Parecon or libertarian communism?

Parecon or libertarian communism?

A debate over 'anti-capitalist vision' between the Project for a Participatory Society, proponents of Parecon, and the libcom.org group.

The debate is also available as a pdf and a print-ready pdf pamphlet.

Introduction

In late 2008 the libcom.org group were approached by the UKWatch.net website to take part in a debate with the Project for a Participatory Society (PPS), themed around ‘anti-capitalist vision.’ This seemed like a good opportunity to get our own ideas down in writing, as well as to subject them to the test of robust criticism. We also had criticisms of our own of ‘participatory economics’ (‘parecon’) which again we had discussed but not written down anywhere, and this debate would give us the chance to put them to a parecon advocate. The debates were to be published on UKWatch and their US sister-site ZNet.

For libcom.org, Joseph Kay was the main participant, while for the PPS Mark Evans took on that role. To kick off the debate, we were both asked to set out our own ‘visions for the UK economy’, which we would then respond to, and respond to responses in turn. The debate began with a flurry of exchanges, but from January 2009 we’d had no reply to our latest submissions. UKWatch were busy with a site upgrade, but despite exchanging emails over the intervening period by August 2009 we’d still received no responses and UKWatch.net had gone offline.

Consequently, we publish the debate as it stands here as we think it contains much of interest to anti-capitalist activists. As our replies were the last ones we are aware of, we do have the last word. However we are sure this doesn’t preclude further debate, using this pamphlet as a point of departure.

The Project for a Participatory Society is a network of people based in the UK committed to progressive social change. PPS see war, poverty, climate change and many other problems in the world today as unsurprising consequences of particular forms of social organisation. They see the erosion of civil liberties, the abuses of human rights, the increase in inequality and other injustices as resulting from the core values and internal organisation of dominant institutions within society. Mark Evans lives in Birmingham and works as an NHS healthcare assistant. He is an active trade unionist. www.ppsuk.org.uk

The libcom.org group is a small collective of libertarian communists based in and around London. They maintain libcom.org, a resource for radical workers a resource for all wish to fight to improve their lives, their communities and their working conditions. The site takes its name from an abbreviation of "libertarian communism" - and its goals of liberty and community - the political current they identify with. Joseph Kay is a financial services worker from Brighton. He is a member of the Solidarity Federation. www.libcom.org

Posted By

Joseph Kay
Aug 7 2009 09:34

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  • Instead of generalizing work, wage labour and measure ‘fairly’ across the whole of society, we seek the opposite movement; a generalization of human activity that is fulfilling in its own right, negating the need for the incentives or sanctions of a wage system.

    libcom.org

Attached files

Comments

Joseph Kay
Sep 2 2009 19:49

literally, it would be 'holismo complementario' i think, but something like 'holismo sin precedencia' might better capture the idea it's about an approach that takes separate spheres of life as a whole without giving precedence to one or the other.

(pero hablo español turista sólo!)

micapam
Sep 8 2009 18:18

What a fascinating debate + thread. Excellent, thought-provoking. I have recently been thinking about some of these kinds of questions (imagining moneylessness, how/if it could work, and how we would get from here to there).

One thing I've been thinking (and I am not a student of politics, so this may be quite naive and/or obvious) is that, since money predates capitalism by thousands of years, analysis of the role of money in society should not confine itself to a critique of capitalism, which is an effect, not the cause, of the use of money as an exchange mechanism and as an officially sanctioned measurement of inequality.

A difficulty in studying the circumstances that held during these social changes, is that the adoption of money as a formal system occurred around the same time as the invention of writing (which grew of simpler systems to keep track of inventories), so we have no primary sources for historical study. It might be interesting to note that labour specialisation also dates to around the same time (late fourth millenium BC).

Joseph Kay
Sep 9 2009 08:16
micapam wrote:
One thing I've been thinking (and I am not a student of politics, so this may be quite naive and/or obvious) is that, since money predates capitalism by thousands of years, analysis of the role of money in society should not confine itself to a critique of capitalism, which is an effect, not the cause, of the use of money as an exchange mechanism and as an officially sanctioned measurement of inequality.

