Parecon and Spain
Michael, about twenty years ago, you and Robin Hahnel developed participatory economics, or Parecon, as an alternative to capitalism and centrally planned economies. Could you describe, in a nutshell, your proposal?
Parecon is, as you note, a vision for an economy to replace capitalism, and also what has been called twentieth century socialism. The idea behind parecon is to determine the minimum set of institutions an economy must have to be classless and self managed by its workers and consumers in their own interests, as they decide, without structural biases and without some small group dominating. Beyond that minimum, of course much will vary in participatory economies from country to country, industry to industry, and neighborhood to neighborhood.
The vision includes workers and consumers self managing councils, a familiar historical option, that in our case, however, clarifies that self managing means people influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by them. Sometimes this means majority rules, other times consensus, and other times other modes of translating preferences into decisions. The voting options are tactical choices one makes, case to case and situation to situation, to implement the actual principled goal of self management.
The second parecon commitment is to what we call balanced job complexes. To understand this feature, note that nowadays, workers typically come in two broad types. The first type, who parecon advocates call the coordinator class, does overwhelmingly empowering tasks. Think of lawyers, doctors, engineers, and financial officers. The tasks they do convey to them information, habits of decision making, agenda setting responsibilities, communication skills, social confidence, etc. The second type worker, who we call the working class, does overwhelmingly disempowering tasks. Think of assemblers, short order cooks, and generally folks doing repetitive tasks that are exhausting and cause the person to wind up with less confidence, less information, and less social skills, than otherwise. The coordinator class, due to the division of labor giving thm only empowering tasks to do dominates the rest of the workforce. It is a group between labor and capital that becomes the ruling class in old style socialism. It aggrandizes to itself a very large share of social wealth and power, particularly in the absence of owners.
So the problem is that even if we have workers and consumers councils and even if we are sincerely committed to self management, if we keep the old division of labor where about 20% of those working do all the empowering tasks, then that 20% will set the agendas and do all the presenting and debating and preparing. Their views will dominate. Their aims will be met - and they will come to see themselves as superior, more deserving, and more valuable. They will see workers who carry out their instructions as less capable, as needing direction, as needing "help." In time the coordinators will rule, typically with arrogant callousness, from above.
So balanced job complexes, parecon's second institutional commitment, aims to overcome this old division of labor. With balanced job complexes we apportion tasks into jobs so that every job has a mix of tasks such that a person doing that job has a comparably empowering overall situation as everyone else. By the roles and responsibilities we have in the economy, we are each prepared to participate fully in self management. A few are not emboldened and prepared. Many others are not made passive and unprepared. We are all instead comparably empowered.
The third component of parecon has to do with income distribution. How much income do we get for our labors? There is a social product - which you can think of as just the entire output. What piece of that do I get? What piece do you get? And, more generally, what is the norm that determines how much of a share each gets?
Parecon looks at various options and rejects most, winding up with one. Parecon rejects that people should get vast income as profits due to owning property. It rejects that people should get whatever they can take - which is income based on bargaining power. It rejects even that people should get back an equivalent of what they by their own labors produce. It doesn't think, for example, that having better tools, or being born with some great talent, or happening to produce something of greater worth, warrants great reward even though it does mean one will produce more valuable total output. Parecon instead says people should get income, unless they can't work in which case they get a full share anyhow, only for how long they work, how hard they work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which they work, as long as they are doing socially valued labor. It argues that such a norm is both economically and morally sound.
Finally, it also turns out that if you combine workers and consumers self managing councils, balanced job complexes, and what we call equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, with either markets or central planning for arriving at inputs and outputs - your aims in opting for the first three structures will be subverted by the implications of your fourth choice, and even against your intentions, all the old crap, so to speak, will come back.
Just like the old division of labor had the power to reimpose class rule and attendant injustices even on top of self managed councils and a serious commitment to self management, so too markets and central planning, even if one uses them with the best intents, will bring back class rule and injustices even on top of self managed councils and balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration. It turns out, in other words, that parecon has to replace these familiar allocation structures, too, by opting for a decentralized horizontal cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs by the workers and consumers councils - an allocation system which pareconists call participatory planning.
Of course these four institutional commitments require more texture to be clear, and then also considerable clarification of why the combination of these structures is both worthy and also viable. But, with those caveats, that is a quick summary.
