My Doubts About Parecon

ZNet Debates logo[This is part of an debate regarding parecon and peercommony between Michael Albert and me. It is a repy to Michael Albert’s Summarizing Participatory Economics. All articles can be found on the debate overview page – more will follow.]

While I like the goals of the Parecon, one thing that confuses me is that Parecon, while intended to overcome capitalism, still resembles it in an essential aspect. Society still revolves about paid labor: everybody is forced to work for money in order to be able to buy the things they need to live. Why is that so? Do we really must forever force people to work because otherwise they wouldn’t?

A typical proponent of capitalism would probably respond: “Yes, humans are just lazy bastards. Without coercion, nobody would work and humanity would perish.” Michael Albert argues a bit smarter, but essentially in the same way:

If we disconnect work and income, … people will typically choose to work too little for the social good to be optimally met, and people will choose to take too much for the system to even work because the available output will fall well short of available demands for income.

So, everybody it still a bit too lazy and a bit too greedy for society to work without coercion, it seems. But is that claim as self-evident as Albert puts it? Moreover, if the mismatch between “available output” and “available demands” was real, could Parecon avoid it? I doubt both points.

Regarding the latter point, it’s peculiar that Albert still talks about “income” when discussing a world where “people work as they choose” and “consume as they choose.” Clearly, when you aren’t paid for work and don’t have to pay to consume, the concepts of “income” and “money” lose all meaning. So there wouldn’t be “demands for income,” but “demands for goods” of many different kinds. The potential mismatch wouldn’t merely be quantitative (not enough income to satisfy demands), but qualitative: not enough goods of some kinds, too many goods of other kinds, goods with undesired properties or unsatisfactory quality of a third kind. Clearly, merely paying people for their work can’t resolve this qualitative mismatch. By continuing to think in the capitalist concept of “income” instead of in terms of social output or goods, the pareconish “solution” simply misses the essential point.

Parecon tries to address the qualitative mismatch by “participatory planning” where “workers and consumers councils present proposals and by continually refining them interactively cooperatively negotiate – self regulate – inputs and outputs.” While the sketched process seems quite formal and bureaucratic to me, I do agree that some such social processes for aligning production and consumption are necessary. But if they occur, while still keeping the additional crutch of money and payment? If negotiation processes about what should be produced in order to satisfy demands take place, they produces all kinds of specific signs about mismatches been production and consumption. They indicate not only whether more work is necessary, but also which kinds of work are lacking and of which there is already to much.

True, these signs alone don’t guarantee that people actually choose to engage in the requested kinds of tasks, but neither does a general “paid work” scheme, unless it is part of a fully fledged market for labor and goods, where those that produce unsalable goods or are unwilling or unable to engage in sought-after occupations are threatened by non-payment, social failure, and ultimately starvation. Albert rightly doesn’t want that, but if he doesn’t want a market he should be consistent and do away with the idea of payment as well. Neither concept makes sense without the other.

This becomes especially clear when we look at the other side of the pricing system, the prices of goods. Albert’s text doesn’t mention how they are determined. In capitalism, the prices charged for a good gravitate around its value, as analyzed by Karl Marx. The value of a good is the amount of labor necessary, on average and with the best generally available technology, to produce it. If a company uses outdated technology or employs workers that are slower or make more mistake, the value of the goods it produces still equals the value of the same goods produced elsewhere, hence it cannot expect to sell them for a higher price. If the workers are the problem, it can compensate by paying them less per hour or by firing them and recruiting others instead. Worker cooperatives in Parecon are not supposed to do that. Instead, “remuneration should reflect how long you work,” hence a slow worker still receives the same hourly payment as a fast one. But how would consumers react to that? Would they willingly pay a higher price to a cooperative that employs many slow workers instead of buying from another one that can offer the same goods cheaper because its workers are faster? I doubt it.

Without the averaging effect that results from the necessity for companies to compete with each other on the market (and likewise for laborers to compete on the labor market), the concept of “price” becomes meaningless. I don’t know if Albert hopes to do away with values and still keep prices, or if he hopes to do away with markets and still keep values, but neither reduction makes sense.