A difficulty in studying the circumstances that held during these social changes, is that the adoption of money as a formal system occurred around the same time as the invention of writing (which grew of simpler systems to keep track of inventories), so we have no primary sources for historical study. It might be interesting to note that labour specialisation also dates to around the same time (late fourth millenium BC).

good point. money, per se is not a product of capitalism, although it plays a differnet role in different historical circumstances. for your stereotypical feudal serf, they grew crops, paid a tithe in kind to their master, and sold whatever they had left after meeting their own needs at market. money therefore mediated access to a better standard of life, but was not (save for crop failures..) necessary for survival. for a wage worker under capitalism however, money is necessary to survive - basic physiological needs like housing, food, water etc are all commodities requiring purchase.

as you say, money has its origins in the emergence of a division of labour - and consequently the division of producers from all the products they wanted/needed. before capitalism however, while life was rubbish for a host of other reasons, peasant/craft/artisan production tended to predominate, and money served as a form of universal barter for the producers of one kind of product to get their hands on any other. under capitalism however, there is a generalised separation of producers from products per se - workers don't own the commodities they produce, only the wages they get for them. thus money's role as a universal mediator and symbol of value is generalised.

the thing is, it's not really possible to roll-back to pre-capitalist monetary societies, even if you wanted to. the very dynamics of commodity production tend to generalise themselves, and thus tend towards making labour a commodity too - i.e. capitalism (Marx is very good on this, and it's the big flaw in 'market socialist'/Proudhonist co-operativist type models). so the trick is to push through, embracing a division of labour as a great multiplier of human productivity and basis for material comfort for all, while restoring the community of goods that existed in primitive communist neolithic bands.

i think the crux of this is that money itself is not the problem, but the social relations it signifies (relations of separation, requiring a financial intermediary). you get some people advocating barter instead of money, as if that solves anything. of course if you're going to have exchange, you might as well do it efficiently and use money. the point is to go beyond a society based on exchange towards a society where 'all is for all', as Peter Kropotkin wrote:

Peter Kropotkin wrote:
the consequences which spring from the original act of monopoly spread through the whole of social life. Under pain of death, human societies are forced to return to first principles: the means of production being the collective work of humanity, the product should be the collective property of the race. Individual appropriation is neither just nor serviceable. All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate every one's part in the production of the world's wealth.
M.
Sep 11 2009 03:38

That's an interesting topic, but I think that it is not our point (as libertarian communists) if money as a concept is older than capitalism, but to undestand what money represents in a capitalist society. Some marxists (I mean those who are militants of the communist parties of the world, those who follow Lenin's ideas about vanguard, the proletariat's dictatorship, etc.) try to prove a totalitarian state (supposedly a workers's one) could be disolved by itself and not to be an obstacle to workers' freedom by arguing capitalism was appeared before modern states. So the point is not what was before, because -as Joseph said- we cannot go back to an older society. One of the main problems of this economic system is it isn't jsut an economic system. As you rightly point several times along the debate, capitalism is a social relation.

Going back to 'money', the problem about money is the value concept. That is to say, how our job or the products that we produce can be measurable (and, what is worth, they're not measurable by ourselves, but precisely by those who don't produce). Peter Kropotkin talks about the problems of other systems that have this value concept on their root (as collectivism) at 'Conquest of the Bread' when he explain the communist maxim.

(Sorry about my english. Is kind of a tourist one too)

M.
Sep 16 2009 21:35

Hello!

Finally, the translation is ready. How can I send it to you? Do you have an e-mail or I should post it in the forums?

Steven.
Sep 16 2009 21:48

You can click submit content - library then paste it in the appropriate fields.

Any difficulties with that, just e-mail it to us at admin at libcom.org.

Many thanks for translating it mate!

Nyarlathotep
May 10 2010 15:56

To me there is an irreconcilable contradiction between advocates of "parecon" ideology on the one hand, and advocates of libertarian communism on the other.

