ParEcon Questions & Answers
Work in a Parecon?
Consider how workers in a book publishing enterprise define and assign tasks. (I start with publishing because my own experience of helping found and define South End Press was impacted by and in turn enriched my understanding of participatory economic work-place relations.) Publishing always involves editorial, production, and accounting work, each of these including tasks ranging from rote to conceptual and repetitive to diverse. But workers can organize and carry out these and more general maintenance tasks in different ways in different economies.
The criteria capitalist publishing uses to determine how to combine diverse tasks into job complexes are profitability and maintaining hierarchies of power and income. Each book is a commodity to be sold for maximum revenue and produced at minimum cost. Whether people read the book is incidental.
Capitalist budgeting maximizes profits by holding off small creditors, taking advantage of new authors who lack bargaining power, and when possible setting high prices for few offerings. Will consumers buy their how-to book or ours, their romance or ours, their 90-day diet fad or ours, are central considerations. Given society’s race, class, political, and gender biases, what shibboleths must be observed? Given reviewers’ attitudes, which books are likely to be discussed? Which books should we give up for dead? To be sure, many people enter the publishing field committed to promoting humane values. But the dynamics of the capitalist market require first one compromise, then another, until humane values are buried by profits.
Jobs are defined, behavior patterns enforced, pay scales determined, and pink slips and promotions dispersed all to preserve hierarchy and extract sufficient labor to keep the business profitable. Employers “respect” prior repressive attitudes of more dominant new employees. Social hierarchies born outside the firm thereby reappear inside. Most women do what is considered “women’s work.” Most blacks do what is considered “blacks’ work.” Cleaning “girls,” secretaries, receptionists, typesetters, and cleaning “boys” do the most deadening work. For their above average effort and sacrifice they receive the lowest wages. Even more than other oppressive attributes, two bear special comment.
The result is considerable waste of human resources, immoral denial of most workers’ capacities, and reduction of the publishing function to that of producing commodities for a quick killing. (And all this typifies one of the nicest industries to work in that capitalism offers.)
So what about in a parecon, say in a participatory publishing called Northstart Press?
Naturally, the hypothetical pareconist Northstart Press organizes jobs to accomplish tasks efficiently and at high quality. But Northstart’s participatory priorities also require that all workers exercise their talents and express their wills.
Instead of selling books to make profits, Northstart’s workers consider themselves successful when readers are entertained or enlightened. Northstart workers choose among manuscript sub- missions by deciding whether readers will benefit sufficiently to merit the resources, time, and energy required to publish the book in question. No one’s income is correlated to volume of sales.
Writing, editing, and design occur largely as before parecon but we can imagine that to save trees and other resources and to reduce onerous tasks, most books might be electrically conveyed to portable book-size hand-held computers that have the heft, look, and feel of traditional books but allow readers to alter the size, layout, design, and resolution of the book’s pages on their system. Only volumes of special merit or specific orders would be printed and bound traditionally, reducing preparation and distribution costs dramatically, protecting scarce resources, and providing consumers easy, direct, and nearly free access to whole libraries of information. Computer programs also facilitate easy manipulation of graphics, charts, type style and size, and page alignment, so people can adapt pages to their own preferences. While some of these technical changes would occur in a capitalist future, many would not or would be channeled less desirably, to avoid conflict with profitability and preserve hierarchy. Whether they will occur in a parecon future will be determined solely in light of their human and social effects on work, consumption, libraries, bookstores, the ecology, and the reading experience.
Many business tasks would also differ in a participatory publishing house. Due to technological innovations, most North- start filling of orders and tracking of inventory occurs electronically. Large warehouses are no longer necessary. Oversupply with subsequent shredding is eradicated. Workers who fulfill customers’ orders maintain records of how many people access different titles, since this information is useful to authors, researchers, and Northstart employees.
Regarding promoting and publicizing titles, participatory publishers would help potential readers decide whether they want to take a closer look at titles, but there would be no effort to trick people into “buying” books they couldn’t benefit from. Participatory workers would not want to waste resources, energy, or time producing inferior products. With this in mind, Northstart sends informative promotional messages to people most likely to enjoy, appreciate, or learn from new titles, but is not interested in enticing readers who won’t benefit.
Similarly, the Northstart finance/budget department oversees scheduling within limits set by council decision-making. Financial and budgetary work differs from familiar capitalist norms in both data handling and data dissemination because guiding values are different.
In a capitalist firm, data assembled by the finance/budget department is restricted so that only top managers and owners have access. Were non-privileged workers able to access such infor- mation, they might use it to better gauge what wages to demand or when they might best strike.
In contrast, at Northstart everyone works with any information they choose. Not only can those who work in promotion access budget data, so can those in fulfillment, and people in fulfillment and promotion can access data from each other’s departments as well. It is not productive for everyone to analyze all data endlessly. But it is desirable to organize information so every actor can understand Northstart’s operations and experiment with projections.
What about balanced job complexes?
What other changes might result from participatory organization? The most fundamental structural change is that each Northstart worker has a job complex that includes some editorial, some production, and some business responsibilities and encompassing roughly average positive and negative work attributes. The total array of tasks associated with producing play scripts, for example, is divided among a team so that each member has comparable tasks. Similarly, the editorial team working on novels allocates editing, working with authors, and soliciting new novels so that everyone gets to use their special talents in different ways that fulfill their particular interests, but also so that no one enjoys an unfair abundance of creative tasks or gets stuck with an excess of numbing tasks.
Instead of having head editors, proofreaders, and secretaries, each parecon editorial team has equal members who fulfill diverse responsibilities suited to their own tastes and talents. One person might do more copy-editing and another might take more notes, but conceptual work would not be allocated mainly to one set of people and rote work mainly to another.
Education in a society with a parecon would have to provide its citizens with the skills, knowledge, and experience essential to playing a creative, self-managing role in the special fields of their choice. In capitalism, in contrast, schools prepare most citizens— the 80 percent who wind up wage slaves and not coordinators or capitalists—to endure boredom and expect to take orders.
Beyond equitable job definition, there is also a council of all Northstart workers, where each member has equal voice and vote, as well as smaller councils responsible for appropriate sub-areas such as editing and producing fiction, general nonfiction, and technical books. Still smaller overlapping councils represent each business division. A variety of teams prepares particular books or researches a particular reorganization of workplace technology, for example. In assigning special jobs, there is no need to make work the same for everybody at every moment. Equity comes on average and over reasonable spans of time, as when individuals get vacations at different times or spend months doing a time- consuming creative project and catch up on rote tasks later.
Northstart’s yearly plan evolves through negotiations that occur each May. Decisions are made about how many plays, novels, and books to accept and release during the year, and about workload, materials needed, work allocation, hiring new workers, and establishing new rules and technologies. Initial proposals come from all participants in the economy, go through a number of revisions, and finally are shaped into a feasible plan, including a work plan for Northstart. Northstart budget and finance workers facilitate this iterative process at each stage by providing useful data and suggestions to all Northstart workers. No one expects everyone to have the same priorities, nor is it assumed that everyone will agree that the final plan is the best possible one. But all will agree that it was arrived at fairly, with everyone having appropriate proportional influence.
Northstart’s proposals are altered from iteration to iteration by a process of give-and-take guided by information from other councils. Finance/budget workers facilitate the updating and are overseen by the whole Northstart council. Once a plan for the upcoming year is determined, work for the new period begins.
As the year progresses, most decisions are taken within particular Northstart teams and councils, though some require ratification by the whole Northstart council and others require the approval of industry or consumer councils. Decisions of different types utilize different procedures, sometimes consensus, sometimes one-person-one-vote majority rule, or two-thirds, etc. But none of this implies that every decision is equally everyone’s affair. Sometimes people delegate authority and autonomy to others with whom they work. Participatory organization allows democracy without intrusiveness.
