Parecon or Markets
Replying to Eric Olin Wright
Erik Olin Wright has a forthcoming book titled Envisioning Real Utopias in which he spends some time addressing parecon. Having just read that section online at http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/ERU.htm - after being directed to it via a ZCom comment posted by Steve D'Arcy - I look forward to seeing the book in print and I thought I would offer some comments on the Parecon part.
I much appreciate that Erik carefully presented parecon with insight and clarity. I would only take issue with one word, literally, one word, of his initial summary of parecon and my discomfort probably has more to do with my idiosyncratic testiness about that particular word then it has to do with Erik's comprehension of the system.
Erik describes parecon's approach to ownership, division of labor, and remuneration incredibly succinctly, and for the space given quite accurately, and then moves on to participatory planning. This too, I think he summarizes quite well, but for my one quibble, which is with this comment: "This is an iterated process of plans being proposed, passed upward, evaluated, and then returned to the proposing council with new information, reevaluated and reconfigured, and passed back up for new consideration."
It is likely inadvertent, but the word "up" troubles me because it could conjure in the reader's mind an image of modified central planning wherein there is some separate higher entity, elected or imposed, such as a planning board, that is the final arbiter of decisions. But in participatory planning, in fact there is no higher and lower, at least in any familiar sense of those terms. Workers and consumers councils do not consult or pass information to some central or higher decision-making entity - other than other councils. In other words, the only entity with more decision making say than one such council is many such councils. The "higher" than local, in parecon, is the whole society, not some separate highly empowered entity outside or above the rest of society. I suspect that Erik knows this about participatory planning and that there is no real problem of misinterpretation on his part, but only a danger of others misreading his words.
Erik's problems with parecon instead center on viability. He likes parecon's values, but he wonders about their implementation.
Erik's first concern, for example, is to wonder, "how confident can we realistically be, in the world in which we live now, that we understand the likely dynamics of an entirely new kind of social structure?"
My answer would be that it depends on the structure we are assessing.
First, I would say we can be quite confident that we understand private ownership, markets, central planning, corporate divisions of labor, profit seeking, remuneration for output, and other familiar structures that some activists routinely incorporate in their economic aims despite having virtually unchallengeable clarity that they would produce class differentiation, alienation, exploitation, etc. etc.
But second, I think we can also be reasonably confident that we understand a great many implications of some possible proposed new structures, such as those of parecon, and absolutely certain that we can learn more by future experiments and implementations undertaken in light of our hopes and best informed expectations about such structures, and to test and move toward them, which acts of course inevitably and wisely precede complete reliance in any case.
Finally, I would also reply, if not being absolutely sure, which is to say mathematically certain, about the full effects of something new sensibly precludes advocating that new option and exploring its merits and testing it, etc. - then arguably, we can't sensibly advocate anything new, at all.
Erik, however, makes his concern more precise: "How certain is our scientific understanding of the key problems that would be set in motion in an economic system organized along the lines of parecon?" And then he lists various areas in which something could conceivably turn out differently than our best current estimates suggest - but he doesn't mention that the parecon formulations address each possibility he raises quite carefully, or respond to what is said, and he also doesn't note that no one is proposing in any event the impossible step of jumping from where we are to a full parecon overnight. Rather there are steps in between, of course, which will reveal problems we haven't anticipated and we hope, allow their correction. What I don't get is why hypothetical possibilities of possible problems, none of which are explicitly mentioned, is a powerful deterrent able to cause Erik to dismiss advocating participatory planning, say, then actual known existing failures of incredible scale, consistency, and breath are deterrents able for dismissing, say, markets.
Erik argues that since we don't yet have a whole economy that works on parecon's principles and with its structures, we can't know for certain all the things that would happen if we did. This is true about anything we don't yet have, of course. And so we should be careful, in all such cases, where there is a lot at stake, I quite agree. We should experiment, etc. But, why would worries about possible problems with a system that currently seems to us consistent with classlessness, solidarity, etc., which claims Erik doesn't explicitly challenge, be reason to avoid that new system, while absolute certainty about their propensity to violate classlessness, soldidarity, ecological survival, etc., are not sufficient for us to avoid, in our ultimate aims, markets?