On the one hand, libertarian communists want to abolish the concepts of wage, economic transaction, productive labor, and so forth. Whenever we advocate this position we are attacked as "classical leftists" (which is disingenuous to say the least) or somehow unrealistic. In fact, it's simple. Communism requires the abolition of wage labor, economic transaction, commodity production, and so forth, as concepts, and the creation of new ways of looking at society.

By their own profession, pareconists don't want this. Which is why they distort history and class-analysis with garbage about the "techno-managerial class". As Joseph Kay correctly points out, anyone can serve the interests of capitalism, not just capital-owners. The parecon analysis of the USSR (and to my knowledge, none of these people know very much about the history of Russia) treats the Bolshevik revolution like it was something different than, say, the liberal revolution in France. The reason, in their minds, that the communist project in Russia failed was because their political organs were infested with "techno-managerials", not because there was a specific ideology of bourgeois control being promoted, which existed to retain on a practical level the bureaucratic reins of capitalist society. Thus the solution is supposedly that "the workers will democratically participate in society", which is irrelevant since workers can also act as agents of capital as Mr. Kay pointed out. Instead communists propose the negation of wage and commodity-production society, the relationships of alienation that exist under capitalism, and so forth.

While we're at it, all this "complimentary holism" stuff reeks of new age malarkey. However, I don't necessarily agree with libcom's position either. It's obvious that gender and ethnicity are just expressions of economic class...

Nyarlathotep
May 10 2010 18:35

Capitalist class-division is just the natural end-result of sexual division of labor and euro-colonial conquest

MT
May 10 2010 18:41

I would like to ask if someone from libcom collective works on the reply to the last response of the parecon guy (i think it came after the text was published but haven't seen any reply to it yet)

Steven.
May 10 2010 19:15

we are planning to, but have a lot on our plate at the moment

LefterThanThou
May 19 2010 17:52

I enjoyed it and considered it a draw. Personally, I'm between collectivism and communism, considering communism better in principle but certain aspects of collectivism instrumentally superior. I could go into what I see as Parecon's fallacies or libcom's or common virtues, but I'd be preaching to the choir, so I'll just go over some of the weakest, to my mind, parts of the libcom side.

1. The organic-synthetic distinction
In the debate, libcom rightfully rejected to each according to his effort and sacrifice as a principle and even pointed to its theoretical and practical weaknesses as an incentive and needs-tester. But its alternatives weren't even clearly better, much less ideal. For example, after pointing out the problems with coworker ratings, libcom proposed making coworkers both raters and enforcers thereof, in the form of the "organic" options of social stigma/formal sanction and gifting. Beginning with the latter, it infects to each according to his need with to each according to his selfishness; the gift, after all, comes completely from the observer of effort, whereas the benefits from the effort are distributed among society. And, unlike effort ratings and superior methods, which require no resources and little time if any, conditioned gifting relies on the gift-giver having been early to the luxury or given the right lotto number and rich in excess leisure, meaning it must be repeated throughout the year, requiring far more of the homo economicus mindset libcom accuses collectivism of. As for social stigma/formal sanction, even if it were sufficient, it's not at all clear that hurting one's feelings is less aggressive or more natural than giving one less of the common produce. Even if it were more natural, I'd call that a naturalistic fallacy, private property itself being, after all, not the least bit justified by the fact that it comes, in the first instance, from within the tribe. And treating aggression as definitively material does not mesh well with libcom's treatment of guilds' knowledge as a form of property. And libcom's incentives, like Parecon's, ask the impossible of coworkers: to relate each other's effort and sacrifice to the social average, whose elements are far too diverse, unknown and abstract. That's why I favor credits being distributed according to need and, to the extent that reward/punishment (to use the least attractive terminology) proves its efficacy, disability; company to which, I favor a more balanced price mechanism, one in which everything has its price, the automatically adjusted part of which is credited to producers' (where applicable) accounts. Within which, it should be up to individual collectives to enforce effort and sacrifice by "organic" or other means or acknowledge that some enjoy leisure more than others and some of those will choose it at any reasonable cost.

