ParEcon Questions & Answers
Balanced Job Complexes
How much balance are we talking about here? Surely trying to balance perfectly would be futile, no?
It should be clear that creating perfectly balanced job complexes is theoretically possible m some abstract sense, but you are quite right that it can't, and also would be a waste of time to try to do in real life situations. We are not talking about pure geometry nor even the engineering of plastics. We are talking about people and social arrangements. There is no such thing as perfection, absolute precision, etc. It is not math. It is social interaction.
But the point is, it can be done quite well, and most important, with deviations and errors being only deviations and errors, not systematic biases. Over time errors will not multiply or snowball, but will instead be corrected. And most important, the entire process is democratic, in fact, in a parecon, self managing. There is no elite that bends everyone else to their will but rather each person winds up in circumstances collectively agreed upon by procedures respecting their appropriate input.
If we combine our best effort at creating balanced job complexes with well-designed self maanging councils, we attain a venue favorable to non-hierarchical production relations that will promote equity and participation and will facilitate appropriate voting patterns. Still, you may reasonably wonder, in practical real world situations, could workers really rate and combine tasks to define balanced job complexes within and across workplaces even reasonably well, much less very well as we suggest?
Provided we understand that we are talking about a social process that never attains perfection, but that does fulfill workers’ own sense of balance, the answer is surely yes.
The idea is that workers within each workplace would engage in a collective evaluation of their own circumstances. As a participatory economy emerged from a capitalist or a market or centrally planned socialist past, naturally there would be a lengthy discussion and debate about the characteristics of different tasks. But once the first approximation of balanced complexes within a workplace had been established, regular adjustments would be relatively simple. For example, if the introduction of a new technology changed the human impact of some tasks, thereby throwing old complexes out of balance, workers would simply move some responsibilities within and across affected complexes to re-establish desirable balance, or they might change the time spent at different tasks in affected complexes, to attain that new balance.
The new balance need not and could not be perfect, just as the old one wasn’t, nor would the adjustments be instantaneous, nor would everyone be likely to agree completely with every result of a democratic determination of combinations. And of course individual preferences that deviate from one’s workmates preferences would determine who would choose to apply for which balanced job complex. If I am less bothered by noise but more bothered by dust, I will prefer a complex whose rote component is attending noisy machinery rather than a complex with a sweeping detail. You may have opposite inclinations.
In practice, balancing between workplaces would be a bit more complicated. How would arrangements be made for workers to have responsibilities in more than one workplace? Over time, balancing across workplaces would be determined partly through a growing familiarity with the social relations of production, partly as a result of evaluations by specific committees whose job includes rating complexes in different plants and industries, and partly as a result of the pattern of movement of workers. That all this is possible within some acceptable range of error and of dissent ought to be obvious. Those wanting to see a more detailed description of the specific division of tasks into jobs in and across some hypothetical workplaces will have that chance in part III of this book, and can do so at the parecon website (www.parecon.org), as well.
Basically, participatory economic job complexes would be organized so that every individual would be regularly involved in both conception and execution tasks, with comparable empowerment and quality of life circumstances for all. The precision of the balance would depend on many factors, and would improve over time. At any rate, no individual would ever permanently occupy positions that would present him or her unusual opportunities to accumulate influence or knowledge. Every individual would be welcomed to occupy positions that guaranteed him or her an appropriate amount of empowering tasks. In essence, the human costs and benefits of work would be equitably distributed. Corporate organization would be relegated to the dustbin of history, with council organization and balanced job complexes taking its place. The question that remains, of course, is whether—in concert with other essential innovations of a participatory economy—employing balanced job complexes would have as much positive impact for solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management as we seek, whether this would permit effective utilization of talents and resources to produce desired outputs, and also whether it would have other undesirable effects that mitigated these virtues. We address these questions in upcoming chapters.
As we have described thus far, in a parecon, democratic workers’ councils would carry out production. Everyone could freely apply for a job and membership in the council of their choice, or form a new workers’ council with whomever they wish. Decisions within councils would be self-managed. Appropriate information dispersal, means of expressing preferences, and decision-making processes would ensure as best as possible that each individual influences outcomes proportionately to the effect of the outcomes on him or her. To facilitate this, parecon would balance individual work assignments for desirability and for empowerment within and across workplace units.