You are coming to Spain on October the 13th and will spend a week giving talks and explaining all those features in more detail. However, can we address one of them to get a better idea of what Parecon is. Let's take 'balanced job complexes'. Could you tell us what that is?
If you are working in capitalism, or in a so-called socialist economy of the sort we have seen in the past, for about one fifth of the workforce, what you do gives you information, confidence, access to levers of daily control, etc. For about four fifths of the workforce, however, what you do requires you mainly to endure boredom and to take orders. You are distant from decisions. Your confidence is daily diminished as you do the same mindless tasks over and over. Your work lacks information, exhausts you, etc. The one fifth with empowered work who I call the coordinator class, will dominate the four fifths, who are the working class. The one fifth will set agendas, make decisions, and take a lion's share of the social product. In capitalism, capitalists exist above even the one fifth. But in twentieth century socialism, which I think should be called coordinatorism, the one fifth coordinator class is on top. This gives very explicit meaning to the phrase, out with the old boss - the owners - in with the new boss - the managers and engineers and other empowered workers.
The coordinator class doesn't rule due to being intellectually or morally superior but simply due to having a monopoly on empowering work. They have an appearance of being more creative, more initiating, more confident, etc. - because they occupy all the economic slots that do that type activity - but the appearance is not the reality.
Think of women decades back. They were totally subordinate, did virtually no conceptual labor, did not initiate, did not make decisions, etc. They looked "less capable" than men, and men said they were inferior and even believed it - but the truth was, instead, that women’s subordination was social, not biological. Women were down, yes, but not intrinsically down. They were down instead due to social conditions which could be changed - and to a degree which have been changed. The name for believing that women belonged in a subordinate position because of innate female inadequacies was and remains sexism. The name for the belief that those in the working class can't be initiating. creative, effective, and confident participants in empowered labor is classism - and it is no less vile.
Okay, so balanced job complexes simply recognizes the truth of people's actual capacities and the injustice of circumstances that deny most people the space to develop those capacities. Parecon says, we can and should all do a mix of empowering and disempowering tasks, so we can all be fully participating actors in the economy and in society. This doesn't mean we can or should each do anything and everything. That is utter nonsense. There are tons of things each of us cannot do, perhaps at all, and certainly can’t do well enough to be worthy, and there are even more things we can’t possibly due because the days, weeks, and months are not long enough. But that said, the really important observation is that only people who are seriously disabled cannot do any empowering work at all, which is only a small fraction of the 80% who currently are prevented from doing any empowering work.
On a trip to Argentina, visiting an occupied glass factory, I interviewed a woman who had been a worker in front of a blast furnace each day, all day, for years and years. She was brought up working class, held a working class job, and had been and was daily beaten down by her situation, becoming simply subservient, and seemingly - at least by appearances to those above, and probably even to herself, at times - capable of nothing more. After the occupation of the factory, however, she took over the finances and in a few months she was doing them very successfully. And so I asked her what was the hardest thing to learn in that transition. Was it using computers? No. Using the spreadsheets and software? No. Using the accounting concepts? No. Then what? She was embarrassed but she finally replied - first I had to learn to read.” Think about that. Consider the wasted, dormant, capacity all those years she had not done any empowered tasks. People's capacities are multiple and rich. Indeed, that is why society has to work so hard to beat down and rob the initiative from most of the population, teaching most of us, by its regimented schools, depraved media, and especially shortage of spaces for anything else - that we must endure boredom and take orders, or starve.
However, in that glass factory, and this woman was a wonderful person, and she was working class, and the factory had instituted self managing councils, and the factory had instituted equitable remuneration - the old crap, the workers told me, was coming back. And I heard this about factory after factory, often tearfully. And the problem was basically that this woman, however caring, was, nonetheless, the chief financial officer. That is, they were recreating, however well motivated they were, the old division of labor and the old associated daily hierarchies of decision making, confidence, initiative, and knowledge - only with new people. And that dynamic was subverting the rest of their efforts and thus also their desires.
So balanced job complexes says, instead of retaining the old divisions of labor and having a previously rote worker become the new financial officer, we should have all the workers add to their jobs various empowering tasks - and likewise release some disempowering tasks - and we should have the old coordinators take up those disempowering tasks, and release from their old jobs some that are empowering.