2. Mass unemployment
To me, this was the most interesting part of the debate. At one point, libcom briefly and rightfully accused the effort and sacrifice criterion of resulting in general slack, though they didn't back it up. The Parecon side never responded, and libcom never returned to the point. I assume this is because neither Parecon's nor libcom's "mediation of access to consumption" is capable of motivating the small producer sacrifices that are often necessary for great consumer gain. However, only situationally is it correct to call this "abstention from productive activity", which libcom would be at least as guilty of; libcom relies on the notion that humans are naturally productive. The main problem, as I see it, is that we're not naturally productive in ways ideal for modern natural consumption. People hunt for fun, for example, not because it's the most productive (or moral) use of their time, but because it was that of their ancestors. At no time in history, except on certain islands, was there no need for onerous work. If we can greatly increase the quality of our consumptive lives at small cost to that of our productive lives, why not?

3. Access to resources in their normal state, scarcity
The Parecon side's critique of libcom distribution was never addressed. I would simply add that, in addition to first-come-first-served being as much a measure of aggressiveness as anything else, it's equally a measure of luck, not only in case of equal aggressiveness, but also in the sense of need temporally coinciding with supply. And I can't think of anything more fetishistic of equality than a lottery. Few things are as evil as passing the buck to randomness, which is why the villain from No Country For Old Men made such a great character.

4. Prices
I'm surprised the Parecon side didn't respond to the hypochondria/caffeine addict bit. First, healthcare in particular would be free under Parecon, presumably for the same reason it's free in England: it's expensive, difficult to plan for, and unlikely to be abused, and need of it varies greatly. Free coffee, incidentally, does make many people caffeine addicts, much as cheap coffee does to a lesser extent. But neither of these are really free, are they? Both are basically conditioned on immediate use, which would be an absurd condition for a planned economy. The worker can't just take bags of coffee home with him. Nor can the patient, after waiting, book free appointments for every hour of the year to go to as it meets his fancy without having to wait. But there's another self-interested reason a price of 0 doesn't yield infinite demand, one that's particularly important wherever demand for free products is taken seriously: finite production capacity. Whenever price and production capacity are sufficiently high, one needn't consider the infinitesimal impact one's demand for product X has on the supply of product Y; however, as price approaches 0 and true demand approaches infinity, expressed demand for X, where satiable, will endanger the supply of Y, particularly to the extent that producing X is preferable to producing Y. Also, as production capacity approaches one's own part of it, one's own part of it approaches 1, as does the part of what one expressly demands (or equivalent in requisite labor) that must be personally produced. One factor in the finiteness of free coffee demand is of course that the first or last cup of the pot has to make a new one or that such duty is rotated.

JoeMaguire
May 20 2010 13:36

As any serious attempt been made to critique Michael Alberts book?

LefterThanThou
May 22 2010 20:49

David Schweickart (Economic Democracy) citiqued it, and the ensuing debate's on znet. It's apparently more informative about Parecon than the book is, as, in the debate, Albert reveals that neither his chapter on Balanced Job Complexes nor his chapter on Remuneration is to be taken seriously. As for a critique of Parecon itself, Schweickart's is mainly a predictable critique of planning per se; some people will get the wrong color vests! and the like.

formoney
Aug 16 2010 21:16

I've also found the difference to be marginal at best!

MT
Mar 7 2011 16:23
MT wrote:
I would like to ask if someone from libcom collective works on the reply to the last response of the parecon guy (i think it came after the text was published but haven't seen any reply to it yet)
Steven. wrote:
we are planning to, but have a lot on our plate at the moment

Any chance this would happen? We have a Slovak translation of the debate but we do not like to publish it without the reply to the last piece of the parecon guy. The debate was very interesting so far and would be cool to have it finished somehow by libcom response.