Erik says that his worry "does not imply the converse - that we know enough now to be sure parecon ... is impossible - but admitting that parecon might be possible (because of our ignorance on a range of problems) is insufficient grounds to propose a transformative project that confidently rejects any role for markets in a democratic egalitarian society."
Perhaps I am being dense here, but why? If we want classlessness, if we want ecological sanity much less wisdom, if we want equity, etc., and if we believe these and other virtues would accompany parecon - but are not absolutely entirely certain because of course we haven't had it to look at, as yet - wouldn't the right inclination be to advocate the system, carefully, and work to discover more?
And, similarly, if we know beyond an iota of doubt that markets and corporate divisions of labor other familiar structures bring along with them all manner of mayhem and malevolence, in our personalities and in material outcomes, including class division, exploitation, etc., wouldn't that knowledge make us incredibly strongly disposed to try to find alternatives to markets, corporate divisions of labor, etc., and to experiment with them, etc.?
If Erik said, I like parecon's intent and what we can currently say of its most likely implications, and I hope these perceptions hold up as we learn more, so we should keep testing it in our minds and in our experiments and meanwhile begin to orient our demands and movement organizing and organizations in accord with embodying the seeds of this hoped for future, rather than replicating the ills of a rejected past, all the while keeping an open mind that flaws may appear needing correction, or even a dramatic switch in our commitments, I would say fine, I agree completely. But if Erik says, as he seems to do in these pages of his new book, well, in light of the possibility that unforeseen flaws may arise in implementing parecon, all despite our best current estimates, I think we ought to back burner this set of ideas and instead use those that are far more familiar - which, however, we undeniably know to be incredibly flawed - then I just have to wonder, why?
Erik says, "Albert never flinches in his absolute certainty that he knows parecon will work well enough to constitute an improvement over both capitalism and any possible market socialism."
In fact, however, I often say that if it turns out parecon is flawed, if it turns out it can't work, or if it turns out it would have offsetting horribly adverse effects, then I think we would need to not return to trying to envision a future with markets, corporate divisions of labor, etc., but instead try to envision other ways of having a future without those attributes, and without classes. Thus, I think Erik is not accurate in his claim about my views. What I am certain about - whether rightly or wrongly - is two things. One, objectively, that the usual paraphernalia of economic design that makes up economies all around us - including markets and familiar corporate divisions of labor - will not yield or even allow for classlessness. And two, subjectively, that I think serous critics of class rule should seek classlessness.
Erik says, "Albert's uncompromisingly extreme position against markets is anchored in two propositions." I have to ask, why is it "extreme" in any way at all to be against markets? It is like saying Joe's "extreme" rejection of slavery, at the time of abolitionism, or Sarah's extreme rejection of dictatorship, and so on...
Erik continues by asserting that the first of those two propositions I hold is that "the ills associated with capitalism come more from the fact that capitalism is a type of market economy than from the distinctive class relations of â€¨capitalism." But these are Erik's words, not mine, and I don't remember ever writing or uttering anything like them. What I would say, instead, is that capitalism's ills arise from both the monopoly on property of the capitalist class and the monopoly on empowering work of the coordinator class - from its property relations, but also from its division of labor, and allocation system. Capitalism's distinctive ills, however, are due to private ownership, its distinctive feature.
Erik says, "It is for this reason that Albert believes that any form of market socialism, even if it completely eliminated capitalist ownership, would be at most a very modest improvement over capitalism: "....whatever gains over capitalism have been achieved in attaining market socialism, â€¨market socialism is still not an economy that by its intrinsic operations promotes solidarity, equity, diversity, and participatory self-management while also accomplishing economic functions efficiently. Instead all of the intrinsic ills of markets - particularly hierarchical workplace divisions, remuneration according to output and bargaining power, distortion of personality and motives, and mispricing of goods and services, etc. - persist, while only the â€¨aggravating presence of private capital is transcended."
