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A worker's critique of parecon

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This article is from libcom.com.

Now I don't know well the parecom and I don't read well the article and other critique ( http://libcom.org/library/participatory-society-or-libertarian-communism ), but I think is usefuls read the critique and continue the debate for a new society


 Criticism of the idea of participatory economics, or parecon, from the perspective of a worker. Despite its theoreticians' grand plans, we resist work now and we would continue to do so under parecon.


Introduction


I have read a lot of discussions about parecon - a proposed economic model for a non-capitalist society. I have even taken part in one detailed debate here.


There is a lot of theoretical discussion about the nature of class, complimentary holism, some stuff about the Russian revolution, planning and so on. But I have never seen anything written about it from the point from the actual perspective of workers. And as members of the working class ourselves this should be the most important perspective from which we analyse things, so that's what I plan to do.


I have been meaning to write this article for a while and this recent discussion in our forums reminded me to actually get round to it.


Fair wages?


The four main planks of parecon are: 1
1. Workers and consumers self managed councils
2. Balanced job complexes
3. Remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor
4. Participatory planning


The most problematic of these, to communists or anarchists at least, is point 3: often summarised as "reward for effort and sacrifice". It is controversial because the central plank of the communist programme has long been the abolition of wage labour.2


So parecon does away with this, and instead of abolishing wage labour proposes a "fair" way of allocating wages. I totally disagree with this on political and logical grounds, and so this is the area I will examine.


This point has been argued on a theoretical level many times already, including in the debate I linked to above. So instead of criticising it on a political basis I will instead look at what that would mean from the perspective of workers in a parecon society. I will base my statements on how we respond to work as workers in the real world now.


So, what does rewarding effort and sacrifice mean? Basically "that if a person works longer or harder, or if a person undertakes tasks that are generally considered to be less desirable then they should be entitled to more reward."3


This raises a major problem, which pareconites seem to just brush over. Namely, this is how is effort and sacrifice measured?


This may seem like a minor point, however it is absolutely essential for the functioning of the system.


Parecon advocates attempt to address this by peer-effort ratings, everyone filling out a form of some kind on their workmates, rating how much effort people have put in despite their natural talents or disabilities.


However, this is an idea which has been devised from above, much like some kind of anti-capitalist management consultants. Their impact on the ground for workers, and workers' responses do not seem to have been considered.


Now if we look at capitalist society as it is, we see there is a central contradiction: employers want workers to carry out as much work as possible, for as little reward as possible. Workers on the other hand want to do as little as possible, for as much as possible. It is from this basic contradiction that class struggle arises.


If a new economic system retains wages, there will still be this fundamental contradiction. In the USSR, for example, instead of a mix of private and state employers in most countries, there was just one employer, the state. However the contradiction was the same.


So, what would I do if I was a worker under parecon? It would still be in my interests to perform as little work as possible and get as much money as possible. Although the way to get more would be to appear to be putting in more effort, and sacrificing more.


So some ways I would do this would be the way I and other workers do this now, and some of them would have to be altered to the new conditions.


Collective resistance


As for the peer rating of effort: even in my current workplace, which doesn't have a particularly high level of workers' solidarity, if management introduced such a scheme we would just get together and decide collectively to all rate each other as highly as possible. That way we would all gain.


And as for sacrifice, we could also collectively decide to do a minimal number of hours each day, and yet rate each other as having worked ten-hour days. (At several previous jobs colleagues and I have covered for each other by punching in for each other alternately, as I've written about here.)


Alternatively, if instead of peer rating there was some external assessor (which would seem to contradict the supposed egalitarianism of parecon), we would just put on a show whenever the assessor was there, as workers do currently when a foreman is about.4


Bear in mind that this is what occurs in workplaces in the UK today, where workers' solidarity has been broken up significantly. Parecon can only exist in a world where there has been a proletarian revolution, where workers have fought together on barricades and some will have died for each other. Especially under those sort of circumstances it would be unthinkable for people to go back to work and start spying and grassing on each other about people not pulling their weight or getting in late. Even now despite competitive workplaces and the risk of sacking (which presumably won't exist under parecon) workers often cover for each other and grasses are ostracised.


