matter. They KNOW x implies y for all possible visions that might be offered. So why look closely? All they have to do is look at my words and find that there are prices and income and then that's the end of it, they at most only feel a need to make the claim they know is true that connects those features to exploitation.
First, it is important to see how peculiar what they are saying is. Of course anyone sane wants workplaces to produce items and services and other outcomes that are more socially valued than all that is used up in that production or otherwise incurred as costs, whether material, personal, social, or ecological. So we want all want there to be economic surplus, in that sense. The editors must, too.
The editors now add, however, that if we have surplus,a good thing, but we also have prices and income that is in any way correlated to people's activities, then we will inevitably have exploitation. No need to demonstrate exploitation, to say who gets more and who gets less than they ought to since we simply know exploitation must be there.
Now, if we do take that leap, they argue, then if we want to avoid exploitation we must forego prices, income in the sense of earned rights to a share of the social output, and anything remotely resembling money. When I tell them that this means they have not only jettisoned prices, income, etc., but they have done away with all possibility of sensible allocation because they have no way to decide between options based on valuations, they simply ignore it. When I tell them they have also done away with all possibility of attaining just distribution because, again, there is no way to say to a consumer, or for a consumer to even know that some amount is more (or less) than he or she should have, or to say to a worker, or for a worker to even know, some level of work is more (or less) than you should be doing - the editors think they don't need to answer. They feel it is compelling to just repeat without reference to what parecon actually embodies, their doctrine - surplus plus income plus prices means exploitation. Then, since they in my view quite rightly want an end to any kind of elites accruing disproportionate wealth by property or power or any other means, and since they KNOW (wrongly) that if there is a surplus, which of course there needs to be, and if there is also money, prices, budgets, etc., then there will be exploitation - they deduce there simply must not be money, prices, budgets, etc.
It is important to add that this reasoning is not nonsensical in the abstract. For example, I am following a somewhat similar pattern, I believe quite reasonably, when I say I want classlessness and see where that leads me. That is, I believe, based on a whole set of evidence and logic carefully presented in plain language, that private ownership and also the familiar corporate division of labor in which about 20% of producers monopolize virtually all empowering tasks (as well as markets and central planning) all singly and together inevitably produce class division and class rule. Proceeding on that belief, I then deduce that to have classlessness we must reject these other features - supposing that we can do so and still have a viable and worthy economy, that is. Then I try to carefully show how we can accomplish that, with balanced job complexes, participatory planning, etc.
The editors and I are both claiming that feature x (we are pointing to different features, of course) obstructs outcomes that we want. To get the outcomes, then, we each deduce that we must therefore do away with feature x. X for me is markets, central planning, corporate divisions of labor, top down decision making, private ownership of means of production, and remuneration for property, power, or output. X for the editors is private ownership and, well, money and perhaps even relative prices, and perhaps other things too. We both find some features objectionable, inevitably, and we both say that therefore to have a good economy we must conceive it without those features.
Here is a difference, however. I work very hard to make a compelling case by examining their properties and dynamics that the x that I reject - private ownership of means of production, the monopolization of empowering tasks in few hands, remuneration for property, power, or output, authoritarian decision making, and allocation by markets or central planning, each produce class division and class rule. The book they reviewed does that, for example. And I very carefully present an alternative way of organizing economics that doesn't have those features and then also carefully make a case that that new type of economic arrangement, with new defining features, can get economic functions achieved in ways we desire, rather than avoiding some ills while generating new ones in their place. The editors, I think, in contrast, don't make a connection between pricing and income per se and exploitation or class difference. They simply assert it/ Likewise, they don't offer a serious set of institutions without those features and show their viability - though perhaps somewhere else they do and I am just unaware of it - though I very much doubt it. They debate based on doctrine, not on reason and evidence. They reject a new model without even bothering to examine it, or so it seems to me.