I will stand by that... and it does not say what Erik reads it as saying. It says there are ills that arise from markets, with or without private ownership, mostly aggravated if there is private ownership. There are also ills that arise simply from private ownership, aggravated in turn by the presence of markets, often, as compared to being coupled with some other type allocation, but which can be eliminated, at a whole lot of gain, by transcending private ownership.
Erik says that I think "The basic ills are generated by markets; all that capitalism adds to this is an intensification of those ills." But what my words actually say, even the few he quotes, and what I actually think, is there are basic ills due to markets, yes, which capitalist property relations intensify, but that there are also ills specifically due to capitalist property relations - so of course not that all ills under capitalism come from markets.
Erik offers no rebuttal of the list of market induced ills I talk about, however. He does goes on to say "The second proposition (Albert holds) is the claim that the presence of even limited markets is destructively corrosive of democratic egalitarian values: "Having a little markets in a parecon is a bit like having a little slavery in a democracy, though even less tenable. The logic of markets invalidates the logic of participatory planning and of the whole parecon, and it is also imperial, once it exists trying to spread as far as wide as it can."
I will stand by that too. But far from these being the whole basis of my attitude to markets, instead, my rejection of markets is because they grotesquely distort personality by imposing anti social motives, they horrendously misprice virtually every item they valuate, particularly but not exclusively those with considerable ecological or social implications beyond the buyer and seller thus perverting the trajectory of development, they generate unimaginably unjustly unequal incomes, they exploitatively propel the monopolization of empowering work and via that the rule of a coordinator class over a working class, and, yes, they spread like a virus on steroids.
Unlike Erik's abstract possibility of conceivable inadequacies that might turn up in implementing participatory planning, that we can't now foresee or seemingly even intimate, the above list is an array of actual flaws of incredibly destructive impact, that are carefully delineated, and which we can not only predict based on the logic and structure of markets and corporate divisions of labor, but we can see in their every implementation though all history both with and without private ownership.
I would think that if the hypothetical possibility of a conceivable unknown problem in a system that promises classlessness, solidarity, equity, self management, etc., and whose capacity to deliver on that promise is not yet even challenged and in whose properties we as yet can find no damning flaw, is enough to cause us to forget about even learning more about that system, testing it, etc., that knowing an array of actual problems with markets would be enough to propel us beyond them. That it isn't, for Erik, as fir many other very thoughtful and caring radical folks, is, I admit, hard for me to understand.
Erik then rests his support for incorporating markets in our aims on the idea that we can use taxes and other mechanisms to restrain and moderate their ill effects. It should be clear that even if we ignore all contrary evidence - all history - and say that, yes, massive regulation and recompense could literally reduce to zero or at least to an acceptable level the income, ecological, social, and class horrors imposed by markets, the condition reached would be at the very best a very unstable one that would exist and persist only in the face of the underlying logic of markets and always subject to being eliminated. But, more, why is Erik's and many other people's inclination to administrate or regulate an admittedly abhorrent structure, the market, which has never yet had its bad side tamed in such manner, with no other end in sight, no less - rather than to seek regulation and the like, but as part of a process leading toward participatory planning and parecon, whose features and virtues we continually test along the way, improving as need be?
Erik says "Once we drop the assumption that markets are like cancer so that if you have a little in the â€¨mix it will inevitably corrode and destroy social empowerment, then the issue of the optimal â€¨balance between participatory planning and unplanned market allocations is not one that can be â€¨decided in advance of the pragmatic learning process of social transformation."
Does anyone really deny that markets spread incredibly aggressively? Does anyone deny that if you allocate an economy's production and consumption using some prices that are wrong, then all prices will become distorted, and that markets inexorably generate wrong prices? Does anyone deny that if you have arenas in which there is greed as a basic virtue, and inequity a sought outcome, it will wreck havoc with attempts to have other areas in which solidarity is a basic virtue and equity a natural result?