To revisit this key point in more detail: every economy organizes work tasks into what are usually called “jobs” that constitute all the tasks a single individual will perform. In hierarchical economies most jobs contain a number of similar, relatively undesirable and unempowering tasks while a few jobs consist of relatively desirable and empowering tasks. Why should some people’s work lives be less desirable than others? Doesn’t taking equity seriously require balancing jobs, or work complexes, for desirability? Similarly, if we want everyone to have equal opportunity to participate in decision-making so that the formal right to participate translates into an effective right to participate, doesn’t this require balancing work complexes for empowerment? If some people sweep floors all week while others review new technological options and attend planning meetings, is it realistic to think the former will all have equal opportunity to participate as the latter simply because they each have one vote in the workers’ council and a chair at the decision table?
Balanced job complexes do not entail an end to specialization. Nor do they deny the need for expertise. Instead, as we have described earlier, each individual in a parecon—including specialists and experts—will do a modest number of tasks some of which will be more enjoyable and some less, and some of which will be more empowering and some less, such that over a reasonable period the overall average empowerment impact for each job will be the same as that for all other jobs.
The usual arguments against balanced job complexes are:
In brief, previewing a more comprehensive treatment to appear later in this book, how does a pareconist reply to these objections? The “scarce talent” argument against balancing work complexes is generally overstated. If one assumes most of the work force has no socially useful, trainable talents, then the conclusion follows. If one assumes we could not have more people doing skilled tasks, it follows. But these assumptions are false. It is true that not everyone has the talent to become a brain surgeon and also that there are social costs to training brain surgeons. But it is not true that everyone who can do it is doing it. And as well, most people have some socially useful talent whose development entails some social costs. An ideally efficient economy would identify and develop everyone’s most socially useful talents. If this is done, then there is a significant opportunity cost no matter who changes bedpans and the conclusion that it is grossly inefficient for brain surgeons to change them no longer follows. When Joe, who is currently a surgeon, has to also change bedpans, we may lose some of the possible output we could enjoy from Joe’s training and talents—assuming he could instead do complex surgery all day long. But we do not forego the surgery entirely, of course. We just have more people who do surgery less time each. And when Sue—who now only changes bedpans goes through a process of socialization and schooling and on-the-job experience that elicits her best capabilities, we gain those best capabilities from their having been suppressed in the older model.
What is the trade? Well, before tallying, we have to also consider moving from a situation of injustice and its resulting oversight and resentment to a situation of solidarity, and take into account the impact of that change on morale and output, and also on social relations more broadly. The argument against balanced job complexes on grounds that on average in switching from our current society to the proposed one we will lose huge quantities of needed output is racist, sexist, and classist because it asserts that those displaying few talents in contemporary hierarchical corporate work arrangements actually have few talents, rather than having diverse talents that were buried by debilitating social structures and mind-numbing work. It is also myopic, or perhaps more accurately, profit-centered or productivist, in discounting the benefits of self- management, solidarity, diversity, and equity, which would all be enhanced by incorporating balanced job complexes even if society does get less output as a result from some particular Mozart or Einstein (though also very likely discovering others of comparably immense productive talent who would otherwise have subserviently swept floors forever or, for that matter, died at any early age of malnutrition).
Of course in circumstances where the consequences of decisions are complicated and not readily apparent, there is a need for expertise. But economic choice entails that we both determine and evaluate consequences. Those with expertise in a matter may well predict the consequences of a decision far more accurately than non-experts could. But those affected by a matter will know best whether they prefer one outcome to another. So, while the need for efficiency requires an important role for experts in determining complicated consequences, efficiency also requires that those who will be affected determine which consequences they prefer. And of course experts don’t just decide things, they also have skills—like precise hands for doing brain surgery, so I do not want a surgeon to decide for me whether I should have surgery, but I do want the surgeon to do the cutting, not myself or another citizen.
This means if we seek to attain optimal choices, it is just as misguided to keep those affected by decisions from making them (after experts have analyzed and debated consequences) as it is to prevent experts from explaining and debating consequences of complicated choices before those affected register their desires.
Self-managed decision-making, defined as decision-making input in proportion to the degree one is affected by the outcome, does not eliminate experts but does confine experts to their proper role and keep them from usurping a role that it is neither fair, democratic, nor efficient. That it obstructs proper attentiveness to experts is not a viable critique of establishing balanced job complexes, because it does not, in fact, do so.
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