In a participatory workplace, of course, there may be males and females, homosexuals and heterosexuals, blacks, whites, Asians, and Native Americans, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. But Northstart employees recognize that the cultural diversity that members of different social groups bring to work should be allowed to express itself in the context of job complexes balanced for empowerment and agreeableness. To help ensure this, every month optional caucus meetings discuss whether any workplace issues affect minority group interests. Workplace caucuses have auton- omous rights to challenge arrangements they believe are sexually or racially oppressive. But since the rationale for these requirements stems from theories of kinship and community relations and not from a theory of economic relations, we do not address the justification for employing such caucuses in further detail here.
Finally, notice that nothing in what we have described precludes exercising leadership. At Northstart, production leaders on particular books exert influence over team members regarding quality and pace of work necessary to get the books completed. Finance department decisions have authority regarding budgeting. People working in personnel exert leadership over disputes about job assignments. Editorial decisions determine what is published.
Similarly, not having an editor-in-chief does not mean there is no editor with final responsibility for particular titles. Rejecting a fixed hierarchy does not imply rejecting discipline, monitoring, evaluation, and accountable leadership. Moreover, even as in capitalist companies, the ultimate sanction of dismissal still exists, but with crucial differences. First, the decision is made democratically, not by individuals with ownership rights or vested authority. Second, the threat of dismissal does not endanger the employee’s survival. Other employment opportunities are offered, and a person’s basic consumption needs are in any event guaranteed when looking for new work. Moreover, dismissal has to be ratified by the individual’s council co-workers and then, if appealed, by higher councils as well, assuming such procedures were chosen.
To get a better picture we need to describe actual workdays. So here is a typical average week at the Northstart publishing house— remembering, of course, that many of the features are optional and might be handled differently in other firms, even in the same industry.
How about if we get very specific and look at a particiular person’s work week?
On Wednesday Larry helps sort mail for a few hours. He does this one morning every tenth week. On Wednesday and Friday next week, for two hours he will help with general clean-up. The following Wednesday Larry will work the front desk, Friday he will do some rote data entry work. Next month Larry has a different rotation, but he always has some rote tasks assigned on Wednesday and Friday mornings. Of course, should Larry want to trade responsibilities for a certain Wednesday or Friday to attend his child’s school play or tennis tournament, for example, this would be fine. Larry’s rote work is evaluated by other Northstart members responsible for intervening if unscheduled task switching interrupts orderly functions.
The council for producing drama books has six work teams and Larry’s does production on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons. Although many employees prefer working on only one production project at a time, Larry happens to like doing a variety of different tasks simultaneously so he’s currently working on one drama as typesetter, one as designer, and a third as a proofreader. The design and proofing are done in teams of three, and Larry is team leader for design.
On alternate Monday afternoons, Larry’s editorial council meets first in teams for an hour and then as a whole department for two more hours to address concerns about possible new titles, com- plaints, and suggestions. Each week Larry also reads his share of submissions. Each title that Larry reads is also read by another member of the team and, after they give a summary report, if they both agree to reject the book it is returned to its author—unless some other member wishes to hold onto the title for whatever reason. If both Larry and the other reader want others to read it, the submission is held. If they disagree, a team vote decides whether to reject the title or keep it for more serious evaluation. In other publishing houses of course other approaches might be adopted.
Each week, Larry also works on his allotment of manuscripts that have passed initial evaluation. Which manuscripts he reads depends partly on his preferences and partly on how much time he and other members have for new assignments. Ultimately, books are accepted or rejected after everyone is ready to vote. Of course there is appropriate discussion to ensure that everyone is able to air their sentiments and exert proportionate influence in the vote. Three-quarters support is needed to accept a submission, and serious attention is paid to the feelings of minorities even to the point of holding up decisions for further debate. Another very particular norm (if Northstart is small) is that any single member can veto up to two books a year, even against three-quarter support, if they feel strongly enough. This is because in a small press every book project affects each employee dramatically in that if an employee really despised a book it would be a serious hardship for him or her. The point is, various decision-making methods are utilized to balance the efficient disposition of tasks with providing participants proportionate influence taking into account the actual circumstances involved.
Once accepted, each title goes to a particular team member, who becomes its editor. Larry has responsibility for editorial work on three titles yearly.
On the Mondays that Larry doesn’t have editorial meetings he sometimes attends the bi-weekly Northstart policy meeting as a representative of his editorial/production council. Each of the three editorial/production councils, the four business area councils, and any major policy work teams that happen to be functioning at the moment send representatives. Representatives serve for six meetings each year, with rotation staggered so that each council always has a representative who has attended at least the four previous meetings. At these sessions, personnel representatives report on problems, sometimes asking for help with interpersonal conflicts, and the general progress of the press’s efforts is discussed and evaluated. On the Tuesday following policy meetings, editorial and business councils meet for an hour to hear reports. Special teams discuss reports whenever they can arrange time.
The rest of Larry’s work concerns promotion. He is currently helping produce a new catalog, working with potential authors, and soliciting new plays. He schedules all this into his work week, along with cleaning his own office, updating his own files, and impromptu clerical tasks shared with others.
Details of Northstart’s arrangement seem sensible to Larry and his workmates, but may not appeal to other publishing houses. Different workplaces could adopt longer or shorter time-lines for job assignments and meeting schedules and adapt other practices leading to less or even more varied job complexes. While basic principles must be respected in all parecon workplaces, how they are implemented changes from workplace to workplace due to different conditions and preferences.
To continue, Larry is gay and meets every fourth Thursday with other gay workers to discuss the character of editorial and business decisions and the changing patterns of daily work in light of the particular needs, tastes, and values of gay employees. Suggestions are often brought back to work teams and councils and sometimes to the whole Northstart collective. If these caucuses feel threatened by proposals otherwise supported by majorities of workers at North- start, they may bring their complaints to outside councils for political adjudication. And of course Larry doesn’t work only at Northstart. Rather, Northstart has an above average average job complex, so Larry does some rote work in the neighborhood and community where he lives to attain an overall balance. But what about workplace decision making under capitalism or in a parecon?
What about decision-Making - say - at a Capitalist Firm?
How does a capitalist firm decide how much to produce, who will work at what jobs, how much work each person will do, how to alter products or introduce new ones, what investments to make in the firm, and other matters?
In a capitalist firm the lordly capitalists have ultimate authority. Those in the coordinator class have jobs that are overwhelmingly empowering and they administer and otherwise define daily operations. Workers have jobs that are overwhelmingly low-level and uncreative. They obey, or resist.
The owners are interested in profits and in maintaining the conditions that allow them to accrue profits. Markets impose these motives on them. If the firm doesn’t maximize the surplus available after it sells what it produces, and if it doesn’t utilize a considerable portion of its surplus to enhance its market share, not only will owners complain for want of profits, but other firms will gain technological or market-share advantages which, in the future, will cause the low profitability firm to suffer grave loses or even bankruptcy. So owners wish to reduce costs (including wages), to disempower workers so the workers do not try to battle owner’s agendas or raise their wages, to increase productivity per asset, to dodge expenses for by-products such as pollution, to raise prices and increase sales regardless of the impact on those buying the products, and to invest profitably in competition with other firms. But the owners cannot oversee every aspect of workplace activity and must hire special intermediate employees who we call coordinators, who will, they hope, pass on commands or even help in formulating them.