Additionally, if effort and sacrifice is what is rewarded, then if your team comes up with some new equipment or new processes which make the work easier, then you would have to do keep them secret, in order not to have your pay reduced. And of course this would be highly detrimental to society as a whole - as a rational economy would be based on trying to minimise the amount of work and effort which would have to be done.


Individual resistance


Apart from those sort of collective measures, other workers and I would also engage in individual ways of increasing our earnings and decreasing our workload.


Now, effort and sacrifice couldn't just be applied universally, as people have different abilities. Women who are pregnant, workers who might be smaller or weaker than others, people who have disabilities, or who are temporarily ill or injured might have to do putting more effort and time to have the same kind of output as other workers.


Not to mention that people have completely different sets of abilities anyway. Some may be quicker with numbers than others, for example, others may have quicker hands.


And aside from abilities, people have different preferences. For some working in an office all day would be unbearable, however for others manual labour would be much more onerous.


So if individuals' effort has to be assessed, it would have to be done so on the basis of their pre-existing abilities and preferences. Therefore I would just lie about mine. I would just say I had depression or whatever so even turning up for work in the first place would be a huge effort on my part, let alone actually doing anything when I'm there. And writing stuff up? I'm not very good at that, I'm dyslexic. And lifting? I'm very weak, and I have a bad back. Working long hours? I get migraines. Working indoors? I'm claustrophobic. Working outdoors? You guessed it, agoraphobic…


And of course this wouldn't just be me, these practices would be widespread. Far more widespread even than they are today, because under parecon there would not be the same sanctions as there are today, principally unemployment (or jail in the case of the more state capitalist economies like North Korea).


If anyone thinks I am over estimating this they would do well to read these accounts of how widespread shirking effectively destroyed East Germany and wore down the Soviet Union.


Conclusion


I believe the problems of parecon are shared by many politicos who have grand visions about the future who, like sci-fi nerds, like to imagine what a different world could look like.



2012 parecon convention


But like many politicos their mistake is rooted in their ideas being based on how better to manage capital. As communists we do not believe that capital can be managed in the interests of workers.5 Therefore our politics and our future vision of the world have to be based always in our everyday life and our experience as workers.


For if a revolution doesn't abolish "work" as a distinct activity separate from the rest of life, then workers will always fight against it. 6


And that being the case the only way to enforce effective labour discipline would be to recreate capitalism with its reserve army of unemployed workers and the threat of unemployment and destitution.


So in short if we want something workable our choice is one of full communism, or none at all.



  • 1.According to Parecon Today by Michael Albert, the leading proponent of parecon.

  • 2.Two major examples of this being the revolutionary union Industrial Workers of the World preamble which demands "the abolition of the wage system", and Karl Marx in Value, prices and profit stating: "take off your banners the reactionary slogan a fair days pay for a fair days work and instead inscribe upon your banner the revolutionary watchword; the abolition of the wages system".

  • 3.The project for a participatory society's vision .

  • 4.The picture, above, is a tongue-in-cheek clip from 1960s Italian film The working class goes to heaven, with Michael Albert's face crudely cut and pasted onto the body of the piece rate monitor.

  • 5.I believe that reading the excellent Aufheben series What was USSR? is also essential reading, and has important parallels with parecon in this respect.

  • 6.I won't go into detail about what this means as I think it is explained better in other detailed articles, like this one by the Anarchist Federation. But as evidence that it is not an unachievable pipedream I will quickly point out that many pre-capitalist societies did not have a word for "work", or in some which did it was the same word as "play". And just about every type of "work" currently done under capitalism, is also done by workers as leisure. For example, cleaning, caring for children, caring for the sick, playing music, making films, growing food, etc.

Discussion 9 Comments

  • I.N. Reiter 11th Apr 2012

    "As for the peer rating of effort: even in my current workplace, which doesn't have a particularly high level of workers' solidarity, if management introduced such a scheme we would just get together and decide collectively to all rate each other as highly as possible. That way we would all gain."

    Such a behaviour wouldn´t be rewarded in a ParEcon because all (or most) of the tasks to do are measured and have standardized average values regarding the unpleasantness of the work, and the effort is in connection to the number of produced goods or services. Councils which demand very much renumeration of the goods collectively produced, but have contributed very little output would rise the awareness of the other councils.

    Even if the other councils decide to do the same they would produce less and less after every planning circle, which means that here would be less renumeration, even if they falsely demand a greater share. As parecon is classless, there´s nobody left to betray besides themselves.

