Friday, February 15, 2008

Participatory Economics

I think the concept they're groping towards discovering is known as "money", but I could be completely wrong.

"Some workplaces, such as a coal mine, have an average work rating that is lower than others. Across society, all of these work ratings are averaged, to get an average Work Empowerment Rating for all of society."


Imagine the Excel spreadsheet for that. No, seriously, imagine it, because that's all anybody will be able to do in the brief few hours of a Parecon world before clever people combine to employ to their own advantage the imperialist racist Alexander Hamilton's maxim that "power over a man's subsistence is equivalent to power over his will" -- and reconsider the problem of how to ensure fully staffed coal mines.
"Everyone in a Parecon system belongs to a Worker's Council where they work, and a Consumer's Council where they live."
Mussolicious! Now, what could go wrong with that? But one important question is left unanswered by the video: what if I don't want anything to do with you and your Councils and your fist-wielders?

Enter a world untouched by economics, as you would a newly built Ptolemaic planetarium staffed by enthusiastic young Social Astronomy grad students eager to share some fresh ideas. Disregard the Freudian typos in the core values of "Divirsity" and "Renumeration according to Effort and Sacrifice". Hilariously, the teleprompter-reader even reads the word aloud as "renumeration".

HT LPPS, where you can let a fist be your umbrella.

8 comments:

Honey Pot said...

hahahhahaha, that was funny.



To think that there are dummies out there who would buy into this.

OregonGuy said...

Read NEP and a moneyless society. Been there. Done that.

Oh...it's time to try again.

Sorry. This time I'm sure we'll get it right.

Matt Templeton said...

Michael Albert has some amazing ideas for how society might move to become a much more just place.

Of course he is not alone in suggesting new ways of organising the economy better for people, but his ideas are a good talking point and - you never know - we might get there.

Regarding your points:

1 'imagine the spreadsheet for that'?

Well, imagine the spreadsheets the maths phds use today for choosing which currencies to bet on. Very complex. And of course the results of their actions are often truly horrific for people in economies they bet against.

In reality this doesn't actually sound too complex - you just have to have the will to understand and participate.

2 How long will it take for the fittest to re-assert themselves in such a society?

It depends on YOU. If you - as an obviously very intelligent person - and others like you, do not want it to happen then you can stop it. If you want to, then together we can make justice work.

3 'What if I don't want anything to do with you and your councils...?'

In a participatory economy and society there will be means for people who dislike the institutions in place to negotiate change.

There will be mechanisms for you to suggest change, there will be mediation mechanisms if dissenting activities occur, and ultimately there will be ways for the society to deal with people who are not amenable to what the society has - in a participatory manner - agreed.

I'm sure these processes will be very accomodating as there are clear principles to the way a society like this would be run. Please read Michael Albert's work which I believe contains suggestions on this basis.

Today of course we have no such processes. The vast majority of people have virtually no power over key economic decisions. If they deviate they are met not with engagement but with authority.

Ask yourself, what if someone working for $5/hr for a corporation owned by billionaires today 'doesn't want anything to do with' the institutions of private property and wealth accumulation. They have no choice but to be. If they rebel they'll soon end up in prison.

I believe participatory economics is a good idea. I believe that other ideas may prove more useful as time goes by but that useful ideas in this context mean ideas which suggest radical change from an unjust framework to a just framework of organisation.

Most strongly, I feel that you guys discussing this issue are the very people with the capacity to drive forward a better world, you just need to give yourselves the space to realise what people are capable of and get stuck in.

Thanks.

Mike said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Matt! Much appreciated.

Well, imagine the spreadsheets the maths phds use today for choosing which currencies to bet on. Very complex. And of course the results of their actions are often truly horrific for people in economies they bet against.

