Why I Still Doubt

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 Peercommony Doubts Parecon? All articles can be found on the debate overview page – more will follow.]

Parecon, like capitalism, is based on paid labor, apparently based on the reasoning that people wouldn’t otherwise work enough. In my preceding reply I had doubted that assumption. When defending payment for work, you, Michael, seem to consider money as mere “information,” guiding people’s choices about how much they need to work and how much they can consume. You also seem to imagine a very impoverished model of social interaction where no other information that could influence such choices is available:

As I wrote in the original piece, “[the gap between consumption and production arises] not because people are either greedy, lazy, or irresponsible, but because people have no way to know what is responsible and moral.”

It must be a very sad society indeed where payment is the only thing that makes people “responsible and moral.” That’s not the kind of society I want.

Implicit in your remark is the admission that payment for work would not be necessary if there were other ways of closing the information gap, of bringing people’s consumptive needs and their productive needs together. I think that such other ways exist and have discussed them in my previous texts.

You reject the idea that people are generally “greedy and lazy.” But a related idea clearly underlies all your arguments: consumption is good, and hence to be maximized, while work (production) is bad and to be minimized:

I reply that if we disconnect work and income, people will typically want to work too little for the social good to be optimally met, and people will want to take more from the social product than is available. If we don’t correlate what people do and what they get, people will have no indication excessive or diminutive choices are wrong.

The last sentence again points to your impoverished social model where money is the only indicator of how to behave. And yet, such choices can be informed by other indicators rather than the brutal “if you cannot pay for it, you won’t get it.”

Parecon says your share of the social product should accord with your duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor.

What about socially valued labor that is not onerous? You seem to think it doesn’t exist, or only so rarely it doesn’t matter.

Do we agree there is such a thing as just and unjust allocation so that that a person could get too much or too little of the social product relative to what they have contributed, and that a good economy should equilibrate work/leisure allotments to a fair balance for all?

No, we don’t agree on that. You obviously see contributions as something essentially negative, as some kind of sacrifice that people make for the common good but to their own detriment. Hence they have to be rewarded (by getting more social product) for any contributions they make and punished (by getting less social product) if they don’t contribute enough.

Seeing contributions as mere sacrifice might be appropriate for most work in capitalism, but a society that wants to go beyond capitalism should try to do better than that. The “balance” you mention reminds me of the modern concept of “work-life balance,” where work is seen as something essentially separated from life. It’s quite clear that you have to be compensated for working when, instead, you could be living!

But does it have to be like that? Can’t we make work, contributing, a part of life, so rewarding in itself that it doesn’t require a separate additional reward? I think we can, and should. By not even trying to make work something better than what it is in capitalism, parecon is aiming far too low.

You argue that everyone – with no norms and little information – will consume and work appropriately.

I never said that. Information – stigmergic hints – are essential, and social values – an ethics of sharing and caring – are important too. I just say that money is a poor substitute for information, and an even poorer substitute for ethics.

At the same time, you argue that if people have needed information, and also have options only to operate within indicated limits, people will so want to violate those agreed limits that it will only be to avoid starvation that they participate.

Your really seem to think that money is nothing more than information, a neutral layer that “informs” people how much their contributions are valued and how much their consumption costs. But in the next sentence you reveal that it is something very different indeed:

This is like saying people will stop at red lights if no one knows you should do so because there is no red light norm – but people will want to run red lights if everyone knows you should stop or, indeed, if it was impossible not to stop.

Putting a chain around somebody’s feet is not the same as merely “informing” them that they should not go too far away. Throughout your text you protest against my using the word “coercion,” but here you talk quite happily about physically preventing people from going somewhere. If that’s not coercion, then what is?

But indeed, something that physically restrains people’s movements is a much more apt metaphor for money than the innocent term “information.” Information informs people’s choices, while a lack of money (and the consequential need to earn it) forces them.

Prices, Values, and the Market

But money not only forces people, it also puts them into antagonistic relations. That antagonism exists between buyers and sellers – the more money the seller gets, the less the buyer keeps to get other things. And it exists between different sellers of the same or similar goods: if buyers choose another seller instead of me, I don’t earn money.

Hence sellers are forced to compete against each other, trying to outsell their competitors. And buyers, as least those who buy in order to sell (input for their own products) are forced to choose the cheapest seller who offers what they need. These antagonistic relations are forced upon people by their use of money, not only in capitalism, but apparently in parecon too.

