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Michael Albert's Blog
Web Address: http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/malbert Bio:
Michael Albert is a founder and current member of the staff of Z Magazine as well as staff of Z Magazine`s web system: ZCom (www.zmag.org). Albert`s radicalization occurred during the 1960s. His po... (More)
I was asked to do an email interview by a friend from Poland, for publication there, dealing with a rising tide of market ideology among Polish economists. Since it bears on issues of parecon, I thought I might as well convey it here, as well...
1) In Poland a growing number of economists are in favour of free market ideology. They called themselves 'anarchists' or 'libertarian' economists. Would you call them the same? What does the term 'anarchy' in economy mean, in your opinion?
Free market ideology is about providing justification for aggrandizing the rich and powerful, nothing more. It isn't even about free markets, because whenever statist intervention benefits the rich, free marketeers turn out to favor statist intervention. See whether they are against defense spending, or against police intervention in strikes on the side of owners, for that matter. See if they turn down state subsidies to investment, and state purchases of output, and state protection against international competitors, etc. But even ignoring the hypocrisy, markets are in no sense liberatarian or anarchist. They create a war of each against all, not solidarity, They virtually compel atomistic selfishness, not community. They misprice all items which have external and public affects (whether positive or negative). They compel pursuit of profit or, in the market socialist varient, pursuit of surpluses, both at the expanse of social good. They remunerate producers for ownership and power, and to a modest degree for output, but not for effort and sacrifice, which is the only morally warranted or economically wise remunerative norm. And markets exacerbate and even impose class divisions. Markets are, in short, not even good at what they claim -- determining relative valuations and permitting judgements about allocation which they entirely bias and pervert -- and are horrible at what their advocates don't bother talking about.
It seems to me that economic anarchism means seeking to reduce illegitimate hierarchy to a minimum, or zero. Markets do the opposite, imposing on economies class hierarchies, income hierarchies, influence hierchies, etc. I should think anarchism is also intent on economic activity seeking fullfillment of human potentials and needs, whereas markets subordinate that to pursuit of market share and profits or suplus. There is much more to be said, of course, but honestly, this kind of posturing about markets being a boon to humanity is worse than the proverbial king with no clothes -- or then the stalinist commisar claiming to be for democracy and participation.
2) Austrian economists (for example Mises) used to say that it is unnecessary to look at statistical data and measure social and economic phenomenon. They say that only important are 'economic laws'. Statistical data doesn't matter. What do you think about these views? Do you think that 'economic laws', which are always the same, exist?
I don't know what Mises said about this matter. If it was what you claim, and he meant what you imply, then he was an absolutely moron -- so I doubt he said that, or at least, I doubt he believed it. Imagine a physicist or biologist saying we don't have to look at what actually happens in the real cases, we only have to look at what some fellow wrote on a sheet of paper under the label laws. It is utterly absurd. Humans hypothesize that laws exist and then test, and keep testing, to see if their views have merit. There is a sense however in which ignoring evidence captures the actual mechanics of this discipline, economics, which is certainly not very scientific. The picture exagerates the ills of the discipline a bit...but the discipline does do a very effective job of ignoring or downplaying whatever its paymasters don't want to hear about, and of elevating and if need be even manufacturing what they are interested in hearing -- which is mostly glorious stories of inevitable generalized benefits when a little line called supply on a graph crosses another little line, called demand, which benefits and bliss, of course, never come to pass admist the unemployment, the maldistribution, the hunger, the indignity, and so on.
As to economic laws existing, it depends what you mean. If you mean do I think that certain types of economy, or of economic institutions, have intrinsic features which we can discern and understand so as to be able to make statements about them which are virtually always the case for them -- yes, I do think that is possible. So, for example, I made a number of such statements about markets, above, and one could do likewise for corporate divisions of labor, for private ownership of productive assetts, and so on.
3) Austrian economists used to call themselves 'friends of freedom' . Do you think that in hypothetical economic system based on their conceptions (pure free market, without other socio-economic institutions) freedom would exist?
Freedom to pursue private gain as an owner or a wage slave, yes? Freedom from want, from disease, from degradation, from violence, no. Freedom to fulfill one's human capacities, to enjoy solidiarity with with others, to have a say in ones' circumstances and actions, no. I think in history arguably the closest approximation to unimpeded and uncorrected market allocation for economic life was in Dickens' England. Reading his accounts is quite sobering. But, honestly, this claim is so utterly absurd as to defy response. First, an economy is not an allocation system alone. What is the institutional structure of work and production, of neighborhoods, etc. Second, unfettered un restricted markets would lead to not only the unlimited impoverishment of huge swatchs of humanity, not only the unlimited pollution of the environment, not only the virtually unlimited accumulation of centralized power in corporate giants, and so on, but to the devolution of human personality as well. In the U.S. there is a phrase, nice guys finish last. It captures that markets compel you to care naught for others and even to ignore their pains in order to advance yourself, and if you do care for others, then you don't advance. Thus the claim that nice guys finish last. Or, perhaps more provocatively, we might note that in market economies garbage rises meaing not only that pollution abounds, but that people who have become antisocial and cruel, even, tend to do very well.
The real issue isn't should we have markets and not have a political system which amelioriates the ills markets generate, cleaning up the environmental and human messes and protecting people from the most violent and damning outcomes. Only an insance lunatic, or a shameless advocate for the rich and powerful, would sincerely advocate that. The real question is, why should we have a mode of allocation which requires that we constantly intervene to prevent its devolving into utter and complete catastrophe, even as it constantly violates values we hold dear such as equity, diversity, solidarity, democracy, participation, ecological sustainabilty, etc.? Why not, instead, replace markets with a system that actually propels values that we desire, rather than trampling them? I am a market abolitionist. I know markets are going to be with us for some time to come, but I also know -- or hope -- that in time we will replace them entirely.