Thus we have the coordinator class of managers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and others who are empowered by their positions and responsible for much daily decision-making and definition of workplace structure and activity. But these coordinators turn out to have dual interests. On the one hand, as employees hired by owners, they can try to improve their incomes and conditions by carrying out the owners’ agendas. On the other hand, they have the potential to advance their own careers by using their monopoly over knowledge and decision-making levers to their own advantage even in ways that are sometimes at odds with profitability, but for which owners cannot punish them because coordinators hold hostage the operations of the firm.
Then we have workers hired to carry out the will of those above. They also have dual interests. On the one hand, as employees hired by coordinators at the behest of owners, they can try to advance their incomes and conditions by pleasing their employers. On the other hand, they can utilize their numbers and organizational might, including the threat to strike, to try to increase their incomes and improve their conditions even against the interests of their employers and managers.
So what about decisions? Markets establish the context. Owners will seek profits and maintain the conditions of their dominance, including reducing the incomes and power of those below to whatever extent possible. Coordinators will to some extent obey owners in pursuing profitability, and to some extent seek to enhance their own independent power against both owners above and workers below. Workers will to some extent obey coordinators out of fear of being punished or fired, and to some extent seek to enhance their own independent power.
Thus, decisions are overwhelmingly authoritarian. Either the owners decree them, or some subset of the coordinators (managers, division heads, vice-presidents) decree them, overseen more or less by the owners above. Those most affected, the workers and consumers, have marginal if any impact, often not even knowing what decisions are being made, when, where, and to what ends. This holds for the large scale—what we should produce, in what quantity, to sell at what price, paying what wages, using what ingredients, with what pollution which we avoid responsibility for by what avenues, and so on. And it holds for the small scale—what time and for how long do workers get a lunch break, when can they go to the bathroom and for how long, and so on. The overwhelming context of decision-making is the market-enforced capitalist drive to maximize surplus, accumulate profits, and invest in enlarging market share regardless of the social benefits and costs to workers and consumers. Less operative is the coordinators’ drive to enhance their own relative bargaining position by gaining ever greater control of critical information and contacts and of the workforce below, even against profitability. Opposing the defining logic of the system are workers’ efforts to improve their incomes and circumstances against the obstacles of coordinators and owners above. Missing is unconflicted attention to the actual opportunities for personal fulfillment and growth that workplace processes and products could have on all concerned.
If the reader sees an analogy to a politically dictatorial system ... that is perfectly apt. In Stalinist Russia, for example, we had the inner sanctums of the ruling party and the dictator himself, then the functionaries and political operatives of the bureaucracy, then the populace. We decry this as horrific in its authoritarian subordination of the many to the few. But the capitalist workplace is quite similar—with the owner or owners, the coordinator class of empowered employees, and the subordinate working class—and the degree of regimentation in the capitalist workplace is, if anything, more severe. Not even Stalin’s dictatorship thought to oversee meal times and bathroom breaks and to examine all mail and calls. There is nearly absolute disenfranchisement at the bottom of a corporation, even more than the political disenfranchisement of citizens in dictatorships. And where political subordination is enforced by the threat of incarceration, corporate subordination is enforced by the threat of impoverishment and even starvation. In both the dictatorship and the capitalist corporation there is risky pursuit of personal power in the middle—political or economic palace intrigue—and domineering authority at the top.
Every firm in a parecon makes day-to-day decisions about how to fulfill the firm’s agreed responsibilities. These are made within councils with appropriate input from everyone affected. Different methods may be used for different decisions. We could spend time detailing such interactions for hypothetical cases—how a work team schedules its work, how the firm decides on hiring, and so on. But there is one facet of decision-making more unique to parecon and probably more instructive to detail, and which in any event sets the context in which more specific and narrow choices must occur— participatory planning. What does the participatory planning process look like at Northstart publishing house?
When workers begin their yearly planning, first they review the prior year’s plan and particularly any changes from the initial proposal. They understand that work always uses inputs, including social relations in the workplace, workers with specific skills and social characteristics, and resources, equipment, and intermediate goods. Work also generates outputs, including social relations, personalities, and skills of workers as well as products others will use. Workers’ plans thus always include three lists: material and social/personal inputs; work relations, policies, motivations and logic; and material and personal/social outputs.
Then, regarding the composition of these lists, more outputs require more inputs, certain work relations choices require more inputs for given outputs, and a different mix of inputs with a fixed set of work relations may yield different outputs.
Primary outputs are computer records of books, communication of books to readers, relationships with readers, and changes in worker attributes and plant social relations. Secondary products include some bound books, waste materials, used equipment, and leftover supplies of paper and other materials. Primary inputs are workers’ skills and efforts, plant social relations, utilities such as gas, water, electricity, and communication, a building, old equipment, new equipment, paper, and office supplies like light bulbs and pencils.
Inputs are broken into roughly two major categories: investment goods which allow alteration of the scale or methods of production, and normal production inputs which allow operations at a chosen scale with determined social relations. The main work related choices are to determine how work will be organized, how many hours will be expended each day, and what technologies will be employed. Any change of work relations will likely require some changes in inputs and outputs, and vice versa.
One way to envision these relations would be to graph outputs for varying combinations of inputs for each possible choice of technology and work relations. A more practical tool for analysis would be simple programs showing inputs required per outputs preferred for possible work relations. These programs would facilitate estimating workplace plans by helping workers highlight how choices affect productive possibilities.
Any Northstart worker can call up a computer screen view of such a program, enter choices for technology and work relations, and see which inputs will yield a given list of outputs, or what outputs a given list of inputs will generate. No sophisticated programming knowledge is required. The assumption that a simple program can incorporate alternative choices of social relations is not so reductionist as it may at first seem to some readers. We imply only that the program, properly prepared by iteration workers, can quickly show the best estimates of the material implications of alternative options. It could even list the qualitative features that differ from option to option, as these were determined by workers themselves and entered in the program by facilitation workers before the planning period. Of course, when people finally vote on options, the program only facilitates manipulating information. Workers’ feelings about the implications of the different choices guide the decisions they make.
Next, a brief plant meeting informs everyone of national iteration facilitation board (IFB) projections of trends for the coming year, including initial projections for overall growth, incomes, and indicative prices; as well as industry IFB projections, including qualitative summaries of publishing’s impact on readers last year, explanations of changes expected this year; and plant IFB proposals for changes in plant organization, technologies, or policies, including detailed descriptions of human and social implications of projected changes in material inputs and outputs.
Assuming long-term investment decisions have already been settled, in assessing last year’s data and this year’s projections workers begin weighing their own desires and prepare to register the social relations, technology, and input and output levels they prefer for Northstart. The first and second round of plant decision-making requires workers to choose individually, with no requirement that their selections be mutually compatible.
How about Northstart Innovations
Before following Northstart’s planning further, however, we should note one very important aspect of settling on plant organization and technology. Each worker decides the alterations in plant operations she or he wants to request and registers related preferences for investments. The ensuing changes might, for example, diminish the output-to-input ratio to improve the quality of work life, or might change how much work she or he has to do given the demand for books. Whatever changes Northstart workers finally decide they want, they also have to get an okay from the system as a whole if they need additional inputs from outside sources.
The important thing to note is that if Northstart workers request and receive significant workplace changes that dramatically improve the quality of work life at Northstart, this benefit will eventually be shared with other workers. How much work anyone does away from his or her main workplace depends on differences between the quality of work at that main workplace and society’s average. Thus, when innovations significantly decrease how burdensome work is at one plant, the result, after job balancing committees have time to assess the change, will likely be that each employee spends fewer hours at that plant and more hours elsewhere. Innovations that make Northstart a relatively more pleasurable place to work will change the time Northstart workers work there and elsewhere. So because of the principle that all workers enjoy comparable overall job responsibilities, gains accruing from Northstart investments manifest themselves in slightly improved conditions for all workers rather than in dramatically improved conditions only for Northstart employees. Therefore, workers have little reason to urge innovations in their own plants at the expense of innovations that could be enacted elsewhere with a more dramatic effect on overall quality of work life.