Nowadays we have a surgeon, say, and we have people who clean bed pans. In a parecon, we will still have surgery, and we will still have cleaning bed pans - but the same person likely does some of each rather than all one or all the other. And this isn't just surgeons being nice. Rather, we no longer have what we currently mean when we talk about surgeons, cleaners, people in the mail room, people attending the stoves, people sweltering at the glass furnace, or doing the finances, or bossing or being bossed. We instead have people all of whom have a balanced mix of tasks and responsibilities so that everyone does, on balance, a comparably empowering mix of work they are suited for and prepared for so that everyone is comparably prepared to participate in decision making.
Now, one cannot have a balanced job complex in a corporation. Such jobs don’t exist. In the future, one cannot have a pure coordinator class job or a purely disempowering job. Such jobs just won’t exist. Instead of our current corporate division of labor inexorably producing class division and class rule and thereby subverting equity and self management - the new way of organizing work into balanced job complexes will literally produce classlessness, equity, and self management.
Critics have said that parecon’s new remuneration system, combined with balanced job complexes, would kill the incentives that drive talented people to produce the things that we want and need. How do you address that argument?
An incentive means you are provided with a gain to if you do something, thus motivating you to do it. Okay, suppose I pay you income for the value of your output. Do you then have motivation to be born with a better voice, or with better reflexes, or with greater calculating talent? No, that is nonsense, clearly. There is no incentive effect on our underlying genetic endowment. The part of our labor that we can affect, by our choices, is how long we work, how hard we work, and, if need be, our putting up with bad conditions. And these are the things that parecon’s equitable remuneration gives us an incentive for, as it ought to, even as it also retains fairness and justice in remuneration.
The critic’s counter argument says, if you pay for duration, intensity, and onerousness alone - then a surgeon will earn less than a short order cook who works longer, harder, and under worse conditions - and thus no one will want to go through medical school and internship to be a surgeon. We will have equity, yes, but we will all die for want of medical care. Also, if you have people who are capable of being surgeons but instead spend a lot of time cleaning up, you are wasting their training and underutilizing their capacities. That is horribly inefficient.
The answers are actually quite simple. First, it is false that to induce someone to do surgery, you have to pay them 20 times what you pay a short order cook. That is an outrageous lie repeated so many times that people come to parrot it, without thinking about its meaning. Surgeons, doctors, and other members of the coordinator class, earn high incomes due to having great bargaining power, largely from keeping down the number of surgeons and other coordinator class members. To see that paying them excessively is not necessary consider what happens if you take any student and you say, okay, a surgeon now earns $600,000 a year, a short order cook earns $30,000 a year. Imagine you were are planning to become a surgeon. I am going to start lowering the final salary you will earn. I want you to tell me when you will avoid college and instead head over to MacDonalds to work at the grill, avoid medical school and instead swelter at MacDonalds, avoid internship becoming ever more adept at flipping those burgers, all so that you can then spend another thirty years piling up your burger tally instead of being a surgeon at too low a wage. Then you start dropping the salary and asking this student at each new level, okay, are you ready to forego college and medical school? $500,000, $400,000? Try it. Typically you will get to $30,000, and the student will waver, but then ask, wait, how little can I possibly live on? And no one is the slightest surprised, yet ten minutes earlier everyone parroted the mantra that no one would be a surgeon for lower wages.
What the experiment reveals is a larger material incentive, all other things equal, is required to get someone to be a short order cook, not to get someone to be a surgeon. And this is pretty obvious, once you think on it, and certainly if you do the experiment. What current society does is preclude most people from access to any kind of empowering work, they cannot bid down the wage. So it turns out that with equitable remuneration we not only get equity - we also get a sound incentive system.
But what about the second concern? If we train someone to do surgery, and then we have that person spend some time cleaning bedpans, it is certainly true that during the time they are cleaning the bedpans they are not as productive as they might be if they were doing surgery. And likewise, if we train 20% of the population to do empowering tasks, and we then have all those folks spend some time doing disempowering tasks, then during the latter time they are very likely not as productive. So, yes, we are losing some output from those who might have done only empowering work, by their doing a fair share of disempowering work. Indeed, suppose we switch to parecon and all current doctors spend half their time not doctoring. Then compared to now, in a hypothetical overnight transition to parecon, we would lose half our doctoring. That would be a calamity - or so it seems. However, what if we took it just a tiny bit further.
