Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Parecon: Discussion with Friends

I had a discussion of parecon and an anarchist polity with friends and encountered a number of confusions and arguments that are a microcosm of what progressives and radical have to deal with from other very similarly aligned people.

One friend argued that leaders must always exist. To rebut:

1) And this is relevant how? Do leaders necessarily trample a society? Can no one decrease their power, change the cultural norms to alter their behavior, etc.? I just don't see the impact here. Fidelismo may be bad for Cuba, but it's far better than Somocismo in Nicaragua.

2) Who says this is the case? For all of human history we've had institutions where a rush for power in the state was rewarded; in fact, was necessary for some ethnicity's liberation. Whenever one discusses human nature, one must bear in mind that our view of human nature is necessarily impacted both at the "transmitting" end, so to speak, by the institutions and mores of particular societies we examine, and at the "receiving end" by the way that our society and culture ask us to think about issues and select/process data.

3) Fine. So make the institutions such that there are no leadership roles to be had. Parecon does this, as do most anarchist alternatives.

4) I don't have a problem with exemplary behavior or charismatic people, and certainly the polity or economy shouldn't ban this type of leadership. I just have a problem with consistent institutional roles that give some powers over others. This argument is especially ridiculous given that the vast majority of the domination that anarchists oppose happens not from the charismatic Hitlers of history but by the bureaucratic Eichmanns.

The same friend alleged that no society will be perfect, that corruption will creep in inevitably. I don't see why this must always be the case: while corruption has leaked into existing societies, it has decreased as societies have become more just. I think even a society's immune response to gradual damage to its institutions can be altered.

In fact, one thing I've begun to think is that perfection is precisely impossible. But I formulate it the exact opposite way most do: Not "Things must get worse" but "Things can and must get better". To me, the fact that there is no perfection means that there is infinite potential.

Is parecon the final blueprint for society? Hopefully not. Hopefully even better institutions can be discovered. And I believe parecon, anarchist polities, etc. are supple enough to mutate themselves to qualitatively new forms.

The vital thing to bear in mind is that the only thing I need (and want) to prove is that what I propose is better than what we've got. For an entire set of comparative looks at parecon versus capitalism, see http://www.zmag.org/parecon/capvsparecon/html/introduction.html.

Next came a critique of balanced job complexes (i.e. sharing tasks equitably to make a social mean of onerous and empowering jobs), surprisingly not from an efficiency standpoint but rather from a justice standpoint. I must admit I cannot fathom this.

For one, I just don't see an alternative. Let us assume what everyone was telling me very loudly: That jobs must be done in a society. I concur entirely. And the only alternative to not sharing the tasks equally is sharing them inequally, by definition. It means some do the crap jobs and other do the good jobs.

Now, I admit that in cases where people do more of the crap jobs versus the better jobs, parecon has a solution: Pay according to effort and sacrifice means that these people get paid MORE. Yes, more. Not less. The reason why the onerous jobs are paid less in capitalism is because we have guaranteed by setting the rules that there will be a body of wage laborers who will do the job or else they starve. Parecon does not do this.

But there is a risk here. People doing bad jobs will get exhausted, will get less opportunity to utilize their creative intelligence and less chance to prove themselves. Inevitably, one will get a minor inequity that could expand. So parecon tries to equalize labor insofar as possible.

I don't understand it. The concerns that are being raised to balanced job complexes are exactly the ones that BJCs are designed to prevent and in fact these criticisms admit do prevent. So what's the point people are making?

There were some concerns about how the jobs would be arranged, but everybody eventually came around to the notion that it made some sense after some explanation.

I was told that I was "forcing people" to do what they don't want, but that's silly. First, it replicates a common fallacy on the Left (and elsewhere) about an economy.

An economy is a shared pool of resources: labor, land, capital resources, natural resources, etc. Unless everyone plays in the pool by themselves, there has to be some kind of rules. Parecon makes few rules, fair rules, rules that let people help determine the rules and their implementation, and lets people leave if they don't want to play. I just don't see how much better it can get.