    "Additionally, if effort and sacrifice is what is rewarded, then if your team comes up with some new equipment or new processes which make the work easier, then you would have to do keep them secret, in order not to have your pay reduced."

    No, because the councils output is measured in relation to the companies output and the companies output in relation to the output of the economy. So if they keep innovations secret, they would again keep their working hours higher and their renumeration lower then possible.

    What should be seen is, that in a ParEcon the councils are linked over a transparent system of data flow. Every information regarding summarized production and consumption numbers is accessible for everybody.

    "Now, effort and sacrifice couldn't just be applied universally, as people have different abilities. Women who are pregnant, workers who might be smaller or weaker than others, people who have disabilities, or who are temporarily ill or injured might have to do putting more effort and time to have the same kind of output as other workers."

    The measurement of effort and sacrifice takes peoples abilities into account and isn´t just measured in the fulfilment of physical tasks but as well in work duration and personal sacrifice. People who can´t work get at least societies average renumeration plus means to cover special needs and hardship.

    "Therefore I would just lie about mine. I would just say I had depression or whatever so even turning up for work in the first place would be a huge effort on my part, let alone actually doing anything when I'm there. And writing stuff up? I'm not very good at that, I'm dyslexic. And lifting? I'm very weak, and I have a bad back. Working long hours? I get migraines. Working indoors? I'm claustrophobic. Working outdoors? You guessed it, agoraphobic"

    I wouldn´t see that as general behaviour. I´m working very much even in a our present society because I´m eager to learn and to extend my abilities. If I´d do bad work I really would´ve no reason to show up. Although you´d rob yourself of democratic influence, at least in workers councils. You have to remember that you have a decision in the councils as much the decision effects you personally.

    "And of course this wouldn't just be me, these practices would be widespread. Far more widespread even than they are today, because under parecon there would not be the same sanctions as there are today, principally unemployment (or jail in the case of the more state capitalist economies like North Korea)."

    No, but there would be a loss of income year after year and a regressive social development and no party, no state and no capitalist to blame, so you´d know that´s either false numbers or a lack of discipline and commitment or both that created the dropping income.

    "But like many politicos their mistake is rooted in their ideas being based on how better to manage capital. As communists we do not believe that capital can be managed in the interests of workers.5 Therefore our politics and our future vision of the world have to be based always in our everyday life and our experience as workers"

    ParEcon is not about managing capital it´s about managing societies allocation of products and labour in a democratic way.

    In a ParEcon there would be much less alienating labour and less working hours and the alienating work left is more equally distributed. But it has to be done. As long as you live in a society, contribution will be measured, input and output has to be measured and I think Participatory Economics are a good and just model to do that.

    "For if a revolution doesn't abolish "work" as a distinct activity separate from the rest of life, then workers will always fight against it."

    That´s not completely possible, even with widespread automation and ParEcon takes into account that there are alienating, boring and depressing tasks and empowering, challenging and creative ones. The first one, the unpleasant labour has to be automated and abolished as much as possible and the last one has to be shared as much as possible.

    I think the critics arguments are not very good at all, they have no complete picture about ParEcon institutions and their interdependence and they have a far too negative picture about human behaviour.

  • Joe Henson 12th Apr 2012

    This is probably the biggest division in vision between anti-authoritarian anti-capitalists and deserves some serious discussion. I'm looking forward to a debate that represents both sides carefully and learn what the other is really about. Still waiting, unfortunately.
    If everyone in a workplace all gave each other maximum ratings, this would not change the size of the pot allocated to that workplace. The result would be an equal share of the pot for each worker. This should very clear from even skimming the writing on Parecon, and so I find it hard to take this article very seriously. It's just a lazy bit of polemic.
    Further, the size of the pot is *not* determined by some bureaucrat either. It reflects the social costs and benefits of the workplaces's activities and comes out of negotiation with other workers, in such a way that lying about your plant or output is counterproductive. Authors on Parecon go to great pains to point out that this is *way* different from what is called state capitalism above, and that the differences are such that they avoid these problems with dissimulation. That seems highly relevant to the argument above to me, but those parts of the Parecon argument are just ignored. Again, a very weak argument.
    If you argue against Parecon on the grounds that workers will always seek to do the least for the most, this begs the question of why your solution is to let people do as little and get as much as they like. Obviously the author believes this is not always a problem. Doesn't this need to be addressed if you attack someone else on those grounds?
    The "workerier than thou" cheap shot that Parecon avoids looking at things from the worker's perspective is a misinterpretation brought on by too much Capital, I suspect. The issues addressed under this banner in the above piece are nothing but issues of incentives, which are in fact covered at great length. It's one of the first things you will see addressed, if you are used to plain English. Perhaps the straightforward language used was hard for the author to interpret without a 400 page introduction about transformation of coats, bibles, M-C-M, cotton and relative surplus this and that.
    I'd rather be at a convention of trekkies than in a mausoleum full of ghosts and skeletons. Taking a look at debates between libertarian socialists in the 20th century makes it obvious some more innovation was needed, and Parecon is it.