Erik doesn't defend markets against my criticisms. Nor does he claim to find any specific problems with participatory planning, or any other aspect of parecon. Instead, he seems to reject parecon, or participatory planning, because we don't know for certain that once implemented, including after refinements, with added features as needed, etc., it will be as good as we hope. But if that is a criteria, again, for rejecting proposals of new approaches, then all proposals for new approaches must be rejected.
Erik says, "There is certainly no a priori reason to suppose that the balance [of participatory planning and market allocation in a desirable economy] that would be arrived at through a process of deliberative democracy would be 100% planning 0% markets."
But of course there actually is such a reason - not a priori, but instead informed by our understanding. It is that to the extent that participatory planning works for any goods or services, then it is consistent with classlessness, solidarity, self management, etc., and it can arrive very closely at a set of prices that incorporate all social costs and benefits. On the other hand, to the extent are used for any goods or services, they will trample the named values, literally generating their opposite, and will also arrive at prices that reflect relative bargaining power and systematically diverge from true social costs and benefits. As a result, even a little markets introduces into allocation wrong valuations and anti social motivations and outcomes. So why have them at all if participatory planning works at all?
â€¨Erik, answers when he adds that "there are at least four reasons why the participants in vigorously democratic participatory process rooted in the democratic egalitarian values of parecon might nevertheless opt for a â€¨significant presence of markets."
The first reason he gives is that preferences change so if we plan today, by whatever means, tomorrow the plan, if it is inflexible, might not be apt. This is true, but participatory planning has no problem accommodating it - if it did , I quite agree that it would be a flaw. For me, I admit, if it were present that flaw would not warrant reincorporating class rule to avoid it, but luckily we won't face such a choice, since the problem isn't present.
Erik poses this observation as markets letting folks have a more insightful and flexible degree of control over what they consume then participatory planning, by making the choice last minute, and in his words introducing some chaos, even. But what about that markets remove from the consumer's and producer's choice the capacity of either to take into account full and true actual social costs and benefits, thus making it virtually impossible, in a market context, to make any economic choice at all in a socially responsible or personally enlightened fashion. I just have to wonder why people have such an easy time exploring even non existent problems in participatory planning, including literally ignoring that longer renditions of parecon explicitly take up precisely the stated problems and addressing what they say, while not seeing the far more obvious and real and far reaching and even related problems of markets.
Erik next says markets permit and facilitate risk taking and might be desired in more than 0%, for that reason. This is strange to me, because actually one of the worst places to have markets operate is regarding innovations. You don't have to consult councils before embarking on a project, with markets, says Erik. True enough. But in a market system you can't just take risks willy nilly, but instead you have to have the means, which either entails convincing investors or banks - rather than councils (which difference is surely not better, or arguably even easier, particularly if your project is humane rather than in pursuit of gain for the rich), and second, risking society's assets is not something that, in fact, one ought to be able to do on one's own account, in any event, but ought to involve all those affected.
Erik says, "it could still be the case that the optimal level of risk taking with respect to innovations may require having a mix of innovation-inducing social processes, and this could â€¨include allowing individuals and collectivities to take risks without prior permission for the specific risk-project through markets."
I am not entirely sure what this means - but in a participatory economy, if there are no major assets at play, one can embark freely on innovations. If there are assets needed, then the sectors affected have a say, and properly so. In a market system, the same thing is true except the sectors are not the population or society as a whole, or those most involved in having to provide the assets, etc., but simply the rich and powerful, who have most assets. The only real variation from this is if in the market system I have vast wealth myself, and then, yes, I can undertake actions of my choosing with that wealth, on my own say so only. This is not a virtue, however. And it has nothing whatever to do with useful innovation, either. Quite the opposite.
