Does Parecon Over-Privilege Individuals
Above the Community Or Vice Versa?
Part of the complication of conceiving a good society, or any good social institutions, is, ar your questinos highlights, the subtle relationship between individual and collective. On the one hand people are social beings. We depend on others. We influence and are influenced by one another. Our acts need to be compatible with those of others in ways that make the interaction beneficial. On the other hand, we each have our own wills and preferences and we each want room to move and choose as individuals, and even to run up against and differ from one another.
One can imagine economies that err on either side of this divide. An economy could privilege individuals and therein lose track of the need for mutuality and collectivity. It could generate actors isolated from one another and too often at odds with one another. It could cause us to fail to benefit from possible but foregone collectivity. Or an economy could privilege collectivity and therein deny individual freedom. It could subordinate each individual to overarching features that negate personal preferences. Does parecon suffer either of these ills?
Exactly, does parecon privilege individuals at the expense of social good?
Some have suggested that parecon overly concentrates on popular participation in small and local decisions at the expense of larger social issues. They say it privileges individual participation undervaluing the need for larger collective consistency. Since democracy is not costless to practice, we should economize on its use, they argue, while parecon overdoes democracy locally at the cost of under-attending larger issues.
Such critics are right that we should reject a model that diverts people’s participatory energies from more important to more trivial issues. More, it is easy to see how a presentation of parecon that focuses on local councils and provides only summary descriptions could lead some to conclude that parecon attaches too little importance to long-term investment. But the missed reality is that parecon’s procedures of participatory planning are not only appropriate for local involvements but also appropriate for long-run and large-scale involvements. The options are:
1 To relegate long-run decision-making to the vagaries of the marketplace.
2 To entrust long-run decision-making to a political and technical elite.
3 To permit councils and federations of workers and con- sumers to propose, revise, and reconcile the different components of long-run economic involvements.
Of course, we favor the third option, given our prioritization of self-management. Laissez-faire market systems are unarguably least appropriate for long-run development decisions. Even the terribly flawed Soviet version of central planning demonstrated important advantages over market economies in that regard. Moreover, every historical case of successful development by a late comer to the world arena has been an example of the efficacy of planning rather than laissez-faire competition. Even in pre- dominately market economies, a cursory look shows that a huge proportion of long-run production takes place under the purview of the state including most high tech innovation in the US, or of massive private institutions operating more or less in the manner of the state, which is to say, employing planning.
If we reject the vagaries of the marketplace for long-run decision-making, of course, if a political and technocratic elite is not chosen democratically, the dangers are obvious. But even supposing we chose those who we opted to entrust to conceive and negotiate a long-term plan democratically, there would be less room for popular participation and less resemblance to real self-management than under participatory planning. Since we agree with those worried about over-privileging the local that choosing between transforming coal mining to dramatically improve health and safety and replacing highway travel with a high-speed rail system or transforming agriculture to conform to ecological norms vitally impacts people’s lives, we also agree that popular participation should be maximized in these matters just as in deciding daily consumption options.
So, as always, the issue comes down to how can ordinary people best become involved in decision-making? In our view the feder- ations of coal miners, rail workers, automobile makers, and agricultural workers, and the transportation, food, and environ- ment departments of the national federation of consumers should all play a prominent role in formulating, analyzing, and comparing long-run options like those mentioned above. In parecon, the skilled staffs of iteration facilitation boards and skilled workers in R&D units working directly for involved federations would play an active role in proposing long-term options. But the main point is, in parecon with the aid of accurate indications of social costs and benefits, workers and consumers, through their councils and federations of councils, can decide long-term planning just as they can decide annual planning and manage their own work and consumption. Large-scale and small-scale decisions are treated the same. The former is certainly not subordinated to the latter.
Okay, does parecon over-privilege society, then, at the expense of individuals?
Just as an economy could overlook the global in seeking to address the local, an economy could also do the reverse, subordinating individuals to a stifling national conformity and regulation. Does a parecon have this failing?
It is hard for us to credit this criticism seriously. Parecon, after all, affords each individual as much freedom as one can imagine short of trampling on the comparable freedom of others. None- theless there is a sense in which this concern arises, in particular, for some anarchist critics—ironically so, given that parecon is basically an anarchistic economic vision that eliminates fixed hierarchy and delivers self-management.
Still, for some anarchists the whole idea of institutions or even of society itself is an irritant. Their justified and appropriate anger at structures that subordinate most people’s human potential to the elite advantage of a few somehow extrapolates into the feeling that institutions per se are oppressive. In this view, parecon is too social precisely because it has institutions like councils and balanced job complexes, with specific structures and roles. One either plays by parecon’s rules or suffers exclusion, they feel—which is true enough—and they find this oppressive.
Such critics, in our opinions, overstate the extent to which we privilege society. But beyond that, they feel that it is a mark of the underdevelopment of human possibilities to have institutions at all. For them, every encounter, every interaction, should be free of prior assumptions, and thus there should be no lasting norms, rules, or roles, but only spontaneous generation of always new and utterly free relationships. For us, however, this is just taking the atomi- zation of humanity to its ultimate debilitating conclusion and making believe that the antisocial result is in fact wholesome.
Humans are social. To fulfill functions, meet needs, and expand possibilities, we interact and mesh our choices. We enhance what each of us can contribute by interlinking what all of us undertake. It is true that having lasting expectations about one another’s activities in the form of lasting social institutions can reveal a humanity that is not yet freed—as in our subordination to markets, private ownership, or other oppressive structures—but lasting social institutions can also reveal a humanity meshing its individual and social sides seamlessly, to the advantage of each. The solution to bad institutions is not no institutions, but good institutions.
If parecon has institutions that enhance sociality, get needed functions done, further preferred values, and uplift human possibilities, that’s good. If parecon instead narrows our options, that is not good. But that there are institutions at all can’t be taken as a sign of failing. It is, instead, merely a sign that humans are present.
Parecon enlarges rather than restricts human possibilities. It rules out the choice to be a wage slave, to have an unbalanced job complex, and to wield disproportionate decision-making influence. But in doing so parecon creates a context suitable to the freest and fullest elaboration of each person’s potentials and aspirations subject only to the constraint that others enjoy the same range of possibilities.
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