Generally Parecon seem to be designed to address effects caused by market forces, while at the same time claiming to overcome the market. But if the latter was true, then the former would no longer be an issue. This is most evident when Albert motivates “balanced job complexes.” He argues:

In coops and occupied workplaces, often, over time, initial excitement starts to dissipate. Most workers find themselves eventually skipping council meetings. Few people wind up deciding options. Income differentials enlarge. Alienation ensues…. To address this depressing situation, the third feature parecon offers is called balanced job complexes, wherein all jobs are “balanced” so they each have roughly the same overall empowerment effect.

People skip meetings and, therefore, income differences increase? In which way? Do some people get larger incomes because they no longer go to meetings and can therefore spend more time getting work done? Or do the other people that still go to meetings get larger incomes, maybe as a compensation for the ensuing boredom? Whichever way you turn it, the chain of causation seems at least implausible. Much more plausible is the simple reason that coops and occupied workplaces, like all market participants, exist in a situation of competition. They must compete against other producers in order to sell their products, and they must compete on the labor market in order to attract workers. This double competition makes it hard or impossible to keep up internal income equality.

If a coop’s general wage is high, its products will necessarily be more expensive than those of its competitors. If its general wage is low, it is unable to attract workers with special qualifications that can receive much higher salaries elsewhere. Either way, it’ll fail in the market as a result. The same catch applies to all factors where a coop tries to distinguish itself from its more traditionally structured competitors. If its behavior reduces cost, the competitors will copy it. But if (much more likely), it increases cost (e.g. a more relaxed working rhythm, more time spend in meetings, less overtime, fewer working hours in general, or longer paid vacations), it risks losing its competitiveness and going bankrupt. The unsurprising result is that, the longer a cooperative survives in the market, the harder it becomes to find significant differences to other companies.

Would it still make sense to force people into “balanced job complexes” if the leveling effect of the market did no longer exist? I don’t see why. Without a market and without a need for people to get and keep a job in order to “earn their living,” most people’s occupations would be much more varied than today anyway. To quote the famous, if a bit quaint, statement by Marx and Engels:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. (The German Ideology, 1846)

But if I’m happy with hunting and criticizing, why force me to herd cattle as well? If all my passion goes to fishing, and society can use what I do, why shouldn’t people just let me do what I like most? Allowing and encouraging varied and multifarious occupations makes sense. Bureaucratizing this and forcing everybody to comply with it, doesn’t.

What, though, if nobody wants to fish and yet many people want to eat fish? Only in such cases, where there is a general mismatch between people’s summed productive preferences and their summed consumptive preferences, something has to give. Either those who want fish will have to do without, or they’ll have to find a solution that yields the fish. Such a solution would not even necessarily require anybody to fish. Maybe automated fish-raising and processing systems are feasible. That would still require people who construct and attend these systems. But now the task has already shifted a lot, and such a modified approach is likely to wake the interest of people who don’t care for traditional fishing.

For those generally unwanted tasks where neither automation nor re-organization is a realistic option, I have proposed collecting them in “task pools” and distributing them among all. This would mean that everybody who takes part in these pools (most likely, practically everybody) would spend some hours each week or month doing tasks they don’t really enjoy. However, since people’s preferences about what they like and what they don’t like doing are so varied, and because of the potentials of automation, re-organization, and just doing without certain things, I don’t think that would be a big or troublesome burden.

In general, I consider the “stigmergic” approach of people leaving hints about what they want to be done and others choosing to follow the hints they consider important, interesting, or fun, better than any existing or proposed alternative for bridging the gap between people’s productive and consumptive preferences. Most people enjoy doing things that are actually useful to others more than just working for the garbage can. And while most people enjoy leisure, few would feel entirely fulfilled by it. Most also enjoy being productive, doing things for others, at least from time to time.

Markets also bridge the gap, but only for those who can afford to pay, and at tremendous social costs. Mere payment for work, when not embedded in a real market mechanism, cannot bridge the gap. Bureaucratic approaches, as expressed by Parecon’s “balanced job complexes” and its iterative “participatory planning,” may bridge the gap to some degree, but the social costs, such as forcing everybody to engage in activities they don’t like (even if others would like them) and to spend a long time in planning meetings, seem unnecessarily high. Additionally there has never been a bureaucratic regime without the emergence of a specially privileged class of bureaucrats, and while Parecon tries to avoid that, it is far from clear that it would succeed.

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