There was a famous exchange that is purported to have occured in a restaurant between an exceptional economist, Joan Robinson, and some table mates whose names I don't know, decades back. One table mate said to Robinson (who was one of the more knowledgeable people in marxist economics in the world) how come you aren't a Marxist. And Robinson replied, well, the difference is that if you ask a Marxist some question about wages and prices, for example, he or she will think for a moment and then say, oh yes, okay, well on page xxx of volume two of Capital it says.... In contrast, Robinson added, if you ask me the same question, even if I would in some case happen to have essentially the same substance for my answer, I would pull out a napkin and work it out, rather than simply quoting as if from a bible. (I admit, I added some words to what I remember of this). It is a very instructive story, I think even if the doctrinal approach isn't always so utterly obvious as when quoting sources in place of offering evidence and logic.
Okay, so if what the editors KNOW to be true - that having prices, budgets, etc., implies exploitation - is in fact not true, or if I claim it isn't true, then what do I think is the case regarding the main issues at hand and parecon?
In a firm in parecon it is quite true, as the editors notice, or one hopes it is true, at any rate, that the firm produces a volume of outputs whose worth to society is greater than all the incurred resource, labor, environmental, and social costs as well. Okay, so let's say the food plant, or bicycle plant, or whatever else, succeeds in that respect. Now what?
Well, that doesn't inexorably mean that some group thereby unjustly accrues the greater income, whether by virtue of owning the factory - or by virtue of having great bargaining power due to their situation in the economy which lets them take more. The ownership is eliminated in parecon. So too are the differentials in economic circumstance that convey different bargaining power. So too, in any case, is even the possibility of remuneration in accord with power.
Yes, the items and services in the economy have prices in a parecon - exchange values - though those prices emerge from self managed cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs, which, oddly, I suspect, is exactly what the editors want, they just don't want it to include, as information, relative valuations. And yes, people have incomes, or said differently, have budgets, which limit how much of the social product they are entitled to. And yes, allocation decisions about what to produce using resources and labor, etc. and about who winds up producing it or getting it, use valuations and are impacted by budgets. Not only does all this happen in a parecon, but more, I claim if it didn't the system would be utterly incapable of functioning intelligently, or even at all, much less functioning equitably and with self management. That ought to be trivially apparent. You can't make sound judgements about producing one item instead of some other, or vice versa, without knowing how much cost and benefit the item and its production involve - relative valuations. In any case, But, that an economy has prices, budgets, etc., which are both essential and desirable if done consistent with other aspirations, does not imply, and I have seen zero words designed to show that it implies, that there is exploitation, much less who benefits, or how much. I should perhaps add that it is incredible to me, I admit, that someone would be discussing parecon, focusing on exploitation, and never once discuss parecon's norm of remuneration...but, given that the argument is from doctrine, not based on the actual model, I suppose it is predictable.
There is another side to the coin, however, and to the editors' objection as well. Let's say, instead of the situation of surplus discussed above, that the bicycle or food workplace produces output that is less valuable than the costs associated with production. The editors seem to think that paying attention to this is tantamount to operating according to profit and not peoples needs and desires. In fact, the actual situation is the opposite.
Consider the firm that has no surplus of benefits over costs. What do we do about it? Well, if society is rational, and if it is operating in accord with needs and not profits, it will be desirable for there to be changes so the workplace does a better job of creating the outputs without incurring so many costs. Or, if that doesn't occur and people don't want the bicycles or food coming out of these particular workplaces more than they want well being for the workers there, or sustainability for the neighborhoods, or other products (including food or bicycles made differently in other firms with less costs) the firm should no longer produce. It is not serving needs but instead diminishing fulfillment relative to better choices.
And here is an irony - but one the editors should, and would, I think, immediately understand if they were using a napkin to work things out instead of using doctrine to claim things. What occurs in capitalism, in this case of not producing more value in outputs than the costs incurred? Well, sometimes the firm will shut down - as it ought to if it can't be refitted - but other times it won't. For example, if the firm is generating big profits for owners because lots of the costs are going unpaid by the owners but instead hitting others than the owners - being paid through taxpayer funds, say, or just going unaddressed as in ecological impacts, so, think, for example, of idiotic products that destroy the environment but don't include those costs in the prices - or of weapons manufacture - then the production will continue. Ironically, in other words, the situation is opposite, in this case, on all counts, to what the editors' doctrine proposes. Paying attention to full social costs and benefits and closing down operations that don't generate surpluses is the thing to do to abide need of all concerned, if done in a pareconish way, while keeping such a firm open (in some cases) is the thing to do and that will be done, to abide the will of capitalist owners.