We might ask, for example, what are we losing now by un-educating 80% of the workforce to be passive and to endure boredom and take orders? What do we lose by smashing the creativity and initiative they innately possess?
In switching to parecon, we lose, hypothetically, half of our doctoring by the folks who would have been full time doctors in the old system. Correct. However, we then get all that back, and quite a lot more, in new doctoring that is done by people who would have been only rote workers, but who are now, in parecon, instead doctors as well as doing some rote work in their balanced job complex. We gain much more, as well, classlessness, self management, equity, etc.
But, the critic says, people who are now just doing rote labor don’t have the capacity to provide the needed quality labor... which is, of course, just the classist error, or rationalization, analogous to and equally wrong as the sexist error or rationalization was for women not being able to doctor a few decades ago.
Parecon doesn’t seek to be the most productive possible system - it seeks to deliver self management and solidarity and equity - classlessness - and to produce items to meet real needs and to develop real potentials. Yet, even so, it turns out that it actually has far better economic incentives and far better utilization of human talents and capacities than current economies.
The kind of economic system where we live right now is very far from what you describe. So, why should people bother with participatory economics? Aren't we busy enough trying to restore some sort of social democracy that would provide relief for so many before we can talk of Parecon? What does participatory economics have to offer in the short term?
It is true that we are highly unlikely to literally win parecon tomorrow. But we can move toward a classless economy rather than moving toward a result we won’t like - as progressive people often have in the past. And we can understand our current plight better, having parecon in mind as a goal, as well. There are many parts to even a quick answer to why we should be concerned about having shared vision.
Why should people who are trying to alleviate the worst ills of any past unjust system - slavery, apartheid, patriarchy - and similarly capitalism - also have on their agenda a whole new system in which those ills no longer plague us at all, and therefore no longer need to be alleviated because they are gone?
First, because that is the goal we ought to be seeking. While alleviating the pains of slavery, or apartheid, or patriarchy, or capitalism short of replacing these with better systems is understandable and warranted as an immediate aim - surely the longer term goal is new systems. And second, when we do try to win better results in the present, short of winning a new system, we ought to do it in ways that lead forward, not ways that lead in circles or backward, and this entails knowing our longer term goals so that we can raise consciousness about them, raise desires for them, and even win gains that point toward them.
But the even larger reason, at least in my experience, is for morale, for hope. A huge obstacle in the way of people participating in any kind of sustained effort at change is doubt about the efficacy of doing so. People feel there is no better alternative than what we now endure, so fighting for one is a fool’s errand. Little gains will eventually just disappear, so why try to win them? Vision is needed, then, not only for the understanding and guidance it can provide, but as a country to a defeatist and suicidal view that nothing better is possible.
What would you say to those in the activist community that work hard to fight racism, sexism, poverty, war, etc.? Why should they have an interest in Parecon? Many in Spain would say that the real problem is politicians, others will say it is the environment...
People who fight racism, sexism, war, etc., ought to keep right on doing so, of course. But won’t it be better to fight such injustices in a way that heads toward an intercommunalist culture that transcends racism and all kinds of community oppression, a feminist kinship sphere of life that transcends sexism and all kinds of gender and kinship oppression, a classless economy that transcends poverty and all types of economic and class oppression, a participatory polity that transcends authoritarianism and bureaucracy, and an internationalist world that transcends war and imperialism? People should have vision bearing on all sides of life that can inform their choices and inspire their efforts, including parecon for the economy.
There is another issue lurking in this question, which I mentioned above but will now elaborate a bit more. Where I come from, the U.S., and my guess is this is true in Spain too, and pretty much everywhere, for that matter, the strongest force maintaining unjust relations is popular skepticism that anything seriously better is possible. People know at some deep level that everything is broken. The world’s social relations breed gargantuan injustice. We know it. Millions starve. We know it. Billions are denied dignity. We know it. However, what if gross injustice, inequity, subordination, indignity, and even poverty and starvation, are the best there is, as most people believe? In that case, to fight against injustice is a fool’s errand. It is like blowing in the wind, or fighting against aging. Only a fool would do it. Most people look at leftists and think, what a sorry lot they are - fighting for the impossible.