But when arbitraging currencies, traders are working within one commodity, a much simpler problem. And more importantly, traders have a goal: to make money on the trade. But those simplicities are gone when you get rid of money and assume that everyone at every instant has the same goals, preferences, ideas, and knowledge. What is the goal of a leather tannery? To make money? To make leather? For shoes, or for car seats, or for art supplies? To turn into a photo processing plant or a renderer? The better and worse choices here are clear to someone looking from the point of view of his own bottom line. Those people alone bear the benefits or costs of their choices. But those wise choices are not clear to those with no knowledge of the situation, i.e., everyone else.

When you consider the thousands upon thousands of uses we know to which a simple bale of hay can be put, and the thousands more we've never even thought of, the craziness of Parecon's reliance on voting to determine the actual use can only lead to waste, or more likely, to crazy, uneconomical decisions on the one hand, and hay for the army while peasants starve on the other hand. Now scale that bale of hay up to the uncountable variety of goods and services available and yet unimagined, and tell me how Parecon will bring anything but disaster and tyranny.

Parecon proposes organizing every human activity in some sort of constantly updated six-billion-dimensional equation that accounts for the momentary preferences of every single person in the system. Arbitraging one commodity is nothing compared to a system which assumes that objective evaluations of occupations can be made and maintained in real time, measured against leisure, etc. For one thing, it assumes away the substitutability of goods and labour. For another, it throws away the specialized knowledge of markets and materials and processes that are only worth gathering by the people most affected by the acquisition or ignorance of that knowledge: the people who want to make money by exploiting its possession. Result: economic collapse, starvation, slavery, and war.

In reality this doesn't actually sound too complex - you just have to have the will to understand and participate.

Beyond the dubious rationalist belief that economic life can be captured in a formula, people like me are another problem for parecon. Temperamentally, I'm just not willing to participate. I'm not a joiner. I have my own agenda, and you need to account for people like me who only help strangers pursue their personal life goals when money for me is involved. I'm not interested and nobody can make me play along -- or, pardon me, you certainly can make me play along, but you won't get my mind. You'd just turn a hard working computer programmer into a part time saboteur posing as a part time street sweeper, who smokes dope in the alley when no one is looking. I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one, because I'd be telling everyone else how dumb they are to work hard.

2 How long will it take for the fittest to re-assert themselves in such a society?

I'm not talking about the fittest -- I'm talking about the most evil and psychopathic, and the large number of people they are able to charm and sway with promises of abundance and equality and justice, who will greatly welcome the coalescence of the levers of power into easily subverted and temporarily "democratic" institutions. The history of proposals like this is not very good, because the threat of starvation or permanent reassignment to the coal mine or chemical testing lab is sufficient to the task of swinging votes. This has all been tried before and it ends as a big prison.

It depends on YOU. If you - as an obviously very intelligent person - and others like you, do not want it to happen then you can stop it. If you want to, then together we can make justice work.

I have a low starvation tolerance -- and if I had a family, I would keep my mouth shut just like everyone else with responsibilities more important than the fate of random negative-nelly neighbours disappearing into the coal mine. When my subsistence level depends on the collective decisions of others, odds are they may not very much like the mean, unhelpful things I say about the alphas -- who, as everyone is daily reminded at both meetings and have come to believe by the usual methods of education and repetition, are as ever only looking out for the community and bringing hope and change in the face of the return of the dark forces of the old ways.

You need to read about the many times in history these promises have been made. Jonestown comes to mind as a relatively successful attempt at organizing people this way.

3 'What if I don't want anything to do with you and your councils...?'

In a participatory economy and society there will be means for people who dislike the institutions in place to negotiate change.

But I am not interested in "negotiating" with anyone about where I work, live, what and when I get to eat, or what meetings I go to. Nobody else cares about those things like I do, or has my level of knowledge about my preferences on those matters. My vote is the only one that counts. It's nobody else's business, and subjecting those choices to a vote most certainly means that I will end up with something other than what I would have chosen, or chosen to pursue. These things are all my choices right now. Why would I give that up without a fight? Sounds more than a little totalitarian to me to suggest that I need to apply to a board to determine where I get to work.

This part really interests me.