Traditional economists will argue that this will diminish workers’ incentives to improve the quality of work life, since workers will not monopolize the gains they engineer. But this view conveniently ignores that in competitive models of capitalism, technological gains are assumed to spread instantaneously to all producers in an industry. If this were not assumed, it could not be claimed that these models yield efficient results. But when this is assumed, incentives to innovate diminish since benefits spread first to other firms in the industry, and later through lower costs of production and lower price for the industry’s output, to all producers and consumers. Of course, in real capitalism, as opposed to economists’ models, improvements do not spread and the benefits of innovation accrue almost exclusively to a small number of owners—certainly not to workers—and there are consequent inefficiencies. In any case, since in an equitable economy technological improvements must rebound to everyone’s benefit, we consider it a virtue that in a parecon innovations in thousands of plants change the overall societal average workload and work quality norms, and that those changes in turn rebound equally to everyone’s benefit.
So what does this lead to in practice? If Larry works at Northstart and a proposal for a technological change there and throughout publishing would improve the average job complex for society by one hundredth of a percent, while a proposal for the steel industry (requiring the same investment expenditure) would improve the average by two hundredths of a percent, Larry will eventually benefit more from the steel innovation than from the publishing change. Likewise, Northstart workers have a greater long-term interest in an innovation in coal mining that greatly improves that industry’s quality of work than in an innovation in publishing that would require an equivalent investment but improve the quality of publishing work to a lesser degree.
Larry’s tastes are therefore added to those of all other publishing workers and embodied in the evaluation of possible publishing industry alterations before any comparison with other industry proposals occurs. If Larry’s views differ dramatically from the collective result, Larry will not necessarily like the final outcome. But the choice will reflect a fair balance of the tastes of all workers in both industries. Larry should vote as he likes, and if he does so, and all other workers do so as well, the collective implications noted earlier will apply. The war of each against all for who will benefit from innovations gives way to a community of shared interests. Competition is replaced by cooperation. Shortening work hours to achieve the same output anywhere eventually benefits all. Improving work life anywhere eventually benefits all. An equitable economy requires all this, but to increase individual incentives job balancing committees could calibrate the speed of adjustments to provide temporary “material incentives” to innovators. Or, alternatively, and more positively in my view, teams could be assigned whose job was to develop potential innovations. Innovations would be the “output” by which their social usefulness would be judged. The equity implications of this way to stimulate innovation—essentially assigning more resources to innovation and holding those who use them socially accountable—has desirable human repercussions. In any event, in deciding on innovations, each person chooses between proposals as they wish, but everyone has an incentive to choose what is best for the whole economy because that is what is ultimately best for all. Ironically, the claim made for markets—that pursuit of individual interests coincides with the social interest—actually holds for participatory planning. Pursuit of self-fulfillment under equitable arrangements in a socially conscious way really does yield socially optimal outcomes.
Parecon’s solidarity does not derive from a presumed biological transformation of our genetic characteristics, but from the concrete implications of its social relationships. Results promoting solidarity, equity, diversity, and collective self-management are not due to a postulated suddenly beatific human nature, but arise from the structure and incentives of participatory planning. Besides linking individual and collective well being, parecon promotes sociability and the qualitative side of life denigrated by capitalism.
Back when we talked about participatory planning, it had various rounds, or I think you called the iterations. How about the first planning Iteration?
Nancy has worked at Northstart for eight years and is predominantly concerned with science books and promotion. In preparing her initial proposal for Northstart’s new year she considers three proposals for reorganization that workers who investigate innovations have proposed. While recognizing that Northstart already has an above average work complex, Nancy believes plan three would greatly improve work quality by freeing energies from distracting tasks with modest investment. She estimates that while the changes in proposal three are not as valuable as some proposed transformations in heavy industries she has heard about, proposal three would be worthwhile compared to most innovations under consideration throughout the economy.
Indeed, a projected minimum standard that proposed investment should attain in increased output or improved work conditions is part of the information the national production facilitation board would provide. Wherever workers are considering changes in work organization or new technologies, differences in inputs, outputs, and work quality would need to be assessed. Obviously, any proposal that improves work quality with no loss in outputs and no investment expense would be noncontroversial since it would improve the national work complex average at no cost. However, whenever investment is necessary to improve work complexes or increase output there must be some way to decide which investments would be sufficiently beneficial to undertake. The national production facilitation board, by estimating per capita growth and anticipated change in the average work complex, provides an initial and also regularly updated estimates of the minimal returns needed from investments to make them desirable.
All workers at Northstart have access to computers on which they can make calculations and comparisons. Returning to our example, after consulting projections, Nancy decides to develop her first proposal based on implementing investment plan three. She next decides on a level of output, in other words, how many titles to publish in the coming year. She could just accept facilitation board suggestions. Instead, however, considering data on population growth, industry IFB predictions of likely growth in numbers of titles desired and in average readership per title, and her own perceptions of people’s changing tastes in reading, Nancy decides industry predictions are a bit too modest and settles on a first proposal to increase titles published by 3.5 percent rather than the IFB projected 3.3 percent, and of readers by 1.2 percent instead of the IFB projected 1.1 percent.
To translate her estimates into a full proposal for Northstart, Nancy next settles on a number of employees, hours of work per day, and effort levels at Northstart. User friendly computer programs make it easy to enter workplace proposal number three, set a number of titles and readers, and then enter choices for any two of the other variables to see what the third must be to get the job done.
It is important to note that the kinds of thinking Nancy has to do become easier with familiarity, and, in any event, the programs make the associated calculations simple. In any case, Nancy has arrived at her first round proposal for Northstart for the coming year. What about other workers? And how does a final plan arise?
And the second planning Iteration?
Not only Nancy but all workers at Northstart and throughout the economy complete their initial proposals and submit these to the “planning data bank.” Individuals have made no attempt to accommodate their proposals to one another but once submitted, IFBs work on the data and prepare a report of current proposed supply and demand for all goods, changes in indicative prices based on relative degrees of excess demand or supply, a summary of current averages for consumption and production, and written descriptions of the principal causes of changes in IFB projections.
Of particular importance to Northstart workers are the current proposals for goods that appear in the Northstart budget. Therefore, these are highlighted in written reports provided to Northstart workers, as are summaries of written reports from consumers regarding books. For example, since consumers are requesting more new titles than the industry suggested producing, the industry receives a written summary of consumer commentary regarding books. Although Northstart workers and consumers automatically receive this material, they can gain access to similar data for other industries at any computer console in their plant or community.
If Nancy wishes to see a more detailed breakdown of demand by region or even by specific consumer councils, she can use the summary provided by the iteration boards as a general guide and investigate details herself, using procedures we describe shortly. In addition to getting feedback important for her planning decisions, such inquiries also give Nancy an indication of the social value of her labors and the implications of her choices for others.
Let’s return to the planning process. Having noticed that paper is in over-demand and paper producers have proposed no increase in production over last year, Nancy requests the paper industry’s own report explaining their proposal. Then, in response to all the information she has accessed, a new set of indicative prices, and whatever consultations and investigations she wishes to undertake, Nancy updates her first proposal. The process is the same as the first except that she now takes into account the new information. We should note, however, that in line with our particular description of this society’s planning system, Nancy alters the components of her first proposal in any direction and by any amounts she chooses. The issue, of course, is whether we can expect Nancy in combination with other actors to behave in ways that will bring demand and supply into balance for all items in a reasonable time frame. We address this question in our treatment of the daily life character of allocation, still to come, since it involves the whole allocation process. But since the indicative prices of goods in excess demand will rise and of goods in excess supply will fall, and since there is social pressure to reduce the overall value of requests (and increase the overall value of output), it is not difficult to see the fundamental mechanism that drives the system toward eventual agreement between supply and demand.