Steven.
Mar 7 2011 18:59

Yeah, sorry for not getting back to your private message. We will have a chat about it and see what we can do

Steven.
Apr 20 2011 09:17

Bump, because I have renamed this to describe its contents better, and also reflect that the project for the participatory society group seems to have disappeared

ultraviolet
Jul 16 2011 19:09
Joseph Kay wrote:
syndicalistcat wrote:
anyway, enough from me. you can carry on your discussion with Mark's group.

i do have responses - not all in disagreement, but Mark's said he's happy to continue the debate so i think it is best to pick it up with him.

hi joseph. i've been reading the debate between you and syndicalistcat and was disappointed to see it cut short. i know s/he said s/he was done contributing to this debate, but i was hoping you'd respond, nonetheless, because even if s/he's not interested in continuing, readers such as myself are interested in hearing a reply from you.

in particular, i'd like to hear your response to the "ripple effect" issue. i know you say this would be an issue in parecon, but why do you think it wouldn't be an issue in the lib-com model you describe?

thanks! smile

sabot
Oct 19 2011 00:11

Just came across this on znet. Looks like Michael Albert attempted to respond to the debate (in the comment section): http://www.zcommunications.org/parecon-as-anarcho-snake-pit-scene-setting-by-michael-albert-1

I have to work so haven't had the chance to look over it but thought I'd post it anyways.

MT
Oct 19 2011 19:59
MT wrote:
MT wrote:
I would like to ask if someone from libcom collective works on the reply to the last response of the parecon guy (i think it came after the text was published but haven't seen any reply to it yet)
Steven. wrote:
we are planning to, but have a lot on our plate at the moment

Any chance this would happen? We have a Slovak translation of the debate but we do not like to publish it without the reply to the last piece of the parecon guy. The debate was very interesting so far and would be cool to have it finished somehow by libcom response.

sorry for repeating myself wink i think there is now even more demand for this with the recent "Occupy" events and people hungry for any alternative views (preferring rather "something" like parecon compared to utopism like libcom; at first sight of course).

Apfelstrudel
Oct 21 2011 00:08

I looked at this neutrally; even as a way of deciding between the two. I've come to consider myself an anarcho-communist, but was interested in the Parecon idea and the compability of the two. In some ways, it reminded me of Bookchin'd Communalism, though I admit my knowledge of Parecon was limited.

My point is that I consider libcom the clear winners of this debate. Much of the points made where never contested by the opposition, those things they did contest where clearly explained. The arguments where better structured and the overall position was stronger. Some of their positions, most clearly that of renumeration according to effort, lacked any basis in anything but personal opinion and habit: i.e. pretty much "hard work ought to pay more because I think it should". In addition, there is no scientific evidence or empirical basis for people being motivated by material rewards.

Their position of central planning was the weakest, and open to epistemological critique from both liberal communism and right-wing capitalism (thinking of Hayek here). Seeing as that is one point that Michael Albert has not "taken back", and that there are a ton of arguments against it and no real advantage to it, it remains a very weak point.
Now, I haven't read the books and I admitted my knowledge of Parecon was limited, so I wonder if they have ever given a reason for why central planning is better? Claimed it has some advantage, can do something a decentralised system cannot?

MT
Apr 8 2012 14:07

any update on chances that the libcom would write a reply to the last response written by the parecon guy?

MT
Apr 8 2012 16:23

i have looked into this debate more carefully now and it seems that the last response is indeed from libcom. if that is true, than apologies for me bothering you in recent months but i really thought that there is one more reply from the parecon guy which went without response. looking into the whole thing again i see that i might have confused something. but i was really damn sure the guy had the last word... confused

Steven.
Apr 8 2012 23:44

Hey, don't worry you are right. In the responses to our vision, he had the last word. Whereas we had the last word in response to his vision. We should do this at some point, but at the moment have to prioritise finishing the redesign. I think we pretty much said everything we needed to say anyway, we won't add much more when we eventually write it, maybe just summarise/reiterate our key points

Steven.
Apr 11 2012 22:42
MT wrote:
any update on chances that the libcom would write a reply to the last response written by the parecon guy?

I've just written this article, which is pretty much all else that I wanted to say on the matter:
http://libcom.org/blog/workers-critique-parecon-11042012

Spikymike
Oct 22 2012 10:46

This and the many related discussion threads on parecon, IOPS and possibly also it's competitor 'Inclusive Democracy' should get some kind of feature here given it's (in my opinion) undue attention at the London Anarchist Bookfair this Saturday.

