PPS' response

Hi Joseph – thanks for your reply to my opening statement.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on August 13, 2009

Like you I also believe that we should be as critical of our own organisations and traditions as those of the establishment, and that dogmatism has nothing to do with genuine radical-progressive culture. I therefore welcome your criticisms of the participatory economic vision I advocate.

Some of what you write in your reply however is not a criticism of participatory economic vision but instead focuses on strategic proposals posted on the PPS-UK website. I have chosen not to respond to these parts of your reply for the following reasons. 1) I don’t mention these proposals in my opening statement. 2) These proposals are made by members and are there to be considered and discussed, improved upon etc. It may well be the case that many of the PPS-UK members would agree with much of your criticisms of these proposals. I for one think that your historical account of the failings of the cooperative and trade union movements carries some weight and I also like the sound of the proposals you mention that LibCom promote, for example “mass meetings” which, incidentally I see as compatible with ParEcon strategy. 3) As interesting as your criticisms of these proposals are, we are here to debate vision for a post-capitalist economy – not anti-capitalist strategy. This brings me to a point I would like to highlight before moving on to reply to your comments on the defining institutional features of the ParEcon model.

Ends and Means: When you say that “whilst this is a debate about vision, I believe ends are made of means, and so it is impossible to discuss a future society in isolation from the desired means of getting there” I think you might have highlighted one of the “important, perhaps crucial differences” you mentioned in your reply to my opening statement.

In a sense I do agree that ends (vision) are made of means (strategy). However, your statement seems to suggest that your vision will emerge from your strategy. This, I think, explains why, in your opening statement you talk so much about LibCom strategy and why you dragged strategic proposals from the PPS-UK site into a discussion on participatory economic vision. In contrast I would argue that vision should inform strategy. So yes, ends are made of means, but effective strategy can only be developed if we have a good idea of where we are going

I suspect that this basic difference in approach may explain many of the differences that are already beginning to show in this exchange. It may be the case that if we can address this issue at this fundamental level many of the differences that are beginning to show will disappear. I therefore think that it might be worth exploring this difference in approach in more detail.

Economic Vision: You say that ParEcon “seems to take a very economistic view of human beings”. In the hope of addressing this criticism I will need to very quickly explain the broader project I am involved in. Our overall programme at PPS-UK includes efforts in developing vision and strategy, not only in the economic sphere, but also in the community, kinship and political spheres. Furthermore, the development of vision and strategy within these four social spheres takes place within a broader theoretical framework called “complimentary holism”. This framework was conceptualised as an attempt to transcend historical materialism (which I think does put the economy at the centre of all things, resulting in all kinds of distortions of understanding etc) and is a conscious effort at addressing the kinds of problems with economism and other monist frameworks that you mention. In contrast the complimentary holist framework makes no before-the-facts assumption about the dominance of any one social sphere over any other. I therefore suspect that the “economic view” that you see in the vision I outline has to do with the simple fact that we are discussing economic vision where there will be a natural focus on economics. The same would apply if we were focusing in on the community sphere. There would be a natural bias towards cultural issues, but we should not conclude from this that such a discussion meant that we were promoting a “culturalistic” view of human beings – at least not when it is taking place within a complimentary holistic framework.

Social Ownership: You say that “Any difference here would be purely semantic” and that “whatever we call it, the point is that ownership becomes a non-issue.” I think that this is essentially correct. However, you raise a very important point when you say that you “tend to talk about communising … rather than socialising”. Your reason has to do with the negative “common association” of the term. Again, I agree with you, but I also feel that there is an equally bad (if not worse) association connected with communism. This is true whether we like it or not. We both know that using terms that carry negative connotations can put people off listening to our ideas, even before we really begin to talk to them. Or if it doesn’t put them off completely from the start we can end up talking to them about how their understanding of the term is incorrect or distorted, which means we spend most of our limited time trying to undo years of propaganda. An alternative approach that gets around these problems might be for us to develop new terms that capture what we are talking about, and maybe does so better, but without the negative associations. So, as an alternative to private ownership, but without the bad connotations of social / communal ownership, I would like you to consider the notion of “societal stewardship” as a term that achieves this function.

Self-management: You say that “the idea that those affected by decisions should make them seems uncontroversial” and I agree. But I’m not just saying that those affected by decisions should make them – as, for example with direct democracy. I’m arguing for a more specific and (as I see it) meaningful notion of self-management. Advocates of ParEcon say that people should have a say in a decision in proportion to the degree that they are affected by the outcome of a decision. We feel that as a decision-making principle this is fair simply because the people who are most affected by a decision should have more say than those who are less affected. This means that under certain conditions whole groups of people may have zero say in a decision whilst in other circumstances an individual might have absolute say. In contrast, with direct democracy it is typical for all who are affect by a decision to have equal say regardless of how much they are affected by the outcome of that decision. This usually translates into advocates of direct democracy advocating one-person one-vote on all issues – which, in my opinion, is neither fair nor practical. The ParEcon notion of self-management also contrasts with democratic centralism in obvious ways – but I don’t think I need to go into that here.

Balanced Job Complexes: Here it seems that we are in agreement. You rightly state “it’s unlikely all menial tasks can be abolished or automated, and it therefore makes sense to have an egalitarian division of labour for productive activity, which seems to be the purpose of balanced job complexes”.
Where I think there might be differences of opinion is over the extent to which work could be abolished as opposed to re-organised. I have to say that I find it very difficult to take serious a post-capitalist economic vision that states the “abolition of work” as one of its main objective.