Living with other people on the planet inherently means rights conflicts. It means that, guess what, you don't always get what you want. Too bad. If you getting what you want means someone else loses their legitimate right, bugger off.

Of course, a parecon offers far more potential for job freedom than anything I can imagine. Why? You have rights guaranteed at that job. You have participation guaranteed at that job. You can control your effort and sacrifice. The work you do is guaranteed to be at least partially empowering. You can appeal hiring decisions all over the place. There are no bosses; you and your buddies work it out together.

In fact, balanced job complexes could eventually allow for customized jobs entirely in lieu with people's wishes.

Could you work a harder job for more money? Sure. Could you work an easier job for less money? That's a little bit stickier, but I could see it as an option.

More onpoint rebuttals:

1) You can apply to any job you want as long as you have the qualifications. Further, unlike in capitalism, these jobs are 99% guaranteed to not suck. A lot of people get scared by "The Giver" or "Futurama" or Asimov stories where people are assigned jobs based on something's determination of their best talents. I am probably in the minority among intellectuals in that I would stringently and violently oppose this.
2) Don't like that? Go to a different worker's council.
3) Don't even like that? Take it up with the courts or legislative institutions (who, of course, you often or always, respectively, are part of).
4) Still not satisfied? Leave. One can grow one's own food and survive on one's own. As long as someone leaving the society does not overly impact the people they left, there is no problem.

Next I hear that worker's councils and consumer's councils are layers and layers of bureaucracy and red tape. But that's ridiculous.

For one thing, there is no "bureaucracy" because there ain't no bureaucrats here. All decisions are ultimatedly made by the body politic/economic.

Are there regulations? Yes. Regulations like that worker's councils have to try to produce what consumer councils want. If they don't, inputs can be shut down from the rest of society, thereby meaning cut wages, among a variety of other sanctions and incentives.

Regulations like the notion that prices should represent the real social costs and benefits of the product. But that's exactly what markets try to do, fail at, and then create REAL bureaucracies, dangerous bureaucracies, non-transparent bureaucracies, and inefficient bureaucracies.

To quote Albert from the FAQ: http://www.zmag.org/parecon/writings/qapfc.htm

"It is an iterative (round by round) process in which what consumers want to receive matches up to what producers are ready to offer and each side steadily expands or diminishes its preferences until there is a mesh. The interchange is facilitated by comprehensive information concerning social costs and benefits of all production and consumption, both in text form (qualitative) and in what are called indicative prices (for calculation purposes). There are also various facilitating institutions that capsulate and relay information, etc. As to its efficiency properties (does it waste anything people value) no economist has challenged these, perhaps because of the proofs we offer in the Princeton volume.

Individuals partake as well as other size units, but not monthly. It is done for a year, and, as you imagine, it is largely based on past years, and on projections for changes in overall output and in each individual’s share for the year, etc.

Any system that has any connection to actual humans must, of course, respond to human’s choices. Markets do this day by day, week by week... Parecon shuffles totals that way, so to speak, but gets an indication of totals, a good one, during the yearly planning period. There are many many reasons for this. Suppose you are in a local community which could, for example, as a collective buy a new park, or new joint music equipment or large computers for a kids center, or whatever. Such collective consumption is charged against the incomes of all the members of the community, of course. So more means less individual consumption, and less means more individual consumption. So, one reason is to decide on this ratio. Another issue is changes in output, and thus income... Another is changes in taste, particularly for new outputs. And so on."

[On health care as an example of planning]

People, except for unusual instances, can’t say this year I want such and such health care. It is not something which is planned on the basis of preferences espoused by individuals in the way that books are. Rather, the “demand side” is essentially a calculation for society. We know from past history, and trends, and so on, roughly how much health care will accomplish what in a coming year. So depending on what we want to accomplish, weighed against the cost in resources and effort and so on for doing it, we settle on a plan for health care. While health care goes to individuals, mostly, it is, nonetheless, we can see, a social and completely public good re the demand side.
It is paid for by everyone – in the form of a reduction of available goods precisely equal to what is allotted to health care. It goes to those who need it, however.
I don’t think it raises any problems for parecon, that I can see... Health producers propose supply, citizens organized at the societal level request what they want – these come into balance, as with other products and industries.
Of course, the providers all do their health work in balanced job complexes, like everyone."