Suppose I unilaterally refuse to cooperate with the councils, and start my own clothing factory to sell clothing, completely outside of the councils and the voting and so on -- much as I have the freedom to do today in Canada and the rest of the civilized world, to walk away from my job and start a new business at my own risk and for my own benefit. What would happen to me and my business under a Parecon system?

Matt Templeton said...

Thank you for your response.

Now, let me first say that without re-producing Albert and Hahnel’s book I can not respond to everything you have said. I think you (as everyone!) should engage with books on this subject so you have a really good grasp of the whole thing because I think a lot of what you say seems to reflect not quite appreciating the content of the model:

For example, you say ‘you get rid of money and assume that everyone at every instant has the same goals, preferences, ideas, and knowledge.’ The idea that these assumptions are contained in the theory is not borne out by reading the texts.

So a good place to start is on this page www.zmag.org/parecon/writings/hahnelURPE.htm. Michael Albert I find is nothing if not a pretty clear thinker, check out what he’s saying, it will always be better argued than what I say!

Beyond that I do want to engage with several points you make. So:

1 Complicated central decision-making:

We discussed the complexity of decisions which will be made under parecon as compared to today. You say that currency traders are working with one commodity so their models are relatively straightforward. The latter does not, I believe, follow from the former.

Currency traders may well be looking only at the prices of various commodities – currencies - at minimum two currencies(?), but more likely a handful at least.

However the models traders use are often extraordinarily complex, they utilise thousands of variables relating to all sorts of different things going on in macro-economics, businesses and politics; and the mathematical sophistication of them is extraordinary – which is why phd mathematicians and statisticians create and run them.

More generally across advanced societies we have tens of per cents of very highly trained people who are professionally oriented towards making decisions about what we should make and how and then applying some of those decisions. It is a colossal effort and this is because it is a very useful thing to try to do well. International, national and local state bureacracy, financial services, commercial law, corporate management, business accounting, and others – very, very complicated systems, very, very sophisticated.

In this light looking at the models for planning the participatory economy they really do not seem too much to handle.

2 Efficient production

Secondly, you describe the value of the specialized knowledge and motive of profit-motivated market actors and you suppose a danger in using multiple criteria for production decisions and a voting system of causing ‘uneconomical decisions.’

I think we can broadly call this a discussion of efficiency.

In parecon decision-making seems - as far as I can tell - to take place in four areas:

1 Councils of workers propose production strategies.
2 Councils of individuals and neighbourhoods draw up consumption proposals.
3 An iteration planning procedure serves to mediate and draw together these initial plans.
4 Collective groups make investment proposals which are assessed by various boards.

Read Albert for more info. But let me tell you a couple of things I think:

A) Static efficiency: when worker councils decide on production processes this could certainly be seen as resulting in more efficient outcomes than under capitalism.

This is because not only will local knowledge of experts (all who work in the place, other industry experts) be included in the process but unlike under capitalism the welfare of all workers at work can be taken into account too.

If you exclude workers from decisions over work process then you are unlikely to be able to give them optimal welfare at work, for precisely the reasons you in your response to me give for wanting personal choices of what you consume – only the individual knows what they want themselves!
On the contrary if you include workers in these decisions as parecon does then they can have their welfare taken into account there and thus the efficiency of the work process in terms of production of welfare has every chance of being increased.

Now this means that producing less may be more efficient, of course, as people might value improvements in work conditions over foregone production. A proper understanding of a welfare-based concept of efficiency gives you this.

B) Voting: Will voting on production issues produce bad decisions? A majority vote is a hard thing sometimes for people to accept. We are used to having decisions made in society by a small co-ordinator class. However in a production context I believe it is a lot better than one or two managers making decisions. At the moment the rules of capitalist competition pretty much determine the principle behind most decisions, choose maximum output per cost, that’s about it! I think that this is too narrow, more input will be better for people on aggregate.

Simple majority voting is unlikely to constitute the process by which the bulk of decisions are made just like it isn’t the case in a public corporation which shareholders can vote for decisions. Usually consensus emerges or people who are more affected by a decision get more sway.