However, what I would say (and perhaps this is what you are getting at) is that in a participatory economy workers will feel differently about their work because they will no longer be alienated from their workplace. But in a ParEcon everyone will still have a job – but one that is partly made up of tasks that are not very desirable. So there will still be an economic system in which work takes place. The important difference for advocates of ParEcon is that BJCs overcome the anti-social consequences of a hierarchical division of labour and make economic activity both fairer and more efficient.

Participatory Planning: In your reply to my opening statement on allocation you rightly point out that we are both market abolitionists. In place of markets I advocate participatory planning which you criticise saying that I “fall into the same hubristic trap as central planners … by assuming something so vast, complex and dynamic as total social production can be rationally planned …” Here I will happily plead guilt as charged. But having done so I will make two short statements in my defence before briefly commenting on your alternative to markets.

First I want to be very clear that although I agree with advocates of central planning when they argue that large scale economic activity can be rationally planned I don’t agree with their means of arriving at a rational plan. I would argue that, whilst central planning is an alternative to markets, it also results in an economic system that is dominated by professional managers which is usually associated with socialist systems but is, in my opinion, more accurately described as coordinator economics.

Second, it seems that your reasons for rejecting participatory planning as an alternative to markets is because of its overall inefficiency and lack of flexibility. You say that “a single annual plan, however participatorily arrived at is no more flexible than those of central planners, perhaps less so since mass participation in amending it would take much longer than diktat”.

Now, from my very brief description in my opening statement, I can understand why you would think that participatory planning is an inflexible process. However, a fuller understanding reveals a much more sophisticated process that is capable of accommodating changes in wants and needs. So, for example, if someone wants to change an item they submitted as part of the annual plan for a different one then we can assume that some of these kinds of changes will be cancelled out by other changes made by other members of that consumer council. So we can already see that there is some room for flexibility. Admittedly however, this only allows for limited flexibility. The real question is, what happens when changes cannot be cancelled out by other changes?

Here changes in demand from consumer councils could be fed to the Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB) that in turn could feed this information to the workers councils where renegotiations can take place between the relevant worker and consumer federations. It is here that we see that the participatory planning process has great potential for flexibility.

Now I would guess that you’d consider this solution to your perceived inflexibility of participatory planning process as being inefficient. One important point I would like to make is that this renegotiation only involves those who are affected by the changes – the rest of the annual plan remains the same. The point is that any changes to the annual plan do not require participation from everyone.

Another related point regarding efficiency of the planning process is that the annual plan is not arrived at via one big meeting – which for obvious reasons would be completely impractical. Instead we propose a planning process that involves three main institutions – workers councils and federations, consumers councils and federations, and the Iteration Facilitations Board. An annual plan is arrived at by a series of co-operative rounds between consumers and workers that are facilitated by the IFB. Participants have ample time to consider their proposals which can be informed by the previous years plan and current information on costs etc available from the IFB. This process takes place at appropriate levels within the federations so that the wants and needs of various groups of people within society, from the individual to a whole nation, can be taken into account.

There are many other finer points to be made about the participatory planning process but I am conscious of going on too much and so will leave it there for now in the hope that we can continue to clarifying our understanding as we proceed.

But before moving on I feel I should respond to your alternative to markets. “In contrast” to what you saw as the rigid and cumbersome participatory planning process you “suggest that production is orientated on a ‘pull’ basis responding to consumption…” On first reading this I have to say that, given your apparent opposition to rational planning, it sounds to me like a market system guided by an “invisible hand”. But then you go on to say that “If demand outstrips supply in one area, extra workers and / or raw material can be requested from others” which does suggest some kind of rational planning process. You then go on to sketch-out how this process could work, concluding that “the total social plan would be emergent and flexible, and subject to democratic amendment by means of adjusting the order or priority sector / goods.” Now, although still vague, this sounds a little closer to the participatory planning process. I therefore look forward to learning more about how your system for allocation in a post-capitalist economy actually functions. I hope that we can at least clarify where the similarities and differences are within our systems.

Remunerating Effort and Sacrifice: I have to admit that I don’t understand a lot of what you say in response to the ParEcon criteria for remuneration. You quote Karl Marx at me as saying “abolition of the wages system!” then suggest that anyone who disagrees with this is “conservative”. I’m no Marxologist but I suspect that when Marx called for the abolition of the wage system he was referring to a system whereby workers have to rent themselves out to capitalists as wage slaves. Yes, in a ParEcon we would remunerate for effort and sacrifice and if you want to call this reward “wages” then fine. But the important point here is that in a participatory economy there are no wage slaves – a point that I suspect Karl Marx (as well as Kropotkin, Bakunin, Rocker etc…) would appreciate.
So in a participatory economy we have a system of reward based on effort and sacrifice but because ParEcon is a classless economy there are no wage slaves. This means that if you and I both have the same job at the same workplace and I work longer or harder than you then I get more credit for consumption. I think that this is a fair criteria for remuneration and if advocating such a criteria makes me a conservative then so be it – although I have to say that I don’t recall any conservatives advocating remuneration for effort and sacrifice.

Although at first you argue for the abolition of wages, in the end you do recognise that “some form of rationing would … be required” once basic needs are met and regarding what you call “intermediate and luxury goods”. You say “There are a myriad of ways this scarcity could be managed” and give examples such as “first come, first served”, “lottery” or “needs testing”. Taking the last suggestion first, I would say that if it is a need that we are being tested for then it would not be an intermediate or luxury good and therefore in your future economy would presumably have been taken care of already. Regarding your other two suggestions it seems to me that instead of rewarding people based on a fair criteria (like effort and sacrifice) you want to rewards them for luck (lottery) or aggressiveness (first come first served). Again, if being opposed to such blatantly unfair criteria for remuneration makes me a conservative then I’m happy to be called a conservative – although, for reasons already given, I don’t think that the argument stands up.

That’s it for now – I look forward to reading your reply.