Erik then says, "Third, the information complexity of the iterated planning process described in Parecon might in the end simply overwhelm the planning process. Albert is confident that with appropriate computers and software this would not be a problem - and he dismisses people who â€¨disagree with him on this."
Actually, I routinely and often exchange communications and explorations with such people, at whatever length they wish. I would be interested in what "dismisses? means, here, other than perhaps, disagrees while taking seriously.
But yes, I do think information problems will prove tractable. More to the point, however, shouldn't we explore and see, rather than falling back on abysmal systems that we know have horrendous effects, informational and otherwise?
If it turned out that in pursuit of classlessness, participatory planning as envisioned so far couldn't work, then rather than revert to class rule with markets, shouldn't we try to do some of that regulating and refining first, with participatory planning rather than with markets? Would it be better to have a refined and regulated version of an allocation system consistent with classlessness, than a regulated version of markets whose very logic and implications are so antithetical to classlessness? In other words, if Erik and others who propose retaining markets as part of our optimal economic aims, thinks it makes sense to refine and regulate markets - despite their atrocious even best case implications - why wouldn't a similar effort be warranted for participatory planning, in one form or another?
Erik says, "As described in Parecon the information process seems hugely burdensome, particularly since it includes workers and consumers writing qualitative accounts of their needs and activities, and councils absorbing such qualitative information and deploying it in evaluating plans."
But the thing is, it includes this to whatever degree, in actual practice, it turns out to make sense in yielding desired outcomes without undue effort. If we did away with this feature entirely - and I can't imagine why we would have to do that - participatory planning would still be incredibly more in tune with and consistent with classlessness, solidarity, etc., and incredibly more accurate in arriving at true social costs and benefits and having efficient use of assets, than markets.
What I always find particularly hard to fathom about worries over parecon is that they tend in virtually every case to claim that I am oblivious to such concerns or reject them out of hand, and then they list concerns that I have dealt with over and over, very explicitly, while completely ignoring what I have offered. In the book Parecon that Erik used for the summary he gleaned, the last part devotes a separate chapter to each of a long list of plausible worries and concerns people might have. These include all those that Erik raises, and more. So I wonder why Erik didn't reproduce and show the problems with the included arguments, if they have problems. I understand space is a consideration, of course, but if you are going to say x is a problem, and you are reading something that offers a careful reply to x, surely it makes some sense to say why that reply is wrong, or so it seems to me.
Erik's last concern is that maybe parecon would entail too much time given to allocation. Again, I wish he had referred to the chapter devoted to precisely that matter, which compares the new time expenditures parecon requires of people, to the freed up time that it no longer requires of people, and the ensuing claim that the balance is very much to people's leisure advantage.
But the main thing to consider about any disagreement over future vision, such as about markets, or other features, is what do we do now? How do our future aspirations impact the choices we anticapitalists, make now?
First, we don't all have to do the same thing, nor should we want to or seek to. There is no need or reason to put all eggs in one basket. But, that said, surely we should hope and even pray that it will prove not just possible but relatively straightforward to transcend markets, corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for output, property, and or power, and top down decision making, and adopt, in their place, institutions consistent with solidarity, diversity, self management, equity, efficiency, and real classlessness.
The fact is, I have zero problem anticipating and thinking about a near and mid term future that still has markets, but in which we are seeking to transcend them even while they exist and while we have to operate in their context, and similarly for other vile features of existing class divided economies. I can talk about and envision living and being activist in context of markets existing all around me, with no problem. But, to choose activities and propose aims that move toward classlessness seems to me very much to entail that I not make believe markets are virtuous, markets are efficient, markets are equitable, markets are anything other than a horrendous violation of human potential, and likewise for other currently exploitative and oppressive economic structures, even as must put up with them, still, for a time to come. And I think it also follows that we should try to know, as best we can, what we desire in their place, so we can use that knowledge to inform our critiques, to incorporate seeds of the future in our present undertakings, and to orient our efforts toward where we desire to go.