A final useful point is that in a parecon there would be opportunities to switch workplace if a reasonable request is made for this. If you feel a wish to work somewhere where perhaps people produce higher outputs and have slightly less comfortable work conditions or longer hours this is likely to be something you can do.

C) I don’t really want to discuss dynamic efficiency – I don’t think there’s space, but I do believe that in a parecon this could match that which is found under private enterprise systems. I have reasons too, but this response is already too long.

3 You mention 'Evil and Psychopathy; Jonestown etc.';

The only answer I can give you to this section is that it has not all been tried before.

It’s very easy to realise this if you look at the history of radical thought and action in the late 19th and whole of the 20th centuries.

It is simply the case that the kinds of authoritarian structures that you discuss have always emerged amongst a great deal of dissent. At every step of the way during the big historical events when so-called radical people have been giving themselves power there have been others – libertarians - insisting on an alternative path.

Of course this was dissent which failed to prevent power from prevailing (manifestations of what you call ‘evil’ and what I call power are almost synonymous I think in this context). But for me to acknowledge that historically authoritarian radicals have tried some terrible things out does not equate to me agreeing that it’s all been tried before.

Rather the point is that we are seeking here a different way of doing things, more libertarian, ways which do not create great authoritarian structures, do not confer specialized controller roles and which sustain space for debate and criticism.

If these principles are present from the outset and we stridently advocate them along the way then I believe we can build systems of people who simply will not tolerate attempts by others to become powerful.

It remains to be seen if this can happen, history of course tells us that is very hard.

But what I see is a double question here: can we get enough people to take this alternative path? And will it really result in a good outcome?

As I say I believe the latter will be answered in the affirmative one day. It will only happen if I and others encourage caring individuals everywhere to join movements for a participatory society.


4 But I am not interested in "negotiating" with anyone about where I work, live, what and when I get to eat, or what meetings I go to. / What happens if I try to set up a business on my own.

In the private enterprise economies which almost all of us work under (across the world) everyone has to negotiate where they work, live, what access they have to consumable resources. I can not get a role in the Coca Cola boardroom tomorrow or buy an appartment in manhattan, or consume products for which I can not produce money or which I would like companies to produce but it is not profitable for them to.

Furthermore, you don’t mention a wish to have an impact on the work processes you are involved in. Most people have no choice in these matters at all.

The general problem today is that we are involved in negotiations which unfortunately provide a great deal more access to the resources which might allow personal fulfilment to some than they do to others. So the negotiating space for some is tiny and for others it is great.

Furthermore the way society works trammels people into classes whereby the majority do rote work and have barely any power, a few have more power in their co-ordinating roles, and a tiny minority of the super-rich have huge wealth and a huge impact on what goes on. These positions get locked-in.

Some people get a lot more choice than others – yet it is an illusion to think that any of this is actually more than negotiation, or that it ever could be!

A participatory economy is geared to try to overcome class constructions and generate better results in terms of fair access to a decent life and also to choices in these processes.

So, people get paid according to effort, they get to contribute to decisions on production process, they get access to housing, etc. And people do balanced jobs so that co-ordinator classes of the powerful do not take over.

A key principle of parecon is that people should get power insofar as they are affected by something.

So you can propose a change of where you work and I expect you would get it. You can move house. And, within limits of course you have your own exclusive preferences in terms of consumption.

You have input into overall consumption decisions and the reality of the outcomes of that process would be you will probably have access to near-totally the same products as you have today.

Only this time you have more involvement in decisions of what is made for consumption in the first place and the production processes you are involved in. You never know this may mean that products that you would love to have today but which are not profitable due to a market failure in capitalism start to become available for you and others.

What happens if you try to set up a business on your own?

Please check with Albert’s work as I’m not sure. But I don’t think you’d be able to purchase the legal holding of a premises to do this. Nor could you enter into a employer-employee contract. Of course this is the situation for the vast majority of people in this world already, who don’t have the means to do such a thing.

You are totally free to propose new production methods, propose certain innovations, investments, new product ideas, spend your own time and consumption resources on developing new ideas, doing craft work. As in any society a new idea you have might meet resistance – it’s all about convincing people.