The editors write to me in their reply: "The institutional changes you advocate (no legal individual ownership of means of production, self-management, etc.) are inadequate reasons for claiming that capitalism has been overthrown."
How to begin. Well, if what they present was the actual list of changes that I advocated, the editors would be part right. In that (fictitious) case, what I was proposing could then be, for example, market socialism or centrally planned socialism - both of which are still exploitative and class divided, though calling them capitalist is ridiculously misleading. But in fact what they offer isn't the list of changes I advocate, and I think most interestingly, the editors feel no need, it seems, to acknowledge or probably even to notice that it isn't the list of changes I advocate.
Instead, the list I advocate, put negatively or simply in ethical terms, as they did (not least, I think, because they have no positive institutional proposals) includes no private ownership of productive assets (not just some formal law but none), no markets, no central planning, no remuneration for property, power, or output, no top down decision making, and no corporate division of labor (that allots empowering tasks overwhelmingly to about 20% of the workforce who I call the coordinator class and who easily dominate the economy and exploit, and allots rote and repetitive and otherwise disempowering tasks overwhelmingly to 80% of the workforce, who I call the working class, and who are for want of information, credentials, access, and skills and knowledge, dominated and exploited. In ethical terms the list is self management, equitable remuneration, diversity, solidarity, and efficiency in meeting needs and developing potentials of both workers and consumers. And finally, the list, put positively in institutional terms, since parecon isn't just a list of things rejected or ethical aims, but is an actual vision - includes, workers and consumers self managing councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.
Now, to say, as the editors do, that an economy which has replaced the way work is organized with a classless approach, the way decisions are made with a self managing approach, the way consumption occurs with an unalienated approach, the way allocation is accomplished with a cooperative, negotiated approach, and the way people earn and utilize income with an equitable approach is, nonetheless, still capitalist, because it has something they call monetarized surplus, is quite something, but, I think, actually explicable, in an odd way that we will see in a second.
The editors say, "We agree that the former Soviet Union did have a ruling class, but not that there were no markets there. Even the regime's ideologists admitted that there was `commodity-production,' i.e. production for sale, and that buying and selling relationships existed between state enterprises. While there was no individual legal ownership of the main means of production (though there was of some things: dachas, works of art, state bonds, bank accounts), these means of production were not owned by society as a whole but effectively by a class which monopolised them, via the state, and which lived a privileged life from the surplus value extracted from the wage-labour of the workers. That is why we think the best description of that and similar societies was state capitalist."
The Soviet allocation system was central planning. Markets did not set prices and existed far far less, for example, than planning exists in the U.S., which I bet the authors would call a market economy, quite reasonably. But we could have been talking about Yugoslavia, and then, indeed, there would have been markets, which is why it was called market socialism. Intoning the phrase "commodity production" brings us back to the humpty dumpty dynamic. What does it mean?
Do the editors have in mind that things produced are consumed? Well then there would always be that feature and there would be nothing bad about it. Do they have in mind that the consumption occurs limited by budgets? Again, that will always be true and there is nothing wrong with that. What it means technically, and this may be what they intend to connote in using it, is that the production occurs driven by profit motives with the profit accruing to owners, who have overwhelming power, etc. But all this was absent in the Soviet and Yugoslav cases.
People own dachas? Yes. And they owned the shirts they wore too. So? Saying there should be no private onwership of productive assets doesn't imply there is no ownership of anything. This was not the key problem with the Soviet or Yugoslav economies. If bank accounts conveyed interest based on profits earned by firms, that would be a real thing to point to, but swamped by everything else. However, yes, there was a ruling class - but it was an economic phenomenon - footed in, and here is the key economic problem with these economies, the existence of a class monopolizing empowering tasks and thus dominating workers below. (Was there a statist political aspect? Yes, but even if there had been a multi party democracy, the economy would sitll have been class ruled not classless.) Did the ruling class live much better than working people due to taking an exploitative share of the social product. Yes, that is quite true. But that was also true under feudalism, should we call that capitalism, too? Perhaps royal capitalism? Humpty can choose to use the words whatever way he wishes, but then if we actually want to communicate usefully, we just need more words.