How many are there - how about the third planning iteration
After Nancy and everyone else submit second proposals, IFBs again adjust indicative prices, update their own projections, send relevant summary reports to all units, and store all this information in the planning data bank. The new wrinkle is that in addition to industry IFB reports on industry proposals and averages, there are also industry IFB projections for likely final industry plans, as well as suggestions to member units regarding how they might best move toward these likely final outcomes. In instances where a unit diverges dramatically from industry averages, discussions may commence between that plant’s board and IFBs to explore the reasons for the differences.
Labor reallocations to and from Northstart are now largely settled. This means that in going over new data and considering how to alter proposals for goods in over-demand or, less often, over-supply, Nancy can only alter her proposals for particular items that Northstart would use or produce by less than 50 percent if she wants to move them in the direction that equilibrates supply and demand, and by less than 25 percent if her proposed change is disequilibrating. And this rule applies as well—at least in this hypothetical rendition of a specific implementation of participatory planning—for developing proposals numbers four through six, discussed below.
Preparing her third proposal, however, also involves Nancy in many more discussions with workmates. While each Northstart worker still makes his or her own proposals for all of Northstart, unlike in earlier rounds, they now incorporate modifications arising from collective discussion. Thus, one day of meetings in work groups and departments is set aside for discussing proposals. Like many other details in this discussion, the rules for changing proposals for each new iteration and for carrying out planning within workplaces seem reasonable to us (particularly in societies in which there is considerable friction when moving resources from one use to another), but keep in mind that this is just one possible choice of procedures rather arbitrarily chosen to illustrate one plausible implementation of participatory planning.
Does it come to an end?
Now, Nancy and her coworkers confront a new challenge: Their fourth proposals will be made not separately but together. The different ideas of Northstart workers must finally be combined into one consistent Northstart proposal. It isn’t necessary for each individual’s role in the proposal to be spelled out, since such assignments are irrelevant to the rest of the economy. But workers’ councils’ proposals do need to be implementable. So the same limitations on adjustments that applied for the third proposal now apply to the collective new Northstart proposal.
The formulation of the fourth proposal requires various sessions held intermittently over a full week, though it is certainly part-time work so other work also continues. Mainly, a week allows sufficient time for thinking before plant members choose a new proposal.
First members of the smallest work groups compare their individual proposals and try to accommodate them with one another. These meetings serve primarily as a warm-up for more important department and area meetings to come.
Here’s how it might work. Nancy has a small group meeting on Monday of “fourth-proposal week.” On Tuesday she meets with the editorial department to talk about numbers of titles and readership to try to reach agreement on these matters. On Wednesday, she has a similar meeting with the promotion department, the site of her non-editorial, non-production work. Throughout Northstart, others hold similar meetings, and the Northstart IFB summarizes and distributes each day’s results. Monday’s meeting is limited to an hour, but those on Tuesday and Wednesday run for an hour and a half in the morning and another hour and a half late in the day.
The editorial meeting begins with members listing the number of new Northstart titles each prefers to undertake, the readership they anticipate, and the mix of different titles they desire. Debate commences regarding the difference between initial averages of proposals and current demands and projected industry averages. Since each editorial group meets separately, the Northstart IFB reports each group’s results as well as an average for them all.
The following day Nancy’s promotion group starts with the overall average as a premise and suggests its own adaptations in light of promotion needs and potentials. Because all departments do this on Wednesday, there emerges a new average to be considered Thursday. Finally, a council meeting on Friday functions like a senate with members considering amendments to the average as a means of developing competing alternatives and finally voting for Northstart’s proposal to submit for the fourth iteration.
One important feature of this process is the effort made to accommodate competing perspectives through compromises or experimentation. This is the time when minorities provide evidence of the virtues of their positions.
The fifth and sixth iterations would proceed like the fourth, but with each taking much less time and incorporating tighter allowed percentage changes in inputs and outputs. For each new proposal there is new information about the status of goods, average outputs, and indicative prices, all facilitating moving toward a feasible plan.
After receiving the sixth proposals from production and consumption units, industry and national IFBs have a new task (in this hypothetical rendition of one way to enact parecon methods): they consider available data and offer five feasible plans for society to choose among. Since we will discuss IFBs more when we focus on the intricacies of allocation later, here we simply assume they do their task well and present society with five proposals. But we should mention that IFB worksheets and minutes of their meetings are available to anyone with computer access.
Obviously, the choice of five plans—like many other details of the process we are describing—could be varied without changing the underlying logic of participatory planning. There could be fewer individual iterations or more collective ones, or there could be limitations on adjustments or submission of council-wide rather than individual proposals could begin earlier or later. In a real society, such refinements would evolve in accord with particular economic, cultural, and social histories, since once citizens agree that participatory planning has potential, they will modify the system to suit themselves.
In any event, in our hypothetical scenario, after a period for discussion and thought, everyone votes for one of the five proposed plans. The votes are tallied in each council, submitted to higher level federations as sub-level totals, and tallied again, and so on, until final results are available—likely within a couple of hours.
In this rendition of procedures, the two proposals that receive the least votes on the first ballot are dropped. IFBs amend the remaining three proposals in light of the relative weight of the votes. A second ballot eliminates the least popular of the three. and then the two remaining choices are slightly amended, a final choice is made, and the chosen option becomes not the plan, but the seventh aggregated projection of the iteration process. IFBs then use this projection to calculate expected indicative prices, total economic product, growth rate, average work and consumption, and outputs for individual goods, all of which are sent to the plan data bank.
Nancy and other members of Northstart (and other economic units) now accept as benchmarks the projections for society’s product and average workload, consumption allowance, and work complex quality. Further revisions adjust responsibilities within federations and units in light of the overall plan.
Can this really be efficient?
Fair enough. You may wonder:
In answer to question one—doesn’t fragmentation frustrate North- start workers?—first, having many responsibilities makes work life richer and more diverse for most people and is therefore positive, not negative. Of course, tasks and schedules could be fragmented to the point of distraction, but if a group decides it has gone overboard, it has only to make the required correction. Likewise, those who like fewer types of tasks would simply opt for job complexes with more nearly average tasks.
Changing from capitalism to parecon would mean that instead of most people doing rote work and being bored most of the time, everyone will spend at least some of their work day doing interesting work. Moreover, because boring tasks will be distributed equitably, they will be more bearable. It’s not that digging ditches, pushing buttons, or enduring hot conditions will become joyful merely because one does it in a good society, at one’s own pace, and in teams with friends, much less because one admires some great leader or fondly remembers a long-passed revolutionary upheaval. It’s only that pain can be diminished and pleasure enhanced even for rote work by overcoming unnecessarily authoritarian, alien- ating, unfair, and uninformed facets of work life.
Moreover, there will be every reason to automate or eliminate rote work whenever doing so will enhance productivity or diminish the human burden of work. Under capitalism automation is a crucial area of conflict between labor and capital—capitalists seek to enhance profits by automating some people’s livelihood out of existence while workers try to defend their jobs to avoid becoming obsolete and unemployed. Under parecon, since everyone does a fair share of rote work, all will want to minimize it. Since everyone does some creative work, everyone will want to increase the amount to go around and no one will lose their livelihood if automation eliminates rote tasks workers disliked in the first place.