  • Michael Albert 12th Apr 2012

    The concerns the person raises are all perfectly sensible to raise, on having read some short piece or on having heard a short talk about parecon - but they have been dealt with at length so many times, in so many places, including every one specifically, that anyone who wants to take the ideas of parecon seriously would address the points readily available. That people do not do that - and virtually never respond when points like the above are addressed - is frustrating...

    I am tempted to go through the piece point by point - but I also feel like I have done that so often - from the book Parecon: Life After Capitalism onward, and before as well, that it would be better for others to do so, here. Maybe I will go to the origin site and put a comment. Of course, if someone in IOPS has a question they particularly want me to answer, I would do so. But short, of that, rather than repeat at length what I have put up numerous times, already, here I want to make just three brief points.

    (1) Having income, and some norm or other for determining its level from person to person, is not the same as having wage slavery. In fact having income is simply unavoidable. We get stuff - or claims on stuff - and that is income. Anyone who says having income is maintaining wage slavery either doesn't understand what wage slavery refers to, or doesn't understand what income is. Saying that self managed work, without owners, without a ruling coordinator class, with balanced job complexes, and with people receiving a share of the social product that reflects their activity - duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor - is wage slavery is utterly ludicrous.

    (2) It is even more incredible to me that someone who is obviously reasonably well informed, or more, can say that parecon runs the risk that people will try to get too much stuff (actually misunderstanding the system) by inflating their claims of duration, intensity, or onerousness of their labor, but thinks a system in which you simply announce how much you are going to receive, with no relation to anything other than what you decide you want, would be just fine... When addressing parecon people are so vile, that even though self managing, even though in an environment of mutual aid and solidarity, even though having fair allocation of circumstances and income - even though it is actually in fact almost impossible to successfully cheat and even so doing so would entail at a minimum ostracism and at a maximum whatever society decided - still everyone in a parecon would struggle to get more than their fair share - but in a society in which there is simply no way to even know what is fair, and no obstacle whatsoever to erring in going too high or too low as compared to what would be fair, not only wouldn't people will fully abuse it (with zero penalty for doing so), but they would somehow, magically, arrive at sensible choices. To me - that is an amazing juxtaposition...

    (3) However, there are some forms of concern over remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor (the last phrase being an essential part of the norm) that have substance... and short or reading a full book presentation - which I admit, I think is warranted - I would like to recommend a recent essay in which I try to deal with those concerns, taking the best possible representative of the libertarian or anarchistic worries that I could find - Noam Chomsky. The essay I offer is called, Querying the Young Chomsky - and is here: http://www.zcommunications.org/querying-young-chomsky-by-michael-albert

    • 12th Apr 2012

      THanks all for the responses. I think this debate is very importat, but now, I haven't the instrument for says my opinion. I only read and reflect about it, but I'm worried about this situation because is "the biggest division in vision between anti-authoritarian anti-capitalists". SO thanks for responses and the link of essay.

      I think is important, also if you had already answer to the critique in the other moments, answer more, maybe in the original site, where there is a more important essay of discussion with the link I have mentioned, called "Parecon or libertarian communism?"

      The XX sec of anarchists and antiauthoritarian movements was already quite bad, the XXI sec with the new form of insurrection from Seattle/Genova to Arab Spring and OccupyNY must to be better and the movement need to create a really alternative!