Here is the crux. The editors want to reject the Soviet system (I hope for good reasons rather than only because Trotsky did, in the end.) Okay. They do not want to say, however, that there can be anything other than capitalism and socialism, after feudalism. There are two reasons for this. Adherence to doctrine - marxist and leninist - and because once you admit this possibility you have admitted that eliminating capitalist economics means more than eliminating private productive property and profits - entailing, also, getting rid of the economic source (not just authoritarian politics) of the power and wealth of the ruling class in the Soviet system, which opens the door to the absolutely verboten possibility - that even the most aggressively anticapitalist leninism is not a framework seeking classlessness but is, instead, a framework seeking rule by the coordinator class.
The editors say "Your attitude towards the former Soviet Union is revealing in that it shows that you had nothing against the continued existence there of the key features of capitalism that are production for sale, money, wages, profits, etc but only to the fact that the economic system involving these was controlled by a privileged ruling class and not democratically by the workers."
This is rather amazing - again, not only because parecon eliminates profit seeking and profits per se, but because Parecon also has no production for sale - meaning for profits - at all. But it does have production for use, and the users do have budgets and therefore buy what they choose. And it does have numeric prices and budgets, which is what they are calling money, and it does have income, which they are calling wages to make it sound like it is something dolled out miserly by bosses. But the pejorative connotations are all merely assumed, asserted, and imposed on the words I have offered, because doctrine says it must be.
And then incredibly the editors say - "Parecon is thus revealed to be the idea of the economic system that existed in Russia `self-managed' by the workers. A sort of `self-managed capitalism' that could only exist on paper."
What is going on is simple. There is the system the editors want - true socialism, I guess they would call it - with whatever features they have in mind, but I think, probably, nothing coherent, nothing specified sufficiently to assess. Then, other than that system the editors like, there must only be, well, capitalism, though in lots of forms. There is a sense in which "capitalism" is the editors synonym for "we don't want it."
So, the U.S. is capitalist, Russia was, and now parecon is too, and apparently is more like Russia, no less, despite dumping central planning, all private ownership, etc. etc. And all this is so, note, just by decree, by definition, by the authority of humpty dumpty, in my view, and I guess Trotsky, or whoever, in the editors' view.
You think I am being harsh? Look through the whole exchange and see if you can find anyplace where the editors are doing anything other than repeating their beliefs, as gospel - remember they are reviewing parecon, not presenting their claims. See if they explain what it is about balanced job complexes, or pareconish remuneration, or participatory planning, or self managed decision making, that is insufficient or bad. In fact, see if they even say what these things are, what they entail, anything about them there defining features of the system they are rejecting. See if they explain how it is, which is to say by what dynamic, in what form, and benefitting whom, profits or if they prefer monetarized surpluses accrue, or any kind of economic injustice in power or income occurs, for that matter. None of that appears, because there is no need, in the editors view, to address parecon as it is described and conceived. Rather one only needs to say, it isn't what we favor, so it must be capitalism, and now we will dig around and find a few words we can mishandle and then use to evidence the point.
It may sound differently to others, but I think it is honest and perhaps useful for me to admit this is the way their formulations sound to me. Plus, honestly, they also sound incredibly ignorant, for people claiming to be experts on capitalism and on its rejection, of even the most simple economic insights. This is quite sad I think, not a matter of blame, but of depression over the state of the left, or this left's, comprehension of economics.
If you can't work with a napkin to derive and justify your thoughts, without taking a doctrine as given, and if the doctrine is way outdated and flawed, you find yourself in a whole lot of difficulty.
The editors end, "Socialism will break free from the financial bureaucracy of capitalist calculation. It will treat people as ends in themselves. It will produce directly for human needs. It will break the link between individual effort and individual consumption. That's what all those who consider themselves to be anti-capitalist should be aiming at."
Actually, with the exception of breaking the link between individual effort and individual consumption, which, for able bodied people would be a disaster for rationally trying to meet anyone's needs equitably, as well as for discerning desirable directions for economic development, the above list is precisely what parecon attains, though only a small part of what it attains. I hope at some point folks with views like the editors, and the editors, and advocates of parecon, can have a discussion that arises from a napkin mentality, not a volume two doctrinal mentality.