Thus, question one really comes down to what happens to people who under capitalism have responsibilities which are almost entirely interesting and empowering. Yes, in participatory work- places such work complexes will disappear because everyone will share rote work. Elementary justice dictates this, just as elem- entary justice dictates that consumption opportunities greatly in excess of average consumption be eliminated. Those who have benefitted from coordinator monopolization of desirable work will resist job balancing just as capitalists who monopolize wealth will resist income balancing. Both capitalists and coordinators will advance arguments to justify their advantages but the truth in both cases is that these arguments are fanciful, self-serving ration- alizations. In fact, even those who now do no rote work need not be any more fragmented by having to do some cleaning, filing, and production. For under systems in which they monopolize desirable work opportunities, these people are constantly distracted by having to always oversee others even as they regulate their own behavior in the presence of superiors. Anyway, anyone who knows anything about business in capitalism knows that upper-level workers spend much of the time they are not worrying about protocol, daydreaming, gossiping on the phone, and worrying about interoffice competitions. Beside being a waste of productive talent, compared to leisure options, this is not even a particularly enjoyable way to idle time away.
In answer to question two—doesn’t it take endless hours to train people for balanced job complexes?—at Northstart training every- one to do editorial, business, and production work admittedly takes more time than training people to do just one of the three types of work. Likewise, developing skill in three areas certainly takes longer than developing skill in only one. But the mutually enforcing benefits of knowing more about each type of work, the enrichment that comes from having diverse responsibilities, and the increase in morale that accompanies understanding the whole publishing process more than offset these additional training costs.
Or, it may happen that workers in a particular workplace might prefer the savings from reduced training over the benefits of greater diversity, knowledge, and morale. In these cases, provided equitable job complexes can be arranged in which each worker has fewer differently skilled responsibilities, workers can choose that option. Our description was only one possibility, after all.
But what if doing a rote task means that Larry has less time for X and might therefore be less good at X. Say Larry edits social science books. If he did only that, he would read 50 social science books a year; but because of rote task obligations, he reads 25. He is now not as knowledgeable a social science editor as he might otherwise have been. The offsetting gain is that Sally, who now reads 25 social science books a year, when in the past she read zero, is a lot better social science editor than she was before when she was not an editor at all. Are the combined skills of Larry and Sally at least as good as Larry’s alone would have been, without the change? Probably. If not, is the loss more significant than the gains made from not having to spend time defending hierarchies and related useless activities? Not likely. And if it were, would avoiding this small residue loss in productivity justify putting up with a class-divided society and all its adverse implications? In our view, of course not.
In answer to question three—won’t useful, necessary lines of authority deteriorate without fixed hierarchies?—respect for a team leader need not be undercut because she is in a non-leader role on other teams. At Northstart, respect for leaders depends on the logic of particular assignments and the need for tight coordination, supervision, or scheduling, for example. Far from diminishing the credibility of legitimate leadership, eliminating fixed hierarchies will undercut many class hostilities and related impediments to efficient expression of leadership that isn’t based on coercive rights.
In answer to question four—is there sufficient motivation? —the desire to earn a living, do a good job, and, when necessary, peer pressure and the desire to keep one’s job, more than adequately ensure that people work hard. Of course there are disagreements and personality clashes. But surely these are more manageable once demeaning hierarchy has been eliminated. Transfers to other workplaces are likely made to resolve intractable personality clashes, which could certainly still arise. Arguments about who is doing how much work, how well, how hard, and with what degree of sympathy for coworkers, are resolved by participants, or, when necessary, through council oversight. Sometimes people are fired, but not at the whim of a “boss” or in such a way as to threaten one’s income. In essence, the workday at Northstart is self-managed in the context of assessing the collective’s well-being and its desires to publish desired books in an effective, efficient fashion. The only inflexible rules are those precluding methods that obstruct participation or deny equitable access of all workers to equal opportunities for fulfillment and influence.
We should mention again, however, that since the Northstart work complex has more creative and fewer distasteful qualities than the average workplace in the economy, Northstart workers have to put in some of their work time elsewhere. Some Northstart employees work in community clean-up squads. Others do rote tasks at a neighboring plant that produces computer equipment. In any event, everyone does his or her share of outside work to balance the relative advantage of working at Northstart.
Would a sensible person rather work at a capitalist or a parti- cipatory publishing house? Since we have not yet described the daily texture of allocation, we only partially understand how parecon decisions are made. But more detailed allocation-related issues aside, the quality of parecon’s work should be obviously superior:
Though work at Northstart has drudgery, it is nonetheless a generally enriching means to personal development and integrity within a supportive community of co-workers.
I guess most folks have had enough by now - worn out - but I would like to here a bit more of this kind of detail. How about the personal texture
With Northstart planning we emphasized overall logic and left out details of personal discussions and the qualitative dimensions of plan formation. Suppose we now consider the hypothetical John Henry Steel Plant. Here we focus on a few examples of interchanges rather than on overall dynamics. This provides a different slant on the planning process, including the types of disagreements likely to occur. It will also help explain how workers adjust workloads and pay attention to the qualitative as well as quantitative dimensions of what they produce and use.
As at Northstart, planning at John Henry goes through a sequence of iterations involving the evaluation of demands from other units along with attendant proposals, revisions, negotiations, and decisions. The John Henry Steel plant, as conceived here, employs thousands of workers, has a large amount of heavy specialized machinery, and has a production process that involves an average work complex well below the social average. Proposals for improving work life at John Henry are therefore high on the agenda, and John Henry workers spend more than the average number of hours doing work outside John Henry at more rewarding labors.
Because the seven planning iterations are formally the same at John Henry as at Northstart, we will not summarize them again. Moreover, since each plant embellishes its own planning procedures with whatever rules, schedules, and divisions of responsibility it chooses, John Henry has many differences from Northstart, but these idiosyncrasies are not our concern here either. Instead we want to see some of the disagreements that arise in planning.
Okay, how about choosing between alternative production schemes?
In the early stages of planning John Henry workers must choose from among proposals to change organization/technology. Let us look in on this process once it has come down to a choice between three alternatives.
Proposal one’s main features involve acquiring some new furnace equipment and rearranging a few aspects of associated processes. Its supporters claim it will allow a two percent reduction in labor hours per ton of steel output, no significant change in material inputs, and only a modest improvement in the average work complex for the plant which is achieved by removing one dangerous and one rote task from one part of the production process.
Proposal two’s advocates also claim a small reduction in labor needs and modest improvement in work complex for a similar investment. Proposal two was submitted by the record-keeping department and affects only work they do. The record-keeping team estimates a slightly greater improvement in the average work complex than proposal one offers.
Proposal three evolved through discussions among a number of divisions and involves more elaborate changes including purchases of major equipment, a substantial redefinition of tasks, and a major rescheduling of plant procedures. It requires a greater investment and alteration of social relations than either proposal one or two. Its advocates claim it will only marginally increase material inputs needed per ton of steel produced, though it will increase labor needed per ton by 3 percent. The major advantage of proposal three is that it would significantly improve the average work complex at John Henry, offering improved work conditions and increased opportunity for communication among workers.
Earlier in the planning process a number of other proposals were rejected as inferior, though some of their better features were incorporated into these three proposals. At this point there is a new plant-wide debate about the three alternatives. Since both proposals one and two reduce the social cost of inputs without sacrificing output and with only minor investments, there is little doubt other councils in the industry and economy will approve them. On the other hand, the third proposal requires substantial investment and also increases inputs per output, so while the improvement in quality of work life might warrant the change, this would have to be carefully explained to other units in the economy since the usual quantitative indicators would not immediately, in and of themselves, indicate grounds for approval.