But why should you be allowed to set up an organisation where you pay people not according to their effort? Where you promote debilitating class divisions by creating rote jobs for some and managerial roles for others? Where you produce something which may be inefficient when you consider its effect on others in the community and the welfare of workers?

I’ll be interested to see if you can give me an ethical answer to that.

And as I’ve iterated in some detail above I’m just not convinced by arguments for private enterprise v parecon on the basis of efficiency.

Cheers.

M

Honey Pot said...

What do you do with people who are not inclined to participate in participatory economics, otherwise known as communism. Let's say they are lazy, and do not want to contribute, but expect the equal fruits off the labour of the rest of the participatory participants.

Do they get to just breath for a living, because that is what they do best? Do they get less rations? Perhaps a smaller box to live in.

Is there an incentive for creativity and hard work, or just a thanks for coming out.

Mike said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Matt!

I won't go into the economics or elaborate further on my claim that Parecon must fail economically relative to liberty; I believe that the burden of proof is on those proposing such systems to experiment upon each other first and provide real world evidence that the quacking ducklike creature is actually a stallion. Suffice it to say that any ideology can make claims for itself about how it would create wealth and happiness and fulfilment by restricting this or that fundamental human freedom. In the case of Parecon, I'd be totally thrilled if its adherents were to apply it to themselves, and let us skeptics who have already heard and seen through the arguments for communism to do our own thing. But it sounds like it is all or nothing...

To my ears Parecon is yet another expression of the ancient instinctive wish to live in itinerant, intimate packs of several dozen, all looking out for each other and sharing, sharing things, goals, successes, losses together -- as humans did for the overwhelming balance of our evolutionary time as a species. The cave lifestyle feels like the natural way to live, and it has great emotional and instinctive appeal. We preserve this strategy in the concept of the family. But when that instinctive urge is applied outside of situations where everyone knows and cares about each other, it brings lots of cruelty. I'm not aware of any exceptions.

In a purely descriptive sense, Parecon is a totalitarian idea, with, as you seem to indicate, nothing allowed to exist outside the state. Adult humans are to be forbidden (by other, purportedly equal third parties, no less!) to engage in the peaceful, mutually rewarding employer-employee relationship? No recognized private sphere over whose disposition "the community" has no say? But this is for ants, or children, or slaves! This very idea conceives of people as property (the property of whoever dares raise a hand to prevent someone working for someone else!) -- and as property is certainly how most will find themselves being treated, whatever the book may claim.

And what would stop me and my friends should we decide to flip off the Man and start our own factory? The police?

You will need to make examples of us, and use lots of terror to frighten innocent people away from just splitting off, taking their own land, and shooting attacking vote-counters. Unfortunately for Parecon, those levers of terror are right at hand for those with the wit to seize them -- dissidents do not have any rights with regard to their employment, living conditions, or the food they eat. Good-hearted Parecon purists complaining about such things will be labelled traitors; it will be believed by those who do not want to vote to help a traitor, and they will be murdered. This has played out so many times in world history from ancient times through to this very second.

One great thing about capitalism, to use the Marxist word for freedom, is that it channels people's greed into serving others by trading with them for a profit, creating opportunities for more playful, less ambitious people like myself to trade our skills to help the brighter achieve their visions. So we can make a living even with no skill in business or salesmanship, let alone hunting or wilderness survival.

And, as it is now, if one of us doesn't like that vision, or the colour of the paint on the walls in the lunch room, or any other idiosyncratic expression of the infinite variety of human taste, they don't need to persuade anyone or win some vote over whether they should be allowed to leave and go do something or nothing else, the decision being made unilaterally. That's just a basic freedom, the fundamental autonomy of a human being to survive and flourish without asking permission.

I won't even get into the denial of the freedom to unilaterally decamp and recamp elsewhere, another natural right that is characteristically denied to those deemed slaves by the powers that be, since that's of a piece with the work stuff.