At least it seems so. You haven’t answered my question whether you want prices without values (in the sense of Marx) or values without markets. According to Marx’s analysis, values emerge as a consequence of the market, which forces companies and laborers to compete against each other. Your non-answer is unfortunate, since money and price are impossible to understand without the underlying notion of value.

Implicitly the same concept of value that underlies capitalism seems to be assumed:

More relevantly, but following the same logic, nor can I spend ten hours doing what average intensity by a competent worker would do in five hours, and claim ten hours effort – because only five was socially valuable. Thus, I have a strong incentive to avoid doing things I can’t do competently. Parecon’s workers have to be doing socially valuable work to be remunerated. If I am particularly bad at doing some job, so my doing it is not a socially valuable use of my time, I can’t do it for income, or at least I can’t do it for full income, because some of my time spent at it will not be socially productive.

This is exactly value as it exists in capitalism: the value of a good is the average amount of labor necessary to produce it (including necessary materials, pre-products, and partially tools), assuming reasonably skilled workers and the best generally available technology. Apparently you not only want workers to compete against each other, with those less skilled dropping out or having to accept a reduced payment. You also want firms to compete against each other, just as in capitalism:

Addressing another concern you raised, in any good economy workers should not apply their efforts at tasks they cannot do well enough for the result to be socially desired. But, you implicitly wonder, how can we deal with that positively? Well, if full employment is ensured, and parecon does that, and if incomes are just, and parecon does that – then if a workplace cannot produce things people desire at costs people find acceptable – it should not continue operating. We should not squander valuable assets on insubstantial benefits.

In an an earlier text, you also make it clear that workers’ cooperatives really have to compete against each other:

Workers councils whose proposals have lower than average social benefit to social cost ratios are forced to increase either their efforts or efficiency to win the approval of other workers.

The lowest bidder wins the price. Of course, this also means that workplaces have to use whatever tricks they can get away with in order to reach costs that are at least “average.” (That notion is a bit misleading here since sub-average workplace have to decrease their cost or drop out completely, thus decreasing the new average and putting more pressure on the remaining workplaces.)

Environment, customers (who might get something that is e.g. less healthy or durable than they had hoped for), and workers themselves will likely suffer as a result of these tricks, but that can’t be helped. It’s competition. Or would community standards prevent that, as you’ll probably argue? They might to some degree, just as laws in capitalism prevent some of the worst behavior that unregulated competition would otherwise produce. But the problem with such remedies that they can only compensate – to some degree – for the bad effects that the system introduced in the first place. People are set up against each other, being forced to “beat” others in the competitive struggle. That’s not easy, and in order to increase their chances everybody is practically forced to interpret standards and rules “generously” or to violate them altogether whenever they think they can get away with it. Not because people are bad, but because the system leaves them no choice.

In such a situation, the promise of “full employment” becomes implausible too. What becomes of the workplaces that cannot compete and instead “squander valuable assets on insubstantial benefits?” In theory, the people working there will “simply” have to find work in other areas, thus increasing the intensity of competition elsewhere. In practice, of course, that’s far from simple. That everybody would find work “somewhere” sounds as implausible as everybody finding a job in capitalism.

Regarding the price of goods, which also troubled you, in parecon a process of cooperative negotiation equilibrates what firms offer to produce and what consumers seek to enjoy. The prices that emerge from this cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs numerically summarize true personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits.

That negotiation seems to be basically the same process that underlies exchange in capitalist markets every day. “Can you make that for me for $5?” – “Impossible.” – “OK, X say they can, I’ll buy from them instead.” – “Wait, we’ll see what we can do.” Etc.

The closer one looks at parecon, the more similar to capitalism it seems to be. In parecon, the negotiation between potential payers and potential producers takes place upfront, before the goods in question are actually produced. In end-user markets, it’s usually the other way around. But that’s hardly a significant difference, and upfront-negotiation markets are common in capitalism too (e.g. for “B2B” transactions between different companies).

Time Logic and the Gender Bias of “Socially Valued Work”

Michael, you want all “socially valuable work to be remunerated”: people are paid whenever they do something socially useful. For determining payments, you subscribe to the efficiency logic: like any good manager, you don’t want to pay person A for ten hours when person B could do the same job in five. This reasoning is generally dubious, since people would hardly accept it for other activities: “You spent three weeks reading that novel, while another person could have read it in one!” – “Why didn’t you sleep with X instead of Y? You could have reached orgasm in half the time!”