4) Austrian economists called themselves 'friends of freedom' but in the same time they are in favour of hierarchical structures. Do you think that this is logical?
It depends what you mean by logical? Was it logical that commissars and/or academics in the Soviet style systems called themselves friends of workers and friends of freedom? Not if by logical we mean honest, no. But if by logical we mean consistent with their interests when put forth as a manipulative lie, then sure it is logical. Just like it is logical for Hitler to talk about freeing Europe, or for Stalin to talk about bringing freedom to Poland, or for Bush to talk about bringing freedom to Iraq, or, on a more relevant scale, for the owners of a corporation to talk about their overwhelming concern for humanity as they dump pollution on their neighbors, create manipulative ads to generate socially useless consumption, and drive down wages as best they are able, or in an exact analogy, just as it is logical for cowardly scholars who work at the behest of the rich and powerful in any society to say things that the rich and powerful will keep paying for, and to not say what the rich and powerful will be horrified by.
5) In their methodology austrian economists prefer to talk about individuals without wider economic and social context (they used to talk about Robinson Cruzoe's economy). Another premise is that if somebody is doing something it always means that conditions of living for that person are changing for better (motivation and reasons why this person is doing something doesn't matter). The most important presumption for austrian economists is that 'human act' and economists should just only say how to achive goals with minimal effort and cost which is nothing different than .....praxeology. There are a lot more that kind of conceptions.....What do you think about this? Could these conceptions be applied in real economic processes? Aren't they just trivial?
Again there is too much to say for a brief interview, but let me try one thing. Imagine you are having a discussion with an advocate of slavery in the pre civil war south in the U.S. -- or an argument with a Stalinist in Poland years back, for that matter. The person says the only issue is how to accomplish X with the least expenditure of Y. X is a goal we have. Y are things we value. The problems are legion. Who gets to decide what X we seek? Who gets to decide the relative values of all Y? Value to who? In what context is X sensible to seek and might it not be better, instead of seeking X, to seek a different context in which better outcomes are possible. Same for valuing Y, or not -- perhaps we should prefer an entirely different context in which things values are very different. Profits make sense to seek in some systems, but don't even exist in others. One system may not value the health and comfort of workers at all, another may highly value these. The difference is due to different institutions having different implications for valuations and pursuits. The slave owner is saying all we have to do is ask how do we get as much cotton as possible with as few costs -- to me -- as possible. Why so much cotton? More important, how come the dignity and freedom of the people picking the cotton isn't seen to be a value being squandered? It isn't accounted. The Stalinist, similarly, is seeking gigantic arms production, or luxuries for elites, in his plan, and again doesn't value the well being of the producers, save in a very limited sense dictated by defining social relations.
The point is, the economics discipline takes as given precisely what the serious analyst should be examining and assessing -- the social and economic relations within which projects are pursued and valuations are determined -- and does this for the very understandable reason that his or paymasters as well as his or her own involvements and position, remove from visibility the discomforting truthes of the injustice and hypocrisy of existing relations.
6) A few worlds about political demands. Austrian economists think that the only reason why there is exploitation is existence of states which means necessity of paying taxes. They say that if taxes should at all exist it should be the same amount of money for everyone. Education, army, police, hospitals etc. should of course be in private hands. What consequences of such demands could be?
Market capitalism without regulation? Without state protection of rights and conditions? First, we should note, these intrusions against market operations -- and they are that, it is true -- are won by the poor and weak against the rich and powerful. Remove them and the former suffer even more, almost without limit. While the latter gain even more, if one can imagine that. Just imagine corporations spewing pollution and chemical violence without limit, clearing fields without limit, exploiting the workforce without limit. Imagine pharmaceutical companies with no constraints, no oversight of their processes, advertising, marketting. These marketeer intellects are either utter fools -- which seems unlikely -- or contemptable parrots seeking to say what wealth and power will reward them for. People in Poland should have no trouble remembering that "great intellects" did that for Stalinists, too.
7) You and Robin Hahnel have created economic system which is called 'parecon'. Why do you think that parecon is better possibility to fulfill human needs than austrian economics?
Participatory economics is built around new defining institutions which propel different values than market systems, than private ownership, than corporate divisions of labor, etc. It is impossible to describe a whole different economy, and argue its merits even in a full interview much less in one question. But what parecon achieves is to facilitate each producer and consumer having a say in economic outcomes proportionate to the degree those outcomes affect him or her (self mangement), via social structures which promote mutual solidarity and shared interests, which advance diverse patterns of behavior and outcome, and which attain distributional equity both of circumstances and of income. Parecon is an economy that has no owners monopolizing property and without what I call a coordinator class (what was the ruling class in the old Soviet Union and Poland) monopolizing empowering conditions of work. It is built on new institutional choices including councils, balanced job complexes, self managed decision making, remuneration for duration and intensity and hardship of work, and what is called participatory planning. Those interested in the possibility of a solidarity economy, an equity economy, a diversity economy, a self managed economy, a participatory economy, might wish to take a look at www.parecon.org. There they will find full presentations so they can come to a judgement about this system themselves. But, however they might feel about parecon, there is simply no reason whatsoever to pay the slightest intellectual credence to agents of power and wealth prattling about free markets and their benefits. This is all propaganda and rationalization -- nothing more. It deserves our attention only due to the power it wields, not any veracity, which it totally lacks.