Advocates of all three proposals have personal biases coming from energy they have invested, pride in having made a proposal, and heartfelt beliefs. This creates three factions with some overlap because some workers’ complexes involve them with more than one of the departments offering options. For others the grounds for choosing are preferences and assessment of prospects.
For example, Roger calculates that with either of the first two proposals his situation is likely to change only slightly—work in the plant would be somewhat more rewarding, and consequently he would probably work a bit less outside the plant at a community day care center. The third proposal, on the other hand, would substantially improve the quality of his work at John Henry and lead to a significant reduction in pleasurable outside duties that used to be required to balance his overall work experience. In the short run, Roger expects he would personally benefit considerably, but in the long run, once job balancing committees and encom- passing councils restructured job responsibilities, the benefits would be spread around.
Knowing that equity will be achieved, Roger realizes that for him personally the issue is the same as for society as a whole: which combination of proposals advances well-being via improving overall average job complexes the most? Different workers feel more or less strongly about the prospects, due to being influenced by their own circumstances and by their different assessments of implications for others. The decision-making process first involves debate and discussion leading to agreement to the adoption of particular material/qualitative descriptions as the best conjectures about the most likely effects of the three proposals. Although workers cannot know for sure how changes in relations or technology will affect them before they try them, they must make estimates or there is no way to proceed with evaluations and choices. Advocates of each proposal present and defend their claims about material and human consequences and, finally, workers vote on the three options.
Suppose option one gets the fewest votes. Plant facilitation workers then propose two options which are slightly amended versions of options two and three, and provide spreadsheets that show their anticipated implications. Discussion and debate begins anew. This time, however, a council meeting is convened and works toward resolution in open session. One group of workers proposes a compromise incorporating what seem to be the most popular elements into a single package. A vote accepts this as a better starting place for consideration than either of the facilitation proposals. A period of amending commences. At some point workers sense diminishing returns and call for a vote. Indeed, any time the majority votes for closure, meeting time can be reduced, and of course, individuals who may reach their personal saturation point with meetings earlier can absent themselves at any point, returning later to vote. So in this hypothetical possibility, we get a feeling for how choices might proceed in one particular workplace.
Though some advocates of earlier proposals will likely feel that a second-best choice has been made, everyone understands that what has been decided comes from informed democratic deliberations. Everyone congratulates the facilitation workers and proposers of the plan and goes home.
What about working overtime?
Lydia lives in a complex whose members are artistically inclined. When not working at John Henry she works with a drama group that puts on plays throughout the region. She likes this so much she spends more time doing it than she is required to in order to balance her John Henry complex, but since she considers it so much fun, she doesn’t even think to claim it as extra work. If she did, however, society has presumably decided in its year’s consumption plan how much theater (music, spectator sports, etc.) it wants. Like any other job, people apply for the jobs in these fields and if more people want jobs than there are openings, slots are filled based on merit, etc. And if anyone wants to participate in the activity despite not being chosen, they are free to do so, but as a hobby without remuneration. Indeed, in parecon, that is the difference between work and hobbies—the latter are outside the production plan. However, Lydia wants to get a new computer this year to help her with design and writing for the coming season. She could propose this as an investment for her drama group, but she knows it would not pass, since the need is not pressing there. Lydia also has the option to “borrow” to make the purchase herself—her Emma Goldman co-housing mates and others in the neighborhood would be happy to oblige this request, especially since her plays provide so much social well being—but Lydia is not overly pleased with committing herself to pay back a loan by consuming less in the future. She prefers to work extra hours now to earn the right to the extra consumption right away. (The astute reader may realize Lydia could petition that her play writing is socially beneficial and overtime work, but suppose that that is rejected by the drama industry.)
So Lydia puts in a proposal to the plant facilitation board requesting sufficient overtime to warrant the extra consumption. She would prefer to take less time for lunch and come in early or work later each day rather than working on her days off or evenings since that is when she works with her drama group. Once John Henry’s plan is settled and the time comes to assign tasks, Lydia’s proposal is considered. Confident no one will protest—Lydia works hard, has made few previous special requests, and the John Henry workers are the first to enjoy her plays—facilitation workers assign Lydia the extra time subject to approval by the council as a whole.
Matthew also requests extra work because, like last year and the year before, he wants to ask for an above-average consumption bundle. Matthew wants to do the work an extra half hour a day three times a week, for as long as needed. Facilitation workers doubt, however, that others will want to juggle their work schedules to help Matthew still again, so they ask if he’d be willing to come in Sundays to clean as his additional work. Matthew balks, and his request goes unincorporated into the facilitation board proposal of work assignments at John Henry. Although Matthew later argues his case to the council, its response is the same as the facilitation workers’. He appeals, to no effect, turns down the compromise offer to do overtime on Sundays, and decides to look for a different primary workplace. In the meantime he goes without the above-average consumption he wanted.
What about tough cases?
During the period allowed for preparing the third proposal, Sally decides the gap is so large between what the steel industry as a whole has proposed and what consumers have initially demanded that filling the demand would require a significant increase of steel production either by placing a considerable burden on current workers, or by necessitating the transfer of many workers from other areas, with disruptive effects. Sally, like many other steel workers, decides to investigate the reasons for the high excess demand before putting in her third round proposal.
Of course, Sally is quite familiar with how John Henry steel is used. She has a good overview of the whole economy and the role steel plays. She thought the facilitation board’s estimate of a three percent drop in demand for this year—given the long-term switch from steel to new high-tensile alloys—was reasonable. Therefore, when she first heard it, Sally believed the high demand must have been because some town or city was making a huge request related to a major construction project, and that town or city would modify its request quickly once they were made aware of the excess demand for steel. She didn’t do any serious checking on demand, only on supply, to make sure that John Henry was keeping pace with other plants. But now she becomes interested in components of demand because they are dramatically diverging from expectations.
Sally’s first step is to set aside a couple of hours one evening to use one of her work complex’s main database terminals to conduct her inquiries. She begins by checking information regarding current proposals for steel supply and demand, including a comparison of current demand proposals with last year’s final figures and with the facilitation boards’ most recent predictions. Next, Sally looks at a breakdown of demand by industry and region to see the roots of the increase. There could have been a generalized increase in demand for all products requiring steel, but that would contradict the downward trend in steel use. Sally finds that the demand jumps were common to quite a few regions, but not all, and primarily centered in two industries.
Apparently citizens in Northern regions made unusually high demands for automobiles, while people generally were making requests for refrigerators that were at least four percent higher than anticipated. Because Sally herself had not made any such requests she wonders what reasons might be at work. With a ten percent increase in automobile requests in the Northern regions, it seems likely she could find the explanation with a few well- conceived inquiries. Thus, Sally next requests a sequence of print-outs including the average commune and per capita request for automobiles in the relevant regions as well as the national average, the average for other regions, last year’s national average, the projection for this year, a summary of all changes in this year’s car models, and a similar summary of changes in refrigerators.
With this information, Sally sees that new cars have innovations that make them more economical than last year’s models for travel in the snow and she is annoyed that facilitation workers didn’t sufficiently foresee increased demand in heavy-snow regions.
There is no corresponding improvement in refrigerators that would explain a 4 percent jump in demand. Sally checks the reasons people gave in a few representative communes and discovers an inordinate number of people claiming their refrigerators were out of service. Further research shows that a refrigerator model introduced five years ago is now showing signs of low durability, leading to the high requests for replacements. In light of her findings, Sally recalculates her own proposals for production, scaling things up more than she had initially intended, but not quite as much as consumers sought. She feels the refrigerator need is urgent, but some of the people in the cold regions will simply have to manage without new cars. She also adds her comments to the qualitative data base.