When one enjoys doing something, there is no reason to minimize the time spent doing it. But you seem unable to conceive “socially valuable work” as anything else than a sacrifice.

Even capitalism could not exist if all “socially valuable work” was subjugated to the logic of efficiency. There are many useful activities which require a rejection and reversal of that logic to be done well. People who spend the least possible amount of time with their children will hardly be the best parents. Ill and old people don’t benefit from attendants and doctors dealing with them as quickly as they can.

Such “care” work is the often invisible “backside” of capitalism. Capitalism couldn’t exist without it, but it largely occurs outside of capitalist companies. Often it is unpaid and most of it is done by women. When it is moved inside the capitalist sphere, e.g. in privatized, for-profit hospitals and nursing homes, the results are often detrimental for the recipients of the care. In this area, the “get the job done in the shortest possible time” logic of capitalism is even more ominous than elsewhere.

Parecon wants to organize all “socially valuable work” according to this efficiency logic. This leaves a worrisome alternative. Either, the parecon proponents don’t mean what they say but think that much care work will still occur outside the formal economic sphere they want to reorganize via participative planning. In this case, it would continue to be unpaid and unrecognized, just increasing the workload of those who do it. Most likely, it would continue to be a burden mainly for women, thus perpetuating the gender division of work characteristic for capitalism.

The other, hardly better alternative is that parecon indeed subjugates all care work to its logic of efficiency and effort minimization. The outcome for those who need care would hardly be pleasant.

How the Gap between Production and Consumption is Closed

In my previous reply I had noted that merely paying people for work and requiring everyone to pay for goods will not close the qualitative gap between the goods that are produced and the goods that are needed. Closing this gap either requires a fully-fledged market with competition between companies and laborers, or else some kind of coordination mechanism among producers and consumers. Parecon tries to realize the latter in form of “participatory planning.” I had wondered why you seem to think that participatory planning is able to close the qualitative gap between production and consumption (producing the wrong kinds of goods) but not the quantitative gap (not producing enough goods), since the latter is just an aspect of the former.

You haven’t directly responded to that, except by saying:

How do you think a pareconish firm, with certain resources, tools, and people, and which has to be doing socially valued production to warrant its inputs and its workers incomes, can operate inefficiently or even slothfully or incompetently, and yet have those in it do just fine, feeling no reason to change their ways?

But it’s not a question of efficiency within firms – rather the question is how to organize the social production of work, how to ensure that each firm produces things and services that are useful to somebody, and how to ensure that everyone’s needs are fulfilled. Market competition can do that, though only for those who can afford to pay. While it was unclear to me how parecon hopes to accomplish the same, from the above discussion it seems that the planning mechanism are competition-based and hence can probably do that same. Though at the same social costs of putting people against each other, forcing everyone to compete against others and excluding those who cannot pay. This answers my question, though not in a way I’m happy about.

Balanced Job Complexes and Bureaucracy

I had also wondered why “balanced job complexes” are necessary in the general case. I agree it might take special agreements to distribute tasks which nobody wants to do, but if person A likes doing things which you consider “rote and disempowering,” while person B likes doing things you consider “empowering,” why shouldn’t both do what they like? You merely addresses this by repeating that

parecon balances job offerings for empowerment effects because if jobs are unbalanced regarding empowerment, then after people choose among them, some people will be subordinate to others in a class hierarchy.

The question why you think that some tasks are inherently disempowering and prone to cause subordination is still open. If I like doing something, how can just doing it cause me to become subordinate to others?

In closing, I had expressed some concerns about the bureaucracy which parecon seems to entail. Doesn’t it needlessly make everyone spend a long time in planning meetings, and isn’t there the risk that a privileged class of bureaucrats would emerge?

But who do you see as bureaucrats in parecon? And how, in light of having self management, balanced job complexes, and equitable incomes, will anyone in parecon aggrandize themselves into being a privileged class?

This remark doesn’t address the concern that the pareconish bureaucracy “takes too many evenings,” as Oscar Wilde is supposed to have complained about socialism. If this concern is justified, and it seems to be, then the emergence of specialized bureaucrats is almost a given. The one reason for balanced job complexes that seems somewhat sensible is that it would try to prevent that, forcing everyone to stay involved in the bureaucratic processes whether they want it or not. But that would hardly work in the long run. Trying to create a bureaucracy without bureaucrats seems as futile as trying to make water run uphill.

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