The planning process, and thus the role of “Facilitation boards” is more or less like this...
Each actor (which is sometimes an individual, sometimes a unit – such as a workplace or a community council, etc.) enters a proposal for their economic activity, that is, what they wish to take in (consume or in any event receive) and what they wish to give out, if anything (that is to produce).
These proposals obviously don’t mesh into a workable plan right off. In all likelihood, that is, for most goods there is more desired than offered – even when people are trying to make sensible proposals based on projections of the likely average income for the coming period (which is just the total product over the number of recipients) and awareness of their past period’s actual results, etc. The demands are brought into touch with the supplies and vice versa by a decentralized process of refining proposals in light of data from prior rounds of proposals, technical data about capabilities, etc.
Facilitation Boards are just workplaces like any others in the economy. They have various tasks, combined into job complexes. If the facilitation board’s average job complex is better than the average for society – people working there part of their time will have to work at sub-average options outside. If it is worse than for the rest of society, then they would have to work at better than average tasks outside the board itself, some time each week.
What does a board do?
Well, there are different kinds with different purposes, but basically they accumulate proposals and information more generally, work on the data to prepare it for access by others and sometimes with various algorithms socially agreed upon to cull insights from it, and pass back into the process the resultant information. That is it. No decisions. Also, everything they do can be checked and evaluated by anyone, in fact. All info is accessible. Moreover, as far as we can tell, virtually everything they do could be largely and perhaps completely automated, at least in theory."

The key fact to remember here is that these allocative institutions, filled with all the people that are impacted by them, are infinitely more democratic than capitalism; and, according to Hahnel and Albert's models and empirical evidence, infinitely more efficient as well.

But fine, don't like nested councils making decisions at each level due to iterative negotation, even though they have a great track record? Get rid of the federated aspect of it. This is exactly what Kirkpatrick Sale argues with green bio-regionalism.

Don't even like that? Fine, go for Bookchin's libertarian municipalism, Korten's mindful markets, traditional syndicalism, democratic central planning, or even primitivism. I think I can demonstrate all are superior.

This argument assumes that markets and what we have has no bureaucracy, that markets adjust instantly to equilibria, etc. - all silly and not at all true assumptions; we have tons of central planning and bureaucracy now, and even if parecon increased it, it would be democratic and for socially productive goals.

The people raising this argument were saying that this replication of councils, in essence, would be hugely inefficient. But for one, they're ignoring the model. These higher councils are composed of delegates when they exist at all. That's the very point. Each one of these wider councils in turn chooses another set of delegates.

Of course, parecon could operate at just one level, as I noted: locally, nationally, globally, whatever.

Another friend pointed out that there could be pads on the wall at the local market to tell the coop what to do and that I could, say, send off for a car to my local council to my specs. These are FANTASTIC examples, and I thank him for pointing them out. Now notice the advantage: Instant consumer feedback that contains qualitative and quantitative information. In capitalism, companies blindly try to track what each dollar means (putting aside the question of the inherent skew of the dollar with inequity in the society) with very little info, with commodity fetishism plaguing their efforts, and having to spend oodles on market researches, focus groups, etc.

I refer readers to a Stephen Shalom article, http://www.zmag.org/shalompol.htm , to see an explication and defense of the political system I propose (with my own modifications).

Finally, let me point out the types of places from which one can get inspiration for alternative societies: Native American societies, the Pirates of the Caribbean (who formed together spontaneously and democratically chose captains), the Spanish Revolution, worker's councils across the globe including things like the Zanon collective in Argentina (see Marie Trigona's excellent articles), coops all over the US, institutions like South End Press...


Anonymous Blue Cross of California said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.

7:16 PM  

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