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, Steven argues. Michael Albert subsequently responds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.