Spikymike
Oct 24 2012 16:11

Michael Albert (parecon) gets three goes at the London Anarchist Bookfair so this and related discussion threads as above are useful reading for anyone likely to attend these meetings - not sure if any of the bookstalls will have printed versions available of this or other critiques that are around.

mosbert
Nov 1 2012 17:17

Michael Albert’s most worrying argument in favor of a Participatory Economy is his claim that workers will be less able to avoid the miseries of work than in a capitalist economy. This is because workers’ effort will no longer be evaluated by a capitalist supervisor but by their fellow workmates. Albert even says: “It is not nearly so easy to pull the wool over the eye’s of one’s workmates as it is to do so with a supervisor, as people do today.” (ParEcon)

This reminds me of Lenin’s obsession with ‘idlers’ and his argument justifying workers’ democracy on the grounds that it would control everyone in society, including any recalcitrant “workers who have been thoroughly corrupted by capitalism”. Lenin’s system was, of course, more brutal than Albert’s, but, at least, Lenin hoped that his “popular accounting and control” and punishment, by fellow workers, would rapidly lead to a stateless communist society (State and Revolution, Ch.5).

Michael Albert imagines that people will always share his aversion to “anti-social deadbeats [who] get a better existence for no morally justifiable reason.” But, as David Graeber pointed out in a recent debate with Albert, hunter-gatherers are so content with their lives that they are often not particularly bothered if some people don’t work too hard - if some people are 'free-riders'. In a brilliant dig at both Albert's plans, and at today’s austerity capitalism, Graeber criticized the absurdity of basing an entire society on the determination to root out all 'free-riders'.

Unfortunately poverty and miserable factory conditions sometimes encouraged 19th Century revolutionaries to doubt the practicality of a future communist society with no compulsion to work. In Demanding the Impossible, Peter Marshall shows that both Bakunin and Kropotkin were willing to repress the ‘malady’ of idleness (p299, 399). At one point, even Marx appears to argue that, in post-capitalism, “all labour to support those who do not work [except children and the elderly] would cease”.(Capital Vol.3)

Of course, workers in a non-revolutionary period will often go along with such 19th Century authoritarianism (or Albert's even less optimistic 21st Century version). But in future revolutionary times they will surely want to create a society with more freedom, not less freedom, than capitalist wage labour.

Endish
Jul 18 2013 20:29

Not to detract from Joseph Kay's remarkably well-reasoned defense of libertarian communism and critique of the Parecon model above, but I feel a crucial argument against Parecon has been left out, namely that Parecon's advocacy for wage labor, albeit in a different form, necessarily implies the preservation of private property. If a person can only acquire the basic necessities and/or luxuries of life through purchase, that means he does not have access to these products if he doesn't have the money/labor notes to purchase them. Thus the produce (or property) of society cannot be considered communal produce/property, since it does not belong to those who cannot pay up for it, i.e. it does not naturally belong to the whole of the community as with communal property. The idea of economic incentive through remuneration of effort and sacrifice means that those who get remunerated more can also acquire more and, most importantly, that these acquisitions are theirs alone to allot (otherwise what incentive is there?). Property therefore attains an exclusionary character, ergo; it is private property. Consequently, Parecon's remuneration of labor inevitably leads back to a re-division of society along class lines, defeating the purpose.

ledur
Sep 11 2013 13:36

Well, I don't think that remuneration according to hours worked, effort and sacrifice is a bad thing. Nor it is a "wage system".

If I lived from subsistence, for myself, I could meet my needs, according to my commitment to the tasks. If I worked far below what is needed, I could starve.

Communism, in my view, is to extend the same view to a larger group of people. All (except the children / old / sick) give something to the group, and have access to what others produce. So I think it's unfair someone with a much lower performance than expected (assuming a person's intention to do so) having free access to what's produced in the community.

However, as Albert himself said somewhere, credits to workers would not vary greatly (from 80% to 120% of the mean).

The need for a rudimentary form of money is to quantify and qualify what is produced and consumed. Money, here, doesn't have the same value it has in capitalism. As credit is untransferable, there is no way to explore the work of others. Hence, the possibility of private means of production is minimal.