So another reason for vision is to undo doubt and in its place to provide informed hope. It is to guide practice so practice is rationally promising of a truly better world to come. In the U.S. at least, and I suspect here too, when advocates of change repeat endlessly how bad things are, how unjust society is, how oppressive corporations and states are, how hypocritical, it doesn’t cause people to become active. Rather, it feeds inactivity because it ratifies hopelessness. Thus, what we need instead is to generate informed hope, desire, and concentrated effort, and this requires vision to undo the fear that nothing better is possible and to orient our actions. Even just winning short term aims requires vision to motivate people, most often.
Regarding your last point, the environment is certainly a problem - but not because nature is our enemy or the laws of physics are our enemy. The environment is a problem because our capitalist economy, and indeed any market system, routinely violates sustainability and even ecological sanity in pursuit of profits for a few. This isn’t just rhetoric. We can see it all around us. In my country, one of the two mainstream parties is now full of people who, rather than admit that profit seeking is ecologically catastrophic are quite happy to make believe the climate is just fine, even as their State’s are burning up, sinking, or blowing away. Lunacy is undeniably having a field day. But the problem isn’t, ultimately, lunatics. The problem is a system that compels behavior that hurts humans and even all humanity, and then rationalizes it with lunacy.
Many people feel intimidated by economics. However, you have a background as a physicist at the MIT. What can you say to those who do not feel confident talking about economics? What type of audiences are you trying to reach out for?
There are some subfields within economics that are absurdly complex and difficult. All kinds of diverse nonsense bearing on weird forms of financial investment, for example, are so arcane I am not sure anyone knows what is going on. However, what really matters for the long run, and especially for understanding what a good economy would require, is quite simple and is even easier, actually, for normal people to master than for economists to even barely understand. The economists are trained in all kinds of fancy mathematics which has almost no bearing on reality and, which, indeed, actually obscures reality. The more the trained economists learn, the further from true understanding they typically wind up. They frequently don’t even know what a corporation is. They would mostly be incapable of understanding what I offered earlier, about incentives and about the division of labor, and if we had talked about participatory planning, it would be even more true for that. They wouldn’t get it. But normal working folks have no trouble understanding these things, and they are who I hope to communicate with - once they become open to hearing about such possibilities and they get over just how foreign the new views may initially sound.
The real economics that we all need to know - what is the role of fundamental institutions now and in the future on what people can make of their lives - is relatively easily understood and it is the heart of the matter.
The truth is, the mental energy required to become adept at discussing with one’s friends football, highly intellgently, as most Spaniards can, is greater than the mental energy needed to understand the kinds of issues we are talking about, and to even become a coach.
Why do you have an interest in Spain? How much of what has happened here since May is known to Americans?
I have an interest in Spain, in particular, because your population has responded to current economic and social trends more vocally and effectively than many other populations. There is, therefore, much to learn from what is being done in Spain. However, very understandably, very few people in the U.S. have much idea what is going on here, especially regarding the most effective and important trends in your popular assemblies. This is no surprise. Our media exists to insulate the American public from information that might cause it to be critical of American elites and they do that work rather effectively, sad to say.
The same is true here, by the way. Indeed, as just one example, I think Spanish media is among the most effective in the world at obscuring important trends and events in Latin America. It is basically the same logic at work. The Spanish public has ties to Latin America, linguistic and otherwise. So if true reports get through, there may be wide empathy with the resistance developing across Latin America. Lessons may be learned and connections made. To avoid that result, horrible for their owners, Spanish media spends inordinate time distorting the images that reach the Spanish public, even the Spanish dissident public, from Latin America.
The Left does not seem to be doing such a good job at organizing people, whether it is here in Europe or in the US. In your experience, how do you explain this and what do you think works?
I think, luckily, there are many reasons. First, if we were doing everything right, and not having a lot of success, that would be bad news indeed. What could we change to do better? But if we are doing lots of things wrong, well then there are things we can change to do better. And that is good.
The first and perhaps biggest problem we have is our inability to convincingly and compellingly explain what we want to achieve, what new society we seek, and how, very broadly, we seek to win it - so that people can see how what they do will contribute, positively, to the effort.