Sally is eager to see whether facilitation board workers will come to similar conclusions in their new projections and is gratified when their explanations are released. They did perceive the same causes of high demand and elevated their projections for production of steel only a bit more than Sally had thought warranted.
What if firms with differential productivity - do they compete?
One of the more interesting differences between John Henry’s plan and Northstart’s is that John Henry varies dramatically from the productivity norm for its industry. Publishing companies are all able to attain comparable productivity and any publisher producing below average output per unit of input has to have acceptable reasons for doing so. Some steel plants, however, have technologies neither as pleasant to work with nor as efficient as others because the yearly fall in demand for steel makes retooling all existing plants inadvisable: the new capacity would just lie idle some years down the road. Instead, selected old plants were only modestly improved in the expectation that before long the plants would be closed or converted to other uses. The few plants needed to provide the lower steel demand projected for the future were retooled extensively, but plants like John Henry were only minimally updated. Thus, during the year’s planning, John Henry’s old technology cannot approach the productivity of the completely retooled plants, or even the industry average.
The point, of course, is that whereas in an employee-managed market economy workers at the old plants would suffer lower incomes due to their plant’s lower capabilities, in a participatory economy no such penalty would arise.
What about daily decision-making abd how about a new workplace example?
The above discussions of Northstart and John Henry illustrate the main contours of some ways of conducting participatory planning within workplaces. Of course, as we have said before, these are not the only ways. Other plants might have other rules and methods. There is much room for variation depending on the priorities, interests, inclinations, and circumstances of any workers’ council. In any case, making overall planning decisions is not the only sort of policy process required for an economy to work. Every day there are countless choices to make regarding how workers meet their production commitments. We can look at the hypothetical Jesse Owens Airport to get an idea of the dynamics.
The plan for Jesse Owens is premised on a projection of the number of customers expected to use the airport each week, which in turn affects staff size, work hours, shift arrangements, and needs for resources and intermediate goods such as fuel for planes and food for patrons. Therefore, changes in the number of people flying, or where they fly, would be the most important reasons for adjustments at Jesse Owens. In any case, having a plan for the year doesn’t mean that each day won’t involve critical decisions about such things as numbers of people needed at work, numbers of hours of operation, or implementation of innovations. And of course, this must all be accomplished consistently with participatory values.
Jesse Owens Airport chooses to divide into units much like those in contemporary airports—shops in terminals, building maintenance, airplane maintenance, flight scheduling, passenger meals and other services, and so on. Each unit has its own council, whose internal structures may be simple or rather complicated, including separate councils for sub-units and work teams.
At Jesse Owens, larger councils meet monthly and require only representative attendance. Meetings focus on policy and personnel questions. Day-to-day and hour-to-hour decisions are handled by relevant authorities on the spot. Nothing about participatory planning precludes having a field captain of the baggage team at “Rosa Parks Terminal,” or a dining maestro in the “Goddard Lounge.” Nor does anything prevent these “authorities” from making decisions about short-term scheduling or calls to bring in extra employees. What is precluded is only that such “executive functions” embody levels of authority disruptive of solidarity, variety, or collective self-management. Therefore, these positions would be held only as parts of balanced job complexes and in some cases even only temporarily, to keep some people from consistently making decisions for others to carry out.
Decisions about assignments and hiring new workers or releasing workers to other enterprises are made by personnel committees and teams. These staff members also have other assignments to balance the quality of their work complexes.
Disputes arise about irresponsibility, lack of effort, bossiness, etc. How might these be resolved? Under capitalism, at best, such disputes are handled by grievance committees with union reps committed to defending employees no matter what the facts may be, while management tries to fire strong union members, intimidate employees, and sanction workers. In coordinator economies, workers have usually been less effectively represented by unions, although firing even those who do practically nothing has been almost impossible due to the rhetoric of the movements who brought these systems into existence and the absolute prioritization of full employment. In participatory economies, in contrast, disputes between workers carrying out administrative and implementation tasks will be settled in committees of other workers who all carry out both administrative and implementation tasks themselves in their balanced job complexes. Different plants might have different procedures for hearing complaints and bringing grievances. There are many ways to handle such matters, and choices would be contoured to the particular dynamics of specific and workforces.
Does all this permit hiring and firing?
But consider just one issue that would naturally arise at all workplaces on a regular basis—the hiring and firing of employees. There are many reasons for hiring and firing, including an increase or decrease in demand for a company’s product, incorrigible malfeasance, or the need to replace someone who has moved on to a new job. There would therefore be self-chosen movement of people among workplaces in a parecon, just as in any non-totalitarian economy. How could this be handled?
Each workplace, we hypothesize, envisioning how they might choose to fulfill guiding participatory economic principles, has a personnel committee. Some committee members would mediate interpersonal disputes and problems with employees’ personal work habits, others would process requests to change assignments within the workplace, and still others would process requests for transfers and hire new personnel. Moreover, the last function would be greatly facilitated by industry and regional Employment Facilitation Boards, or EFBs. Each workplace would communicate its expected needs for new employees and/or notice of employees wanting to leave to industry and regional EFBs, which would in turn regularly provide information back to personnel committees in workplaces. All this information would also be publicly available.
Say that Jackie wanted to leave her job at Jesse Owens Airport in Boston to move south. She would report this to her personnel committee so they would know she was thinking of leaving, and contact the appropriate EFB to find out about available jobs. Although she could go any time she liked, if she wanted to remain in airport work, then for the benefit of her workmates she might agree to leave in tandem with some other individual’s transfer to Boston. Or, more flexibly, she might agree to leave whenever there was an opening she wanted to fill at a southern airport and there was a potential employee available to fill her role at Jesse Owens, whether a new worker just out of school, or a transfer from the South, or someone else.
Alternatively, if fewer employees are needed at Jesse Owens, the personnel committee would work with EFBs to come up with a list of new places they could confidently apply and organize a process whereby people could decide if they wanted to volunteer to transfer.
Involuntary transfers would sometimes be necessary in a parecon—as in all economies—but they would occur far less often than in other economic systems. A parecon would not have the type of “boom and bust” cycles that plague market economies. The need to shift employees would always arise from the need to move people from one industry or workplace to another due to shifting preferences for outputs, rather than from a need to lay off workers in general. Any general decrease in total work required would be shared by all workers in the economy as a welcomed reduction in work hours or work intensity—not confined to a few as dreaded unemployment.
Also, balanced job complexes and remuneration for effort means that much of the pain we associate with transfers would be absent in participatory economies. There is every reason to expect more people to be willing to transfer voluntarily since job quality and pay will not suffer in moving. Also, we believe the EFBs would be much more efficient in matching institutions and people than any system found in present economies. While Labor Market Boards in Sweden have been head and shoulders above employment agencies and retraining programs in the US, the EFBs would have much better information available more quickly, and in particular with much longer advance notice of changes in technologies and long-term investment intentions. In any case, involuntary transfers would never be accompanied by a loss of consumption rights or the extreme social stigma and loss of dignity so common today to unemployment. And finally, if it is socially agreed that having to switch jobs is a sacrifice, it could certainly be remunerated as such.
It is a different matter, however, if someone is fired because he or she is unwilling to work or is so antisocial that nobody wants him or her around disrupting work relations. It will not do to dodge the issue pretending these problems will never arise in participatory economies. There will always be disharmony and recalcitrance of diverse types. And there will have to be provisions for dealing with cases that are curable, and others that are not. All we can say is that many of the causes of such behavior will no longer exist in participatory economies, and that we would expect the ways chosen for dealing with the fewer remaining problems of this sort to be far more humane than in present economies.
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