  • Kim Keyser 13th Apr 2012

    Joe Henson: "If everyone in a workplace all gave each other maximum ratings, this would not change the size of the pot allocated to that workplace. The result would be an equal share of the pot for each worker. This should very clear from even skimming the writing on Parecon"

    This isn't a big thing for me, and I'm not going polemical here, I'm just curious and nonplussed when thinking of a certain situation. If duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor would be the norm, and a workplace has an above average composition of its workforce consisting of people who're not very productive due to severe limitations (physical and mental disabilities), but still perform above average in duration, intensity and onerousness. If what you said were true – that the pot for the workplace is fixed and not variable on the composition of people who work there – I can't see how you could make the claim that people are still being rewarded according to duration, intensity and onerousness...

    One of these must be false, no? Isn't it true that EITHER workplaces receive different pots according to how many people with productive restraints who're working there and their effort OR effort is not rewarded?

  • Kim Keyser 13th Apr 2012

    Michael Albert: "but in a society in which there is simply no way to even know what is fair, and no obstacle whatsoever to erring in going too high or too low as compared to what would be fair, not only wouldn't people will fully abuse it (with zero penalty for doing so), but they would somehow, magically, arrive at sensible choices. To me - that is an amazing juxtaposition..."

    I think I.N. Reiter gave a good answer to Joseph Kay's article, and in general I agree that /full/ communism (here I'm talking about the economic system, not of the so called communism of so-called communist states, of course) isn't a feasible model any time soon (if ever).

    However, I think it's not realistic to suppose that "not only wouldn't people will fully abuse it (with zero penalty for doing so)". Every society have social norms, and people who break the social norms – especially in a severe manner – will likely experience social sanctions. This is true for capitalism, communism and parecon alike.

    Both the abilities and needs are relative and variable concepts. I think few Libertarian communists think that commmunism's "according to need" necessarily implies no penalties for taking an extremely huge chunk of the products. One problem for communists though has been that they've seldom tried to operationalize needs and abilities. And the few times they've done so, they've ended up with non-commumism anyway. Indeed, the (very) short paragraph were Marx tried to operationalize it, he basically ended up with renumeration based upon the crude concept of numbers of hours worked. The same is true for the council communists (Jan Appel to be more specific) The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution. And the most usual (although not the only) allocation mechanism amongst libertarian communists during the Spanish council movement in 1936-1939, was indeed money based on hours worked and how many children you had.

    Although quite a few of the critical remarks of libertarian communists are often spot on, it's not enough to criticize. One needs to go /beyond criticism/, and construct viable alternatives.

    I do think remuneration of effort is incredibly difficult to operationalize for pareconists too though. And neither do I think some kind of money – earned by remuneration of effort – should be the only allocation mechanism. But I'm fine with it being one of several, for the category of products they're the most suitable to. (More about this some other time.)

  • Joe Henson 13th Apr 2012

    Hi Kim, sure that's an interesting question (maybe the tone of my last post was more aggressive than it needed to be, I hope it didn't out people off raising other objections!). I said that the pot for a workplace does not alter depending on how the workers rate each other. But it can depend on other factors. Hahnel suggests that it is set in a certain sensible way from the social costs and benefits of running the firm, as calculated in the planning process. This is set to reflect the social "value added" by the effort of workers (bear in mind that the social costs of employing different types of labour will be different, so this is taken into account if things are all priced properly).
    There certainly are further good questions here. For example, I think Parecon authors admit that a person could conceivably pretend to be unproductive early in their life in order to get better effort ratings later. I think with the pay rule I describe above workers would also be penalized for wasting resources (this comes in as part of the effort rating, if you like). Going through some examples helps here. When assessing these things it's worth considering whther this is better or worse than the other systems on offer, though!

  • Kim Keyser 13th Apr 2012

    Thanks for your answer Joe. And we agree fully on this: "When assessing these things it's worth considering whther this is better or worse than the other systems on offer, though!"

  • Dave Jones 13th Apr 2012

    There is a theoretical conundrum involved in trying to think and/or imagine beyond capitalism while living/being inside it. The author mentions the transformative process of "resistance on the barricades" as creating the "New Man", so to speak. This is process and happens through time, it is the creation of solidarity where little existed before. The tendency is to try to use historical models, the East Bloc or Cuba or Paris Commune or Barcelona but these each have their own complex matrix of contingent factors.

    I have personally seen "slackers" get motivated when trust is built and time taken to explain purpose and goals.