Under Parecon, as under less intellectualized forms of slavery, there is no out. That will be used by would-be slave masters.

A less remarked upon side effect of the market is that it expands brilliant, ambitious people's possibilities away from seeking influence and wealth via politics and political organizing, into seeking those values by creating businesses that make and do things people want. I much prefer such people to have power over stuff than over the daily lives of other humans.

Conversely, Parecon is entirely political, with everything -- everything -- decided with votes and meetings. Ambition will certainly be applied there, and the less politically savvy and unpopular minorities will quickly find themselves slaves.

By the way, I'm curious whether you've ever run a business, or met a payroll?

More generally across advanced societies we have tens of per cents of very highly trained people who are professionally oriented towards making decisions about what we should make and how and then applying some of those decisions.

Who is "we"? Nobody, no group, makes decisions about what "we" should make, all taken together. Separate firms and individuals with competing goals and interests consume and produce, not a collective. Money is how each signal what they would like someone else to produce, and the signals from everyone else indicate what each should produce. For example, I cross-referenced my aptitudes, temperament, likes and dislikes, with the market and unilaterally made the decision about what to produce -- just like everyone else. I do this every instant of every day.

You will forgive me if I can't take stuff about "excluding workers from decisions" seriously as a concern of Parecon proponents -- when those workers are to be expressly denied the basic right to make their own living under the Parecon alternative!

We are used to having decisions made in society by a small co-ordinator class.

As I keep saying, I make those decisions. Why would I want to give that away?
Usually consensus emerges or people who are more affected by a decision get more sway.

... or, in reality, sway is held by those who are more cunning in the use of persuasion, charm, deception, tit-for-tat, horse-trading, threats, terror, and/or violence.

Under Parecon, what if I refuse to work at all? I can do that now and no one will do anything to me.

Furthermore, you don’t mention a wish to have an impact on the work processes you are involved in. Most people have no choice in these matters at all.

How many years have you spent working for a living? This just isn't true (no choice). Like most people, I chose to work, chose my line of work, I chose my employer, and I can choose to go to another employer, work for myself -- or do nothing at all, at any time and for any reason that pleases me. No person other than myself makes any of those decisions. My employer has exactly as much power over me as I allow. That's freedom.

By the way, I don't want to have any impact on work processes -- that's why I and many others look to work for other people who are smarter than I am. I want nothing to do with organizing or exercising power over others or making strategic decisions. I guarantee you that I would fuck up my company to the degree I get to contribute to non-technical calls.

Of course, as I said, I would not be doing hard technical work under a Parecon system -- I would be finding the minimum contribution I could make.

The general problem today is that we are involved in negotiations which unfortunately provide a great deal more access to the resources which might allow personal fulfilment to some than they do to others. So the negotiating space for some is tiny and for others it is great.

Such is life; the bottom line is how we react to that fact. Here is a... shall we say, spiritual problem with Parecon and other relabellings of communism: the underlying motive of envy and resentment of people considered to be better off. I'm just not bothered by people having more than me. I don't have that hangup.

In fact, I admire the ability to navigate through life in that way. Admire? No, more, I thank them for having and employing the kind of foresight that creates the wealth that slower, lazier people such as myself can transform in smaller ways to create more wealth for ourselves and others.

But a system built on the emotion of envy can come to no good end, and never has, because envy can never be sated. It will always be fomented by people who may not have read the Parecon book but who understand the notion of dividing to conquer. The theory will always be overwhelmed by psychology.

But why should you be allowed to set up an organisation where you pay people not according to their effort? Where you promote debilitating class divisions by creating rote jobs for some and managerial roles for others? Where you produce something which may be inefficient when you consider its effect on others in the community and the welfare of workers?

I’ll be interested to see if you can give me an ethical answer to that.


The more interesting question is: from where does one get the authority to interfere in peaceful trading relationships between adults with whom one brazenly proclaims one's equality?

Thank you very much again for your interesting and thoughtful reply!

basil said...

Pass the Scotch!

. . . I'm enjoying my leisure time as I like it! When I like it.