A related problem is we are too fragmented. We have a huge number of endeavors, movements, projects, etc., but they operate separately from one another. Each is to week, too insular, and too narrow to succeed even at its own agenda, often, much less in moving toward a new society. All together would be vastly more powerful, but there is no glue to bring all together - which harks back to first problem of a lack of shared vision and strategy.
A third problem we have, I think, is that our movements are not sticky. By this I mean when people come into the vicinity of our movements, organizations, and projects - rather than being steadily more attracted and committed - they tend to bounce off, staying at most for a little while, and then leaving. This is because, I think, they are alienated by our ways of interacting, of being judgmental, of bickering and fighting, of arrogance and sectarianism. This is profoundly damaging to progressive and radical and revolutionary prospects in the U.S., and likely it is here, in Spain, too.
Finally, a fourth problem, particularly rampant in the U.S., and perhaps here, too, I don’t know - is a tendency for efforts at change to get caught up in what I called, earlier, a kind of coordinatorist identifcation, often disparaging and thus alienating working class people. One way to say this is that classism, inside our movements, like racism or sexism inside our movements, cripples our capacities to be honest and effective, to appeal to wide constituencies, etc.
Of course there are other smaller scale failings we need to correct as well, but these four may be paramount. And the good news is, none of them are beyond our own means. With serious and attentive efforts, we can deal with these, and, in doing so, we can have great success, I think, in moving forward.
You have been fighting for social change since the sixties. As a student at MIT, you actively participated in the anti war movement during the invasion of Vietnam. Years later, you founded South End Press, a successful publishing house, you then founded Z Magazine/Znet, one of the most important alternative monthly magazines and websites. You have authored nearly twenty books and countless articles. What is the next step? What is your next project?
Well, next on my personal agenda, along with others, of course, is partly another media effort, but mostly something I have been trying to contribute to doing, even while doing the other things you mention, for many many years. I believe change requires organization that is not just local, and not even just national, but international. I want to try to help make that happen.
So, first, on the media side of the agenda, I happen to think the left’s infatuation with Facebook and Twitter are understandable, but are nonetheless seriously and even potentially suicidally damaging. These are massive capitalist corporations with no social motives operating in their motives, at all. They seek profit, period. To that end, they spy on people. They sell and commercialize people and information. They contribute to what I like to call the nuggetization of communication which biases messaging toward short, shorter, and shortest, thereby establishing the myth that the only worthy message is a minuscule message - a norm for communication that pretty much precludes serious analysis and visionary organizing. Facebook and Twitter and the rest even reduce the idea of friendship to something cheap and easy, click a name, become a friend. Tally the results, keep up, quality be damned.
The project I hope will help to reverse this situation, particularly for social activists, is called ZSocial and will offer people social networking in a manner that preserves and protects privacy, that respects and facilitates serious communication as well as quick socializing, that rejects commercial motives, has no ads and no profits, and that, in general, tries to establish secure and welcoming political community both for pleasure and for productive organizing and sharing. ZSocial, or, as I sometimes call it, Faceleft, will become public very soon.
And at about the same time, we will also make public a project seeking to create a new international organization, with national branches and local chapters. We hope this project will embody the kinds of political and social priorities you might expect from advocates of the type ideas we have explored in this interview and especially in context of aspirations for self management.
We hope it will be organization without sectarianism. Shared vision without inflexibility. Coherence without regimentation. Shared strategy and program, and yet local and national autonomy. Can a new organization succeed in new ways? Can it attract enough people, generate enough unity and activism, nurture and share enough insight, so it matters to people enough to keep growing?
We won’t know until the effort has had some time, of course, but that kind of success is the aim, the hope, the agenda. This effort will start as a project with tentative commitments and, if it does well, down the road there will be enough countries and chapters and people involved to have a founding convention and in that way to solidify initial structure, program, and commitments. I am hoping that can happen this coming Spring, or perhaps more realistically, next Fall, about a year from now. We will see.
This interview was conducted by David Marty for the Spanish Newspaper and web site La Diagonal (http://www.diagonalperiodico.net/). It will appear there shortly, once translated. The interview is in preparation for a trip to the UK and then Spain, next month, following upon Greece and Turkey, earlier this month (http://www.michaelalbert2011.info/).